Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40: Shun-Lien Bynum, Mengestu, Russell

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, “The Erlking” July 4, 2010

Based on Goethe’s poem of the same name, "The Erlking" was written for an edited collection of fairy tales to be published later this year. And, indeed, it does seem to follow many of the basic fairy tale conventions, although it does not take place “once upon a time,” (However, as I recall, the German phrase from which this is translated is “once there was, once there will be.”) Bruno Bettleheim’s wonderful book on fairy tales, Uses of Enchantment, suggests that fairy tales serve a therapeutic function for children, allowing them to work out many of the fears they have of the adult world—which is why there are so many giants in fairy tales and why there are often wicked step parents. (Children can never really be sure if the person they call mother and dad are truly their parents.)

Bynum’s story takes place in the present world of anxieties experienced both by the mother and the child (In Goethe’s poem, it is a father and son). The mother feels the common stresses of getting her daughter into the best schools, trying to manage her money, wanting to be loved by her child, etc. The child, who is named Ondine (name for mermaid, and also the name of a wonderful fairy tale film my wife and I saw recently, directed by Neil Jordan), but she prefers the more ordinary name of Ruthie. Kate, the mother, wants magic for her daughter, but the daughter is not quite sure about magic and the mysterious, for she seems to be at that crucial point in-between point, where she is no longer really a child, but not quite yet an adult.

The man that Ruthie sees with a cape around his neck is not the same man that her mother sees, who might be a musician at the faire or the actor John C. Riley (I am not quite sure why John C. Riley was chosen by Bynum.) Perhaps the man is that perennial mysterious man who always comes to take the child away from her parents, for indeed every parent fears him. Ruthie knows from the look on the man’s face that her mother does not have to come along, just her. She believes the man is going to give her a present, and when she opens it she will be the kindest, luckiest, prettiest person in the world—“Not for pretend—for real life.”

Ruthie is angry with her mother for naming the mystery man and thus somehow co-opting her adventure. She feels the man is able to do things her mother cannot do, such as let her live in a castle in a beautiful tower and have a little kitten and pet butterflies. The story also makes use of some anxiety about racial difference, (which may suggest the fear of difference) for Kate hopes she will find a brown doll among all the white ones for Ruthie, and Ruthie thinks the man will paint her skin so it’s bright rather than brown and make her hair smooth and in braids like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

The final paragraph of the story focuses on Ruthie’s feeling that her surprise is turning into something other than a beautiful secret, a thing she knows will happen whether she wants it or not. While her mother looks at the prices of the dolls, Ruthie pees her pants, and while the puddle gets bigger, her mother squeezes her hand—“which is impossible, actually, because Ruthie, clever girl, kind girl, ballet dancer, thumb-sucker, brave and bright Dorothy, is already gone.”

The story is similar to Conrad Aiken’s wonderful parable, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” in which a young boy becomes so involved in his secret sense of snow falling that he separates himself from contact with the world around him. “The Erlking” is a fairy tale in the sense that it deals in a magical way with that inevitable separation between the adult and the child, the mother/daughter or father/son, in which the parent feels a sense of the child’s otherness. All parents experience it most pointedly when the child reaches the age of secrets and self. I can remember when I felt I knew what my young daughter was thinking; it all seemed simple enough, but then a time came when I did not. I would drive her to school in the morning, and she was no longer that laughing, chatty little girl, but this silent and serious young woman lost in a world of her own creation. I like this story, for like a bit of magic, mystery, and myth, especially when the story glows with a sense of timeless significance of “once there was, once there will be.”

Daniel Mengestu, “An Honest Exit” July 12 & 19, 2010

This is a section from Megestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, due out in Oct. 2010. Although I usually don’t care to spend much time with novel excerpts, this piece interested me and forced be back to more than one reading. On the one hand, it is a simple narrative in which a man tells the story of his father, who escapes from Ethiopia to a port town in Sudan, where he finds work and, with the help of a friend, stows away on a boat to Europe. It is well told, and I liked it, but what I liked most about it was the method by which Mengestu constructed the narrative, a method that made the story transcend a simple immigrant story.

The narrator is a teacher who teaches a class in Early American literature to privileged freshman in a New York School. His father has died recently, and when he apologizes to his students for having missed class to tend to his father’s affairs, he realizes he needs a history more complete than “the strangled bits” his father had passed on to him. So he tells his students the story of his father, knowing he can make up the missing details as he goes along.

He first tells how his father walks and hitchhikes from his home in Ethiopia to a port town in Sudan. In the process, his students who had hitherto been only just bodies to him, become, as they are transformed into an audience to his story, more individualized as young people still in the process of being made. So the next day, he takes up the story again, introducing the character Abrahim, who befriends his father and prepares him for his eventual escape as a stowaway on a ship. He also tells how a rebellion breaks out in the port city and how government soldiers try to quell it. By this point, the story takes over completely and we forget all about the students sitting in their seats and the teacher in front of them relating the events. Abrahim’s stake in the father’s life becomes clear: He tells the father that when he gets to Europe, he must inform the authorities that he has a wife left behind in the Sudan whose life is in danger. Then Abrahim shows the father a photo of a young girl, Abrahim’s daughter, who lives in Khartoum with her mother and aunts. Abrahim says: “When you get to England you’re going to say that she’s your wife. This is how you’re going to repay me.”

The story now shifts back to the time of the telling; the narrator says that in the halls he hears snippets of his own story in slightly distorted form being played back to him by his students. His students feel a great deal of sympathy for him and his father, and they smile at him when they pass. “I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience.”

When the Dean asks him how much of the story he has been telling is true, he says almost none of it, that he has made up most of it, e.g. the invading rebel army, the late nights at the port. The Dean approves, for he says it is good to hear the students talking about something important. “I had given my students something to think about, and whether what they heard from me had any relationship to reality hardly mattered; real or not, it was all imaginary for them.”

The narrator continues telling the story of how Abrahim got the father stowed away in a small box on a ship, so small he is hunched down in an excruciating position. When he ship pulls up anchors and slowly heads up to sea, the narrator knows it is the last thing he will tell his class about his father. But since the story has now sprung free of its dependence on the student audience, he continues to summarize the narrative of how his father got first to Italy and then to England to the reader. The story ends with the father finding a quiet place on Hampstead Heath and burning all the fake marriage license and the picture of the daughter that Abrahim had given him.

Why does the father do this? Because he knows that Abrahim’s dreams are hopeless. “There were no rewards in life for such stupidity, and he promised himself never to fall victim to that kind of blind, wishful thinking. Anyone who did deserved whatever suffering he was bound to meet.”

Since this is part of a novel, I assume there will be further adventures of the father making a home in America, and further stories of the son. There may even be some sort of future meeting of Abrahim and the father. I don’t know. And, since I am not great on “what happens next” I don’t really plan to read Mengestu’s novel.

I like this little piece just as it is. I think it stands alone quite nicely as a story about how one feels compelled to create a history for oneself when he does not have the facts. I like it that the students sympathize with the story, the father, and the narrator. I like it that they become involved in the story, learn something from it, even though it may not be true. I like it that the narrator and even the Dean knows that it doesn’t matter whether it really happened or not. (I have never met such a Dean. Have you?) Fiction does not have to be based on fact to matter.

Karen Russell, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” July 26, 2010

Russell says this is a little “story within a story” in her novel Swamplandia, due out in February 2011. And I think she is right to recognize that it is a self-contained story within the larger fiction of her novel. I liked it, mainly because I liked the language that controls the story. I liked it so much that as soon as I read it the second time, I ordered Russell’s collection of stories, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which came out a few years ago and which somehow I missed.

The story is simple enough. A young boy named Louis Thanksgiving is stillborn, but survives when his unmarried mother dies. He is dropped off an orphan train and taken up by a German dairy farmer named Auschenbliss, until he comes of age and leaves to join a dredging crew in the swamps of Florida. Louis’s experiences, which make up most of this excerpt, on the dredging crew have an hallucinatory effect that I like.

Some things I like in this story:

“At birth, his skull had looked like a little violin, cinched and silent.”

A nun’s written description of Louis: MIRACLE BABY ALIVE PRAISE GOD FOR LOUIS, THANKSGIVING (But the nun’s comma gets smudged and thus the baby is named Louis Thanksgiving. A little hokey, but it made me smile.)

During the night while the other men sleep, Louis peels a kiwi to eat, and the fruit’s perfume releases through the tent and makes the men smile in their sleep. He does it every night, “smiling himself as he imagined pleasant dreams wafting over them.”

“White-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations among the tree islands. Sometimes Louis fell asleep watching them from the deck, and it worried him that he couldn’t pinpoint when his sleep began: deer rent the mist with their tiny hooves, a spotted contagion of dreams galloping inside Louis’s head.”

At the end of the story, after the barge has exploded, hundreds of huge vultures arrive and several of them hook their talons into the skin of Louis’s dead friend Gid and carry him off. “’You guys ever see birds do anything like that? Hector asked.” Moe and more buzzards arrive and Louis thinks, with sadness because he is seventeen and didn’t want to go, “Oh God, I’m next.” (It’s a risky business, those damned vultures, and highly unlikely, but it seems to work within the half real/half hallucinatory atmosphere of the story. They spooked me.

Some things in the story I am more than a little suspicious of:

“The drained and solemn pines reminded Louis of a daguerreotype of Lee’s emaciated Confederate forces that he had once seen as a child.” (I suspect the pines remind the author of this photo and that Louis would never have seen them that way)

Louis experiences Terraphobia—a fear “of the rooted urban world, of cars and towns and years on calendars.” (This seems a little forced to me)

One of the men tells Louis: “Jesus, Louis, you’re just like what’s his name? Greek guy. Narcissus. Making puppy eyes down at your face in that bucket.” (Another one of those irresistible authorial intrusion into the mouth of a character who is unlikely to make this kind of mythic connection.)

When the barge blows up and Louis’s friend Gid is horribly hurt, he stands looking at Louis, his mouth moving, but saying nothing. “The mariner, Louis thought—this line bubbled up to him from long-forgotten event, a poetry recitation that the youngest Auschenbliss had given at a church assembly many winters before. The bright-eyed Mariner.” (Again, this reference to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is unlikely to have occurred to Louis, but it obviously proved irresistible to Karen Russell.) This is the stanza Louis is supposed to remember:

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

But I like the Ancient Mariner reference, because the Mariner is the archetypal romantic storyteller, who grabs us and holds us with his glittering eye, forcing us to hear a tale that terrifies us with the knowledge of our ultimate loneliness.

That’s all for me and the New Yorker’s “Twenty Under Forty” Fictions for a while. I will come back to them later if they include some stories that grab me like the Mariner.

Next week, I will post my 100th blog since beginning "Reading the Short Story." To commemorate that occasion, I am going to post a list of 100 of my favorite short story collections of the first decade of the 21st century.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

New Yorker’s 20 Under 40: Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss

The New Yorker has published online brief Question and Answer sections with each writer in the 20 under 40 series. One of the questions is the inevitable query that always gets asked by someone in the audience at an author reading: What was the inspiration for your story?

Rivka Galchen, “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire”—Story Inspired by the Internet

In the Q&A session between Galchen and The New Yorker, Galchen, (who, in addition to her MFA from Columbia, has an M.D. in psychiatry) said that the inspiration for the story was two letters she received from prisoners. In the story, one of the letters is a philosophical inquiry about love, written by a smart fifteen-year-old; (He must have been pretty smart) the other is from a guy who has an idea for a movie about the Tunguska incident of 1908, (In Siberia, thousands of acres of trees were mysteriously laid flat by a huge fireball.)

The title of the story comes from the following testimony of an observer of the incident, which can be found on the Internet.

“At breakfast time I was sitting by the house at Vanavara trading post. I suddenly saw that directly to the North, over Onkoul's Tunguska road, the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few yards. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing, the earth shook, and when I was on the ground, I pressed my head down, fearing rocks would smash it. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, like from cannons, which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged some crops. Later we saw that many windows were shattered, and in the barn a part of the iron lock snapped.”

The other inspiration for the story is the notion of the Kantian Sublime, described in the story by the narrator’s friend David as follows: “There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”

The following definition of the Kantian sublime is from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“The Kantian Dynamically Sublime: In this case, a ‘might’ or power is observed in nature that is irresistible with respect to our bodily or sensible selves. Such an object is ‘fearful’ to be sure, but (because we remain disinterested) is not an object of fear. (Importantly, one of Kant’s examples here is religion: God is fearful but the righteous man is not afraid. This is the difference, he says, between a rational religion and mere superstition.) Again, the sublime is a two-layered experience. Kant writes that such objects ‘raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind…’ (sect.28). In particular, nature is called ‘sublime merely because it elevates the imagination to the exhibition of those cases wherein the mind can be made to feel [sich f├╝hlbar machen] the sublimity, even above nature, that is proper to its vocation’ (sect.28, translation modified). In particular, the sublimity belongs to human freedom which is (by definition) unassailable to the forces of nature. Such a conception of freedom as being outside the order of nature, but demanding action upon that order, is the core of Kant’s moral theory. Thus we can begin to see the intimate connection between the sublime (especially here the dynamically sublime) and morality.”

So what is the story about? Coming up against those experiences in life that seem so vast or mysterious that we cannot fathom them, cannot understand them, cannot integrate them into our everyday experience. The specific incident in the story confronted by the pregnant narrator is her husband’s abrupt leaving, with the note “I can’t live here anymore” and her discovery of her husband’s blog: “I Can’t-Stand-My-Wife-Dot-Blogspot-Dot-Com-“.

The tone and style of the story is that of a clever writer’s reaction to this event—an attempt to deal with it, control it with satire, wit, cleverness, e.g. that her first novel is a love story between a bird and a whale, that the movie studio wants a cheaper love story between two land animals, that she thinks about the experience in terms of a word she has heard that makes her think of her childhood in Kentucky—“poleaxed.”

As David, who has come to borrow money, reads to her from her husband’s blog, she gets printouts of witness accounts she has found on “that horrible thing called the Web.” (One of the accounts is that one cited above which gives her the title to this story.)

But the “horrible thing called the Web” is the source of this story, which explores in a writerly way (as the narrator understands at the end of the story) “the sense that life is an enormous mystery, but with secret connections, you know, that knit us all together.”

This is an exploratory story that begins with certain concepts (Kantian Sublime, the mystery of Love) derived from specific experiences (the two letters), connected to a specific experience (the husband’s desertion of the pregnant narrator) that gives the experience universal significance from a writer’s perspective.

It is a rigged story, but then all stories are rigged to explore some mysterious human experience in a writerly way. The trick is not the let the reader see the rigging right away, but to suspect that it is there and to be encouraged to discover it. I liked the story. I thought it held together as a unified piece and did what short stories do well.

Jonathan Safran Foer, “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly”—Inspired by Experiment

In the Q&A on this story, Foer responded to the inspiration question this way:
“I had read a few stories that experimented with voice in similar ways—shifting rapidly between perspectives, using pronouns rhythmically, condensing time into details—and was very much moved and inspired by them.”

Foer, who is married to Nicole Krauss (irrelevant bit of bio), studied under Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton (maybe a relevant bit of bio). And yes, this story is a self-conscious experiment with shifting voices, purposely repeating the “I” and the “You” until they become a “We.” By citing numerous specific characteristics of the “I” and the “You,” and then introducing a “He” (a child), Foer quite cleverly encapsulates the whole of a marriage—all those little things that separate the two into individual “I” and “You.”

The success of the experiment depends on the reader’s identification with the specific details. Some that I liked are: “I wouldn’t congratulate a woman until she explicitly said she was pregnant… I didn’t know where my voice was between my phone and yours…. You were never standing by the window at parties, but you were always by the window. … You were always copying keys and looking up words…. I was not going to dance at our wedding and you were not going to speak…. I hated my inability to visit a foreign city without fantasizing about real estate. … You couldn’t tolerate trace amounts of jelly in the peanut-butter jar. … You couldn’t tolerate people who couldn’t tolerate babies on planes. At a certain point I could hear my knees and felt no need to correct other people’s grammar.”

All this leads to the “WE” of the final three-paragraph section introduced by the title: “And here we are so quickly. I’m not twenty-six and you’re not sixty.” For all the otherness of the “I” and “You,” the narrator ends the story with a realization and an invitation: “Be beside me somewhere: on the split stools of this bar, on the edge of this cliff, in the seats of this borrowed car, at the prow of this ship, on the all-forgiving cushions of this thread-bare sofa in this one-story, copper-crying fixer-upper whose windows we once squinted through for hours become coming to our senses: ‘What would we even do with such a house?’”

Yeah, I know, it is an experiment with a style, but such experiments can lead to a discovery of the mysterious connections that holds us together, even as they seem to tear us apart. Ultimately, that two people can stay together through all the inevitable separateness is a miracle that Foer’s story explores quite nicely.

Nicole Krauss, “The Young Painters”: Inspired by Writing

Nicole Krauss, who was included in Granta’s Best American Novelists under 40 (Why is 40 the magic age?), says that this piece is an excerpt from a novel coming out in October, 2010. I n her Q&A with the New Yorker, Krauss responded to the “inspiration” question as follows:

“I went to a dinner party at a friend’s house. There was a painting on the wall, just like the one described in the story. It made a strong impression on me, and before I left I asked my friend who had painted it. He told me that his best friend and the friend’s sister had painted it together at the ages of nine and eleven, and that soon afterward their mother had put sleeping pills in their tea, driven them out to the forest, and set the car on fire with all of them in it. At that time, I already had a child of my own and was pregnant with another, and I became haunted by this story, those children, and what would have driven that mother to do what she did. The beautiful painting the children painted stayed with me. And the story of guilt—the crime of that mother, the guilt of a writer who uses that story in her own, and the fallen judge—became wrapped up together in my mind and my work.”

She also says the new novel, Great House, was influenced by Camus's The Fall. It has four voices, the one in this story by Nadia, confessing to a judge, but the judge (from the Camus novel) and Nadia are two sides of the same sense of guilt.

Although this is an excerpt from a novel, and thus does not interest me very much, I read it as if it were a short story and felt that it did have a sense of unity and an emotional/intellectual impact. Unlike some reviewers of this story, I do not object to the fact that it is about a writer. If a writer follows the old advice of creative writing classes, “Write about what you know,” then of course, what writers know best is writing. Why shouldn’t they write about writing? This does not necessarily mean that “The Young Painters” is a self-reflexive bit of metafiction like that John Barth played around with back in the 1960s. It simply means that this story explores a moral issue that everyone has experienced in one way or another, but that writers often experience more incisively—exploiting some real person in the world for selfish reasons.

The narrator of this story, who sees the painting described above and then writes a story about it, does not give into the old platitudes about the writer serving a higher calling, even though she does try to fall back on this at one point in the story. For the story to work, there has to be something at stake for the narrator more than just the academic issue of writers making use of real people for their art. In this case, the writer exploits two dead children, which is made more personally poignant by the fact that she does not have children. “And though when I was younger I believed I wanted to have a child, I was not surprised to find myself at thirty-five, and then forty without one.” It is underlined also by the fact that the dancer, in whose home the narrator sees the painting, is gay and has no children either.

When he tells the writer that after reading her story he took the painting down, he says he could not bear to look at it anymore. “After a while I understood what your story had made so clear to me.” The painter then taps her lightly on the cheek with two fingers and walks away. We are not told what the dancer understands about the painting, and since we do not have the story within the story or the painting, we cannot make a judgment about what that is. But we know it has something to do with children exploited, with children not there, with children somehow longed for.

The story ends with the writer describing walking past a playground and hearing an agonized child’s cry ring out, a cry that tears into her as if “it were an appeal to me alone.” The cry stays with her, and sometimes she hears it when she writes or when she wakes up in the morning, until it wears away her reserve and she begins to distrust herself.

I know this is an excerpt from a novel, but it holds up quite nicely as a short story, ending with a sense of the woman being haunted by some mysterious guilt she feels, some abdication of her responsibility as a human being, some sense of something lost, or never gained. Krauss succeeds in making me empathize with the woman at the end and have some inchoate understanding of her guilt and need to confess to the judge. This still doesn’t mean I will read Krauss’s novel to “see what happens next” to the woman. I am quite content with this one unified experience.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

New Yorker 's 20 Under 40--ZZ Packer and C.E. Morgan

“Dayward” by ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer’s rise to big-city buzz and media stardom began with the summer 2000 special Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker. Accompanying her story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” was a full-page photo of Packer sitting on some rough city steps beside a cracked, graffiti wall. Dressed simply in black slacks and a white top, her hair in cornrows, she stares at the camera with a sullen, even angry, look. Given this projected persona, it is not surprising that reviewers of her first book of short stories, of which The New Yorker story is the title piece, called her a fresh voice of the outsider and the disenfranchised. However, ZZ Packer is no child of the ghetto who rose up shaking her fist in righteous anger at white economic oppression. Born in Louisville, Ky, her parents were a middle-class small business owner and a schoolteacher. She is a Yale graduate, who also attended the prestigious Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University as well as the influential Iowa Writers Workshop.

What Packer succeeded in doing in her collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was to create African American characters either who are not defined solely by their race or by their economic status, or whose assertion of race is a relatively harmless result of the uncertainty of well-meaning whites. For example, “Brownies,” whose narrator is a young African American girl at summer camp with her Brownie troop, begins as a typical race prejudice story with her friends vowing to kick the butts of a troop of little white girls who have come to camp with complexions like a blend of strawberry and vanilla ice cream, packing Disney character sleeping bags. The African American girls are tough-talkers who laugh that the white girls smell like wet Chihuahuas and who scornfully call everything dumb or distasteful “Caucasian.” The immediate cause of the conflict develops when one of the African American girls hears a white girl use the hated “N” word. Although the talk of retaliation is tough, it comes from the mouths of very young children, who are not quite sure what would be the appropriate revenge, except maybe putting daddy longlegs in the white girls’ sleeping bags and then beating them as flat as frying pans when they wake up.

By the time the black girls decide to corner the white kids in the bathroom, the narrator says that the revenge was no longer about one of them being called a derogatory name, for the word that started it all now seems to have turned into something deeper and unnamable. However, it should be noted here, that ZZ Packer does not suggest what this ominous unnamable thing is, except perhaps the inevitable tension that results from “difference.” When the little white girls are actually confronted, the black girls discover that they are mentally handicapped, evoking the derogatory name “retarded” and suggesting an easy sort of turning-the-tables discrimination. Furthermore, the black girls are told that the white children are echolalic, which means they say whatever they hear, like an echo.

The story thus ends as a sort of cautionary fable about prejudice and about how older generations pass down racial intolerance. Although the young African Americans are hard to resist with their little girl street-wise talk, they are really middle-class kids, posturing the way they have seen others do. Like the white girls, they are small children who say things they have heard others say. The story succeeds because it allows African American girls to make fun of white girls and talk tough about beating them up for using the “N” word, but since they are only small children at summer camp, it is all within a harmless, comic context. It pleases readers that the discrimination tables get an O. Henry turn and that the story ends with a simple moralistic message about prejudice.

I have spent considerable time talking about an early ZZ Packer story because I don’t have a lot to say about the piece entitled “Dayward” in the 20 Under 40 New Yorker 2010 special issue. Packer has been working for several years on a novel about Reconstruction and the African American Buffalo soldiers. I guess “Dayward” is an early chapter in this book and that Lazarus will “rise” up later on as one of those soldiers. I suspect there will be more about racial prejudice in this historical novel, for in this “chapter,” we have a classic chase scene right out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the runaways being sent up a tree instead of across the ice, the hounds on the scent (one twist on this scenario is that the two children are not runaways, but freed, being chased just out of meanness). The central scene, where Lazarus rams his fist down a dog’s throat to choke it to death, results in his being maimed, perhaps permanently. The piece ends with Lazarus and Mary Celeste’s arrival at their safe haven destination, where we await the next chapter of their reconstruction adventure.

The writing is functional—a combination of the literary and the ordinary, e.g.: “saying stuff that Lazarus had never before heard in his natural-born life.” “Lazarus had to prize her fingers from where she clawed at Minnie’s door.” “Lazarus might well have been wearing a loincloth instead of trousers.” In my opinion, either because of the shift in genre or the shift in subject matter, ZZ Packer’s writing here is a falling away from her earlier, more focused, work in the short story.

“Twins,” C.E. Morgan

Morgan has already made it clear in a brief interview that this is a section from a novel she is working on, which is concerned with, to use her term, “race relations.” I have not read Morgan’s work before, and I know little about her. She has a B.A. degree from Berea College in Kentucky, a tucked-away little town with which I am familiar. She also has an M.A. in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. Her first novel, All the Living, was published in 2009 to a few decent reviews.

Morgan’s prose is more studied than ZZ Packer’s, sometimes a little too studied. For example: this description of Cincinnati, another town with which I am familiar:

“A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, forming the circlet of a crown. A jagged cityscape of steel and brick and glass, with its own bright nightless burn and, beyond it, the fretful, historical amplitude of Kentucky, that netherworld. This was Cincinnati—the capital of pork, the first truly American city….”

Since “Twins” s a self-proclaimed section from a novel, and my interest is in the short story, I have little say about it. I reckon, since the focus is on twin boys—one black and one white, called by a group of girls, “the Oreo babies”--the story will use this as a metaphor of both union and conflict in the chapters to come. I may read Morgan’s first novel, but only because it takes place in Kentucky, my home state, on a tobacco farm. I probably won’t read the new novel. I probably won’t read ZZ Packer’s new novel either.

But then, what the hell! As many of you know, I only read novels when I just can’t help myself. I recently pulled a water-wrinkled paperback copy of Alistair Macleod’s novel No Great Mischief (1999) down from my shelf. I bought it several years ago at a little bookstore just off the Liffy in Dublin. After having a wee chat about Scotch vs. Irish whiskey with MacLeod in Toronto last month, I felt I owed it to him to read it. MacLeod said he had several bottles of top shelf Scotch in his home, expensive stuff that folks had given him at readings and such, but that he felt they were just too good for him to drink, so he drinks the bottom shelf stuff instead. I understood that. I have a bottle of Irish whiskey that a student friend gave me several years ago, which cost about $250.00. It rests in a polished oak box with brass hinges, unopened. Bushmills and Jameson are good enough for me.

On numerous special occasions over the past ten years, I have said I would open it and share it with family and friends—at my retirement, at my daughter’s wedding, on my 65th birthday, etc. But every time, something happens that prevents it. I have extracted promises that my ashes will be buried in the old family graveyard in Eastern Kentucky in that box. But I reckon I have to drink the whiskey first. I have some apprehensions, I suppose about seeing that box sitting up there on the shelf empty, waiting. God willing, however, there will be special occasions in the future to drain the bottle dry.

Forgive the little personal aside. It’s an old man’s privilege.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40: Philipp Meyer and Salvatore Scibona

It probably seems a hypocritical contradiction that, on the one hand, I proclaim that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the short story, whereas on the other hand, I often seem quite critical of many stories being published nowadays—particularly the stories in The Atlantic and The New Yorker’s special summer fiction issues.

My only explanation is that despite the fact that I wish more people would read short stories, I wish they had good stories to read. When I read a fiction that is short, I want it to be a short story, with all the virtues of that form in subtle view. I do not want it to be a careless, rambling chapter in a novel, or a meaningless anecdote, or a simplistic take on something “ripped from the headlines,” or a cliche cribbed from television.

Like television producers looking for subjects with dramatic or comedic potential—cops, lawyers, doctors--writers look for subjects sure to generate a story. The relationship between husband and wife and parents and children are sure things. But no one is interested in happy families, except in sitcoms. Tolstoy was probably not the first to say it, but he is surely the most famous: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

These two stories by Philipp Meyer and Salvatore Scibona deal with family schisms, particularly with fathers who fail their children. Both seem straightforwardly realistic. But while Meyer exploits the conventional male midlife crisis situation, entering the anguished mind of the central character, Scibona stands back from his characters and manipulates them puppet like in a heartless little drama with no significance.

“What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone,” by Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust won the 2009 LA Times prize for First Fiction and was placed on “Top Ten,” ”Top 100,” “Best Of” lists by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Economist, and Newsweek.

The story begins by referring to some mysterious event the central character Max calls “the Accident,” something about which he feels depressed and guilty. There does not seem to be any real reason to conceal the nature of the accident. It is not until half way through that we learn that Max’s Harly, age eighteen, has been arrested for possession of cocaine, that Max decided to play “tough love” and let him stay in jail for a second night, that a beating by another inmate or a policeman has left him in a coma, and that will take some time, possibly years, for him to recover.

The story focuses on the effect this event has on Max, the best Porsche mechanic in the entire Southwest, and owner of his own shop. The accident has put Max in a “heightened state,” a “fragile state,” “aware of his own heart wearing him down to extinction.” Max, mistreated by his wife, also senses that he has reached a point in his life when he needs to “begin his journey,” needs to “walk out, turn his back on all of it, leave Texas and never return…remake himself as his ancestors had done.”

And that’s pretty much the story—an oft-told tale of the midlife crisis of an American male. When Max tells his wife Lili that he does not want to stay here anymore, and she asks, “Do you want me to come,” he replies, “Yes, I want you to come with me.” The story ends with that familiar meditative moment when Max sits outside in the darkness, listening to the crickets, looking up at the stars, thinking about going to get his son. “He could see them both clearly, two figures on a remote highway at the saddle of some unnamed pass. They were carrying their burdens easily. They were already fading from sight.”

This seems like a chapter from a typical American novel, like the kind of thing Richard Ford used to write, about a man facing a crisis in his life and a rocky relationship with his wife, rethinking his situation, ready to strike off in a new direction, strip himself of all his baggage, strike out for a new territory, etc. etc. etc. etc. The success or failure of such a story depends on the relative transparency of the language that allows the reader to forget the language, visualize the action, identify with the character, and become interested in what befalls him. I liked this story, but I liked it for the reasons that I occasionally like novels, as a temporary escape from my own life into someone else’s. I read it twice, because I always read a piece of fiction parading as a short story twice. But will I ever feel the necessity to read it again? No need to. This is a competently told story, an easy read that requires no analysis or interpretation. With the exception of a tsk tsk for Max’s “tough love” decision, it stimulates little emotional response and no intellectual reaction. Someone could make a movie of it and lose nothing in the translation.

“The Kid” by Salvatore Scibona

Salvatore Scibona’s fiction has been published in the Threepenny Review, Best New American Voices 2004, and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his novel The End was short listed for the National Book Award in 2008.

Scibona uses the technique of two alternating parallel actions in this story. The first action focuses on a five-year-old boy standing alone crying in the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel Airport. The boy talks to various attendants, but no one can figure out what language he is using—Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian. Scibona’s own language is somewhat formal, e.g. “no one could get him to divulge anything that sounded like a name…. some of the adults began to think their solicitousness only aggravated his distress.” Attendants ask his name but get no response. A Kazakh nurse senses that the boy knew they were asking his name “and in the nightmare of the present, his withholding the name was the only thing that tied him to the lip of the chasm into which he had slipped.”

The story then shifts to the second action—a narrative about Elroy Heflin, a solider assigned to an Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia. He meets a young waitress named Evija and before his deployment ended, in a curious little shift in language tone, “he’d got her knocked up.” When he is transferred to Afghanistan, he sends her a third of his pay for the upkeep of the boy, who the girl names Janis, and visits one or twice. Evija then writes to tell him that she is moving to Spain and to come get the boy. Elroy flies with Janis to the Hamburg airport, where he stuffs the boy’s pocket full of money and leaves him in a bathroom stall, telling him he will return for him soon. This is all told in a flat, straightforward style with no exploration of motivation.

The rest of the story shifts back and forth between Janis at the airport and Elroy flying back to the U.S. When Janis is questioned by kindly Germans at the airport, Scibona allows us into the mind of the child who thinks his Papa will come back for him soon—the only sentiment expressed in the story. When the story shifts back to Elroy, he lands in London, throws the boy’s small bag into a dumpste, and catches another plane, but not before Scibona indulges in a little anecdote from the past when Elroy escaped being blown up by a mine and a little irrelevant history about how the London airport became named Heathrow. While the Germans at the airport find two hundred and sixty-three U.S. dollars in Janis’s pocket and take him to a big city so beautiful he wonders whether he is in heaven,

Elroy flies over the Arctic, lands at Boston ‘s Logan Airport, takes another flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, picks up a rental car (For some reason, we are told that he had booked a subcompact online, but that Avis had overbooked his model and he was given a Mustang convertible), and drives North to an army base where he meets his stepfather, who asks, “And where is young Janis?”

Elroy’s only explanation for the central event of the story is: “It didn’t work out, you know?” The stepfather, Sergeant Slocum, asks what the reader might well ask: “What do I know exactly?” The two men then have a little argument over the fact that Sergeant Slocum has eaten Elroy’s baloney. The story ends with an epilogue two years later when Elroy, now a Sergeant Major, is on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan. He receives an email from Evija, who has come back to Riga and says she misses Janis very much. “I have no right to ask you to come here and bring Janis. But this is where we belonged before. All three. I cannot stop from wishing that we could have another chance.” Well, hell's bells! Now what?

If this is a chapter in a novel, it is not clear to me where it will go after this. I am not sure how much more interest can be generated in these two completely superficial people and the child who is the victim of their superficiality. Since Scibona provides us with no motivation for the action of anyone in the story, we have no way to judge the action except to pronounce it meaningless. And if it is meaningless, then what’s the point of the story? Or if it is a chapter in a novel, where is it going next? And do we really care? The only possible theme in the story is perhaps suggested in the little background anecdote when Elroy escapes being blown up by a mine: “Like God was saying, ‘I want you to live, little shit.’” Why? Maybe the whole damned thing is a parable of America's military screwing over the rest of the world and then turning its back on what it has wrought, surviving, even prospering, by its very indifference. I don’t know, and after thinking about it for quite a while, don’t really care.

Transparent language and meaningless detail may be sufficient for a chapter in a novel but not a short story. As Faulkner once said, in the novel, you can put in a lot more trash and get away with it. But in a short story, there has to be more control, more attention to language’s plurasignificant potential, more focus on a complex human reality, more mystery, more poetry, and less of everything else.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40--Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart

The Pilot” by Joshua Ferris

Ferris got his MFA from U.C. Irvine. He has published two previous stories in The New Yorker, as well as stories in Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Tin House, and Granta. His first novel, Then We Came to the End, (2007), won the 2007 Pen-Hemingway award and was short-listed for the National Book Award.

This story was written to make you laugh and to make you think about what you are laughing about, in this case a helplessly insecure guy trying to make it writing for television in Hollywood. It is also a story that makes you feel sheepish and a little guilty about what you are laughing about, a story that makes your laughter choke a bit in your throat, but not enough to make you stop laughing, or at least smiling, in that superior way that you know you have. And you are supposed to feel superior to the people in this story, for it is a satire, and that’s what satire does—make fun of others who may or may not deserve to be made fun of. Gogol’s little Akakey in “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s self-conscious “Underground Man” are the early prototypes of this character.

I do not know the Hollywood world of Lawrence Himshell, the story’s protagonist, but I know his mind. His self-consciousness and insecurity are universal. The story’s stimulus is a simple matter. Lawrence gets an email invitation to a party from a woman, whose successful television series has just finished shooting. However, since the email is copied to him instead of sent directly to him, he is not completely sure he has been invited, and he is more distraught when he does not get a reply to his favor-currying RSVP, nor does he get a reminder about the party.

Ferris knows how to make us laugh at Lawrence’s continually second-guessing about every action he takes and every thing he says--even anguishing over the latest protocol for kissing hello at parties. I remember once greeting a female a colleague from Spain; she leaned over to pretend-press her lips on my cheek, and. thinking it was a hug, I held on while she struggled to get to my other cheek.

“The Pilot” is also a funny satire about those who always need to play a role—usually of a television character—of someone else. It’s a nice touch that Lawrence goes to the party wearing a windbreaker and biting a toothpick like a television character called the “coach.” It is supposed to make him look cool, but it only makes him feel foolish.

Lawrence tries to ingratiate himself with his “betters” at the party, but is effortlessly rebuffed by those he approaches. Then the story shifts in the last long paragraph (a column and half), when the pilot he is working on (imitative of TV series that have succeeded) catches fire on his lap and he throws himself into the swimming pool.

Endings are often the most important parts of short stories, for everything seems to lead to them inevitably. The fact that I continued to laugh at an ending when this harmless schmuck flounders in the pool, promising himself that tomorrow (which may never come) he will be a better man and finish his pilot, makes me wonder if I have not been maneuvered to a too-easy ending. Satire like this is an easy-going break for me—a pleasant pastime, but not very challenging. At least, I feel some sympathy for the central character, identifying with his unease and sense of failure.

“Lenny Hearts Eunice” by Gary Shteyngart

This story is also a satire, this time with two easy targets—the predictable insecure little guy, and the current Iphone/Internet/Texting/Twitter culture in which so many young people seem to live. The title refers to the use of little hearts on such shorthand communication in place of the word love.

Shteyngart, born in Russia, but a U.S. resident now, got some good notices for his earlier novels, “Debutante’s Handbook (2003) and Absurdsistan (2006), and this piece may be a chapter from a novel-in-progress, although it does have a sense of wholeness with an ending that could be revelatory. Or it could be a transition to the next chapter.

The schmuck here is Lenny Abramaov, who calls himself a “humble diarist, a small nonentity.” Larry meets a young Asian woman while he is at the end of a one-year sabbatical in Rome. Lenny is thirty-nine, but the girl, Eunice, who is twenty-four, thinks he is an old gross guy, for one of the satirical targets of this story is how today’s society is increasingly youth-oriented. The story is told in the conventional nineteenth-century technique of letters and diary entries, so what we hear are the alternating voices of Lenny and Eunice, as he pines for her and she makes fun of him.

The story seems to take place in the not-too-distant future, for Lenny works for The Post-Human Services Division of the Staarling-Wapachung Corporation, whose one goal is the “total annihilation of death.” Lenny gets replaced by a younger man and is told to go to the Eternity Lounge to try to look a little younger, because he reminds everyone of death, or “an earlier version of our species.” When Eunice breaks up with her boyfriend in Rome and flies to New York, she begins a condescending relationship with the ever-eager Lenny. Completely occupied with a Iphone or Ipad kind of device, she is “freaked out” when she catches Lenny reading an actual book by some Russian guy named Tolstoy. However, since this is a love story of sorts, Eunice begins to soften toward Lenny, for he is such a sweet guy.

The story ends with Lenny and Eunice at the zoo where, when they see an elephant, she grabs Lenny’s long nose “because I’m Jewish,” he says. She then says, kokiri, which means “long nose” or elephant in Korean, and tells Lenny, “I heart your nose so much” and begins kissing it. Identifying with the lonely elephant, Lenny contents himself with Eunice’s patronizing affection, and thinks of her lips on his nose, “the love mixed with the pain” and thinking “how it was just too beautiful to ever let go.” Sweet, sensitive Lenny says, “Let’s go home. I don’t want kokiri to see you kissing my nose like that. It’ll only make him sadder.”

The story is a little bit funny, a little bit sweet, a little bit sentimental, a little bit satiric, kinda clever. But ultimately I am not sure what it reveals about anything of any significance. Lenny is kind of a sap; Eunice is kind of a bitch. The world in which they live is superficial and exaggerated for effect. Superficial people like Lenny and Eunice exist only in satiric fiction, because the satirist is never interested in going beneath the surface, must never create characters that seem like complex individuals.

Bottom line for me concerning both these stories is: Will I be eager to read another story by Joshua Ferris or Gary Shteyngart. Probably not. Both seem just a little too superior and supercilious, picking easy targets for their brittle poking fun. I think George Saunders and Steven Millhauser do a much better job with this kind of satire than Ferris and Shteyngart. With them, you get a sense of depth and meaning, a conceptual complexity, and an imaginative reality to experience, not just simple laughs.

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40--and The Buzz Thereof

The quickest way to generate publicity buzz in the publishing world is to create a list, for as soon as you do, a whole lot of folks, sometimes with righteous anger, will create lists of all those you unfairly left off your list. The PR people at The New Yorker obviously knew this when they created their recent list of “20 Under 40,” even admitting in the “Talk of the Town” section of the June 14 and 21, 2010 issue of the magazine, that “to encourage second guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.”

The most self-righteous second guessing so far is the piece in The New York Observer on June 22, by Lee Siegel, who obviously needs/wants to stir up some reactive buzz of his own. Siegel uses the New Yorker list (“What list! We don’t need no stinkin list.”) to suggest that if we need lists, then “Fiction has become culturally irrelevant.” I am not going to argue with Siegel’s dubious evidence and spurious reasoning for this bit of publicity-raising nonsense; Carolyn Kellogg in the June 28 issue of The Los Angeles Times has done that very well. You can check them both out online, of course.

And Siegel’s charge that there has been no counter list, no “mischief” in the little magazines and the online sites devoted to contemporary fiction does not mean that his internet connection has been cut off from lack of payment, but that he just wants to beard a few more lions and pussy cats in their den to keep the buzz buzzing. A simple Google search will show that The New Yorker and Siegel have created quite a bit of rant and rankle across the net. That’s all well and good, it seems to me, for anything that gets people talking about fiction, especially short fiction, is fine in my book, or many books, as it were.

The problem is that everybody seems to be talking about the list without reading the writers therein listed. Not uncommon of course, when there are books out there that purport to tell folks how to talk about books that they have not read. This doesn’t mean, as Siegel suggests, that fiction is irrelevant, just that a lot of people have gotten too busy or too lazy or too devoted to what television likes to call “reality” to read.

I have been trying to convince thousands of folks about the relevance of fiction for lo these last 40 years in the classroom. I now spend my golden years talking about the relevance of the short fiction I have read to whomever out there is kind enough to visit this blog with some regularity or others who stumble across my doorstep while browsing about the web.

So, here’s my response to The New Yorker’s “20 under 40.” Over the next few weeks, I plan to talk about each one of the eight stories in the special Summer Fiction Issue and each new story that appears weekly. In about six more posts, I will have reached that minor milepost of having posted 100 entries to this blog. At that time, I plan to post my own list of “My 100 Favorite Collections of Short Stories of the 21st Century" and maybe even make a comment of two about why I like them. No buzz. No PR. No “Best of." No age limit. Just the books I have been reading these past ten years and, for various reasons, have enjoyed.