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.