Sunday, May 29, 2011

Winner of 2011 “Puzzle the Prof” Contest & Some Thoughts About Short Story Month

I am happy to announce that Ray Embry is the winner of the First Annual “Puzzle the Prof” Contest for Short Story Month 2011.

Ray was taking a course at Southern Oregon University’s version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that studies the annual Best American Short Story collection. In the 2010 edition, edited by Richard Russo, the story “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter provided a puzzle for the class with Baxter’s introduction of an apple at the end of the story. Ray points out that the narrator steals the apple and then informs us that he could have paid for it, “but shoplifting apparently was called for. It was an emotional necessity.” Then Ray notes that the narrator has it with him when he gets home. “There it is, deliberately and repeatedly,” says Ray, adding emphatically, “What the hell is it doing there?”

Ray’s query provided me with the most challenging and most interesting puzzle, for responding to it forced me to develop a full-length “reading” of the story that tried to account not only for the apple, but all the other details as well. After I posted my response, I did a search for others who might have discussed the story (which was chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories and the 2011 Pushcart Prize, and also appeared for the first time in book form in Baxter’s 2011 Gryphon: New and Selected Stories). I discovered that it had been puzzling to several other readers as well. The story thus seemed to me to be a good example of a work that was recognized immediately as a very fine story, but that no one seemed able to explain why it was so brilliant.

My own interpretation of the complexity of the story has no claim to validity, for, in my opinion, the truth value of an interpretation can only be measured by the extent to which the interpretation accounts for the details of the story and the extent to which it is satisfying to readers of both the story and the interpretation. My own reading of “The Cousins” derives from my experience with thousands of stories and lots of theoretical thought about the short story as a form during the forty years of my career as a reader/teacher/critic. I doubt that anyone else would have developed such a reading of the story, for obviously no one else has precisely the same experience with short stories as I do.

As a teacher, the problem the story and my reading of the story poses for me is that whereas I can develop such a reading and offer it to my readers for their consideration, I am not all that confident that I can “teach” others to read stories in the same way. For, in my opinion, my job has always been not merely to teach readers how to interpret a single story, but rather how to help readers know how to read the next story they might happen to read. I have no way of determining the extent of my success in that task. It’s a humbling experience to admit that doubt.

Now that I have retired from the classroom, I continue my study of the short story and my efforts to provide some suggestions about reading short stories on this blog. I thank all those who take the time to visit the thoughts of a guy whose only claim to expertise is that he has “read and written about a lot of short stories.”

I am sending Ray a copy of Antonya Nelson's very fine collection of stories Nothing Right and my own modest study of the short story entitled The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. I thank Ray and the others who participated in "Puzzle the Prof" for 2011.

A few words about Short Story Month, 2011:

As far as I can determine, this is the third year that various devoted bloggers have promoted the idea of Short Story Month. It does seem that the number of bloggers enthusiastic about the idea of Short Story Month has grown in those three years. However, as far as I can determine, the idea has not mushroomed beyond blogs. That is, I know of no mention of Short Story Month in newspapers, print magazines, television, radio, etc. (Although I did see a mention on National Public Radio’s blog, I have not heard anything on the air about the month). There has been no nation-wide campaign among writers, publishers, libraries, and teachers to promote the reading and appreciation of the short story.

On the other hand, National Poetry Month, which has been celebrated during the month of April since 1996, is a success primarily because it is supported by the Academy of American Poets, a nonprofit organization that has been around since 1934. The Academy’s website, Poets.org, receives over a million visits a month. National Poetry Month is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts; by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and by the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Booksellers Association. The Academy of American Poets sends out thousands of posters to libraries, teachers, and booksellers, media kits to newspapers across the country, and sponsors a number of events. As a result, National Poetry Month gets quite a bit of publicity. There was even an article in Oprah Magazine (and we know what influence she has), about National Poetry Month, recommending a number of poetry collections.

The question is: Will Short Story Month, informally supported by several bloggers (including myself) over the past three years, ever get the kind of energy, money, and gravitas to become National Short Story Month? As far as I know, there is no short story equivalent of the Academy of American Poets to originate and support such a nationally recognized celebration. And lacking that, I do not know who, or what organization, has the “star power” or the financial wherewithal to make it happen on the same scale as National Poetry Month.

I am open to any suggestions and am happy to join in any effort to get the short story the kind of recognition and readership I obviously think it deserves.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Charles Baxter's "The Cousins": Puzzle the Prof Contest--Short Story Month 20011

The third head-scratcher for my Short Story Month 2011 “Puzzle the Prof” contest comes from Ray, who at Southern Oregon University’s version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is taking a course that studies the annual Best American Short Story collection. In the 2010 edition, edited by Richard Russo, the story “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter provided a puzzle for the class with Baxter’s introduction of an apple at the end of the story. Ray points out that the narrator steals the apple on page 59 and then informs us on page 60 that he could have paid for it, “but shoplifting apparently was called for. It was an emotional necessity.” Then Ray notes that the narrator has it with him when he gets home on page 61. “There it is, deliberately and repeatedly,” says Ray, adding emphatically, “What the hell is it doing there?”

Apples are notorious for causing problems in literature, especially the short story, where the thematic demands and the mythic sources of the form often seem to require that certain objects have symbolic, often mythic, significance. And, of course, the most famous apple in all of myth and literature is the apple in the Garden of Eden that Eve purloined against the warnings of Jehovah and gave to Adam.

Many years ago, I was in a graduate school course on literary criticism conducted by a professor I admired, Dr. Eric Thompson; we had read the short story by Eudora Welty entitled “A Visit of Charity,” in which a young girl hides an apple before visiting a home for the elderly and then retrieves it and takes a big bite out of it at the end of the story. I posted a blog on March 5, 2009 in which I discussed how the class debate about the story centered on the Edenic implications of that apple and how my dissatisfaction with that debate lead me a few years later to write and publish my first academic article.

Of course, in no translation of the Bible I am familiar with is the forbidden fruit identified as an apple. It is simply referred to as a “fruit.” Some scholars think it probably was a fig rather than an apple. However, since the apple seems so irresistible with its solid shiny roundness, it has trumped the fig in the popular imagination. When Milton referred to the fruit as an apple, he seems to have settled the forbidden fruit issue for artists and cartoonists for all time.

Of course, there is no compelling reason to associate every apple in every short story with that archetypal apple that Eve bit and shared with her husband, thus introducing the knowledge of good and evil into the world. Sometimes, an apple is just an apple. Just as Freud supposedly said, (although I cannot find the exact citation of his saying this), sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

So, we will hold the apple in abeyance and start by looking at Charles Baxter’s story to see if there are other elements in the story that might thematically compel us to read his fictional apple as the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“The Cousins” originally appeared in Tin House in 2009 and was later collected in Baxter’s most recent book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, 2011. As Ray has already mentioned, it was also chosen by Richard Russo for the 2010 Best American Short Stories. In the Contributor’s Notes to BASS, Baxter says, “I have always liked stories with dubious narrators given to rationalizations, and ‘The Cousins’ has one such narrator, someone who should give what used to be called ‘moral support’ but doesn’t do so until it is too late.” Baxter further says the story is built from several bits and pieces: an anecdote told to him by a friend, another anecdote told to him more recently, a dream, his memories of New York City in the 1970s, a stanza from one of his own poems, and a monologue he heard from an Ethiopian-American cab driver. Baxter must have seen some thematic connection between the various bits that urged him to “build” the story.

By “dubious narrator,” Baxter may be referring to the concept that Wayne Booth introduced in his classic 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction—the “unreliable narrator.” Booth says, "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work ... unreliable when he does not.” When the reader feels that a narrator (usually a first-person narrator) is what Booth calls, "morally and intellectually deficient,” the reader may judge that narrator unreliable and thus his judgments and observations questionable or suspicious, or as Baxter has it, “dubious.” Often we classify narrators as unreliable when their value system clashes with the prevailing value system of the society, the story, or our own notion of what constitutes basic human decency and moral behavior.

The narrator of “The Cousins” is named Benjamin, but called by his childhood nickname “Bunny” by his cousin Brantford, named for the grandfather, who made a fortune from a device used in aircraft navigation. Brantford has spent his entire college fund frivolously, while, it is assumed, Benjamin has used his to get a degree in law. Benjamin says that although he is twenty years older than Brantford, they are “oddly similar, more like brothers than cousins.” This theme of “brother” occurs later in the story at Brantford’s funeral when Benjamin meets Camille, the woman Brantford had been living with and the mother of his child. She tells Benjamin that his face is like Brantford’s, that they both have the same cheerful scowl. She also says Brantford talked about Benjamin “as his long-lost brother, the one who never came to see him.”

Perhaps the most famous brothers in the Bible are the original brothers, Cain and Able. This story of the “first” brothers seem related to Baxter’s story. When Benjamin and Brantford meet for lunch at the beginning of the story, Brantford tells his cousin, “Sometimes at night I have the feeling that I’ve murdered somebody…Someone’s dead. Only I don’t know who or what or when I did it. I must’ve killed somebody. I’m sure of it.” At the end of the lunch, Brantford says, “Would you please explain to me why it feels as if I’ve committed a murder?”

Brantford’s confession of his feeling that he has committed a murder is important, for it is mentioned later in the story after Benjamin tells of his past life as an actor when he knocks a man down in the subway for urinating in his drink glass and then runs away as the man crawls toward the tracks. When he can find no newspaper account of the man’s death, he thinks he may have dreamed the whole thing, or that someone else dreamed it and then put him as a lead actor in the dream—“a cautionary tale whose moral was that I had no gift for the life I’d been leading.” He then dreams that someone points to his body on the floor, saying, “It’s dead.” He says what frightened him was not his death, but that he had become an “It.” He says that he would not have eve thought of his days as an actor had not Brantford told him twenty years later over lunch that he felt he had killed somebody and if he and Brantford had not had a “kind of solidarity.”

This theme of Brantford’s thinking he has killed someone combines with Benjamin’s concern that he may have been responsible for the man’s death in the subway, evoking that archetypal first murder in the Bible, when Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel because God chose Abel’s sacrificial gift over his own.

The Cain and Abel story always puzzled me as a child. I could not understand why God chose Abel’s gift over Cain’s. It was not that Cain gave the Lord rotten or unripe vegetables from his garden, while Abel gave the firstlings of his flock, nor could I accept the theological justification that in Genesis we are dealing with a vengeful God. I published an article several years ago about how the Cain and Abel story is related to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I quote a passage from that article below.

Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of man against man in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is only possible because of the previous Original Sin of Man against God. As a result of eating the apple, Man is cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which he was formerly at one. However, perhaps the most important result of the Fall is the separation of man from man. As Erich Fromm suggests in The Art of Loving, when Adam and Eve see their nakedness and seek to cover themselves, they do so not because of bodily shame and prudery, but because they have become aware of themselves and the separateness. The realization that they are no longer one causes their shame, guilt, and anxiety.

The story of Cain and Abel is the inevitable result of this separation; it is a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality. Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, each according to his own ability and resources. Abel brings the “firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” and Cain brings the “fruit of the ground.” However, “The Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” No real explanation is given for God’s making this distinction between the two brothers. Cain has given his best just as Abel has. It is certainly not, as many casual readers think, that Cain offered rotten fruit. Moreover, it trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story to simply attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices.

God’s distinction may be better understood as an explicit objectification of what is implicit in the Fall: men, even brothers, are ultimately separate. By this act, God says, “You are isolated from one another. It is therefore possible to make a distinction between you.” Cain reacts to this realization by testing it in the extreme—by rising up against Abel and slaying him. Cain kills Abel simply because he can, because he is separate from him, because he is free to do so. God’s response is, of course, to make Cain the original symbol of isolated man. He cuts him off from other men completely: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Thus begins the nightmare reality of man’s isolation from his fellow man—a reality that makes him horrifyingly free to slay his brother because he is separate from him.

I hypothesize that “The Cousins” has something to do with our human responsibility to our “brother,” that is, all other men and women, but that we often have difficulty fulfilling that responsibility because of our inherent separation from the other. As Baxter says in his Contributor’s Notes to Best American Short Stories, the story has something to do with a man, Benjamin, who fails to give moral support to his “brother” until it is too late and then tries to rationalize his moral failure as he begins to realize his “sin.”

In some ways, the relationship between Brantford and Benjamin is like another famous pair of brothers in the Bible in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Brantford spends all his money on an expensive lifestyle, while Benjamin saves his money and gets an education. Although Benjamin says he wanted to help Brantford, he says he did not know how to express compassion with him or how to express the pity he felt. “I think my example sometimes goaded him into despair.”

By the way, I never liked the parable of the Prodigal Son any more than I did the story of Cain and Abel. It just didn’t seem fair to me that the father would welcome back with a big party the son who has foolishly spent all his inheritance, while the son who stayed home and saved his money would get no party at all.

So, let’s say that “The Cousins” derives from, or is a variation of, the two “brother” stories in the Bible (or any other “brother” stories from other mythologies or cultures, and there are many of them, for a “brother” story is most always about making distinctions between the two in which one triumphs and one feels envy). Which of the two cousins is Cain and which is Abel? From Baxter’s point of view, it’s not that simple. Both are Cain, and both are Abel. Both are the same, even as they re different. As Camille tells Benjamin, “You look alike, but that doesn’t mean you were alike. You could have been his identical twin and you wouldn’t have been any closer to him than you are now.”

Camille knows that when Benjamin attends Brantford’s funeral he is there to “exercise” his “compassion.” She tells him that he is in his element, that he is enjoying this attempt at a cheap moral payback for his neglect of his “brother,” his moral superiority. She tells him to send her a regular check, for he is one of “those guys who loves to exercise his pity, his empathy. You’re one of those rare, sensitive men with a big bank account.”

Then, in one of the most important lines in the story, Benjamin tells her: “It seems that you want to keep me in a posture of perpetual contrition,” adding, “I was suddenly proud of that phrase. It summed everything up.”

If our hypothesis about this story is right, it does sum everything up. Given the horrible way we treat our brothers, we should all always be in a “posture of perpetual contrition.”

The encounter with the taxicab driver is a coda of this theme of brothers. When the cabbie tells Benjamin that he is Ethiopian, Benjamin says he thought he was Somali. The cabdriver crossly responds, “Extremely not. I am Ethiopian…very different. We do not look the same either.” He further explains what Ethiopians think a Somali has nine hearts and will never reveal his true heart, only his false one, doing this over and over. Thus, you will never get to the ninth heart, which is the true one, the “door to the soul. The Somali keeps that heart to himself.” This coda seems to emphasize the brotherhood theme of the story—that even though we may seem the same, we are different; or even though we seem different we are the same. We are doomed to always be separate, never to be able to know the true heart of the other, always unable to know the difference between the thing that is and the thing that is not. Benjamin’s encounter with the poet at the party who called him the “scum of the earth,” which in turn caused him to treat the man in the subway as if he too were the scum of the earth, only reminds us that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, regardless of how repulsive the neighbor might be. If we treat others in the horrible way others treat us, we have no chance of finding a sense of union in the midst of the separation and loneliness brought into being by the original eating of the Edenic apple.

“The Cousins” ends with Benjamin arriving at his home with his stolen apple and the new bunch of flowers he has bought. He thinks he will ring the bell as a stranger might, “a someone who hopes to be welcomed.” The bell does not work, so he goes to the side door. He thinks if he had been Brantford, the yard animal would have approached him (we recall Brantford’s love of animals). He sees his wife home-tutoring a little Somali girl. He feels the presence of his cousin. He raps on the door, but when his wife looks at him, he cannot see her eyes through her dark glasses (we recall his wife’s sensitivity to light), so he does not know if she intends to ever let him in the house again. The last line of the story is: “I have loved this life so much. I was prepared to wait out there forever.”

So, why does Benjamin steal an apple to bring home to his wife? And why does he feel he has to steal it? If the apple is the Edenic apple, the original theft of which brought separation into life, then it is only right that Benjamin (Adam) gives it back to Giulietta (Eve). It could not have been purchased, for it is beyond price; it must be retrieved in the same way it was originally purloined. We recall that when Benjamin met Giulietta, he recognized her “insubstantial quality. When you looked away from her, you couldn’t be sure that she’d still be there when you looked back again.” Giulietta is a different kind of angel than the “fiery angel” Brantford has seen in the sky and thought might descend on him. When Benjamin looks in and sees his sons and his wife in the house, he cannot be sure that he will be allowed in.

And indeed, how can we ever be sure? One tries to look into the eyes of the loved one and see their true heart, but one never knows. It is the “fear and trembling” of not knowing that requires the “leap of faith” to love the other as the self even if we never know that what we perceive is “what is” or “what is not.” But even if we do not know, we must be prepared, as Benjamin is, to wait to be allowed in. “knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I know this has been a long and complex interpretative journey to get to that apple. But in a good short story, to understand the significance of even one small element requires that we understand the role that the one element plays in the whole story. How do I know if this is the correct interpretation of the apple? I don’t. But it is an interpretation that justifies most all the details in the story, an interpretation that seems unified and gives me meaningful pleasure. I think that is what Charles Baxter wants—a reader who cares enough to give his story the kind of attention that he gave in making it.

I thank Ray for compelling me to spend some quality time with Charles Baxter’s story, and I thank Charles Baxter for writing it with such wisdom and grace. My experience with this story reminds me of why I love the short story and so enjoy sharing that love with readers of this blog.

Friday, May 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Denis Johnson's "Emergency": Puzzle the Prof Contest--Short Story Month 2011

During the first two weeks of Short Story Month, I have received several contributions to my whimsical Collection Giveaway contest “Puzzle the Prof.” During the last two weeks of May, I will respond to some of them before awarding two books, Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson and my own The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice to the contestant whose query was most challenging to me.

The first query is from Nathan, who is puzzled about why Denis Johnson’s well-known story “Emergency” is acclaimed as a “great” piece of fiction. He says he was born and grew up in a foreign country before moving to the U.S., which, he says, may be part of the reason he doesn’t "get" contemporary American short stories sometimes. Nathan says, “We often talk about conflict as the basic building block of a dramatic scene: somebody wants something and is having trouble getting it. I can't really tell what it is anybody wants in this story, let alone what's getting in the way to fulfill that. Seems like random things just keep happening to them (guy with knife in the eye, pregnant bunny, hitchhiker, etc.), and there's not much cause-and-effect (another element we're always told to have). I don't really sympathize with any characters, and there's nothing much in the story I look forward to finding out. The ending leaves me unsatisfied.”

I can sympathize with Nathan’s response to “Emergency.” The first couple of times I read it, I too felt puzzled about its popularity. I also could not really sympathize with any of the characters and did not care much about what happened in the story. I should add that, as a guy whose only experience with drugs is a couple of shared joints in the sixties, I have never been very much interested in “druggie” stories. Some may think “Emergency” is so popular because, as Tobias Wolff once said on the New Yorker’s fiction podcast, that it “caught the fag end of the sixties,” but as soon as Wolff said that, he quickly added that the story is a “classic,” which “everyone” seems to have read because of “the art.” (Wolff included the story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1991, in The Vintage Book of American Short Stories, which he edited)

The story may be popular because it reflects a certain period in American culture, but that does not make it a great story. On the surface, the story may appeal to a certain group of readers who relish the antics of young drug-taking males who seem sometimes to live in a comic alternate reality, especially when they triumph over the more cautious representatives of sober reality. It’s a pleasure when Georgia pulls the knife out of the guy’s eye without thinking about it, while the wimpy doctor on duty says he is not touching the guy because he knows his limits. In reality, it’s stupid, of course; but in a fiction, it’s a pleasure.

And, since we accept the drug-induced alternate reality of the story, we think it’s funny when we read the line, “Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in.” It just seems comically right when the nurse says “”We’d better get you lying down,” and the man says, “Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that.” Denis Johnson himself plays the guy with the knife in his eye in the film version of Jesus’ Son and delivers a great comic deadpan line when he nurse asks him if he wants to call the police: “Not unless I die,” he says after thinking about it a few seconds. The slapstick surreal nature of the story is emphasized when the doctor on duty comes in, sees the knife sticking out of the guy’s eye, and asks, “What seems to be the trouble?”

Another reason the story is so well known is because it is one of several stories in the collection Jesus’ Son which focuses on the central character known as “Fuckhead,” who is continually drugged-out and thus always slightly on the fringe of reality. Because readers prefer to read continuous novels rather than short, abrupt stories, a collection that seems to be made up of connected chapter-like stories is often attractive. Readers get the continuity appeal of the novel, but because the story-like sections are often more concise and carefully written than novel chapters, they also often get the pleasure of carefully controlled prose and a tightly controlled structure.

However, on a deeper level, the story is not a good short story only because of anti-establishment comic unreality and novel-like continuity, but because of the way its prose explores a universal theme using strategies that are common to the short story as a genre.

The story opens with the orderly Georgie, who is obviously already stoned, mopping the emergency room floor, complaining, “Jesus, there’s a lot of blood here,” asking, “What the hell were they doing in here?” When Fuckhead says they were performing surgery, Georgie cries, “”There’s so much goop inside of us man, and it all wants to come out.” When Fuckhead asks him why he is crying, Georgie says, “What am I crying for? Jesus. Wow, oh boy, perfect.” Georgie, whose shoes seems to squish with all the blood and can never seem to get it all mopped up, has, of course, seen what others refuse or fear to see—that we are always in the midst of an emergency, that we are all born to die, that the blood inside our bodies is bound to come out; no one can escape that inevitability. And that, indeed, is something to cry about, or laugh about.

It’s a nice irony that Georgie sees what others do not, since “seeing” or “not seeing” is a theme that repeats throughout the story. After all, the man with the knife in his eye has been stabbed by his wife for seeing something he should not see—peeping at the lady next door while she was sunbathing. And of course, the stabbed eye is his good eye, since his other one is made of something artificial. When the doctor on duty comes in and asks what the trouble is, he obviously cannot see anything.

A related theme in the story has to do with spiritual reality versus ordinary reality. When Fuckhead and Georgie go outside to lie in the bed of Georgie’s pickup truck, Georgie wants to go to a church, saying, “I’d like to worship.” Fuckhead wants to go to a county fair, which they do, or maybe they don’t. Given the drug-induced hallucinatory nature of the story, it is not always clear what is happening and what is being imagined. While on the road, they get lost; Georgie cannot remember the rides at the fair and hits a jackrabbit. Given one of the story’s themes, Fuckhead asks Georgie, “Are you completely blind?”

The theme of death introduced at the beginning by the blood-drenched emergency room is continued here with the dead rabbit. To emphasize this theme even more, the rabbit is pregnant—suggesting death-in-life or life-in-death. (Katherine Anne Porter has a wonderful story entitled “The Grave,” in which a young boy skins a rabbit, only to find unborn rabbits inside.) Fuckhead becomes a sort of surrogate mother to the rabbits that Georgie has saved by putting them under his shirt against his belly.

Once again the theme of seeing is evoked when the two men cannot find the truck in a snowstorm and Fuckhead says, “Georgie, can you see?” To which Georgie replies, “See what? See What?” The spiritual reality theme is further emphasized when Fuckhead seems to see a military graveyard filled with row after row of markers. On the other end of the field, he seems to see angels descending out of a brilliant blue summer sky, “their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” But Georgie says, “It’s the drive-in, man…They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard.” This spiritual reality versus artificial reality theme is related to the comic/horrible, birth/death, seeing/blindness dualities that run throughout the story.

All these themes culminate in three different possible endings of the story. The first one is meditative, when Fuckhead thinks about all these events and wonders if he is remembering them correctly. But, he says, that doesn’t matter. He remembers the next morning when the snow melted off the windshield of the pick-up and he feels the beauty of the morning, thinking, “I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how a slave might become a friend to his master.” Fuckhead feels a sense of reconciliation and acceptance of life and death, comedy and tragedy here, as he sees a bull elk standing in the pasture “giving off an air of authority and stupidity. And a coyote jogged across the pasture and faded away among the saplings.”

The second possible ending has the two men back at the hospital, listening to the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer over the intercom, and running into the man with the knife in his head, who has been released from the hospital. “It could have been worse,” says the nurse. “It’s just a miracle you didn’t end up sightless or at least dead.” When the man shakes Georgie’s hand, Georgie does not know him, asking, “Who are you supposed to be?” It’s a great question, perfectly phrased, since it is a question none of us can ever really answer. We don’t know who we are, much less who we are supposed to be.

The final ending comes earlier when on the way back to the hospital, they pick up a hitchhiker named Hardee, a boy Fuckhead knows. When they stop the truck, he climbs “slowly up out of the fields as out of the mouth of a volcano.” (Great image, it seems to me, of resurrection from the depths of the inferno). Hardee says he has been working on a bee farm. When Fuckhead asks, “Do those things sting you?” he replies, “Not like you’d think. You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.” And indeed, the whole story has been about an overall harmony—the kind of harmony that integrates all the dualities of the story—the acceptance of death in the midst of life, the comic in the midst of the grotesque, he pain in the midst of the joy of life. That all sounds corny as hell when expressed so flatly, but it seems embedded deeply within every detail of Johnson’s story. The story ends with a punch line that unifies the story: When Hardee says he is AWOL and needs to get to Canada, Georgie says, “We’ll get you there…. I think I know some people.” Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. But it’s a good goal. After a while, when Hardee asks Georgie, “What do you do for a job,” Georgie replies, “I save lives.”

It’s the only job worth having.

I thank Nathan for getting me to read “Emergency” again. I confess I have never really cared for Jesus’ Son in general or “Emergency” in particular. But that is my fault, not Denis Johnson’s. After spending some more time with it, I now better understand the tension in the story between the sacred and the profane, the comic and the grotesque, sympathy and judgment. What I first saw as merely a self-indulgent story of drugged-out and uncaring clich├ęd characters, I now see as a story of thematic complexity and stylistic precision. I think “Emergency” is a fine example of how short stories often require careful and repeated reading and close and concentrated attention. I hope this discussion leads Nathan back to take another look at the story.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Pride” Alice Munro, Harper’s, April 2011.

Munro's "Pride": A Life Well-lived

Alice Munro will be eighty in July 2011. Since the 2009 publication of Too Much Happiness (her twelfth collection of short stories), she has published (at least as far as I can determine) three new stories: two in The New Yorker (“Corrie,” Oct. 11, 2010; and “Axis,” Jan. 31, 2011), and one in Harper’s, “Pride,” April 2011. I have been told that Harper’s is holding one more story that will be released in the next few months. Given the timeline that Munro has maintained throughout her career of releasing a new collection of stories every three or four years, we should expect, God willing, a thirteenth collection from her in 2012 or 2013.

I have posted blogs on the two New Yorker stories. I have now read the Harper’s story “Pride” several times and, after postponing for a few weeks, think I am now ready to essay a brief discussion of that story.

“Pride” is something of a departure for Munro, for it is told by a first-person male protagonist and narrator. I can recall one other story, “Thanks for the Ride,” in her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades, that uses a male narrator. But in spite of the male teller, in that early story, as well as in this last one, a woman is introduced immediately and usually assumes the focus of the story. In “Thanks for the Ride,” it is a teenager, Lois, who initiates the male narrator into sexuality. In “Pride,” it is Oneida, the daughter of a well-to-do family who lives in the same town as the male narrator. The story begins in the thirties and continues up to recent years. The action, such as there is, centers on the life of the narrator, who has a harelip, becoming a bookkeeper for a company in the town, and Oneida, a young woman he knows.

As in any first-person story, the first question I ask is: Why is the narrator telling the story and what stake does he have in it? Although the narrator (never named) is not a highly educated man, he is a thoughtful man. He ruminates on things and ponders them, as we can determine from the first paragraphs of the story, in which he divides people into two types: those who, regardless of their mistakes, prove themselves hearty and jovial, claiming they would not want to live any place but where they live, and others, who don’t get away from where they live, but you wish, for their own sake, that they had. “Whatever hole they started digging for themselves when they were young…they kept right on at it, digging away.” This bit of rumination establishes the general motivation for the narrator’s telling of the story. The reader is led to expect that the two main characters of the story might be representative of these two types.

Although he is driven back and forth by Oneida, the narrator notes that she did not look unhappy at the arrangement, nor did he, that he had “dignity” and plenty of it. What Oneida had was something different, he says, a kind of flustered graciousness, ready to laugh a little at her situation. The narrator says he felt sorry for her, “the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting.” Then he adds, in reference to his harelip impediment, “Imagine me, sorry.”

The next section of the story moves to the 1940’s—the war years. Because the narrator was exempted from service, he feels cut off from men his own age, although he says that is nothing new. He wonders why his harelip, which has been “decently if not quite cleverly, tidied up,” has kept him home. However, he says he doesn’t miss a father (who died before he even saw him) or a girlfriend, or “the brief swagger of walking off to war.” He spends time listening to the BBC radio and going to movies with his mother. When a ferry sinks off the Canada coast, he thinks of the people who went down and ponders that death makes everyone equal.

In the next section of the story, the narrator’s mother dies, as does Oneida’s father. When she comes to ask his advice about selling her house, he cautions her against it, but she sells it anyway and is later sorry for her action, even though she moves into an apartment later built on the site of the house. The narrator begins to spend time with Oneida in the fifties, inviting her to his own house to watch his new television. They do not go out because meeting new people is an ordeal for him. When he slips and calls her “Ida,” which is what her father called her, he apologizes, but she notes that he always preferred to call people by their old school nicknames. He feels “huffy” about this because, “The implication was that I somehow preferred to hang on to my childhood, that I wanted to stay there and make everybody else stay with me.” This implication refers to the narrator’s opening rumination about those people who stay and make the best of it and those who should have left. He says that all his school years were spent getting used to what he was like, and he considers it a triumph of sorts to have managed that feat and to know that he could stay here and make a living without having to continually break new people in to the way he looks. “But as for wanting to put us all back in grade four, no thank you.”

During the Sixties and Seventies, he thinks about Oneida, “There was still that strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin.” One evening he becomes ill and she settles into his mother’s bedroom to care for him. He comes to depend on her and has “spells of feeling like a small child again.” However, he realizes she is not his mother and is embarrassed that she has cared for his intimate hygiene needs, feeling that she was able to do so because of the way he looked, because he was a “neuter to her, or an unfortunate child.” He wants her to leave, and she does so, but sometime later, when she comes to watch television, she says she would like to move in with him, for she does not like living in an apartment, and if he became sick again, she could care for him. “We had a certain feeling for each other, she said. We had a feeling which was not just the usual thing. We could live together like brother and sister and look after each other like brother and sister, and it would be the most natural thing in the world. Everybody would accept it as so. How could they not?”

The narrator feels “angry, scared, appalled” at all this, “as if I had been thrown down a cellar and a flat door slammed on my head.” He does not want to let Oneida know how he feels, but to get out of this dilemma, he says he has already sold the house. Then, of course, he has to sell the house, and, because there is nowhere else, finding an apartment on the ground floor of the building where Oneida lives. When he goes to sign the lease, he meets a man who he has known for years but does not immediately recognize. When the man asks the narrator if he plays the card euchre, intimating a future companionship, the narrator ruminates about the following:

“Just living long enough wipes out the problems. Puts you in a select club. No matter what your disabilities may have been, just living till now wipes them out, to a good measure. Everybody’s face will have suffered, never just yours.”

This makes him think about how Oneida has aged. He thinks if he had ever had the right to choose, he would not have chosen her, but a college girl he once knew who worked for the company that employed him. Once the girl told him that he could now get a better plastic surgery job on his face. He thinks:

“She was right. But how could I explain that it was just beyond me to walk into some doctor’s office and admit that I was wishing for something I hadn’t got.”


The story ends when Oneida shows up at his house while he is packing. Suddenly she laughs and points out the window to a birdbath that seems full of black and white birds, dashing in the water. But they are not birds, but a group of young skunks. He thinks how beautiful they are, splashing in the water, so many you could not tell how many there were. Here is how the story ends:

“While we watched, they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them.
“My Lord,” said Oneida. “In town.”
Her face looked dazzled.
“Have you ever seen such a sight?”
I said no. Never.
I thought she might say another thing and spoil it, but no, neither of us did.
We were as glad as we could be.”
Other things that lead us to expect that the story means something are its title and its author. That it is titled “Pride” leads us to expect that its meaning is somehow related to that human quality; that it is by Alice Munro (if we have read her stories before) leads us to expect some thematic significance, not merely a realistic account of an historical event.

The opening two paragraphs of the story, which begins, “Some people get everything wrong,” and then reflects on two different types of people in live in towns like the one in which this story takes place, also suggests to us that the teller of the story has something in mind he wishes to explore and perhaps illustrate. The opening rumination ends this way:
“Life is harder for some, we’re told. Not their fault, even if the blows are purely imaginary. Felt just as keenly by the recipient, or the non-recipient, as the case may be.
But good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.”

Just as such a ruminative opening suggests some thematic significance, so also does the ending scene in which small skunks are playing in a birdbath. The incongruity of the skunks in the birdbath, combined with the fact that the sight dazzles Oneida and pleases the narrator, making them both as glad as they could be, suggests that the scene has symbolic or metaphoric significance that should make us reflect back on the whole story. The fact that the skunks, which are usually thought to be repulsive smelly creatures, here look beautiful and seem “proud of themselves” makes us reflect back on the meditative passages at the beginning, as well as the references to “pride” throughout the story. It is hard to be a skunk, one might think, hard to have any pride in yourself if you smell bad and people run from you.

I recall back in the late forties and early fifties a Warner Bros Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon character named Pepe Le pew, a male French skunk who was always amorously stalking a young female cat (who accidently got a white stripe painted on her back) who ran from his attentions because of his vile smell. But no matter how repulsive others thought Pepe to be, he was blissfully indifferent and took great pride in what he thought to be his amorous appeal.

If one were an observer of life in this small Canadian town, one might wonder why these two people never got together. Granted, the narrator’s face is marred by a cleft lip, while Oneida’s face is beautiful; she comes from wealth and privilege, while he comes from a lower middle-class background. But then this kind of difference is the very stuff of romance—Heathcliff and Cathy in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, for example.

Although we can understand why the narrator and Oneida do not get together when they are young, we might wonder why they do not get married, or at least live together, when they are older. Part of the mystery involved here is why people ever get together. As the narrator says, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.” The narrator does not feel slighted or snubbed; he is so used to being exempted by his looks and the way he talks that he takes it for granted and he therefore does not miss what he might have had if he had looked differently. He spent his school years getting used to what he looked like and how other people responded to his looks, and considers it a “minor triumph” to have managed to do this, to survive, make a living, live a satisfying life.

We might be temped to say that his life could not have been satisfying, for he only had his mother and then this woman who mothers him when he is ill. But if nothing in the story suggests that he is lonely or self-pitying or deprived—either sexually or emotionally, who are we to say he must have been unhappy? Does one have to love someone to live a good life? Does one have to have sex to live a good life? Does one have to have children to be fulfilled? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is “no.”

Why does the narrator react so extremely when Oneida suggests moving in with him? She does so because she thinks they need each other; he could depend on her; she could depend on him. However, this very notion terrifies and appalls him, for he has always lived his life with enough hard-earned self-pride that he does not need anyone else. To be made to feel at this point in his life that he does need someone, that he cannot live alone, would somehow suggest that all his life’s work overcoming adversity, earning self-pride, would have been wasted. Remember, when a woman suggested that he go see a doctor to get a better repair job done on his cleft lip, he says it was just beyond him to go in some doctor’s office and admit he was wishing for something he didn’t have. To be able to say, “I don’t need” to change my appearance to be accepted. To be able to say, “I don’t need someone else to depend on and reflect a positive image of me.” Both require hard-earned self-pride.

When he meets the man he did not recognize because the man has aged and thinks of Oneida growing older, he comes to realize that if you live long enough, earlier problems are eradicated. No matter what shortcomings you may have had earlier, just living long enough wipes them. When you get older, everybody’s face suffers, not just yours.

Alice Munro has lived a long, productive creative life, developing a wisdom about human nature that she will, God willing, continue to share with us for many years to come. It is well that she would write a story that reflects a life well lived. As the English metaphysical poet George Herbert once famously said, “Living well is the best revenge.”