Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Story of the Whole World - #43

STORY: “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl – Winner of the 1986 Hugo Award.

BASICALLY: What the whole world long feared has finally come to pass--the USSR has launched a full nuclear offensive against the US. Amid the massive casualties and ensuing nuclear winter, one American man and the boy he happens to rescue are lucky enough to escape to Iceland. There, protected from the very worst of the global extinction by geothermal warmth and a society accustomed to long bouts of cold, they try to hang on to human civilization amidst the tragedy.

One thing is clear: Frederik Pohl knows what he’s doing. I, who am young and green (in writerly, if not necessarily chronological, terms), might have been tempted to begin this story post-collapse, unfolding my characters’ story in a devastated post-apocalyptic world. Then I guess I would’ve worked backstory into their conversation or something.
But what Pohl does is so much better. He begins the moment before everything changed. He begins with the recognizable:
On Timothy Clary’s ninth birthday he got no cake.
The reason for this is explained in a roundabout fashion. Timothy’s in the TWA terminal of New York’s JFK Airport, apparently alone, with nothing but some stale pastries to eat all day, and we learn that he’s wet his pants because
Getting to the toilets over the packed refugee bodies was just about impossible. There were twenty-eight hundred people in a space designed for a fraction that many, and all of them with the same idea. Get away!
This all happens in the space of a paragraph. Notice how quickly Pohl widens the scope of the narration. The story’s “camera” is focused tightly on this little boy, but it almost immediately pans out and lets us see that the story isn’t about just the little boy, but about many people—an entire nation, at least. And what’s wrong with them? The camera keeps pulling out for a wider and wider shot, until we learn,
Because there had been no launch order yet, or none that the public had heard about anyway, there might still be time for escape. A little time. Time enough for the TWA terminal, and every other airport terminal everywhere, to jam up with terrified lemmings. There was no doubt that the missiles were poised to fly. The attempted Cuban coup had escalated wildly, and one nuclear sub had attacked another with a nuclear charge. That, everyone agreed, was the signal. The next event would be the final one.
Why is beginning in this way such a masterful maneuver on Pohl’s part? I think it has to do with creating stakes. By beginning his story just before all of human civilization nearly comes to a grinding halt, Pohl grounds his story in a horrible event that feels all too plausible. The particular plight of a little boy, poor Timothy Clary, is what draws us into the story, but it’s immediately apparent that what happens to him is incidental in comparison to what seems imminent for the whole earth. 

However, if Pohl had begun after the devastation, the story could be read as pure fantasy. Whether you’re looking at Jonathan Lethem’s AMNESIA MOON or the movie MAD MAX, the dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic landscape is a trope frequently employed to have a little fun, asking important questions like, What if society completely broke down and there were no laws, but we still had cars? Such stories can be highly enjoyable, but Pohl clearly wanted to go in a different direction. “Fermi and Frost” asks a different kind of What if…? question, one that has real relevance in a world still plagued by a nuclear threat (even if an “attempted Cuban coup” is unlikely to be the triggering event anymore). This is science fiction firmly attached to knowable and known reality.

Pohl takes some interesting risks in his narration. The camera-panning-out style of narration I mentioned above could easily lapse into telling rather than showing, or it could come to seem distanced from the story it’s telling. But Pohl appears to avoid these difficulties by returning again and again to his particular characters and the realistic actions they’re taking. One moment, we’re getting omniscient narration, like this:
If the terror had passed and the frantic negotiations had succeeded, Timothy might have found his parents again in time to grow up and marry and give them grandchildren. If one side or the other had been able to preempt, and destroy the other, and save itself, Timothy forty years later might have been a graying, cynical colonel in the American military government of Leningrad. (Or body servant to a Russian one in Detroit.)
But the next moment, we’re seeing the overcrowded airport through the eyes of Dr. Harry Malibert, SETI researcher. The great scientist gets tasked with helping a sick little boy who’s wet himself, bringing the story right back to individual humans in a unique situation. It’s a brave maneuver, to let the narration swing out so far from the characters, but Pohl manages to be quite smooth about it. Ultimately, I’d say that Pohl’s combination of micro character-focused events with macro omniscient narration is what allows him to tell a fundamentally didactic moral (i.e., that nuclear weapons are a real threat) in a way that feels like a genuine piece of honest storytelling. 

* * * 

As you can see from the picture on today’s write-up, LIBRARY MONTH continues! (Not that I checked Cleo out from the library--but you can see the library barcode just behind her ear.)  In fact, I’ve recently gone spelunking amidst the stacks of a new-to-me library branch and have selected some collections that appear highly promising. I know I’ve been neglecting my bloggerly duties of late, as well as my many dedicated fans (sorry, Mom!), but I have a Nefarious Plan for catching back up. Mainly, it involves totally cheating. Am I clever or what? Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Linked Just By This - #42

STORY:  “The Eggy Stone” by Tessa Hadley – Once again, when I selected this story, I had no idea it was available to read HERE for free! Yay!


BASICALLY:  At a week-long school trip to camp, two girls’ hands touch the same beach pebble--the Eggy Stone--at the same moment. Over the holiday, like best friends, they pass the stone between them by elaborate rituals--but how will they share when the trip comes to an end?

Here’s another gorgeous story you can go read for yourself.  Out loud, if you’re up for it.  Some of the lines seem to long to be spoken.
We crunched in socks and sandals across a rim of crisped black seaweed and bone and sea-washed plastic: the tide was in, the long gray line of the waves curled and sucked at the cramped remainder of the beach, a narrow strip of pebbles…Under our sandals the big pale pebbles rattled and shifted awkwardly.  The boys began throwing them in the sea; we felt between them for treasures, the creamy spirals from old shells, bits of washed-soft glass.
The prose is musical; it lilts from hard to soft and, when said aloud, makes the throat open and close through a revolving progression of vowels.  Word-shape is a part of musicality—but what’s here is more than merely pretty.  This passage lays the nature scene with specific sensory details and a certain breezy-but-invigorated tone.  It mimics the movement of water with its sibilants (SockS and SandalS acroSS a rim of criSped black Seaweed) and its repetition (sea-washed plastic…in the sea…washed-soft glass). Thanks to the mention of “the boys” followed up with “we,” as in we the girls, it also manages to indicate in a masterfully understated manner that the narrator is female.  It’s pretty impressive—information like this, while crucial, isn’t always easy to slip in without being really heavy-handed about it. 

Actually, I’d like to stagger off-course for just a moment on that topic.  In my own writing, I used to think a certain amount of androgyny in my narrators was kind of clever.  I was writing about humanity and human beings, after all, not simply one gender or the other; if I had hit upon a voice, a point of view that could be interpreted in either direction, so much the better.  However, after enjoying many heaping mounds of manuscript workshopping and critique-grouping, I’ve come to learn that a character whose sex could genuinely go either way actually happens to annoy the shit out of readers.  Really.  They don’t read it as groundbreaking or delightfully playful or an interesting commentary on their own internalized gender norms.  Nope.  It just bugs the ever-loving crap out of them. 

But hey.  That’s not to say that you should never, ever do it.  Absolute rules do not exist, no matter what you might hear.  But when we take risks in our writing, we should understand what it is we’re risking.

And one other thing.  You might still fall into this trap if you try to make the sex of your narrator clear through action and voice, but you never explicitly say what it is.  My teacher Jack Trujillo at UNM once told us that if you don’t tell your reader what sex your narrator or main character is, they’ll always assume it’s the same sex as you the writer.  While a narrator that seems at one moment male and another female will frustrate your readers, the narrator that’s left undefined is assumed—without comment or much conscious thought—to be the writer’s gender.  (If something later in the story contradicts what the reader had assumed, they will move on to the annoyance I mentioned above.)  I never noticed this tendency until it was pointed out to me.  In fact, when I actually caught myself flipping to the beginning of a story to see if the writer was a man or a woman so I could figure out what POV I was reading—I realized exactly how true this observation is.  So I pass it unto you, dear readers, with my compliments.  Do with it what you will.

But back to the story at hand.  “The Eggy Stone” strongly calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” (a.k.a. story #31).  Besides being beautifully written, both deal with girls who become close friends for only the duration of camp, and both approach the relationship from the POV of the girl who has less social standing (“The Eggy Stone” in first person and Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” in close third).  But where Atwood’s story takes a long view and uses a remembered tragedy to link a past event to the emotional present, Hadley’s story is quieter, almost completely contained in the childhood moment it seeks to describe.

Through the course of the narrative, the Eggy Stone becomes imbued with a kind of power that links two girls who have little else in common.  It’s a bridge between two distant nations. Speaking different languages, they've got to invent their own form of communication:
We took turns holding the Eggy Stone, and the turns were decided by various ritualized competitions, including folded-paper fortune-tellers, knocking the heads off plantains, and a kind of wrestling we invented, kneeling opposite each other with the stone placed between us and swaying in each other's arms, trying to force our opponent to touch ground on one side or another. Before each competition there was a form of words: something like "Eggy Stone / On your own / All alone / Inaccessible light."
What I love about this is how it externalizes the very real kinds of tacit competition that can occur between girls (and also not-girls, I presume), even ones who are best friends at camp.  A rumination on the ways in which one jockeys for position even with the people one loves would not be nearly so effective as this glimpse into the competitive heart of these girls’ connection.

If you can get ahold of the Atwood story (HINT: try your local library!), I recommend reading it in conjunction with this one.  There’s no such thing as a scientific approach to the study of fiction (what would the control group be—a blank page?), but the subject matter of “The Eggy Stone” is so similar to that of “Death by Landscape” that their differences are truly instructive.  However, even if you’re not trying to dissect the hows and whys of short stories, Tessa Hadley’s writing is lovely and I can wholeheartedly recommend popping over to read this very short story.  Thanks Library Month—you’ve given me another introduction to yet another fabulous author!

P.S.  I couldn't decide which cute bonus pic with neighborhood kitty to include, so here's another:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

And Now I Die - #41

STORY: “A Memorandum of Sudden Death” by Frank Norris - Take a gander for yourself here.
FROM: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF FRANK NORRIS (Ironweed Press, 1998) – Originally published in 1902. 
BASICALLY: Framed as a journalist’s publication of pages found by chance in the desert, an accomplished young writer’s hastily-scribbled diary of his final days traveling across the barren desert southwest as his group is first followed and then attacked by a band of Indians.
As a blogger, I am contractually obligated to whine about this sooner or later, so I might as well do it now. I’m having trouble staying up to date with my (admittedly rather untaxing) posting schedule here on the YoOHS blog. Here it’s already July, but ack I’m not even halfway to the finish line. I’ve been trying to catch up, and I very nearly got three entries posted last week (instead of just the minimal two), but then I stumbled on this curious little number from Frank Norris.  (...Since this entry took me forever and a half to write, however, AND I've been beset with a bunch of really boring technical difficulties, I'm even more behind.  Yeesh.)
That I picked it up at all, of course, is sheer chance. That’s one of the great glories of the public library—all the rampant serendipity, the accidental finds. At the risk of pestering you with the obvious, I’d like to point out: libraries—they are places! with stuff! to discover through actual physical contact! (Discovery can happen in a bookstore, too, but then you have to pay for it, and that throws a wrench into the proceedings.)
As you can see from the photo above, THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF FRANK NORRIS is unassuming at best. But I liked the cover photo, and the description on the back seemed intriguing, considering I’d never heard of the man: “Frank Norris (1870-1902), in the course of his tragically brief career, distinguished himself as one of the most influential and innovative writers of his era, leaving an indelible imprint on American literature.”
So I checked it out and brought it home. Then, when I was trying to decide which piece to read, the book fell open to a story that begins, “The manuscript of the account that follows belongs to a harness-maker in Albuquerque, Juan Tejada by name, and he is welcome to whatever of advertisement this notice may bring him.” A charming opening line that touches on local history and promises some rich historical detail? Yes please.
But…there are issues. Okay, I know I just said that the opening line is charming, but the story starts out with this whole journalistic background thing which drones on for almost three pages. The journalist details how he got ahold of the manuscript, and the history of the writer, named Karslake, and why this particular account should be of interest to the reader, and what the manuscript looks like, and why Karslake had enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry and… yeah. A tidal wave of piddly details.
My assumption is that Norris meant this introduction to serve in place of backstory so that the story itself, in the form of hastily-written log entries, might focus on action and not get bogged down with the kind of background necessary to make a reader care about that action. Also, of course, a journalist’s fact-based introduction, even if fictional, lends an air of truth to the piece. Norris takes great pains to provide the kind of quotidian detail that grounds this in real life:
Though I did not know young Karslake, I knew his stuff—as everybody still does, when you come to that…the mere mention of his pen name, “Anson Qualtraugh,” recalls at once to thousands of the readers of a certain world-famous monthly magazine of New York articles and stories he wrote for it while he was alive; as, for instance, his admirable descriptive work called “Traces of the Aztexs on the Mogolon Mesa,” in the October number of 1890. Also, in the January issue of 1892 there are two specimens of his work, one signed Anson Qualtraugh and the other Justin Blisset. Why he should have used the Blisset signature I do not know. It occurs only this once in all his writings. In this case it is signed to a very indifferent New Year's story. The Qualtraugh "stuff" of the same number is, so the editor writes to me, a much shortened transcript of a monograph on "Primitive Methods of Moki Irrigation," which are now in the archives of the Smithsonian. The admirable novel, "The Peculiar Treasure of Kings," is of course well known. Karslake wrote it in 1888-89, and the controversy that arose about the incident of the third chapter is still--sporadically and intermittently--continued.
None of this bears any direct relation to the rest of the story (or if it does, the connection is far too subtle for me to tease out). From a historical perspective, this mountain of details is kind of interesting. But as a reader—gah.
Once the action of the “manuscript” gets going, things ramp up a little. (Fun tidbit: the entire reported text of the manuscript is actually enclosed in quotation marks. It’s so quaint and fussy I could squeeze its widdow cheeks!) Karslake begins in an interested, but nonchalant, tone:
“They came in sight early this morning just after we had had breakfast and had broken camp. The four of us--'Bunt,' 'Idaho,' Estorijo and myself--were jogging on to the southward and had just come up out of the dry bed of some water-hole--the alkali was white as snow in the crevices--when Idaho pointed them out to us…We took them in through my field-glasses and Bunt made sure they were an outlying band of Hunt-in-the-Morning's Bucks…They seem to be well mounted.
     "We held a council of war from the saddle without halting, but there seemed very little to be done--but to go right along and wait for developments. At about eleven we found water--just a pocket in the bed of a dried stream--and stopped to water the ponies. I am writing this during the halt.
      "We have one hundred and sixteen rifle cartridges.
Karslake is sure, almost from the outset, that an attack is imminent. Yet the attack doesn’t come. This wavering certainty does create some tension—because of the introduction, the reader knows that an attack will come, so Karslake’s anticipation within his narrative combines with what we know will take place.
But it’s not enough. Certain stories to which we already know the ending still manage to hold our interest, even fill us with a delicious readerly anxiety as we hope against hope that there’s some loophole and things will not end as we know they must. (The only example jumping to my mind at the moment is a novel, WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys, which reimagines the history of JANE EYRE’s madwoman in the attic. The whole time I was reading, I kept wanting to believe that I had simply misunderstood some fundamental point and that it would all end happily…) In “A Memorandum of Sudden Death,” however, there’s no mounting sense of tragedy. 

Perhaps it’s a question of length? Or maybe Norris provides the wrong kinds of details about Karslake in that journalistic introduction—for all that the reader ultimately knows in the way of facts, we get very little sense of who the man actually was or why we should especially care about what happened to him. His tragic end is no more than a curiosity.
This piece does contain some good writing and historical detail that’ll probably make me recommend it to certain friends who have an enthusiasm for literature about the desert and the west. I especially like several bits about the landscape and the way the story ends in the middle of a sentence (as though the writer really were killed in the middle of the action). I also like a passage in which Karslake recounts his surprise that the death of one of his companions should feel so insignificant:
This is the first violent death I have ever seen…If I had been told of his death—the details of it, in a story or in the form of fiction—it is easily conceivable that it would have impressed me more with its importance than the actual scene has done. Possibly my mental vision is scaled to a larger field since Friday, and as the greater issues loom up one man more or less seems to be but a unit—more or less—in an eternal series.
Naturally, I can’t help but connect this to Norris’ own desire in writing this short story (and feel a little haunted by the fact that his own life would end so soon after writing this). It’s conceivable, even, that Norris wanted to make this thrilling scene of death by shootout in the desert into what Karslake experiences—just “a unit...in an eternal series.” (But if so, it would mean that it’s gone out of his way to make his story less interesting than it otherwise could be.) In the end, I’d say that “Memorandum of Sudden Death” is an example of a fine piece of writing that, because of its structure, doesn’t reach its true potential.