Saturday, January 22, 2011

Everything Is Questionable - #6

STORY: "Pages from Cold Point" by Paul Bowles 

FROM: COLLECTED STORIES 1939-1976 (Black Sparrow Press, 1997) 

BASICALLY: After the death of his wife, a man and his son take a remote house on the deserted side of an island. The son bicycles off on his own most every day to do God-knows-what. Mounting sense of unease that culminates in stunning display of amorality. Written in 1947 and still shocking. 

Paul Bowles led one of those Really Interesting Lives with which the first half of the twentieth century seems to be so littered: he became a successful composer before turning to writing, lived all over the world, married an equally-talented woman, and, says Gore Vidal in his introduction to my collection, "during the late thirties and forties they became central figures in the transatlantic (and Pan-American) world of the arts," on close terms with the likes of Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden. Who knew? He's remembered now mostly for THE SHELTERING SKY, made into a Bertolucci movie a couple of decades ago.

This is a freakish story, but in absolute control of its own effects. Everything is beneath the surface. We're in the hands of a strong first-person narrator—from an opinionated, even swaggering, point of view, he talks at length about his son and their home—but we can tell that something's not being said. In the hands of other writers, this might come across as strongly ironic, letting the audience in on a kind of in-joke about the narrator. (Not that that's always bad; we understand more about what Huck Finn experiences than Huck does, for example, and that duality is crucial to the story.) But Bowles plays it close to the vest. We're not even sure whether the issue is the narrator or his son Racky, and we're really left in the dark about the nature of the problem. The opening speaks grandiosely about life being "visually too hideous for one to make the attempt to preserve it"—so was there a murder? But the narrator and his brother are bitterly at odds about something—so is there some other family secret? Once they're on the island, the narrator is deeply curious about what Racky does all day—is Racky himself the significant thing, or is his father exhibiting something other than the normal concern of a parent?

There's a really great part, right before the story's big reveal, in which the father has to spend the night away from home, taking care of some business on the other side of the island from their isolated house. He goes out for cigarettes and sees a woman leaning on her fence.
As I passed by her, she looked straight into my face and said something with the strange accent of the island. It was said in what seemed an unfriendly tone, and ostensibly was directed at me, but I had no notion what it was. I got back into the car and the driver started it. The sound of the words had stayed in my head, however, as a bright shape outlined by a darkness is likely to stay in the mind's eye, in such a way that when one shuts one's eyes one can see the exact contour of the shape. The car was already roaring up the hill toward the overland road when I suddenly reheard the very words. And they were: "Keep your boy at home, mahn." I sat perfectly rigid for a moment as the open countryside rushed past. Why should I think she had said that?
What an exquisite way to build tension. The reader is already struggling to put the pieces together and decide what they mean. The only evidence to go on is what the father says—so what's to be done with this passage? Did the woman really say that? And if she did, how come? But there's already some evidence that the narrator might be a bit paranoid, so is he deteriorating?

What Bowles does in this story is to create a continuous stream of questions. The pieces of information never quite fall into place—they suggest more than they answer. By the time we arrive at the Big Shocking Thing, we're not even sure we're understanding what just happened, because Bowles talks all around it. It's sort of the opposite approach I looked at in the Jayne Anne Phillips story "Lechery." In that one, everything is brutally on the surface, and what happens outside speaks volumes about the psychological destruction of the characters. Here, the unstable psychology of the narrator means that the actual events themselves seem to be more (or less) than they are.

I had planned to give away the ending, but since I've focused above on tension, I think I'll keep it to myself. DOES MY SILENCE FILL YOU WITH TENSION? Hah! I highly recommend this story, and I'm very curious to know what others think of it—largely because while I admire it very much from a writing perspective, I'm not sure I like it. But since I'm not sure I dislike it, either, I just keep turning it over in my mind. I definitely need to read some more from Paul Bowles.