Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Cat Person" and "Beauty and the Beast"

One of my readers recently wrote: “I’m looking forward to reading your review of ’Cat Person.’ Will you write it?”
Well, now that it has been over three months since the story appeared in The New Yorker and started a flurry of reader response and literary criticism on the Internet (usually called “going viral”), I reckon it is safe to make a few comments.
Josephine Livingston, the “culture staff writer” at the New Republic, wrote that many readers wove the story into the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay, noting that “as an approach to criticism” this turns the story into a tool for “digging in the hole of reality, rather than an imagined world that has its own rules.” I agree. And the rules that govern Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” I suggest, are the rules that govern the genre known as the short story, and that is what I feel somewhat qualified to talk about. 
In the “This Week in Fiction Interview” with Deborah Treisman, Roupenian said the story was based on an incident with a person she met online and it got her to “thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off,” adding that our initial impression of a person is “pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection.” 
Roupenian, who seems to me to be pretty smart about her story, says that much of dating involves an “interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created.” I am certainly no expert on dating, but having some knowledge of the short story, I recognize this as what underlies all love stories. You never fall in love with the person, for you never really know the person; what you fall in love with is the image you have created.
Constance Grady notes  on the website Vox what we well know—that the short story is a medium granted “precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it are holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose, says Grady, not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.” Grady concludes, “regardless of whether or not “Cat Person” is a great short story or just an okay short story, whether it’s deeply subversive or highly problematic, it has been exciting to see the cultural discourse revolve around a short story for a spell. It’s a reminder of how immensely powerful and valuable fiction can be, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to it and learn from it.”
Yes, indeed, it was good to see so many people reading a short story and finding it engaging enough to want to talk about it—something I (but very few others) have been doing for years. I only hope it leads them to reading more short stories for the riches they provide.
“Cat Person” is, of course, about attitudes and behavior that lead two people to move from being strangers to having sex. The primary perspective is the young woman Margot, whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. The reader knows Robert only by his behavior and Margot’s observations of him.
Although many readers have been so impressed by Roupenian’s perceptiveness and  the accuracy of her description of dating attitudes and behavior in the story that they  thought it was an essay about real life rather than a fiction about invented life, I suggest that readers familiar with the conventions of  fiction, especially short fiction, will recognize that Roupenian has modelled her story as much, or more, from her internalized knowledge of those conventions than from personal experience.  Think of “Cat Person” as a variation of the classic Beauty and the Beast story or the Frog Prince fairy tale, in which the beast is, after all, still a beast, and the frog, even after the kiss, stubbornly remains a frog.
There is something “magical” about Margot’s willingness to become intimately involved with Robert.  She surprises herself by giving in to his abrupt demand, “give me your phone number”; When he says “stop fooling around and come now,” she puts a jacket on over her pajamas and goes out to meet him. After having sex with him, she marvels at the “mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.”  Afterwards, although she wants to “ghost” him, instead of sending her breakup text, she says she will get back to him soon, thinking, “Why did I do that?  And she truly didn’t know.”
Margot is the point of view of the story because she truly does not know why she allows herself to become involved with Robert, although she thinks it has something to do with his initially treating her like a young daughter, kissing her gently on the forehead as though she were something “precious.” The fairy tale mystery continues when she is turned away from the club for being under aged and begins to cry, creating a kind of “magic” as Robert wraps his “bearlike” arms around her. She sees him as a big lovable animal, sensitive and easily wounded. 
However, when the sexual encounter begins, she sees his soft, thick belly covered with hair and recoils from it.  When he makes demands, she complies and when he looks “stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a “milk-drunk baby,” she feels her power, thinking this is what she loves most about sex. However, she finally sees him as a fat old man with his finger in her, and her revulsion turns to self-disgust and humiliation.
I think what Roupenian has done here is to competently capture the archetypal encounter of how a young woman (Beauty) plays seductive roles with an older man (Beast)—allowing herself to have sex with him, even though she does not desire him. The spin on the mythic story here is, of course, that the Beast remains the animal that he is—that all physical bodies who are merely human are ultimately—and is not transformed, as in wish fulfillment fairy tales, by love.
“Cat Person” is smoothly, transparently, written. It is smart and perceptive. And, of course, it is timely, even as it is universal.  But it does not have the mystery and complexity that great stories have, even though it has the familiarity that has captured the attention of many people who recognize Margot’s feelings and behavior and even understand Robert’s anger at the end.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Charles Holdefer's Reading of George Saunders' Pastoralia

I recently read a book-length discussion of George Saunders’ Pastoralia by Charles Holdefer, the author of four novels and a collection of short stories entitled Dick Cheney in Shorts.  Although Holdefer currently lives and teaches in Europe, he is originally from Iowa and graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has published short stories and essays in many places, including the New England Review, The Antioch Review, and The North American Review. I met him a few years ago at a conference on the short story in France.
Holdefer’s book on  Pastoralia is one of a series of books called “Bookmarked” published by the Independent publisher, Lg Press; the series is described as a “no-holds barred personal narrative detailing how a particular work of literature influenced an author on their journey to becoming a writer, as well as the myriad directions in which the journey has taken them.” Earlier books featured in the series include John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
It is unusual to encounter an entire volume devoted to one’s personal engagement with a book of fiction, especially a book of short stories. When an interviewer asked Holdefer  about the structure of the book—which devotes separate chapters to an analysis of each of the stories in Pastoralia, accompanied by a related personal story and some reflections on relevant social or philosophical issues—Holdefer said he thought the “personal readings” premise of the Bookmarked series was a good one, “because when you love literature, it is first and foremost personal. Not professional, not some sort of exercise.”
George Saunders is one of my favorite short-story writers, and I have posted several blog essays on his stories and his essays. In many ways, one of the most perfect examples of the short story as a form in Pastoralia is "The End of FIRPO in the World," in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Saunders said he used to think that the artist had an idea he or she wanted to get and then sort of dump it on the reader.  Now, he knows that really doesn’t produce anything; it is condescending. When you study writing, Saunders said, there’s this intentional fallacy that the writer has a set of ideas and the story is just a vehicle for delivering those ideas. He says his experience has been totally the opposite. “You go in trying not to have any idea of what you are trying to accomplish, praying that you will accomplish something and respecting the energy of the piece and following it very closely. Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," I usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll." 
I very much like Saunders' ideas about the essential short story characteristics of mystery, ambiguity, the process of discovery, and human sympathy in the title essay to his collection The Braindead Megaphone. Consider the following:
“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.  If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”
I like the way George Saunders talks about short stories, and I also like the way Charles Holdefer talks about short stories. Consider the following:
Appeals to history, cause and effect, verisimilitude: those are the novel’s bread and butter.  But a short story operates in a different economy. Some weird or terrible event (there are plenty of them in Pastoralia) is not naturalized or expanded in the novelistic manner; there simply isn’t the space to do so.  But rather than feeling like less, the result can feel like more, with an immediacy that is not possible in the spongier, discursive narrative dough of a novel.
A finely wrought short story is more than a miniaturist artefact, a cute little piece of scaled craft.
It’s a trip to another space, another way of seeing.
If you appreciate the short story as much as Saunders, Holdefer, and I do, you will find Holdefer’s reading of Saunders’ Pastoralia a pleasure.  This is not an academic engagement with Saunders’ short stories--although it is a profoundly intelligent one--but a deeply personal interaction.  Indeed,  as you read it, you might sometimes feel that you are learning as much about Holdefer as you are about Saunders.  But, as much as I value sticking close to the work when I write about short stories, usually refusing to wander about in contexts, I have to admit that when I was teaching in the classroom, I often tried to interest my students by giving them an example of my own personal identification with a story. And indeed, if the teacher or the reader/critic does not have a passionate personal encounter with the work, then what the hell’s the point of reading fiction and then talking about your experience with others? Why should they care?
I recommend George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked to you. I have read it with pleasure, for it is always a pleasure to read good writing about good reading. The book is available in a Kindle edition on Amazon for $9.85 and in a paperback edition for $10.37.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula le Guin

In her speech on receiving the National Book Foundation Medal in 2014, Ursula Le Guin, who died this past week at the age of 88, scolded publishers for giving over their responsibility to support good writing and great literature to the sales department, which often promotes authors as if they were deodorant. Books ae not just commodities, Le Guin argued, and said that now that she was nearing the end of her career she did not want to watch American literature get trivialized, for, she proudly insisted, the name of the beautiful reward writers seek is not profit, but freedom.
.  La Guin called her most famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a variation on a theme by William James. In her introduction to her book The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975), she cites the following passage from James's essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" as the ideological source of the story:
[If] the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specific and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain."
Indeed, the story is geometrically neat in its exploration of the nature of human happiness. The first half presents the familiar convention in science fiction and fantasy of the futuristic utopia. 
However, the narrator, aware of the perfect utopian nature of Omelas and of the human skepticism about such complete happiness, chides readers for the bad habit, encouraged by sophisticates and pedants, of considering happiness as something rather stupid and only evil interesting.  To belie these very words, the story inevitably reaches a point at which the narrator says that if we do not believe the joy of the beautiful city, then one more thing must be described.  At this point, the narrator shifts to a description of the hidden child, which is, as Collins suggests, the classic image of the scapegoat.  The magic of the scapegoat depends on the willingness of the people to rationalize the existence of evil as something that exists outside of themselves, for which they have no responsibility.
The people of Omelas are not happy because they are ignorant of the child, but precisely because they are aware of it.  The ones who leave Omelas may be the weaker ones because they cannot live with the knowledge of evil, and thus they leave for some place where they think there is no evil.  As the narrator says, such a place may not even exist. 
Changing Planes, one of her last books, before she decided that her fiction inspiration had dried up, is a classic example of the “what if” school of literary creation. “What if” you took the most tedious hiatus of modern life—the mind-numbing wait in an airport between changing planes—and transformed it into a marvelous opportunity to change planes of reality? 
After a brief introduction describing the method of one Sita Dulip of Cincinnati, who discovered that by an imaginative twist she could go anywhere “because she was already between planes,” Le Guin “what ifs’ her way through fifteen Gulliverian and Borgesian explorations of “interplanary travel.”
Although these playful pieces make no pretense to the biting satire of Jonathan Swift or the profound epistemology of Jorge Borges, Le Guin seems to have great fun here puncturing some of the pretenses of modern society and examining some of the paradoxes of the human condition. Among the Swiftian satires are stories about the Veksi, a species of angry people whose social life consists of arguments, fights, sulks, brawls, feuds, and acts of vengeance; the Ansarac, a migratory race whose elegant birdlike beauty is intolerable to more “civilized” planes; and the Hegns, all of whom are members of a Royal Family. 
The Borgesian explorations include tales of the Asonu, a profound people who have no language because transcendent knowledge cannot be expressed in language; the Hennebet who, because they make no split between body and spirit, have no need for religion, dogma, or formulated metaphysics; and the Frin who all dream the same dreams and thus experience a true communal bonding.
This “what if” method of creation, although sometimes satirically scintillating and occasionally philosophically profound, runs the risk of every so often becoming merely sophomorically silly. For example, if there is an actual Easter Island and an actual Christmas Island, “what if” there were a Halloween Island, a July Fourth Island, a New Year’s Island, etc.? And what about Wake Island?   What would life and reality itself be like if there were a people who never slept at all?  Would they all be geniuses because they did not waste time in idle slumber, or would they only be able to live in mundane fact because the way to truth is through lies and dreams?
The great nineteenth-century poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge once made an important distinction between Fancy and Imagination.  Creative products of Fancy, he suggested, are clever composites of disparate things that may amuse and edify, but creations of the imagination are genuinely new entities that exceed the mere sum of their parts. Although Ursula K. Le Guin has succeeded in the past in creating provocative works of true imagination, in Changing Planes she is mostly just having some fanciful fun.  These are not masterful satires that will alter your view of society, nor are they profound parables that will change your notion of what reality is.  But they are amusing “what ifs” with which you can pleasantly pass some stale time while you are waiting to change planes in an airport, which Le Guin describes as a “nonplace in which time does not pass and there is no hope of any meaningful existence.”
Ursula Le Guin, thank you for the profound sense of a meaningful existence you gave us.  We will miss you.

Friday, December 8, 2017

William H. Gass: the Significance of Form and The Beauty of Language

I was sorry to hear of the death of William H. Gass this week. He has been America's most important philosophical novelist, not in the discursive sense by which we identify other novelists with a freight of ideology to illustrate, but rather as a philosopher of language who is also a powerful fiction-maker with the courage of his convictions.
In his fourth collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996), Gass remains one of the last unashamed advocates for the great Greek ideal of form, exploring with the precision usually reserved for poetry, the relationship between language and mind and the tension between nature and culture.  His every sentence carefully carved, Gass is the best example of his own belief that there is music in prose and that language must be carefully crafted so that it can be heard.  Throughout the book, Gass returns untiringly to his central conviction--that the artist's fundamental loyalty is to form, not ideology or content.  "Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour," says Gass, "but it must never be allowed to carry the day." 
Gass has been singing this song since his first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), in which he established his primary premise about fiction: "that stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth and metal tubes."  His formalist conviction that a novel or short story is ideally a self-contained meaning system is his most controversial principle, one that he explores with equal fervor in his other two collections of essays, The World Within the Word (1978) and Habitations of the Word (1985).
Gass's first novel, Omensetter's Luck (1966), was met with almost overwhelming critical success.  Reviewers praised its lyrical beauty and its intellectual depth, calling it an important contribution to the literature of its time, even the most important work of fiction by an American writer of its generation.  The plot of the novel is simple, for Gass has never been interested in mere plot.  It deals with an old man who tries to tell about Omensetter, a craftsman who settled in a Ohio town in the late nineteenth century.  However, this voice is less important than the voice of the Reverend Jethro Furber, Omensetter's antagonist.  A parody of folk legend, the novel is about how to represent the world in words, the theme of all of Gass's fiction.  A verbal duel between the two main characters, it explores basic philosophic conflicts between mind and body, human and object, reason and feeling. 
Two years later, Gass published his second work of fiction, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, containing a novella, The Pedersen Kid, a hallucinatory detective story and quest romance about coming of age in the midst of madness and death, and four short stories.  Gass has said that the best of these pieces is "Order of Insects," a story about a woman who limits her vision so obsessively that she transforms insects into metaphoric, mythic, creatures.  Her fascination with the insects centers on their order and wholeness in death, for, unlike humans, their skeletons are on the outside; thus they retain their form.  Never seeming to decay, they are perfect geometric shapes of pure order.
The best-known story in the collection is the title story, a lyrical meditation of thirty-two sections, that, in between its Yeatsean beginning--"I have sailed the seas and B...a fastened to a field in Indiana"--and its transcendent conclusion of "Joy to the World" explores the narrator's efforts to pull himself together poetically after a failed affair that makes him feel he has "love left over" that he would like to lose.  The story has become a classic anthology piece, a representative of experimental short fiction of the 1960s, often placed alongside the stories of Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Robert Coover to illustrate the self-reflexivity of post-modernism.
Gass's most thoroughly experimental, self-reflexive fiction, however, is his novella Willie Master's Lonesome Wife (1968), a work that seeks to create the illusion that the book the reader holds in his hands is indeed the lonesome wife herself and that the reading process is a sexual encounter--a metaphor Gass calls our attention to by using different paper textures, photographs, and a variety of typographical devices to suggest that words are sensuous objects that must be encountered concretely and not merely transparent lens through which we perceive "reality."
The Tunnel, Gass's master work, on which he labored for twenty-five years, creates the voice of William Frederick Kohler, a history professor, who while trying to write a simple, self-congratulatory preface to his own magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, becomes blocked and writes about his own life instead.  Filled with bitterness, hatred, lies, self-pity, and self-indulgence, Kohler resents his hard-fisted father and his self-pitying mother, loathes his fat, slothful wife, and has nothing but contempt for his nondescript adolescent sons, his pedantic colleagues, and his superficial lovers.  However, in spite of such an abhorrent personality, because the voice of Kohler is expressed in Gass's highly polished prose, wonderfully sustained for over six hundred pages, the novel is not a self-indulgent diatribe, but a complex philosophic exploration of the relationship between historical fascism and domestic solipsism.
William H. Gass has been the most articulate and forceful contemporary proponent of the importance of aesthetic beauty and artistic structure, even as critics and writers around him have caved in to reading literature as a carrier of social message.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Annie Proulx Will be Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

The National Book Foundation has just announced that it will award Annie Proulx the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters--a $10,000 prize--at the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on Wednesday, November 15, 2017. I have always admired Proulx’s short stories. Here are some comments about her three “Wyoming Stories” collections:

Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Proulx focuses on the rural west, where her characters are ragged and rugged, but where, either because of her increased confidence as a writer or because she was inspired by the landscape and the fiercely independent populace, are compellingly caught in a world that is both grittily real and magically mythical at once.  Claiming that her stories gainsay the romantic myth of the West, Proulx admires the independence and self-reliance she has found there, noting that the people "fix things and get along without them if they can't be fixed. They don't whine."
Place is as important as the people who populate it in Close Range, for the Wyoming landscape is harsh yet beautiful, real yet magical, deadly yet sustaining.  In such a world, social props are worthless and folks are thrown back on their most basic instincts, whether they be sexual, survival, or sacred.  In such a world, as one character says in "Brokeback Mountain," "it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse." Annie Proulx's Wyoming is a heart of darkness inherent in place and personality at once.
The most remarkable thing about "Brokeback Mountain" is that although it is about a sexual relationship between two men, it cannot be categorized as a homosexual story; it is rather a tragic love story that simply happens to involve two males. The fact that the men are Wyoming cowboys rather than San Francisco urbanites makes Proulx's success in creating such a convincing and emotionally affecting story all the more wonderful.
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are "high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects" who, while working alone on a sheep-herding operation on Brokeback Mountain, abruptly and silently, engage in a sexual encounter, after which both immediately insist, "I'm not no queer."  Although the two get married and do not see each other for four years, when they meet again, they grab each other and hug in a gruff masculine way, and then, "as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together."
Neither have sex with other men, and both know the danger of their relationship.  Twenty years pass, and their infrequent encounters are combination of sexual passion and personal concern.  The story comes to a climax when Jack, who unsuccessfully tries to convince Ennis they can make a life together, is mysterious killed on the roadside.  Although officially it was an accident, Ennis sorrowfully suspects that Jack has been murdered after approaching another man.  Although "Brokeback Mountain" ends with Jack a victim of social homophobia, this is not a story about the social plight of the homosexual.  The issues Proulx explores here are more basic and primal than that.  Told in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, the story elicits a genuine sympathy for a love that is utterly convincing.
Chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, "The Half-Skinned Steer" creates an hallucinatory world of shimmering significance out of common materials.  The simple event on which the story is based is a cross-country drive made by Mero, a man in his eighties, to Wyoming for the funeral of his brother.  The story alternates between the old man's encounters on the road, including an accident, and his memories of his father and brother.  The central metaphor of the piece is introduced in a story Mero recalls about a man who, while skinning a steer, stops for dinner, leaving the beast half skinned.  When he returns, he sees the steer stumbling stiffly away, its head and shoulders raw meat, its staring eyes filled with hate. The man knows that he and his family are done for.
The story ends with Mero getting stuck in a snow storm a few miles away from his destination and trying to walk back to the main highway.  As he struggles through the wind and the drifts, he notices that one of the herd of cattle in the field next to the road has been keeping pace with him, and he realizes that the "half-skinned steer's red eye had been watching for him all this time." In its combination of stark realism and folktale myth, "The Half-Skinned Steer" is reminiscent of stories by Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, for Mero's journey is an archetypal one toward the inevitable destiny of death. 
Annie Proulx has said that "The Mud Below" is her favorite story in Close Range, for "on-the-edge situations" and the rodeo interest her.  The title refers to the mud of the rodeo arena, and the main character is twenty-three-year-old Diamond Felts, who, at five feet three has always been called Shorty, Kid, Tiny, and Little Guy.  His father left when he was a child, telling him, "You ain't no kid of mine."  His mother taunts him about his size more than anyone else, always calling him Shorty and telling him he is stupid for wanting to be a bull rider in the rodeo.
The force of the story comes from Diamond's identification with the bulls.  The first time he rides one he gets such a feeling of power that he feels as though he were the bull and not the rider; even the fright seems to fulfill a "greedy physical hunger" in him.  When one man tells him that the bull is not supposed to be his role model, Diamond says the bull is his partner.
The story comes to a climax when Diamond is thrown and suffers a dislocated shoulder.  Tormented by the pain, he calls his mother and demands to know who his father is. Getting no answer, Diamond drives away thinking that all of life is a "hard, fast ride that ended in the mud," but he also feels the euphoric heat of the bull ride, or at least the memory of it, and realizes that if that is all there is, it must be enough.
Like most of the stories in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" is about surviving. As Old Red, the ninety-six-year-old grandfather says at the end, "The main thing in life was staying power.  That was it: stand around long enough, you'd get to sit down."  Picked by Amy Tan to be included in the 1999 The Best American Short Stories, it is one of the most comic fictions in the collection.  A story about a young woman named Ottaline, with a "physique approaching the size of a propane tank," being wooed by a broken-down John Deere 4030 tractor could hardly be anything else.
Ottaline's only chance for a husband seems to be the semiliterate hired man, Hal Bloom, with whom she has silent sex, that is, until she is first approached by the talking tractor, who calls her "sweetheart, lady-girl."  Tired of the loneliness of listening to cell phone conversations on a scanner, Ottaline spends more and more time with the tractor, gaining confidence until, when made to take on a cattle trading responsibility by her ill father, she meets Flyby Amendinger, who she soon marries. The story ends with Ottaline's father getting killed in a small plane he is flying.  The ninety-six-year old grandfather, who sees how things had to go, has the powerfully uncomplicated final word--that the main thing in life is staying power.

Bad Dirt:  Wyoming Stories 2.
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, one of Annie Proulx’s narrators says ominously, “Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.” Well, if that book painted the desperate side of rural big sky life, then Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 is largely a light-hearted companion volume. Made up of six very brief tall-tales and five longer stories, Bad Dirt (which refers to rough country roads) is, by and large, a snort-out-loud hoot.
Most of the action takes place in and around Elk Tooth, Wyoming, pop. 80, only worth visiting for three bars, the most popular of which is Pee Wee’s, where such stories are best told and most enjoyed.  Take for example “The Trickle Down Effect,” in which Fiesta Punch, one of the area’s many desperate women ranchers, hires Deb Sipple to drive to Wisconsin to pick up some hay.  But Deb stops for too many drinks and tosses too many cigarettes out the window on the way back.  When he rolls into Elk Tooth late at night, it is the closest thing to a meteor the folks have ever seen.
And what about “Summer of the Hot Tubs”?  When Amanda Gribb, who tends bar at Pee Wee’s, hears about Willy Huson’s using an enormous cast-iron cooking pot for a hot tub, she grabs some frozen corn and a can of chili powder, declaring, “If he’s goin cook hisself let’s get some flavor in there.”  Then there’s “The Hellhole,” in which Game Warden Creel Zmundzinski’s contempt for poachers is made clear by a fiery fissure that opens up under the obnoxious culprits he catches.
Although the longer stories are somewhat more culturally complex, they still have a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone. In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” Gilbert Wolfscale, born and raised on the family ranch, is “caught in the downward ranching spiral of too much work, not enough money, drought.” His wife leaves him and his two boys want nothing to do with him.  But he has a “scalding passion” for the ranch. He knows exactly what kind of furniture Jesus would pick if he owned a place in Wyoming.
In “The Indian Wars Refought,” Charlie Parrott, a reservation Sioux, marries the widow Georgina Brawls, and his 20-something daughter Linney, a real hellcat, comes to live with them.  In the process of cleaning up an old commercial building, she finds letters from Buffalo Bill Cody about making a movie of the battle at Wounded Knee and becomes suddenly fired up on learning of the massacre of her people. In “Man Crawling Out of Trees,” when Mitchell Fair and his wife Eugenie retire from the East to Wyoming, he buys an old pickup truck and drives around the prairie on his own.  She gets more and more lonely, until a man crawls toward her out of the woods and she breaks the cardinal rule of the country.
In “The Wamsutter Wolf,” Buddy Millar moves right next door to Cheri, an overweight hellcat from high school, and the bully who once broke his nose. Well, things just go from bad to worse, culminating with Cheri sneaking over to Buddy’s trailer and climbing into bed, late night runs to the emergency room, fear of jealous reprisals, guns at the ready, and so on and so. But it is not just the imaginative plots and the cantankerous characters that make these stories so irresistible; it’s the rhythm of the prose and the tone of the teller. Proulx is a tough, smart lady who doesn’t miss very much.  And she’s flat-out funny.

Fine Just the Way It Is:  Wyoming Stories 3.
Annie Proulx bookends the third volume of her “Wyoming Stories” series by citing the book’s title in the first and last tale, thus locating them in time and space.
In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity.  Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.”
The way it was, and often still is, is vicious. The five strongest pieces are better characterized by the title of the final story, which refers to a cow that tried to climb up a deep slope and slid back down in the ditch and died. Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you. In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” Archie and Rose try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.
In “Testimony of the Monkey,” a silly argument over whether to wash the lettuce splits up Marc and Catlin, two rugged outdoors enthusiasts.  When in anger and spite, she takes an ill-advised trip into harsh territory alone and catches her foot in the crevice of a rock, the rest of the story, which alternates between her painful efforts to free herself and her hallucinations about rescue, is predictable, but none the less agonizing.
Proulx indulges herself here in a couple of playful fables about the devil in “I’ve Always Loved This Place” and “Swamp Mischief” and a couple of more serious legends about a Bermuda Triangle sagebrush and an early Indian buffalo hunt in “The Sagebrush Kid” and  “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl.”
However, the most powerful stories are those that reverberate on the final page of the collection when Dakota Lester tells the parents of her husband, who has lost both legs and half his face in Iraq, “Sash is tits up in a ditch.” And so are they all in this scrupulously written Annie Proulx collection.
Congratulations to Annie Proulx on her newest honor, which she will add to her Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, National Book Award, and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Best British Stories: 2017--Part 4--Are These Pieces Stories?

Are These Pieces Stories?
One might very well respond to the question that heads this commentary, “Who cares?” “What difference does it make?”
I can only say that, having very carefully read thousands of stories throughout my career, I guess certain expectations come into play when I read what someone has labelled a “short story.”
The following four pieces have been labelled “short stories,” but for reasons I will try to explain, they do not seem like short stories to me. They may be well written pieces of prose that I enjoyed reading, just not short stories. Does that make any difference?  I think so. It makes a difference in how I read them.

Courttia Newland, “Reversible”
The first two paragraphs of this story depict a sadly familiar picture—a black man has been shot by police and a protesting crowd gathers around his body while the police stand by with guns ready. The first sentence of the third paragraph shifts this realistic picture into the literary: “The blood beneath the body slows to a trickle and stops. It makes a slow return inwards.”  And we suddenly realize that this is a clever piece of prose that reverses reality. The body begins to stir, then lifts, and the fallen baseball cap flips from the ground onto the man’s head.  Then we see the shooting in reverse: “Tiny black dots leap from his chest like fleas. Three plumes of fire are sucked into the rifle barrel.”
Then we watch the man backing into his car, the wheels turning counterclockwise, listening to a tune on the radio he does not recognize (for it plays in reverse?), and entering his house (walking backward, we assume), being greeted with a hug by his mother, throwing his jacket on a chair, and sitting down.
Knowing that we are witnessing an act in reverse that cannot be reversed, we may be interested in the cleverness of the technique and be horrified by an act we read about in the newspapers every so often, but I am not sure that we can do both at the same time. The story spends so much energy maintaining, not always successfully, the reversing technique that the reader, while trying to visualize the technique, may lose empathy with the human character.

James Kelman, “Words and Things to Sip”
James Kelman may be the most familiar writer in this collection; at least he is to me. I posted a blog essay on his short stories a while back, after having read Busted Scotch and The Good Times.  Most critics have argued that Kelman is a better short story writer than novelist, and Kelman himself once told an interviewer that if critics looked at his short stories they would not be asking him questions about his novels.
However, I am not sure Kelman is writing a short story in “Words and Things to Sip,” the title of which seems to reflect its technique—that it is less a story than a rambling monologue by a man waiting in a bar for his female friend, a man who passes this time by thinking about, and at some point transcribing, whatever comes to his mind.  This kind of  stream of consciousness can be effective in a novel, if the writing is good enough, but it does not necessarily make for an effective short story. Joyce did it very well in Ulysses but did not attempt it in Dubliners.
Kelman pretty much just writes about whatever comes to mind; for example, when he mentions a newspaper named “something Planet,” he is reminded of Superman at the Daily Planet with Clark Kent and the irascible editor, what was his name, who knows, who cares, Perry Mason or some damn thing.
Sometimes the voice we hear ruminates on ideas, e.g. “The only reliable method of knowledge is literature,” opining that we cannot trust “internetual information.”  At one point the voice thinks, “Life is strange. Context is all. Without context where would we be? Where would the world be? This question is the most real.”
When the narrator’s female friend finally arrives, he thinks “The whole of life was too good to be true and I was the luckiest man in the whole world and that is the God’s truth so help me my Lord God, the one bright star in the dismal night sky.”
A lot of this is interesting thinking and good talk, but I am not sure we would tolerate it if it were not talk by James Kelman, for after all, it is less a story than just a lot of blather.

David Rose, “Ariel”
I also know the work of David Rose. I wrote a blog essay about his story “Flora,” which appeared in the 2011 volume of Best British Short Stories  and immediately ordered a copy of his collection Posthumous Stories. I thought “Flora” was the epitome of what makes the short story so fascinating to me.
However, I am not so sure that “Ariel” is a short story, although the writing is very fine. I have no idea if the young male narrator in this story is a persona for Rose himself or if  the young man named Keith he so admires, who owns a white Ariel motor-bike, was an actual person that Rose knew when he was sixteen.  But this piece reads more like a brief memoir than a short story. Nothing really happens in it; it seems to have no significant meaning. It ends with the narrator getting married and buying a house--what he calls a “very ordinary story”--and mentioning a story far from ordinary, albeit clich├ęd, of his heroic model getting killed in a car accident.
The writing is good, but it just does not seem to be a story.

Deirdre Shanahan, “The Wind Calling”
This piece has more context than Rose’s piece, but still, it seems less a story than a memory—this time the persona is a young woman who is strongly attracted to a young man named Colum Brady, with whom she has her first sexual encounter. She has a brother two years younger than she named Jem, who simply disappears one day. Years later she runs into Colum and asks him if he knows what happened to her brother Jem. Colum tells her that Jem had seen them having sex and threatened to tell her father if he is not given money for whiskey, but Colum tells him to “head off.”  And that is the last he saw of him. 
I have read this piece several times, looking for the story in it, but I am just not sure there is one.  It is a memory of childhood, much of it spent on the road, and an account of the woman’s father and siblings disappearing, but the story of her first sexual encounter, which seems one important  event in the piece, does not seem to be meaningfully connected with the  other important even—the disappearance of her brother.  It is a piece about things that happen, but the things that happen do not cohere into a story.

I suppose a story can be anything a writer wants to make it, but if it does not meaningfully hold together, the reader does not respond to it as a story—just an interesting piece of prose.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Best British Stories 2017: Part 3: From Realism to Magical Realism

Vesna Main, “Safe”
Perhaps because they are usually based on the mimetic notion of a “mirror in the roadway” reflecting the “real” world, realistic stories often seem to have some “ripped from the headlines” social issue embedded in them. Vesna Main’s story “Safe” focuses on a young woman who finally rebels against being abused by an exploitative boyfriend and stabs him while he is deep in a drunken sleep. The boyfriend has compelled her into doing a strip for two of his acquaintances, who pull her clothes off and rape her.
This is a realistic story—no symbolic language or transition into a magical realism world. The only metaphoric language focuses on the notion of some “force” that takes over the woman and compels her to stab the boyfriend: “Her hand moved as if someone was directing it, pushing it with a long stick as if she were a puppet.” After she has killed the boyfriend, the “force” releases go of her and she is “safe.”
While she is in a holding cell, her lawyer keeps asking why she did not just leave, suggesting a common view that she was “asking for it.” The lawyer says her best defense is to present herself as a confused young woman who killed her violent boyfriend in self-defense.  The focus of the story is on the “force,” although it is not clear what that force is, other than a kind of  just rebellion against male domination of women.

Sophie Wellstood, “The First Hard Rain”
After a first reading of this story, you are apt to say, “There’s nothing going on here.”  After a second reading you are apt to say, “There’s something going on here, but I’m not sure what it is.”
Nothing much suggested by the first scene, in which the central character Rachael, accompanies her ex-husband Peter and Peter’s mother Val to dump the ashes of her father-in-law Terry over the M6 because it was his favourite motorway.
The second scene takes place at the King’s Head Hotel where the three go for drinks, where we learn from the waitress Lorrelle that the father-in-law, Terry Hastings, was a teacher and that her niece was one of his pupils.  Lorrelle says she recognizes Terry’s wife  from her picture in the papers and refers to as a “poor cow.” Why the wife’s picture was in the newspaper is not clear. However, something seems to be suggested by Lorrelle’s comment that the niece “passed first time. Surprise surprise.” We can only guess that Terry has had sex with  the niece and that he has been arrested.
After Peter and Val leave, Rachael stays to have a drink with Lorrelle and asks her, “Your niece, how is she now?” After a paragraph describing  seagulls over the landfill, “rising and dipping crazily in their unknowable world,” Lorrelle takes a deep drag of her cigarette and lets the smoke leave her mouth and nostrils “like a ghost leaving her body.” She replies, “She’ll be OK. You know. She’s going to go back to college. She’ll be OK.”: Rachael sees tears on Lorrelle’s eyelashes.
The only metaphoric context for the story is introduced in the first paragraph. And concludes the story. Rachael thinks a tempest of  Biblical proportions has occurred over the Irish sea, causing a flock of hundreds of seagulls to be driven miles inland, making her doubt if they can ever find their way back to “their desolate ocean home.” But then she thinks the real reason for the screeching was “unromantic and mundane”—it is the city’s landfill and the gulls are swooping over hillocks of human waste.
Short stories often are reluctant to provide explanatory information or background context for their mysteries, but usually there is a reason for such reticence.  I am just not sure that there is any reason in “The First Hard Rain” for leaving out  story information that actually makes this a story.

Giselle Leeb, “As You Follow”
In this second person story, the focus is on the narrator at an Octoberfest celebration in London, who cannot keep his eyes off a young blue-eyed, blond-haired boy who he thinks is too young to be there—a boy who, dressed like the men, is happy, happy, pure joy.
The narrator feels he is in a magic place and recalls when he was young and  the world was pure, full of “beauty and truth.” The narrator thinks he is young again, at his first wedding, and he cannot believe that this life he has waited for all those years when he was growing up has finally arrived.
At the end of the story, he looks into the river Thames and cannot take his eyes off his own reflection, a boy in shirt sleeves, “bursting with pride and with joy.”  The narrator follows the boy, that is, his reflection into the water, and as he reaches for the light above his head, a small hand drags him into the darkness of the water and as he is pulled down as the waves whisper and move on.
This story begins realistically, but the Octoberfest creates a magical context that moves the narrator from reality into an identification with the boy and a return to his own past, until he becomes the boy/man and is drawn Narcissus-like into his own reflection. The reader is not given any explanation for the events in this story, but the context of a magical, metaphoric world is so pervasive and the identification between the narrator and the boy is so emphatic that the reader is ready to accept the Narcissistic fall into the self at the end.

Francoise Harvey, “Never Thought He’d Go”
The question that preoccupies this story is announced in the first few lines. A boy named Norm has been found at the edge of a graveyard with a broken arm, three broken ribs, a black eye, a broken collarbone and lots of bruises. Three friends have three different theories about what happened to him: He fell off the church spire says Davi, a gravestone fell on him says Davitoo, he was trampled by cows says Saz. The question of what Norm was doing in the church at night is more easily answered: his friends have dared him to do it. The title comes from the narrator’s notion that none of them ever thought Norm would do it, since they warned him the church was haunted.
Made uneasy by guilt, the narrator cannot sleep and sees a light flashing from the church bell tower. “Flash and gone. Flash and gone.” And then “Flash and hold” as if the light had spotted him. All members of the “gang” have seen the light and agree to meet at midnight in the cemetery, although now they worry it will be Norm’s ghost who shows up for revenge. Then Davitoo is found  just as Norm was--with a broken wrist, jaw, two broken ribs, a broken nose, and lots of bruises. The story ends with the mystery of what happened to the two boys still unsolved and the light in the church going flash and gone, flash and gone, until it stays on. 
Is this a story about  kids involved in pranks or a supernatural story in which the church really is haunted?  In either case, the injuries of the two boys are never motivated in any meaningful way.  How did they happen? Why did they happen?  What is the point of this story?

Daisy Johnson, “Language”
“Language” is from Johnson’s book Fen which has received good reviews both in England and America.  The stories are fantasy/reality stories of the kind that American writer Karen Russell got a lot of buzz for a few years ago, although they do not have the self-consciously flippant language of Russell’s stories.
“Language” opens as a kind of female sexual initiation story focusing on Nora Marlow Carr, at age sixteen, a big girl, perhaps a bit overweight, with childbearing hips and milk-carrying breasts, a “natural woman,” or what some called big boned, in love with a big guy named Harrow Williams. Nora is a kind of a nerd, smart in the ways of math and string theory; Harrow not so much.
Nora seduces Harrow into sex and convinces him they are “entangled.” They get married and she says she wishes someone had told her what a messy affair  living with a man was. Then abruptly Harrow dies and Nora takes care of his mother, who, it seems knows a bit of magic and manages to bring Harrow back from the dead.
The final gimmick of the story is that when Harrow speaks, he creates a physical pain in Nora and Sarah. For example, a single syllable can cause Sarah to vomit, while a sentence an cause her to have nosebleeds.
Nora tries to fix this by having Harrow try out different words to see what effect they have. Some of her attempts to “cure” Harrow are religious in nature, others are linguistic, but nothing seems to work. It reaches a point when even Harrow’s thoughts cause Nora and Sarah physical pain. The story ends with this sentence: “And though there were someone else’s thoughts hooked and barbed inside her, she saw the dark passage of where she was going: not a rescue at all, only a stripping away, a cursing back into nothing.”
The problem of the story is that there is no causal or metaphoric connection between the female initiation theme at the beginning and the  return to life zombie story at the end. Even more important, there is no meaningful connection between  language and physical harm.
Johnson has said in an interview that the Fen, where her stories take place, is a liminal landscape with one foot in water an d one on earth, which seems to “resonate” with certain themes in the stories, such as the “fluid boundaries between myth and reality.” However, if we are to accept a merging of reality and myth, there should be some justification—not simply that it meaninglessly occurs.

Claire Dean, “Is-and”
Once again, we begin with a realistic story:  a woman goes with her recent husband to visit his mother who lives on an island. Nothing much happens; he seems a taciturn lout and she is lonely. The house is haunted by the memory of the man’s first wife.
The story seems to center around a mysterious package that the postman brings the husband, although it does not have his name on it. The wife opens the package, which contains a baby board book of nursery rhymes with panels a child can push to play different tunes, e.g. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Three Blind Mice,” etc.
Significantly, some letters have been blacked out in the book, e.g.
It seems clear that the missing letters are not important, but that the remaining letters spell out: “We want to come home.”
The wife goes to a bookstore and talks to the owner about stories with blacked out letters, and he tells her about the lhiannan shee, an undead vampire female who is drawn to bards.
The story ends with the husband leaving the house, the mother whipping up broken eggshells, and the wife hearing someone whistling the tune she heard from the book the first time she opened it.  She turns to yell at him, but “everything within her stopped. The stranger held her there with his gaze. She took his outstretched hand and let him lead her away.”
The realistic first part of the story does not lead to the unrealistic last part of the story for any meaningful purpose. Are we supposed to believe that the first wife was a lhiannan shee and that the taciturn husband is a bard who lures the second wife into his fairy tale world? Was there a child in the first marriage? What happened to it? Nothing really seems to justify all this. And nothing seems to suggest that such a transition from the real world into a magical world really signifies anything.
It is not enough, it seems to me, that stories are interesting in their various parts.  They must be unified in such a way that they coherently signify something about the human condition.