Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Isn’t There - #23

STORY: "Who Knows What's Up in the Attic?" by Jean Rhys


BASICALLY: An older English woman receives an unexpected visit from a handsome Dutch acquaintance and for a little while, feels something like hope. Then the relationship breaks apart--or she sees it for what it really is--and the world closes in on her again. Like most Rhys stories, the whole thing is subtle, despairing, and at least partially autobiographical.

If you are the kind of person who wants her characters described and their motivations explained and the action to be grandiose, then Jean Rhys is not for you. As for me, I think she's marvelous. (And if you're a writer, you should read her anyway, just to see how she does what she does.)

Subtlety is Rhys's game. She wields spare dialogue to create emotional flux, but she never spells anything out. In this exchange, for example, the unnamed female protagonist is getting to know a slight acquaintance, a Dutchman named Jan, who has come for an unexpected visit. 

"You know," he said, "I admire my uncle. When I was quite a little boy and my mother died he really brought me up. That was in Indonesia. My father is an artist. I have some pictures of his that I like very much and I like him. But he is too – too soft. That is not a good thing."

"I suppose not."

"My uncle is not so." He took a case from his pocket and handed her a small photograph. "That is my uncle."

The uncle looked a bit on the sly side to her.

"I see what you mean," she said.

"And this is my father."

"You are like him."

"Yes I know. And I am fond of him. I feel affection for him but he is not – how do you say – forcible enough."

What actually happens during this dialogue? Not much. On the surface, we learn a little bit about the man from Holland, and that's about it. But there's still a tautness between the short lines that creates tension. The woman tells him he's like his father (or looks like him) just after Jan disparages his father as "soft." She thinks of the uncle as looking "sly," a highly specific term that nonetheless has a certain ambiguity—but she doesn't say anything about her thoughts to Jan. Ideas are being presented, displayed, admired; Jan and the protagonist are engaged in some kind of dance. And then a little later, this: 
At the door he turned. "We recognized each other, didn't we?"

She didn't answer. She thought: yes, I recognized you almost at once. But I never imagined that you recognized me.

The consciousness Rhys creates is composed almost entirely of incompletion, of things asserted only in thought or only in speech but never in both—always there's a silent gulf between the two. It is only natural, then, that the characters in Rhys's story should also break apart as they become aware of the divide that looms between them.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Surge of Something Fine - #22

STORY: "'A Death in The Desert'" - If you want to read this story, friends, google it …Also, I don't know what the deal is with the quotes. In my book, this story has quotation marks around it, as though the title is an allusion or quotation. I like to be accurate about these things.

FROM: THE TROLL GARDEN (Signet, 1961, originally pub. 1905)

BASICALLY: A man who is continually mistaken for his famous composer brother chances upon one of the brother's former students, dying of tuberculosis in the Wyoming desert. He'd been in love with her himself when he was young--though like everyone else, she sees in him only his resemblance to his brother. But she needs him, precisely for this resemblance, and so he stays.

I'm having a little trouble getting started on this Willa Cather story. A part of me doesn't seem to want to analyze it. Don't know why, exactly. Maybe because while it's odd and flawed, there's also something thrilling and great running around inside of it. Maybe something fragile. Cather herself didn't care for "'Death in the Desert'"—in a letter, she referred to it as "such a weak story!". Which is true. But it's not bad in the same way it would be in the hands of a lesser author. If I poke at it too much, will I still be able to like it?

The story is built around a simple coincidence: Everett Hilgarde alights from a four-hours-late train in Cheyenne and happens to be spotted by a woman in a phaeton at the crossing of the tracks. That woman happens to be Katharine Gaylord, a former student of Everett's brother Adriance and, before her devastating illness, successful in her own right as a singer (mainly thanks to her sheer determination). So, that's a thingrandom coincidence is kind of a weak foundation. But it only bothered me a little.

Adriance, the renowned composer brother, possesses a magnetic, charismatic, mercurial personality that draws admiration and love to him everywhere he goes. A pretty believable characteristic, maybe a bit dramatic. In a piece of fantastically overwrought dialogue (which I kind of like anyway), Everett explains to Katharine that 

People were naturally always fonder of Ad than of me, and I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often. It came into even my relations with my motherShe did her whole duty by each of us, but it was sort of generally understood among us that she'd have made burnt offerings of us all for Ad any day. I was a little fellow then, and when she sat alone on the porch in the summer dusk she used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face up in the light that streamed out through the shutters and kiss me, and then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance. 
 "I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often"? Come on. Even the most wonderful, gifted, sensitive person doesn't utter sentences like that. Not even in 1905.

In this vein, there are lots of speeches that go on forever and convey huge chunks of backstory. Katharine's brother, for example, appears only to ask for a visit from Everett on her behalf and to explain her psychology and history and prognosis in succinct and eloquent detail.

Okay. Yes. But. Despite the clunky placement and clunkier emotions, several of those speeches did actually make me interested in the characters Cather was trying to interest me in. (That is a Pretty Big Deal, authorial abilities-wise. Think about it. Even though elements of the story grated, the story itself drew me in and kept me hooked, so I kept reading. And we're not talking about a story with lots of distracting action.) I was glad that Katharine's brother explains so much about her character, because it happens to be interesting. Later, Katharine reminisces about her time with Adriance with the same thoroughness, but it's actually very lovely in parts, and heartfelt, and the whole thing is so dramatic but I just sort of floated along, enjoying the heightened-yet-authentic triangulation of emotions between Katharine and Everett and the absent Adriance.

And Cather, even in this early story, puts her sentences together in such a measured but energetic way. You feel them as you follow them. At first, I thought the sentences themselves were gorgeous, but actually they're not always anything special on their own. It's the flow, the way the sentences surge and move even as they're describing emotional states or physical traits. Here's an example, and it's what I'll leave you with. It's such passionate writing that maybe it almost borders on purple prose occasionally (though in other places it's restrained), but I like it a lot.  It's a great reminder, I think, that even with all the dismantling of texts that goes on around here at the Year of One Hundred Stories blog, the thing that really matters is the writer's ability to evoke feeling in a reader.

The question which most perplexed him was, "How much shall I know? How much does she wish me to know?" A few days after his first meeting with Katharine Gaylord, he had cabled his brother to write her. He had merely said that she was mortally ill; he could depend on Adriance to say the right thing--that was a part of his gift. Adriance always said not only the right thing, but the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing. His phrases took the color of the moment and the then-present condition, so that they never savored of perfunctory compliment or frequent usage. He always caught the lyric essence of the moment, the poetic suggestion of every situation. Moreover, he usually did the right thing, the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing--except, when he did very cruel things--bent upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, all the homage of the poet and troubadour, and, when they were no longer near, forgetting--for that also was a part of Adriance's gift.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Compressed Malevolence - #21

STORY: "Sredni Vashtar" by Saki (H.H. Munro) – You can Google this one.


BASICALLY: A sickly orphan boy is denied every possible pleasure by the sanctimonious relative with whom he's been sent to live. But he has a secret: a polecat-ferret in a wooden hutch, hidden at the back of an old forgotten toolshed. In his misery, he worships the beast and plies it with gifts like a god. And of his deity he asks only one small favor...

This story is wound tight as a watch spring. It's very short—under 1800 words—but it packs a wallop of suspense and a satisfying ending into its few pages. A search of them thar internets reveals that it's been adapted into operas and films and whatnot, and I have to wonder if its power to seize the imagination of others has to do as much with its spareness and restraint as with the merits of its own plot.

What I mean is that ten-year-old Conradin and his cousin Mrs. De Ropp are set up very clearly and immediately in opposition, but the details of their relationship are only sketched in. 

Mrs. De Ropp was Conradin's cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things—such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago. 
Saki's opening is part JANE EYRE and part Tom & Jerry; we are able to understand this clash so well and so immediately because it hits on a number of relatable archetypal conflicts—young vs. old, weak vs. strong, orderly vs. imaginative, restriction vs. liberty, etc. The story as written is missing nothing, yet it could be easily elaborated upon in other versions.

Once Saki has his protagonist in place, opposed by a mortal enemy, he sets up the stakes that will bring things to a head. Conradin has two secret pets, "a ragged-plumaged Houdan hen, on which the boy lavished an affection that had scarcely another outlet," and the ferret. The former is merely something he loves, but the latter becomes something much more. 

And one day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a wonderful name, and from that moment it grew into a god and a religion…Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret. Red flowers in their season and scarlet berries in the winter-time were offered at his shrine, for he was a god who laid some special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman's religion, which, as far as Conradin could observe, went to great lengths in the contrary direction. 
Check out the formality of Saki's language. There's often the sense, in writing circles, that you can be the kind of writer who assembles elaborate and elevated sentences, or you can be the kind who goes for the punch in the gut. But Saki demonstrates that you can be both.

Once Saki has shown how important the animals are to the love- and pleasure-starved Conradin, chiefly through summary and telling, his next step is to have Mrs. De Ropp do the most horrible thing she can—that is, to take them away. First, she sells the hen. 

With her short-sighted eyes she peered at Conradin, waiting for an outbreak of rage and sorrow, which she was ready to rebuke with a flow of excellent precepts and reasoning. But Conradin said nothing: there was nothing to be said. Something perhaps in his white set face gave her a momentary qualm, for at tea that afternoon there was toast on the table, a delicacy which she usually banned on the ground that it was bad for him; also because the making of it "gave trouble," a deadly offence in the middle-class feminine eye. 
If Saki had skipped the bit about the hen, which, after all, isn't vital to the plot, he would have lost this marvelous opportunity for building suspense. Just like Mrs. De Ropp, we would expect Conradin to have a reaction to the loss of something we've been told he loves so dearly. The fact that he doesn't hints that something much bigger is coming, a foreshadowing sharpened by the "momentary qualm."

Something else happens in this scene: there's a turn in the story. Up till this point, Conradin has been merely a victim, suffering under the thumb of Mrs. De Ropp. But at this (emotionally) brutal act, something changes. And Saki creates this turn in two important ways.

  1. He specifically doesn't TELL us that it's taken place. Saki's not at all averse to telling, as the story's first half demonstrates, but here, he's curiously silent. That, in itself, speaks volumes.
  2. For the first time in the story, Saki includes dialogue:
    "I thought you liked toast," she exclaimed, with an injured air, observing that he did not touch it.
    "Sometimes," said Conradin.
    I absolutely love the subtlety of this. It had never occurred to me before that dialogue could serve this purpose. But in the compressed space of this story, those two little lines break the narrative flow. For the first time, we hear the voice of the protagonist—and there's a LOT he's not saying. The lines become a hinge between the two parts of the story, representing structurally the change that has occurred in Conradin.
As Saki unfolds his climax (Mrs. De Ropp realizes something remains in the toolshed and goes in after it) and the aftermath (which you can read for yourself—seriously, just Google the story—but suffice it to say that it's deliciously grisly in an understated way), he evokes a sort of supernatural menace through equally subtle means. For example, Conradin's guardian is described as "Mrs. De Ropp" only once more after their conversation. After that, she becomes merely "the Woman" (a seed planted in the above quote about religion), shedding her human identity and becoming an object that can be destroyed.

In the story's second half, Saki also begins repeating the ferret's exotic name. In fact, "Sredni Vashtar" comes up five times in a page and a half; its increase is like an incantation, mirroring the story's heightening tension. Mrs. De Ropp loses her name as the ferret god comes into his own.

"Sredni Vashtar" is an entertaining story of suspense founded on fairly straightforward principles: archetypal conflict, stakes, setback, climax, aftermath. But its ability to thrill, to evoke a sense of wonder, comes from subtler techniques. The ending is made possible by the way the text—its structure and its content—unifies the uncanny with the mundane. Saki is a fine example of enjoyable storytelling compressed to its fundamentals.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bye Bye Pi - #20

STORY: "The Pi Man" by Alfred Bester


BASICALLY: First-person account of a man who must compulsively provide balance to the universe's continuously evolving pattern (though even he doesn't understand it). His unique ability has brought him enormous wealth (thanks to his sensitivity to financial patterns) but has also left him isolated from his fellow humans, whom he must sometimes hurt in order to create that balance. But one woman tries to prove that her love is stronger than any pattern.

Did you notice the thematic confluence? Monday 3/14 was Pi Day! Yay! But I was writing a Spanish paper and didn't have a chance to tell you about this cool story. Boo! So I hope your mathematically-inclined celebrations will continue throughout the week at least.

Alfred Bester's "The Pi Man" is a strange amalgamation of sophisticated experimental literature and pulpy genre conventions. The latter kind of undercuts the former and closes the piece on a mediocre note, but I still heartily recommend this fun, odd tale. Bester began writing science fiction during its Golden Age, but he didn't fit so neatly into the genre box as some of his contemporaries, like Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein. This 1959 Hugo-nominated story shows how versatile and creative his prose could be.

(When I was googling Bester, I ran across this great little review of "The Pi Man" that rates the story on a scale of its "hardness." As in, Is it hard sci-fi, or not hard sci-fi? Which I think is adorable. What other genre do we measure by its "hardness" in that sense? There's no Hard Literary Fiction breakout, or Hard Romance [unless you have a filthy, filthy mind]. A "hard-boiled" mystery might be the closest comparison. …But hey, genre breakdowns! These are just some of the excruciatingly geeky things that interest me!)

So, anyway. The story. The first thing that slaps you in the face is the narrator's voice. Almost simultaneously, you try to take in the unconventional formatting of some of the words and sentences. Is it a robot speaking? A lunatic? Impossible to tell. The story basically zooms off in high gear from the initial plunge—though no real action yet, just the jumbled musings of this narrator whose English is a bit off. He's forcefully, fervidly trying to convey something magnetic and significant and unusual, but whatever it is it resists immediate understanding.

Interestingly, the narrator does explain, almost right off, what's going on—but I noticed it only after I went back and reread. Everything at the beginning is careening so weirdly and stylistically that the explanation gains real sense only in hindsight: 

Confusion result of biological compensator born into my body which I hate. Yes, birds and beasts have biological clock built in, and so navigate home from a thousand miles away. I have biological compensator, equalizer, responder to unknown stresses and strains. I relate, compensate, make and shape patterns, adjust rhythms, like a gridiron pendulum in a clock, but this is an unknown clock, and I do not know what time it keeps. Nevertheless I must. I am force. Have no control over self, speech, love, fate. Only to compensate.
What I dislike, though, is that Bester later offers up a bald-faced, straightforward explanation of the same phenomenon. The narrator identifies himself to an FBI interrogator as Peter Marko and explains to the agent everything he knows about himself and his function as a compensator. Argh. Way to wreck your aura of mystery, dude.

The story, then, is divided into two parts. The first half shows a cryptic, sphinxlike Marko in action. His work in arbitrage puts him "ahead by $57,075.94 by half-past noon…57075 makes a nice pattern but that 94¢! Iych! Ugly. Symmetry above all else. Alas, only 24¢ hard money in my pockets. Called the secretary, borrowed 70¢ from her, and threw sum total out window." He is forced by the same compulsions to beat up an elderly clerk at City Hall, and then to anonymously send the guy $1000 in cash afterwards. Stakes are significant and Bester does a great job at building suspense.

But the second half of the story devolves very suddenly. Marko gets picked up by the FBI, but isn't worried about what will happen because apparently this is a commonplace occurrence for him. Pesky government agencies are always mistaking him and his "signal jamming" equipment for an espionage operation. Marko explains who and what he is to the agent, how he operates in the world, and then he's let go. His former secretary, Jemmy Thompson, has fallen in love with him, and he tries to resist her charms because he knows his abilities make him sometimes do terrible things to the people he cares about—in fact, are very likely to do so: "I make one last effort to save her. 'I love you, paleface, and you know what that can mean. When the patterns turn cruel, you may be the sacrifice.'" But she coos something about love making patterns, too, clinging sexily to him, and that's it.

If I were forced to defend this story in a debate, I might claim that the weak and cliché-ridden second half balances out its literary, artful first half, thus illustrating its theme of the need for universal balance. But I don't really buy that. I think Bester wrote himself into a corner and had to fall back on conventional storytelling tropes to end the thing.

To my mind, Bester could have fixed "The Pi Man" in one of two ways. Either he could have developed Jemmy into a more interesting character in her own right, rather than just a smidge better than a girly type, and so made the romance that flourishes between her and Peter Marko into something nuanced. Or he could have dispensed with the silly romance altogether and given Peter something genuinely interesting to do with his unusual power/curse, something that might have real implications. Maybe it would have worked better in a novel, where a cheesy, pulp-style romance could have crept into the background as set furniture and allowed a thrilling plot to rocket out of Bester's fantastic premise.

The moral of today's write-up is, I'd say, that your story has to live up to the expectations it sets at the beginning. If "The Pi Man" had been pulpy and conventional from the get-go, its ending wouldn't have disappointed. But Bester went out on a limb and did something truly interesting with his opening that, unfortunately, he wasn't able to deliver on. Still, I think it's a great story to learn from, so check it out and see what you think.

And here's a gratuitous picture of my parents' dog, Cody.  He is not so into this reading thing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What a Pack of Lies - #19

STORY: "My First Love Affair" by Sholom Aleichem


BASICALLY: An impoverished young tutor has a pupil so lazy that he must write love letters on the pupil's behalf to the pupil's fiancé. In the process, a heartfelt romance blossoms, but as the wedding day draws near, how will the poor tutor confess that he is the one the fiancé truly loves?

1. He Tantalizes and Taunts with Titles

In my copy, "My First Love Affair" spans pages 129-146. What I'm saying is, it's not that long. But Aleichem divides the story into eleven numbered sections, each with its own subheading. They have sly titles like "My Boss' Tall Tales Rock Me to Sleep" and "Material for an Epistolary Romance." (Today's divided story write-up is inspired by this format, you see.) It's an interesting choice—for one thing, I think it mirrors, a little bit, the idea that the story unfolds for the protagonist letter by letter as he writes to his pupil's fiancé and reads her responses. But letter-writing doesn't actually come into play until the story's sixth section. Section 1 discusses how the "power of pull" (knowing the right people) helped the tutor obtain his post, Section 2 covers the "tall tales" of his boss, Section 3 includes a meditation on types of liars and tells us which one his boss is, Section 4 is self-explanatory—"The Boy Eats Like an Army While his Tutor Starves," and Section 5 has the pupil blackmail his tutor into playing checkers and "Sixty-Six" instead of conducting lessons. As short as it is, this story has an episodic feel that allows the reader to be entertained by each separate foible that's satirized.

2. Some of What's Worth Knowing

Sholom Aleichem was the pseudonym of Shalom Rabinovitz (1859–1916), an important writer of Yiddish plays, stories, and novels, whose works inspired FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. (You know the wry voice of Tevye that dominates FOTR? That's straight out of Aleichem.) He is totally so much fun, you guys. "My First Love Affair" lampoons while it humanizes and wraps suspense around a punch line. What Aleichem handles most masterfully is voice—his stories, though written and literary, read like oral tales. This quality reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen, many of whose stories (like "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Mermaid") are so powerful and timeless that they frequently get lumped in with tales that possess a true oral heritage (e.g., "Little Red Riding Hood"). Aleichem reads nothing like Andersen, but he has a great gift for channeling a humorous, self-deprecating personality that seems archetypally Jewish.

3. How to Build a Joke

Writing teachers love to harp on about avoiding the pitfall of a bad ending. They are not wrong! If an entire story is built on weird occurrence after weird occurrence, ending it with "And then he woke up!" (or something equally abrupt) will make the reader feel cheated and angry, as though the writer has been too lazy to wrap up his own conundrums. Similarly, a punch line at the end, while good for a momentary laugh, tends to have an overall deflating effect. A punch line suggests that the story wasn't important in its own right, but served only to set up the laugh at the end. And "My First Love Affair" builds gloriously, but to an ending that is basically just a joke. It's a funny joke—I did, actually and truly, laugh out loud when I realized what was going on—but still just a joke. And yet, it works. Here, the story is not deflated, it doesn't feel like a cheat, and I'm fascinated by how Aleichem pulls this off.

It goes back, in part, to those five introductory sections I mentioned above. By the time we reach the question of the letters in Section 6, the tutor is a fully-realized character. His fixation on his own experiences leading up to the main conflict—how he got the job, the state of his poverty, the way that everyone in this well-off household continuously spouts lies—keeps the reader's focus firmly grounded in his point of view, wondering how events will affect him. This focus continues as the tutor begins ghost-writing his pupil's love letters and intensifies as the tutor begins to worry about the approaching nuptials. If Aleichem had begun with Section 6, when the tutor first begins writing to the fiancé, the reader wouldn't have understood what was at stake for the tutor and become invested in his emotional journey into love.

4. I Don't See What You Did There

In other entries on this blog (see here and here, for example), I've referred to the way an author seems to distract us from what she's doing in order to pull off something else. It is hard to see how the distraction is done and, precisely for this reason, so gratifying when it's done well. When reviewers refer to an author's "sleight of hand," this is probably part of what they mean. Aleichem's sleight of hand has him creating a suspenseful situation in which the audience wants to know, along with the narrator, how the tutor's love will come to light. Two entire sections—"9. The Wedding Preparations—My Foolish Dreams" and "10. The Guests are Welcomed"—are devoted to increasing this suspense. Wrapped in a cloud of suspense in one direction, the reader is far less likely to see a joke coming from the other.

There's another reason the joke works, too. Throughout the story, the narrator gripes about the ease with which everyone, his pupil and his boss and his boss's wife, all tell lies: "[My pupil] looked so innocent that I suddenly felt like spitting into his face and shouting: 'God Almighty. What Liars you people are. One lie after another. One lie greater than the next!'" He just barely comments, however, on his own speedy slide into dishonesty. When the punch line hits at the story's end, it completes the cycle of lies and takes it to its most absurd level. This is the really brilliant thing, the technique to note. Instead of undermining the story, the final punch line unifies it. 

Aleichem makes it look easy, but that's just more sleight of hand.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dormouse Dreaming - #18

STORY: "How's Life Treating You, Viskovitz?" by Alessandro Boffa

FROM: YOU'RE AN ANIMAL, VISKOVITZ! (Vintage 2003), Trans. John Casey with Maria Sanminiatelli, Illus. Roz Chast

BASICALLY: Viskovitz takes innumerable forms. As a dormouse, he wakes painfully from his delicious hibernatory dreams to forage for acorns. He steals a nap to relish a few extra moments of dream world pleasure with his imaginary mistress, but his real world and his dream world end up colliding in the most surprising manner possible.

Oh, I do wish I had written this. "How's Life Treating You, Viskovitz?" fuses a Platonic cave of shadows with a world-weary dormouse narrator with multiplicitous dreamworld realities with wise and hilarious commentary. Viskovitz awakens as a dormouse and longs only to sleep again, grumbling in a manner both elevated and ridiculous. In his self-directed dreams, he has invented for himself a perfect dormouse companion named Ljuba (meaning "love"), but she's starting to get a bit querulous, complaining that Viskovitz treats her like a doll and doesn't let her fulfill her own desires.

Meanwhile, Viskovitz muses on the nature of reality with a distinctly dormouse philosophy. He notes that he had chosen his ugly, "depressing" mate Jana "Because only a life made up of boredom and frustration leads to fulfilling and magnificent dreams. And those are the moments that count. If the hereafter—that is, wakefulness—is hell, then life—that is, dreaming—will be paradise. Not the other way around."

Got that? Because when Ljuba suddenly enters Viskovitz's real life and reveals the role she's had in his dreams all this time, the whole philosophy is upended. But it's okay; Viskovitz gets his blissfully happy ending.

This is a story that turns on a bit of a trick rather than a plot (and part of the trick is that you think it's one trick, but it turns out to be another). I love fiction that works this way, though probably it's not for everyone. Still, there's one particular technique Boffa employs that I'd like to point out as potentially useful. Part of the charm, and much of the humor of this very short story stems from the way the author inhabits his character's point of view. On the one hand, the story is a fable, and like the animals of Aesop, Viskovitz seems very human. But Boffa interjects a number of great details particular to dormouse sensibility:

  • "As my metabolism got into gear I was tortured by pains in my joints, by dehydration, by the distress of every single cell. It was the agony of reawakening, of a torment that would last another four months until the next hibernation. At a time like this there's only hunger that gives you the strength to get to your feet—the knowledge that if you don't fatten up, you won't be able to get back to sleep."
  • "My den was the former nest of a woodpecker hollowed out of a sessiliflore oak." As far as I can tell, this is not only scientifically correct, but also is so perfect that an old dormouse would know the type of tree he lives in, just like a human would know a ranch-style from a Colonial.
  • "The problem with Ljuba was that she never wanted to do with me those things that boy and girl dormice do in dreams—that is, sleep."
  • And my very, very favorite line of all… "I greeted her with a zi-zi, our dormouse love-call. Then, coming down from a banana tree, I approached, gorgeous and indolent as a rodent god."
I would like that last one on a t-shirt. And a bumper sticker.  And tattooed as a tramp stamp.  Anyway, it greatly enriches Boffa's tale that he folds facts about real dormice into his narrative voice and uses them to advance the story. Even when our characters are, for whatever reason, left unrounded, it might be worthwhile to flesh them out with a little bit of perspective. Ask yourself, In what ways does this particular character view the world that are wholly different from how any other character would view it?  The answer might add a bit of texture... And I don't think I'm alone when I say that of anything, we want our stories to be interesting.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Current Events: Linky Goodness

Short stories are everywhere. It gives me hope, that's what. Enjoy some of these recent finds!

If all stories were written like science fiction stories. (Via.)

Susana Breslin describes her foray into "bespoke literature," writing a love story on demand for cashmoney. (Thanks.)

Sean Ferrell promotes his novel NUMB by writing an amusing phonebook-based short story for the blog The Next Best Book Club. Win and winner!

Are you a writer? Do you want to self-publish? You probably won't make a gazillion dollars, though this "self-proclaimed unicorn enthusiast and Muppet activist" apparently did. (Okay, this one isn't actually related to short stories, but come on. IT'S THE DREAM, baby.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Girls Is Crazy! - #17

STORY: "The Reaper" by Rachel Sherman

FROM: THE FIRST HURT (Open City Books, 2006)

BASICALLY: An ostracized teenage girl hopes her parents won't find out about the bizarrely sexual letters her soldier penpal crush keeps sending her.

For some reason, I feel tiptoe-y around this story. Like I don't want to hurt its feelings. Like perhaps my heart isn't actually made of pumice and carbolic acid! Maybe it's because a lot of the authors I've covered are dead, or they're so great/established that it feels like anything I have to say about them can't possibly be of any consequence, whereas Rachel Sherman's bio reveals her to be just a year older than me (yes also about a billion times more accomplished but don't worry it's not like I'd be jealous of an MFA from Columbia, I mean really) and her writing makes me think I could have a marvelous conversation with her should we run into one another at the drug store. But I have to say it truly: "The Reaper," while a pretty good story, is not a great one.

I do absolutely love Sherman's subject matter: Beth is such a teenage girl. She hides stuff from her parents, and has a ridiculously romantic fixation on a married soldier who writes her up to 3 letters a day from Iraq, and studiously ignores the warning signs of his inappropriate questions and transparent lies because she feels ignored and misunderstood in every other aspect of her life.

But I have trouble believing the individual bits of the story and I think it's because of a lack of development. All the necessary elements, maddeningly enough, seem to be present, but they feel unripened; it is conceivable that I would believe any individual detail of "The Reaper" if only Sherman had provided just a little bit more to go on.

Take the basic assumption, for example: Beth started writing to a soldier to receive extra credit in her high school psychology class. Okay, this is something that students do maybe do. But her soldier writes things like this: "I'll tell you mostly there is just a lot of sitting around here doing nothing. I play cards and THIS IS THE REAPER! WHEN I AM BORED I MASTURBATE AND THINK ABOUT YOU. BELOW IS A LIST OF QUESTIONS. YOU MUST ANSWER THEM ALL." And then he apologizes about the intruding personality, and then he asks crude questions, and then he apologizes again.

I would like to think that any high school program that involved minors having contact with strangers would have some sort of control to make sure that nobody gets, you know, abused. Now, Sherman could provide some details to show how Beth avoids the notice of authorities other than her parents (from her parents, she just hides the letters in a drawer under her bed and protects them from her mother's snooping with a note that says, "STAY AWAY YOU FUCKING DIRTY BITCH I DON'T GO THROUGH YOUR THINGS!!!!!", which I think is hilarious), or she could give me something else to latch onto to make it more plausible that the school just isn't paying attention. But instead of solidifying details, the only other glimpse we're given of this psychology class involves the teacher videotaping students walking across the classroom, and then showing the footage and describing to the whole class what the student's body language says about them. Does this happen? I guess maybe? But it strains credulity for me.

Again, it could be made believable. It's very close to believable. But it's not quite there.

I've got questions about the guy who's writing to Beth, too. An early, brief scene that appears to be a flashback shows Sergeant Daniel Burkhart in the psychology classroom, but it's not totally clear why—maybe like an ambassador for this letter-writing program? Someone whispers, "Creeper," which is the cruel nickname Beth's classmates have given her because of some unattractive birthmarks on her face, and "It is as if Sergeant Daniel heard him." Though this scene shows us that we're dealing with one man's fuckwittery rather than, say, actual demon possession, it's just barely sketched in. Whatever's happening seems deliberately obscured. We do understand that Burkhart chose "Reaper" as the persona for his mindgames because it's just enough but not too much like "Creeper," but anything else about the mentality that would make such a choice is left out completely. And if this is the reason, why is it only "as if" Burkhart heard the whisper?

Beth does manage to make one friend, a girl who "is older and boys like her." But the friend's only purpose, it seems, is to show that Beth's soldier friend is lying when he says he can't send her a picture of himself. (The friend, Sandra, is actually getting sexy photos from her own soldier, which kind of maybe a little bit supports the idea that the school has this program but otherwise doesn't give a crap… but it still seems really weird and hard to believe. And when Beth's parents inevitably find out, they don't gather up the damning letters and shove them under the nose of a school official; they destroy them in the garbage disposal.) The two girls sneak off and talk and smoke cigarettes together, but their interaction remains superficial. It's not clear why Sandra decides to take Beth under her wing, because Sandra is a totally flat character, and there's no major effect from their friendship, either. Certain possibilities suggest themselves, but they're so unfocused as to give me the feeling, if I try to connect them, that I'm the one writing the story that I think I'm supposed to be reading. It's not a case of multiple interpretations—instead, it's one of interpretations having to be made on incomplete evidence.

A while back, I saw this quote by James Wood (author of HOW FICTION WORKS) on the Tin House Books blog and it seemed worth writing down: "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." As far as I can see, this applies equally to short fiction. "The Reaper" isn't problematic because it's inherently impossible to believe or because Beth isn't a fascinating character; instead, it doesn't quite manage to "teach us how to adapt to its conventions." The distinction is subtle, and can be a matter of just a few sentences, a few brushstrokes here and there, but it ultimately makes all the difference between a great story and a story that leaves us wanting.

Sherman has blended several interesting ingredients into an unsatisfying stew with "The Reaper." Is this typical for her, or did I just happen to read the weakest story in the collection? I think I'll have to return to her sometime this year and find out…