Monday, April 13, 2009

Robert Boswell, Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and The Half-Known World

I have been reading Robert Boswell’s new collection of short stories, Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, due out from Graywolf Press at the end of April. My review will appear in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for which I have been reviewing short story collections for the past several years.

Boswell is the author of two previous collections of short stories and six novels. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University, University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA program. He is, by the way, married to Antonia Nelson, whose recent short story collection I also reviewed and about which I posted an earlier blog. Perhaps some of you have met him or read his book on writing fiction entitled The Half Known World.

When I got the review assignment, I ordered The Half Known World and was pleased to find that, like other good books on writing fiction, it was really about reading fiction. I want to make a few comments about the title essay of this collection of essays and lectures before commenting on The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards.

First, let me say, I really like much of what Boswell says about writing/reading fiction. He does not spend time handing out the kind of tips about craft that you often find in Writer’s Digest, but rather provides a thoughtful commentary on the techniques of works of fiction that he admires, such as Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Although I am not a writer of fiction, I recommend this book to you. It just came out in paperback last year from Graywolf.

Here are some quotes from the title essay that I like:

*“I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking.”

*“For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world the story creates. I work from a kind of half-knowledge.”

*“If the writer’s goal is ‘literary fiction’ [one of his or her responsibilities] is the creation of a half-known world. To accomplish this, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”

*“Fiction writers [often make the mistake of confusing] the half-known world of literary fiction with the fully-known world of popular film or TV.”

*“A fully known world is devoid of mystery.”

*“This is the key thing to understand: In literary works, secrets function to the extent that their revelation creates an equal portion of mystery. The world then remains half known.”

*“When the reader’s experience of a story results in a world that is too fully known, the story fails.”

*“A crucial part of the writing endeavor is the practice of remaining in the dark.”

I like Boswell’s emphasis on the “half-known world” and the importance of remaining in the dark. He is not the first to say this. Much of his discussion here owes an important debt to the essays of Flannery O’Connor in her wonderful collection Mystery and Manners, another book I recommend very highly.

A story," O'Connor says, "is a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate." Well, yes, sure, that's right. But what kinds of meanings cannot be expressed in a statement? Are there really such things? Later on, O'Connor says, "There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery, and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you." Yeah, O.K. I get that. But where do you get the mystery? She doesn't answer that one.

“Mystery" is indeed Flannery O'Connor's favorite word. She says that for the writer who believes that life is essentially mysterious, "what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself." For this kind of writer, the "meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology ... have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do." I love it when she talks like that. One more: "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.... His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him."

Yes, I believe it. Somehow the concrete doesn't stay concrete in the short story, but like the mystery of incarnation, is transformed into spirit even as it remains body. But, Lord, what do you make of that?

Most of my favorite writers talk like this. Eudora Welty is another. She once said: "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful." "The mystery of allurement." Yes, I believe that. And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become. I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them.

Now, about Boswell’s stories in Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. As usual, I experienced more than a little conflict while reading them. On the one hand, I enjoyed them, found them engaging and well written, but at the same time I felt that I was being manipulated. I know, I know, all writers manipulate us. If they fail to manipulate us, then they just fail.

What bothers me about Boswell’s stories—and I would love to hear from some of the writers who read this blog about this—they often just sound too much as if they were written by someone who teaches writing.

I have never taken a writing workshop in my life, so I cannot say that I know what a creative writing teacher actually teaches. But I have certainly read a great number of books about writing fiction written by those who teach creative writing.

At least three aspects of Boswell’s stories remind me that he teaches creative writing. I will comment on them briefly and hope to hear from others about this.

First of all, there is the irresistible urge to “experiment” with narrative structure or point of view. For example, in his story “No River Wide,” Boswell plays with presenting the point of view of the central character as simultaneously existing in two different places and at two different times. It is a reasonable ploy. After all, all stories present a past event from the perspective of a present time. There is the time the event took place and the time the teller relates the event. However, we usually ignore this and respond to the past event as if it were somehow still taking place.

It reminds me of something the contextualist critic Murray Krieger once said about the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—“Thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The word “still” means both at once not moving and still moving, that is, still to come. But Boswell’s use of the device draws attention to itself as a self-conscious convention.

In the story “A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain,” Boswell uses the point of view of a woman who seems to have had a stroke, or maybe she is just a modern Mrs. Malaprop” who makes numerous language errors, such as “I get irrigated with my life,” “He begins happily dissembling our past,” “I’m at the car, divulging a black boom box.”

They are funny, and Boswell seems to be having a great time inventing them, but the story seems to be mainly an excuse for demonstrating his cleverness in inventing them.

Another possible problem of the creative writing teacher writing is that he or she is apt to write in the style or thematic mode of a writer that he or she admires.

For example, Boswell’s story “Supreme Beings,” which features mystic visions and the quest for the savior and which focuses largely on a priest suffering his own conflict of faith, sounds very much like Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.” And the title story, which goes on quite long about a group of druggies living a doped-out life in a wilderness vacation retreat, complete with some comic violence and death, and a wise man who spouts, what else, wisdom, sounds much like the characters in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

Of course, a writer should experiment with various techniques of point of view, structure, and language. Of course, a writer is going to be influenced by writers that he or she admires.

I just wonder if it is not a bit risky for a writer to teach writing. I understand that writers who write serious short stories cannot, by any stretch, make a living writing. I know that the most sensible way for writers to make a living is to teach writing. But is it not risky to do so? How can a writer who teaches writing conventions and the techniques of other writers not run the risk of writing fiction that calls attention to itself?

I would certainly appreciate hearing from any of you about this.


R. T. said...

Do not lose sight of the religious connotations embraced by Flannery O'Connor's special use of the word "mystery." Once you grapple with that specialized use, then her application of that word to her brand of fiction is easier to discern.

Art Durkee said...

It's always risky for creatives to teach. What you spot, the self-conscious use of experimentation and extended craft, is always a temptation.

The problem is at root that one can only teach craft, one cannot teach inspiration. Craft is essential for getting one's ideas and creative feelings across—but when it becomes too foregrounded, too dominant in the artistic mix, it tends to kill the vibe. It tends to make art into craft, aesthetic into technique.

I agree about keeping things mysterious. I'm sure someone will mention Keats' "negative capability" in this context, here.

Charles E. May said...

I agree with R.T. that O'Connor is much aware of the central Christian "mystery" of the Incarnation. However, I think in her essays she is using the term in a much broader sense.

"In the beginning was the Word," says John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” O'Connor focuses on the the Incarnation, I think, because, prefigured in the creation and Fall, the concept offers humanity the opportunity to be reunited with all from which the Fall separated them, to regain that primal oneness of being and perception before the knowledge of object permanence.

Charles E. May said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R. T. said...

My reading of O'Connor over the years has convinced me that even in her nonfiction prose (essays, lectures, and letters), O'Connor frequently uses language rather anagogically (much in the way of William Blake). There is something almost gnostic in O'Connor's subtle manipulation of language (again, much like Blake), and though I acknowledge O'Connor's acceptance and understanding of her secular environment, and though I acknowldge O'Connor's apparently secular outreach to correspondents and audiences, I suspect that she was nevertheless constantly focused (especially in the last several decades of her life) on what she believed to be her God-given prophetic mission (i.e., to portray the spiritual through the secular). So, whenever O'Connor uses words like "mystery," even in an ostensibly secular context (essay, letter, or lecture), I am compelled to remain alert to more profound possibilities.

Charles E. May said...

Point taken, R.T. Thanks for your comments. I will pay closer attention to O'Connor's language in her essays--which I much admire.

And thanks, Art, for your comment. I am appending the Keats quote here, so readers will not have to look it up. You are surely right about its relevance.

Keats in a letter to his brothers tells of a discussion he had in which dove-tailed for him what quality made a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare “possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Letter to George and Thomas Keats.)

Lee said...

I'm so glad you recommended Boswell's The Half-Known World! I just received my copy yesterday and am racing through it, but of course will return for second and probably many more readings. Most books on writing are not only a waste of time, but fraught with all sorts of pitfalls and dangers; not this one. No rules, just some excellent insights. The chapter on the alternate-universe metaphor is worth the purchase price alone! And I like his humility, too. There is something magical and partly inexplicable in the way words can rise off the page like a spirit conjured.

Tony said...

I'm reading "The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards" now. I just finished and was very impressed with the story "No River Wide". Then I read your review. Robert Boswell is a new writer for me, and I've also read very positive reviews of his stories which is why I'm reading this book now. I think over the course of reading all the stories in this book, I will reach a conclusion as to if I feel manipulated or if I am honestly moved by these stories. I'll let you know.

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Pit Boss said...

Short stories are cool.. I have a friend who has read hundreds of them.

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