Thursday, July 28, 2011

PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2011--Part II

I suspect that my pleasure reading the following three stories from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is “summer reading self indulgence. They are what some reviewers like to call “accessible,” that is, they do not make great demands on the mind, but rather have a visceral appeal. All three engaged me immediately, and hooked me completely. All three had elements of danger, but the danger is purely physical. I don’t have any real desire to read them multiple times or to subject them to a careful analysis. The following is simply an account of what engaged me about the stories and a discussion of the issues they raised for me about reading the short story.

Mark Slouka, “Crossing.”

In his comment on the origins of this story, Slouka says that the event on which it is based happened fifteen years ago when, in what he calls “an act of near-biblical stupidity,” he was fording a river with his five-year-old son on his back and found himself in serious trouble: “There are few things more excruciating than realizing you’ve put your child’s life in danger.”

The story begins as a straightforward account of a man who takes his son to a remote area where he remembers similar experiences with his own father. He carries their packs across a shallow but fast-moving river and then goes back and carries his son across. They spend one night exploring the area, but the next day when he recrosses the river, he knows that because of some melt runoff the current is a bit stronger than the day before. When he takes the boy back across, he loses his footing and, although he does not fall, he is moved downstream four or five feet to a point that makes it seem impossible to move forward or backward. The story ends with the man in the middle of the river, telling his son that they are o.k. and just to “hang on.”

Slouka says that over the years he thought about the event often and knew he wanted to write about it, but that he could not find “the release, the spring, the image or phrase or note—often dissonant, almost always unexpected—that brings a story to life.’ Slouka adds, “Though the organic symbolism of the thing appealed to me, it felt too easy, too finished, inert.” So he let it be until he came across an anecdote that he has the man recall when he thinks with remorse and shame that he cannot get out of this dilemma—about a medieval priest who takes the torch from the executioner and goes down a line of victims tied to stakes and kisses each one tenderly on the cheek before lighting the fire under them. Slouka says this anecdote made him realize that he had to leave the man there in the stream, ‘tricked by life, prey once again to his old fears and insecurities. A man poised between his past and his future, between the impossibility of going on and the necessity of it.”

Of course the question the reader wants an answer to at the end of the story is: “Did the man get himself and his son across?” Slouka says that in real life he, of course, did get across with his son, who is now big enough to carry him across the river. But in the story, the man and boy do not get across, for they are still there in the middle of the river where the story leaves them. Slouka says: “Fiction, I remind myself, is an act of trespass on the territory of the past, and those who have no stomach for it, whose reverence for apparent truths, as opposed to created ones, is too great, probably shouldn’t play. Both are equally true: We made it. And we’re still, all of us, hip-deep in the current.”

To convert this simple, albeit terrifying event, into a piece of fiction, Slouka inserts several minor suggestions that the narrator, recently separated or divorced, is in an in-between place in his life, e.g. “he hadn’t been happy in a while,” “he hadn’t wanted her back, hadn’t wanted much of anything really” “when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right, “Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to know how to go, how to keep things alive.”

When the narrator is in the middle of the river with his son on his back, he thinks “My God, all his other fuckups were just preparations for this.” “He couldn’t move. He was barely holding on. There was no way.” And as he feels the ‘hot, shameful fire of remorse and the unending pity,” he recalls the anecdote about the medieval priest who takes the torch from the executioner and goes down the line of condemned witches or heretics and kisses each one on the cheek before setting the torch to the tinder under their feet.

Why and how this anecdote transformed an event into a story for Slouka is up to the reader. The anecdote is a reference to the so-called “kiss of death,” originating in that act of betrayal when Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek, therefore identifying him for the soldiers. Perhaps the event became a story for Slouka when he knew that the man and his son would neither escape nor would they die, but would remain there, suspended between past and present, between safety and death, between the impossibility of going on and the necessity of going on. Who knows what went on in the mind of Judas when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss? Is the priest’s kiss in the anecdote an admission of betrayal or a kiss asking forgiveness of the condemned?

Slouka’s placing the man in a position wherein he cannot go on, but must go on recalls the final lines of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable:
You must go on.
I can't go on.
You must go on.
I'll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)
It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.
You must go on.
I can't go on.
I'll go on.

I do not know if Slouka had this passage in mind when he knew he had to leave his narrator and his son in the middle of that river. However, it is the one thing in the story that elevates it from simple visceral danger to an image of the universal human condition.

Lynn Freed, “Sunshine”

Lynn Freed says little about this story, except that it has been with her for a long time. A. M. Holmes, who picked it as her favorite in the collection, has much to say. Holmes suggests that one is initially deceived by the apparent simplicity in the story: “Something exceptionally artful in the way the author manages the balance between what is said and what is left unsaid. Enormously complex information and emotion is invisibly conveyed; this works because what is being said carries the fullness and weight of collective archetypal imagery, classical themes of mythological root, literary references, albeit barely spoken, ad psychological theories—all adding up to the very essence of one’s moral life and responsibility.”

The story begins with the discovery of a feral female child in the bush, who is turned over to a man named Julian de Jong, the wealthy master of an estate. It seems clear that this is not the first time that a native girl or “wild child” has been brought to de Jong. Indeed, the women Grace and Beauty, who he orders to clean the child up, have once been such foundlings. For four weeks, the two women try to “tame” or “civilize” the young girl, and each night de Jong talks quietly to her. The title comes from the fact that at one point, Grace begins to sing the song “You Are My Sunshine,” which somehow charms the girl, allowing her to be coaxed into putting on clothes. Although Grace thinks the girl still retains more of the baboon than the human, de Jong orders that she be brought to him.

De Jong waits for the girl, as he has done with the others before her, naked in a pool of water. His rape of the girl is recounted in some detail, but afterwards when de Jong dunks her head under the water to make her stop moaning, she breaks away and begins to bite him, sinking her teeth into his neck and hanging on like a wild dog until he dies and she rips away the flesh, swallows it, and escapes out an open window. The girl never returns, and eventually the story becomes a village legend of a baboon girl who kills a demon. The villagers even begin to doubt the existence of the demon himself, thinking that surely someone would have reported him to the authorities, that one of the girls would have told her story to the newspapers.

Holmes calls attention to what she terms the Freed’s “deft summoning of the complexity of slave/master relationships, the struggle of women for legitimacy, beyond man’s object or possession, and question of economic power and domination…are part of what gives this story its resonance.” Holmes ends her discussion by saying that in the story she celebrates “the dark art” and applauds the “gruesome, the transgressive, the thing that does not let us escape from the side of ourselves that we would rather not see.”

My reaction to the impact of the story is similar to Holmes’ reaction. It is a horrifying tale of exploitation in which every one is guilty. However, I am not so sure that it has a feminist message. The wild child could just have easily been a boy as a girl. The story fascinates me because it reminds me that we are all animals and only a thin, temporary veneer of civilization keeps us in line. Conrad told the same story in “Heart of Darkness” with a great deal more complexity. Still, the story kept me riveted until the bloody end, becoming, as all stories do, a timeless legend.

Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without”

According to his faculty profile for the Department of English at University of Iowa, “Matthew Neill Null was born and raised in West Virginia, where his family has lived for generations. He received a B.A. in English (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Washington & Lee University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has worked as a carpenter, a road crewman, and a grant writer. His fiction has appeared in The Oxford American, Gray's Sporting Journal, and Shenandoah. He's finishing a novel...and slowly, slowly, accruing a collection of stories.”

Manuel Munoz, who chose this story as his favorite in the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, says:

The central character’s “attempt to pass on a cheap piece of goods to the poor farmer McBride is as straightforward a plot as anyone could ask, and the surprise comes in the story's largely silent battle of pride and comeuppance, two men thinking of the single way to emerge the better in the bargain. The real pleasure—and certainly not the only one—is in the sentences, as complex, deliberately assured, and lethal as Flannery O'Connor's. What an authentic, confident story this is, soaked through with deceit and menace and the distinctly abrupt strain of American violence. Add in a startling ending—an unforgiving embrace of the nature of time and history, if not the devouring jaws of myth—and you've got a work ready to prove that short stories and short-story writers are the most sprawling and unruly of all mythmakers.”

I have to admit that part of the appeal this story has for me is its setting in a rural area of West Virginia, which is very similar to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where I was born and raised. Null is a young man in his twenties who says he wrote the story as a self-conscious challenge to himself to try to write a “drummer tale” that would be more than a clichĂ©, admitting that he knows that many great writers—Faulkner, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Bernard Malamud—have written very fine travelling salesman stories, which are actually versions of the so-called “biter bit” stories, in which a con man gets conned.

However, I have my doubts when Null begins to talk about what he calls his central theme—“the crisis of people who love the land, but are faced with the prospect of selling or destroying some aspect of it to translate the landscape into dollars.” He says this is West Virginia’ story of the land having been sold and sold again for timber to coal mining. “Despite our common myths and party rhetoric, extractive industry has failed to improve the lot of West Virginians. For me “Something You Can’t live Without” is a middle chapter in a long, fraught history.”

I did not like Null’s story because of its so-called social message about the rape of Appalachia any more than I liked Lynn Freed’s story “Sunshine” because of its so-called social message about the exploitation of women. I think Null’s story is a straightforward, well-told tale about a travelling salesman who begins his career with a dead man’s sucker list and finally meets up with a sucker who gets the better of him. The salesman, Cartwright, on his buckboard wagon, riding up a holler to try to con honest Sherman McBride into buying a new plow, creates an irresistible image for me. And the language Null puts in the mouths of his characters sounds familiar to my ears. “Whoever cut this grade, Cartwright aid to the horses, must have followed a snake up the hollow.” (Although one of my folks would have said “holler.’) Still talking to his horses, Cartwright says, “It’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock.” I have never heard anyone say this, but it’s funnier than any of the “hotter than” lines I have ever heard. When he tells McBride that he has something that will triple a man’s harvest yield with half the effort, adding “you can’t beat that with a stick,” I am ready for a sales pitch of the one tool he says a man cannot afford to be without.

When Cartwright makes the sale, but McBride does not have enough money to buy the plow, we know we are in for another con. One of McBride’s sons takes Cartwright deep into a cave to show him a fossil of a petrified bear that the Smithsonian Institute is willing to pay big money for. However, when Cartwright tries to chip the fossil head out of the cave wall, it shatters. Things go from bad to worse when they discover Cartwright’s sucker list which characterizes McBride as “among the country’s daft, drunken, gullible, and insane.”

The story ends abruptly when McBride shoots Cartwright with a shotgun, and they cover the body with pine boughs. The history of the body is summarized quickly as bears and foxes tear it apart and scatter it and rodents chew off the drummer’s belt and boots. Five years later a hunter finds his belt buckle. Twenty years later a bear hunter pries off Cartwright’s gold tooth, and an old woman gives his rib cage a Christian burial after a dog drags it into her yard. The McBrides use the Miracle plow, but their yield is no better than it was before. When they tell the next drummer this, he hightails it out of there.

I like how the story sets up a comic “biter-bit” story that becomes legend with the body of the drummer being salvaged for whatever it might be worth. I thought the story was funny and familiar and well told. I just do not see it had a social message about the raped Appalachian land. And I do not think it has the complex human significance that Eudora Welty creates in “Death of a Travelling Salesman” or Flannery O’Connor creates in “Good Country People.”

Null says "Something You Can't Live Without" is his attempt to write a drummer story that would "outdo the established demigods of fiction." As much as I enjoyed his story, in my opinion, not many can equal the mastery of Welty and O'Connor. However, I look forward to reading more stories by Matthew Neill Null in the future. I trust they will not lean too heavily on social messages about downtrodden Appalachia.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2011--Part I

Laura Furman says that every year she is asked what trends are revealed in short stories published during the year, noting that the question does not have anything to do with aesthetics or literary technique but with subject matter: “What do this year’s stories show about our world.” Furman responds that although in the past many writers, such as Dickens, Melville, Dos Pasos, and Margaret Atwood have a social vision, “for many writers, an explicit social agenda and social commentary—even contemporary life itself—are of limited interest. The relevance of a good writer transcends time and place.” As her examples of writers with social vision suggest, novelists are more apt to have a “social agenda” than short story writers.

In her brief essay on her favorite story, A. M. Holmes says, “The short story has always seemed to me the perfect medium, the manageable masterpiece… What makes a successful story is very different from what makes a successful novel—characters that are not sustainable for the duration of a novel, styles of telling, tones, narrative constructions that are perfect for a story but crumble or bore the reader is carried on for too long.” Holmes says she noticed something about the twenty stories chosen by Laura Furman for this year’s collection; “many expressed an outsider’s point of view… I was struck by this sense of ‘otherness’.” Of course, this aspect of the short story was emphasized by Frank O’Connor in his valuable little book, The Lonely Voice, many years ago.

In his comment on his favorite story, Manuel Munoz, who says he reads both the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories every year, recalls 2004, when the National Book Award nominations chose five little-known women writers for their short list—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Siber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert—best known for their short stories—all of which stirred up a critical snobbery that Munoz rightfully resented. The New York Times stuck its nose in the air, complaining that the five shortlisted authors shared a “short story aesthetic” and that none of the selected books had a “big and sprawling scope.” Munoz thought, “What the hell is wrong with such an aesthetic?…. And since when are stories not “big.” He says he still seethes about that article six years later.

Well, good on Holmes and Munoz, I say. Sometimes I feel that the only ones who remain champions of the short story are writers themselves.

Of the twenty stories that Furman picked this year, the choices of the guest judges were as follows:

A. M. Holmes chose Lyn Freed’s “Sunshine”; Manuel Munoz chose Matthew Neill Null’s “Something You Can’t Live Without”; and Christine Schutt chose Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You.”

I have chosen nine as my favorites--four that I have read previously and have commented on in this blog:

Jim Shepard, “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”
David Means, “The Junction”
Lori Ostlund, “Bed Death”
Brian Evenson, “Windeye”

The five stories new to me that I liked best are:

Kenneth Calhoun, “Nightblooming”
Lilly Tuck, “Ice”
Mark Slouka, “Crossing”
Lynn Freed, “Sunshine”
Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without”

For me, all five of these stories illustrate Laura Furman’s judgment: “The relevance of a good writer transcends time and place.” They also represent my continued conviction that it is style, not “stuff” that make for a good short story, although I must admit I responded positively to the subject matter of these four stories.

After reading through all the stories in the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, I found these stories to be the ones that I wanted to return to and read again. Rather than try to analyze the five stories in detail, I will simply talk a bit below about why I liked them.

Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightblooming” is about a young man in his early twenties who joins a group of elderly men in a small jazz group. I admit I like it partly because I love traditional jazz and partly because it focuses on old guys, because I enjoy reading about men near my own age who continue to find meaning and pleasure in life doing what they like to do. Just because I am seventy does not mean I am ready to lapse into lassitude. I don’t think “Nightblooming” requires a young man appreciating the old guys to give them cache, but it is kind of nice to think that a young guy can see the significance in what these musicians do. “We’re just a speck in the grand whirling scheme, but at least we’re making noise.”

One of the old men says, “It’s a crazy thing to say you’re going to stick with something until you die. You pick two or three things you feel that way about and life organizes itself for you.” The style of the story is casual first person, and the narrator’s account of being hit on by a good looking eighty-year old woman is a hoot, and not at all condescending.

And the story has a theme that underlies its surface casualness. Kenneth Calhoun says that as a drummer throughout high school and college, he was especially interested in patterns and beats and that he got it in his head that everything that seemed random “could in fact be the articulation of a grand, overarching rhythm, but that the count hadn’t yet been revealed because we hadn’t reached the end of the measure.” He says that while writing “Nightblooming,” he begin to think “this could be a comforting religious sort of idea, not just a whimsical speculation.”

In my opinion, it is indeed a religious speculation that seems most appropriate for the short story, a form that creates meaning by means of a pattern that only becomes manifest when the story reaches its conclusion. The narrator in the story says his father only said one religious thing to him—that people like beats because they tell you what’s going to happen next. The narrator says he has thought about that a lot: “I think he was talking about patterns, about loops. And it’s true that once you hear a measure or two of the beat, you know what’s going to happen next and what to do when it happens. And the part that makes me think everything still has a chance—always has a chance—to work out is that you never know when the beat has completed a full cycle. This means that everything in life that seems so random could actually be part of a beat. We just don’t know yet. The full measure hasn’t been played.” I like the way the story embodies this theme, which applies to the short story as a form and life as an adventure.

Lily Tuck’s story “Ice” also embodies a universal theme. Once again, it is about older people. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it is a married couple, in their sixties--still handsome, vital, active—on a cruise to Antarctica. In her commentary on the story, Tuck, who is seventy-two, says she and her husband did take a cruise to Antarctica, and that being a pessimist, she imagined the worse: the boat hitting an iceberg, sinking, her husband falling overboard. Nothing bad happened during the cruise, but she was struck by how stark and desolate Antarctica is—how insignificant and intrusive human beings are in such a landscape of ice. “I wanted to try to describe how this strange and vaguely hostile environment might affect a long-married couple.”

The perspective in the story is that of the wife, Maud, although the story is told in third-person. There is no indication that her marriage to Peter is in any particular trouble—it’s just that they have been married for forty years. He is a lawyer; she is a speech therapist who still works part time. They are a “handsome couple.” Maud feels anxious about the trip and about Peter. At the very beginning of the trip, just when they lose sight of land, she loses sight of him on board and begins to panic. When she finally finds him, “her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him.” Maud feels Peter is hiding something or is depressed—which makes her feel all the more separated from him and all the more clingy. They know each other so well it is almost as if they can read each other’s minds.

The theme of the story is introduced by Maud’s recurring dream or nightmare about numbers. The numbers always start out small and manageable, but soon they multiplied and became so large they became so “unmanageable in incomprehensible that Maud was swept away into a kind of terrible abyss, a kind of black hole of numbers.” It has been years since she has thought about the dram, but Antarctica, “the vastness, the ice, the inhospitable landscape” reminds her of it. When she tells Peter about the dream, he says that many others from Aristotle to Pascal have had such dreams—that it suggests the “terror of the infinite.” Peter, who Maud says is the smartest man she knows, says the Greeks did not include infinity in their mathematics, for their word for “infinity” was also their word for “mess.”

I do not know if Lily tuck has read Frank O’Connor’s famous little book about the short, The Lonely Voice, but Peter’s response (and the theme of the story) is an echo of the following passage from that book:

“There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” (The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.)

“Ice” is about Maud’s fear of being alone—a universal fear not unique to her. When Peter seems to be flirting with a somewhat younger woman on board, she accuses him and they have a confrontation about it. She recalls twenty years before when Peter had an affair, and the argument had turned violent with them throwing things at each other and his storming off for three days: “What Maud remembers vividly is her panic. During the time Peter was gone she could hardly breathe, let alone eat, and she could not sleep.”

At the end of the story, during the night Maud wakes up and finds Peter gone from their stateroom, and once again she panics, running throughout the ship looking for him. As she hears the pilot shouting out numbers, coordinates, compass points while the ship tries to navigate past a huge iceberg larger than the ship itself, Maud stands motionless, not daring to breathe. When she gets back to her room, Peter is there, saying he had merely been on deck watching the icebergs. “All that uninhabitable space. So pure, so absolute,” he says. When she goes to bed, Peter switches off the light and says, “Sweet dreams, darling.” But as Pascal says, and as we all feel at times, perhaps often at 2:00 in the morning, our dreams are not always sweet, but may be haunted by the silence that surrounds us.

I will comment on Mark Slouka’s “Crossing,” Lynn Freed’s, “Sunshine,” and
Matthew Neill Null’s “Something You Can’t Live Without” in my post next week.

If you have read the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and have a favorite story of your own, please let me know in the “Comment” section.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett: Information vs. Storytelling

I had just finished reading Jim Shepard’s new collection of stories, You Think That’s Bad when I received an email from Julia Terentyeva of FiveBooks at TheBrowser - Writing Worth Reading about an interview with Shepard, in which he lists his five favorite collections of short stories and talks about the art and history of the form. You might want to read it at

When Shepard was asked why short stories were not doing better than they are in our Twitter/Facebook era, here is what he said:

“It’s hard to understand why short stories don’t catch on given that they seemed to be suited to our frenetic modern lifestyle. I wonder whether that’s partially because readers feel that if they’re going to invest their imagination, they really want it to pay off in terms of time. They think: If I’m going to get invested in a world, I don’t want that world to go away so quickly. They want a trilogy or an 800-page novel or something.

Part of it also might be the mostly unfounded suspicion that short stories are like homework, that they’re closer to poetry than a novel. When you tell readers to read a poem, I think their impulse is often to think: Am I going to understand this? Nobody feels like picking up something for pleasure that will make them feel stupid. So maybe there is a little wariness about short stories, a little worry that they’ll be oblique and unsatisfying open-ended. But those are just theories. I don’t think anyone has an answer for why short stories aren’t doing better.”

Shepard may have found a way to make short stories more interesting to readers by appealing to the public preference for nonfiction. He has published four short story collections: Batting Against Castro, Love and Hydrogen, Like You’d Understand Anyway (shortlisted for the National Book Award)¸ and You Think That’s Bad. His stories have attracted some attention from reviewers because most of them are derived from Shepard’s reading in a wide range of subjects. A Shepard Acknowledgements page usually runs to two or three pages, with his introductory admission that most of his stories would not have existed “or would have existed in a much diminished form without critically important contributions” from…(and then he provides a long list of books.) I have read many of the reviews of Shepard’s collections, which are almost uniformly positive, but I have a suspicion that reviewers have responded so well to his stories because they are “different,” because they are so meticulously researched that the reviewer has a “handle” on the stories, i.e.—a great deal of factual information to talk about without actually talking about the stories as stories.

Although Jim Shepard gets the impetus and context for a story from his reading in nonfiction, he doesn’t get his story until he finds some personal involvement in the facts or when he invents some particular human engagement in the historical context he researches. Shepard says the title story of his collection Love and Hydrogen, which was picked for the 2002 Best American Short Stories, began when he was browsing with his four-year-old son in the children’s section of his local bookstore. When he ran across a children’s book about the Hindenburg airship, he was struck by the immensity and the hubris of the thing. He continued his research into zeppelins, looking for someway to elevate a story about them beyond a child’s fascination with big things that blow up, when, just after creating his two main characters, he wrote these two sentences: “Meinert and Gnuss are in love. This complicates just about everything.” Thus, only when he invented a love story between two men who were working on the Hindenburg on that fateful day it exploded did he have a story.

Similarly, his fascination with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror bore no fictional fruit until he ran across a book entitled The Remarkable Saga of the Sanson Family, Who Served as Executioners of France for Seven Generation. The result was the story “Sans Farine,” chosen for the 2007 Best American Short Stories volume, in which, buttressed by gobs of ghoulish information about the invention and uses of the guillotine, he invents a story about how one man and his wife try to cope with his inherited profession of executioner during the Reign of Terror.

Shepard says that like most of his fiction, the two stories in You Think That’s Bad chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories (“The Netherlands Lives With Water”) (and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories (“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”) began from his browsing in bizarre subjects and finding his “imagination caught by a particular moment that resonates” with him emotionally. In the former, he was struck by the notion that a skier might cross a given area with no effect, while another might cross the same terrain and cause an avalanche. In the latter, what got his imagination going was the staggering engineering feats the Dutch developed to protect themselves from the implacable sea, even as global warming made their most ingenious efforts inadequate.

However, the avalanche story is really about one man’s guilt for inadvertently starting an avalanche that killed his brother. The Netherlands story is less particularized; although the conjugal conflicts of a couple of scientist/engineers are at the particularized center of the story, it is really a generalized account of the Netherland’s efforts to stave off the risking sea caused by global warning.
In answer to the FiveBooks interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”

Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience. Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.

In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” (English translation in Illuminations, 1968), Walter Benjamin says, “information” threatens storytelling in the modern world. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; this is the reason why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story they are about to tell.

This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the "truth" of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing. Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, psychology, etc, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the story, not by abstract explanation.

The first true storyteller, says Benjamin, is the teller of fairy tales, for the fairy tale provides good counsel. According to Benjamin, whereas realistic narrative forms such as the novel focus on the relatively limited areas of human experience that indeed can be encompassed by information, characters in fairy tales or stories encounter those most basic mysteries of human experience which cannot be explained by rational means, but which can only be embodied in myth. The wisest thing the fairy tale teaches is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits. What the fairy tale, and therefore the tale, does is to tell us how to deal with all that which we cannot understand.

In my opinion, another writer who does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story is Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Andrea Barrett. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling. She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.

Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction. The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.

Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett’s real emphasis is on the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse. Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: They involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present. All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," which was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1995, is typical of Barrett's short fiction. Told by the wife of a mediocre twentieth century science professor, who greatly admires the geneticist Gregor Mendel, it includes the historical account of how Mendel allowed himself to be misdirected from his valuable studies of the hybridization of the edible pea to a dead-end study of the hawkweed by the botanist Carl Nageli until he finally gave up in despair. "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" also contains the more personal story of how the narrator's grandfather accidentally killed a man who he thought was trying to abuse her as a child. These stories from the past are paralleled by stories in the present in which the narrator finds herself leading a meaningless life at middle age and in which her husband, having achieved nothing of scientific value himself, spends his retirement continually retelling the Mendel stories his wife told him.

Barrett also explores connections between science, history, and storytelling in the six stories in her second collection Servants of the Map. Like the scientists and historians in her work, Barrett says she is highly obsessive; all of her stories and novels are the result of painstaking research and scrupulous writing and rewriting. However, for all her attention to detail and focus on fact and the mysteries of science, the real mystery in her stories is the mystery of human motivation, particularly the drive to “see” and to “know.”

The title story is a carefully constructed novella about Max Vigne, a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Vigne discovers writing’s power to construct reality by going beyond mapping and recording to a higher level of perception, thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind. The story was selected for The Best American Short Stories: 2001 and Prize Stories 2001: The O. Henry Awards.

Although I have to admit that I was fascinated by Jim Shepard’s account of how a Japanese special-effects expert created the film creature Godzilla (“Gojira, King of the Monsters”) and how an American infantryman coped with the hardships of an attack on the Japanese in New Guinea (“Happy with Crocodiles”). I was even riveted by the horrors of fifteenth-century inhuman pedophiliac monster Gilles de Rais who killed so many children. However, the absorption I felt when reading these stories was due largely to the specificity of the interesting information. Although Shepard writes well, it was still the “stuff,” not the “style” that appealed to me. The particular human experience he explores in his stories too often seems to me mainly an excuse for the array of the interesting information, whereas in Andrea Barrett’s stories, the informative background is secondary to the human conflict at the heart of her stories.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Haunted by Hemingway

A half century ago on July 2, 1961, the day Ernest Hemingway’s body was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Idaho, I had just finished my first year at college and was attending summer school. I fancied myself a writer, publishing short stories in the college paper and literary magazine. I was walking across campus when in the newspaper rack I saw the headline that Ernest Hemingway had shot himself. I was reading his stories and novels during that summer, dreaming of living on the Left Bank in Paris and going to the bullfights in Madrid.

I did not get to Spain or Paris until much later. A few years ago, I was in Madrid. My wife, who loves all animals, told me not to go to the bullfight. But my youngest daughter who was with me, had read Hemingway recently, and said she wanted to see it. So we did, and it was brutal and cruel and not at all beautiful. I re-read Death in the Afternoon and understood that it could be beautiful only if one watched the pure pattern and form of it, elevating it above mere flesh and blood.

A few weeks ago, I walked the streets of the Left Bank in Paris and sat with my eldest daughter at the sidewalk cafĂ© where Hemingway once sat. When I got home, I reread A Movable Feast and smiled at Hemingway’s efforts to write at the small round tables of the cafes.

Last week, my wife and I saw the new Woody Allen Movie Midnight in Paris, and laughed a lot, with the few others in the audience who knew the Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in-jokes. Corey Stoll, who played Hemingway, spoke the lines Woody Allen could not resist giving him, as if Hemingway actually talked like the clipped, stylized voice of his fiction. Allen had Stoll play Hemingway well over the top, which, it seems, is the only way one can play Hemingway.

I got my new copy of the New Yorker yesterday, and there was a story by Julian Barnes entitled “Homage to Hemingway, which revolves around Hemingway’s story “Homage to Switzerland.” I couldn’t remember that story and could not find it in my library because I had given my Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway to that youngest daughter, who is now working on her Ph.D. in English (going into the family business, as it were). I looked for it online and was happy to find a Manchester Guardian podcast of British writers reading and commenting on their favorite short story (like the New Yorker podcast in America).

And sure enough, there was Julian Barnes reading “Homage to Switzerland.” It’s a relatively simple story in which Hemingway sets up three different versions of the same man waiting for a train. “Homage to Hemingway” sets up three different situations of the same man conducting a creative writing seminar on three different occasions. At one point, the teacher talks about “the myth of the writer and how it was not just the reader who became trapped in the myth but sometimes the writer as well.” He adds, that people thought Hemingway was “obsessed with male courage, with machismo and cojones. They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.”

The Los Angeles Times ran an article on the anniversary of Hemingway’s death and a more personal article by reviewer David Ulin appeared the next day. Many critics and writers feel they have to apologize for liking Hemingway. Ulin’s article in the Sunday July 3 LA Times is headed, “Learning not to dislike Hemingway,” noting how questions about his legacy still linger, particularly his now discredited and politically incorrect stereotypes of masculinity. Although it has been getting some publicity, I am not tempted to read Marty Beckerman’s The Heming Way; the sub-title--“How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!”—puts me off, although I have no desire to apologize as many now feel they have to for reading Hemingway. I have always been more drawn to Hemingway’s magical style than his macho image and have always admired his short stories more than his novels.

A friend of mine sent me a copy of an article from the New York Times by A. E. Hotchner, friend of Hemingway and author of Papa Hemingway. He recounts those last years when Hemingway was haunted by a conviction that the FBI was tapping his phones and following him—paranoid fears that lead to shock treatments. As Hotchner points out, however, “Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file,” revealing that J. Edgar Hoover “had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones.”

Several years ago when I put together a textbook collection of short stories for use in the university classroom entitled Fiction’s Many Worlds, I chose a Hemingway story for the introduction—“Hills Like White Elephants”—trying to lead students gently into the close reading of a finely structured and complexly human short story.

Here is a brief excerpt from that Introduction:

One of the most powerful conventions of short fiction is the convention of selection of details. Every story is made up of two kinds of details--those realistically motivated details that exist merely to give the illusion of hard, concrete reality, and those that are mentioned because the teller has a rhetorical purpose for mentioning them, such as Kipling's repeated mention of the suspenders. Edgar Allan Poe suggested in the earliest discussion of the short story in American literature that the writer should not use a single word that was not carefully chosen to contribute to the overall purpose or effect that he had in writing the story. Anton Chekhov, the great Russian author, once advised a young writer that if he described a gun hanging on a wall on the first page of a story, then that gun should be fired before the end.

Using the terms of the Russian Formalists, we can think of details in a story merely to give us a sense of actuality as being relatively "loose" and even dispensable, or at least changeable. Details in the story because they are relevant to its meaning or overall rhetorical effect we can think of as being relatively "bound" to the story, that is, intrinsic and not easily detachable or changeable. Trying to determine which details in a story are "loose" and which are "bound" is one of the most important skills for reading stories effectively. One basic way we can determine which details are bound and which are loose is by applying the principle of redundancy or repetition: If a certain detail or kind of detail is mentioned more than once or twice in a story, we might suspect that it is relevant in some way.

Let's first look at the time frame of "Hills Like White Elephants." The couple are on the way to Madrid, Spain. They have stopped at a junction and are awaiting an express connection from Barcelona, which, we are told, will arrive in forty minutes and stop there for only two minutes. Thus, we have a situation explicitly cut off from the ordinary flow of time; the couple are enclosed between the time they got off one train and the time they will get on another. On the first reading of this story, the fact that the train will arrive from Barcelona in forty minutes may seem merely a "loose" realistic detail. However, at the end of the story the time is mentioned again when the waitress comes out and says that the train will arrive in five minutes.

This means that the events of the story we have just read from beginning to end take place in a time span of thirty-five minutes. However, we know that it only took about ten to fifteen minutes to read the story. How do we account for this discrepancy? After all, if the author had not wanted us to be concerned with the time element, he didn't have to mention the time frame both at the beginning and end of the story. Moreover, if he had not wanted us to see the disparity between the time of the events of the story and the time of the reading of the story, then he could have made the time span of the events more closely match the time span of the reading; Either he could have made the train arriving in fifteen minutes instead of forty minutes or he could have made the story longer.

The fact that there is a fifteen to twenty minute discrepancy between the announced span of the events and the time of the reading should lead us to ask what happened to those extra twenty minutes. The only answer is that they must be in the blank spaces in between the lines of the story, that is, points in the story when the characters are not saying anything.

Our realization that there are more blank spaces in the time span of the story than spoken dialogue should make us more aware of the basic problem that we began with--that is, that the story is about something that is never explicitly mentioned, but only hinted at and referred to, if at all, by the neutral pronoun "it." These two elements--the reference to "it" and the many blank spaces or silences inherent in the story--seem to be related. What we must examine now is why the couple do not speak of their problem explicitly and why there are so many silences or blank spaces in the story.

Perhaps a look at how the story exists spatially may provide further understanding. The author makes the spatial reality of the story as explicit as he does the temporal reality. The first paragraph locates the couple at a station situated between two lines of rails. One line of rails is going the way the couple have come, whereas the other is going in the direction they are heading; they are at a junction. If we make the assumption that this spatial location is a "bound motif" or idea, since it is made so emphatic, then we might suspect that the spatial location is meant to communicate the psychological location of the couple as well as their physical one. The spatial situation of the rails suggest where they have been (much as the labels on their luggage suggests all the hotels where they have stayed), as well as where they are going, which, of course, is precisely what is at issue here. She wishes to go one way; he wishes to go another.

But there is a further indication of their physical location that also may be meaningful; they are in a valley. On this side there are hills that are long and white and the country is brown and dry with no trees. Later on in the story when the girl gets up and walks to the end of the station she looks toward the "other side" of the valley, were there are fields of grain and trees along the banks of the river. This is the scenery she looks at when she says "And we could have all this. . . . And we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible."

Several years ago, I wrote an entry for the “Bad Hemingway" contest. I did not win. Forgive me for offering it to you now. I mean no disrespect to Hemingway, whose conscientious work I have always admired.

Going to the Devil in the City of the Angels

The Avenue of the Americas was made wet by el nino, the incontinent brat from the sea who brought the heavy rains and made the lives of the beautiful Angelenos a misery. Their small sporty cars flooded in the streets and their flat-roofed houses slid down the steep hills toward Hollywood. The man with the hat and the healthy girl sat at a table in Harry's Bar and American Grill and waited for a taxi that would take them away from the misery the rain made. It was warm and dry in Harry's, and the beer was cool, but they were not happy. They were not beautiful and could no longer look at each other.

"The streets of the city are clogged with the fetid feces of a child," she said.

"I wouldn't know," he said. "I quit my stupid thesis on the man called Papa, for he began to sound hollow to my ears."

"I cannot see your ears," she said; "you wear your hat low, for where once there was hair, there is nada. It is your shame."

"I never said you were to blame," he said. "I can not stay in this city. It is the end of something."

"Yes," she said. "I know. We will go to another country."

"How will we know it is time?" the man said."

The bartender said he would tell us when the taxi passes the Schubert," she said.

"Your body does not need the sherbet," he said, and I do not understand why there would be taxes on it."

"I grow weary trying to talk the good talk to you," she shouted. "Will you please, please, please, please, please, please, please take off that hat."

The man took off the hat and laid it on the table. "I never said you had to take off fat. But the little man called Richard Simmons did say if you danced to the oldies, it would be perfectly simple."

"He would say that; he is without cajones, that one." The woman looked around the bar at the slim beautiful people and the men with much hair. "If I do it, will the earth move for us again?" she said.

"That is another reason we must leave," he said. "One never knows when the earth will move here."

"No, I mean, will we destroy each other in bed as we used to?"

"You destroy me too much now as it is. You need only to get some fat out," he said. She was indeed a very healthy girl. "It's perfectly simple," he said.

"Then I will do it," she said. "I will dance to the oldies and lose the fat. We will go to another country. We will find a place without so much water. You will write the thesis on the man called Papa, and he will not sound flat to your ears. We will again have the good destruction in bed, and the earth will move for us. We will talk the good talk as we did before, and you will like it."

She kept talking the good talk and she did not stop. He put the hat back on and pulled it over his ears. The rain from el nino continued to fall in the city of the Angels. He watched her lips move soundlessly and prayed that the taxi would come soon.