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.


Elissa said...

I would love to know what you thought of Said Sayrafiezadeh's recent New Yorker story "Appetite."

Ann Graham said...

Hi Charles:

My opinion is that the Oates and Diaz stories are well-written contemporary reportage and Means's story is literature. To me, it seems, Oates and Diaz both follow characters around with a keen eye and Means delves into the psychological depths while also reporting with a keen eye but includes a depth that makes the story timeless. "I.D." and "The Pura Principle" are stories that seem more like primary records of our time, something that could be used by an historian for research and the Means story would serve as a record for all times.


Charles E. May said...

As usual, very well said, Ann. Thank you.

Oh, and to Elissa: I have read the Sayrafiezadeh story and will comment on it in a few days. Thanks for the query.

Sandra said...

THis notion of a story's reliance on voice and ending up telling anecdote is something I have felt and perceived but was not able to articulate so clearly. So thanks for your comments on Diaz whose Oscar Wao novel was unlike that. Not many would be so brave to comment so honestly about Oates' short stories. Again I fully agree. And what we are given by Means is art through the experience of reading which makes his work so difficult to capture analytically. Your blog contributes value to the short story reading public. Thanks for this.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sandra. It seems to me that ordinary short-story writers just want readers, whereas good short story writers want engaged readers.

Sandra said...

Hi Charles, I look forward to your promotion of the short story this month! What a nice surprise. Your blog is a real treasure for the short story and “engaged readers” like myself.

I read short stories almost exclusively, and listen to novels. Currently I am listening to Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And occasionally I do get my hands on a novel, and now am reading Tinkers by Paul Harding after reading the buzz. But short stories are what I enjoy most, and I am currently revisiting Jean Thompson’s work.

Do you continue to teach at conferences or workshops? I would jump at the opportunity to engage with you if such an opportunity were possible. I have been trying my hand writing short stories for the last 15 or so years. Two are published. Once I read that Stuart Dybek admitted to working on “Pet Milk” over a 10-year period. His writing amazes me the way he works the language and imagery.

I have been writing a blog since last July, It began out of a curiosity of what was happening to the short story on the Internet. The pliable form of the short story lends itself to the much shorter format that in my opinion has improved in quality over the last 5 years. The better ones of course are close to poetry and capture the moment in outstanding ways, ie., Lydia Davis. But none of the shorts (ie., less than 1000 words) can compare in depth and scope to the traditional form such as that practiced by Chekhov, Munro and Trevor. I sometimes wonder what varieties of publishing/distribution will be available for the short story, and if the hardcopy journals will continue with their paper copies. Many of course have moved to electronic format or some combination of both.

Again, thanks for maintaining such a great blog on the short story. I look forward to your future updates.