Friday, February 19, 2010

The Experimental Short Story: Part II: David Means, Stephen Millhauser, George Saunders, Steven Dixon

Rolf asked, vis a vis The Experimental Short Story: Part I, if I had considered Lydia Davis’s short fiction. I have read several of Davis’s stories in various places, but have not yet had a chance to read her Collected Stories that was on several “Best Books of the Year” lists for 2009. Sorry to say I have not got to J. G. Ballard’s Collected Stories either. So much to read! So little time! So I will have to content myself with four “experimental” writers that I have read—two of which are my favorite writers, and two that I find thoughtful and clever. Lydia Davis and J. G. Ballard join several others on my "must read; get the lead out" list of short story collections.

David Means

Although David Means’ Assorted Fire Events (2000), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave reviews both in America and England, still, for many critics, it was just a collection of short stories. His most recent collection of stories, The Secret Goldfish, reaffirms that 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 The Secret Goldfish. But don’t rush through the stories. 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 first paragraph of the first story in Secret Goldfish, “Lightning Man,” makes clear that the realm of reality that matters for Means is sacramental, ritualistic, miraculous--a world in which the old reassurances, such as lightning never strikes twice in the same place, are shown to be nonsense. Here a man is struck seven times throughout his life by a powerful revelatory energy until he becomes a mythic creature, waiting for the inevitable eighth.

In the short-story world of David Means, a mundane tale of infidelity and divorce gets transformed by the metaphoric stillness of a neglected goldfish in a mucked-up tank, surviving in spite of the stagnation around it. Means’ short stories are seldom satisfied with linearity of plot and thus often become lists of connected mysteries. “Notable Dustman Appearances to Date” is a series of hallucinatory manifestations of famous faces in swirling dust kicked up by wind or smoke: Nixon, Hemingway, Gogol, Jesus. “Michigan Death Trips” is a catalog of catastrophic disruptions, as people abruptly disappear beneath the ice of a frozen lake, are suddenly struck on the highway, or hit by a stray bullet from nowhere. “Elyria Man," lays bare mummified bodies found lying beneath the soil, as if patiently waiting to embody some basic human fear or need.

In each of his stories, David Means reveals the truth of our lives the way great art always has—by making us see the world as it painfully is, not as our comfortable habits hide it from us. David Means is a brilliant master of the short story who fully understands and respects the form’s power.

Stephen Millhauser

While most short-story writers in the last three decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies, Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Poe, to Kafka, to Borges, Barthelme and Barth--playfully and powerfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the merely real and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation.

Steven Millhauser's short fictions are often basically "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. However, Millhauser's most obsessive "suppose" is: "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. 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.

Although the thirteen stories in his most recent collection, Dangerous Laughter, are divided into three categories--Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures, and Heretical Histories—they are united by the romantic quest for transcendence. Even the opening cartoon, which uses fast-paced present-tense to create the illusion that you are watching a Tom and Jerry animated short, concludes with erasure of the physical and reinstatement of illusion.

The stories in the first group are the most intriguing in their transformation of the mundane into the miraculous. “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” is not a simple crime story. When the narrator and his former high school classmates look Elaine Coleman up in their yearbook, they cannot recall her, finally understanding that she did not suddenly disappear but rather gradually became more and more invisible. That the drive to transcend can begin in the most ordinary ways and lead to the most terrible results is explored in “Dangerous Laughter,” a story of how, pushed to extremes, any activity can become both obsessive and powerfully significant. It begins with adolescents laughing at little until the laughing becomes an end in itself, part of the “kingdom of forbidden things.”

The stories in the “Impossible Architectures” group,” although like previous Millhauser stories about artificial and enclosed worlds, are less compelling. “The Dome” begins with transparent domes to cover houses, which then develop into larger domes to cover neighborhoods and then towns, until the entire country and then the world is transformed into a giant mall. And if you encounter a Millhauser story entitled “The Tower,” you can guess that the issue is “how high?” Millhauser’s trope means to explore the complications and implications of religious desire, but it’s just too mechanical a metaphor.

The “Heretical Histories” section gives us stories about two “might-have-been” inventions that could have transformed the way we experience “reality.” In “A Precursor of the Cinema,” Harlan Crane, a late nineteenth century painter creates a pigment that reproduces the object so faithfully that it actually moves on the canvas--a forerunner to current experiments with holographic images. In “The Wizard of West Orange,” one of Thomas Edison’s researchers creates a device called a haptograph, a wired suit which, when put on, simulates various sensations of touch and, more significantly, creates new ones. However, the device’s promise of revelation, transformation, and transcendence dooms it, for the ever-practical Edison knows it will never bring in profits.

Millhauser’s stories are not mere ingenuity, although Lord knows, they are devilishly clever. No, Millhauser is motivated by the same obsessions that drove Blake--to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. In my opinion, he is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion and ultimate reality is always sleight of hand.

Steven Dixon

The most frequent terms used to characterize the short fiction of Stephen Dixon are: "experimental," "fabulous," quirky," and "tour de force." Previous writers with whom he has been compared include Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. However, the problem with so many of his stories is that, as imaginative and inventive as they may be, they largely seem to be just that--bloodless experiments with devices and techniques rather than real human events.

Many of Dixon's stories are experiments with traditional narrative structures. For example, "Man of Letters" makes use of the epistolary form in which a man named Newt, who features in a number of Dixon stories, writes a series of letters to a woman he has been seeing. Although he begins the first letter with the sentence, "I don't want to see you anymore," by the time he has verbally examined the relationship and justified his decision by writing a whole stack of letters, he ends by saying, "No matter what I'll be seeing you Friday night." It is as if the very act of writing has so self-consciously engaged the protagonist that he cannot state his feelings; he is too busy trying to impress instead of saying simply what he wants to express. Many of Dixon's stories convey this sense of becoming bogged down in verbal and narrative cleverness and thus never quite expressing a truly human experience.

A more radical narrative device is attempted in the story "14 Stories," in which a potentially tragic central event of a man trying to commit suicide is presented as a kind of comically botched job in which his attempt affects a number of people around him. The story begins with a graphic description of the bullet smashing the character's teeth, leaving his head through the back of the jaw, and then crashing through a window in the hotel room. As the story focuses on the man's effort's to try to get help, it simultaneously describes the reactions of a young boy on the roof at whose feet the bullet finally rests and a chambermaid who discovers the body and, at the end of the story, must clean up the bloody room. Although such an emphasis on characters on the fringes of a central drama is a common short story technique, in Dixon's treatment, the reader remains uninvolved in either the central tragedy or its incidental ramifications for other characters.

Such a transition, within a single story, from the realistic to the absurd, is an example of Dixon's favorite technique--what some critics have called "experimental realism," in which stories seem grounded in solid everyday reality and at the same time completely fantastic in their plots and character configurations. This narrative method was of course made famous in the early twentieth century by Franz Kafka in such stories a "Metamorphosis"--a fiction that seems absolutely realistic in its most minute details--that is, once the reader accepts the fantastic initial premise that the central character is a giant dung beetle. It is also similar to what has been called "magical realism," as practiced by South American writer Gabriel García Márquez, in which fantastic and fabulistic events are described as if they were taking place in a specific real world instead of within the once-upon-a-time world of fairy tale or the purely imaginative reality of folktale and parable.

"Darling" is a typical example of a Dixon story that begins realistically enough with the male protagonist describing his care for an elderly invalid woman. As she asks him to turn her over in bed, to give her medicine, and to bath her, he does so in routine fashion, until the very repeated requests and her constant reference to him as "Darling" begin to irritate him, and the reader, so much that when he starts tormenting her by pouring her drinking water on the floor, turning on the light when she wants it off, and finally dumping her out of bed, all this seem not only normal, but inevitable.

Dixon can narrate the most shocking and horrifying events in such a flat, deadpan style that the event becomes transformed into a kind of surrealistic and highly stylized set of gestures that the reader accepts, only to become appalled at that very acceptance. "The Intruder," perhaps the most extreme example of this technique, begins with a man entering his apartment to find his girlfriend being raped by an intruder who is threatening her with a knife. The story describes in graphic detail the intruder's forcing both the woman and the man to engage in sex acts with him. However, it is the stripped-down and matter-of-fact style with which the acts are described that creates the strange unreal effect the story has. As horrifying as the events are, they seem to take place in a world without emotional response.

George Saunders

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. In fact, that prominent periodical was so impressed by Saunders that it originally published all six of the stories in his new collection, Pastoralia. If that were not encouragement enough, three of the stories in Pastoralia have won O. Henry Awards prizes: "The Falls" in 1997 (which won second prize), "Winky" in 1998, and "Sea Oak" in 1999.

The reviewers of Saunders' 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." Comparing Saunders to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, critics have praised his demented black comic view of modern culture that showcases Americans' fears, shames, and their need to be accepted.

A primary way Saunders creates this view is to zero in on our pop culture entertainments. Whereas the focus of the title story of Saunders' first collection is a virtual reality theme park that simulates America during the Civil War era, the locale of the title story of the new collection is a museum in which two people pretend to be a cave man and woman for the entertainment and edification of the public. The protagonist "caveman" is paired up with a woman who does not perform her job with sufficient commitment; she often speaks English instead of inarticulate grunts, and she quarrels with her son who visits her on the job. Although the protagonist, who must fax reports to management about his fellow worker, tries to protect her, he is soon discovered and she is forced to leave. When a new woman assigned to the cave is more scrupulous than he; the story ends with the reader's suspicion that it won't be long before she has him replaced.

One of Saunders’ most problematical story--so absurdly pop-culture gothic it is not surprising that one of the judges who picked it for the 1999 O. Henry Award Prize Stories was Stephen King--is "Sea Oak." The story focuses on a man who works at a male strip club called Joysticks and who 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 Saunder's collections--"Some People get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?"

The short story as a form seems a natural for so-called “experimentalism.” If the experiment fails, then not so much is lost, since short stories are so, well, you know, short. And because the short story is short, it is more apt to focus on technique than mimesis, more apt to use language in a self-conscious way than simply as a clear glass through which to gaze at “reality,” whatever that is. Poe knew this at the beginning of the form, and many narrative writers who like to “play” with language have paid tribute to Poe. Although some critics like to draw contrasts between “traditional” or “realist” short story writers, such as Chekhov, Hemingway, Munro, Trevor, etc and the experimentalists I have discussed in these two blogs, in my opinion, Chekhov, Hemingway, Munro, and Trevor are no less experimentalists than Borges, Barth, Barthelme, Millhauser, etc. All great short-story writers are more enamored with language than with what some folks confidently call “reality.” As a result, all great short stories must be read with close attention to how style, technique, form, language creates the “reality of artifice,” (if I might be so bold as to quote the subtitle of one of my books on the short story).

It seems to me that there are two basic kinds of “experimental” short story—the “what if” stories of Barthelme and Saunders and the “alternate reality” stories of Barth and Millhauser. Of the two types, I prefer the latter, for the former often seem to me to be merely satire. And satire, for my taste, too often focuses on social issues rather than individual human complexity. And social issues, it seems to me, are not dealt with in a very complex way in short stories. The experimental stories of David Means and Stephen Millhauser interest me more than the satiric stories of David Saunders and Steven Dixon because they explore individual human complexity in subtle and penetrating ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not sure where to post this but I wanted to ask if anyone has heard of National Clicks?

Can someone help me find it?

Overheard some co-workers talking about it all week but didn't have time to ask so I thought I would post it here to see if someone could help me out.

Seems to be getting alot of buzz right now.