Wednesday, May 25, 2011

These Milk Glands Were Made for Walking - #32

STORY: "The Night He Cried" by Fritz Leiber

FROM: THE BEST OF FRITZ LEIBER (Nelson Doubleday, 1974)

BASICALLY: Over-the-top sci-fi parody of the hard-boiled detective story "perfected" by author Mickey Spillane. In Leiber's story, a heptapus (think octopus, but with only seven appendages) from Galaxy Center has come to Earth disguised as a sexy broad to correct author Slickie Millane's misconceptions about the purpose of sex. Ever prone to violence and misogyny, Slickie alternately tries to seduce and kill her. Good-naturedly reconstituting itself after each attempt on its life, the heptapus drinks too much scotch and bungles the mission to hilarious results.

This may be my new favorite story. I'm fickle, so that'll probably change, but for now, I'm in lurve lurve lurve. "The Night He Cried" is utterly silly and beyond funny. Even if you're unfamiliar with the literature being parodied, as I was, Leiber's vision of a bumbling but well-intentioned alien trying to reason with a completely insane tough guy is pure gold. I also love what Leiber has to say about this story in his Afterword.

I wrote "The Night He Cried" because I was distantly angry at Mickey Spillane for the self-satisfied violence and loveless sex and anti-feminism he was introducing into detective fiction and because he had the temerity to publish a couple of stories in the fantasy field, about which I have a parental concern. My rage seems remote, now, yet the point was valid.
Writing a story to make a point is a tricky thing. Obviously, no one likes to be preached to. Nor are readers likely to care about some writer's personal vendetta. And specificity can be dangerous—Slickie Millane as author of the Spike Mallet novels is really only funny if you know that Mickey Spillane wrote the Mike Hammer novels.

But I don't think Leiber's story suffers from any of these problems. First off, preachiness is absent. Though Leiber explains in his Afterword that he was reacting to Spillane's anti-feminist themes, he didn't respond by writing A Very Impassioned Story About Feminism. I'm a feminist—it's by no means a dirty word—but even I wouldn't want to read that story. Nor Stories About the Evils of War, the Wrongs of Colonialism, or the Decline of America's Educational System. What I do want to read is a story—something that involves me in its world, makes me care about its characters, and entertains me. Leiber's piece works because the story takes priority over the message.

Secondly, even though it references an "enemy" more or less by name, Leiber's story is saved from seeming petty by virtue of its sheer ludicrousness. The most grotesque elements (the hyper-sexuality, the misogynistic violence) are part of what's being parodied and come from the source material. Leiber doesn't go after Spillane personally—there's nothing in the story that might be read as a commentary on Spillane's religion, for example, which was Jehovah's Witness. Instead, it's very clear that what's being mocked is the tough guy propaganda machine. Leiber destroys the idea that anyone, including some pulp writer, could resemble the one-dimensional, morally-unconflicted hero of Spillane's trashy novels.

All this might make it sound like Leiber's lampooning is only funny if you know something about Mickey Spillane, but I don't think that's the case. The hard-boiled detective is a well-known type, even if many modern readers won't recognize its specific roots in Spillane. And the story never takes itself seriously. A sense of zany fun keeps the focus firmly planted on the action, not on some other story you're not reading. After Slickie Millane has shot in the gut what he thinks is a mouthy dame, she has reconstituted herself and awaits him in his convertible. 
There was a burst of juke-box jazz. Footsteps tracked from the bar toward the convertible. I leaned back comfortably with my silver-filmed milk glands dramatically highlighted. 
"Hi, Slickie," I called, making my voice sweet and soft to cushion the shock. 
Nevertheless it was a considerable one….Then with a naive ingenuity that rather touched me, he asked huskily, "Hey, have you got a twin sister?"

What it all comes down to is that, whatever else he might be doing during the course of his story, Leiber never forgets his audience. This story sets out to entertain and that's what it does. The fact that it's making cultural commentary or trying to drive home a point is just an added bonus—the story makes sure to succeed on its own terms. Leiber shows writers that they don't have to avoid putting a direct message in their fiction, but that they'd better make it worth the reader's while. Go find yourself a copy of this gem and read it, because it's superfun.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Your Story Is a Place - #31

STORY: "Death by Landscape" by Margaret Atwood

FROM: WILDERNESS TIPS (Doubleday, 1991)

BASICALLY: Reflecting on her valuable collection of landscape paintings, displayed in a new apartment now that she's widowed, a woman remembers the fateful summer of her thirteenth year, when a friend mysteriously disappeared while the two of them were alone during a camp expedition.

This is a story with lots to teach, if only I could figure out what. Seriously, it's seamless—my description above of the story's plot doesn't even begin to do it justice. Atwood presents a childhood incident in such a way that she's able to evoke the entire course of a woman's life and the emotional reality the woman has never been able to deal with. I came away from "Death by Landscape" feeling as though I had read a Greek tragedy or watched a heartbreaking documentary, even though the story only portrays this woman—Lois—in youth and (briefly) in old age. Two stops along a whole lifetime, and yet it's enough. We feel as though we understand. While the story isn't crushingly sad, there's an emotional impact, a sense of years collapsed into a few paragraphs.

You might remember that in story #28, I was all like, Realism? Meh—whatevs. And yet here is a profoundly real-seeming story that totally enthralls me. I mean, that's not to take anything away from Bezmozgis—I was serious when I said "Tapka" is well-written, and absolutely the right kind of story for the right kind of audience—but I do think it's interesting that I had such different reactions to what is pretty much the same genre; these are both pieces of literary fiction that deal with a Significant Childhood Incident. Obviously, the writer whose techniques I'd like to emulate is the one whose work resonates for me when I read it. And Atwood…I can see that I need to read a lot more of her.

Just another indication, friends, that we should cast our nets widely. We never know what's going to strike a chord. I, for example, am not a reader of realistic fiction! Until I am.

So, what was so effective about Atwood's story for me?

Margaret Atwood seems to have a lot of tricks up her sleeve when it comes to making her small story seem huge. Like the author of story #29, she plays around with present tense and past tense—except that she actually does it well and not quite like you'd expect. Instead of just using present tense for Lois-as-an-old-woman and past tense for Lois-as-a-girl, Atwood complicates the relationship of these two versions of Lois by putting part of the childhood experience—maybe the most important part, the part that revolves around the disappearance of Lois' friend—in present tense. This connects it to the present tense used at the story's beginning and end to show old-woman-Lois, and (like I talked about with story #29) it moves the story's camera into a greater intimacy with the character.

Atwood also just writes really beautifully. A monumentally unhelpful observation, I know. Oh, I can hear you exclaiming, if you'd just told me I was supposed to write beautifully, I would've tried that. But how to quantify style? It's not that Atwood's writing is especially lush or poetic (though she is also a poet, and a good one); it's more that she writes fluidly. All those mechanics everyone harps on, from sentence variation to strong verbs, turn out to recede into the background when they're employed well. Atwood's sentences are so consistently well-constructed that you don't even really notice them. Instead, you keep tumbling forward into the story.

And I think that's a key to the power of "Death by Landscape." Because those beautiful sentences that flow so nicely and naturally aren't just telling the surface story of the events leading up to and away from the disappearance of Lois' friend; they're also telling another story about Lois and what the events mean to her. Not directly, though. If Atwood had come right out and said, "Lucy's disappearance bothered Lois for the rest of her life," no one would care. But look at this paragraph: 
However, there were things Lois knew that Lucy did not. Lucy scratched the tops off all her mosquito bites and had to be taken to the infirmary to be daubed with Ozonol. She took her T-shirt off while sailing, and although the counselor spotted her after a while and made her put it back on, she burnt spectacularly, bright red, with the X of her bathing-suit straps standing out in alarming white; she let Lois peel the sheets of whispery-thin burned skin off her shoulders. When they sang "Alouette" around the campfire, she did not know any of the French words. The difference was that Lucy did not care about the things she didn't know, whereas Lois did. 
Not only do we get a fantastic image of the kind of friendship that existed between these two girls (Lucy lets Lois peel the dead skin from her sunburn, ew), but check out that last sentence. In the context of the paragraph, it makes complete sense, and we understand exactly what we need to about the difference between these two personalities. But the wonderful trick here is that this sentence also means something significant about Lucy's eventual disappearance and how it will affect Lois. Although Atwood never explains directly, sentences like this one help us to understand the reason why Lois is haunted her whole life by this childhood event, beyond even what might be expected.

The story's full of such sentences. Not so many that they're annoying, of course—that would just distract from the storytelling. These sentences do double duty. Meaningful in the context of the narrative's forward movement, they're also directly applicable to the story's larger meaning. Atwood uses them as a tool to bring her readers to a realization about the kind of person Lois is. We come to understand why this woman—not just a woman, but this woman—would possess a collection of landscapes that "fills her with a wordless unease." And we understand not because we're told directly, but because everything is there, all at once, woven into the landscape of the story itself.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On Childish Things - #30

You've gotta love the design of a McSweeney's book.

STORY: "The Aces Phone" by Jeanne DuPrau, illus. Rachell Sumpter


BASICALLY: A young loner finds a cell phone in a park and discovers that it has a very strange number on speed dial--what comes through the phone isn't a voice, but a wallop of noise and overwhelming emotion. This sound/feeling is composed of individual strands that can be followed to their sources, good or bad. Soon he meets the phone's owner and learns the secret: that the phone's connected to all of the dogs in a 20-block radius of the park, and it's the job of the phone's owner to find the wounded, abused, and hurting dogs and make sure they get help.

When I was in second grade, we used to split up into groups for reading a story and then answering discussion questions. One time we read only part of a story and then were asked, based on what we knew, how the story was going to end. I seem to remember elephants. A baby and its mother? Maybe it was hippos. Anyway, I remember that my answer, while true, didn't exactly please my teacher:

I said that the story was going to end happily (with the baby finding its mom or whatever) because the stories we read always ended happily.

I admit, I still feel a little smug about that response all these years later. I had picked up on a simple cultural truth: that stories for children aren't out for blood. (My rampant cynicism at age seven is a little harder to explain.) Stories for kids aren't trying to undermine trust in the world. They don't try to invoke despair. (Notice I'm saying children here and not young adults—that's a different genre with its own conventions, and this McSweeney's collection is aimed at 4th to 7th-graders.) The danger present in most literature for children is highly stylized and eminently capable of being resolved, for the very good reason that we don't want our kiddos to live in abject fear of the world.

So I think it's kind of honest and unusual of Jeanne DuPrau (author of bestseller intermediate novels like THE CITY OF EMBER) to dispense with any sense of calamity in her story. At no point do we feel that the boy, Martin Alonzo, really has anything to worry about. He's intrigued by the sound/feeling that comes through the found cellphone and he has pretty much no trouble talking to the phone's owner, an older lady (prickly but not at all threatening) who he recognizes from the neighborhood. The story mostly consists of Martin learning how to use the phone and what it's for. It's a story about an idea—an idea that, as a sensitive and worried child, I feel sure I would have been interested in.

I, too, knew about animals suffering—unloved stray dogs, mangy neighborhood cats—and I too felt basically helpless about the situation. This story bridges that feeling of helplessness and makes it manageable. It's a fantasy, but one that attempts to resolve an emotion that might already be present in the reader, rather than one that it has raised in the reader. An adventure story, for example, might put the hero in a volcano about to erupt, just so it could have lots of fun explaining how he gets out.

But Martin's tale isn't about unrealistic physical danger. Instead, it deals with psychological transformation, an inward change that's shown through outward action. At the beginning, Martin suffers from a sense of not belonging. 

Martin himself was only passing through [the park] on his way home to get his skates. Skating was what he did after school. He didn't like hanging around at home, in the apartment that was way too small for his big family. It was crowded and noisy, with his four little sisters and brothers always yelling and crying, and crawling all over the place, and his mother always getting after them. He didn't like hanging out with the kids from school, either, because all they wanted to do was play video games at the arcade. Video games made Martin feel like he was trapped in a box. 
On the one hand, I want to mock Martin. Martin, you are so emo! Nobody understands you! …But on the other, it's a pretty authentic emotion. Martin, like many a reader, is trying to figure out his place in society. Just like helplessness against the world's problems, this concern—one of self-realization—must already be present in the reader to have much meaning when the story deals with it.

Ultimately, I'm afraid "The Aces Phone" does suffer a bit from its lack of tension. A little something to make the reader worry about Martin, and therefore feel more involved in the goings-on, would have taken the interest level up a notch. I really have no idea what a ten-year-old would think; I can only tell you how it strikes me as a reader and as a writer. But I do imagine that this is just the right kind of story for a certain kind of person. And I admire a piece of fiction for children that isn't just about embroiling a character in wacky hijinks. DuPrau's story demonstrates the power of a resonant, emotional idea (creatively explored) and she proves that literature for children doesn't have to be insipid or sentimental to be meaningful.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No, Really, Grammar Is Exciting - #29

STORY: "The Fairy Helena" by Ruth Manning-Sanders

FROM: THE GLASS MAN AND THE GOLDEN BIRD: Hungarian Folk and Fairy Tales (Roy Publishers, Inc., 1968) – illus. Victor G. Ambrus

BASICALLY: A zany, if unfocused, folktale starring a guy who accidentally lets a demon out of jail, runs away because he's afraid he'll get in trouble, almost starves, gets rescued by the (kindly?) demon and given a life of ease. He enjoys the company of the demon's ten daughters, but discovers that each night they turn into birds and visit a fairy. In secret, he tags along, falls in love with the fairy, gets in trouble with her and almost killed, but is helped out again by the demon. He wins her in the end and of course yaddas yaddaly ever yadda.

There was a lad called John, who went to be a soldier. And one night they put him to stand guard outside a prison.

   So there is our John, standing in the moonlight with his gun over his shoulder, and the keys of the prison in his pocket. Not a sound did he hear until midnight; and then there came such a moaning and a groaning from inside the prison as made John's hair stand on end.

Did you see it? The strange thing that just happened in those two little opening paragraphs? We started out in a distant past tense—there was, who went, they put. We switched to present—there is. Then we flopped back to past, but not so distant—did he hear, there came, made.

It's dizzying. And the story just keeps on in that vein. 

"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" moaned a voice. 
"I can't do that!" shouts John.
Accidental tense-switching is an all-too-common affliction at early stages in the writing process. Maybe we haven't yet settled on the voice for a piece, the particular vista from which our POV character is taking it all in, and we slip back and forth between happening-in-the-now present tense and the-perspective-of-time past as we drum up the action. Once we figure out what's what, we go back and marshal our verbs into formation.

I don't think that's what's happening here. There is no apparent attempt at marshaling. Instead, the tense-switching runs headlong through the whole story, but for me, it irritates from the get-go. The story's trying to sound like an oral tale—there's casual diction ("by that time he had put a goodish bit of distance between him and the town") and idiomatic syntax ("'What's fretting me indeed!' cries John. 'It's yourself is doing that!'")—and so maybe the heedless flip-flopping between past and present tenses is meant in that vein. As if the tale's more authentic because it's not the sort of thing you see written down very often. Which is kind of true.

And so, even though I think the tense-switching in this story doesn't quite succeed, I find
myself intrigued by it. When I look at what it does to the action in the tale, I can see that it actually controls time in a really weird way. That's because past tense and present tense aren't just opposites of one another. When you read, 
But every evening at supper time those girls would suddenly go from the table and run upstairs; and John didn't get another sight of them till next morning, 
you're looking backwards as though through a telescope. You're seeing all the action, but you're not next to it. There's a certain amount of distance. But with, 
So what does he do but tiptoe upstairs and put his eye to the keyhole of the girls' room, 
you're not only seeing events unfold in the now, you're actually right next to the events, your nose right up against the keyhole with John's. You don't have that telescoping distance, but you also can't see the bigger picture. See what I mean? Whether you use past tense or present tense isn't just about time; it's also about tightness and specificity of focus.
There has got to be a way to play with tense more smoothly than it's managed in "The Fairy Helena." After all, we're actually very accustomed to these movements back and forth—the majority of stories and novels are narrated in the past tense, while characters are always going around speaking in the present. And it's not that uncommon to see tense shifts used to articulate different sections of a piece—like maybe switching to present tense to indicate that we're in a dream. So it's just a tiny step more to imagine how one might try to shift tenses between sentences to show different realities for different characters, or to distinguish a supernatural being from a human, or to make someone seem magical and strange in a way that other characters are not.

This is a fun fairy tale with a bizarrely passive protagonist and a bafflingly helpful demon, but what I like best about it is how it's got me thinking and makes me want to try things. Inspiration comes from the oddest corners, sometimes.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Oh God, Not the Dog - #28

STORY: "Tapka" by David Bezmozgis

FROM: NATASHA AND OTHER STORIES (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004)

BASICALLY: The sins of childhood are mined in this account of what goes awry one day for two young children entrusted with a neighbor's beloved Lhasa-apso. More broadly, though, a story about the immigrant experience.

You may have noticed that I've written about a lot of stories with quirky or fantastical elements—devils and cheerleaders, robots, ghostly apparitions, and fairy tales of the afterlife. My tastes, I admit, do favor of the weird. Realism, on the other hand—well, it can leave me cold. It's not you, Realism, it's me! I get why people want to be smacked in the face with the relentless suffering of humanity, sure I do, but sometimes it just feels like a chore to read—like I'm enduring something just to get my character built.

"Tapka" is a good story. I'm probably not its audience. I found myself just wanting to get through it, but it's not the story's fault. It's just…these little kids, and they're Russian immigrants who're trying so hard, and this precious little dog, and he's the only thing this older immigrant couple has, and you just know the whole time that something awful's in store for him and you kind of want it to be over with already.

And it doesn't even turn out that bad, but we end on a note of sadness wrapped around a painful life lesson and while I admire how we got there, I didn't enjoy myself much.

But if you like this sort of thing—the people that may very well be real, the personal tragedies that could be happening next door—then Bezmozgis is right up your alley. He tackles the perspective of childhood with elegance and compassion, but the really interesting thing he does in "Tapka" is unite the state of childhood with the experience of being an immigrant. One context informs the other—they run so easily and obviously parallel, in fact, that I know Bezmozgis has to be making the connection look easier than it is.

In the crucial scene, we see six-year-old Mark with his seven-year-old cousin Jana, playing with the dog in the ravine where they take him for walks. They throw his toy again and again, each time having only to say "Tapka, get Clonchik," and the dog will fetch. But on this particular day, the children are also playing with their newfound tongue. Jana discovers that you can say "Shithead, get Clonchik" and the dog doesn't know the difference and keeps playing the game in happy obliviousness. But Mark is bothered and doesn't want to call the dog he loves "Shithead." 

I couldn't help thinking, "Poor Tapka," and looked around for some sign of recrimination. The day, however, persisted in unimpeachable brilliance…I was amazed at the absence of consequences.
Bezmozgis uses this conflict over a word in such an interesting way. He paints a convincing picture of a quarrel between two children, those little power plays and acts of one-upmanship they engage in. At the same time, he's keeping their strangeness in their surroundings front and center, as they struggle to express themselves rightly in English. And then he's marrying the bewildered state of an uncertain child with the equally bewildering experience of being in an unfamiliar country. When disaster strikes, the stakes feel extremely high because they are flailing, both as immigrants who can't speak the language and children who can't articulate what terrifies them.

And if it turns out to be a little bit (though not too) depressing, then Bezmozgis has most likely accomplished what he was aiming for: a story that feels true, an empathy that becomes real.