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.