Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: 2010

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this coming weekend (April 24-25) on the UCLA campus. I am unable to go this year because of other commitments, but I have attended several times in the past, and it is always a pleasure to see so many thousands of people excited about books, especially the kids.

I went one year with my grandson, when he was about four. At that time he was a fanatic fan of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories by the Rev. W. Awdry. He had some of the toys and the books. The Rev. Awdry’s son Christopher, who continued the series, was there signing books. It was a rare delight to see my grandson walk up and get his first book autographed. No direct connection, but now at age 13 he is a very busy reader. He saved up birthday and Christmas money and bought himself a Kindle recently. I am going to wait until the e-book readers shake down before I decide whether I will get one. Books are not “read and forget” items for me. I like to see them on the shelf; I like to hold them in my hand; I like to turn their pages. As my wife laments at the cluttered shelves, I like to keep them.

If you are in LA this weekend and have never been to the festival, you might enjoy it. Admission is free, and parking is about ten bucks. Even if you do not have tickets (also free) to the various panel presentations, there are still lots of authors to see and hear and books to tempt you.

Some of the high points of my previous Festival trips include the following:

Listening to T. C. Boyle mesmerize an auditorium full of people with a cheesy story, but a true storyteller’s delivery.

Watching Annie Proulx play her curmudgeon role and resisting standing up and asking her a question about “Brokeback Mountain,” one of my favorite stories.

Hearing Jane Smile talk about Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and getting sidetracked to talk about horses.

One time I was strolling up the aisles of tents and did a double take when I passed George Plimpton in front of one of them, all by his lonesome, promoting The Paris Review. I swung around and shook his hand, introducing myself as a professor at a Southern California University. “Oh, Yeah, he said, with a sophisticated and supercilious smirk, “And what, pray tell, do you profess?’ At that particular point, I wasn’t quite sure.

Some of the writers at the Festival this year who I would not mind hearing:

Chitra Divakaruni, on a fiction panel entitled “Writing the Other.”
Dave Eggers being interviewed by LA Times Book Editor, David Ulin
James Ellroy in conversation with Joseph Wambaugh
Yann Martel in conversation with Michael Silverblatt
Bill McKibbin in conversation with Susan Salter Reynolds
Herman Wouk in conversation with Tim Rutten
T.C. Boyle reading a story to thousands gathered around a campfire.
Bret Easton Ellis in conversation with Erik Himmelsbach

And the best panel of all: Susan Straight, Maile Meloy, Mona Simpson, Jane Smiley, and Marianne Wiggins. Wow, if I could, I would go just for this one panel—truly star studded.

Which reminds me of one of the downsides of the Festival. Since this is LA, within which, as the big sign of the hill reminds us, is Hollywood, there are lots of stars, who have little to with literature, that many people will come to gaze at in wonder.

Trisha Yearwood will be there, and Daisy Fuentes, and Pam Grier, and Peter Yarrow, and Carl Reiner, and Bernadette Peters, and Carol Burnett, and even the Fonze Henry Winkler. Granted, these big names are there primarily promoting children’s books, but the parents will be happy to be star struck in the audience.

Nothing much about the short story this year—no panels, and with the exception of T.C. Boyle, no readers of short stories. However, on one bright note, two collections of stories are on the short list for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction this year:

Daniyal Mueenuddin, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.”
Wells Tower, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.”

I posted blogs last year on both of these books: Liked the Mueenuddin, did not like the Tower.

If any of you attend the festival this weekend, I would appreciate your posting a comment to let me know what it was like and what you liked about it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Said Sayraefiezadeh's "Appetite": How I Read a Story

In response to my last post on several New Yorker stories, Elissa, one of my readers, made the sort of “comment” that professors, young and old, can never resist: “I would love to know what you thought of….” Since I have spent my professional life telling folks what I think of short stories, and since Elissa wanted to know what I thought of Said Sayrafiezadeh’s story “Appetite” in the March 1 issue of The New Yorker, I dug it out from the pile of mags by my bed and reread it.

After I first read the story, about a month ago, I laid it aside without much thought. I am not familiar with Sayrafiezadeh’s work, although I vaguely remembered his name associated with a memoir about skateboards. At Elissa’s prompting, my second reading (which--I never tire of saying--every short story deserves) made me consider some guidelines for reading short stories that I have always followed.

When I read a story for the first time, after I have read the first paragraph, I stop and start over again. It takes a little time to make a transition from the real world around you to the fictional world you have entered. Sometimes I feel tempted to skim and thus do not get attuned to the voice of the story, fail to grasp relationships between characters, and cannot quite picture the setting. As a result, I begin to flounder and rush through the story, finishing with a shrug and a sense of puzzlement or a feeling of “so what.”

When I finish a story that interests me, I read it again. This time, the details of the story have more significance and weight because I have the whole story in mind. I know, somewhat vaguely as I begin the second reading, that “Appetite” is a first-person story about a young guy with a routine, low-paying job, who wants to ask for a raise, but doesn’t have the confidence, who wants to ask a waitress out, but lacks the nerve, who feels that he is a loser.

But in my opinion what the story at first seems to be “about” is not really the story. The story is the “means” by which the author transforms this ordinary character facing this ordinary sense of failure into a meaningful language-constructed narrative. I am interested in how the author uses language to transform a series of temporal events, i.e. “one damn thing after another,” into an aesthetic totality, existing all at once. The primary way an author performs this transformation is by the process of redundancy, that is, the obsessive repetition of similar motifs. The way I read a story is to identify these repeated similarities or echoes, to arrange them into bundles that constitute themes, and then to try to understand how these bundles of themes relate to each other.

There are many repeated motifs that cluster together to create themes in Sayrafiezadeh’s story. A careful reader becomes intuitively aware of them as the story becomes transformed from a temporal flow of events into a spatial pattern of meaning. It is not necessary to identify all of them unless one is writing an analytical article, so I am only going to identify the central theme here. (I am trying hard to avoid being the pedant here; I just want to respond to Elissa’s request and characterize how I read a story).

In my opinion, the primary theme of “Appetite” is announced in the first sentence: “Things were not going as I had hoped.” This is, of course echoed in the first sentence of the second section of the story: “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” The speaker/protagonist of the story is always making plans for future events that never quite pan out as he hopes they will. He is not quite sure what figure he should strike in the world, so he is always posturing, posing, and he is always self-consciously aware of the gap between how he wants to look and how he fears he really looks. In other words, he lives in a world that seldom corresponds to reality.

The key phrase in the story, the phrase that is repeated obsessively, is “as if.” According to my count (not that I am urging anyone to count such things), the phrase is repeated 14 times. Forgive me if I risk playing the professor for a paragraph here. The most famous coiner of the phrase “as if” is Hans Vaihinger, a German philosopher of the late nineteenth century, whose book The Philosophy of As If argued that because we cannot really know the world, we construct useful fictions and behave “as if” the world matched those fictions. The literary theorist Frank Kermode, in his book The Sense of an Ending, argued further, “I see no reason why we cannot apply to literary fictions what Hans Vaihinger says of fictions in general, that they are mental structures.” The implications of this notion have been pushed further in poststructuralist theory to suggest that what we call reality is always a fiction, an elaborate construct that we continually make. Thus, if one wishes to study reality, one should study the means by which human beings construct reality, for reality is a process, not a product.

However, the theory of “as if” that I have chosen to help me understand Sayrafiezadeh’s story was popularized by that well-known twentieth-century Valley Girl philosopher Alicia Silverstone in that classic masterpiece movie “Clueless." Any time she wished to suggest that something that someone thinks is going to happen is never going to happen is to state the assumption or plan, and follow it with an emphatic “as if.” e.g: “He thinks he’s so hot. As if!” or “He thinks I am going to go out with him. As if!”

This disjunction between what the narrator/protagonist of "Appetite" hopes/thinks/plans will happen and what really happens constitutes the central theme of the story. This Bobby Burns idea of “The best laid schemes of mice and men” is echoed by the narrator/protagonist’s reference to himself as a hamster. He knows others may think of him, “What are you—a man or a mouse?” This central disjunction appears throughout the story in many ways.

This kind of character has always been a favorite one for the short-story writer. Whereas the novel, springing from the epic, may have an heroic figure with whom the reader can identify, the short story, springing from the folk tale, as Frank O’Connor has noted in his wonderful little book The Lonely Voice, is most often about the little man, citing Gogol’s great story “The Overcoat” as one of the first modern short stories.

I could go on at length about Sayrafiezadeh’s story, but that is a professorial occupational hazard I will resist at this point. I suspect many of my students often wished I had resisted it much earlier and more often.

So, Elissa, in answer to your request, this is what I thought about “Appetite.” I would love to know what other readers think about it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New Yorker Stories by David Means, Junot Diaz, and Joyce Carol Oates

Although I get behind occasionally, I try to keep up with the fiction published weekly in The New Yorker. I don’t care what some critics say about the so-called standardized New Yorker story; issue for issue, the magazine consistently publishes some of the best short fiction being written nowadays. And at a story per issue (not to mention a couple of special fiction issues), they certainly publish the most.

During March, I read three stories in The New Yorker, back to back, and the experience got me to thinking about those age-old issues of critical judgment versus plain old personal taste. The stories are:

“The Knocking” by David Means, March 15
“The Pura Principle” by Junot Diaz, March 22
“I.D” by Joyce Carol Oates, March 29

I have commented on all three of these authors in previous blog entries. So, if you have been following me this past year, you know that I think Junot Diaz is more of a novelist than a short-story writer, that Joyce Carol Oates is a formulaic short-story writer, and that David Means is a short story writer of originality and brilliance.

Reading these three stories only reaffirmed these opinions. What does that say about me?

1. May is close-minded and unable to read these three authors without prejudice.
2. May has a personal preference for tight, language-intense lyrical stories.
3. May doesn’t like rambling first-person novelistic, ghetto memoir-type monologues.
4. May thinks Joyce Carol Oates is a compulsive professional story-making machine.

All these accusations may be true to some extent, but I would prefer to think that as a “guy who has read and written about a lot of short stories,” I am making an experienced, knowledgeable, objective critical judgment when I say that I think David Means’ story “Knocking” is a better short story than Junot Diaz’s “The Pura Principle” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “I.D.” Maybe not.

If you subscribe to The New Yorker, I wish you would read these three recent stories and tell me what you think. Here’s what I think:

“The Pura Principle” seems like just another chapter in the never-ending story told by Yunior, the young Dominican Republic voice of Diaz’s short story collection Drown and his novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In this installment of Diaz’s New York ghetto soap opera, Rafa, Yunior’s brother, is just home from eight months of radiation and chemo in the hospital. When Rafa brings home a new Dominican girlfriend, Pura Adames, his mother is “super evil” to her. After the two get married, she kicks them out of the apartment. Then when Rafa sneaks back to steal money from his mother, Yunior stops him, prompting Rafa to warn, “I’ll fix you soon enough, Mr. Big Shit.” But Mami knows about the stealing and gives Pura some more money when she claims that Rafa owes her two thousand dollars. Yunior says:

“The girl really was a genius. Mami and I both looked like creamed shit, but she sat there as fine as anything and confident to the max—now that the whole thing was over she didn’t even bother hiding it. I would have clapped if I’d had the strength, but I was too depressed.”

Yunior is even more pissed when Mami welcomes the prodigal Rafa back. Finally, on the way home from the store he gets smashed in the face by a mysteriously thrown Yale padlock. The story ends with Rafa saying to Yunior, “Didn’t I tell you I was going to fix you? Didn’t I?”

I know that a plot summary and a couple of quotes are inadequate to convey the significance and texture of the story. But, in my opinion, plot and voice is really all the story is. And of the two, voice is the most engaging. The voice of Yunior is, admittedly, hard to resist. But the story does not “mean” anything. It is just an anecdote about DR life in the ghetto. That may be all right for a chapter in a novel, but Diaz just does not know how to write short stories, or he doesn't want to.

Now there is no question that Joyce Carol Oates knows how to write short stories. She has written hundreds of them (and maybe even hundreds of novels—who really knows?). The problem I have with Oates’ story “I.D.”, and it is the problem I often have with her stories, is that it seems too pat and predictable, too disengaged and carefully crafted. The story is about a seventh-grade girl named Lisette Mulvey whose mother works as a blackjack dealer at a casino in Atlantic City. Halfway between being a little girl and a woman, Lisette passes a Kleenex lipstick kiss to a boy in her class, knowing that it means, “All right, if you want to screw me, fuck me—whatever—hey, here I am.”

After establishing the quality of the life of the young girl, much as she did in her most famous story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates then focuses on the girl’s inevitable coming-of-age encounter. She is called out of school to I.D. a dead body the police have found in a drainage ditch. Oates handles the pacing carefully and slowly to make the reader fear that the body is that of the mother. Then when Lisette is taken into the refrigerated morgue room, “quick—it was over. The female body she was meant to I.D was not anyone she knew, let alone her mother.”

In the last five paragraphs of the story, Lisette insists, “This is not Momma. This is no one I know.” The police show her a dirty, bloodstained coat that resembles her mother’s red, suede coat, but was filthy and torn. "It was not the stylish coat that Momma had bought a year ago, in the January sale at the mall.” When the police want to take Lisette to Family Services, she insists on being taken back to school. Although she feels she is in a “roaring sort of haze,” when her girlfriend asks her if she is O.K., she says, “laughing into the bright buzzing blur, ‘Sure I’m O.K. Hell, why not?”

It’s a well-done story, but it is completely predictable, right down to to the fact that when Lisette says that the dead body is not her mother, we know that in some calculated thematic way this is true. Furthermore, we know that the “bright buzzing blur” at the end of the story is like those “vast sunlit reaches of the land” that Connie goes toward at the end of “Where Are You Going?” "I.D." is a story that beginning college instructors will be happy to teach in their introduction to lit classes. It can be, as theorists like to say, “unpacked” so easily because it has been built so academically. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: If you want to learn how to write short stories, study the stories of Joyce Carol Oates. She knows how to do it by the book.

David Means’ story “Knock,” (which I assume will be in his new collection of stories, entitled The Spot, due out on May 25, from Faber and Faber) is the shortest of the three stories I am considering here—about a New Yorker page-and-a-half. The first page (consisting of three long paragraphs), introduces us to a first-person male teller who complains of knocking noises from the man who lives in an identical apartment above him. We read nothing about the narrator or the noisy neighbor—just a lot about the nature of the knocking—ranging from tapping heels, pounding nails, thudding printer, wheezing bedsprings. This has been going on for the two years the narrator has lived in the apartment, beginning with a brief meeting in the hall in which the two men develop a mutual distaste to each other. The knocking is not merely random racket, but meaningful menace. “He not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that, to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent and knocking only for the sake of knocking…he could increase his level of concentration, achieve rapture, and, in turn strengthen his ability to sustain the knocking over the long term.”

Three quarters through the story, we suddenly learn something personal about the narrator when he says that the knocking often comes late in the day when the man above knows that he is in his deepest state of reverie, “trying to ponder—what else can one do!—the nature of my sadness in relation to my past actions,” feeling the “deep persistent sense of loss; Mary gone, kids gone.”

In the last two paragraphs of this six-paragraph story, the narrator thinks, “Go on, old boy! Pound away! Get that nail in there!” He speaks to the man upstairs as if speaking to himself, recalling long afternoons when he was engaged in handyman projects about the house. Becoming more intense in his concentration on the knocking, he thinks each knock speaks directly to him. “A man who had lost just about everything, and was channeling all his abilities into his knocking. He was seeking the kind of clarity you could get only by bothering another soul…trying to put the pain of a lost marriage behind him…when there had been a great exchange of love between two souls, or at least what seemed to be, and he had gone about his days, puttering, fixing things, knocking about in a much less artistic manner, trying the best he could to keep the house in shape.” And with this identification between the knocker and the listener, the story ends.

I can more easily say what I don’t like about the Diaz and the Oates story than I can say why I like the Means story so much more. "Knock" has something to do with loneliness, something to do with having nothing worthwhile in your life at a given time, something to do with engaging in an activity that goes on and on, an activity that is annoying, but that you cannot cease doing, because you have nothing else to do. You want to scream, to grit your teeth, to hit someone, to repeat some curse or obscenity over and over again. The rhythm of the story somehow echoes these repetitive annoying, meaningless, endless, actions when it seems that such repetitive actions are all that you can do.

There is a timeless universality in Means' story missing in the Diaz and Oates stories. You don’t laugh at the character, although you might; you don’t sympathize with the character, although you might. Mainly, you become the character, or rather for a short time you become deeply embedded in the story, and its rhythm becomes your rhythm.

An indivisible bond exists between the action of the story, the character of the story, and the language of the story. You do not feel you are hearing a voice recounting an anecdote of something that just happened, as you do in the Diaz story, or of being cold-bloodedly manipulated by a skilled but heartless craftsman, as you do in the Oates story. Rather, you feel caught up in a language event that is, paradoxically, both a wildly personal obsession and an carefully controlled aesthetic creation. This transformation of mere “stuff” into art work is what makes the short story, as practiced by a master like David Means, the highest form of narrative art. At least for me, it does.