Thursday, January 29, 2009

Antonya Nelson and the Figure in the Carpet

I have just been reading Antonya Nelson's new collection of stories, Nothing Right, due out in early February. If you have not read Nelson, you might want to take a look. I have been reading her since her first collection, The Expendables, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction back in 1990. I reviewed her last collection Female Trouble (2002) and felt that, like such writers as Alice Munro and Bobbie Ann Mason, Nelson, gives me a privileged glimpse into what it must be like to think and feel as a woman does. Indeed, the revelations in Nelson’s fourth collection of short stories examine the subtle sexual secrets of women so candidly and acutely that they often make me feel like a privileged intruder.

The issue her fifth book raises for me is whether a writer's work has some central unity--some obsessive theme or style--that the reader can recognize. The stories in Nothing Right, like many other Nelson stories, seem to focus on a recurring theme. Many of Nelson's characters--mostly women--are lost, disengaged--looking for a mate, a child, a family--to give themselves a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. Some succeed in finding it; some do not.

Then, just as I was reading the book, the January 19 issue of The New Yorker arrived, with a new story by Nelson, entitled "Soldier's Joy," and there it was again. In this story, the central character, a young woman named Nana, is married to a much older man, her former professor. They have no children; he drinks, condescends to her, and is having an affair with her best friend. When her father (about her husband's age) has an accident and she must go home to help out, she meets her first boyfriend, married with children, who is out of work and who likes smoking hash better than anything else. She sleeps with him in her childhood bedroom where she first slept with him. She then finds out about her husband's longterm affair. The story ends with her sitting down to eat a childhood meal of meatloaf and soft white bread, thinking about how she must go home, where she will have to "revisit and amend, unstitch and patch back together, her husband and her friend." As she faces the simple childhood meal, "It was very difficult, as if she were starting all the way back to the beginning."

Summaries, of course, never do justice to a complex story, so I urge you to read it. The title seems to refer to an old fiddle song about Civil War soldiers spending a few cents on whiskey, beer, and morphine to numb their pain. In this story, the male characters drink and smoke dope for relief of the pain of growing old, being without work, etc.

But even the summary indicates that once again Nelson is concerned with a woman who is trying to escape her isolation--returning home to be a child again, having sex with the old boyfriend, trying to find a way to make another start--suggesting what I take to be the signature Nelson theme. As a side note, this may be a more universal short-story theme. At least Frank O'Connor thinks so in his classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice. (A must-have book for any student of the short story. I made a presentation on O'Connor's thesis of the lonely voice at an International Short Story Conference in Cork, Ireland, this past June. I will come back to this theme in another blog.)

In reading the Nelson stories, I recalled a wonderful essay by Eudora Welty. It is entitled "Writing and Analyzing a Story," and can be found in her book The Eye of the Story, a great collection that should be in the library of any lover of the short story. (Please forgive all these recommendations; it is an old professor's occupational hazard.)

Welty suggests that although a writer's stories are not written in any typical, predictable, systematic way, still "a serious writer's stories are ultimately, to any reader, so clearly identifiable as his." She says that it all of a writer's stories seem to spring from the same source within him or her, that a writer's stories carry his or her "signature," because of one impulse characteristic of his or her gift.

Welty says that story writing and critical analysis are separate gifts, like "spelling and playing the flute, and the same writer proficient in both has been double endowed. But even he can't rise and do both at the same time."

Well, I may may some modest analytical skill, but I have no gift in story writing, so I would be interested in hearing from writers who are kind enough to read this blog. Do you think Welty is right that all of a writer's stories spring from the same source within?

The classic story about this is Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet," a story which I include in my text Fiction's Many Worlds, but which few of my students, usually only those who want to be writers, care for. It is just too much a story about literary values to be of broad interest.

James says in his preface to the collection The Lesson of the Master that what he remembers about writing "The Figure in the Carpet" is that he was struck by the general mistrust of close analytical reading and that he wished to reinstate analytical appreciation."

Some readers are not sure if James means this or if the story is a long-winded tongue-in-cheek satire on readers, like myself, who are bound and determined to discover complex figures in the work of authors. I have met a number of writers whose stories are taught in university classrooms, and I must admit that few of them give a tinker's damn about what professors say about their work and scoff at the elaborate critical essays that professors write to climb up the tenure track.

One final thing: Welty spends much of her essay mentioned above on her own analysis of one of her most complex stories, "No Place for You, My Love." It is one of my favorites. In my next post, I will try to talk about "Reading like a Writer." I will come back to the Welty essay and the story she discusses, as well as talk a bit about Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer," which I also recommend. It is a powerful validation of that much maligned old "New Critical" tactic called "close reading," something in the last few years of teaching I had trouble getting my graduate students to do since many of their professors had told them close reading was socially irresponsible.

1 comment:

john landaw said...

A very partial view of Antonya Nelson! Many of her stories are actually about men.

To name a few: The Control Group, Or Else, Eminent Domains (although here the focus is split)

That Welty story, No Place for You... Awful to say so as I love her work, but I found it interminable. Not a patch on Why I live at the PO