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 fühlbar 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.