Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"The Five Wounds" by Kirsten Valdez Quade

Congratulations to Kirstin Valdez Quade, who has placed a story, “The Five Wounds,” in the July 27 issue of The New Yorker. According to the contributors’ notes, Quade has just finished an MFA program at the University of Oregon and will begin work in the Fall at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow.

You have to admit, Quade has achieved two dream victories in the New Writers’ Triple Crown. What’s next? A bidding war for her first book, followed by a triple digit contract with a major publisher? I am sure all my readers join me in wishing her great good fortune in her career as an “emerging” writer.

“The Five Wounds” (which refers to the five wounds of the crucified Christ—on hands and feet and in the side) has generated a bit of discussion among bloggers, some of whom have suggested that it is the New Yorker’s token nod to new writers. I don’t know. Maybe so, maybe not. The fact that the New Yorker is willing to publish a new writer (As far as I can tell, Quade has only published one other story, in the summer 2008 issue of The Colorado Review.) should be encouraging to all struggling writers. For, to the best of my knowledge, the New Yorker pays more for a single short story than anybody else. And you do want to make some money at this, don’t you?

I recently picked up an old book at a library book sale entitled Indirections: For Those Who Want to Write, by Sidney Cox, published in 1947. Cox, a Dartmouth professor asserts: “Do not call yourself a writer, until you can include and shape enough to make a publisher and a public pay.” I wondered if the owner of the book ever reached his or her own desire to be a writer and made a publisher and a public pay. The book was only lightly read—no annotations, no underlining, no signature.

I have read “Five Wounds” three times now—the minimum, it seems to me, to give a short story that aspires to literature the kind of attention it deserves. My first reading simply follows the linear flow of the story, driven by my wish to know what happens next. My second reading is to determine the themes or motifs of the story—identified by looking for details that are almost obsessively repeated, looking for those points when the author cannot resist poking the reader, discovering whatever contexts I need to know about the story. After the third reading, I stand back from the story and try to see its shape in space. My reading model here is Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

“The Five Wounds” is a fairly conventional story, driven by a combination of something old and something new. The something old is the theme of guilt, redemption, penance. The something new is situating this theme within a cultural context that may be novel to many readers. The story takes place during Holy Week in New Mexico and focuses on a religious fraternity or brotherhood named Hermanos Penitentes, which the Catholic Encyclopedia identifies as a brotherhood of flagellants located in New Mexico and Colorado in the late nineteenth century, who, during Holy Week, name one brother to be bound to a cross. If the ritual, which is now forbidden, is still practiced, the Encyclopedia reports it is done so in secret.

I don’t know if Quade has any first hand knowledge of the brotherhood or whether she read about it and it caught her imagination as a means by which to explore the theme of penance. By choosing Amadeo Padilla as her Jesus, Quade picks someone who, if he has not committed all the deadly sins, has done enough to make him interesting. Quade also introduces, for the sake of creating a template against which Amadeo must be measured, a hermanos Jesus from the past, Manuel Garcia, who begged the brothers to use real nails, and obviously does not think Amadeo is worthy. Into this mix, Quade introduces Amadeo’s teenage daughter, Angel, who is unmarried and pregnant and who has come to stay with him. The plot development is clear enough. Whereas Amadeo thinks at first that Angel is a distraction from his role as Jesus, he inevitably comes to realize that, of course, his desertion of her when she was a child has made her the reason for his penance. When Amadeo tells her that he is carrying the cross this year, that he is Jesus, Angel says sarcastically, “And I’m the Virgin Mary.” That must have been a hard line for Quade to resist.

The complex thematic center of the story is announced when Angel, only mildly curious about Passion Week, says, “So, it’s like a play,” and Amadeo replies, “It’s not a play—it’s real. More real…” The ellipsis is Quade’s way of reminding us that whereas Amadeo does not have the language to explain the mystery of transubstantiation, her story is going to try to explore that mystery. When Amadeo takes Angel to see a wooden Christ on the cross, she asks him, “So you really want to know what it feels like?” Again, he cannot say, but he needs to know if he can ask for the nails, if he can do a performance so convincing, “he’ll transubstantiate right there on the cross into something real. He looks at the statue. Total redemption in one gesture, if only he can do it right.”

On Good Friday, the hermanos tie him to the cross, and start off “acting,” but then punch and slug him, and he is surprised that it is “actually happening.” By the second mile, he tries to “get into the part,” but is “just not feeling it.” He asks them to whip him, but Manuel Garcia, the old man, laughs at him. Then Amadeo realizes that Garcia’s mockery is a “gift,” and that Angel isn’t a distraction, but “the point. Everything Jesus did He did for his children.” He realizes that she is the one he wants with him today.

When the hermanos swing the cross upright, he asks for the nails, and the mayor Hermano, or elder brother/chief officer, sterilizes them and they pound them into his palms. It’s a powerful scene, not only because it is “actually” happening to Amadeo, but also because it is symbolically happening—a reenactment of the passion of Christ that at the moment becomes real to Amadeo. However, he realizes that he is not the son, but the father—that Angel is the suffering Christ who says to her father, “why hast thou forsaken me?”

The final image is of Angel holding out her hands toward Amadeo. He knows that she and her child will feel the pain of what it means to be human and that he is helpless to change it. He twists in agony on the cross and the people applaud as an expression of the fear and hope that the passion of Christ inspires in them. What Amadeo cannot explain and Quade’s story explores is the sin of all human beings—that we are mere flesh as a result of the Fall and must suffer pain and death. The paradox of Christ’s sacrifice that saves us all from death lies in the necessity of the Passion that makes possible the Resurrection. Christ serves as the Scapegoat, the one who becomes body and therefore must suffer the wounds and death that body is heir to, so that body can then rise from the dead, the ultimate promise of the Christian religion, the core of Christian faith: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” Hebrews 11:1.

Again, congratulations, Ms. Quade. Good luck on your future as a writer. I hope you make the publishers and the public pay.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Junot Diaz Urges MFA Programs for Readers

I just read an interview with Junot Diaz on Narrative. The Interviewer, Reese Kwon, said what surprised her about last year’s National Endowment for the Arts study was not that fewer people are reading, but that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who are writing—that people are reading less and writing more. She asked Diaz if he had come across this trend. Here is Diaz’s reply:

DÍAZ: “ I come across it every time I meet young writers who don’t give a shit about reading; all they give a shit about is their own work. I think that in the same way we’ve had a huge market crash, there’s a quiet market crash going on every year with writers, but we don’t get to see it as openly because there’s no way for it to be dramatized. But every year there is a huge body of young writers that there’s no room for, there’s no place for, there’s no readership for. If we were really smart, if we really cared about reading and writing, we wouldn’t be having MFA programs for writers, we would have MFA programs for readers.”

Although I am not sure there can be too many writers (After all, MFA students don’t really think they can make a living writing, do they?), I remind Diaz that we do have graduate programs to train readers; they are called MA and Ph.D. programs in literature. It is just that for various reasons many of these programs have shifted from focusing on reading to focusing on mining works for cultural and political content and contexts.

All during my forty-year teaching career, I told my students at the beginning of the semester--regardless of whether the class was a survey of American Literature, a seminar in Victorian Poetry, or an introduction to the short story—the class was primarily going to be a course in reading.

I told them that if they wanted biographical background, historical context, social ideas, cultural customs, or political debate, there were many places in the university, including the library, where they could find all that. They did not need a person at the front of the classroom to provide mere information that could be provided more efficiently and cheaply in other ways. I had no intention of being an animated footnote wandering back and forth in front of the chalkboard.

What they did need, I thought, was knowledge of and experience with the conventions of various kinds of writing and awareness of the careful way good writers manipulated language to increase awareness, make discoveries, and change them and the world. Based on my experience with these conventions and language use, I would try--by questioning, prompting, goading, aggravating, and infuriating--to get them to read carefully, closely, and sensitively. My goal was, as is the goal of all teachers, to make myself superfluous.

So, I agree with Junot Diaz. We should have MFA programs for readers. All literature and writing programs—both graduate and undergraduate—should be programs to teach reading. Reading, as all good writers know, is not a simple matter.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reading Like a Writer, Reading Like an Editor

The July 20th issue of The New Yorker includes three letters about Louis Menand’s “Critic at Large” piece on the rise of creative writing programs in the June 8th & 15th issue. Allyson Stack from Edinburgh, Scotland, writes that creative writing programs teach young writers to be their own editors since publishing companies no longer have the time or money to shepherd younger writers along. “A good creative-writing program,” argues Stack, “will aim at making students better editors by requiring them to read intensively, exhaustively, and endlessly—and to read far more than one another’s work.”

Stack reminds us that reading a novel (or a story) with an eye toward writing one is a very different task from reading it with an eye toward writing a term paper, a review, or a lecture. The aim of creative writing classes should be, Stack concludes, “not so much to produce novelists or poets as to produce more astute readers of novels and poetry—which is to say, better editors.”

Stack’s argument for writers being taught to read like editors does not sound that different from Francine Prose’s argument in her book Reading Like a Writer that everyone should read like writers.

Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences.

Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern–not subject matter. By relentlessly insisting on the importance of language and form, Prose reinforces what William H. Gass has argued in Finding a Form: that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form.” Every other diddly desire," insists Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day."

Prose’s insistence on the importance of language and literary form seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. But of course that the excellence of writing depends not on its content but its language and form is denied in classrooms around the world every day. In fact, the very idea of artistic form and excellence is often challenged in many of those classrooms as elitist.

Prose admits that many of her students complain that reading great writers makes them feel stupid. And indeed, a quick look at the hundred-plus list of “Books to Be Read Immediately” that Prose appends may have that effect. In addition to the “classic” writers who put off modern students--Austen, Babel, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, James, Joyce, Kafka, Mansfield, Melville, Proust, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Twain, and Woolf--there are a number of intimidating contemporary “writer’s writers” as well--Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and Joy Williams.

In her Gold Medal acceptance speech at the 1999 National Book Awards, Oprah Winfrey told a little story about calling Toni Morrison and asking, “Does anyone ever tell you that sometimes they have to go over the sentences several times to get the full meaning of what you’re really saying.” Morrison wryly and wisely replied, “That, my dear, is called reading.”

Writing that requires going over the sentence several times to get the full meaning is usually the result of the writer’s careful editing, which most often means following Chekhov’s advice that it is better to say too little than too much, or the famous advice of Strunk and White in Elements of Style: “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words.”

Perhaps the best-known example of the relationship between a writer and an editor, in which the issue of omitting needless words is crucial is the writer/editor collaboration of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. In my opinion, Carver’s stories that show Lish’s influence in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and What We Talk When we Talk About Love are much better stories than the “more generous” stories that appeared in Cathedral after he had repudiated Lish.

Critics who have scolded Carver for his minimalist shortcomings have done so for the same reasons that in previous generations they criticized Poe, Chekhov, and Sherwood Anderson. Clearly, those who spent much of the eighties scorning Carver's so-called cryptic tales for the same reasons that previous critics have criticized the short story in general, were more comfortable with the later, more explanatory versions of such stories as “The Bath” and “So Much Water Close to Home.”

However, Carver adds explanatory information to “A Small, Good Thing” that adds nothing significant to the original version entitled “The Bath.” For example, in “The Bath” the parents are trying to fasten on to some term that will categorize and thus normalize the son's condition, but each time they use the term “coma” the doctor simply says “I wouldn't call it that.” In “A Small, Good Thing.” Carver puts into the doctor's mouth a verbatim definition of a coma from Webster's New World Dictionary as a state of “deep, prolonged unconsciousness,” which does nothing to clarify the essential mystery of the boy's inaccessibility. In “The Bath,” when orderlies come in to get the boy for a brain scan, “they wheeled a thing like a bed.” However, in “A Small, Good Thing,” Carver uses the word “gurney”--certainly a more informative term, but one that loses the sense of disorientation the parents feel.

This addition of such bits of information serves unnecessary and distracting polemical purposes in the long version of “So Much Water Close to Home.” In the short version, when the wife reads about the death of the girl in the newspaper, she sits thinking and then calls and gets a chair at the hairdresser's. In the long version, we are told what she is thinking: “Two things are certain: 1) people no longer care what happens to other people; and 2) nothing makes any difference any longer. Look at what has happened. Yet nothing will change for Stuart and me.”

Chekhov would never have approved of Carver's added explanation, which sounds more like a freshman composition essay than the muddled emotions of a woman who has identified with the image of a dead girl floating just beneath the surface of the water.

I agree with Francine Prose that the best way to teach reading is to teach students to read like writers and with Allyson Stack that the best way to teach writing is to teach students to read like editors.

I would love to hear from writers who have been in MFA programs and teachers who have been in graduate literature programs on the issue of how to teach good reading and good writing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Forgive a Personal Indulgence: My first short story

Charles May, who has taught and written about the short story for over forty years, has finally (gasp!) published his first short story.

I begin this entry with the preceding sentence—which expresses the humility and pride I feel about this little addition to my resume-- because if this blog entry ever pops up as the result of a Google search, it is the sentence that will appear. The story is available at:
Click on the summer issue icon and scroll down to my story "This is Me" and click it.

I have debated over the past two months since the story appeared whether I should devote a blog entry to this. On the one hand, it seems a little too self-serving. On the other hand, to fail to talk a bit about it seems chickenshit. I mean I have criticized so many short-story writers over the years, I should give readers to take a shot at me.

Like most teachers of English, I always wanted to write. You know the old saying—those that can do; those that can’t teach. I began writing stories when I was a kid growing up in the mountain of eastern Ky. I published them in a little broadsheet that I laboriously printed out by hand in multiple copies and “sold” to my family. In high school and college, I wrote stories and published them in newspapers, for which I was editor or feature editor.

When I was a senior in high school in Paintsville, Ky, I received a modest scholarship to attend a writer’s workshop held on the campus of Morehead State University, where I had been accepted as a freshman and got a job running a printing press. The professor who ran the workshop and gave me the scholarship was Albert Stewart, a, diminutive man who wrote poetry and was one of the Appalachian Mountain’s most energetic promoters of writers.

At the workshop, for the first time in my life, I met real, honest-to-god writers, such as Jane Mayhall and Robert Hazel, and literary agents and other aspiring wannabes like myself. It was exhilarating for a country boy who loved to read and wanted to be a writer. I think I was probably the youngest one there.

At the end of the workshop, the faculty got together and named who they thought to be the most promising writer at the workshop. I and a man from Florida, whose name I cannot recall and have never seen since, were named the winners. Oh, my friends, it was heady.

During the time I was an undergraduate at Morehead, I took classes from Al Stewart and Jim Still, the most respected writer in Eastern Kentucky, after the less-talented Jessie Stuart, that is. He introduced me to Turgenev and Chekhov and read his stories to us and talked about them. I once visited him at the Hindman Settlement School, where he was librarian, and he showed me files and files of work in progress, and I was definitely hooked. I was going to be a writer.

Then I got a fellowship to do graduate work at Ohio University, and I threw myself into that and put my desire to write fiction aside. I got my Ph.D. in three years and took a job at California State University, Long Beach. So there I was, six years out of high school, and determined to climb the tenure track ladder to provide for my family and become a professor.

In the forty years I was at Long Beach, I wrote some fiction, kept notebooks, tinkered with some drafts, but never really finished anything and never sent anything out. I was succeeding, after a fashion, writing critical articles and books on the short story, and was too chicken to send anything out that pretended to be a short story.

Finally, when I retired, I took some stuff I had saved over the years on my hard drive and started working with it. One piece, which derived from my experience of sitting in an ER waiting room for two weeks in Kentucky while my mother died, seemed to have enough detail, enough thematic significance, enough engaged point of view, that it might actually be a story. So I polished it and sent it out to a journal I had published in before: an interview with Ky writer Chris Offutt and a tribute on the death of Jim Still—Appalachian Heritage, pubished at Berea College in Kentucky. A few weeks later, the editor wrote me to say he was going to publish it in the summer 2009 issue. It is entitled “This is Me,” and women forgive me for appropriation, it is from the point of view of a female.

Those of you who have published fiction know this feeling, but it was a first for me. An editor of a periodical had read something I had written and pronounced it a story. If he thought it was a story, and he was supposed to know such things, then, By God, it must be a story.

So I have some modicum of confidence now. I have tentatively been anointed a short-story writer. The confidence that Al Stewart and Jim Still showed in me almost fifty years ago—that I had promise—might possibly be affirmed. I am writing fiction. At least I think so. I am not sure. One story is not sufficient to overcome a half-century of reticence and cowardice.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Playing it Safe with the Pulitzer: Olive Kitteridge and The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao

I finally found the time to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a collection of thirteen loosely linked stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. Coincidentally, I just finished listening to (on my Ipod on daily dog walks) last year’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

As I have mentioned before, the Pulitzer Prize is seldom given to a collection of stories (Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, 1970; Stories of John Cheever, 1979; Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, 1993, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, 2000). So I am happy that a group of stories won it this year, even though that pleasure is somewhat lessened by the fact that Random House has packaged the book as if it were a novel and that it seems to fulfill too slavishly Joseph Pulitzer’s original aim of the fiction prize—that it be given to a work published during the year “which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life…”

William H. Gass wrote a blistering attack on the Pulitzer in The New York Times Book Review (1985) that later appeared in his collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996). The most memorable quote from the essay: “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” Complaining that the judges are often chosen to represent their race, religion, or sex, Gass insists that the only qualification a judge of the Pulitzer should have is “unimpeachable good taste, which immediately renders irrelevant such puerile pluralistic concerns as skin color, sex, and origin. Egalitarians shouldn’t give prizes and be too humble to receive them.” Gass says the Pulitzer has perceived an important truth about our culture: “Serious literature is not important to it.”

As much as I admire the work of William H. Gass, that judgment may be a bit extreme. I enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge and I enjoyed listening to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the past few years, I have also got a lot of pleasure out of listening to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones—all Pulitzer Prize winners that I admire and none of which I would call mediocre. (You will probably notice that I more often listen to novels than read them; novels just require less of my attention than short stories do.)

I admire William H. Gass’s work a great deal. His novella Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife is one of my favorite books, and I thought his novel The Tunnel was brilliant and beautifully written. I think it is laughable that such a masterpiece would be passed over by the Pulitzer, while such a mediocre work as Richard Ford’s Independence Day would win the prize. However, Gass’s blanket condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize may be a bit of sour grapes.

I thought that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a good novel. The voice of the narrator is hard to resist. But it was just a novel—and a very traditional, safe, coming-of-age novel at that. The fact that the young protagonist is a Dominican nerd who plays video games and writes science fiction/fantasy does not make it less traditional and less safe. And the style, because it is in the voice of Junior, who appeared in the stories in Drown, is more than a little sloppy.

I liked Olive Kitteridge also, but I did not “love it,” as some reviewers have rhapsodized. The recurrent appearance of the grouchy schoolteacher Olive sometimes seems like a gimmick to me. She is the central figure in some stories, but is only referred to in others. Strout’s idea is to present her in relationships with several different people—her husband, her son, her neighbors, her colleagues, etc—and thus reveal her to be more complex than any one person thinks she is. Sometimes this device works, sometimes it seems forced, especially when extreme events are invented to reveal Olive’s hidden nature. Sometimes you like her; sometimes you think she is a bitch. You never really know what makes her do the things she does. All you can say is, “That’s just Olive.” Although Olive Kitteridge has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, in my opinion, it does not take the kind of chances, either in style or content, that Sherwood Anderson’s collection did in 1919.

William H.Gass’s opinion of the Pulitzer may be a bit extreme, but he is probably right that a novel or collection of stories that plays it safe is more apt to win the prize than one that takes chances with style, content, or theme.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kevin Wilson, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is Kevin Wilson’s first book. The eleven stories were originally published in such places as Ploughshares, The Cincinnati Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Greensboro Review. Two of them—“The Choir Director’s Story” and the title story—were chosen for New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best in 2005 and 2006. The book received decent reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, comparing Wilson’s quirky little stories to those of George Saunders and Steven Millhauser.

I enjoyed Wilson’s stories, especially the first one entitled “Grand Stand-In.” One of the most intriguing and socially significant stories in the book, it plays the “what-if” game of imagining what it would be like if in our modern displaced society without extended families, there existed an organization that “rented” out grandparents to families who had lost them. The narrator of the story, a “grandmother” who works for a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider, admits that although such a concept is incredibly, undeniably weird (as is true of most of Wilson’s stories), once you accept the concept, it begins to make some bizarre kind of sense.

With the exception of two more realistic stories, “Mortal Combat” and “Go, Fight, Win,” most of the stories are based on “what if” social or conceptual premises, primarily about nonexistent and unusual jobs. One works in a Scrabble factory, searching for Q’s. Another is the curator of a museum that houses things that are ordinarily junk, but which have been transformed into something interesting and valuable simply because someone collected them, such as jars of toenail clippings. Another advises businesses on such possibilities as how many people would be killed if a disgruntled worker came back to take revenge on his former coworkers or how many people would die if a bus got stuck in a freak blizzard during rush-hour traffic.

Steven Millhauser's short fictions are, like Wilson’s, "suppose" stories. Suppose someone built the ultimate shopping mall? Suppose adolescent female mystery was really caused by witches? Suppose there was an amusement park that opened the door to an alternate reality. Suppose you took an ordinary entertainment, illusion, or metaphor and pushed it as far as it would go." One could say that all of Millhauser's stories go "too far," that is, if the intensive "too far" existed in his vocabulary. While most short-story writers in the last two decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies, Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scherazade to Poe and from Kafka to Borges, playfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the mundane and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation.

His favorite personae are the impresario, the maestro, the necromancer, the wizard, Prospero on his island, Edison in his laboratory, Barnum in his circus ring. Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction--the magical story of the reality of artifice. Millhauser is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion and ultimate reality is always sleight of hand

When George Saunder's first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned." Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. The reviewers of Saunders' first two collections have called him variously "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Typical of the satirist's need for an object of attack, 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," he usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll."

In one of my favorite Saunders stories, "Sea Oak." A man works at a male strip club called Joysticks and lives with his aunt, sister, and cousin in a subsidized apartment complex called Sea Oak, where there is no sea and no oak, only a rear view of FedEx. Saunders evokes some funny bits here: the Board of Health who visits the club to make sure the men's penises won't show, a television program of computer simulations of tragedies that never actually occurred but theoretically could. However, the story becomes most absurd when aunt Bernie dies and returns from the grave as a zombie who urges the narrator to show his penis so he can make more money.

The ostensible satiric point of the story is Bernie's expression of the unfulfilled longings of all the losers who die unheralded. However, what the reader most remembers is the grotesque image of Bernie's ears, nose, arms, and legs decaying and falling off. If there is a central thematic line in the story, it occurs when the narrator puts what is left of Bernie's body in a Hefty bag, thinking maybe there are angry dead people everywhere, hiding in rooms and bossing around their scared relatives. The story ends with Bernie's voice in the narrator's dreams crying the anthem perhaps of every pathetic, and somehow sympathetic, loser in Saunders’s collection--"Some People get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?"

Although I can see the similarity between Wilson’s stories and those of Millhauser and Saunders, and I did enjoy the clever concepts that Wilson creates, I don’t think he has the imagination of Millhauser or the satiric vision of Saunders.

When Wilson was asked how he balances the real and the strange in his stories and keeps them believable, he says that the trick is that he works hard at embracing the ridiculous nature of the stories without making the concerns of the characters ridiculous. He also suggests that when you present something strange and perhaps impossible, you simply incorporate it into the story without making a big deal about it, thus making it more readily accepted by the reader.

I think those are both helpful suggestions about writing "what if" stories.