Saturday, May 22, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19" and Alyson Hagy's "The Sin Eaters"

Alyson Hagy, “The Sin Eaters”

I enjoyed “The Sin Eaters” but not in the way I enjoy short stories, rather in the way I enjoy a chapter in a novel. Short stories generally are more often structured around theme, rather than around plot or character. I know this is a generalization for which everyone can find exceptions; however, I still suggest it is “generally” true. I enjoyed the journey Revered Porterfield makes, the characters he meets along the way, the country he discovers, the plot in which he becomes involved. I would like to know more about his adventures in Wyoming. However, this is the kind of loose narrative verisimilitude I enjoy in a novel, not the tight thematic structure I enjoy primarily in a short story.

I would like to suggest two common characteristics of the short story as a form that Hagy does not seem to be concerned with here. That is certainly her prerogative; one can write a piece of fiction in any way he or she can get successfully get away with. I’m just saying that this piece of fiction is more like the chapter in a novel than a short story

First, there is the possible thematic significance of the title. Margaret Atwood has a story entitled “The Sin Eater” in her book Bluebird’s Egg that seems more typical of the short story. Here is part of the second paragraph:

“In Wales, mostly in the rural areas, there was a personage known as the Sin Eater. When someone was dying the Sin Eater would be sent for. The people of the house would prepare a meal and place it on the coffin…. According to other versions, the meal would be placed on the dead person’s body, which must have made for some sloppy eating one would have though. In any case the Sin Eater would devour this meal and would also be given a sum of money. It was believed that all the sins the dying person had accumulated during his lifetime would be removed from him and transmitted to the Sin Eater. The Sin Eater thus became absolutely bloated with other people’s sins. She’d accumulate such a heavy load of them that nobody wanted to have anything to do with her; a kind of syphilitic of the soul, you might say. They’d even avoided speaking to her, except of course when it was time to summon her to another meal.”

Atwood’s story centers on the thematic interrelations between sin, guilt, and psychological transference revolving around the psychiatrist who provides the above background on sin eating and the narrator of the story. Atwood’s “The Sin Eater” is not a very good story, but it does try to work the way a short story generally works. Hagy may be interested in social scapegoating in her story, but most of the detail of the story does not cohere around that theme the way it does in the Atwood story. Hagy uses a lot of detail that is perceptive and interesting, but it is more verisimilitude than it is thematic.

Second, there is the importance of the ending. The Russian critic B. M. Ejxenbaum suggests, “By its very essence, the story, just as the anecdote, amasses its whole weight toward the ending.” Whereas Atwood’s story concludes with an extended dream that suddenly pulls its various thematic threads together, Hagy’s ending deals with a plot issue involving rustlers and ranchers and the Rev. Porterfield’s future missionary work with the Shoshone.

Hagy’s “The Sin Eaters” reads like a chapter from a highly stylized late nineteenth-century novel told by an all-knowing Victorian novelist (albeit from the perspective of the Rev. Porterfield) who speaks as follows:

“His duty was to the north, with the downtrodden Red Man.”
“He asked a young street arab for directions, and the scamp agreed to guide him to the parsonage.”
“Langston was all surety on the surface.”
“He was well forged for solitude”
“It took that ministration to clarify the fact that he was actually perched upright in a wooden chair.”

Even the characters talk in this formal, highly stylized, way:

“They are stimulating individuals and eager to converse with learned travelers,” Langston noted.
“We are honored, sir. You will forgive our crude frontier ways.”
“The thing is afoot. Laws must be obeyed.”
“One month on the Popo Agie River with those wretches will gut you or temper your steel forever.”
“I’m under advisement to avoid all politics,” he said.

I like this kind of talk. I grew up reading novels in which the novelist and his or her characters talked this way. However, I am not sure anyone ever really talked this way except if he or she lived only in a Victorian novel.

Pinckney Benedict, “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance”

In his “Contributor’s Note” to the 2001 O. Henry Awards Prize Stories, Pinckney Benedict says this is the “first love story” he has ever written, as well as his most “autobiographical story.” He says he feels like McGinty/Zog—that he is out of place and out of time, “that I’m intended for some task that I don’t clearly understand and that probably has little importance—pretty much constantly. I loved writing this story. I often wish that I could just go on writing it for all time….”

I taught this story several years ago when I used the 2001 O. Henry Awards Prize Stories in my American Short Story class. I checked my teaching notes and found this: “Some funny sophomoric stuff here about belching and farting. I like this story; it is fun and works because Benedict is having so much fun with it.”

George Brosi, editor of Appalachian Heritage, where Benedict has published a couple of stories, did a profile on Benedict a few years ago which opened with: “Pinckney Benedict is a gleeful writer. He digs writing and takes a kind of boyish pride in the work he has created. His writing is deep and complex, yet the delight that goes into it is obvious to most readers.” He quotes Benedict as saying: “It fundamentally makes my day when something I’ve written gets up the nose of some stodgy academic or critic. That’s when I know I’m in the ballpark.”

Well, I sure as hell don’t want to be thought of as a “stodgy academic or critic” by Benedict or anyone else. I think “Zog-19” is the most fun I have ever had reading a postcolonial story, even more fun than watching Avatar in 3-D. It is what George Brosi called the one story I have ever published—“a hoot.” And I can see how Benedict would think it autobiographical, since as a kid his favorite reading matter, according to Brosi, was a comic book series called Weird War. Benedict claims he has been influenced by comic books, science fiction, horror writing, movies, tv, video games and computer simulations.

If there is any thematic significance to Benedict’s sophomoric satire on colonialism (and God forbid that there may be), then it has to do with storytelling being primarily a lot of gas, like a fart in a crowed room.

A stodgy academic who nevertheless likes a good laugh as much as the next man, I published a scholarly essay several years ago entitle “Literary Masters and Masturbators: Sexuality, Fantasy and Reality in Huckleberry Finn.” I was trying to settle an academic debate about the common critical opinion that the last quarter of Twain’s great novel, when Tom Sawyer comes back on the scene, undermines with fantasy the so-called reality of Huck’s journey down the river with Jim. I thought that was nonsense.

In trying to prove my point, I got involved with Twain’s sophomoric satire entitled “1601,” a conversation at the social fireside in Tudor England that focuses on witty sexual repartee and stories about the sexual behavior of various individuals. The bulk of the narrative is concerned with Sir Walter Raleigh's powers of breaking wind and the Pepysian narrator's disgust with the "wyndy ruffian" and the whole "brede" of all those that "write playes, bookes & such like." The other members of the conversation include Bacon, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and Shakespeare. That Twain identifies with the narrator's scorn for the storytelling windiness of these writers might be further suggested by the fact that he once said that Sir Walter Scott was full of "windy humbuggeries" and that James Fenimore Cooper's characters talk like "windy melodramatic actors."

It is not necessary to go into the Freudian relationship between what is produced by the anus and what is produced by the artist; Twain makes the connection quite clear in "1601" itself. For example, in the beginning of the piece when "it befel that one did breake wynde, yielding an exceeding mightie and distressful stinke," Queen Elizabeth demands that the "author" of the fart confess it; Bacon refers to it as a "great performance"; Shakespeare compares the flatus with the divine afflatus by noting that the angels had foretold the coming of "this most disolating breath, proclaiming it a work of uninspired man"; and finally, when Raleigh confesses, he dismisses it as a mere clearing of his "nether throat." Moreover, that storytelling is just so much flatulence is suggested at the conclusion of the piece. After Lady Alice delivers a long grandiose and windy speech, the Queen concludes it by commenting, as much in the imperative as in the exclamatory, "Oh Shitte."

If ever the Internet acronym lol is worth using, then it is worth applying to Twain’s “1601” and Benedict’s “Zog-19.” Toot toot, Mark Twain. Toot toot, Pinckney Benedict.

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