Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Stink of a Human Heart - #16

STORY: "Winky" by George Saunders

FROM: PASTORALIA (Riverhead, 2001)

BASICALLY: Neil Yaniky attends a self-help seminar to determine how to overcome the person who's the source of all his problems. Meanwhile, Winky, his nutso-religious, oblivious sister bumbles around the house, thinking about how much she loves him.

George Saunders is the most hilarious man who'll make you sob uncontrollably. There are several great parts to "Winky," though the story ultimately leaves me sad and deflated—deliberately, I think. Saunders likes to set up all the grief and vagaries of the world, but give his reader with no tools to deal with them. His mordant humor doesn't provide a way out so much as it makes clear that we are all equally pathetic. …Yay!

What makes this story interesting is the way that it sets up two competing loci for our contempt. Just on its own, Saunders' lampooning of a self-help seminar is pure gold. He starts the scene with a third-rate guru's literal pageant of cheap Types with paper labels (You longing for Inner Peace, almost thwarted by Whiny, Self-Absorbed, Blames Her Fat on Others, Insecure, Disappointed, Too High-Strung to Function, etc., until they're thrown in the Pokey for Those Who Would Keep Us from Inner Peace). Neil Yaniky, like the rest of the crowd, is mesmerized. Then the founder of the Seminars, Tom Rodgers, gives a rousing, ludicrous, spot-on speech about how everyone started out in a pure, unsullied state like oatmeal, happy and nourishing, but there's a problem: people are constantly wanting to come and crap in your nice warm oatmeal! 

"Let me tell you something amazing: I was once exactly like you people. A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping my oatmeal, and simply because he'd had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply, because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, this Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this maybe sound paradoxical? Wasn't he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he's going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?" 
Then Rodgers goes on to explain how he dumped the problem of Gene on his sister Ellen, and so Rodgers is now free of Gene's oatmeal-crapping ways, though, "'as for Ellen, Ellen still has some issues, she'd take a big old dump in my oatmeal right now if I gave her half a chance, but guess what folks, I'm not giving her that half a chance, because I've installed a protective screen over my oatmeal.'" Saunders is a master at simply standing back and letting his characters show, through their own conflicting, hypocritical speech, exactly what kind of people they are.

Neil Yaniky has a personal session with Rodgers to determine the source of Neil's problems, and the source is easy to locate: it's Neil's sister, ugly and crazy and hyper-religious. She needs to move out of his house, and Neal leaves the session gathering his strength and repeating his mantra: Now Is the Time for Me to Win! Now Is the Time for Me to Win!

But Neil's sister is also a piece of work. As idiotic as the self-help session was, and as pathetic as Neil is for buying into it, we do sort of want his life to get better. And when we see Winky, we understand what he's up against. The story shifts into her point of view and her thoughts flit from topic to nonsensical topic, sometimes alighting on a funhouse version of Jesus, or a memory about her and "Neil-Neil's" childhood with their alcoholic father and miserable mother, or the time a vagrant outside Rexall Drug told her she was "too ugly to f—." She's not likable, but she's too pitiful to hate. It's clear that if Neil kicks her out, Winky will have absolutely nothing to hold onto in this world. The story closes on Neil's recognition that he can't give her the boot, but ironically, he's no better for it. There's no redemption.

In the end, whether we're dealing with a modern religion like the self-help movement, or an older religion like Christianity, Saunders shows that we are equally self-deceived and equally ill-equipped to find our way out of the irrational holes into which they thrust us. He makes this more profound—and more damning, and more depressing—by lampooning not just one mindset, but all the mindsets that intersect with it. Tom Rodgers, who has divested himself of responsibilities by pawning them off on others, has made a career of inspiring others to take control of their lives. The poor slobs who listen to him, like Neil Yaniky, are grasping at straws. And the hideous idiot sisters like Winky who depend on them, and smile at mirrors as they pass them to thank God for the trial of their suffering, have no understanding whatsoever.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Life on the Lam - #15

STORY: "The Death of Jack Hamilton" by Stephen King


BASICALLY: John Dillinger, the 1930s gangster, runs out of luck when a member of his gang is shot through the lung and dies slowly, over a number of days, while the group continues to flee and hide out from the police.

First, the obvious: Stephen King does quite a lot of things right. "The Death of Jack Hamilton" is a great story that flies by at King's usual pace with escapes, shootouts, and car chases. Even after Jack Hamilton's been shot, his constant pain and deteriorating condition are evoked, but not dwelled on—the character of John Dillinger injects action and hopes and optimism (despite the story's title, even) into the whole thing. Meanwhile, the narrator, speaking from the perspective of history, assures us that Johnnie Dillinger's luck is up. This creates a tension between the story's action-heavy forward momentum and the sense of impending doom, or destiny, that's very appealing.

But King does some other things well, too. Maybe less obvious things, like managing a huge cast of characters. The story's told through the eyes of Homer Van Meter, a member of Dillinger's gang, and we're thrown the names of all kinds of associates and enemies and victims—Dock Barker, Melvin Purvis, Harry Pierpont, Mrs. Deelie Francis, and on and on—but never in some huge eye-glazing dump of exposition. The names are always attached to memorable characteristics. (Dock Barker's big penis, anyone? Harry Pierpont's original gang? Dr. Moran the crybaby?) King introduces the kind of notable details that make it easy for his reader keep all the people straight, and it works so nicely and subtly because Van Meter's voice, as narrator, is conversational and casual. Little by little, it reveals exactly what's necessary, just like a guy telling a good story.

King also nails the vocabulary and rhythms that bring the 1930s to life. Kind of. I think. I'm not convinced that the voice is completely authentic; it actually seems so seamless and perfect that I have the feeling it must be culled more from movies and the mythos surrounding Depression-era gangsters than from history. But it sounds extremely plausible, and most importantly, it's consistent. 

Johnnie broke out the back window of the Ford with the butt of his pistol and started shooting back. I mashed the gas pedal again and got that Ford all the way up to fifty, which was a tearing rush in those days. There wasn't much traffic, but what there was I passed any way I could—on the left, on the right, in the ditch. Twice I felt the driver's-side wheels go up, but we never tipped. Nothing like a Ford when it came to a getaway. Once Johnnie wrote to Henry Ford himself. "When I'm in a Ford, I can make any car take my dust," he told Mr. Ford, and we surely dusted them that day. 
And, of course, there's the requisite smattering of dames and krauts and slugs throughout, but King never lays it on too thickly. He treads that line between conjuring an era and parodying an era with apparent ease.

I'm a little curious about King's choice to depart from the historical record with his narrator. Homer Van Meter died a month after Dillinger in1934, but King has him muse at the beginning of this story about a book that "claims that my old pal died on November 20, 1963—two days before Kennedy—at the ripe old age of sixty, and it wasn't no federal bullet that took him off but a plain old heart attack." I suppose the advantage is that King can frame the story as being the reminiscence of an old associate who knows the true story of Dillinger, lending it a sort of credibility. And as far as a good yarn goes, it really doesn't matter what happened to Van Meter. King could have made up a different associate to tell the story, except that he mentions in a note afterwards that he was drawn to Van Meter precisely for one of the story's most incredible details (that just happens to be supposedly true)—that Van Meter learned how to rope flies with little lassos of thread when he was in Pendleton Reformatory as a youth. A truly weird detail is much better if it's attached to something real, I guess, whereas fictionalizing something so mundane as a date of death pretty much slips by unnoticed.

Sometimes, I've heard fans of Stephen King try to claim that he's overlooked by critics, that he's as good as any of the "classic" writers we study in school. But I don't see it. "The Death of Jack Hamilton" is a fun story, and very well told. But that's all it is. The surface story is the whole story—though this is not a value judgment. I repeat: people who read great literature are not somehow better than people who read entertaining literature. King is not trying to do what, say, Cynthia Ozick or Franz Kafka are trying to do—tell a multiplicity of stories at once, or involve the reader in untying a knot at the center of the story. I'm interested in learning from King what King does well: make the reader see and feel the unfolding of his vivid plots, make the prose fly by, and keep everything straight even as it becomes complicated.

For me, there's only one thing that feels like a clunky mistake in "The Death of Jack Hamilton": the ending. Van Meter sort of sums everything up and reflects that "God makes it all come right in the end, that's what Johnnie told Dock Barker just before we parted company" and "we're stuck with what we have, but that's all right; in God's eyes, none of us are really much more than flies on strings and all that matters is how much sunshine you can spread along the way." Guhhhh. The sudden injection of a moral just about ruins the whole thing for me, though I can see that this technique is probably enormously appealing to a good portion of King's vast readership. One of the cherished conventions of literary fiction is that the story not get wrapped up in some tidy package, that the author not ever directly tell you what the story's supposed to be "about." Of course, that's probably why a lot of people hate literary fiction and why it will always possess a certain elitist stink. But I think an ending like this one ends up limiting the story; it doesn't leave anything whatsoever for the reader to do. No point, even, in reflection, because the reflection has been done for us. I like my reading, even when it's just for pleasure, not to be entirely passive. So I'll skip the tidy endings, but I'm still thrilled by the overall delivery.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Please Applaud My Lack of Dick Jokes; It Was Hard, So Hard - #14

STORY: "Dick" by Antonya Nelson


BASICALLY: A woman moves her family from Los Angeles to the wilds of Colorado, but cannot escape the specter of her young son's troubled best friend--nor can she escape what she's really fleeing.

This story falls into a disdained, neglected, and nebulous category of writing I think of—not at all originally, mind you—as "New Yorker fiction." I pretty much never read [anything except the cartoons in] The New Yorker, due to the fact that I have always found it unutterably boring.

There, I said it. Go ahead, blame the internet. Everyone else does.

So either all this reading is turning me into an East Coast effete literary snob, or Antonya Nelson rises above the pack, because this story is quite good. It has a way of enveloping you in its voice and rhythms and creating a wholly believable psychology while not bogging down. And it was indeed originally published in The New Yorker, along with two other pieces in the collection, so maybe now that I am a Mature and Serious Reader of Serious Fiction, I should give the (famous, respected, well-paying, pinnacle-of-writerly-success-representing) magazine another chance.

I bought SOME FUN when Nelson visited the inimitable Bookworks in November 2010. I attended the reading from her new novel BOUND for a class assignment and had no idea who she was or how significant she is in the world of short fiction. I'm sure she was terribly impressed during the question-and-answer period with my inquiry—"I'm not very familiar with your work. Do you write mostly novels, or short stories, or…?" Nonetheless, she answered with complete grace and generosity about her love for the short form and the impossibility of making a living off of it. (And seriously, this woman has like, 7709870222 major awards—as attested to by the cover of this collection—and if she can't make a living at it, well…Geez. But I paid full price for SOME FUN because I am PART of the SOLUTION.)

Being literary fiction, the plot of this story is of secondary importance. I mean, there's a plot—sometimes, I wish authors of literary fiction would remember that there's still supposed to be a plot—but Nelson remembers and it is, actually, interesting in and of itself. After Ann Ponders has hauled her son Cole and her husband Richard off to Colorado to start a fresh new life in the silent, unimpeachable wilderness, Cole's weird best friend Dick, the son of a blue collar couple who raise Rottweilers, runs away. And Ann, who has left L.A. to escape (though she would never really admit it) her deteriorated relationships with her own Alzheimer's-ridden mother and eighteen-year-old daughter, finds herself having to confront this vestige of their former life—the frightening absence of an unhappy twelve-year-old boy whose family she dislikes.

What Nelson does so beautifully with this plot, I think, is to obscure what the story is really about as it's being read. I found myself becoming involved in the mystery of Dick's disappearance and whether he would show up out of the blue one day and whether he would turn out to be dead and how that would crush Cole. And so I was taken a little aback with the suddenness of the story's ending, which doesn't resolve any of this at all. This little boy, Dick, hangs over the whole story and becomes the focus of all kinds of emotions, but he only appears at the beginning and his story has no closure. However, while I was all focused on him, Nelson was quietly telling me this complicated story about Ann, through her own reasonable and believable and relatable voice. And when I go back and look, I see that the plot actually occupies only a small portion of the text. There are pages and pages of Ann thinking about her daughter, her mother, her husband, her son, her neighbors, herself. 

"Hate that fucking cat," murmured Ann; the image saving the animal was of it curled in the armpit of her sleeping son. She hated a few other things, such as the way she looked in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, especially when compared with her daughter, who looked beautiful in whatever she wore. What consolation did age provide? Ann wondered. Bragging rights for having arrived at forty-five or sixty or ninety-nine? You didn't come through intact, that much was clear. Moreover, the interesting things happened early, a piece of information Ann was consciously, uncharitably, withholding from her daughter.
This passage, actually, is a fine example of Nelson's ability to lay clues for her reader that don't make sense until later. The story ultimately comes to be about what Ann withholds, even/especially from those who love her. And so, unlike her character, Nelson has placed everything out where we can see it, but the melodic distraction of her own lovely writing and the interest created by this nagging worry about a missing child help to distract us from seeing what's in front of our own eyes.

Which is a trick, I think, that's worth learning.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When the Wicked Get in a Pickle - #13

STORY: "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix

FROM: TROLL'S-EYE VIEW: A BOOK OF VILLAINOUS TALES, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling – Oh, this book! It is so pretty! Sweet little leafy patterns on the pages and fancy shiny stuff done to the cover.

BASICALLY: A funny fairy-tale reimagining in which a perfectly respectable evil witch must outsmart the machinations of a loophole-exploiting freeloader named Rapunzel.

Well, it's been quite a week. Between Melissa making me think hard thoughts with her smart comments (she actually went and read one of the stories I talked about!!! I am changing the world, one extremely patient and supportive and literate friend at a time!!!) and Mike catching on to my nefarious plot to destroy his life, I really needed a breather. And "An Unwelcome Guest" was just the thing.

Let us ruminate for a moment upon the advantages of a great opening.

"There's a girl in the south tower," reported Jaundice, the witch's marmalade cat. "The same one as almost got in last year."

"Well, go and bite her or something," said the Witch. She was busy stirring a huge bronze cauldron. She had twelve coworkers coming for lunch and was mixing up a batch of jelly that had to be poured into an architectural mold and put in the ice cave before eleven.

Are you ruminating upon this wonderfulness? I certainly did not ruminate while I was reading—I was hooked. Look at the modest characterization that crops up right away (just look at it!). We've got an orange cat named "Jaundice," which is a nice counterpoint to the Witch who never receives a formal name. (This is a tricky thing, I think, in retellings… It often irritates me when an author takes it upon themselves to specify a name for an established fairy tale character. I'm all like, WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT? Unless they do it well, in which case I'm all, WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?) By the way, "Jaundice" turns out to be even more tongue-in-cheek than it seems at first, because the cat's real name is Jenny—
"Don't call me Jenny!" spat the cat, her back arching in agitation. "My name is Jaundice! I am the evil servant of a wicked witch!"
The cat-name thing comes up again a little later when Jenny/Jaundice has to explain that the "Fangdeath" she's talking to on the phone is actually Decima's cat, Bluebell. Anyway, the feline companion trope is given new life and so is the witch trope—I love the idea that she's got colleagues and is on a tight schedule. (There's a hilarious moment soon after when the Witch stops stirring for a second and some frogs manage to escape the jelly with "a sudden series of pops.") The tropes themselves are still exploited—we don't have to have these concepts explained to us—but they're employed in such a way that we know this story's going to be funny.

Nix orchestrates his jokes brilliantly. He's got a cat name that's funny unto itself, so we don't look for the next joke ("Fangdeath") that relies on it as a setup. There's the jelly mold thing, which is again funny on its own, so we're not looking for the next punchline that takes advantage of it. He's basically making clever one-offs do double or triple duty in his story. And there are subtler jokes, too—like the fact that the Witch has twelve coworkers coming, meaning they'll have the right number for a traditional coven of thirteen, or Rapunzel's three "suitors" who show up later and get blinded by thorns (in a nod to the original story) and then revert to their natural mice-forms (three blind mice—get it?).

I wasn't totally thrilled by the story's resolution, which involves some sort of not-very-explained shadowy being that's apparently been inhabiting the body of Rapunzel and making her act this way. It just didn't feel necessary to explain the story's events. But the whole thing carried on so well throughout that it didn't really matter. Nix brings in all kinds of fun bits—like Rapunzel's helplessly handwringing parents, some household "dust-fey" on their cockroach steeds, a cornucopia oozing with a wealth of ice cream and lemonade—and keeps the momentum going. It's so entertaining that I almost wish all the stories in this book were Nix's. (But only ALMOST. I'm really looking forward to checking out Neil Gaiman's poetic take on Sleeping Beauty and my beloved Kelly Link's dark Cinderella.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Conjugation of Green Velvet - #12

STORY: "Continuidad de los parques" / "Continuity of Parks" by Julio Cortázar

FROM: INVESTIGACIÓN DE GRAMÁTICA, 2ª ed., by Patricia Vining Lunn & Janet A. DeCesaris (Heinle Cengage Learning, 2007) – yes, this is a Spanish grammar textbook, but I actually think it's really amazingly cool that, among other approaches, it uses fiction to convey an understanding of grammatical concepts / BLOW-UP AND OTHER STORIES by Julio Cortázar, trans. Paul Blackburn (Pantheon, 1967)

BASICALLY: A man is reading a novel in the green velvet chair of his mountain cabin. The characters in the novel are two lovers who must kill the woman's husband--who is found in his mountain cabin by the killer, reading a novel in a green velvet chair.

Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar is known for his bag of tricks—his ability to invoke duality and parallelism, his stories-within-stories, his erasure of time as a barrier. In "Continuidad de los parques" (translated into English as "Continuity of Parks"), he not only does all of this, but he accomplishes it in about 500 words.

Lucky me, I got to read this story in Spanish for school, and then analyze what Cortázar does grammatically. And if you think I'm being sarcastic, you have severely underestimated my level of nerdliness—I think it's one of the more thrilling things I've gotten to do in college. I was already a big admirer of Cortázar, but now I can see something that was previously invisible to me.

What you have to understand is that, unlike English, Spanish has two past tenses. (Trust me, it is one of the many royal pains in the patootie related to Spanish verbs for the native English-speaker.) I won't bore you with the details, but very basically, the imperfect deals with events without a clear beginning or end, or things that occurred habitually, while the preterit deals with actions with a clear beginning/end, things that occurred in a single discrete time. So, you would use the imperfect past tense to say "I went to the store every day," but you'd use the preterit to say "I went to the store today." Both happened in the past, but they express different perspectives on the time involved.

In "Continuidad de los parques," Cortázar does something absolutely brilliant with these two past tenses. He starts out telling the story with the normal mix between the two, setting the scene with imperfect and mentioning some of the particular actions of the protagonist with preterit, exactly as you would expect for "reality." When he shifts into talking about the characters in the novel that the protagonist is reading, he uses the imperfect. This is appropriate because, in a novel, characters are always doing what they are doing at any given point. There is no beginning or end to what happens on, say, page 37; it is endlessly occurring. (For class, we also read a scholarly paper that points out how Spanish-speaking children will use the imperfect when they're talking about what happened in their games of pretend. Neat, yes?)

And THEN. Subtly and exquisitely, after the story's only paragraph break, a change: the world of the novel begins to intersect the "real" world of the reader/protagonist, and the fictional characters begin to act with verbs expressed in the preterit.

You can totally get the coolness and circularity and chill-on-your-neck feeling of this story when reading it in English, but you can't get this beautiful thing that Cortázar does with the verbs.

It reminds me of a kerfuffle that went on last year, when Philip Pullman (author of many great books, including THE GOLDEN COMPASS, one of my all-time favs) dissed the Booker Prize committee for its love of present-tense novels. Although I definitely don't share Pullman's disgust with the "wretched fad" of writing in the present tense, I was very much struck by his commentary on verb tense: 

I can't see the appeal at all. To my mind it drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?
This, to me, is a lovely (if archly-worded) reminder to everyone who wants to manipulate the written word: we each have a set of tools available to us. Cortázar clearly understood how to make his work for him. As the example of "Continuidad de los parques" shows us, these tools go beyond just language itself; they are actually wrapped intimately into the fabric of the particular language we are using. That doesn't mean you have to go out and learn another (though, if you've got the opportunity, why not?), but I do think you should know your own inside out. Get a little grammar, check out etymology, subscribe to the A Word A Day newsletter, whatever.  All the richness and depth we can add to our understanding of words, of verbs, of forms and structures and connotations—it all becomes part of what we have the capacity to create.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hey, Give Me a Hand with Story # 4!

Eleven posts?! Come on Lisa, I’ve been remodeling my house. I haven’t always had Internet access. I have three kids. I’m in grad school! I’m working on a zine! My house is on fire! My leg is broken! Children around the world are suffering! People are learning how to skydive and then putting those skills into action! Ten strangers are becoming ten friends! The power of friendship! Amazing! I am just swamped with all the things that are going on!
Must you always be so competent?! Must you always set goals and then follow through on them, not all at the last minute as I do, but in a measured and timely manner?!


You have cast down the gauntlet, and I shall accept your challenge. I will read and critique one million stories in one year and write about them. My children will have you to thank for my parental absence. 

Wait, a mere one hundred, you say? Okay, that’s not so bad.

I wrote a review of Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” that I haven’t posted yet, because I thought it missed the point, a point I only realized after writing it. So I’ll rewrite that and post it soon. For now, here’s this.

STORY: “One Arm,” by Yasunari Kawabata.

BASICALLY: A man is allowed to take a girl’s arm home for a night. He does so, spends a romantic evening with it, and then decides to replace his own arm with it.

This is one seriously weird story. I like it. Included in a beautiful paperback-with-a-dust-jacket edition from Kodansha International, with a gorgeous gilt-saturated Klimt-painting cover, this story is sometimes considered a novella, though that’s something of a stretch.

The story begins with an exchange—a female friend offering to loan a man a part of her—her right arm—to take home and spend a night with and even keep if he likes. Perhaps this is a commentary on women loaning some other part of their anatomy while they themselves don’t go with it. Perhaps.
Or perhaps it’s about how romantic even one part of a person you love can be. Again, perhaps.
                   I laid the arm on the bed and sat down beside it. I stroked it gently.
‘How pretty. I like it.’ The arm would be speaking of the bed cover. Flowers were printed in three colors on an azure ground, somewhat lively for a man who lived alone. ‘So this is where we spend the night. I’ll be very quiet.’

In the American movie version of this story, if there ever is one, starring Dane Cook and Michelle Obama’s CGI-altered arm, the script will basically be one joke about hand jobs after another. In this one, there’s no sex, but it’s still kind of erotic in a funny, bizarre way, with descriptions about caressing an arm, that would seem sensual in any story in which the arm was still attached to a woman but that here seems sensual and freaked-out and strangely beautiful.

The arm seems to communicate with the man, sort of telepathically, and as the evening progresses, the man identifies with it more and more as it allows him to access long neglected memories and deeply buried emotions. He identifies with it so much he decides to make it a part of him. Before this can happen, the arm gets pricked by a stray hairpin and bleeds a little and cries out.

Although I think I understand how a woman feels when she gives herself to a man, there is still something unexplained about the act. What is it to her? Why should she wish to do it? Why take the initiative? I could never really accept the surrender, even knowing that the body of every woman was made for it. Even now, old as I am, it seems strange.

They talk as it rains outside. “You were so quiet, I thought you might be asleep.” …Arm. After a time, the man removes his right arm and replaces it with the woman’s.

He loses a part of herself, and the girl loses a part of herself. There is a more perfect union, but individuals are altered forever; pieces of them are gone for good.

In the morning, he rolls over and his old arm startles him when bumps into it in bed. In a panic, thinking of his male blood coursing through the female arm, thinking of the stray limb rolling around in his bed, he rips the woman’s arm from his shoulder, replaces it with his own, and feels it as an act of murder. The woman’s arm turns white and goes motionless and he lunges after it, hoping he hasn’t destroyed it, that it isn’t dead, that he hasn’t done the unthinkable.

This is magical realism, Japanese-style. This is Gogol’s “The Nose” approached seriously, almost erotically. This is perhaps a literary interpretation of that bizarre syndrome where people thing their own limbs aren’t their own. This is…well, it’s just beautiful. Unsettling and beautiful. The aspects of conquest and ownership and effacement that inevitably enter in some form and to some degree into even the best of relationships, laid bare, reduced to even less than to two people. (Perhaps that has something to do with the history male perspective of women as something less, too.) I can’t begin to say that I’ve got this thing completely figured out. I suspect that this author’s views on women could be a book all their own, as this collection’s title story, which I also read, has to do with a whorehouse where the women are all drugged into sleep and old men come by special invitation to be with them—again with the distance.

The writing is beautiful and poetic and imagistic, and page-turning. Kawabata, as translated here by Yukio Mishima, is a gorgeous read, and highly recommended, worth finding, worth buying, worth an arm or a leg.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Robot Mystery Hour! - #11

STORY: "Catch That Rabbit" by Isaac Asimov


BASICALLY: From their outpost on an ore-rich asteroid, two guys working for US Robots had better figure out why the team of mining robots they're testing keeps returning empty-handed. JOBS are at STAKE.

I would now quite delightedly like to present you, dear Reader, with a story about ROBOTS. Cool, right? (YES. The answer is YES. Robots are cool.) I've never read an Asimov novel, but his short stories, with their rules and their scientists and their "Dammit, Jim!"-style ejaculations just delight me. But the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon are elusive. Everyone knows Asimov is basically a hack. I read real literature, you know. I know what's good, and, spoiler, it's not Asimov. So what on earth explains this affinity?

It's not the characterization or the dialogue. One of the guys in "Catch That Rabbit" is named Mike Donovan and the other is Gregory Powell. (Ho-hum.) The narrator (limited third-person) refers to each one by his last name, while the characters refer to each other by their first names. Combine this with the fact that, although one is apparently the disdainful supervisor of the other, they talk and act and think in almost identical ways, and then add a distinct paucity of dialogue tags—and basically I had very little idea of who was actually talking at any given point. But Asimov doesn't use conversation to tell you anything about the characters, silly goose. Characters serve to verbalize the competing sides of a given conflict. A problem is volleyed back and forth in a series of exchanges, thus communicating the precise nature of the issue to the reader and hashing out the rules which happen to govern it.

Aloud he said, "You're as lucid as Euclid with everything except the facts. You've watched that robot group for three shifts, you redhead, and they did their work perfectly. You said so yourself. What else can we do?"

"Find out what's wrong, that's what we can do. So they did work perfectly when I watched them. But on three different occasions when I didn't watch them, they didn't bring in any ore. They didn't even come back on schedule. I had to go after them.

"And was anything wrong?"

"Not a thing. Not a thing. Everything was perfect. Smooth and perfect as the luminiferous ether. Only one little insignificant detail disturbed me – there was no ore."

Oh, and check out the pointless sarcasm! It's a classic, really. A reliable go-to. If you want your characters to seem clever, but you wouldn't know clever if it hit you over the head, just have them exchange sarcastic barbs. Now, obviously, I'm a big fan of sarcasm (helloooo, are you reading this?), but when it's coming out of a character's mouth, it really ought to give you a better idea of who that character is, and it especially ought to distinguish one character from another. In Asimov's fumbly mitts, it does neither.

It's not the plot, either. I mean, there are Asimov plots that are more interesting than this one, which has the emotional resonance of an accountant being unable to get her copy of Quickbooks to load, but the main issue is that for Asimov, plot construction seems to involve going down a checklist. Problem – new-model ore-mining robots won't mine ore – check. Stakes/Motivation/Ticking Clock – if engineers can't get the robots to pass performance tests, they'll lose their jobs – check. Complication – problem only happens when no one is watching, and the robots themselves have no helpful information – check. Asimov sets them up and knocks them down with a completely transparent consistency. This story was written pretty early in Asimov's career, and he got better with age, but I can still never get away from the feeling that Asimov approached writing a story like constructing an electric circuit—as a fundamentally mechanical undertaking that allows for some creativity and reshuffling within a very strict set of known parameters.

It all sounds like a big mess, right? So why do I even like this crap? (But come on, I'm being coy. I don't just like Asimov's robot short stories, I adore them.) The reasons aren't always logical or widely-applicable, but hey, they are my reasons:

1. Technical gobbledygook YUM!
Asimov often populates his stories with people who not only interact with robots, but who actually understand how they work. Here it's engineers, elsewhere it's roboticists, and sometimes it's just suspiciously tech-savvy plebians. These people always have a mouthful to say about how robots are designed and constructed and why they do what they do. Either Mike or Greg, for example, it really doesn't matter which, says,

"Don't rush me. Let me work this out. There's still the possibility of a mechanical breakdown in the body. That leaves about fifteen hundred condensers, twenty thousand individual electric circuits, five hundred vacuum cells, a thousand relays, and upty-ump thousand other individual pieces of complexity that can be wrong. And these mysterious positronic fields no one knows anything about."
This story was first published in 1944. Lots of Asimov's jargon has an absolutely delicious retro-futuristic vibe to it, combining vacuum tubes with "the Multivac-complex" with a "definite mathematical relationship that governs such things and failure to conform would indicate marked abnormality in the positronic brain" across all his stories. And what's so interesting to me is that it doesn't matter when the vocabulary becomes outdated, because language like this functions essentially as a magical incantation. What's important is not what the words themselves say, but the power they have to invoke the particularly non-human mindset of manmade non-men.

2. Delirious, irrational confidence. This is harder to pin down to any one thing. Asimov just seems so sure of himself. His stories are replete with mediocre technique and uninspiring prose, but they have a relentless forward momentum. You always know that he's going somewhere with all of this, and so you overlook the imperfections. I'll take Asimov's verve and nerve over artful, poetic prose that fails to tell me something worth knowing, any day.

3. ROBOTS. Hells yeah! Robots are just the best. Doesn't everybody feel this way about them? If not, they should. Robots are the great, mysterious Other onto which we project our own fears and dreams. They are the technology that seemed right around the corner, about to change everything, on the very cusp of bringing humanity into the glittering future, and yet somehow they remain out of our grasp. Even with all the really cool advances being made in robotics, they remain at their heart a fantasy. Isaac Asimov's robot stories are all about humanity's ragged edges, our trembling grasp on what it means to live in a disheveled clockwork universe.

And now, enjoy some robots dancing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Between Two Places - #10

STORY: "Two Kingdoms" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

FROM: THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR'S BABY: SCARY FAIRY TALES by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers (Penguin, 2009) – Here's the review I read a year ago that made me buy the book. Good stuff!

BASICALLY: A sick woman's dreamy experience of transmigration. Lina travels from the hospital with her new "husband" Vasya to an oddly tranquil land, a kind of holding zone where all her needs are met, but she cannot contact her young son or her mother. A foreign kingdom awaits her on the other side of a sparkling river.

Have you ever gotten to take a fiction workshop? That's where you write a short story, and then the whole group reads it (or sometimes listens to you read it) and then they give you feedback. Your characters are flat, I don't understand the part where the hero starts rollerblading, maybe three scenes of ground-up fire ants being snorted is excessive—that sort of thing. There's simply nothing like hearing a roomful of honest-ish advice about your art to open your eyes to your own failings. I actually love workshopping, but here's the crucial thing to know: only some of the enormous value of the process comes from what's actually said by other workshop members.

That's because, while feedback can range willy-nilly from the quite genuinely insightful to the batshit-crazy-did-you-even-READ-it? bad, most falls somewhere in the unexceptional middle. You've got your people who maybe want to say something useful, but don't know what they're doing, and the kids who are just learning the power of Disdaining Others as a route to self-love, and a whole lot of people who remember little rule-nuggets (whether from teachers, magazine articles, blog posts, writing books, or This One Writer Friend Who Really Deserves to Be a Lot More Famous But It's All About Who You Know Anyway) and then apply them, like a yardstick, to everything they meet. (…I'm not knocking the rules, by the way, just their one-size-fits-all application.)

So, anyway, all this is a long-winded way to say that I sometimes like to amuse myself by imagining what fiction workshop types might say about any given published short story. I think this one's a good candidate because its otherworldliness makes it appear simplistic. Throughout, symbols seem at first obvious, but then a little confused. Culled mainly from my own pessimistic worldview, with perhaps a sprinkle of Amazon reviews thrown in, here's a handy workshop-style breakdown of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "Two Kingdoms":

I like how your story was kind of like a fairy tale about how someone died.There's certainly a simplicity to the prose, and a dreamlike procession of events, so calling this fairy-tale-like is reasonable. Of course, it's not structured like a fairy tale—we begin with the protagonist Lina on a plane, and then we move backwards and find out how she got there from the hospital, and then forwards until the story ends with Lina progressing to the beautiful but remote kingdom on the other side of the river. So that's kind of interesting, right? To lend the feeling of a fairy tale, you don't have to match the style in every regard—a modern version needn't start with the equivalent of Once upon a time and move in a straightforward path.
The reveal that Lina is dead didn't surprise me at all.This was my first impression, too, until I went back and re-read the opening. It turns out that I am not incredibly clever for realizing right away that Lina's airplane trip is some sort of transitional journey between life and afterlife; the author clearly wants this to be understood. Assuming the translation is faithful, the title alone—"Two Kingdoms"—suggests the connection, and also the very first line: "In the beginning they flew through a celestial paradise, through a glorious blue landscape and over thick curly clouds." If Petrushevskaya isn't trying to surprise us, she must have another purpose.

Not that most people in a workshop would ever go back and read a story for a second time. Heavens no. If you find someone who does, be nice to them. Seriously. People who pay attention are invaluable.
Some of the imagery didn't seem to fit, or it's too obvious. Like when you said, "But later, later [Vasya] would take them away, her and her son, and her honorable mom, too, to an earthly paradise far far away, somewhere on the shores of a warm sea, amid marble columns, where they had—was it little elves?—flying about. In short, she'd live like Thumbelina from the fairy tale." So first you beat us over the head with the fairy tale aspect, but then what does Thumbelina have to do with it?What are cherubim if not little fat flying elves? I take this as sly reference to the way in which our conceptions of the afterlife tend to rely on fairy tale tropes. Lina accepts what is happening to her, but she filters it entirely through the lens of her earthly life. That's why she thinks of Vasya as her "new husband," though "no one noticed him," and when she realizes on the plane that nothing hurts, she figures that "they must have given her some painkillers." It's also why she reaches for what to call the beings of "an earthly paradise" that just happens to be nothing like Earth.

As for Andersen's fairy tale, Wikipedia mentions some interesting potential connections, like Maria Tatar's analysis that Thumbelina seeks transfiguration and redemption through the lens of Christian suffering, resurrection, and salvation. Similar themes, very different treatments. But Petrushevskaya creates a connection outside of the world of the story that both ties it to the real world and adds depth.

Some folks in fiction workshops have a hard time telling the difference between the random noise of an unhoned draft and the difficult but deliberate details of a textured story. (I mean, it's actually really hard to tell, sometimes. If we already know a story is good—because it's published, because it's covered with about a million laudatory quotes, whatever—it's not that hard to find some justification. It's quite another to see the shimmery bits in a pile of classmates' Xeroxes.)
Is Vasya supposed to be an angel? How is it that he works in a bookstore he inherited from his aunt? If Lina's supposed to be dead, how come she worries about dying in the hospital and thinks, "This way I'll live" and then she can bring her son to her? If these are symbols, I'm not clear on what they're supposed to mean.As readers, we want to understand what's going on. We want the writer, if not to make everything plain, then at least to provide all the necessary clues for us to figure it out. Even if we're readers of literary fiction, all highbrow, we still want to GET IT when it comes to a story.

But of course, the stories that stay with us, the great literatures, are the ones that hold back just enough, the ones that make us think and wonder. Petrushevskaya doesn't provide us with easy answers, but it's not the scattered mish-mash of student writing—there's simply no one-to-one correspondence between symbols and the thing symbolized. Everything is suggestive rather than definite, but there's also nothing missing. You can come up with a hypothesis about the meanings of Vasya and the airplane and the hospital and everything else by using only what you find in the story itself. It's only poorly-executed symbolism that requires the reader to help make it up. And then someone else can come up with a differing hypothesis, and maybe there's something to back it up, as well. But the story bears up.

And that's why I'm doing this blog. To figure this stuff out. Not that "Two Kingdoms" is the awesomest bestest story I've ever read, but it's good. It bears up well under poking. And it's got something to show us about creating a story with the universality and lightness of a fairy tale, but that reflects our modern preoccupations in an almost childlike language.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Phantoms of Your Own Fragmentation - #9

It's authentic props like this that make this blog what it is.

STORY: "Cogwheels" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Trans. Cid Corman and Susumu Kamaike; (translated elsewhere as "Spinning Gears")

FROM: THE ESSENTUAL AKUTAGAWA, Ed. Seiji M. Lippit, Foreword Jorge Luis Borges (Marsilio, 1999)

BASICALLY: At least partially autobiographical, follows a writer's gradual--but calm and detached--descent into depression and mental illness, accompanied by the increasing appearance of portents, patterns, and hallucinations.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (or Ryunosuke Akutagawa, I suppose, depending on your preference) was some kind of genius. By the time of his death in 1927—a suicide at age 35—he had achieved literary success and international renown for basically inventing the modern Japanese short story. Director Akira Kurosawa later used two of his stories ("Rashomon" and "In a Grove") as the inspiration for his famous RASHOMON, and Akutagawa's influence continues to be felt in the work of writers (ahem, Haruki Murakami) whose work you'd better know if you want literary hipsters to admire your taste. I chose the story "Cogwheels" because of what Jorge Luis Borges declares in his introduction: "Like the Inferno of Strindberg, who appears toward the end, this story is the diary, atrocious and methodical, of a gradual hallucinatory process."

And wow. I was not disappointed. "Cogwheels" tells the story of a writer as he sinks into an overwhelming depression and profound sense of fragmentation. If that doesn't sound like a hoot and a half, I don't blame you. But consider this—the absolute best word I can think of to describe this story is "delicate." The swelling tension of a man's fractured reality is secured by mere cobwebs, people! From the clarity of the narrator's observations to the gentle materialization of linked signs, the true horror of "Cogwheels" unfolds with a touch that is featherlight. The question is, as usual—how does Akutagawa manage to create this effect?

From the outset, the narrator describes his surroundings with simplicity and precision. There is no elaborate layering of adjectives, no baroque stylization, no heavy-handed symbolism. Simply a pensive man riding in a taxi, hoping to catch a train. His companion in the car, a barber, mentions a haunted house—"No joke, I assure you! . . . And they say the ghost does its haunting in a raincoat." Then the ride is over, the train has indeed been missed, and the narrator/author notes, "On a bench in the waiting room one man in a raincoat stared vacantly out. I remembered the tale I had just heard. But I let it go with a faint smile and decided to go into a café in front of the station to wait for the next train."

I see two thrilling writerly tricks at play here. First, this is brilliant characterization. Akutagawa has already (in a single page, mind you) described the barber as being "as plump as a peach" and recounted the conversation about the ghost, so we know that his protagonist/self is awake to the odd detail. And we know, too, that the narrator is prone to melancholy reflection from that brief interaction in the car—"Looking out at the far hills of pine bathed in the afternoon sun of winter, I satisfied him with occasional responses." So this new observation fits perfectly with the character that has been sketched. Even as he becomes more disconnected and hallucinatory later in the story, he continues in precisely this vein, making his madness seem not like a departure, but like he is becoming more himself. The moments barely stands out.

Which, by the way, is the second trick—that it takes Akutagawa only a page to repeat the portentous appearance of the raincoat, and yet the fabric of the story doesn't so much as ripple. Notice how the mention of the melancholy man in the waiting room is sandwiched between two practical, modern-day allusions to schedules and trains—like the protagonist, we are distracted by the demands of the workaday world. Only after the raincoat appears again (when a man wearing one sits opposite him on the train) and again (on a couch in the lobby of his hotel) do we start to feel nervous.

In the meantime, Akutagawa has already introduced other portents—the hallucination of cogwheels that precedes a headache, the maggot-like worm "wriggling at one edge of the meat" on his plate, the doppelganger of his "overcoat hanging on the wall" that "looked too much like my upright self"—with equally casual aplomb. These things appear consistently in the midst of actions that pull our focus away from their significance. We listen in on his conversation with a Chinese scholar and forget to think about symbols. We're as uneasy as he is when his niece calls and insists that "something terrible's happened"—his sister's husband has committed suicide—and we hardly have time to consider the significance of the man's dying while wearing a raincoat. In fact, though the protagonist is frequently thoughtful or fretful, his focus is always falling on a new event, a new manifestation of his fixations, and he never seems to consider directly what is happening to him.

"Cogwheels" clings to the mind after it has been read, eerie and persistent. It is not necessary to know that Akutagawa wrote this shortly before he killed himself, nor that numerous events related in the course of the story came directly and explicitly from his own life—though these facts cannot help but inform our understanding of what the author has done here. The story is not the accidental by-product of a disintegrating sanity, but a carefully-balanced progression of damning details, culminating in a tragic plea for relief. That's, I think, why it must be genius—the Self and the Art mirroring one another, finding fevered expression, even as they are splintering disastrously…