Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Passion of the Personal: Dagoberto Gilb’s “please, thank you”

As I continue to work on a sort of “how-to” book about strategies for reading the short story, I have, of course, been thinking about my 40 years experience teaching the form at the university level. In those four decades, I taught introductory general education short story classes for students in various majors who mainly took the course because they had to have a humanities class to earn a degree. Thinking that poetry was too hard and novels too long, they often chose the short story; after all, they knew what a story was and “short” sounded pretty damned good. I also taught upper division American Short Story classes for English majors to provide some knowledge of the history of the development of the form. Finally, I taught graduate level courses in short story theory, which I developed as special studies elective courses (since no graduate program thought short stories were important enough for advanced study).

My pedagogical goals in these three levels differed somewhat, but my primary passion in all three levels was to fully engage students in the human experience and knowledge captured and created by the short story as a literary form. I was always convinced that the short story captured experience and created knowledge differently than the novel did. Although I felt it necessary to focus more on theoretical issues and literary criticism in the upper division and graduate level courses, I did not believe in “dumbing down” to the undergraduates. I felt I could not teach nonmajors how to read stories at all unless I made them aware of the tactics professional critics used to read short narrative.

So I ask myself: Is there a difference between teaching folks how to read short stories for occasional enjoyment and teaching folks how to read short stories critically? I have always been suspicious of the schism in the university between the high-flown language of theory taught on the graduate level and the “appreciation” language used on the lower division level. It seems to me that if so-called “theory” is of any value, it should be of value to our understanding of literature on all levels, not just on the level of professors who often seem to speak only to a small, select group of their peers.

I always thought that the most important role I could play in the literature classroom—regardless of whether the class was made up of graduate students in literature or freshman students in every field from business to engineering—was that of the passionate human being irresistibly engaged in the complexity of how a short story explores what it means to be human. However, since literature is not life, but rather a language-structured examination of life, I always felt sure that to understand the complexity of what is human in a story one should understand how an author uses language to create what is human in a story.

I was thinking about this relationship between my personal involvement in the human complexity of a story and my critical knowledge of how language works in short stories to explore a universal theme recently when I was reading Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection of stories, Before the End, After the Beginning. I admit up front that I have never been an admirer of Gilb’s stories; I have never been able to identify with his persona: what might be described--to use the appellation in the new story “The Last Time I Saw Junior”--as “one scary Mexican” or at least, one “swaggering” Mexican,” as reviewer Carolyn Kellogg described Gilb at a writing program conference in 2008

Gilb’s first collection of stories, The Magic of Blood (1994) focused on young Mexican immigrants who are, as one reviewer described them, “one paycheck away from disaster.” Most reviewers emphasized that Gilb was himself a construction worker, making the most of the news value of a laboring man writing stories. Jean Thompson reviewed his second collection Woodcuts of Women (2001) for The New York Times, and Carolyn See reviewed it for The Washington Post—Thompson calling it occasionally overwritten and uneven and See taking multiple swipes at how the stories oversimplify the role of women as being “vessels of sin, put on Earth to drive men to perdition.”

I guess what has always put me off Gilb’s stories is their emphasis on what constitutes “manliness” and the difficulty of maintaining one’s manliness when one is dirt poor. It is even more difficult to assert a traditional image of manliness when one has been partially paralyzed by a stroke, which Gilb suffered in 2009. Now, Gilb admits, as the persona of the opening story in Before the End, After the Beginning, “please, thank you,” says, “I am not wanting to scream and fight as much…punish the keyboard the way I used to.” Still, Gilb seems to continue to define his persona by qualities of physical manliness, wryly telling an interviewer recently, “Now I’m not convinced that an 8-year-old couldn’t take me out.”

This notion of manliness as being able to “take someone out” or “stand one’s ground,” as some Florida lawmakers have infamously defined it recently, has always seemed to me bullying--acting tough, especially as if such behavior were somehow a justifiable result of being poor. I grew up in a series of shacks in Eastern Kentucky, son of a truck-driver and a farmer’s daughter with an 8th grade education. I could smoke and curse with the best of them, but I was just a soft kid who liked to read rather than play football, as my father wanted. Guys that pushed and punched me on the playground were, according to the values of that time and place, being “manly,” and if I walked away, I was being a “sissy.”

Now that Dagoberto Gilb has been sadly stricken by a stroke, I am more than a little conflicted to find that I like his new stories in Before the End, After the Beginning more than I did his earlier tough-guy stories in Magic Blood and Woodcuts for Women. Does this mean I am glad to see the swaggering machismo male brought low? I don’t think so. I think it means that I find the new stories more reflective of the universal vulnerability of being a human being rather than the socially imposed posturing of being a macho male.

If I were teaching the first story in the collection, “please, thank you,” which seems to be a rather straightforward account of a man who has had a stroke and struggles to communicate, I would begin by talking to my students about my own personal knowledge of that deadening paralysis. I would tell them about my childhood involvement with my grandfather--a tough hardworking man of 85, who on the day he had a stroke got up at 5 in the morning as usual and spent half a day hoeing corn down on his riverbank fields. Paralyzed on his left side and confined to bed for several years, he was dependent on my mother and me for his every need. I sat with him day after day, reading stories and drinking Pepsi, slept by him in a rollaway bed, held the bedpan under his groin so he could pee, fed him poached eggs and wiped the yoke from his chin. And damn, damn, damn, unmanned by his helplessness, he hated it. Every day was a struggle, while lying flat on his back, to try to maintain some sense of dignity--to recover the man that he once was.

Last June, I received an early morning call from the wife of my next-door neighbor, who said simply, “Joe had a stroke last night.” Joe has lived next door to me for over twenty years. He is Polish, spent his childhood in a camp during World War II, immigrated to Chicago with his family after the war, joined the US Navy, studied engineering and worked as an engineer until slide rules gave way to computers, which he refused to accept. He is a strong, but extremely gentle man. He tells coarse Pollack jokes, and puts out peanuts for the squirrels and seed for the birds in his backyard. He is fiercely unsentimental, yet an incurable softie when it comes to helping others. He and I have worked together on numerous remodeling projects over the years, and when I had heart surgery, he walked our dog every day until I was back on my feet. Now he is in what we used to call a “nursing home,” occupied mainly by slack-jawed, empty-eyed old men and women. At 74, his left arm and leg useless, he spends most of his time in bed and has to have his diaper changed periodically. When I visited him yesterday, he whispered to me, “When you going to spring me from this place?”

If I were teaching Dagoberto Gilb’s story “please, thank you,” I would first try to get my students to identify with the man in the story who has been forced to face his own vulnerability and mortality and thus to redefine what he had earlier thought “manliness” to be. Only after they are able to identify with the experience of the persona/narrator of the story will they be qualified to make a judgment on the means by which Gilb creates that experience. Sympathy and identification precedes analysis and judgment; that was always my guiding principle in the classroom. Before you call Bartleby either shiftless or mad, you must understand what he sees when he stares at that wall outside the Wall Street office window where he works.

Whereas other writers have tried to create a similitude of a stroke victim’s experience by describing his struggles, Gilb creates a story from within as the persona works to try to recover from the effects of the stroke. For example, the story’s lack of capital letters, quotation marks, apostrophes, etc. is not a stylistic trick, but rather a reflection of Gilb’s difficulty using the shift key while typing with one hand.

“I used to be strong,” the narrator Mr. Sanchez says in the story. “just the other day! just the other day, a couple of weeks ago, now, now these people come into my room, my room is more my bed, a modern bed that moves up and down with a control.”

Gilb’s story helps me understand the meaning of a “stroke,” as if, indeed, by a sudden mysterious assault one is stricken. I try to participate in that sense of helplessness—as Sanchez says, “I can’t believe I cant pull my stupid leg up.” My friend Joe fell out of his wheelchair the other day trying to get himself back in bed alone. He could not understand why he could not do it. He thinks that if they will let him use the parallel bars, he can learn to walk, although he simply cannot lift his left leg. The theme of Gilb’s story is the mystery of paralysis, for it means helplessness--the loss of what once was or what might have been.

In the opening story of James Joyce’s collection Dubliners, the young narrator looks up at the window where his stroke-stricken priest/teacher lies paralyzed: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Simony in the Catechism.” And indeed, paralysis is the theme that Joyce says dominates Dubliners. He once famously wrote, “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me to be the centre of paralysis

In a bit of literary coincidence that I cannot resist, I recently got an email from the James Joyce Centre in Dublin announcing that the Dublin City Library’s “One City One Book” campaign this year was to encourage everyone to “read, discuss, and celebrate” Joyce’s Dubliners during the month of April, 2012.

To play my own small part in this celebration, I intend to write four blog posts during April, exploring the notion of paralysis in the stories in Dubliners, examining to the best of my ability what makes them the powerfully influential short stories they are, and discussing my personal engagement with the stories as a group of American students and I walked the streets of Dublin a few years ago, trying to understand how Joyce transformed ordinary people and place into extraordinary prose.


ciaranl said...

Thank you for this. I'm about to embark on a short story about a man who suffers a fatal buggy accident in a remote corner of Western Australia in 1900. He is carried on a door panel 400 miles over land and sea to the local hospital, surviving for two weeks in a state of complete paralysis.

I very much look forward to the Joyce posts too. April can often bring the best weather of the year to Dublin (I live here) and it will be a pleasure to re-read the collection with your posts in mind.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Ciaran. I miss Dublin. I hope you find the recent post on the first three stories in Dubliners of some interest.

Read Me Something You Love (Steve) said...

I love this piece of writing Mr Charles E. May. Damn, damn, damn, it is fine.

I really like your definition of the skillful reader(""a passionate human being irresistibly engaged in the complexity of how a short story explores what it means to be human"), a state to which I think we should all aspire.

Sadly, I've come to realise that I was NOT encouraged to be this kind of reader when I read English Lit at Cambridge in the 90s. It's a pity you weren't my tutor at the time.

Too, I think this passionate, irresistable engagement is what I'm trying to explore with Read Me Something You Love.Might need to quote this line of yours somewhere in my ABOUT section.

I will back to re-read this piece again. It has (you have) some of the flavour of Jane Davis's "Reading Revolution" here, as manifested in her Reader Organisation(Jane's wonderful blog is: - do you know of her/them?

Alison said...

Many thanks for this reflection - very moving and beautifully sharp. And yes, I agree, absolutely. Something about the very form of the short story does demand (if quietly) that passionate engagement from its reader.

These days with my students, I often describe the form of the short story as a 'passionate form'. There is something innate, something peculiar in a short story's coming-into-being that has to do with passion. In Chekhov's stories, for example, so many of his characters seem to echo Anna in 'Lady with Lapdog' who of course 'wanted to live. To live! To live!' Even 'mad' Gromov in 'Ward Six' says, 'I want to live, terribly. Terribly!'

For me, it's this passionate drive or impulse at the core of the form that is Chekhov's real legacy to story writers - even more than his famous allowance, in his endings, for life's provisionality. In Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, Carver, Munro, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Claire Keegan and ond so on, the great question seems to be: how do we feel alive in our lives?

Of course the question is there, very powerfully, in novels too. Who could read Anna K. and say otherwise? But EVERYTHING in a great short story seems to be urgently running forward from that question, even if it's never asked directly. There's an intense concentration on an urgent question - whether the story's comic, tragic or absurd. And perhaps that explains, too, something of the breathlessness we feel as we read a great short story. 'How do we feel alive in our lives?' is a visceral wondering. It's a passionate 'reaching after'. As readers, we 'reach' with a short story's characters, and that's also why short stories, in spite of their brevity, aren't easy reads. Passion, naturally, takes it out of us!

Lovely, again, to chat.

Charles E. May said...

My heartfelt thanks to Steve and Alison for their comments on this post. The most pressing loss I feel no longer being in the classroom is the opportunity to "arouse" students by reading short stories. My primary credo has always been: If I cannot personally "connect" with the story, I see now real reason to engage in a "cold" academic interaction with it. I know my students often thought I was a mad man dramatizing in front of the class with arms waving, moving in close for a face-to-face, relating personal memories and passionate connections, but I think a teacher should be a human being first and an academic second. Thanks so much for reading my blogs and taking the time to respond to them.