Sunday, June 30, 2013

Frank O;Connor 2013 Short Story Contest: Joyce Carol Oates "Black Dahlia and White Rose"

With all due respect to the honorable judges of the 2013 Frank O’Connor short story contest, I just do not understand how Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Dahlia & White Rose got on the short list. As I have noted here and other places, I have never been an admirer of the stories of Ms. Oates, who I think writes technically proficient, but emotionally superficial short fiction—fiction that is more “pop” than literary, in spite of her protestations to the contrary.  In my opinion, this most recent collection is her weakest to date.

At the outset, I assure you, although Joyce Carol Oates’ stories do not require a “second” reading, I did indeed, as is my wont, read all eleven stories in this collection. Let me quickly dismiss the usual finger exercises.  Oates is the complete professional writer, who cannot resist converting everything she experiences or thinks about into “writing.”  The collection contains at least three little narrative exercises (one hesitates to call them “experiments”) that might she might well have left in her notebook, that is, if she were not determined to write about everything she thinks about and publish everything she writes. 

“Hey Dad” is the first person “voice” of a twenty-one year old man who walks across the graduation stage in front of his sixty-two year old father who is up there to get an honorary degree; he is the cliché prof who got one of his students pregnant, but was not interested in her child.  The story ends with the salutation, “Hey Dad, it’s me.”

In “A Brutal Murder in a Public Place,” the narrator spots a bird in an airport waiting room and so sympathizes with its trapped plight that she “becomes” the bird.  The piece ends with a foreboding that Oates finds irresistible, as the narrator/bird sees men coming toward her with a ladder, a small net, and “a wicked-looking broom.”

“San Quentin,” which is actually a sort of prelude to the following story, “Anniversary,” centers briefly on a San Quentin murderer/lifer named Quogn, who enrolls in a prison Intro to Biology class in order to find out “How you kill a person?  How a person die?  What it mean kill, die?”

O.K. now that those little “pieces” are out of the way, we move on to Oates’ more “serious” stories.  First, there is the title piece (also little more than an extended exercise in “voice”), which features the first person pov of: Elizabeth Short (the so-called Black Dahlia who was brutally tortured and killed in Los Angeles in 1947); K. Keinhardt, the photographer who took the famous “Miss Golden Dreams” photo of a young nude Marilyn Monroe; and Norma Jean Baker (you know who), resurrected by Oates once again, this time, to be a roommate to the Black Dahlia.  The originating energy of the story in Oates’ mind is that the murderer (who has never been discovered) really wanted to kill Marilyn, but, as a result of her aggressiveness, took Elizabeth Short instead).  

This energizing trope is justification for Oates describing in gruesome detail, in the Dahlia’s own voice post mortem, the photos of her mutilated body (which Oates most helpfully hints can be seen in stark black and white at various sites). Short is presented as a street-wise aspirant to stardom, who says things like, “Don’t argue with me, I told Norma—this is the foundation of civilization,” and Monroe is made out to be a simpering baby-girl Betty Boop who says things like, “It was the awfullest—most horrible—thing” or “Oh, gosh I was getting mad at Betty.”  Oh, yeah, it will keep you glued to the page, but the glue begins to stink pretty quickly.

“Run Kiss Daddy” and “Deceit” are typical Oatesian “trick” stories, for both suggest that something more in going on in the stories than appear on the surface.  In the first, a divorced man who has been separated from his older children remarries a woman with two young children.  He buys an A-frame on a lake where he used to take his first family and while there uncovers the body of a small female child. There is no reason to think that he has anything to do with this child, but Oates drops a suggestion that it may have been his own.  In “Deceit,” a mother who takes sedative meds is called to her adolescent daughter’s school because her daughter has bruises on her body. Although the daughter makes it quite clear that the perpetrator is a cliché masculinized girlfriend, Oates ends the story with a sly suggestion that the mother may be the guilty party.  The red herrings in these two stories are so sneaky that the reviewer in Kirkus Review swallows the bait and points the finger at the father in the first story and the mother in the second.

Because it originally appeared in The New Yorker and was chosen for the Best American Short Stories 2011, “I.D.” has the most cachet of these eleven stories.  However, it is hardly more than an excuse for Oates to show that she knows something about the voice and life of an eighth-grader whose mother is a dealer at an Atlantic City casino. When the young girl is brought to the morgue by police to identify a woman who may or may not be her mother, the girl does not or cannot make the I.D. She denies that the woman in the morgue is her mother because she does not recognize her derelict body or her dumpster-discovered purse and coat. Oates purposely leaves the story open as to whether the girl purposely denies the ID or whether she honestly does not recognize this dead “body” as her living mother.  This is all sound enough psychology, but when the girl goes back to school and tells her friend that she is fine—“Why not?” we cannot be sure enough about the voice to identify what this seeming indifference means.

In “The Good Samaritan,” a young woman finds a wallet on a train and decides to take to the address on a “In case of Emergency” card.  We get some backstory of the young woman’s lackluster life, but she seems to blossom when she goes to the house and sees how handsome the wallet owner’s husband is.  The ostensible mystery is that the wife has disappeared earlier that day and the husband does not know where she is, but the real mystery is why the narrator pretends that she is some kind of psychic who might be able to figure out where the wife is by handling her clothing and personal effects and why the husband so readily believes it.  

Although the young woman can offer no help, the husband calls her a Good Samaritan and says there must be some reason God sent her to him.  Thirty years later, the narrator laments that she has never found a man like the husband, although it is certainly not clear what she saw in him except a pretty face.  The story ends inevitably, but ostensibly indeterminately, with the narrator remembering the husband’s saying there must be some reason God sent her to him and sighing, “Yes.  I think that you must be right.”  I have no idea why God sent her to the man; I only wish I knew why Joyce Carol Oates did.

The final three stories—“Roma,” “Spotted Hyenas:  A Romance,” and “Anniversary” focus on pretty much the same woman.  In “Roma,” she is in her fifties and in Italy on holiday with her husband, a supercilious distant type who acts as if he knows everything.  In “Spotted Hyenas,” she is forty-three with a husband who is a successful litigator, but has little time for her.  In” An Anniversary,” she is a retired scholar and academic administrator who is trying “to be of help” by volunteering to be an assistant in an expository writing class in San Quentin after her husband’s death. Children do not play a role in the lives of any of these women; the only question the stories pose is: How can these women find fulfillment?

In “Roma,” which is padded with bits of cultural and art history, the couple are fascinated by views in the windows of apartments across the way, ala, as Oates makes it emphatically, clear in case we are too culturally deficient to know, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  The story focuses primarily on the woman’s sense that her husband is losing his old unexamined sense of himself as a man among men, although she is delighted to take advantage of his vulnerability by uncharacteristically snapping at him. 

As is usually the case in an Oates story, the woman must face something of a comeuppance.  This is achieved here by the somewhat trivial gambit of having her going shopping for expensive clothes and then getting lost when she tries to find the apartment building into which she and her husband have been peeping at night.  Although she is anxious, there is no real threat here, for she is in the vicinity of her hotel; it is just that she becomes unreasonably panicked that she cannot find the building.  “There has to be some explanation,” she ponders.  But, alas there is none.  Nor is there any explanation for her thinking, “This is my punishment now.  For who I am.”  Beats me!

“Spotted Hyenas: A Romance” is a Stephen Kingish tale of a woman who dreams, or fantasizes, or hallucinates, a man who also seems like a wolf haunting her at her home. When she gets an epiphany that the wolfish ghost is a man she knew in graduate school when she was studying biology, she looks him up on the Internet and decides to go visit him where he is a research scientist studying spotted hyenas. The introduction of this particular species gives Oates an opportunity to talk about their most extraordinary feature—that in their matriarchal society the female clitoris o the spotted hyena is masculinized to the size and behavior of a penis, a “pseudopenis,” if you will.  

Furthermore—fascinating stuff this—the female gives birth through this narrow “tunnel-like organ.”  So what’s the upshot of all this Origin of Species (helpfully mentioned several times in the story) stuff?  Well, when she goes home, she dreams, fantasizes, or hallucinates, that she is transformed into a spotted hyena, joining her male hyena ghost, and killing her supercilious husband, before running off into the forest “where the night lies all before them, where to roam.”  My, my, my!

“Anniversary,” the final story in the collection, is primarily an Oatesian opportunity to talk about how much she knows about maximum-security prison protocol. As usual in an Oates story, there is a seeming reality/illusion ambiguity here, for the retired window academic volunteering in the prison to teach freshman composition seems to expect to see someone she knows, although the story never really makes clear who that person is.  It could be her husband, who died two years before, but why would he be there?  And Oates cannot resist using her vast storytelling experience to set up what she takes to be a truly ambiguous ending.  

When carelessly, she and her companion teacher allow a small pencil sharpener (you know, the ones with the itsy bitsy razor sharp blade) to get away from them, a prisoner disgusted with the woman” who had insulted his manhood with her condescension; with her ridiculous female vanity,” slits her throat. The story seems to end with this:  “They would discover Vivianne Geary fallen and lifeless on the wooden ramp behind the entrance to the Education Office, at the very end of the ramp, bled out.”  Indeed,  Randy Boyagoda, in his review, in The New York Times no les, says, “In ‘Anniversary,’ a smug academic seeks new purpose by condescendingly teaching inmates, only to die from a casual oversight involving a purloined pencil sharpener.”

But wait!—as the television pitchmen often shout—on the next, that is, the last page of the story, there is another paragraph—this one explaining how the prison officials had reprimanded the woman and her colleague for their carelessness and that now on the drive home, he is cursing and she is crying. The story actually ends with: “She was exhausted, wounded, like one who has been stricken, her throat slashed.  She was finished, she’d bled out.  She heard herself say:  ‘Next time. Yes.’”

What is this?  Did The New York Times  reviewer just not turn to the last page?  Is this just another bogus Oatesian ambiguity?  Are we really supposed to ask, “Wow, what really happened?” Did she get her throat cut or not?"  Do we really care?  I think not.

I am sorry, esteemed judges of this year’s Frank O’Connor Short Story contest, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand how this book deserves to be on the short list.

By the way, if you have any doubts about the kind of “pop” fiction Joyce Carol Oates cannot help writing and that the New Yorker sometimes cannot resist publishing, check out the July 1 story “Mastiff.”  I rest my case.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Frank O'Connor Short Story Contest, 2013: Peter Stamm's We're Flying

The first Peter Stamm story I ever read was “Sweet Dreams” in the May 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  I liked it well enough that when We’re Flying (which includes new translations of the twelve stories published in Switzerland as Wir Fliegen and the ten stories under the title Seerücken, or Ridge) was published a month later, I was happy to review it for Magill’s Literary Annual.  After it made the short list for the Frank O’Connor Short Story contest, I decided to read the whole book again and write this blog without looking back at my review. The publishers, who own Magill’s, therefore cannot accuse me of violating their proprietary rights.

Reading all twenty-two stories a second time, I sometimes felt the urge to skim the lines, since I already knew what was going to happen, and since rereading a 380-page book was taking more time than I had to spare.  But I found myself compelled to read every word –not because the language was particularly dense with metaphor and complex syntax—indeed the language and syntax is seemingly transparent—but because so many of the characters in the stories seemed ensnared by experiences that they could neither control nor really understand, and because their stories were narrated by a voice that seemed to “know” what has the characters in thrall, but can only stand by and tell their complex stories in a helplessly simple way.

Peter Stamm’s stories make me ask those perennial unanswerable questions: Why do people desire the things they desire even though they know such desires are unwise and impossible to fulfill?  What makes people do the things they do when they know such actions are against their best interests and their better judgment?  Why aren’t people happy with their lives or able to take actions that will make themselves happy with their lives?   Of course, therapists and spiritual counselors around the world are kept busy by anguished people trying to find answers to those very questions. Artists take a different approach.

Peter Stamm does not have any answers, but he certainly knows how to use language to create the complex puzzles of human desire and behavior that simultaneously seem so baffling and yet so familiar. It seems absurd for me to say that I like Stamm’s stories precisely because I am not sure I can articulate what they are about. But even though I struggle to explain what I think they are about, I somehow “know” their secrets because even though Stamm’s characters are different than I am, they are somehow the same as I am, and I seem to know them in the baffling and incomplete way I know myself.

Since We’re Flying is two books in one, containing a total of twenty-stories, I obviously cannot talk about all of them, so I will try to account for my admiration of a few of them.

The first story, “Expectation,” focuses on a single woman named Daphne who meets a younger man in the apartment above her own.  From the beginning, she thinks of him as being like a kid. When she tells him about herself, about her little brother who died four years previous in an accident, he listens like the children in her kindergarten class. Even though he is so young she thinks she could be his mother, she is drawn to him.  He always sounds like he is parroting something he has heard grownups say, and when he accidently knocks over a glass, she almost gives him a smack the way she does with the little ones in her class when they do something naughty.  She imagines putting him across her knee, pulling his pants down and smacking his “naughty bottom.”  

When he finally does kiss her, it is greedy, like a child, but he resists making any sexual advances, although she encourages him. She feels they are in closer touch when he is upstairs and she is downstairs.  The story ends with her lying in bed knowing he is directly above her. She imagines him on top of her, kissing her hungrily, grabbing her hair, slapping her face; she whispers to him, “Come, come! Come,” and he is so close she can almost feel him.

This is not a story about a neurotic woman who sexually desires children, although a psychologist might think so. It’s about the intricate little traps we place ourselves in when we desire something, but do not actually want it.  She want the young man precisely because he is like a child, but then many women are drawn to the little boy behavior of many men.  However, she does not want him actually, but only virtually.  And if we admit it, we know that we often desire someone only in the imagination, even though the power of this desire depends on our feeling that we desire the person in the flesh.  However, the fleshly encounter often falls short of the encounter we are able to create in our imagination.  At the end when she says he is so close she can almost feel him, it is that sense of “almost feel” that constitutes the power of the imaginative snare Stamm creates.

“Three Sisters” is one of several stories in the book that deal with artists.  In this case, the central character is a painter named Heidi; she is currently married and has a child, but much of the story flashes back to when she was a young woman; while on a train trip to Vienna to go to art school suddenly, without planning to, she gets off the train at another station and begins a new life with a young man she meets there named Rainer, who she later marries. The central painterly motif of the story are drawings she has shown to an older woman Frau Brander, who has encouraged her artist ambitions and helped her to get into to art school; Frau Brander tells her that many of the drawings look like a vulva. A woman Heidi meets on the train to whom she shows her pictures also says that what Heidi calls “imaginary shapes” look like cunts to her. Heidi cannot understand that she does not see what others see.  

After marrying and becoming a mother, she is fascinated by a teenage girl who is training to be a baker.  She imagines her in all sorts of poses, both naked and clothed, and stands in front of a mirror naked and draws many pictures of the girl based on her own body. She and the girl dress up and take pictures and little videos of their masquerades and games. The story ends with Heidi imagining herself changing into the girl, parading up and down, showing off her body, “dolled up for no one except herself.”  She imagines that one day Rainer will find the hundreds of sketches and pictures of her and the girl.  “She’s just a kid, he would say, and shake his head, and not get it.”

So what is there to “get”?  This is not a story of a woman who is a lesbian but unable to “see” it.  Although there may indeed be something narcissistic about homosexuality—that is, that being with one “like” yourself creates something like a “mirror” effect—but this is more a story about the narcissism that exists in all of us—that sense of fascination with our own physical selves and the desire to see that self in someone else.  It is not so much that we narcissistically “love” ourselves, but rather that we long to “know” ourselves, to lapse into ourselves, to see ourselves in the “other.” It makes us parade in front of the mirror; it make us primp and prepare ourselves seemingly for others, but really to make others see us in the ideal way we see ourselves.  It makes us touch ourselves, pretending we are touching others; it makes us want to lose ourselves in ourselves as in the other—all of which is easier with a “kid.” Heidi knows her husband will not understand this.

“The Hurt” is a first-person POV story told by a young man who meets a girl named Lucia, has a sexual relationship with her, and then goes off to college.  He returns to teach in the village school four years later and tries to resume his relationship with the young woman who now works in a bar.  However, she seems different now.  She makes him feel stupid when he tells her he has not slept with anyone since he went away, and she does not want to have sex with him now that he has returned. After she openly flirts with a young ski instructor named Elio in the bar, the narrator takes his television out in front of his house, and puts a sign on it saying, “take me.”  He wants to touch and kiss Lucia so much his whole body aches, and he sees himself a pathetic lovelorn figure.  He begins to rip up his books and burn them, as well as his diaries and notes. He even takes his car up on the mountain and leaves it in the snow. When he tells Lucia that he loves her, she says he is imagining things, that he is crazy and slams the door in his face.  He finally chops up his bed and burns it, after which he gets on a train.  The last sentence is: “Not until the train turned a corner and entered a tunnel did I calm down.”

What is this story really about?   The young narrator is, like many young men, not comfortable with women.  He believes he is in love with Lucia because she is the first girl he has been intimate with.  While he was away at school, he was unable to form relationships with other women and thus--in terms of sexual relationships—has remained relatively immature.  In the meantime, Lucia, who has stayed home and worked at a bar, has become comparatively sexually sophisticated.  The narrator’s acts of systematically destroying all his possessions is an objectification of the lovelorn feeling, “If I can’t have you, I want nothing, I am nothing at all.”  It is childish, but then in many ways feeling you are madly in love is indeed childish, even mad.  Lucia’s calling him crazy and saying he is imagining things is, of course, true. But then, the desperate need to have the only person you feel you can possibly love is, by its very nature, an act of the imagination, not an assessment of reality.

In the title story, “We’re Flying,” a young teacher named Angelika has to take one of her students named Dominic home with her because the parents are late to pick him up. Although she is angry, she also feels oddly proud, as though taking this child by the hand makes him like her own child. When her boyfriend Benno arrives, he also is irritated, but at the same time play games with the boy; she thinks he is like a kid himself, in some ways younger than the boy.  However, Benno says he is not going to let the runt spoil his fun and takes off Angelika’s blouse and begins to kiss and fondle her; she protests but allows this for a time.  When the parents finally show up, they bring her a present to compensate her—a bottle of perfume.  While Benno is in the shower, she dabs some behind her ears and between her breasts.  However, when he comes out, with an erection bulging out of the towel around him, she quickly frees herself from his embrace and goes in the bathroom for a shower, but does not undress.  “When Benno knocked on the doo, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

This is another one of Stamm’s stories about the subtle traps of loneliness.  Angelika sits on the toilet with her face in her hands because she is in a situation that does not fulfill her needs.  And what are her needs?  Well, she does not need a man who is like a child with needs much simpler than her own.  She thinks she may need a man who loves her, a child who loves her, a home—all those elusive goals that single men and women may think they need to make them happy.  But then, how do they know?  Is it really true?  Will it work? Is happiness that simple?

In “The Letter” a woman named Johanna is trying to dispose of her dead husband’s belongings and finds a packet of letters from a woman with whom he has had an affair. She begins to wonder if the affair was not in some ways her own fault.  Reading such lines as “Your erotic fantasies turned me on” from her husband’s mistress, she thinks she had never written such sentences to her husband.  She goes back and reads all the letters again and then throws them away, realizing that he did not have an affair because of some lack in their relationship, but from his “excess of love and curiosity and wonder with which he encountered everything in life.”  She begins writing to him, “quickly and without thinking, sentences the likes of which she had never written before.”

“The Suitcase” is about a man whose wife is ill and has been placed in a coma and will probably never regain consciousness.  When he packs up a suitcase to take to the hospital with some of her clothes and toiletries, he is told they are not needed at this time.  So he boards a train and goes to an unpremeditated destination and gets a hotel room.  While there he uses her toothbrush, puts on her cardigan, and washes his hair with her shampoo.  He then goes back to the hospital, finds a picture of a young woman in a magazine, which he tears out and puts in his pocket, and then with tears in his eyes goes to his wife’s room and puts the suitcase under a stand and leaves without looking back.

These two stories are almost parable-like in their simplicity and brevity, but they still manage to capture in a poignant way the subtle connections between people and what anguish the breaking of those connections can cause.

“Sweet Dreams,” the New Yorker story, is about a young couple setting up a life for themselves, complete with IKEA furniture, in a one-bedroom apartment. They both love the little everyday tasks of furnishing and decorating their apartment, but Lara, the young woman, is uneasy about the indeterminate nature of any relationship. She loves him and he loves her, “but was there any guarantee that he would still love her in five or ten years’ time?” She wants a family, but he wants to wait. When he goes out to get a bottle of wine for them and stays so long she has to go look for him, she feels even more unsure about their relationship.  On returning to the apartment they have sex, with her becoming more vigorous and passionate than ever before.  

Afterwards, she makes him promise that if he ever stops loving her, he will tell her.  When he goes to sleep she gets up and watches an interview program on television in which the guest is a writer.  When the writer is asked where he gets his stories, he says “on the street” and tells about that very day on the bus hearing a young couple talking earnestly together; he imagines they have just moved in together and are furnishing their apartment.  “It’s that blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out that interest me,” he says and adds that maybe he will write a story about it.  When he is asked how it will end, he says he will only know when he has finished it.  He then says the two people on the bus were not even a couple, getting off at separate stops, and thus have nothing to do with the people he might write the story about.   Lara gets up and looks out the window, thinking the writer would have gone home by now even though for a month they will keep replaying the conversation with him in an “endless loop, until he himself had become just as much an imaginary figure as Lara and Simon.”

In his interview with Deborah Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, Stamm says “Sweet Dream” is his favorite story in We’re Flying.  It is not my favorite because it is more explanatory than the earlier stories, as if Stamm is not sure his readers will “get it.”  And the self-reflexive invention of the writer talking about writing the very story we have just read seems completely unnecessary to the complexity of the story of a young woman unsure of what holds a relationship together—although I can see how The New Yorker might have found it hard to resist.

I have four more books to read on the short list of the Frank O’Connor Short Story contest (I have already read and posted a blog on Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, which I liked very much).  But the collections of Watkins and Stamm are going to be hard to beat.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Yorker 2013 Summer Fiction Issue: Proulx, Lahiri, Alexie, etc.

I have maintained a subscription to The New Yorker for many years now because I can always count on the magazine to publish some of the best short story writers in the world, and they publish more stories each year than any other periodical.  I also have long maintained a subscription to Harper’s because they continue to publish a usually fine short story a month. I stopped my subscription to The Atlantic several years ago when they broke a grand tradition and stopped publishing short stories, except for occasional, lack-luster special fiction issues that read like slick paper stories from the forties.

While Harper’s continues to designate its monthly short story as “story” in the table of contents, The New Yorker identifies its fiction as “fiction.”  Nowhere is the reason for The New Yorker’s generic term clearer than in the 2013 “Summer Fiction” double issue (June 10 & 17).  The two most important fictions in the issue—“Rough Deeds” by Annie Proulx and “Brotherly Love” by Jhumpa Lahiri—are actually excerpts from novels forthcoming or in progress. 

I call these two pieces most important not because they are the two longest pieces and certainly not because they are chapters from novels, but because the other three “fictions” in the issue are relatively inconsequential:  A predictable bit of pulp unearthed from the archives of Dashiell Hammett entitled “An Inch and a Half of Glory”; a list-story of clever word plays on ATM passwords entitled “Slide to Unlock” by Ed Park; and a brief simplistic throw-away sketch called “Happy Trails” by Sherman Alexie.

And that’s it.  That’s the 2013 New Yorker “Summer Fiction” issue. As a fan of the short story form, I am more than a little disappointed.  I have read everything that Annie Proulx and Jhumpa Lahiri have written—both novels and short stories—and admire their work very much.  And there’s no question that the two novel excerpts in this issue promise engaging experiences for readers who like novels more than short stories. But they just do not read like short stories do. Perhaps I am one of the few readers who care about this, but care I do.

Proulx’s piece about a man name Duquet who ravages forests in Canada and Maine in the late seventeenth century is part of what looks to be one of her thickly textured explorations of the natural world and historical context. If it were a short story, it would be a rather simple revenge story of greed and violence.  When the novel, which Proulx says will be about two young men from France who come to New France (Quebec) and become enmeshed in the deforestation of American native woodlands, is completed and published, I will read it, for I know it will be a better, grittier and more realistic treatment of environmental issues than the pulpy novel Barbara Kingsolver published last year entitled Flight Behavior.  Still and all, being the kind of reader that I am, I prefer Annie Proulx’s short stories to her novels.

I will also probably purchase Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland, from which “Brotherly Love” is excerpted, when it comes out in September, for I have always admired her work.  You can already preorder it on Amazon.  Here is the book jacket description: 

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan--charismatic and impulsive--finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother's political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind--including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife.”

The excerpt in The New Yorker deals with the early life of Subhash and Udayan, Udayan’s involvement with a revolutionary group, Subhash’s university education in America, and his return to Calcutta after his brother’s death.  Lahiri says she has been working on the book off and on for several years. The excerpt—written in her deceptively clear, pristine prose suggests the kind of social context and family epic that so many novel reader’s love. The excerpt in The New Yorker makes for good reading, but, as Jhumpa Lahiri would be the first to admit, it is not a short story.  As her two collections of stories Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, make abundantly clear, she is a master of the short story form.

I don’t need to say anything about the Dashiell Hammett resurrection, for it is perfectly obvious what a bit of simple pulp it is.  I also don’t need to say anything about Ed Park’s little jeu d’esprit about passwords, for it is just a finger-exercise of not-too-clever inventive bits.  But I do have to say something about Sherman Alexie’s “Happy Trails.

I have, sometimes reluctantly, enjoyed Alexie’s short stories over the years.  I say reluctantly, because he seemed to me from the beginning with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a bit of a trickster extrovert who, even as he ranted against the exploitation of his “people,” seemed to constantly be exploiting them for his own profit.  Part standup comedian and part soapbox commentator, he has been rivaled only by T. C. Boyle for his self-promotion and his hard-sold popularity.

I began my review of his collection Ten Little Indians (2003)  several years ago, his best book in my opinion, this way:

To tell you the truth, I opened Sherman Alexie’s new collection of short stories with a sigh of liberal-guilt resignation, ready to repent all the cap guns I fired at red men circling the wagon trains of my youth. The sigh was accompanied by a wry wince in expectation of showman Sherman’s predictable barrage of satiric barbs, comic one-liners, and performance posturing. So it was a pleasant surprise to find myself actually liking the man at the center of most of these nine new stories.  Instead of making me feel guilty or making me laugh, he moved me, in spite of myself.

But lately, Alexie seems to have collapsed back on his laurels.  Although his collection of poems, vignettes, and stories, War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/FAULKNER Award for Fiction, to me it seemed to be something of a mix tape made up of a few full-length short stories and a lot of detritus that just happened to be lying around in Alexie’s file cabinet.

And his most recent collection, Blasphemy, although it contains a generous helping of his earlier, stronger, stories, includes over a dozen minor “new” pieces that seem more extraneous stuff he has dug out of his writer’s war chest. “Happy Trails,” (wryly echoing the theme song of the old Roy Rogers television serial) seems like a sketch that just did not make it into Blasphemy.

I know, I know, the very phrase “summer fiction” evokes lightweight books you can take to the beach and continue reading even when distracted by wind and winsomeness.  I guess one should not really expect that much from a “summer fiction” issue.  

And, after all, really good short stories demand more attention than thin sketches or loosely structured novels.  You have to sit up straight to read good short stories; you can’t belly down in the sand and doze in the sun and still maintain the stylistic tension that they often demand.  But if you like novels and haven’t read the Proulx and Lahiri chapters yet, I recommend them; they will prepare your palate for the big books to come later on.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper" and Poe's "Berenice": Two American Fantastic Tales

Each week The Library of America will post to your email account a free “Story of the Week” from a volume in their large catalog.  You can sign up for this at

This week, they are featuring “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.  If you like tales that make you think after you shudder, you might find American Fantastic Tales interesting.

I am providing a brief discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as a discussion of another story in the book, Poe’s “Berenice,” which is not one of his most popular tales, but certainly one of his most curious.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”

            "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is a story originally published in the late nineteenth century (1892), but which has only relatively recently been anthologized and widely read because of its thematic relevance to the rise in academic feminism in U.S. universities.  The story can be seen as a criticism of the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, particularly the issue of madness as a way men controlled women or else as a way women escaped from, or rebelled against, men.  However, the story can also be read as an interesting use of the technique of first-person point of view and the relationship between writing and reality--especially the difference between traditional male and female texts. 

            The story makes use of a common convention of what has often been called women's fiction--gothic romance.  It opens with the typical hereditary estate, which the narrator is tempted to call a "haunted house," and then introduces the convention, best known in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre," of the mysterious mad woman in the upstairs room.  However, the primary convention the story uses is the traditional difference between how men and women supposedly approach reality.  The husband, who is a doctor or scientist, has no patience with faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be physically verified and converted to mathematical figures.  This contrasts with the wife's imaginative power and her "habit of story-making." 

            Serving as a background to this tension is the wallpaper itself, which gives the story its title--an image of domestic "woman's things," but which takes on significance because of the nature of the "patterns" that it embodies.  If students isolate all those references to the wallpaper in the story, they will see how the patterns begin to take on an ominous expression of reality.  The nature of the woman's "madness" is projective and thus identified with the nature of writing, for she creates meaningful patterns and then responds to the patterns as if the meaning existed in them instead of being projected on them.  Although this may be at least one definition of madness, it is also a definition of the artist, who creates meaning out of patterns that readers take to be real and significant.  The difference between madness and art, of course, is between allowing the projection to possess one only temporarily or being drawn into it obsessively without the desire or ability to escape. 

            What the narrator does is to transform a "pointless pattern" into a meaningful one by following it to its conclusion or end and thus determining its purpose.  The narrator says she knows little of the principal of design, but that she does know that there is no law or rule that governs the pattern of the wallpaper.  Of course, as the story proceeds and she perceives or projects a woman behind the pattern, the reader knows that inevitability the woman must be herself, for the conventional rule that applies here is that if one projects a pattern, the pattern then indeed reflects the self.  The story thus involves two basic notions of patterns that the reader may need to unravel--patterns created by society itself that entrap a woman and bind her and patterns the mind of the woman herself creates that follow only the law of her own psychic distress. 

            A 1982 film version of this story invents a number of elements to present the story as a male/female conflict in which the male is responsible for the madness of the female.  For example, there is the difference between what the wife writes--her impressions and personal thoughts in a small notebook she keeps hidden in her pocket--and what the husband writes--a schedule that controls her every move and an academic paper.  Thus, the story is about the woman's external life dominated by her husband's schedule and her inner life captured by her own notebook, which her husband wishes to deny her.  In one scene the husband explains that he wants things solid, wants to get at the "reality of things"; he says, for example, that once pollination was explained to him, the mystery of love vanished.         

               A number of other inventions, such as a mysterious young girl who occasionally rides through the landscape outside the house on a bicycle, suggest the possibilities of the wife when she was a young girl herself, possibilities that have been closed off by the patterns that control her.  Throughout the film, the dialogue emphasizes the husband's view that the wife thinks too much, that her imagination is her worst enemy. He argues that to be healthy she must be "calm and pink"; for him the essence of woman is body not mind; as a doctor friend of the husband says to her, "You must put on flesh."

            The woman realizes that she seems to be living in a world of her own, but that the more it becomes her own the less control she has over it.  Indeed, her inner world becomes externalized.  At the end of the film, the conflict between the man and woman is made most explicit by a montage of shots that cut back and forth between the man reading his paper at a professional meeting and the woman tearing off the paper from her walls.  What the woman wishes is to expose what lies behind the patterns, to destroy the patterns themselves, and to free the woman who is entrapped there.  The climactic scene occurs when a hand comes out of the wall and a mysterious woman in a yellow dress kisses her and the two become one. 

Edgar Allan Poe, “Berenice”

        What Poe wanted to evoke in the story “Berenice" (March 1835) was some physical manifestation of identity that was both expressive of the self and suggestive of permanence. And the one last remnant of expression that remains after death and decay of the body would be the teeth. Perhaps the strange and seemingly over generalized first paragraph of the story indicates Poe's realization that his metaphor did not work, for it seems a case of special pleading.  He focuses on the manifold misery and wretchedness of the earth that derives from the fact that beauty results from unloveliness, that evil results from good, and that joy is born out of sorrow. The narrator focuses on a chamber filled with books--"a palace of imagination...the wild dominions of monastic thought and erudition.”  Spending his childhood with books and in reverie results in what he calls an inversion in his thoughts: 

            The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn,--not the material of my everyday existence--but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.

This is the most resounding statement in Poe's fiction of the central thrust of his vision, for it reflects the basic romantic mode of presenting the everyday world as strange and unusual and the fantastic world of dream and imagination as the only reality.

            Moreover, this is Poe's most emphatic statement of his idea of the intensity of interest.  Although the disease that falls on Bernice is the disease of epilepsy, which Poe uses as a metaphor for death, the narrator's disease, what he calls a "monomania," consists of a "morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive" (II, 211).  He describes an "intensity of interest" for "even the most ordinary objects of the universe."  However, the objects with which he becomes absorbed are not objects as such, for he singles out such things as a frivolous device in the typography of a book, a shadow falling aslant a tapestry, the steady flame of a lamp, the perfume of a flower, and the monotonous repetition of some common word, "until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind.”
            This condition, like the condition of the perverse, defies analysis or explanation.  Furthermore, he insists that his "undue, earnest, and morbid attention thus excited by objects in their own nature frivolous” is not to be confused with mere rumination.  It is not, he argues, even an exaggeration of such rumination, but something quite different.  Whereas the dreamer gradually loses sight of the object of his attention in deductions and suggestions deriving from it, in his own case, the primary object of his attention assumes an unreal importance and at the termination of the reverie, instead of disappearing, attains that "supernaturally exaggerated interest which was the prevailing feature of the disease.  In a word, the powers of mind more particularly exercised were with me, as I have said before, the attentive, and are, with the day-dreamer, the speculative.” 

            The narrator is fully aware of his obsession, for he notes that he never loved Berenice as a living and breathing individual, but as the embodiment of a dream:

            not as a being of the earth, earthly, but as the abstraction of such a being; not as a thing to admire, but to analyze--not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation.

As Berenice becomes more and more emaciated, that is, as the body wastes away and the face becomes more skull-like, the teeth become more predominant.  Consequently, it is the teeth that become the center of his monomania; "they alone were present to the mental eye," for he transforms them into a metaphoric embodiment of pure "idea" and thus the ultimate metaphor of his desire.  The only twist in the story, a grotesque twist that contributes to its ghastly nature, is the fact that Berenice is not dead but only in an epileptic coma when the narrator pulls out her teeth as she lies in her tomb.

            Poe's obsession with the Ideal and his abhorrence of body is less likely to be a result of his own psychological anxieties and fears, as some readers have assumed, than an inevitable implication of his metaphysical and aesthetic theories that true reality was purely pattern rather than merely physical.