Wednesday, February 29, 2012

DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda: Part II

Larry Dark suggests that I will probably gain in admiration of Don DeLillo’s stories in The Angel Esmeralda on a second reading, and he is right. I have read all the stories again, and I do like at least three of them better than I did on a first reading. I think Larry is also probably right that these stories are not necessarily exemplars of the short story form, but rather that they are “very much on DeLillo’s terms.”

However, since I have never read a DeLillo novel, I am not really sure what DeLillo’s terms are. I did try to read White Noise once, even tried to listen to someone else read it to me on my ipod while walking my dog; but just could not stick it out. If DeLillo’s “terms” are novelistic, and I suspect they are, then perhaps a good novelist, even arguably, a great novelist, as most reviewers claim DeLillo is, may not be such a great short-story writer. Yes, I did like some of the stories in The Angel Esmeralda better after a second reading, but I still do not think they are great short stories.

My reading of the reviews of The Angel Esmeralda in my previous post suggests to me that few reviewers make an unbiased assessment of DeLillo’s stories because they are so in awe of his powers as a novelist. And, truth to tell, it irritates the hell out of me that so many reviewers recommend his stories because they are “accessible” introductions to DeLillo’s more demanding novels. Such remarks echo the common bias in the MFA workshop that short stories are good practice for beginning writers until they become “mature” enough to tackle the really serious work of writing novels and the parallel prejudice in the literature classroom that short stories are a “manageable” means of teaching students such narrative devices as plot, character, setting, point of view, etc. so that they can use this knowledge to read more serious narrative forms—you guessed it!—novels. You will please pardon the expression, but I think this is bullshit.

I know, I know. These tiresome protests of mine against the “bigger is better” bias of readers/critics/teachers may be prejudicing me against accepting/appreciating/admiring DeLillo’s stories on his own “terms,” insisting, as I always do, that the short story is a form that should be understood and judged on its own terms instead of on the terms of the novelist or the novel reader.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think most of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda are primarily finger exercises—bits and pieces, parts and portions--that DeLillo has played round with while preparing for the “big important novel” waiting in the wings. I don’t think DeLillo values the short story as a form, and I don’t think he has given much time to developing meaningful stories out of the parts and pieces he tinkers with here.

For example, I don’t really see anything about “Human Moments in World War III” that elevates it above ordinary sci fi genre fiction. The nostalgic trope that space travelers pick up radio programs from forty, fifty, sixty years ago, and the dominating notion of “human moments” during wartime seem to me to be common and clichéd. The long, twenty-line sentence at the end of the story pondering the meaning of the “endlessly fulfilling” view out the spacecraft window is a nicely balanced piece of prose describing a scene that many of my students were fond of calling “awesome,” but nothing in the story “earns” that ending.

For me, the only powerful part of the story “Baader-Meinhoff” is the description of some of the paintings in Gerhard Richter’s cycle in MOMA, based on photographs of the famous German terrorists who committed suicide, or arguably, were executed, while in prison. The rest—an account of a woman who meets a man in the museum and takes him back to her apartment, where he masturbates while she cowers in the bedroom--does not complement the descriptions of the paintings in any thematically meaningful way.

“Midnight in Dostoevsky,” which focuses on two young men who fancy themselves great thinkers while making up stories about their philosophy teacher and a mysterious man in a hooded coat, is often just tedious; for example, there is one full page devoted to a debate about whether the mysterious man’s coat is a parka or an Anorak.

“Hammer and Sickle” is a topical, “ripped from the headlines” story about a man who is serving time in a minimum-security prison because of involvement in white-collar crime. The man’s two daughters—ages ten and twelve--do a TV news show about world economic conditions—e.g. the debt in Dubai, the bailout in Greece, the Dow, the Nasdaq, the euro, riots, strikes, protests, pickets—in which the daily market report becomes a performance piece. It’s a clever, amusing, even cute, exercise, but still and all just a performance piece itself.

“The Ivory Acrobat” focuses on one woman’s fear of aftershocks of an earthquake in Greece—an event that narrows the world down to inside and outside for her. However, for someone like myself, who lives in earthquake-prone southern California, the woman’s reactions seem highly exaggerated, and if DeLillo is using aftershocks as a metaphor for all the mysterious forces that make our lives tentative, then ho-hum.

The title story, which made an appearance of sorts in DeLillo’s novel Underworld, was picked by Jane Smiley for the 1995 Best American Short Stories. I liked this story about Sister Edgar, who still dresses in old things with “arcane names,” and the younger nun Grace Fahey who is in all ways more secular. I even like the concept of graffiti writers painting memorial angels on the walls of the neighborhood called “The Bird”—a tuck of land sitting adrift from the social order,” although I think DeLillo pushes the social message stuff a bit too much in the story, for example when Sister Grace harangues a group of tourists on a bus that identifies the area as “South Bronx Surreal.” Grace shouts at them the obvious retort: “It’s not surreal. It’s real. You’re making it surreal by coming here. Your bus is surreal. You’re surreal.”

After someone rapes the child Esmeralda and throws her off a roof, the story concludes with an “uncanny occurrence” on a billboard that displays a “female Caucasian of the middle suburbs” pouring a glass of Minute Maid orange juice. When a train shines its light through the billboard, an image of the dead child Esmeralda appears. A thousand people show up to worship the sacred object—that is, until the next day when the sign is painted over with the words “space available” printed on it. The DeLillo narrator ponders: “Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth—all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubts?” I suppose you could say the same thing about seeing the face of Jesus on a potato, but the image of a dead child showing forth like pentimento on a commercial billboard is obviously more affecting. I found the story hard to resist.

I also liked the shortest story in the collection I--“The Runner”--in which a runner through the park witnesses a child being snatched by a man who pulls up to her in his car. The grab is also witnessed by a woman who opines that the man is the child’s father. In a plot device that DeLillo uses in several stories, the woman creates an entire story about the snatcher: that he wants to share custody, that he broods for days, that he comes to the ex-wife and breaks up the furniture, that she gets a court order to keep him away, etc. However, when the runner discovers that the snatcher is a stranger, he lies to the woman, saying the mother identified the snatcher as the father, protecting her from the truth because he knows that she would prefer to have an explanation of what she has begun to think is an enormous mystery—“a hole opened up in the air.” I like “The Runner” because it economically and provocatively explores a universal human need in tight short-story fashion.

I also liked “The Starveling,” DeLillo’s most recent piece, which Larry Dark thinks is the key story in the book and which Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times also thinks is the best story, revealing DeLillo at his most tender.” There is a kind of isolation about the central character that gives credence to Frank O’Connor’s famous assertion about loneliness in the short story as a form. I like the central trope of the man sitting in movie theatres with only a few souls (“Moviegoers were souls when there were only a few of them.”). The woman he lives with calls him an “ascetic,” finding something “saintly and crazed in his undertaking, an element of self-denial, an element of penance. Sit in the dark, revere the images.”

After his sympathetic encounter in the restroom with the woman he calls the starveling, the man goes home to the woman he lives with and sees her standing in what might be a yoga pose; he stands absolutely still also watching her, and the position she holds seems to have a meaning for him.

“The way the hands were entwined, the stretched body, a symmetry, a discipline that made him believe he was seeing something in her that he’d never recognized, a truth or depth that showed him who she was. He lost all sense of time, determined to remain dead still for as long as she did, watching steadily, breathing evenly, never lapsing.

If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.”

It seems to me that DeLillo has focused on a mysterious magic about the relationship between reality and the movies in this story. That the black and white silent film “The Artist” won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards recently and that the film “Hugo,” which is about Georges Melies, the original magician of the movies, also won a number of awards, suggests that, at least for those who make movies, there is something special about the dreamlike reality we experience in a movie theatre. “The Starveling” is actually the only story in The Angela Esmeralda that I will probably go back and read again and again, for it explores subtle and complex mysteries about human loneliness and human relationships.

However, I cannot, for the life of me--with all due respect to my betters--understand what John Banville, Martin Amis, and Charles Baxter see in the earliest story in the collection, the 1979 “Creation.”

Banville calls “Creation” one of the most memorable pieces” in the book, although he admits that it seems “superficially inconsequential, literally and figuratively.” Describing the action of the story as low-key, like a piece by Robbe-Grillet, Banville concludes that there is something in “Creation” that “lingers after the telling, something acrid, heart-sore and desperate, that makes it not a nouveau romanesque five-finger exercise but a real story that resonates ominously in the mind.” I am sorry to say that Banville does not explain why the story “resonates” (meaningless word that clutters the criticism of so many reviewers and academics these days).

Martin Amis also likes “Creation,” saying existentially, “The story feels bleached of past and future, of context and consequence.” It is ironic to me that this description is precisely the kind of comment critics often use to describe their dissatisfaction with the short story as a genre. But, hey, this is Don DeLillo! The lack of context and consequence must resonate (ouch!) with postmodern readers.

Charles Baxter also attributes a powerful existential significance to the story because of what it does not say, arguing that DeLillo’s stories “specialize in elaborate narrative chronologies in which some key element is missing. These strategic omissions give the stories their distinctive, nagging inscrutability, along with plots that present a mystery that hasn’t been announced, much less solved.”

Here is what is “superficially inconsequential,” to use Banville’s terms, in the story. A man and woman have been vacationing in the West Indies and are tying to catch a plane from the island they are on to New York. However, the plane is over booked and they have to spend another night, sharing a taxi back to their hotel with a German woman. The next day when they get to the small airport, only one seat is available, which the man gives to his female companion, going back to the hotel with the German woman, named Christa, and thence to bed with her. The next day, the narrator and Christa still cannot get a flight; although she is desperate to get home because of her work, he is sanguine about staying longer. As Elmer Fudd used to say at the end of Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s it, folks!”

Baxter says the omission of any “any markers of the narrator’s desire is one of the signs that we are inside a post humanist fiction” in the story. We are not given his motivation, his personal feelings, his individuality, Baxter says triumphantly, because “this is not that kind of story…. The encounter of the narrator and the German woman in ‘Creation’ isn’t especially significant or meaningful. It’s just there, and the reason it’s there has very little to do with the specifically erotic content of the scene or the narrator’s character, such as it is.” What it does have to do with, Baxter does not deign to tell us.

All this omission, says Baxter “radically cools down the emotional temperature of the story and gives it a pleasingly zero-degree defamiliarized tone of floating detachment.” However, it is the final scene, Baxter says, when the German woman “lapses into a kind of blank impassivity” that gives the story a “sudden intensity.” Baxter calls it the true DeLillo moment toward which the story has been aimed. Baxter says that when Christa’s lips move without words while the narrator tells her that once more they do not have seats on the plane, it bears “more than a slight resemblance to prayer.” This is a typical device in DeLillo’s stories, says Baxter, in which the characters appear that they’re engaging in “religious devotions designed to get them to some higher plane of consciousness.”

Baxter says the circumstances in the stories are so large and fraught with import that the characters are minuscule by comparison. They simply have to bow down inside a cloud of unknowing. Comprehension gives way to nonverbal rapt contemplation. Any effort to grasp the nature of the experience they face is simply beyond reach. It would be like asking a dog to understand calculus.” Well, I don’t’ understand calculus, but even a casual reading of the scene when Christa’s lips move without saying anything suggests that she is really just pissed off at not being able to leave the island and probably silently cursing. How Baxter reads this as an attempt to achieve a “higher state of consciousness” is just way beyond me.

In my opinion, the story is really just a lot of bad Hemingway. For example, note this passage of dialogue between the three when they cannot get on the plane and must go back to the hotel in a taxi:

It was hot and bright all the way back. The woman sat up front with Rupert. At intervals she turned to Jill and me and said, ‘It is awful, awful, the system they have,’ or ‘I don’t understand how they survive economically,’ or ‘They could not guarantee I will get out even tomorrow.

When we stopped for some goats, a woman came out of the trees to sell us nutmeg in little plastic bags.

‘Where are we listed?’ Jill said.

‘Two and three this time.’

‘What time’s the flight?’

‘Six forty-five. We have to be there at six. Rupert, we have to be there at six.’

‘I take you.’

‘Where are we going now?’ Jill said.


‘I know hotel. What sort of hotel?’

Not even good Hemingway parody. You would not win a trip to Harry’s Bar and Grill with this.

And then there is what Baxter calls the “rapture” passage when the narrator relaxes in the pool:

“I opened my eyes to the sight of wind-driven clouds—clouds scudding—and a single frigate bird hung on a current of air, long wings flat and still. The world and all things in it. I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was in the lap of some primal moment. This was a modern product, this hotel, designed to make people feel they’d left civilization behind. But if I wasn’t naïve, I wasn’t in the mood, either, to stir up doubts about the place. We’d had half a day of frustration, long drives out and back, and the cooling touch of freshwater on my body, and the ocean-soaring bird, and the speed of those low-flying clouds, their massive tumbling summits, and my weightless drift, the slow turning in the pool, like some remote-controlled rapture, made me feel I knew what it was to be in the world. It was special, yes. The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveler’s search.”

By the way, in case this passage does not tell you, the narrator is a writer, albeit perhaps a copywriter on Madison Avenue, as DeLillo was before he discovered he could sell fiction more profitably than soap flakes.

How about some more bad Hemingway? Here are the narrator and Christa after they have “used the morning in bed”:

‘What time is it?’

‘Go to sleep.’

‘Did we miss the call?’

‘There’s still time. They will ring the bell by the gate. An hour yet.’

‘I want you next to me.’

‘I must finish,’ she said. ‘Go to sleep.’

I managed to prop myself on an elbow.

‘What are you reading?’

‘It’s work. It’s very dull. You don’t want to know. We don’t ask, you and I’. ‘You’re half sleeping, or you wouldn’t ask.’

‘Will you come to bed soon?’

‘Yes, soon.’

‘If I’m asleep, will you wake me?’


‘Will you slide the door open a little, so we can feel the air?’

‘Yes, she said. Of course. Whatever you wish.’

Compare this bit of the inconsequential with the significantly meaningful dialogue in a story like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

“Creation” ends as the narrator tries to sooth Christa’s disappointment at once more not getting a plane.

“We’ll just be together. You can rest and sleep, and tonight we’ll have a quiet brandy, and you’ll feel better about things. I know you will, I’m sure of it, I’m absolutely convinced. You’re not alone. It’s all right, it’s all right. We’ll have these final hours, that’s all. And you’ll speak to me in German.”

Oh, dear, oh, dear. How could such accomplished writers as Banville and Baxter have read this bit of inconsequentiality as meaningful? The fact that two people cannot make an exit from an island does not a Sartrean No Exit make.

I apologize for taking so much space on this posting, but since I am obviously in a minority of one about The Angel Esmeralda, I felt I had to explain in some detail my misgivings about the book, especially since so few reviewers have explained their praise for it. I know I will be accused of a hatchet job on DeLillo, but hell, sometimes you just have to suggest that the Emperor has no clothes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda--Part I

The Story Prize recently announced its short list of three books nominated for the award this year. Two of those books, We Others by Steven Millhauser and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, are brilliant examples of short stories of two different types: imaginative concept stories and Chekhovian realistic stories. We Others is also on the short list for the PEN/Faulkner award, as is The Angel Esmeralda. Binocular Vision is on the short list for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winners of the awards will be announced in March and April

All three books are collections of stories that span the authors’ careers from the late seventies/early eighties up to the present. Millhauser and Pearlman are short story writers par excellence; they love the form, know it well, and write near perfect stories. I have posed blog entries on their collections. For DeLillo, who is often praised as one of America’s greatest novelists, this is his first collection of stories. The fact that it made the short list for both The Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner surprised me. I had read The Angel Esmeralda and was totally underwhelmed; the book seemed to me a typical example of a novelist who deigned to diddly away a little time between the more important work of writing novels to dash off some lightweight stories.

When a collection of stories that I thought was weak is nominated for an important award, of course I am perfectly willing to rethink my judgment. Could I be wrong about The Angel Esmeralda? So I searched all the reviews (and there were a lot of them) and was astonished, amazed, appalled, and just plain aggravated that everyone—in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Canada—seemed to think the collection was bloody brilliant.

First there were the advance one-paragraph prepublication notices in such places as Booklist, which called The Angel Esmeralda a “towering collection” that “builds in the mind like a mighty cumulonimbus lit by lightening flashes and scored with thunder,” and Library Journal, which more moderately called it a “good introduction to DeLillo’s iconic postmodern style” and opined that DeLillo fans would find it a “good fix” until his next novel. Indeed, this notion that the collection was primarily interesting for being a relatively easy and accessible introduction to DeLillo’s more challenging novels was a common theme sounded throughout the reviews.

Many reviewers discuss the stories as examples of typical DeLillo themes and his topical treatment of current social issues, or else they cite particular sentences to praise DeLillo’s style. John Greenya says in The Washington Times that he believes it is “possible, and esthetically rewarding, to read Don DeLillo for his sentences alone.” None really talk about the stories as “stories,” except perhaps USA Today, declaring there is no weak story in the whole book, saying it is a “marvel—a small masterpiece of short fiction,” but still noting that for readers not quite ready for one of his “formidable” novels, it is a “fine introduction” to his work.

The reviewer in Canada’s National Post suggests the short story may be a greater challenge to DeLillo, to “reach some characteristically oblique yet eerily satisfying conclusion without support from the novel’s architecture, its sheer accumulation.”

Indeed, the reviewer in the Sidney Morning Herald’s reminder that DeLillo has often been drawn to “large, impersonal, contextualising cultural questions,” e.g. environmental disaster, political assassination, terrorism may be precisely what makes the short story a “greater challenge” to DeLillo, for the form has never been interested in such large cultural questions.” In The New York Times Book Review, Liesl Schillinger, calling DeLillo a “master transmitter of American zeitgeist anxiety,” suggests that each of the stories address a different kind of “unease,” becoming a “coded contemporary allegory” of such things as airport scares, earthquakes, terrorists, child snatchers, and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Christian Lorentzen, in the London Review of Books says these are “less stories—if a story requires something like a moral, an epiphany or a fatal reversal—than animated conceptual fragments.”

Matt Kavanagh in Canada’s Globe and Mail calls the book both a “career retrospective and a restating of first principles.” The Montreal Gazette says it is a “remarkable representative sampler of DeLillo’s narrative strategies and thematic range. Anyone looking for a way into the work of a writer who can appear intimidating now has the perfect place to go.” However, Troy Jollimore in The Washington Post says that the stories here may not be the ideal place for a neophyte reader of DeLillo to start, for he requires a “large canvas to fully display his narrative gifts.” In fact, he says, “At times, The Angel Esmeralda feels almost like a novelist’s notebook.”

Many of the reviews spend more time discussing DeLillo’s novels than the stories in this collection. For example, Salvatore Scibona in the San Francisco Chronicle is half way through his review before he even mentions the stories, calling them a “retrospective,” splaying out more than three decades of DeLillo’s work. The Washington Times says that readers who have previously been put off by DeLillo’s novels will welcome this book for its brevity and “relative accessibility” and will find it an “excellent introduction to DeLillo’s genius.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times put their chief reviewers on the case—David Ulin and Michiko Kakutani. Ulin begins by acknowledging the sense of déjà vu while reading the stories in The Angel Esmeralda, since they echo theme and issues in his novels since 1971. It is as though DeLillo has put together a “primer, a guidebook to his literary life.” Kakutani singles out the title story as the best in the collection, noting that the others are not nearly as powerful, although they offer insights into DeLillo’s themes and preoccupations as a writer—particularly his exploration of people who are deeply “alienated individuals—detached, displaced, often stranded in physical or emotional limbo.

The three reviews with arguably the most impact may be those by other respected writers: John Banville in Financial Times, Charles Baxter in The New York Review of Books, and Martin Amis in The New Yorker. Banville is the most circumspect of the three. Noting that DeLillo’s writing style owes much to the French nouveau roman, ala Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes, Banville singles out two stories as the best in the collection: “Creation,” which although seemingly inconsequential, “lingers after the telling,” with something that seems “acrid, heart-sore and desperate,” making it “a real story that resonates ominously in the mind.” However, Banville does not seem to know how to justify how this effect is created. Martin Amis opens his New Yorker review by arguing that when we say we love a writer’s work, we actually mean we love about half of it, citing several examples from Shakespeare to Joyce. He says The Angel Esmeralda is an alternation between “easy-chair DeLillo and hard-chair DeLillo.” Amis calls DeLillo the “laureate of terror, of modern or postmodern terror, and the way it hovers and shimmers in our subliminal minds.” However, for the most part, he does not discuss how the stories here support that judgment.

The longest review is Charles Baxter’s essay in The New York Review of Books. Baxter provides a context for the collection by arguing that in many of his recent books, DeLillo focuses on “trance states that have little or no actual content but for that very reason have become central to the story.” Baxter’s central point is that The Angel Esmeralda “has at its core a series of situations that lead to trance states experienced by the insulted, the insured, and the vulnerable, who in its grip sometimes begin to babble in a form of secular glossolalia.” Baxter argues that the stories “specialize in elaborate narrative chronologies in which some key element is missing. These strategic omissions give the stories their distinctive, nagging inscrutability, along with plots that present a mystery that hasn’t’ been announced, much less solved.” In the opening story, “Creation,” Baxter, echoing Banville’s comparison to Roland Barthes says “DeLillo’s (or the narrator’s) refusal to supply the reader with any emotional filler or exposition radically cools down the emotional temperature of the story and gives it a pleasingly zero-degree defamiliarized tone of floating detachment.”

However, Baxter says the title story is the most memorable one, for in it “tone is everything. Tone takes the place vacated by plot. In all the stories that follow this one, a similar configuration of the transfixed observer and the mysterious object of contemplation appears in a tone that mixes detachment with longing.” Baxter admits that his books are “more at home in departments of cultural studies than in English departments…. His novels (and now these stories) are not really about individual characters with complicated personal and private histories…. Individual personality traits are usually the least interesting ingredients in any DeLillo narrative. Instead, the emphasis everywhere in his fiction tends to be on symptoms. The character is generally less convincing than the symptom. And whatever is symptomatic in a DeLillo story illustrates the movement of some hidden spirit or force moving through contemporary cultural history. The typical DeLillo tale reads like a diagnosis of a zeitgeist malady we never knew we had, and in these stories the malady is one of spellbound fixation.”

With all these critical comments by my betters in mind, I am now reading The Angel Esmeralda again, and again. I will discuss some of the issues the reviewers raise, as well as suggest my own reading and analysis of some of the stories in the collection next week, especially the story that Banville and Baxter like so much—“Creation.” In the meantime, I would appreciate hearing from others who have read DeLillo’s stories. At this point, my opinion is that The Angel Esmeralda is not even in the same literary universe as Millhauser’s We Others and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Novella, Short Novel, Long Story: Four Contemporary Examples

You can bet that whenever a critic reviews a new collection of short stories that includes a long story, or what the reviewer sometimes terms a “novella,” he or she will usually argue that the long story is the best, most complex, story in the collection. This is often a result of the unexamined assumption that a novel, by its very length, is more complex than a short story and that since the word “novella” has the word “novel” embedded in it, it must be that a novella, by its very length, and thus its similarity to a novel, must also be more complex than a short story.

However, the word “novella” did not originate as a generic term for a long fiction, but rather for a short one. The word "novella" comes from the Latin word novellus, a diminutive of the word novus, which means "new." It first became associated with the telling of stories in the thirteenth century with collections of "new" versions of old saint's tales, exempla, chivalric tales, and ribald stories. Eventually, the term became associated with tales that were fresh, strange, unusual--stories, in short, that were worth the telling. The most decisive historical event to establish the term "novella" as a designation for a "new" kind of fiction was Boccaccio's decision to give the name "novella" to the tales included in the Decameron in the fourteenth century.

What made Boccaccio's stories "new" was the fact that they marked a shift from the sacred world of Dante's "divine" comedy to the profane world of Boccaccio's "human" comedy. However, the resulting realism of the Decameron should not be confused with the realism developed by the eighteen-century novel. The focus in Boccaccio's tales is not on a character presented in a similitude of everyday life, but on the traditional world of story, in which characters serve primarily as "functions" of the tale.

With Cervantes, in the sixteenth century, as with Boccaccio before him, something "new" also characterizes the novella. First, Cervantes in his Exemplary Novels (which are of the length we usually associate nowadays with the “novella,” i.e. a long story) does not present himself as a collector of traditional tales but as an inventor of original stories. As a result, he becomes an observer and recorder of concrete details in the external world and a student of the psychology of individual characters. Although plot is still important, character becomes more developed than it was in the Decameron, and thus psychological motivation rather than story motivation is emphasized. Characters do not exist solely for the roles they play in the stories, but also for their own sake as if they were real.

In Germany, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the novella began to detach itself from the notion of the form inspired by Boccaccio and Cervantes and to be supported by a theory of its own and also to be associated with a long story and termed novelle. It is this form that Henry James refers to in his preface to Lesson of the Master, calling the “beautiful and blest nouvelle” his “ideal,” adding that the “main merit” of which is “the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” James’s conviction is that the novella may be more complex than the short story, but that it has the brevity and control of the short story—that it is not “complicated” in the same way the novel is.

One of the best suggestions I have read about the difference between the “complications” of the novel and the “complications” of the novella was made by John Gardner and Lennis Dunlap in the textbook collection of short stories they edited in 1962, The Form of Fiction. They refer to the long story as a short novel.

“Because the short novel writer tends to follow a single character, the rhythm of the short novel is usually like that of the story, not like that of many novels, in which points of tension arise first in an episode concerned with one character, then in an episode concerned with another. Also, action in the short novel—almost necessarily—tends toward symbolic meaning. Whereas the short story writer characteristically explores meaning in some basic situation, the short novel writer concerns himself with a protracted action; and since the short novelist usually cannot enrich the protracted action he is presenting by juxtaposing it against another protracted action within the work, as would the novelist, he tends to enrich and the same time unify the total action by exploring it in symbolic terms. That is, in addition to imagistic symbolism, the short novel writer is likely to use symbolic juxtapositions of action, either within the total action or between actions in the work and actions lying outside it.

“Since the use of action as symbol is often apparent only in retrospect, that is, only after the pattern is established, symbolism borne by action, unlike imagistic symbolism, is not likely to leap out at the reader each time it appears.

“The point here is not that the short novel must be symbolic on the level of action or that the short story and novel may never use symbolism in this way. But such symbolism is far more common in good short novels than in good short stories and novels and may therefore be considered a common, though not an essential, feature of the form.”

Irving Howe, in his introduction to Classics of Modern Fiction: Eight Short Novels, (1968), has also suggested this notion of symbolic action in the short novel or novella:

“Whereas the short-story writer tries to strike off a flash of insight and the novelist tries to create an illusion of a self-sufficient world, the author of the short novel is frequently concerned with showing an arc of human conduct that has a certain symbolic significance. The short novel is a form that encourages the writer to struggle with profound philosophic or moral problems through a compact yet extended narrative. In fact, it seems to be the one literary genre in modern times capable of performing the functions that in earlier ages was the privilege of allegory. The material in a short novel is full enough to allow its symbolic significance to emerge with greater complexity than could be expected from a short story; it is brief enough to ensure the work’s being self-contained, compressed, and disciplined.”

Judith Leibowitz, in her book Narrative Purpose in the Novella (1974) says that the generically distinct nature of the novella is its double effect of “intensity and expansion.” She notes that all the thematic motifs in the novella are interrelated, which creates an intensity of focus: “This outward expansion from a limited focus is the effect of the typical plot construction of the novella. The action in a novella does not give the effect of continuous progression, of a large area being covered as in the novel, but of a limited area being explored intensively. The action is generally compressed by means of a repetitive structure.”

Anyone familiar with the classics of the novella form in the nineteenth and twentieth century will sense the rightness of these suggestions about symbolic action, intensity of focus, and compression. Consider the following, for example:

Kafka, Metamorphosis

Conrad, Heart of Darkness

James, Beast in the Jungle

Lawrence, The Fox

Mann, Death in Venice

McCullers, Ballad of the Sad Café

Porter, Noon Wine

Melville, Billy Budd

Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Joyce, The Dead

Steinbeck, The Pearl

Salinger, Franny

Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever

Lan Samantha Chang, Hunger

Alice Munro, Love of a Good Woman

Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours

I have already commented in early blog posts on Yiyun Li’s “Kindness,” Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending—contemporary novellas/short novels/long stories (what you will) that have bee critically well received. All three have some of the aspects we often associate with novels; for example, all three deal with the whole life of a central character—well, not the whole life, but rather significant chunks of the whole life of the character, and all three seem firmly contextualized within an historical epoch or era. They also exhibit some of the aspects we associate with the short story; for example, all three, in addition to being organized historically, are also organized thematically, with episodes selected to symbolically echo the central theme; and all three are relatively tightly organized, with few of the extraneous asides and subplots that we often associate with novels.

Much the same can be said of Anthony Doerr’s novella-length title story from his prize-winning collection, Memory Wall. Doerr’s story covers the whole life of its central character, seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek, by using a futuristic concept of storing her memories (rapidly fading from her mind by dementia) on recorded cartridges. Thus, the concept of a whole life, which is embodied somewhat chronologically in the other three novellas under consideration here, is concretely embodied.

At one point, Alma’s doctor tells her: “Memory builds itself without any clean or objective logic: a dot here, another dot here, and plenty of dark spaces in between. What we know is always evolving, always subdividing. Remember often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.” Doerr echoes this notion of memory with Alma’s husband Harold’s obsession with a rare fossil, and with the general notion of time being compressed/preserved in a spatial way. When one character stares at a photo of Harold, he thinks he is “doomed to repeat the same project over and over, hunting among a thousand things for a pattern, searching a convoluted landscape for the remains of one thing that has come before.”

The question of whether these four works are long stories, short novels, or novellas is first of all a marketing issue. If the work is marketed in a single volume, as it is for The Sense of an Ending and Train Dreams, the publisher, appealing to the public preference will label it on the cover as a novel. If it is in a collection or short stories, it may be labeled as a novella, e.g. subtitled something like “Selected Stories and a Novella.” The phrase “short novel” has no real marketing value.

In my opinion, there is a critical difference between a novel that is short and a story that is long. Both in its tradition and in its way of meaning, the novella is closer to the short story than to the novel. Indeed, any time the novella begins to veer away from short story technique and closer to novel technique, it is perhaps better to use the term “short novel” to refer to it. In other words, in my opinion, a short novel is just a novella badly done, or a novel that just happens to be short.

Which of the four cited works would I call short novels and which would I call novellas? I think Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a short novel, for Barnes too often indulges in the novelistic temptation to ruminate, pontificate, and wander about in seemingly interesting, but not really thematically essential sidebars. I also think Yiyun Li’s “Kindness” is more like a short novel than a long story, for it mostly just charts the lonely life of a single character within the context of her social life in the Chinese army.

However, I see Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” as being more like a novella or long story in its use of myth, legend, symbolism, and in its thematic organization around repeated motifs. I also see Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” as more like a novella or long story in its single-minded focus on the theme of memory, although I find it much more self-consciously constructed and less magical than “Train Dreams.”

Why are these generic terms important? Well, as I have suggested before, you cannot really read a work in any meaningful way unless you have some orientation as to “how” it means and thus what to expect from it. Of course, generic expectations can be exploded by a good writer, who always manages to create a new thing out of an old thing. But, the reader still has to have some familiar starting point in order to understand the new thing. Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner talk about this dual process of assimilation and accommodation in a child’s development. And E. H. Gombrich discuses it in relationship to art in Art and Illusion, 1960.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending

I just read that Adam Mars-Jones won the first annual Hatchet Job of the Year Award for his snidely clever review of Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall, beating out, among other worthy (or unworthy, as the case may be) contenders, Geoff Dyer’s diminution of Julian Barnes’ already diminutive novel, The Sense of an Ending, in a review entitled “Julian Barnes and the Diminishing of the English Novel.” The prize was a year’s supply of potted shrimp.

I must admit up front that I have never been a fan of Julian Barnes. I did enjoy his earlier short novel Flaubert’s Parrot, (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984), perhaps partly due to my much greater admiration for Flaubert’s story Un coeur simple, in which said parrot lived, died, and was stuffed. I taught Flaubert’s Parrot in a graduate-level course in 20th century British Lit a few years ago. But I did not care much for Barnes’ two collections of short stories, Cross Channel (1996) and The Lemon Table (2004).

Cross Channel is thematically of a piece, all the stories focusing on the British in France, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. The stories also share the common characteristic of being grounded as much on historical fact and cultural values as they do on individual characters. As a result they sometimes lean as much toward the essayistic as they do toward story. Although this creates a strong factual context for the stories, giving them a sense of historical reality, it tends to make them focus more on social abstractions than on individuals.

The Lemon Table is obsessed with loss: loss of sexual vitality, loss of creativity, loss of mental acuity, loss of romance. With the exception of one story, “Knowing French,” told in the form of letters to a writer named Julian Barnes from a lonely 81-year-old woman living in an old folks home--a woman who is still alert, intelligent, witty, and full of life--there is very little dignity, reconciliation, comfort, companionship, or other compensations of aging in these stories.

When The Sense of an Ending came out last year, I was not quick to buy it, although I was somewhat intrigued that Barnes had used the same title as that of a book I do much admire, Frank Kermode’s 1967 “Studies in the Theory of Fiction,” being the Mary Flexner Lectures Kermode gave at Bryn Mawr College in Fall 1965. (Brief sidebar here: I had the privilege of attending a Kermode lecture at Trinity College in Dublin fifteen years ago and had to restrain myself from standing and applauding when he blasted the new historicists and cultural critics for their desertion of literature for historical context and polemical politics.) I did not rush out and buy The Sense of an Ending when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year either, especially after the brouhaha resulting from announcements that the shortlist was “readable” and the resulting accusations that the Booker was “dumbing down.”

After being shortlisted three times—always a bridesmaid, never a bride—Julian Barnes walked down the aisle and accepted the Man Booker Prize--50,000 pounds ($79,117.24 in American dollars) for The Sense of an Ending with a snort that he was “as much relieved as delighted,” presumably because, he thought, it was about damned time. In spite of this big win, I still did not feel tempted to add to Barnes’ new wealth by shelling out $23.95 for 163 small pages with big margins and lots of white space. (You may recall, I felt similarly constrained to pinch pennies earlier this year when Farrar, Straus & Giroux released Denis Johnson’s short novel Train Dreams in a slim 116 page volume, contenting myself to go back to my 2003 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories where it was reprinted from The Paris Review.) I posted my response to Train Dreams in an earlier blog entry.

Then damn all! My wife received a tidy little hardback copy of The Sense of an Ending as a Christmas present from an old friend. So, what could I do? There it was. I had to see what the fuss was about. I sat down, and in a couple of hours, I read it. I was glad I didn’t pay for it. I didn’t like it. I thought it was clichéd, clumsy, tedious, pretentious, and just plain ordinary. How in God’s name could this book win the Man Booker Prize? I went back and read the reviews, and that’s when I discovered Geoff Dyer’s so-called “hatchet job” in the December 16 issue of The New York Times. Dyer says he did not “get the book” when he first read it and still didn’t get it when he dutifully reread it after Barnes won the Man Booker and the chair of the judging panel said that there was more to it each time you read it. Dyer sniffed, “To me, there seemed less to get second time around. If such a thing is possible, I didn’t get it even more than I hadn’t got it first time around.”

Arguing that the ideas about memory and history sprinkled throughout what he calls a “very short novel" are “commonplace,” Dyer argues that The Sense of an Ending is not terrible, just rather “average,” concluding: “It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well-written: excellent in its averageness.”

In face of this scathing phrase, I had no choice but to read The Sense of an Ending a second time also. Hell, I even went back and read Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending again, thinking maybe I missed some subtle connection that Barnes had in mind. I don’t think so. Kermode’s “sense of an ending” has to do with how endings make possible the transformation of “one damn thing after another” into meaningful fictional patterns. Barnes seems to be interested, as he was in the stories in The Lemon Table, with getting older and trying to make sense of what went before. Not that this is a trivial human mystery and motivation—just that Barnes does not have the ability to go beyond what Dyer rightly calls “commonplace” ruminations about this issue by his not very perceptive protagonist in The Sense of an Ending.

It’s just my opinion, of course, but I suspect that Barnes won the Man Booker for this “average” short novel because, well, it was about time, since Barnes had already been passed over three times, once for the much better book Flaubert’s Parrot. I think Barnes probably knew this also, for when he was asked if he thought The Sense of an Ending was his best book, he hedged by repeating the old authorial saw that he thought his “best” novel was the one he was about to write or has just finished writing, adding, however, “I’m very attached to Flaubert’s Parrot.

Soon after The Sense of an Ending received the Man Booker Prize, The Guardian Books Blog posed the following question: “When is a novel a novella?” Of the several responses to the question, the most thoughtful was by Chris Power, who says he has never liked the word “novella,” because he thought it an “unnecessary distinction that underlines and in some way ratifies this anxiety about size.” He then asks if Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long story or a short novel.” Is the 80-page “Kindness” from Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl a very short novel or a very long story? Power asks, responding, “I think it is the latter. The same goes for the title story of Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall. They are lengthy (for short stories), but they have the focused intensity of short fiction. Would they profit in any way from being called novellas? I don’t think so.”

Eileen Battersby called Yiyun Li’s “Kindness” a “near novella.” Jane Ciabattari called it a “novella.” Most reviewers call it a “long story.” If it had appeared in a single volume, they would probably have called it a “short novel.” In an interview, Joe Fassler asked Li whether she would call “Kindness” a novella or a short story and whether that distinction mattered to her. Li replied that it did not matter, but that when she started writing that piece she knew it would be a longer story. She says she had read William Trevor’s novella The Night at Alexandra, which was in the first person voice of an older man looking back on his youth, and wanted to write something similar in first person, using a woman narrator. Li adds, “When I was in her voice, I noticed that she would gloss over years without saying anything and hen she would go into details, and I think that’s how memory works for her.”

James Wood called Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a novella. The central character Robert Granier is a loner, like the 41-year-old woman Moyan in Yiyun’s Li’s novella. In his review of Train Dreams, Anthony Doerr calls the story a novella, terming it a “small masterpiece.” Doerr argues that it is the “totality” of the work, as Poe used that term to describe the short story as a form, that makes “Train Dreams” so good. You can read it in one sitting in less than two hours.

The title story of Anthony Doerr’s own collection, Memory Wall, which won the 2010 Story Prize ($2,000.00), (beating out, by the way, Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), has been called both a “novella” and a “long story.”

Having read all four of these works—“Memory Wall,” Train Dreams, “Kindness,” and The Sense of an Ending, I ask myself if they have anything in common other than the fact that they seem somewhat longer than what we expect of a short story and somewhat shorter than what we expect of a novel. I have followed the convention already adopted by earlier commentators of placing “Memory Wall” and “Kindness” in double quotation marks and italicizing Train Dreams and The Sense of an Ending—a convention which might suggest that the first two are long stories, while the second two are short novels. But, actually, the convention only reflects that the first two have never appeared in a single volume, while the second two have been released as single volumes (as a side note, Train Dreams was put inside double quotation marks when referred to in The Paris Review and The O. Henry Prize Stories, but now is italicized because it has appeared in a single, albeit slim, volume.)

So, is there a significant difference between a short story, a short novel/novella, and a novel, other than the promotional value given to a work when a publisher smells the money and releases the work as a single volume? (Brief side note: Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” was released as a single volume when the movie gave it cache, although no one ever called it a novel, even a short novel.) Page numbers are no help, for all a publisher has to do to bulk up a long story into single volume status is to use wide margins, large type, and lots of white space on the page. Word count does not really tell us much either. The criterion for the Man Booker Prize is “full length novel,” but no word count is specified. On the other hand, the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (at 30, 000 pounds; or $47,469 American dollars, the world’s biggest prize for a single story) specifies the work must be 6,000 words or less. Jane Smiley, in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, says a novel is usually between 100,000 and 175,000 words.

The page number/word length criterion is a mug’s game, it seems to me—of little value. I think we can all agree there are significant differences between Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, his novella Billy Budd, and his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I think we can all agree there are differences between Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, his novella The Turn of the Screw, and his short story “The Real Thing.” I think we can agree that there are differences between Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, his novella Heart of Darkness, and his short story “The Lagoon.” Yes, we probably all can agree that there are differences other than word count, but what are the differences between the three categories that are important for the reading of the works? Should I have different expectations when I begin reading these three different types of fictional works? What are those expectations?

I will try to suggest some answers to these questions, as well as discuss the similarities and differences between The Sense of an Ending, Train Dreams, “Memory Wall,” and “Kindness” in my next blog entry.