Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: Critical Insights

As a result of her tenacious adherence to an unfamiliar narrative genre and an esoteric complex of theological themes, few twentieth-century fiction writers seem more in need of interpretation and analysis than Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor knew from the beginning of her career that both her method and her message would be bewildering to many readers. When editor John Selby, expecting a traditional novel, balked at the manuscript of Wise Blood, O’Connor, convinced that the quality of her fiction would derive precisely from the peculiarities to which he objected, cancelled her contract, declaring that she had no intention of writing a conventional novel.

Several years later, fully aware that she was often trying to communicate with many who did not share her religious beliefs, justified her shocking characters and their outrageous actions by insisting that to the hard of hearing, you had to shout and to the almost blind you had to drawn “large and startling figures.” She made no apologies that the subject of her fiction was always “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”

O’Connor always liked short stories. The author she cites as the earliest influence on her desire to write was the first theorist and self-conscious practitioner of the form in America, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter in 1955, she said that as a child she read a lot of slop, but following the “Slop Period,” was the Edgar Allan Poe period, which lasted for years. Later in her career, however, she recognized that her true precursor was Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1961, she told John Hawkes, “I think I would admit to writing what Hawthorne called ‘romances’…. Hawthorne interests me considerably. I feel more of a kinship with him than with any other American.” In her essays and talks, her many reviews, and her letters, O’Connor often affirmed her commitment to the short story and to the romance form out of which it developed and with which it has always been aligned.

She knew that the style and narrative technique demanded by the short story was quite different than that expected in the novel. She once said, “I believe that it takes a rather different type of disposition to write novels than to write short stories, granted that both require fundamentally fictional talents.” In a good short story, she argued, “certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action.” In response to the question, “What is a Short Story?” she insisted that it is not a joke, an anecdote, a lyrical rhapsody in prose, a case history, or a reported incident, for it has an “extra dimension” that occurs when the writer puts us in the middle of some “human action and shows it as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery.” In every story, O’Connor insisted, there is some “minor revelation which, no matter how funny the story may be, gives us a hint of the unknown, of death.”

Flannery O’Connor knew that there are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story in general, and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in particular, more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

As Flannery O’Connor knew well, the short story has always remained close to the folk tale, the ballad, the romance, and the mythic forms that constitute the very source of narrative. If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material world, then the short story creates a similitude of a different realm of reality, that reality of the sacred which Mircea Eliade says primitive man saw as true reality. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories attempt to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. The short story form is, as Flannery O’Connor knew throughout her short life, closer to the nature of "reality" as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of the everyday life, those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our ordinary categories of perception.

This volume is an effort to introduce O’Connor to a new generation of readers by including twelve previously published essays that clarify her religious ideas, her narrative technique, her use of humor, and the regional and social context of her fiction, and four original essays commissioned especially for this volume that make significant new contributions to the understanding and appreciation of her work.

In 2009, more than 10,000 people cast ballots for what they considered to be the best book of fiction among all the National Book Award winners in its history. Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories was the winner. Although such numbers do not speak louder than words, especially the words of Flannery O’Connor, they would surely make that wise and wonderful writer shake her head in wry amusement.

For further information about the volume, go to: http://salempress.com/Store/samples/critical_insights/oconnor.htm

Critical Insights: Flannery O'Connor: Table of Contents

”About This Volume,” Charles E. May

Career, Life, and Influence
On Flannery O'Connor and the Short Story/Romance Tradition, Charles E. May
Biography of Flannery O'Connor, Charles E. May
The Paris Review Perspective, Paul Elie for The Paris Review

Critical Contexts
Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Story, Susan Srigley
The "Christ-Haunted" South: Contextualizing Flannery O'Connor, John Hayes
Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, and the Writer's "True Country," Avis Hewitt
Flannery O'Connor: Critical Reception, Irwin H. Streight

Critical Readings

"Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy," Arthur F. Kinney

"Flannery O'Connor's 'Spoiled Prophet'," T. W. Hendricks

"Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil," John Desmond

"'Wingless Chickens': "Good Country People" and the Seduction of Nihilism," Henry T. Edmondson III

"'Through Our Laughter We Are Involved': Bergsonian Humor in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," J. P. Steed

"Carnival in the `Temple': Flannery O'Connor's Dialogic Parable of Artistic Vocation," Denise T. Askin

"Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women," Peter A. Smith

"The Domestic Dynamics of Flannery O'Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge," Bryant N. Wyatt

"'The Artificial Nigger' and the Redemptive Quality of Suffering," Richard Giannone

"Wise Blood: O'Connor's Romance of Alienation," Ronald Emerick

"From Manners to Mystery: Flannery O'Connor's Titles," Marie Lienard

"Called to the Beautiful: The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," Christina Bieber

Chronology of Flannery O'Connor's Life
Works by Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

David Means' "El Morro"--Literary Quest for the Sacred

My thanks to Dex and Phillip for responding to my last post about entertainment stories vs. literary stories. Dex suggests that the literary story may be one of the last remnants of modernism. Lorrie Moore has, I think rightly, pointed out, that now “the commercial slick story has largely died out, the stories we are left with are almost always all serious art.” The fact that short stories do not sell well and thus that publishers are reluctant to take them on--unless they come with the promise of a novel--is due to the public shift to other media for narrative entertainment. And once the short story is no longer sought after for simple entertainment, it either dies out, or for better or worse, is relegated to the realms of art. Whether cause or effect, it seems clear, as John Updike has suggested, “Short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines.”

I appreciate Phillip’s Virginia Woolf citation about reading Chekhov’s stories and feeling “at first” as if the solid ground had been dislodged from under us, leaving us dangling in mid air with unanswered questions. One of America’s finest short story writers, Joy Williams, says that short story writers love the dark and are always fumbling around in it. “The writer,” says Williams, doesn’t want to “disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.” And the greatest short story writer of the twentieth century, Alice Munro, says, “I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations.” Amy Hempel agrees that she doesn’t like having anything spelled out, but insists, that mystery is not mere vagueness. “Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.” John Edgar Wideman adds: “Stories that don’t acknowledge the mystery at the center of things, don’t challenge the vision of reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day, are stories that disappear swiftly into the ever-present buzz of entertainment.”

The most common characteristic the literary short story shares with the lyric poem, Herbert Gold argues, is that they both tend to “control and formalize experience.” However, this very characteristic, according to British writer James Lasdun, is one of the reasons many readers don’t care for the short story. Lasdun suggests that short stories do not sell well because the genre demands an interest in form more than the novel does, and “people do not seem so interested in form these days.” The literary short story’s emphasis on language and form rather than on content is, of course, one of the primary characteristics of what we loosely call “modernism,” which, as that great short story writer Donald Barthelme reminds us, begins with Flaubert, who changed the emphasis from the what to the how—a shift that is not merely formalism and not at all superficial, insists Barthelme, but rather an “attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one at that.” As Flaubert himself so emphatically proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot. When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.” And no less emphatically, Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”

That the short story is a modernist genre embodying Flaubert’s ideal is a prevalent authorial conviction. Harold Brodkey recites the familiar modernistic mantra about the short story this way: “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “ I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Hempel’s fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg agrees, noting, in classic Flaubert fashion, that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.” And David Means--that brilliant short story writer who after four collections, still fends off his publisher’s demand for a novel—says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.” This deeply mysterious, yet tangible something—what Donald Barthelme calls “rigorous truth”—is related to the formal nature of the short story, which communicates by pattern rather than by explanation or by mimesis.

David Means’ most recent story, “El Morro,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 29, 20011, may be puzzling to many readers because it communicates, as most literary short stories do, more by thematic pattern than it does by character and plot. Consequently, if readers respond to the characters as if they were ordinary real people in the everyday world and to the action as if it merely pointed to actual events in that everyday world, then they may ask, as one blogger expressed it, “What the f**k is this story about?”

The first thing one notices in the story is the repetition of references to the sacred-- beginning with Lenny, the central character, talking about a goddess who lived in a lake, back when it was freshwater.” He says the natives make “pilgrimages” to what is now a muddy hole, dip leaves in the brine (for it has turned to salt water) and “lick them the way you lick a lollipop.” (Lenny will come back to this story of the salt lake later.) The girl, who is unnamed, determines four main things that form the “litany” of Lenny’s thinking.” 1. drugs, 2. native culture, 3. birds, 4. her story. He talks of the Zuni Pueblo tribe, altering history to make them “worshippers” of deep pits, navels. He talks about a “holy” seer named Don Juan, not the fake one who helped Carlos Castaneda, but a true “visionary.”

One of Lenny’s key obsessions is hawks and falcons, which can spot a prey ten miles up and dive for it. “You’d be hard pressed to know which side of the story to look at, because it all meets up right there when the bird hits the prey and the prey, which wasn’t anything, man, becomes something, for a second, at least, and then suddenly it’s nothing but a half-dead carcass being lifted into the sky.”

He has told her about his brother who was killed in the early days of the Iraq war by a wayward U.S. Air Force Missile. “At least for a split second, he knew what was going to hit him, man. You always know what’s going to hit you. Maybe for only a sliver of a second. But you still know. Every second, there’s a missile ready to strike you in the head.” This notion of a sudden assault by an invisible force reoccurs later in the story, becoming a repeated thematic pattern.

Lenny prefers the story he invents to the events lying out there to be reported. He makes up a story for the girl from the few details she had given him back in California. One of the stories she tells is about her friend Kimberly who, one day near the stables in Griffith Park, told her a story of being somewhere in Utah when a “dervish” appears and tells her a story. It is a fable about a guy walking in the desert who comes upon a horse and a dog talking. The dog says he does not want to hear about running free and eating wild grass, but is waiting to be told about hunting a rabbit and tearing meat from a bone. The horse says he is sick of blood and gore and wants to hear about wild clover. The man interrupts and says “Meat and grass. What’s the difference? The function of each is to give you life. Without that function, you’re just bones.” Both animals turn on the man, kills him, and then go back to their argument.

One of the best-known sources for this kind of Sufi teaching story is Indries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes. One has to probe beneath the surface to discover their meaning. After the young woman tells dervish stories in Griffith park, Means shifts the perspective to a group of Japanese tourists on a string of horses above the taking pictures of vistas of Hollywood, “and two homeless girls, pale and gaunt, huddled on a sheet of cardboard.” The image is a telling juxtaposition between the surface and the secret reality of Hollywood. The gap between the surface reality and what lies beneath it is another repeated theme in the story that Means will return to later.

Lenny constantly “riffs” on the girl’s story as they drive north from Tucson. “You spent a summer sleeping on the sidewalk or in cut-rate hotels with other kids who’d embraced a mute acquiescence in a common dream of freedom, a possible salvation in the form of a good time, hanging on an edge of chance that might at any moment give way to complete, abject reality, and it did, man, it did.” Lenny riffs more on the common dream of freedom giving way to freeways and faceless drivers and one more piece of roadside trash sauntering by the roadside, which is all she had left when he found her. “Everything else was gone, pushed away, because you’d come to realize, no, scratch that, you’d learned through trial and error that your only recourse was to forget your past.” The tension between forgetting the past and trying to leave a mark on it is another theme that the story will return to.

When they pass the biggest copper mine in North America with the monstrous trucks and bucket loaders, Lenny shifts back to the theme of fear of an invisible force waiting to destroy one. Each man has his own “unique fear” when he creeps up one of the roads, putting on earmuffs and praying to God he will not be able to hear, for if someone hits a “sensitive vein or digs too eagerly, the ground gives way and the road crumbles. Lenny compares the mine to a similar mine in South America, which is on “holy land” guaranteed to give payback in the form of some catastrophic event, most likely in a hundred-year-rainfall-slash flood-slash mudslide.

They encounter a girl with a stop sign and walkie-talkie, who has a scar on her face that is too deep to cover with makeup, which she got on her honeymoon in Tijuana where her husband showed her his true nature for the first time—another example of the theme of something hidden beneath the surface.

Lenny says he likes the new lady, saying she probably has Zuni blood, or at least something Indian, “a stoic ability to put her woes aside and center in on the moment at hand, to withstand the elements for the sake of some larger vision.” Then he begins to invent a story about her—that she has a little brother with cancer, another brother who works at the copper mine—that he did not think he would work there, but one day his father and brothers put in the application papers in for him to work at the mine. Lenny continues his story, “And this guy—let’s settle on the name Bobby—couldn’t say no. Bobby felt himself caught in the long history of his family. Past generations had opened up an obligation” So he said, what the hell, and worked there until he was too tired to think of reinventing his life.

By the time they cross into New Mexico, the first girl is sitting in the back seat trying to avoid listening to Lenny, and the second girl is in the front, listening attentively. Lenny talks with “delusional precision,” saying he guarantees she is going to meet his hawk, Jag, who has intense focus, who flies out of sight but always keeps Lenny in his vision, and, when he is ready, can dive out of the sky and land gently on his arm; he says he is flying above them now, out of sight, following them.

The second girl and Lenny now become like two souls united by a mutual need formed back during the two hours they had spent navigating the hairpin mountain turns. She tells him how to manage skids, telling him the “myth” is you turn into a skid but in the mountains you have to turn against it as hard as you can, that she has seen trucks turn into a skid and head over the ledge and become a wad of tinfoil. When Lenny tells the first girl to stay in the car while he and the new girl have some time alone, she blocks their voices by remembering the road straightening out like a “magic carpet” when they left the twisty mountain roads.

When they pass through a reservation, Lenny returns to the myth that opened the story, about how the people walk a hundred miles to pay their respects to Old Lady Salt who ran away from Black Rock Lake, taking most of the potable water with her. People come here once a year and place their prayer sticks in what’s left of the lake and draw up granules of salt and take bags of it home.

The second girl starts talking about her younger brother who is gorgeous and is going to be a star in Hollywood. He was driving a truck one day and the road just rolled away from him, and he said he had a “vision.” She shows Lenny a picture of brother who has remorse but also hope in his eyes. Lenny says he looks like Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and James Dean, but then says he is going to tell her what will happen to him. “He’s going to fall like the rest of them and end up holding a spoon over a flame.” Lenny says they will find his body up in the hills or, if he is not lucky, in front of the La Brea Tar Pits, for one does not want to die in front of a tourist from Wisconsin. “No one wants to shatter the congenial blandness they bring, the greenhorn belief in hopes and dreams that settles like the smog and makes it exhilaratingly hard to breathe. And let me tell you, there is nothing better in this world than struggling to breathe. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

When they reach the El Morro national monument, the first girl wakes and leaves the car and hears Lenny talking to the second girl about the men who came here. “They stumbled here astonished at the immensity of the stone formation…They stumbled here in wonderment. How could something like this rise out of so much flatness? It’s the work of the Devil, some said. The work of God, others said. He says they all felt compelled to make a mark on this thing, pointing to the petroglyphs. They all had to leave some indication that they had existed, leave their mark. Now they cannot. He said the last time he was here he marked his name with a pen and ended up in jail. He faces the monument with his arms out: “In a firm, hard voice, he spoke directly to the monument of his country’s urgent need for redemption.” He rhapsodizes about birds flying in formation, tribes moving from one “sacred site” to the next, cookhouses in Washington cranking out pure “sacramental salts.” Then he starts telling the first girl’s story again, about how she never dreamed of this place while on the streets of L.A., saying this is a fitting place to end this thing they have had.

The last part of the story shifts to Ranger Russell, a Zuni, who sees them on a video screen--the man like other white boys who came to vandalize the park who have no respect for the reality of the world. “An element of desecration was caught by these four cameras.” Once or twice a year a few nuns in habits, two monks from Vietnam, Fellow-Zuni. He watches the little drama play out and then goes to the girl who has been left, who is driving a piece of flagstone into the rock. “He saw in the delicacy of her action and in the lift of her toes a balletic movement, and he knew something about her that he wasn’t sure how to articulate…. When she turned, he saw the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak. She kept the mute silence of a soothsayer. He saw that right away. It wasn’t the willed silence of the guilty….. Most in the white world didn’t understand medicine people, he thought, seeing her…. In truth a medicine man never picked his vocation. It was a fate that was bestowed, forcing one to forsake certain pleasures in the world—he thought—in order to become someone who knew a little too much about reality.”

In the last section, Ranger Russell is at home that night, telling his wife about all this. He has a vision of the grandeur and hope of the place, which he cannot see so well while in the midst of it. He thinks he will leave the mark the girl made a secret. When the archeologists come from Santa Fe, he will try to persuade them it had been there for years. “It’s just a scratch, he’d say. A few years of wind and rain will blow it away with all the others.” He thinks it will go against his good judgment and the strictures of his job and the park itself to lie for her, but he feels he must do it, “and with that he fell asleep, carrying with him the monument, his tribal land, and the rest of the world.”

In order to read literary short stories with some meaningful pleasure, one must move in close to the story to identify the repetition of meaningful details and then move back away from the story to try to determine what thematic patterns these repeated details create. The overall pattern of the story is a journey to a sacred place, in which one character plays the role of a seer or medicine man, who creates stories about the precarious life that human beings lead, afraid that at any moment, some invisible force can make the seemingly solid ground fall away or some force from the seemingly harmless sky strike from above. What the seer does in the story is rescue wanderers or waifs and tell them stories that provide them with a context for their lost state—very much what modern analysts do for their patients. The sacred place to which the seekers journey is a promontory, or “el morro,” where wanderers have always tried to leave their mark, if, for no other reason than to signify, “I existed. I was here.” The irony, of course, in making a mark on a solid place, is that the mark signifies the universal human desire to transcend mere place—to assert that true reality does not lie in the stones on which we stub our toes, but rather in some hope for a dreamlike, projective reality that lies beyond mere stuff. All the references to sacred places, drugs, appearance/reality, carving signs of the self, searching for meaning, telling stories, Zuni medicine men, marking/erasing the past create a pattern of the universal human quest for transcendence and significance.

Literary short stories, with their emphasis on form and pattern, are often like Sufi stories, because they present mythic, defamiliarized invariants of universal human action, not temporal, familiar variants of social interaction. Such an attitude has dominated short fiction since Hoffmann, Tieck, and Novalis; it can be seen in Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, as well as in such modern descendants as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and others. Human beings need to hear stories the same way they need to experience religion, says Canadian writer Hugh Hood. "Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The scribe ought not to deviate from the prescribed form. That is because the myths at the core of story are always going on...Myth exists to give us this reassurance of the persistence of some of the fundamental forms of human action."

Stories, like liturgy or Sufi tales, do not teach by concept, says Indries Shah, but rather by some more intuitive method of communication, by rhythm, or as the structuralists would say, by a deep structure that lies beneath the conscious level of concept. We must go back to an early stage to prepare ourselves for story, says Shah, a stage in which we regard the story as "a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work." Such teaching stories depend on an ancient and irreplaceable method of "arranging and transmitting a knowledge which cannot be put in any other way." Carol Cassola, an Italian writer, describes the mental disposition of the modern in a way that is similar to the kind of mental disposition which Shah attributes to the serious writer: "He doesn't observe reality, he contemplates it. He is passively receptive in front of it. He is, if you wish, a mystic: someone who awaits the revelation of truth from the silent language of things. What drives him to write is not psychological curiosity or social interest but a metaphysical need."

Story, like liturgy, like mantra, insists on a rigid formalized rhythm repeated in structures that remain the same regardless of the content until they become coordinated with the rhythm of the unconscious life itself, with the deeper rhythms of human reality as it is sensed to be. In this the reader "becomes" the narrative; that is, during the process of reading, the story establishes a rhythm that corresponds to and structures a rhythm within the thinking or responding processes of the individual. Randal Jarrell claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable.” Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation, and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do. The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object.

However, as much as “El Morro” explores the basic human desire for transcendence, leaving a mark, and ritualistic, story-telling protections against those invisible forces that threaten annihilation, the story also seems to undermine the means by which modern human beings seek to fulfill these desires. If Lenny is a seer, he also seems a self-serving meth-head who exploits the loneliness of others. And if the two young women are seekers after salvation, they also seem misguided victims. Perhaps the only character in the story who seems redeemed by this role is the Ranger, who protects the monument from desecration, for he is the only one in the story who seems to value the “old way.” If primitive peoples seem noble in their affirmation of the sacred, then modern peoples seem merely seeking an easy drug-induced escape. Maybe this is inevitable. Every generation seems to seek its own means of spiritual affirmation, but these seekers always become either dangerous extremists or helpless escapists. “El Morro” is, I suggest, a serious literary exploration both of the human need for meaning and transcendence and the human despair of finding a means for fulfilling those needs.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Entertainment Stories vs. Literary Stories

David Means, “El Morro”

For the last few weeks, I have been meaning to get back to David Means’ story “El Morro,” which appeared in the August 29, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. David Means is one of my favorite short story writers, and I have written about his work several times before on this blog. Means is one of those I admire because of his determination to continue to write short stories in spite of the fact that his publishers no doubt have beseeched him to write something they consider more serious and more saleable, that is, a novel.

In an online Paris Review Daily interview last year (June 22, 2010), Means was asked if he was ever tempted to write a novel. He said that he was “tempted,” for all that “wide-open space would be enticing” after having written four short story collections. But, he hastened to say, “What’s not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big.” Means says he likes novels and reads them, but that “stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they’re highly charged.” Means says that although novels can mean “comprehensive,” they can also mean “bloat.”

Means insists he is not at all interested in “simply reporting what’s here right now, or cranking out an entertainment device that’s going to touch the widest number of people.” He says he is interested in “digging and excavating” as deep as he can into “small eternal moments,” concluding that moving from stories to novels for him “would be partly a matter of not giving into the temptation to abuse the form.”

Means ends his statement this way: (If you love the short story, you gotta love the guy.)

When I'm down—and even Alice Munro admits that at times she feels guilty for not writing a novel—I just start a defensive mantra: Blake never wrote novels. Whitman never wrote novels. Carver's work is still around. Franz Wright hasn't written a novel. And it's not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn't coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode.

I greatly admire writers like Means and Munro who are not interested in “cranking out an entertainment device that’s going to touch the widest number of people.” However, I do understand those readers who like “entertainment devices.” It’s just that I don’t live in the same reading world that they do. During my forty years in the classroom, I encountered many students who resented stories that were not entertaining, that were hard to read, that were depressing. I tried with all my energy to get them to make the extra effort that great stories often required. Sometimes I think I succeeded; sometimes I reckon I did not.

After reading David Means’ “El Morro,” a couple of times, I decided to check the blogosphere to see what others thought about it. And here is what I found:

Trevor on the blog Mooksie and the Gripes started quite a stream of comments when he remarked that he had read the story on his way to work, but got lost in it. He said he would return to it to see if he liked it but concluded, “At this point, I don’t think I’ll end up liking this one, but I need to understand it better before I decide.”

Then the comments started to roll in.

Aaron said: “Oh good lord, I’m almost afraid to read the comments for this one: given how little I got out of this story, if anybody finds something of value here, I’m going to be disappointed in myself.”

After a detailed and very sensitive reading of the story, Betsy is dissatisfied because she feels as if David Means has used and abandoned the girl in the story in the same way the character Lenny has.

Jerry is much more succinct and to the point; he says: “I thought this was junk. But even TNY prints a bad one now and then. I keep waiting for something from T. C. Boyle.. it’s been too long.”

Betsy comes to the defense with another bit of reasoned analysis, telling Jerry, “I don’t actually agree with you about it being junk. Means took way too much care with it.”

Then Trevor comes back saying, “I don’t get much from it after a couple of readings. And while I’m with Betsy that it isn’t “junk,” and really like her reasoning in her dispute, I can’t quite accept that Means’ care in creating the story has any bearing on whether or not it is junk.”

In another blog named “Fail Better,” Aaron Riccio seems to sum up many of the readers of “El Morro.” He says: “Let’s play a game I like to call, “What the f**k is this story about?” After summarizing the story, he concludes, “There’s the illusion of a story, in that people say things, but talk, as they say, is cheap, and this is a cheap story that shirks the responsibility of making us care in the slightest. I’ll say it again: “What the f.**ck is this story about?”

My most recent encounter with this kind of debate between writers like David Means and writers like T. C. Boyle, (which Jerry, who thinks “El Morro” is junk, wants to see on the pages of the New Yorker) is a post I wrote for the blog Thresholds. In that essay, I argued that good short stories required a close and careful reading. The essay elicited a strongly worded response from Mike Smith, a regular contributor to Thresholds that opened with this remark:

There was something in Professor May’s article for Thresholds that I couldn’t let go of, something that, it seemed to me, was based on an assumption that needed questioning, or at least needed to be put into a broader context. That something was his statement that ‘short stories cannot be skimmed, read quickly or summarized’. It’s the sort of remark that makes my hackles rise, regardless of who makes it, because I know that short stories can be skimmed and read quickly, and that they are frequently summarized. They are read in buses, trains, and waiting rooms, between appointments and in snatches while the boss is away. They are recalled to friends in shaky patches and fragmented recollections. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most short stories are actually written to be approached in this manner.

Smith’s example of a writer who writes short stories one can read quickly is Stephen King, an example that elicited a huzzah of approval from several responders to the blog. Jerri, for example, did not find Alice Munro stories appealing because “for some reason I have never been able to establish a personal connection with either her characters or their emotions.”

So there we have it: In one camp are those who like the stories of T. C. Boyle and Stephen King. In the other camp are those that like the stories of David Means and Alice Munro. Is there any possibility of mediation between these two camps? Are they meant to always live in two separate worlds? Is this difference of opinion a reflection of the old low brow/high brow distinction? Is it another aspect of the so-called culture wars between right and left wing politics? If so, since the only interest it holds for me on this blog involves the issue of how one reads short stories, it is not something about which very many will get their knickers in a twist. I don’t think anyone has gotten very upset about the short story since Shirley Jackson had people furious to find out where they actually stoned someone to death for winning the lottery.

The most recent response to this debate on Thresholds is from my friend Alysa Cox, who argues that the dichotomy suggested by this disagreement is a false one, for she reads both Alice Munro stories and Stephen King stories while waiting for the bus quite easily, thank you very much. But is this because Alysa is an academic who has learned how to read Alice Munro?

This is an issue that interests me, for it seems to me that one reads stories of the Means/Munro type quite differently than one reads stories of the Boyle/King type. In my teaching experience, students who had no difficulty reading Boyle and King struggled greatly with Munro and Means. And pace Alysa Cox, I don’t think that Munro and Means write stories specifically for academic readers. I just think that Munro and Means try to explore more complex issues in a more complex narrative way than writers like Boyle and King.

Next week, I will post my own discussion of David Means’ “El Morro.” But somehow, I don’t think I will convince the Boyle/King folks that it is a story worth the effort.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Alice Munro’s “Dear Life.”

I am currently editing a new book of criticism on the work of Alice Munro. The book includes fifteen original articles, especially commissioned for the collection, by noted scholars and critics from Canada, the U.S., England, and Ireland. My own task, in addition to soliciting, compiling, and editing the essays, was to write a brief biographical sketch of Munro and a critical essay expressing my own approach to her work. I will talk more about the book as it gets nearer publication, but today I wanted to respond to a piece of “personal history” Munro published recently in The New Yorker, entitled “Dear Life: A Childhood Visitation” (September 19, 2011).

My initial interest in the piece was to determine if Munro had included any “new” information about her life that I should add to my biographical sketch. I have read rather carefully the updated paperback edition of Robert Thacker’s wonderful full-length (600 pages plus) biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (2005/2011) (Thacker has contributed a most helpful analysis of Munro criticism to the book I am editing). I have also read all the interviews and occasional pieces in which Munro has talked about her life, as well as her daughter Sheila’s book Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro (2001). I have also, of course, read Munro’s The View from Castle Rock (2006), which is subtitled “Stories,” but which includes several “personal history” or “memoir” pieces. She does not always make clear distinctions between them.

And that’s what I would like to think a bit about in this post—the relationship between pieces that Munro calls “stories” and the pieces she calls “personal history,” focusing particularly on her recent piece “Dear Life.”

In the “Foreword” to The View from Castle Rock, Munro says, “About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family whose name was Laidlaw.” After doing research and reading in the history of her Scottish family, Munro says she put the material together over the years, “and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories.”

Not stories, mind you, but “something like stories.” Munro also says that during these years she was writing a “special set of stories,” which she did not include in the books of short stories she was publishing because she felt they did not belong. “They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person.” Munro explains that in other first-person stories she had drawn on personal material, but then “I did anything I wanted to do with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story.”

However, she says that in this “special set of stories” (included in the second half of Castle Rock), she was doing something more like what a memoir does—“exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.” Munro says that so many of these characters moved so far beyond their beginnings in real life that she could not remember who they were to start with. She concludes, “You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.”

“Dear Life” does not reveal anything about Alice Munro’s childhood beyond what she and Robert Thacker have already disclosed. However, it does offer some insight into how Munro sees the relationship between “memoir” and fiction. Although “Dear Life” seems to fit into the category of memoir—“exploring a life” in a factual way, with the self at the center—given Munro’s irresistible compulsion to write stories, this “personal history” often merges into the thematically rhetorical stuff of fiction.

I love the rhythm of Munro’s sentences. Note this opening: “I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.” She could have said, more directly: “When I was young I lived at the end of a road that seemed long to me.” But the lilt would have been lost, don’t you think? And she could have opened the memoir in many ways, but she chose to open it with her memory of the two bridges that separated her home from the “real town.” And with these bridges, we are made aware of her early sense of separation from the activity of town life.

We are also introduced in the first paragraph to the individuality of this little girl, for one of the bridges is a wooden walkway which sometimes had a plank missing “so you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.” I am glad that the little girl likes the gap made by the missing plank, for it does not frighten her as it might some children; it fascinates her.

If you have read Munro’s fiction, you will recognize the source of some of her stories in this piece of “personal history,” the most familiar being the whippings by her father for “talking back” converted to fiction in “Royal Beating” in The Beggar Maid. At certain points in “Dear Life,” Munro reminds us that what we are reading here is not fiction. For example, when she describes the house of a man named Royal Grain, which was like a “dwarf’s house in a story,” she suggests that although he could be the stimulus for a story here he is not, for she says the man “does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.”

I like this little aside, for in it Munro indicates at least one way that remembered real life might mutate into a story. It is as if she finds it hard to resist the writer’s urge to spin off from the “dwarf house” and the “troll’s name” and start a story. The distinction she makes here between something that is “only life” and something that might be much more significant is a helpful one, it seems to me, for it suggests that real life is “only life” because it does not mean anything, a story is more than real life because what makes it a story is some meaningful significance the author discovers in it.

Munro refers to the difference between real life and fiction again later when she describes the misfortunes her family faced--her father’s loss of his business and her mother’s Parkinson’s disease—commenting, “You would think this is all too much…. It wouldn’t do in fiction.” It is as though that Munro, and probably all writers, finds it difficult to think about life without thinking about the possibilities for fiction. It is as though writers like Munro experience almost a constant compulsion to convert everything into story, to see the world always in words and sentences and meaningful sequences.

In “Dear Life,” Munro finally gives into the compulsion to convert events in the world into meaningful fiction when she recounts a story her mother told her about “a crazy old woman named Mrs. Netterfield.” The first story the mother tells focuses on a day when the grocer forgot to put butter into the old woman’s order. When the delivery boy is opening the back of the truck, the old woman notices the butter is missing and goes after the boy with a hatchet, which made him drive away without closing the back door. Munro says that some things about the story puzzle her, though she did not think about them at the time, for example how the old woman knew the butter was missing and why she happened to have a hatchet with her. However, when Munro thinks about the story as a writer, she considers the issue of plausibility that governs fiction, but may have nothing to do with real life.

It is with the second story about old Mrs. Netterfield (which takes up roughly a third of “Dear Life”) that Munro begins to transmute “only life” into a story. She begins it in her writerly voice recalling, not the experience (for she was too young to remember), but her mother’s telling of it. “It was a beautiful day in the fall. I had been set out to sleep in my baby carriage on the little patch of new lawn.” The mother is in the house washing baby clothes by hand. Since there is no window in the front, she has to cross the room to look out a window to check on baby Alice, a view which let her see the driveway. At this point, Munro the writer steps in with her inevitable questions: “Why did my mother decide to leave her washing and wringing out in order to look at the driveway?” After considering possible reasons, including watching for hr husband to come home with groceries for something she was making for supper (and an aside about how his family did not approve of her fancy cooking, or her fancy dress for that matter), Munro returns to what her mother saw—old Mrs. Netterfield coming down the lane. Then, thinking like a writer, she considers the possibilities—i.e., not what she knows, but what she thinks may be the case: “My mother must have seen Mrs. Netterfield at least a few times before she noticed her walking down our lane. Maybe they had never spoken. It’s possible though, that they had. My mother might have made a point of it, even if my father had told her that it was not necessary. It might even lead to trouble, was what he probably would have said.”

The mother runs out and grabs baby Alice out of the carriage and carries her into the house, locking the door behind her. “But there was a problem, wasn’t there, with the kitchen door? As far as I know, it never had a proper lock. There was just a custom, at night, of pushing one of the kitchen chairs against that door, and tilting it with the chair back under the doorknob, in such a way that anybody pushing it to get in would have made a dreadful clatter.”

Then, writer that she is, Munro asks further questions about motivation, inner thoughts, background information that she does not know from “only life,” but must invent if she were to write a story: “Did my mother think of any weapon, once she got the doorknob wedged in place? Had she ever picked up a gun, or loaded one, in her life? Did it cross her mind that the old woman might just be paying a neighborly visit? I don’t think so. There would have been a difference in the walk, a determination I the approach of the woman coming down the lane. It’s possible that my mother prayed, but she did not mention it.”

The mother sees the old woman investigate the blanket in the carriage and fling it to the ground; she hides in the dumbwaiter, listening to the old woman walking around the house and stopping at every downstairs window. Then Munro as writer writer poses another question. After noting that the old woman did not have to stretch to see inside because she was not very tall, Munro asks: “How did my mother know this? It was not as if she were running around with me in her arms, hiding behind one piece of furniture after another, peering out, distraught with terror, to see the staring eyes and maybe a wild grin.” Munro says her mother stayed by the dumbwaiter because, “What else could she do?” She thinks her mother would not have gone into the cellar because it would have been more horrible to be trapped down there in the dark, and she could not have gone upstairs because she would have had to cross the room “where the beatings would take place in the future, but which was not so bad after the stairs were closed in.”

Munro says the earlier versions of her mother’s story of old Mrs. Netterfield end here with the old woman peering in the windows, but that in later versions the old woman gets impatient and goes away. What the mother calls “the visitation of old Mrs. Netterfield” actually seems to end for Munro when she asks her mother at some point what became of the old woman. Her mother’s stark reply: “They took her away. She wasn’t left to die alone.”

But it is not the end of the story for Munro the writer. She tells about when she was married and living in Vancouver, but still getting the weekly paper from home, she sees the name Netterfield as that of the maiden name of a woman living in Portland, Oregon who has written a simple and sentimental poem about living in Munro’s home town. Munro realizes from reading the poem and the letter that she had lived in the same house Munro lived in. Munro, the writer, considers this: “Is it possible that my mother never knew this, never knew that our house was where the Netterfield family had lived and that the old woman was looking in the windows of what had been her own house?” Munro then considers some of the “perhaps” that can convert a mere event into a story, thinking that the woman who wrote the poem was old Mrs. Netterfield’s daughter who “perhaps” came to take her away. “Perhaps that daughter, grown and distant, was who she was looking for in the baby carriage. Just after my mother had grabbled me up, as she said, for dear life.” And this, of course, where Munro the writer discovers just the right multi-layered title for her little memoir.

Munro ends this “childhood visitation” by describing an event in her mother’s life that she later converted into a fiction: “When my mother was dying, she got out of the hospital somehow,a t night, and wandered around town until someone who didn’t know her at all spotted her and took her in. If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true.”

But, of course, those who know Munro’s fiction will know that this last event did become fiction; it concludes the story “The Peace of Utrecht” in Dance of the Happy Shades. When the narrator of the story hears of her mother getting out of bed and putting on her gown and slippers and go out into the January snow to make her flight from the hospital, she thinks this: “The snow, the dressing gown and slippers, the board across the bed. It was a picture I was much inclined to resist. Yet I had no doubt this was true, all this was true and exactly as it happened. It was what she would do; all her life as long as I had known her led up to that flight.”

“The Peace of Utrecht” is an important story in Munro’s fiction. As Robert Thacker points out in his biography, it is the first of her stories to deal with the facts and memory of her mother. The story appeared a year after her mother’s death; Munro says it is her “first really painful autobiographical story…the first time I wrote a story that tore me up.” It is a story she says she did not want to write, but she told an interviewer it was the first story she says she absolutely had to write. Thacker says the story “represents Munro’s imaginative homecoming to Wingham after her years away in Vancouver, home to the personal material that would subsequently become her hallmark.”