Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poetry Its Own Logic - #27

STORY: "Leopard Arms" by Leni Zumas

FROM: FAREWELL NAVIGATOR (Open City Books, 2008)

BASICALLY: A dreamy and unsettling account, as told by a gargoyle, of the occupants of the Leopard Arms apartments in Brooklyn. To save a neglected child with tonsillitis, he'll have to break the rules he learned in gargoyle school.

"Leopard Arms" isn't like any of the other stories so far twiddled apart here on YoOHS. Much stranger and harder to categorize than, say, "The Last Rabbit", its experimental elements mean we're dealing with a new species of short fiction. It's far more of an actual story than Lydia Davis' experimental "The Family", but it's not even trying to do what "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian" was going for—and so I find myself less sure than normal what to make of it.

I either liked "Leopard Arms" or I didn't. One of those two things. The jury's still out. Could go either way. But since it's trying something that feels fresh and weird, I lean toward giving it the benefit of the doubt.

I liked how it's episodic—a simpler structure that doesn't require such a tight control on continuity between scenes. To open, for example, the gargoyle narrator introduces the "new family" that "is taking the place of the woman who choked on a peanut." Then, following a section break, the gargoyle gives his backstory and outlook—

The word you know me by is from gargouille, the French for throat. A throat can sing a tune, swallow milk, be sliced wide open. Down throats go slender needles aimed at human hearts. 
Another section break, and now for a moment we see the new family, the young daughter "pacing along each new wall to listen," but then the camera swings outside to show a passing bus full of tourists and swoops back in to show the reactions of building residents like Mrs. Megrim and "the watcher."

So Zumas builds up her story stroke by stroke. It's how a lot of TV shows work—a whole tangle of subplots get advanced at once by moving an inch on one, then switching to another. And of course they all interact. Part of the appeal of a show or a story with a large cast is our involvement and interest in their individual lives. When they inevitably conflict, fall in love, form friendships, and make enemies of one other, we have a sense of complexity because we are intimately familiar with all the separate points of view. (I love shows like The Good Wife or True Blood or Boardwalk Empire for this, but look for it in your favorite ensemble dramas. You'll probably start seeing it everywhere.)

While I think Zumas creates a narrator that's just perfect for giving voice to this episodic structure—a gargoyle is the ultimate watcher of all and sundry—something's missing. She either doesn't try to or isn't successful at binding all her strands together. The threads that follow the collector and the watcher and the flautist, while stuffed full of lovely poetic non sequiturs, don't do much that I found satisfying. They're connected, but the connections don't bear fruit. The scenes are well-larded with striking imagery, yes—the shame collector's senile grandmother phoning him, the watcher's bittersweet longing for a shark—but in the end, are used only as elaborate set pieces. I felt like the peripheral episodes on which the story spent so much time didn't signify much to the main story about a neglected little girl finding a mother-substitute in her curmudgeonly neighbor.

So I don't like that. Except that I can appreciate how this story eschews narrative structure for its own kind of poetic logic. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of poetry for school, lately, and so I feel sympathetic or attuned to the lushness of strange words arranged just to be fascinating…Even though the scenes didn't satisfy me in terms of story, there's still something about their eccentricity, their sense of being assembled of odds and ends, that, surprisingly, ties them together enough to make them feel like more than they individually are.

Monday, April 18, 2011

“Undrinking Butlers & Unflirting Housemaids of Metal” - #26

STORY: "The Invisible Man" by G.K. Chesterton – Another short story you can find online easily. Maybe I should be reading more stories published this century?

FROM: THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN, edited by Martin Gardner (Dover, 1998) – Story originally appeared in 1911.

BASICALLY: A far-fetched mystery in which a young man (named Angus) tries to help his romantic rival catch another romantic rival (this one EVIL) in the act of leaving threatening messages all over the place. Angus enlists the help of a reformed-criminal-turned-private-investigator (named Flambeau) who is being visited by the unimpressive-but-observant Father Brown. They do solve the mystery--too bad the first romantic rival still gets butchered. Oh well!

Leave it to me to unknowingly seek out the one "metaphysical detective story" that contains robots. Of course, Chesterton's Edwardian robot is a vaguely imagined "clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery," and inspired, as annotator Martin Gardner notes, by "L. Frank Baum's Tik-Tok of Oz except it was headless." These so-called robots turn out to be only minimally important to the story, merely the successful invention with which Angus' first romantic rival—a diminutive man named Isidore Smythe—recently gained his independent fortune. (I suppose they're a possible red herring, too—part of me, I must admit, hoped the Robot Butler Had Dunnit. But it was not to be.) Honestly, robots seem completely out of place and fairly ridiculous in this otherwise plain Edwardian setting. Of course, because I am me, they still kind of made me like the story more. (I mean, if nothing else, I appreciate that once upon a time Genre Conventions were not quite so rigidly defined and enforced as they are now.)

In his fascinating and helpful Introduction (which you can read here, yay Google Books), Martin Gardner explains that 

Father Brown stories obviously belong to the classical tradition of mysteries in which the reader is challenged to solve a puzzle. The story is a game between reader and writer. The author tries to play fair, yet at the same time surprise readers with a simple solution that they could have guessed but did not. Like so many Sherlockian plots, and those of Agatha Christie and other great masters of the puzzle genre, the plots of Father Brown tend to be enormously improbable. Indeed, improbable is an understatement. 
He then goes on to detail the ways in which current detective shows and movies (current as of 1985, anyway), with their car chases, bare-knuckles boxing, and bimbos, are just as fantastical in their own right. And he's got a point. What seems realistic to one generation is the cheesiest claptrap artifice to the next… isn't it kind of strange that it ever seemed realistic?

But that's the sleight-of-hand of entertainment in whatever medium—it succeeds based on a verisimilitude that is entirely manufactured. For the writer of fiction, that's both enormously freeing (since you can, in theory, make anyone believe anything) and burdensome (since it means there's no objective measure—the slightest irregularity can inadvertently puncture the fictional dream).

This quote by James Wood (spotted on the Tin House Books Blog) seems to apply here: 

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. 
Let that sink in. Genre, literary, whatever kind of fiction—and heck, nonfiction too—it all comes down to the degree to which the writer has managed a hunger in the reader for itself and its characters.

In "The Invisible Man," Chesterton's management is clunky at best. I'm baffled by Gardner's note that "This is perhaps the best known, most anthologized of all Father Brown stories." Father Brown doesn't even show up until twelve pages in. Before that, we get Angus (who, as I far as I know, is not a recurring or otherwise significant Chesterton character) peering in at a sweets-shop window, entering and proposing to a pretty shopgirl he barely knows, then her long tale of the two men (ugly! and loafers!) who already spontaneously asked her to marry them, and how they went away to seek their fortunes which they already had but she ;lajksdfa;ljwhocares… It really goes on for quite awhile.

Should I excuse this as some kind of generational thing? If I expect a mystery story to dash out of the starting gate like a hopped-up greyhound, it's got to be because of genre conventions, right? In 1911, maybe a guy was free to write his romance-slash-mystery with a little bit of AWESOMEROBOTS thrown in for color. Maybe he didn't have to plunge right into murder, but could take his time and weave a little story about some people inveigled in curious circumstances.

Except that Chesterton's own subplots, which dominate the first two-thirds of the story, don't appear to interest even him. After the first of Angus' romantic rivals is killed, and then the second is caught and shown to be the killer (how he got away with it—not who he is—is supposed to be the story's clever reveal, so that's not really a spoiler), Chesterton dispenses with the love story he spent pages and pages setting up with this unevocative sentence: 

John Turnbull Angus went back to the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives to be extremely comfortable. 
---.  Uh, great.

So it's not that Chesterton was mixing different elements in some unorthodox way. It's more that he doesn't seem to have gone back once he reached the end to make sure that it still had something to do with his beginning. I cannot hunger for the reality level of "The Invisible Man" because it isn't sure, itself, of its level. Some wise editing could have made this a much stronger story. Gardner mentions several times that Chesterton wrote the Father Brown stories for money and that they do not represent his finest writing and I get that. It's probably even truer today that most people making a living off their writing can't afford to be too fussy about it when deadlines and cashmoney are involved. I'm also not immune to being charmed by the quaint weirdness of these stories, in spite of their flaws. So it is with everything we read as writers—we are always taking stock on what to steal, what to love, what to discard, and what to improve upon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Lowlife Shuffle - #25

STORY: "Two Men" by Denis Johnson

FROM: JESUS' SON (Picador, 1992)

ALSO FROM: THE NEW YORKER FICTION PODCAST – Scroll down to "Salvatore Scibona reads Denis Johnson"

BASICALLY: A cowardly man careens from place to place through the night with his friends. The "first man" is a drunk who won't get out of their car. The "second man" burned the narrator on a drug deal awhile back. Unsympathetic people doing the incomprehensible - made electric by Johnson's prose and structure.

As any faithful reader of my blog (Hi Mom!) will no doubt remember, it's taken me a while to become someone who can honestly say they like The New Yorker. And yet my former position as scoffer and dismisser is looking more and more untenable, because here is this dark, beautiful short story by Denis Johnson that was published there in 1988. Since I was still in my denim-skirts-LipSmackers-pewter-dragons phase at that point, I don't think I can somehow imagine that The New Yorker has only begun to accommodate my tastes in the last few years... no, I must accept the fact that they publish some iconic fiction that I was, at a certain point, too green and short-attention-spanned to appreciate, and that I have carried that prejudice with me for far too long.

Not that I'll be giving up my robot stories and fairy tales any time soon. Variety, people! Have we learned nothing here?

Yet another reason to love The New Yorker is their Fiction Podcast. Authors pick a story published by someone else in the magazine, and then they read it and discuss it with the Fiction Editor. Simple concept, profoundly interesting results.

Hearing a story can change it. Can open it up in a new way. The same words are processed by the same language mechanism in the brain, yet are altered just by entering through a separate portal. I have to admit that when I first read "Two Men," it didn't strike me as anything special. I completely love Johnson's story from the same book called "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" (it haunted me so strongly I had to pick it up and read it again the very next day, just to cope), but "Two Men" kind of slid right by. Yet to hear author Salvatore Scibona read it was a completely different experience. The voice of this unstable man at the story's center comes alive in Scibona's voice, and I am there, in that night, trying to make sense of a series of unconnected events that are somehow unspeakably connected in the mind of the narrator. I've listened three times, now, and I have to say that my appreciation of "Two Men" gets deeper every time. (And the discussion that takes place after the story is not to be missed.)

There's something so impossible about trying to write from a truly unhinged point of view. Someone sane enough to get by in the regular world and not get locked up (much), but still totally crazy, capable of an awfulness and disconnection not normal. Johnson's narrator is neither quirky nor wholly, relentlessly bad. Instead, he just seems like a really fucked-up guy. The kind of guy everyone's run into at a party, or known through friends, or dated. This guy is out there, living his miserable life; I can completely believe that.

The narrative of this guy is full of telling sentences whose impact seem to escape him. At the beginning, for example, he tells us 

I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn't yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another's company, going to bars and having conversations. Generally one of these false coalitions died after a day or a day and a half, but this one had lasted more than a year.
Later, when the three friends are trying to dump the drunk guy off at his house, but a woman inside won't open the door, this: 
All of her was invisible except the shadow of her hand on the curtain's border. "If you don't take him off our street I'm calling the police." I was so flooded with yearning I thought it would drown me. Her voice broke off and floated down.
It's as though this person has some kind of deep understanding, an insight into his own condition and into beauty and into suffering—and yet his whole night, and not just the night, but his whole existence, is an utter waste. Pointless errands, meaningless diversions, unconcern for others, a profound resistance to facing the reality of the wife and young son waiting at home for him, needing him—Johnson juxtaposes the narrator's flashes of insight about his cowardly life against the bullheaded reality of his own feckless actions.

In doing so, he changes his readers' relationship to him. This individual, worthy of disdain at best, becomes someone with whom we have shared an experience—albeit one that disturbs us. It's a little confusing, when examined, which is exactly the point; in the right circumstances, with the right series of wrong choices, any of us could almost be this guy. Even if we're not him, we're implicated in what he does. It's a fantastic psychological trick that Johnson pulls off, to bring us so close to someone so fundamentally repellant.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

We’ll Say the Past Was Now - #24

STORY: "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian" by Jim Shepard

FROM: LIKE YOU'D UNDERSTAND, ANYWAY (Knopf, 2007)- National Book Award Finalist, you guys! Good stuff!

BASICALLY: A 7th-grade kid plays cards with his emotionally unstable older brother while his parents verbally spar. Family histrionics played for laughs, but closing on a somber--almost menacing--note.

Jim Shepard is known for his lengthy, history-based short stories—he's covered the Hindenburg, the French Terror of the seventeenth century, and the shooting of the movie Nosferatu. So of course I chose an extremely short piece (four pages!) about a contemporary family trying to get through an afternoon at home together without killing one another. Go figure. ((As you might have noticed from the recent mere-trickle of posts, my attention span is facing fierce competition at the moment. Four pages is about perfect.))

But Shepard proves here that he doesn't need twenty pages to evoke an entire world and outlook and set of relationships. In a few deft strokes of his opening paragraph, he establishes essential information like place ("a crappy rainy morning in Bridgeport, Connecticut"), narrator age ("I'm home from seventh grade with a sore throat"), situation ("and my parents and brother are fighting"), and historical period ("Jonathan Winters is on Merv Griffin, doing his improv thing with a stick").

From these grounding details, he begins to paint the picture: 

My father's beside himself because he thinks my mother threw out the Newsweek he's been saving to show my brother. It had war casualties on the cover. "You couldn't find your ass with both hands and a banjo," he tells her, though she's not looking.
Shepard places funny lines like this throughout, making this story a lovely example of a strong voice and a convincing family dynamic, but what I'd like to focus on is something he does more subtly. Although Shepard has chosen to tell his story in the present tense and from a youthful perspective, he drops hints that let us know that the true point of view is an adult looking back. Someone older is telling this story, and because he's chosen this particular day and this particular card game with his brother and this particular fight between his parents, the audience can sense that something important is going on. This quality of temporal perspective makes all the difference in telling a short story versus telling a funny/painful childhood anecdote. There's absolutely nothing wrong with anecdotes, but pretty much by definition, they stop at short and amusing. By injecting "Proto-Scorpions…" with a sense of the long view, Shepard deepens his story considerably.

When I say that Shepard "drops hints" about the adult perspective, here's what I mean.

  • Look at what I said about the opening paragraph of "Proto-Scorpions…" The kid says that he's home from seventh grade with a sore throat. But no kid would actually say it this way—he'd say that he's staying home from "school." Naming the grade creates historical distance. If I say, "My senior year in college, I stayed home sick one day," you wouldn't think I meant last week. Note that this kind of phrasing would be a mistake if Shepard weren't trying to create a sense of historical perspective on the story, but since he is, it's marvelous and subtle.
  • Next—and this is crucial—Shepard doesn't drop any more hints for a while. For over a page, he just gets the story going, using description, dialogue, and action to establish his characters. This serves the purpose of making sure that the story is grounded in the here and now—the point of the story is still the story, not the fact that it's being told by an adult.
  • When Shepard finally slips in another historicizing element, this time more clearly, the audience already has a good idea of when the story's taking place. The narrator says of his brother, "He's at this point eighteen or nineteen and has, as he puts it, his whole fucking life ahead of him." Shepard doesn't want his audience to get confused by his time shifts; his purpose is to enhance meaning, not obscure it.
  • Once again, Shepard goes back to his story. For about two and a half pages. Remember, this thing's only four pages long. So he can hit very, very lightly on these elements and they still have a powerful impact.
  • But he does pull the historical point of view back in at the very end. If it had come out of nowhere, it might feel a little gimmicky—but we've been prepared for it. And he hits the note fairly hard, here. After the narrator beats his sick brother at rummy multiple times, his brother upends the card table. The narrator's dad gets mad at him and wants to know if he wants to help his brother. I bolded the two parts that show that it's an older narrator looking back on the event.
"Yeah," I tell him, tearing up.
"Well then why don't you help him?" he wants to know.
Because there's what we want, and what we do, I'd figured out, even then.
"You want to help him?" he asks me again.
"Not really," I tell him, sitting there. Not really, I tell myself, now.

    This story reminds me that great short fiction is always operating on multiple levels at once. I can completely imagine this story told as a personal experience essay ending in some platitude, and it's cringingly dull. But the way Shepard does it, with the past told in the present and the real present only hinted at, the whole scope is broadened. Of course, his perfect lean sentences and funny dialogue don't hurt, either.

    * * *
    One other thing—I didn't especially feel like writing about this today, but if you're teaching writing (to others and/or yourself), I think this would be a fantastic story for studying showing versus telling. In the whole story, or even just on the first page, it'd be a great exercise to highlight the action sentences in one color and the internal sentences in another. Students (and even strong writers in earlier drafts) have a tendency to include large blocks of reflection as they try to work out their characters' psychologies. Shepard provides a nice example of how little of that sort of thing is actually necessary—the internal life of his narrator comes through beautifully and clearly, but there's only a sprinkling of direct thought. When Shepard does use it, he makes it count