Thursday, November 20, 2008

David Means' "The Botch"

I just read David Means' new story "The Botch" in the November, 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine. Means is one of my favorite short story writers. He is the author of three collections--A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1991), Assorted Fire Events (2000), and The Secret Goldfish (2004). Assorted Fire Events won the Los Angels Times Book Prize for Fiction and was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Much to the dismay of his publishers, Means has never written a novel. When I reviewed The Secret Goldfish, I said the following about Means' dedication to the short story:

"I suspect the guy can’t help it. Like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.

To understand that “short-story way,” pick up Means’ new collection of fifteen stories. But don’t rush through them. Read one, put the book by and meditate on the mystery of the human condition the story explores. Then wait a while before reading another.

The short story is often misunderstood and underrated because readers read it the same way they do sections of novels.

Don’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. Go to David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies and for the shock of recognition that those you thought you knew you don’t really know at all.

You go to Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed, stark and astonishing."

"The Botch" story reminded me of another reason why short stories are not popular and perhaps never will be. You cannot read a good short story just once. You must read it at least twice, perhaps more. I have been reading short stories all my academic life, and I read "The Botch" three times before I began to appreciate it

The story is about three men who rob a bank in the town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Although the time of the robbery is not made clear, there are many references to the "tradition" of bank robberies in the Depression, and the narrator of the story--one of the robbers--sees the three men as sort of Robin Hoods in the Bonnie and Clyde mode. During the robbery, the narrator is distracted by an outside event, which in turn makes the robbers shooting several of the people in the bank.

So what is the story about? Well, I think it has something to do with the line from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"--"Between the idea and the reality...lies the shadow." Throughout the story, the narrator continues to repeat the phrase "The idea is" or "The idea being" to introduce the robbers' plans to rob the bank. "The idea is to tap into the old traditions..." "The idea was to find a groove and stay in it..." The idea always is to engage in a mechanical process that follows a pattern and does not deviate from it. However, when a human distraction intervenes, the pattern is destroyed and the plan is "botched." We have seen this scene in crime movies many times--the outlaws have a plan, but something or someone screws up and a massacre ensues.

It is thus not just plot or character that makes this story so engaging and illuminating, but David Means' ability to create a structure of language that captures a universal experience. Maybe some readers can get this on a single reading, but I doubt it. The story rewards multiple readings. That's too much work for many readers. I always had a hard time getting my students to read a story more than once. Usually, they just read through it the way they would a chapter in a novel to "see what happens" and came to class for a kind of group "second reading." Then they got it!

Short stories, unlike novels, are not just a matter of "one damned thing after another." They are a carefully wrought pattern of meaning.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Novel vs. Short Story Structure

Although I prefer reading short stories to novels, I do occasionally read the "loose baggy monsters," as Henry James called them. I recently read two novels back to back--Ethan Canin's America America and Tim Winton's Breath, and the difference between the way the two books are structured reminded me of a basic difference between the way novels and short stories are structured.

Canin's book
is a traditional Bildungsroman, a novel about the coming-of-age of a young man; but it is also a political novel with a message, sometimes laid on too heavy-handedly by Canin, in which the lost idealism of a boy is a reflection of the lost idealism of a nation. As the title suggests, this book intends to be an “American Dream” epic, a “great American novel,” in the classic sense. Perhaps for this reason, the plot moves with a kind of predictable inevitability.

Breath is a also a Bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young man in a small town on the western coast of Australia in the early 1970s. What holds the novel together is the thematic device suggested by the title--that breathing, the most essential human activity, is also the most unconscious and taken-for-granted ordinary activity. Consequently, to be able to manipulate breathing—by holding one’s breath, by putting a plastic bag over one’s head to come as close to death as possible—is a way to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Italian novelist Alberto Moravia once argued that the difference between the short story and the novel is the difference between their ground plan or structure. The novel, he says, has a bone structure of ideology, whereas the short story is boneless. Thus, while the short story is more like a lyric, the novel is similar to the essay or the philosophical treatise.

Winton's short novel is held together by the repetition of the central theme of "breath," whereas Canin's novel is held together by the basic plot line of lost idealism about political figures and political life. The result is that Breath is like a short story in structure, tightly organized around a central metaphoric theme, whereas America America is structured like the traditional novel, exploring social expectations and philosophic ideas. As a result of this difference, Canin can put a lot of "stuff" in his novel--ruminations, historical contexts, everyday acts-- whereas Winton, for the most part, restricts himself to material that binds the thematic pattern of the novel.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rikki Ducornet's "The One Marvelous Thing"

I just reviewed Rikki Ducornet's new collection of short stories, "The One Marvelous Thing" for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here's a couple of brief quotes from that review:

“Anomalous—deviating from the normal; deviant.”--American Heritage Dictionary

“The anomalous deserves our attention.”--Rikki Ducornet

And why does the deviant deserve our attention?

Rikki Ducornet would probably say that what we call “normal” is just the routine habits that shield us from the many more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. In this, her fourth collection of short fantastic prose poems, Ducornet rips away that shield to show us that there is not just “one marvelous thing” in the world but many.....

If you go to and type in Rikki Ducornet’s name, you can watch the names of Barthelme, Borges, Barth, Coover, Lovecraft, Calvino, and Angela Carter fan out around her. We should be glad that although those who know only the “normal” may frown in disapproval, there are still writers like Ducornet who have their number. For which we cannot resist singing a chorus of the Steely Dan song inspired by her, “Rikki, Don’t Lose that Number.”

I wonder why fantasy writers are always linked with other fantasy writers in a sort of sales device, e.g. "If you like Jorge Louis Borges, you will like Rikki Ducornet" or "We have noticed that people who purchased Rikki Ducornet also purchased Angela Carter."

This may be unfortunate, for it tends to pigeonhole fantasy books as "genre fiction" in a narrow sort of way.

A Cheerleader for the Short Story

November 16, 2008

This is my first blog entry. I retired two years ago after 40 years as a university professor of literature at California State University, Long Beach. My special interest is the short story as a literary genre. I have published five books on the short story and over 400 articles and reviews on the form. A colleague recently suggested to me that since I knew so much about the short story I might consider starting a blog. So here goes.

I have always been bothered by the fact that people would rather read novels than short stories. It seems counter-intuitive. After all, since everyone is so busy nowadays, you would think folks would prefer the short term time investment in a short story rather than the novel over the long haul. Not so. Why is that?

I think it is because that short stories are more apt to be like poems than novels. That is, short story writers choose their words carefully and construct their stories economically. The result is that readers have to work harder to read short stories than they do novels. Reading a novel just takes time. Reading a short story takes concentration and close attention to language.