Thursday, June 30, 2011

Speaking of Speaking - #40 – ALSO, LIBRARY MONTH CONTINUES!

STORY:  “I Kiss a Door” by Miranda July


BASICALLY:  Looking back on the details of her interactions with a former friend, a woman realizes that the signs of the friend’s big secret were there all along.

So, I sort of want to hate Miranda July.  She’s one of those wunderkinder too bright to look at—writer, filmmaker, actor, etc. etc. etc., plus exceptionally pretty, plus my age, plus recipient of all kinds of awards and critical accolades and jury prizes and so yes, sometimes I just want to throw up my hands, toss down a vodka tonic, and crawl under a rock.  Oh sure, oh sure, I’ll drunkenly mutter to myself, it’s *easy* to be published in The Paris Review when you’re already perfect in every way.  And then I’ll belch and fall into fitful dreams of losing the Tuscaloosa County Pie Eating Contest to a members-only club of pygmy chimpanzees.

They’re called coping strategies, people.

Unfortunately for my planned slide into bitterness, alcoholism, and night terrors at the hands of these damned injustices, Miranda July is, by all appearances, actually a very nice person who has actually done a lot to earn all the praise that's been heaped upon her.  When I heard her talking on a podcast about her writing, I found her intelligent and likeable.  Click on her book link above or head over to her personal site and notice how casual and quirky and charming she manages to be.  So, I suppose that, instead of despising her and making up nasty rumors to insert into her Wikipedia page and feeling generally venomous and petty, I should just sit back and try to learn something useful from her.  Argh, maturity.  I haz it!

“I Kiss a Door” is short and on first glance, feels slight, almost underdeveloped.  It doesn’t branch out from its center.  By “center,” I mean in this case the mind of its narrator, a somewhat self-involved woman who is essentially relating her shock at a piece of gossip she just heard.  But on reflection, I think the story instead branches inward, becoming deeper and more layered precisely because it doesn’t move around much and have a bunch of plot pushing things forward.  The narrator’s thoughts and judgments about her friend Eleanor, by remaining enclosed in her own mind, become as much about herself as about that other person.  Eleanor’s particular relationship with her father, especially, but also her troubled views on creation and art and freedom, become a prism through which the narrator sees her own views on these things—though she can’t acknowledge it even to herself.  No, in her own mind, it’s just a Well I’ll be damned kind of moment as she grasps something about Eleanor she never before realized.

In terms of technique, it’s notable that a large percentage of this story takes place through dialogue.  Interestingly, July chooses, in this story as elsewhere, not to mark her dialogue with quotation marks.

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but when I read dialogue that doesn’t use quotes, it feels completely different in my mind.  Such a little thing, but it makes so much difference.  For me, the effect is what I’d call flattening, though if you ask me to explain that I’ll just stammer and try to change the subject.  Without quotation marks to set them off, the words feel pushed into the page—even though they’re structured much like normal dialogue, like the specific things that people actually said, they feel less certain.

I have my suspicions that to never, ever use quotation marks is something of an affectation, but I do think it’s an effective technique in this particular story.  We’re learning about the past (and by extension, the present) through the memories of the narrator, and the fact that all of the dialogue occurs in this flat and unmarked manner only seems to underscore that it’s not a completely reliable record of events.  Not that it’s an unreliable narrator in the strict literary sense of the term, but that any first person account is by its natured skewed.  Plus, all the dialogue in the story occurs between the narrator and another person—there aren’t any group conversations, or reports of others’ conversations.  Here’s how “I Kiss a Door” opens:
Now that I know, it seems so obvious. Suddenly, there is nothing I remember that doesn’t contain a clue. I remember a beautiful blue wool coat with flat silver buttons. It fit her perfectly, it even gripped her.

Where did you find that coat?

My father bought it for me.

Really? It’s so cool.

It just arrived this morning.

He picked it out? How did he know how to pick something so cool?

I don’t know.
Notice that, lacking quotation marks or dialogue tags to clarify things, July sticks to back-and-forth dialogue that’s both simple and brief.  No speeches, no ambiguous attributions.  Her narrative paragraphs are set off partly because they are longer—i.e., visually—and partly because of the cue words July uses to begin them.  The example above doesn’t make it obvious, but other non-dialogue paragraphs begin with things like “It seemed unfair that…” and “When Shy Panther played at…” and “By the time Thunderheart came out…”  It would be difficult to mistake these phrases for the narrator’s dialogue.  Quietly and carefully, July works hard to make sure that these shifts don’t annoy or confuse her readers.

And now.

I have absolutely no transition (Miranda July would have thought of a transition…), but hey everyone, it’s Library Month! My father suggests I call “Library Month ±” since, as I have explained, NO ONE has any idea how long it’ll actually last.  Feel free to think of it in mathematical terms!  Meanwhile, I’d like to point your mouse-clicks to some library-related coolness:
  • The literary blog MobyLives recently drew my attention to what census figures can tell us about the personal and professional lives of librarians over the past century or so.  And good news, because the librarian profession is no longer in decline, having apparently found its cultural niche.
  • Except maybe not.  The Daily Dish highlights the ongoing debate.  Fie!  Librarians are cool.
  • In fact, take a look at some photographic evidence of their coolness in a series of gleeful posts over on writer/artist Laini Taylor’s blog.  She’s just returned from her first ALA annual conference and has posted tons of great on-the-town photos and book porn.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Let’s Start a Gumshoe Revival - #39 – PLUS, LIBRARY MONTH BEGINS!

STORY: "Zigzags of Treachery" by Dashiell Hammett


BASICALLY: Classic detective fiction. The narrator, an unnamed Continental Op, uses a combination of diligence, smarts, and guts to get proof of a doctor's suicide before his sickly widow--falsely accused of murdering him--dies in police custody.

The other day, with the indoor summer air warm and unmoving, and the late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the high windows, and the few fragments of conversation muted by the walls of dusty books, I wandered the Fiction shelves of my local public library. I was searching for something, though I couldn't have said exactly what. Listlessly, I picked up this novel and that one, finding titles I've always meant to read sooner or later, but nothing struck my fancy. One book had always been fascinating when it wasn't in front of me, but exceedingly dull whenever, like now, I held it in my hands. Another reminded me of someone I'm doggedly not thinking about for the time being. What I really wanted was a book that would thwap me upside the soul in absolutely delicious irresistibility—something light, but still solid and meaningful. Something that would make me feel better about life, but without resorting to treacle. I've read a couple of really great novels recently, and I'm almost through another round of the Alice books, and I've actually started what promises to be another very good read, but something still was wanting.

Alas for me, I was unable to locate this mythical high-flown ineffable idea of a novel. Instead, what I kept finding were short story collections.

Winding my way through the rows, I piled volume after volume of stories into the crook of my arm, wondering what the hell I was going to do with them all. I do already have an entire groaning shelf-ful of books of short stories, you know. Plus, the blog is my best excuse yet for acquiring more books. But it seemed like such a pity—here were stories of all sorts, many of which I knew zilch about, let alone whether I wanted to go to the trouble of owning the books they were in. And that is how, then and there, YoOHS's celebration of Library Month was born!

But waitaminute, a disclaimer first: I actually have no idea how long Library Month will last. Might be two weeks, might be six. Let this fill you with a proper sense of carefree adventure rather than, say, annoyance. The duration depends on what I find to read and how long I want to keep going without breaking back into the books I already own and pretty much that means it's anyone's guess. I'm a Ouija-style reader—I can try and plan out my reading all I want, but it's fruitless; wherever the spirit/psychotic break takes me next is where I am compelled to go. I don't control this stuff, people. Truthfully, I don't know how others manage those impressive TBR piles and organized reading goals. But anyway, I couldn't very well name this the Library Event To Last An Arbitrary and Unpredictable Period of Time, could I?

So, I hereby dedicate a month-ish to singing the praises of public libraries in general and my library in particular and we'll get to more of that with the Next! Episode! Of! Year Of One Hundred Stories!

And oh yeah, did you want to actually hear about story #39?

Okay then. I happily oblige. This story's so much fun—though, with a name like "Zigzags of Treachery," I think it's contractually required to be cool. Over the years, I've read a decent number of novels and stories containing Raymond Chandler's version of the hard-boiled detective, but Dashiell Hammett (whose name is rather harder to spell than you'd think) is very different. With Chandler, everything is steeped in nostalgia and gin and passion and sorrow. Cynicism wars with romantic illusion in a baroque world of decay. It's heady and poetic stuff. While I wouldn't want to draw too many conclusions from reading just one story, Hammett clearly goes in another direction. His unnamed narrator is dispassionate, clinical, logical. The crime is a puzzle to be solved, a knot to unravel. Emotional reactions are consciously rejected. In that sense, maybe there's more of a kinship with that Victorian favorite, Sherlock Holmes.

But one of the things I really liked about "Zigzags of Treachery" is how Hammett uses his first-person narrator. In Sherlock Holmes, mysteries are solved supposedly through the application of logic, but really through inscrutable, almost otherworldly calculations that take place in a the mind of a singular genius, and are revealed to the audience only as they become understood by the narrator, Dr. Watson. Hammett's story, on the other hand, lets us see directly into the mind of the detective. The emphasis is not on genius, but on method: "[S]uch results as I get are usually the fruits of patience, industry, and unimaginative plugging, helped out now and then, maybe, by a little luck." We see the Continental Op narrator spend hours waiting for a suspect to leave her apartment, and we see him choose a suit that's just shabby enough but not too shabby to blend in to a particular set of people, and we even get the benefit of his own guesses about the case's outcome—though, as he says, "I don't gamble too much on my guesses." Even though there are still plenty of unrealistic/impossible elements in "Zigzags," as there are in pretty much every mystery I've ever read, the narrator's voice helps carry the whole thing off as plausible.

I could talk about a lot of other aspects of this story, but, yikes—this entry might go on forever. An analysis of the ticking clock aspect, in particular, could reveal some juicy writerly secrets. I will say that Hammett's use of a time limit is good though imperfect (even if I love how he ties it into characterization)—but I really want to make the argument that you, my fellow aspiring writer-friends, should read stories like this one even if you're not remotely into detective fiction. They are useful as all get-out, and here's why: a detective story is something that can be understood right off the bat. Its purpose is always clear because its purpose is always the same—to create a sense of mystery that pulls the reader along until the secrets are revealed at the very last minute. As such, it's a wonderful tool for thinking about how to use particular techniques.

"Zigzags of Treachery" is a veritable textbook of ideas for distracting a reader's attention, inserting a ticking clock, upping the stakes for the protagonist, including details that lend a powerful sense of realism, and grounding a piece of fiction in a particular place. And it's got its flaws—particularly, the long-ass ludicrously detailed criminal confession that takes place near the end, but also the artificiality of the ticking clock and most especially the whirlwind trampling of the basic civil rights of every single suspect the narrator comes into contact with. But that's fine. Like many works of this genre, "Zigzags" is an entertaining story that's still simple and imperfect enough to break down into its component parts and learn from.

Of course, you could also just read it for the fun of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Cudgel of Funny Ha-ha - #38

STORY: "Promisekeepers" by Brian Evenson


BASICALLY: None of the promisekeeping literature they've had Xeroxed specifically prohibits beer, so a bunch of religious good ol' boys meet in a bar at happy hour and get just plastered enough to unburden themselves manfully to one another. And then a little more plastered, and a little more. Certain secrets emerge. A story that starts out with laughter, moves quickly toward mockery, and then plunges suddenly into a tasteless (if still darkly humorous) ending.

Here's another story we can blame on Christa and her Metafilter thread of awesomeness. I had never heard of Brian Evenson before, but I can't wait to read more of him. "Promisekeepers" is the kind of story you can imagine playing well at a reading—the characters are earnest and ridiculous, there are lots of lines fairly seething with irony, and the ending marches up and smacks you across the face with one part menace and two parts over-the-top stereotype. Any audience would fairly be falling off their chairs with all the hilarity.

Evenson makes an interesting choice, though. The humor of "Promisekeepers" keeps chugging along, right up to the very end—but then it cuts out suddenly, like the sound in a movie, leaving the reader wrestling with the unfunny import of the final lines. For me, it was like I was still kind of laughing, but then as I finished the story, I thought, That wasn't really funny at all, was it? And I'm probably a bad person for laughing at it.

It's disconcerting, a resolution like that. I call it an interesting choice because it sort of makes the reader complicit in what the story's criticizing—I mean, here I was, following along and being entertained and snickering at these screwed-up people, so suppressed and uneducated, and then the way it ends suddenly reveals how deep their dysfunction actually runs and how darkly it will explode in everyone's faces. Evenson's use of humor, in effect, turns on the reader and judges him.

I can't help but compare "Promisekeepers" with story #25, Denis Johnson's "Two Men." Both contain a first-person narrator who moves in and out of participating in the story, and both are centered around groups of uncertain and desperate-to-compensate men who careen through the night and commit acts that cannot be undone.

But while Johnson eschews outright humor and attempts to make us understand and identify with his protagonist, even if we can't excuse what he does, Evenson invites us to laugh at these hicks. At first the humor is relatively gentle--the character names Verl and Laverl, the admission that "it takes a few beers before honesty kicks in." And I really laughed at the line, 
It does not say in the promises we have to pray aloud, and like hell are we going to in a bar, but I move my lips so that if any of the others open their eyes they will see me praying in my heart. 
But things take a slightly darker turn when the narrator explains that the group took on Ray Junior in order to fulfill the obligation to meet with "a racial man or some sort of heathen once a month." Still, though, the bigotry's played for laughs--Ray Junior's credentials turn out to be that he's "one-sixth Italian (and thus dark-complected)" and "Episcopalian instead of Southern Baptist. He is going to hell, but we believe in promise number six so for now he is our brother."

And then that finish, about which I'm being very cagey so as not to give anything away. In a way, Evenson's ending isn't really any different from Johnson's. It's just that Johnson cuts his story off with the horrible (and deadly serious) suggestion of the violence that's about to take place, while Evenson follows the laughs right up until "the police arrive." As a reader, I suppose I'm ultimately more impressed by earnest, melancholy Johnson, but I'm certainly not immune to Evenson and the way that he mixes grimness into his humor (or is that humor into his grimness?). Evenson's story can be enjoyed and appreciated right off the bat, without multiple reads or deep intellectual analysis, and though maybe this is sounding like something of a backhanded compliment, I'm trying to say that it's no mere lighthearted piece of fluff, though it quite cleverly draws you in as if it were.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What It’s Like Is What It Is - #37

STORY: "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" by Tao Lin

FROM: BED (Melville House Publishing, 2007)

BASICALLY: A self-conscious 23-year-old tries desperately to take on the appearance of a normal, functional life. Though he can barely talk to a teenage girl who works at the library with him, she seems oblivious to his awkwardness. When she invites him to toilet paper some guy's house with her and her friends, he goes along, but the experience only seems to fill him with more doubt.

Tao Lin is apparently some kind of hipster literary darling. (It's good work if you can get it. I imagine.) After reading "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues," I can see the appeal. It's not exactly tightly-plotted, and the ending doesn't so much resolve as cut off, leaving the last lines hovering there in the darkness, but he orchestrates a towering moodiness and links it inextricably to a particular time of life. Youth is foremost, with all its attendant miseries, anxieties, and personal failures as it flowers painfully into adulthood. Sometimes Lin reminds me of Douglas Coupland back before everything Douglas Coupland wrote began to disappoint me.

The fact that Coupland, who really can be great, had such a hard time sustaining the Voice of Disaffected Youth makes me curious to know whether Lin can write in only this one voice, or whether he's got any range, because I think it's got to be very hard to be able to Speak For a Generation and still come up with other meaningful works that don't try to Be That Same Thing. I'm using a lot of Capitalized Phrases right now, but what I'm trying to point out is the way some authors' writing can be become kinds of writing, types of writing, and probably in a future entry I'll have to figure out whether Tao Lin succumbs to that or is able to break free of it. Even if he does succumb, of course, it doesn't negate the fact that, in "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" at least, he does something pretty cool.

What kept occurring to me as I was reading was that it would be so easy for a story like this to be completely boring. The protagonist, Greg, is weak. He's frequently passive, always self-incriminating, and his story opens on and returns to long passages of expository summation.
That kind of gnawing offness that Greg always felt, that constant knowledge that he was doomed in small but myriad ways, intensified in the presence of people, became immediate and insufferable, like a rat in the stomach. So after his parents sold the house and retired to California, Greg moved alone into an apartment behind a rundown 24-hour supermarket. 
It goes on in that vein for quite a while—for three and a half pages, in fact, everything we learn about Greg comes through the narrator's explanations and not through any action on his part.

As anyone who's ever taken a workshop class knows, this is Not How It's Done. Start with action! Into the pot boiling! The last thing in the world you want to do is give your character's whole history right up front—that shit's gotta work its way in through dialogue and flashback and other Artfully Applied Techniques! …And usually, that's great advice. But, in spite of All the Clever Things I Know, I enjoyed Lin's approach. He has a way of mucking around in the dullest, most quotidian details of experience and finding the warped little gems.

I suspect that Lin's ability to tell a story this way relates to what author/teacher John Dufresne says in THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH: "The only reason to ever describe a tree is to show how it is different from any other tree." Well, Lin describes boredom, listlessness, uncertainty, and shyness in terms that are anything but customary. After Greg moves out on his own at the beginning of the story, 
His meals became larger and less often, like a crocodile's. He'd eat an entire package of bacon or a box of frosty muffins, sleep for 20 hours, and then masturbate, languishingly, to all his crushes from middle and high school. 
I love how this has the ring of universal truth, but is so specific to the nature of this character. Lin could have told us that Greg was lonely and angst-ridden and thought a lot about his past, but it wouldn't have had the power of these details. Equally, he could have given us a scene of Greg being bored, of doing nothing—but who wants to see boredom dramatized? We all know what boredom is. This story unfolds the unique crevasses of Greg's particular ennui, but it also keeps blazing forward.

Lin's also great with the similes—the word crocodile was my first hint of the kind of voice we're dealing with. In fact, Lin frequently uses similes to buffer his exposition. Greg "became nocturnal and strange," he tells us outright, but continues, "taking on all the impatience and bipolarity of a young child , without any of the charm or smooth complexion." As Greg struggles to fit more easily into society, he reads self-help books and tries to start calling people by their names because 
It would be interpreted as friendly. And though his voice still sounded small and weepy to him, like gerbils let into a swamp, Greg felt good to be saying people's names. To be making some kind of progress.
For some readers, I suppose the constant similes could get grating. If I read more Lin and find that this is always his technique, that he always describes people in the same way and uses similes to couch his explanations, then I'll be less impressed. But for this story, about a suburban guy trying to find some meaning and some forward momentum in his unremarkable life, I think Tao Lin's technique works beautifully to find the beating heart at the center of one person's nothingness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

GUEST POST: How Now, Mister Chow?

STORY: "The Evil B.B. Chow" by Steve Almond

FROM: THE EVIL B.B. CHOW AND OTHER STORIES (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005)

BASICALLY: A woman goes on a blind date. She gets involved with the guy much too quickly, all to find out that he is a total chump. It sounds very normal and mundane, but the story is well told and amazing. AMAZING.

Hi! I'm Audrey! This is a copy of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories!


While you could argue that there are better and brighter pieces in this collection of short stories, I chose the title work because I know a B.B. Chow. His real name might not roll off the tongue with such poise, but as I flipped the pages of this story, I found myself more and more engaged and more and more frantic to get to the end to see if things ended better for the narrator. (They did not.) This means if you pick up this collection, "The Evil B.B. Chow" may not be the same experience for you. In that case, I suggest you read "The Soul Molecule" or "A Happy Dream," both good stories. But the remembrances of my own B.B. Chow tied me to Almond's work immediately.

From early on, it is clear that the narrator is probably doomed. A few pages in, she says, "It's a relief, frankly, to hang out with someone [B.B. Chow] who plunges through life without the almighty force field of irony." (Cue the irony.) With dark, sinister music playing in the background, you can see Almond as Puppetmaster, manipulating this woman into a position that has no good exit. Almond sends her down a slippery slope so gradual that the narrator—not to mention, the reader—aren't aware that she is inching closer to impending ruin. I continued to hope that everything would work out—a hope strengthened when the story briefly looks up. Then everything crashes around the narrator and the truth emerges: B.B. is still in love with his ex. The transition is masterful, and possibly more important, believable.

Besides his artful story progression, Almond is excellent at dropping hints for the reader without making them obvious. It looks easy, but only because he is so good at it. When I read the story a second time, I was amazed at how early Almond starts dropping clues. On the first page, one of the secondary characters compares Chow to the villain from a Bruce Lee flick, but the narrator ignores the suggestion of evil. The allegation seems silly, and it is easy to be persuaded that it shouldn't be taken seriously. The story, unfortunately, does not feature any kung fu, but Chow does emerge in the end as a real nogoodnik.

But a review cannot be completely glowing, right? I labored under the impression that the narrator was male for a good two pages. There was nothing frankly to detour me from thinking that, and yes, it was a poor assumption on my part—a male author can write female narrators. However, it looked to be a much different story when I thought the male narrator was receiving roses in a terra cotta bowl. The attributes that we normally consider "requirements" for a narrator (name, age, life story, etc.) are not present in this tale. While it is somewhat refreshing that this piece works without those details, if the narrator was introduced as "Sandra" in the first sentence, it would have cleared up some confusion.

Also, the set-up for the narrator's showdown with Chow's ex felt a little off to me. I love the actual showdown, so I'm willing to forgive, but the next time I'm angry with someone, I hope I can walk to their approximate neighborhood and find them walking their dog at the exact moment I'd like to bust some chops.

Overall, I enjoyed this work by Steve Almond. I hope you do too!

- - -

AUDREY reads, writes, blogs, and creates culinary masterpieces for her small family which is located for now in the midwest. Her hair is a lovely shade of pink, even when it's not. Check out more of her insights at http://pinkaudrey.blogspot.com/.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Miscalculations - #36

STORY: "Division by Zero" by Ted Chiang – Well, the internets continue to amaze and delight with their bounty. Looks like you can go read this story, too, all legal-like. Go HERE and enjoy, or just buy the book/ebook because Small Beer Press is super-duper.


BASICALLY: When she discovers a mathematical proof that any two numbers can be shown to be equal to one another, a mathematician's entire world collapses and she tries to kill herself. Her husband, who once attempted suicide many years ago, experiences both déjà vu and numbness as he attempts to help her. Parallel points of view converge on an emotional truth about their relationship and the nature of love.

Recently, my friend Christa pointed me toward a Metafilter thread in which people were talking about the best short story they'd read in the last ten years. One writer whose name comes up again and again in the thread is Ted Chiang. Wait, who? Despite a gazillion awards and the fact that I have actually heard of his new novel, THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS, he was completely off my radar as an author. So, being the dedicated blogger I am, I ordered me up a copy of his book. Oh, the sacrifices I make for you, my public. (Hi, Mom!)

So, anyway, following my usual method, I picked a story because I liked the title and read it. And let me tell you, I am not sorry I did. Ted Chiang is a great writer and I can't wait to read the other stories in this book. In "Division by Zero," he does this thing that I've loved ever since I read the second half of Italo Calvino's classic T ZERO—he combines mathematical principles with human desires to create a form of fiction that feels at once connected to the architecture of the universe and divorced from mere subjectivity (even though, of course, it's not—fiction is by definition subjective).

In terms of technique, there's a lot for me to write about. The most obvious subject would probably be the story's overall structure. Numbered sections first present a mathematical concept, then advance the story through the POV of Renee the mathematician, and finally switch to her husband Carl's POV. In 1, for example, we're told what it means that division by zero is "undefined." In 1A, we see Renee in close third person, post-suicide-attempt, just about to leave the psych ward. In 1B, it's Carl in close third, in the office signing forms for her release, and he's remembering back to the questions he answered during Renee's intake. Then it's on to another mathematical concept in 2. It's a really interesting structure, and what's most impressive is how Chiang, at the story's conclusion, manages to tie the structure directly to the mathematical concepts he refers to in the story. That is, the numbered sections aren't just arbitrary or cleverly postmodern; they're actually integral to the story's meaning.

Another strong aspect of this story was Chiang's handling of time. Though the numbered sections progress in an orderly fashion—1, 1A, 1B, 2, 2A, 2B, etc.—the story unfolds in a decidedly nonlinear manner. This allows him to move around, showing Renee falling in love with mathematics as a child, how Carl's life changed after his suicide attempt two decades before, and the recent events leading up to Renee's own attempt, while still keeping it clear for the reader that the now of the story is occurring after Renee's release from the psych ward. The significant part of the story is foregrounded, while the narrative's still free to include any relevant scenes from the past.

But instead of talking further about either of these well-handled aspects of "Division by Zero," I'd like to focus on one tiny little detail that occurs early in the story. It's in 1B, when Carl is signing release papers and thinking about those questions he answered when Renee entered the hospital. Here's how he remembers the conversation: 
"Yes, she's a professor of mathematics. You can find her in Who's Who." 
"No, I'm in biology." 
"I had left behind a box of slides that I needed." 
"No, she couldn't have known." 
And, just as expected: 
"Yes, I have. It was about twenty years ago, when I was a grad student." 
"No, I tried jumping." 
"No, Renee and I didn't know each other then." 
And on and on.
What Chiang is really doing here is finding a unique way to work exposition into his story. In one fell swoop, the reader learns about Carl's profession versus Renee's, how he discovered her suicide attempt, and his own history. To be sure, these are only introductions—Chiang returns to both attempts and gives the reader more information and context for them—but the broad strokes are laid out early.

Using the one-sided conversation consisting in Carl's answers (from which the doctors' questions can be easily inferred), is another brilliant stroke. Doing it this way avoids having to include the doctors or ward staff as characters. If Chiang had wanted his story to comment on psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals, he would have wanted to introduce such characters, but instead he directs the narrative entirely on the effect that Renee's suicide attempt has on her and Carl's relationship. Rather than having an unwieldy scene taking up space and shifting the focus too much onto the hospital, Chiang simply shows Carl's responses. We get exposition, we get Carl's POV, and it feels natural and appropriate because hey, hospitals can be impersonal places. It's so simple and elegant and effective a solution that I'm filing it away for future use.

So there you have it. A strong story from a gifted writer. Lots to ponder and maybe something to read. Seriously, hooray internets.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Keep an Eye on the Little Guy - #35

STORY: "Eric" by Shaun Tan – And oh-em-gee I did NOT know this when I picked this story, but it's available online! Legitimately! Go HERE to read.

FROM: TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009)

BASICALLY: Illustrated story in which a family tries to be good hosts to a "foreign exchange student" named Eric. If he seems unaccountably interested in the strangest things, like serial numbers and stray buttons, they kindly to chalk it up to cultural differences. Then Eric leaves! They're puzzled--did they do something wrong?--but it turns out he's left behind a one-of-a-kind message for them.

In general, all stories do the same things. They interest the reader by invoking curiosity/wonder/fear/sadness/identification. They create desires and they create tension by not fulfilling those desires but then they fulfill them and it's such a relief. Like in that quote by James Wood I mentioned in story #26, literature must "manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level."  [Edited to add: I also mentioned the quote in story #17, so apparently it's time for me to dig up a new quote to mention.  Hrmph.]

And that's why it doesn't matter that this is a story in a book for kids, nor that part of the storytelling occurs by means of the illustrations. Personally, I love children's literature and I love art, and the fact that at this late stage in the game it's highly unlikely that I'll suddenly blossom with unsuspected artistic talents of my own, does not deter me one bit from wanting to know how a story like this works.

Eric, the so-called foreign exchange student, is shown in the story's illustrations to be a cute little poky-headed leaf-like guy, small enough to fit in a teacup. An alien, maybe? An elf of some kind? He's carrying luggage made of nutshells, for cripes sake. But the black-and-white pencil drawings are realistic, and the text never refers to the strangeness of Eric's looks, so immediately this unlooked-for irony creates tension—like, what's THAT dichotomy all about, huh?

Leaving that question hanging, the narrator's character gets developed. "But sometimes I wondered if Eric was happy," says this pensive child. And, 
Secretly I had been looking forward to having a foreign visitor – I had so many things to show him. For once I could be a local expert, a fountain of interesting facts and opinions. Fortunately, Eric was very curious and always had plenty of questions.

However, they weren't the kinds of questions I had been expecting. 
So, now we have the question of what this foreigner really is AND we have the narrator's desire to seem useful and knowledgeable. But the illustration serves to deepen the first's mystery and to block the second—Eric appears to be asking about the tail on the capital letter Q on a box, he peers under the stamp on an envelope. He's not at all interested in the things the narrator might know about. 
Most of the time I could only say, "I'm not really sure, " or, "That's just how it is." I didn't feel very helpful at all. 
(By the way, this is a beautifully-designed book, which you can't appreciate while reading the story on the web. The text layout makes a little more sense, too—each page works the illustration organically into the narrative; it's not just a big block of text underneath a picture like it is in the Guardian slideshow. I just thought I'd mention that.)

Now, it's all well and good to notice how brilliantly Tan uses a wordless picture of Eric pointing questioningly to the serial number on some sort of computer cord and quite another to apply the lesson for those of us who aren't so talented with the visuals.

But I'd argue that while Tan's technique is particular to him, he's making the same kinds of decisions about storytelling that any other writer would be. For example, these particular illustrations are so charming partly because they're so specific. It's not just any old run of the mill power cord that Eric's peering at. It's probably for a monitor or something else that I should know but don't—notice how I find that I'd be just as helpless as the narrator in the story.

Tan also uses compression in his pictures. Take a look at that image of Eric holding up a piece of paper with a picture of a flower and a question mark on it while he points inquiringly to the flower-shape of the drain. An entire conversation is summed up in that picture and conveyed to the reader without the reader having to actually sit through it. Now, obviously, you can't do that same exact literal thing in words, but you certainly can understand that less is more. If it doesn't need to be spelled out, that's a good argument for not spelling it out.

Point of view is also crucial to Tan's telling of this story. Although Eric is present in every illustration (except the final two, after he leaves), the narrator and his or her family are in exactly none. As readers, we stay inside the mind of the child telling the story, looking out through their eyes. Because their gaze remains centered on Eric (and, after he's gone, on the places where he used to be) the story is about Eric—and how this child sees him.

In what I've read so far of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, Tan likes to keep his endings loose. The finale of "Eric" really raises more questions than it answers. I happen to like that quality about Tan's book; it's part of what gives a sense of wonder and expansiveness to the stories because there's always something left to be told. Nonetheless, this ending does confirm for the reader that Eric is some sort of otherworldly being, not governed by human rules, and it does give the narrator something satisfying to be a tour guide about. So Tan walks a fine line between satisfying the desires he's raised in the reader and defying their expectations in a way that will hopefully entertain. I think it's pretty great. What do you think?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Life in the Day of - #34

STORY: "My Shape" by Joan Silber


BASICALLY: Spanning many years of a woman's life, this story begins with her childhood curiosity about religion. That impulse gives way in adolescence to a reliance on her blossoming physical charms--a shallow and unfulfilling "advantage" that eventually helps bring her minor success as a dancer on cruise ships. Ultimately, her marriage to a Frenchman fails and she moves to New York, determined to make it as a real dancer. Weeks of demanding dance lessons culminate in a humiliating display for her cruel teacher and she realizes finally that she'll never succeed as a professional dancer--and, surprisingly, she doesn't even want it that much. The story ends both on a note of happiness--describing her happy long-term relationship with another man--and one of ambivalence, as she finds herself unable to forget the dance instructor whom she allowed to treat her so strangely.

GEEZ. My description is practically longer than the freaking story. Can you blame me? This story crams most of a lifetime into just twenty-two pages. And yet cram seems like the least appropriate of words, since the story is loose and light and flows very easily across the decades.

It's worth looking at Joan Silber's transitions for a moment—they're so simple they seem easy, though I know that must be an illusion. For example, the story opens with the narrator's fascination with attending religious services, then recounts how she eventually abandons the practice. 
After a while, I heard myself making fun of it with the others, and I stopped going. All at once, suddenly, cold turkey. I turned my back on the whole thing.
And then she advances into a new period. 
So. Then I grew the mounded body that was to be my adult shape. I came from a family of women with large breasts, and by fourteen I had my own set, which I sheathed in satin brassieres that made them point forward in military cones. Torpedo tits they were called (by us girls too).
Notably, Silber chooses to make the seam of her story's time-shift quite visible—her "So." is a distinct break that prepares the reader for a big change (and also mimics speech, making the narrator's voice feel naturally conversational). On top of this, Silber's juxtaposition of these two events—abandoning religion and developing physically—avoids making the narrative drone on with this happened and then this happened and then this happened. That's where stories that try to span a lifetime can get bogged down, I think—the feeling that they're just rattling off a collection of events. It works here because Silber's narrator remains very specific, but these events take place over a span of time.

…As opposed to what? You'd be right to wonder. It's common to see stories that use a single event—a big fight with a boyfriend, say, or a particular Sunday morning making pancakes with Grandma—to stand in for a whole series of similar experiences. We don't hear about every Sunday morning with Grandma; just seeing the one gives us a good idea of their relationship. There's not a thing wrong with this approach, but Silber doesn't use it much here.

Instead, she finds a lovely balance between specificity and generalities. With certain important events, such as the scene of total humiliation with the dance instructor, the speaker does focus on moment-by-moment narration, but the rest of the time she covers huge swathes of history by talking about specific events that happened over long periods. "And I worked on cruise ships for years," she mentions casually; 
I went to Nassau and Jamaica and Venezuela and through the Greek islands. I worked in clubs in Miami too, walking around with a big feathered headdress on and the edges of my buns hanging out the back of my satin outfit. I lived with a bartender who was irresistible when he wasn't a repetitious, unintelligent drunk, and with an older man I never liked. 
And just like that, the narrator's summed up the passage of nearly a decade. But she's done it in such a way that my understanding of the character has grown, as well as my sense that something more significant must be coming for this protagonist.

Summary has its place in short fiction, just like every other technique of storytelling. Joan Silber shows not only how to do it correctly, but how to place it at the center of a vividly unfolding life.