Monday, November 1, 2010

David Means, "The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"

Flaubert, who probably invented modern fiction, once famously said he wanted to write "a book about nothing," a book held together only by the "internal force of its style." Other major contributors to modern fiction, such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce have similarly emphasized form and style over content. Only those who have not read them would think that The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story, or that Heart of Darkness is really all about postcolonialism, or that Ulysses is about one day in the life of a guy named Leopold Bloom.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work."

William H. Gass has reminded us that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of “making.” Every other diddly desire," says Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day"

If you are a writer, Gass says the next time someone asks you who is your audience, you must answer, “the ear.” The writer, says Gass, must be a musician. If you think, “but I have a story to tell, characters to create, a plot to contrive,” Gass says, “No. That’s what moviemakers do… You do not tell a story… What you make is music.”

In 1917, the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky said, "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." And in 1948, the American critic Mark Schorer said, to speak of content is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; it’s only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics. “The difference between content, or experience, and achieved content, or art, is technique. When we speak of technique, then we speak of nearly everything."

However, to say that the purpose of art is to experience its artfulness and that the object is not important, or to say that when we speak of technique we speak of nearly everything strikes the social critic as heartless and the noncritical as just plain wrong.

It seems to me that one of the reasons short stories are not often read is that they are often not read well. Indeed, it may be that great short story writers ask too much, unreasonably compelling us to focus on form and style more carefully than we have the time or patience for, certainly more than the content-conscious novel requires. Of all the great short-story writers today who understand this off-putting secret of the short story form, perhaps one of the most dedicated and challenging is David Means.

Means recently published The Spot, his fourth book, which also happens to be his fourth collection of short stories, and I am sure his publishers are getting sick and tired of begging him to give up this devotion to a form they foolishly think is best suited for MFA workshops and do something more mature, like bring them a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. I, for one, am damned glad Means continues to do what he does so well.

Still, his most recent story, “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” in the October 25 issue of The New Yorker, gives me cause for concern. Not because I don’t like it; I most certainly do. But because I despair of trying to get others to like it. Like all good stories, it must be read more than once. Like all good stories, it takes some effort. Like all good stories, it requires paying close attention to structure and style, not just what it seems to be about.

In fact, if you want to know what it is about, you can get this short answer by googling the title: “Short story about two FBI agents on a stakeout in Kansas in 1934.” The additional “information” in the story is the following: The younger of the two agents (Barnes) complains that the criminal they are waiting for (Carson) will not return. The older of the two agents (Lee) says little but is fed up with Barnes’ complaining; he recalls the stakeout several years later while sitting on his porch overlooking a lake. After five days of waiting, Barnes is taking a smoke behind the tree line when Carson and his men drive up; he walks out of the tree line and is cut down by, as the cliché goes, a hale of gunfire.

And as they used to say at the end of the Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s all, folks!” In terms of experience or content, that’s the story. However, in terms of what is really important in this short story--its artfulness, its technique, its style, its form—the real story lies not in the action but in the language.

This story is about what all stories are about--something appears to take place in time and space. The first paragraph emphasizes time by repeating: “Five days of trading field glasses…Five days of surveillance…Five days of listening to the young agent named Barnes…Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern….For five days Barnes talked…Five days reduced to a single conversation.”

But then all stories take place in a past time, so the second paragraph begins, “Years later, retired, sitting on his porch… Two other paragraphs in the story begin, “Years later at his summer cottage in Wisconsin…Years later in the reductive, slowed-down play of memory…”

The last paragraph emphasizes not the passing of time, but a “moment” when Lee “froze up” and Barnes steps forward out of the tree line, dulled by the “persistent tedium of a scene that had gone on. for what seemed to his youthful mind an eternity” into “a single ferocious moment” of a “fury of gunfire.”

And space is emphasized in this story. The two men are hiding at the tree line, watching a farm; their pattern of behavior in space and time is to take turns going back into the trees to smoke and watching at the tree line. They watch the farm’s connection to a number of cat roads (roads made by caterpillar tractors), knowing that Carson only has one way in and one way out. They try to feel assured that that what has been imagined in the Chicago FBI office, using maps and line drawings, properly matches the Kansas reality they are watching. Lee is cautious of the horizon, which he considers an enemy, because if stared at too long, it can mesmerize one.

So in Time and Space, the two men wait. They wait for something that may or may not happen, something that is imminent. The younger man considers probability, considers the type of man that Carson is, considers what he might do or might not do; he weighs the odds of whether Carson will take the risk. He tries to calculate the patterns of behavior as determined by Carson’s previous movements.

The young man knows that Carson operates out of “a deeper psychology.” [Henry James once said that Nathaniel Hawthorne cared for the “deeper psychology,” and T. S. Eliot once talked about James’s “Hawthorne aspect” as being his awareness of a “deeper psychology.” Perhaps the best example of Barnes’ attempt to penetrate Carson’s deeper psychology is when he says: “The guy knows we are looking for patterns, and he’s even considered, I venture to say, the idea that we’d expect him not to come back here, and in expecting him to expect us to expect him not to come back, he’d expect that we’d take that expectation into consideration—the potential pattern—and stake out his old uncle’s farm.”

All this is what all stories are about: time, space, expectation, waiting, sympathetic identification with the other, perceiving patterns, and figuring probabilities—the transformation of the casual into the causal. And all this is transmuted, as a gut feeling to a hunch, “into the form of clear, precise, verbal statements uttered aloud to a receptive listener—internal or external—who returns in kind.”

When Carson and his men arrive at the farm, there is a merging of one kind of world with another—a kind of movement into “another country,” (to cite the title of a great Hemingway story). And this line between one kind of reality and another is the tree line—a boundary between two worlds that momentarily merge. As Lee watches them, frozen into place by the static reality in which he has lived for five days, he would think later, “They had that city jaunt, whereas we had forgotten the way time worked outside the confinement of the farm.”

Then there’s that last paragraph. Barnes has been back in the tree line smoking, feeling a deeper relaxation, thinking “that the moment at hand was somehow reflective of the general state of the world.” And because Barnes has experienced the five days of static reality, combined with the temporary escape in the quiet beauty of behind the tree line, combined with the barrenness of the landscape of the farm, combined with his sense of humiliation of the stakeout—all this makes him momentarily “break free from standard operating procedure, to move naturally” out of the tree line, stepping “forward into a single, ferocious moment.” As he steps into the gunfire, “his mind—young and foolish but beautiful nonetheless—remained partly back in the woods, taking in the solitude, pondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive.”

What is this story made of? As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Words, words, words.” In reply to the Polonius question, “What is the matter?” one must say, there is no matter. Sure, this is a story about two FBI agents on a stakeout, and yes, there is something of a father/son relationship between the two men, and yes, this is a story about one who escaped and one who did not. However, the pleasure the story provides is the music it makes about waiting, about being caught in time and space, about trying to predict the future by making patterns out of the past. Yes, it is a highly stylized story, but that does not mean it is not a human story. However, it is a human story transformed into, and communicated by, a work of art.

The famous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934 in a “fury of gunfire,” “a single ferocious moment.” And what we know of that moment is captured by Arthur Penn in a highly stylized moment that seems much more “real” and “meaningful” than the historical reality of those two ill-fated bank robbers.


ChrisG said...

This story also "worked" for me in the sense that it mirrors an actual stakeout: day after day (section after section of the story) is virtually indistinguishable from the last. If we are at all bored by the two FBI men, their pointless conversation, and endless smoke and pee breaks, it's because that's all a multi-day stakeout can be expected to be.

It's interesting that this story would still have "worked"--even without the narrator's forecasting on Lee's behalf--in that it would have been a long, arduous operation culminating in a final burst of activity (like the stakeout itself), but Means is better than that. Such a story would seem awfully pedestrian. The added dimension of the narrator's giving us a glimpse of the future--a kind of time-travel, in a way, that allows the reader to transcend the minutiae and "boring" feeling of the stakeout and occupy the mindset of two different versions of Lee simultaneously--is what equips this story with the proverbial hair on its chest.

Having said all this, I'm a little disappointed in the fact that the FBI agents are such stock characters: the grizzled, grumpy veteran of the force paired with the hotshot youngster trying to prove his mettle. The father-son relationship would beg to be explored even if future-Lee didn't explicitly mention it. From a standpoint of praising the story's form, there is no point in creating these characters any more deep or individualized than they are; still, they're more than a bit cliched. But no matter: the story is still solid.

Incidentally, I don't know whether you enjoy science fiction, but you might check out, a new online publication that aims to include Canadian science fiction short stories as part of its issues as much as possible. One of its debut issue's first stories, "Touch the Sky, They Say" by Matt Moore, is quite compelling and a very short read.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for this comment, Chris. Yes, I agree with you that the two characters are stereotypes. But as you say, the focus here is not on unique, individual characters, but rather on the form and rhythm of the story itself.

Lee, one of my other readers, recently sent me a link to a July Rumpus Interview with Means, in which he talks about the rhythm and form of his stories. Thanks for the comment; it's a pleasure talking with other readers of Means' stories.

Tim said...

Hi Charles,

This was a wonderful story. The slowness to me represented how often Lee returns to the moment. He's gone over those five days repeatedly, breaking down the action, or lack of action to be more precise, into bullet points.

At the end, the static surreality continues as Lee remains frozen in the moment. It also seemed as though Barnes was stuck in the moment, since that's the last thing he experiences.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim. And, you are right. In the years since the event, Lee has replayed it many times. I am glad you called my attention to this. Yeah, I like this story very much.