Friday, May 20, 2011

Mark Richard's "Tunga Tuggo, Lingua Dingua": Puzzle the Prof Contest for Short Story Month 2011

Mark Richard, whose first short story collection, The Ice at the End of the World won the 1990 PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award and whose second collection Charity received a lot of praise, once told an interviewer that he prefers short stories over novels because there’s not a lot of room in them for slop or bad writing. And indeed most reviewers have praised Richard’s stories for the care with which they are written.

However, Julia has posed a “Puzzle the Prof” query about the longest story in Charity, “Tunga Tuggo, Lingua Dingua” that may suggest some diffuse writing. She says she thinks it is written beautifully up until the last few pages, “and then the train wrecks.” She wonders what happened and what I think about the ending.

Truth to tell, this is not one of my favorite Mark Richard stories in Charity. I prefer “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and the title story, for they seem economical, tight, and lyrically pure, whereas “Tunga Tuggo, Lingua Dingua” seems loose and rambling.

If Julia is dissatisfied with the ending when the two brothers Cyphus and Samuel finally find their lost father, I suspect it is because of the kind of story this is. In an archetypal “Quest for the Father” story, of which there are many in world literature, searching for the father is always more engaging than finding him. The search focuses on the heroic adventurer who makes the quest; when the quest is over, the emphasis shifts to the father. And since the father is often some numinous image of the ineffable and divine, and therefore impossible to adequately objectify, the climax of the story is often apt to be diffuse and unsatisfying.

Of course, “Tunga Tuggo” purposely deflates the “Quest for the Father” story. The two brothers--Cyphus, who prides himself on his ear for accents, and Samuel, whose distinguishing characteristic is that he is clubfooted—are antiheroes rather than young adventurers. And their quest is not for some elevated father figure, but rather for the body of a disreputable father, from which they wish to retrieve a wallet. Their means of transportation is not a noble steed, but rather the father’s old limo. Their tool in the search is not a sword, but a cheap leaf rake. Although the wallet is not the traditional magic wallet of myth, it does contain some unidentified “family papers” that the two seekers need to recover—both for themselves and for the rest of the family.

This is all great fun for the reader, for Richard seems to be enjoying a self-conscious play with the elements of the Quest for the Father archetype. Thus, it strikes me as a bit strange that when in an interview on KCRW, Michael Silverblatt suggested to Richard that several stories in Charity seemed to be about the search for the father as a search for redemption, Richard seemed surprised and said that he would have to take another look at his stories from that perspective.

However, segueing from the word “redemption,” Richard did say that he thought the best art embodied what he called a “striving toward the divine,” a striving for what is just out of reach. This is an expression of what philosopher Philip Wheelwright in The Burning Fountain: a Study in the Language of Symbolism (1954) and Metaphor and Reality (1962), has termed a “liminal ontology”, a “metaphysics of the threshold,” whose basic proposition would be “we are never quite there, we are always and deviously on the verge of being there.” As Robert Browning has the artist in his great poem “Andrea del Sarto” express it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

According to Wheelwright, the only way to even approach the “liminal” is by the plurasignative language of literature: “To try to deal with all matters by logico-scientific language is as self-defeating as to try to capture water in a net, or a breeze in a bag. Meanings always flit mockingly beyond the reach of men with nets and measuring sticks.” Wheelwright concludes Metaphor and Reality by noting, “A person of intellectual sensitivity is plagued by the sense of a perpetual Something More beyond anything that is actually known or conceived… The mythic and the fictive should not be dismissed from consideration simply on the ground that they are philosophically impure…The truest explanation of anything is not necessarily the one that is most efficient… The metaphoric and the mythic are needed elements in the life of the individual.” Wheelwright says we must deal with proposed answers to he mysteries of human life with the Hindu gurus of the Upanishads, “neti neti”—“not quite that, not quite that.”

Mark Richard would, I think, agree with all this. His story’s focus on language—the hodgepodge of the title with words from Swedish, Old Icelandic, and Gothic, Cyphus’s expertise with words, the father’s glossolalia or speaking in tongues—all suggest some reality beyond what can be reached by what Wheelwright calls “logico-scientific” language.

Perhaps Julia’s dissatisfaction with the ending of “Tunga Tuggo” is because throughout most of the story we are in a familiar realm of parody and antiheroes. Two guys digging through twenty-two thousand acres of sand with a leaf rake, looking for the body of a man for whom they seem to have no love or respect in order to retrieve some mysterious family papers, the importance of which is never quite clear, a park ranger who is trying to protect the sea oats grass that grows along the Gulf Coast—all this seems aimed toward a comic satiric treatment—like something George Saunders might write, that is, if he were from Louisiana.

Then in the last half dozen pages, the story shifts somewhat. Although the world of the conclusion seems somewhat similar to the comic parody we have been enjoying throughout, it also seems somehow different. The park ranger has been transformed into a keeper of the threshold for the Father who ushers the two men into the presence of “The very corpulent Darrell Dontell Boyd, “swaddled in enormous Fruit of the Looms,” lying in a manger, with a large black plastic trash bag over his shoulders. “And what rough beast” is this, we might ask, “its hour come round at last,” slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? While the park ranger and Samuel fall to their knees when the Father speaks in tongues, Cyphus seems determined to use the rake to send him back into the sea. And the story ends with just this possibility.

By introducing the father as THE Father, i.e. a grotesque baby Jesus, who speaks in tongues, the reader may feel somewhat torn as to how to respond to this revelation. Certainly, we cannot take the Father seriously here as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. A quick check of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 14 would seem to suggest that the Father in Richard’s story does not possess the true charismatic gift that is a bestowment of God’s grace. Even though Richard has often been compared with Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque misfits, none of the characters in Richard’s story have the gravitas of even the most comic figures of O’Connor:

1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
5 I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

So perhaps Julia reacted to the end of the story the same as I did: with mixed emotions about how to respond to the father. I was having a lot of fun, not taking the other characters very seriously until the end when I come face to face with the object of the quest. Then I am not sure who or what he is. Is Richard after something serious here, or is he just having fun with the conventions of this kind of story? I have no way of knowing.

I hope Julia, or any other reader, will comment further on the story.


Michael David Gore said...

1. I believe it's "The Ice at the Bottom of the World", not the "End".

2. Perhaps if Richard's characters lack the gravitas of O'Connor's it is because his approach to the southern gothic always comes with levity. Every one of his short stories includes this element, along with the Fishboy. In even the most grotesque, ridiculous, or painful story there is always an element of true humor. The type of humor that is so valuable because it has the power to resurrect even in the depths of despair.

The raging raccoons tearing up the cabin, drunk off of tequila soaked limes, in "Her Favorite Story" (my vote for most beautiful/saddest short story ever). The representation of Death itself in "Memorial Day", having stepped in a fresh pile of shit on his way to claim the life of a child.

This power and value of humor in the midst of the suffering that is life is, consistently, the redemption that is found in Richard's writing. It is a power that I do not remember, even once, Richard attributing to any higher power at all, let alone God personified in as trite a form as a pure and charismatic father.

Why can we not take the "grotesque baby Jesus, who speaks in tongues" seriously as an image of God? Is that any less likely than an old man in a white robe with a beard?

If nothing else, would it not make perfect sense that Richard is asking us to consider, if only for a moment, that it is possible that there is nothing more, or less, than that?

Perhaps the divine that Richard reaches for in his writing is merely this: So what, you're father sucked and you have to blindly rake through thousands of acres of leaves to find a silly piece of paper. This is still life and it's all there is. Find the beauty in it. Laugh at the absurdity. Redeem yourself.

Charles E. May said...

My thanks for Michael for responding to my post on the Mark Richards story. And he and I agree that much of the effect of the story is comic parody. My problem with the story was not with its comic nature, but with the shift in tone that seems to take place near the end--which was the question about the story that prompted my post in the first place. As the comparison with Flannery O'Connor: No one is funnier than O'Connor. But with her there is always the uneasy groan beneath the laugh. Thanks, Michael, for giving me more to think about in Richard's story.