I have always argued that there are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one which involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenonal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm which the novel has always taken for its own--and the other, which involves an experiences that challenge the acceptance of the reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm which has dominated the short story since its beginnings.
The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story often takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of spirit, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience. Short fiction is a fundamental form because human beings’ earliest stories were stories of an encounter (given Mircea Eliade’s division of primal reality into the Sacred and the Profane) with the sacred. Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceived, and the short story still retains that primal aspect.
Kevin Wilson, “A Birth in the Woods”
When Kevin Wilson was asked once how he balances the real and the strange in his stories and keeps them believable, he suggested that when you present something strange and perhaps impossible, you simply incorporate it into the story without making a big deal about it, thus making it more readily accepted by the reader.
“A Birth in the Woods” begins and ends with blood. The father cuts his finger to help Caleb, age 6, become accustomed with blood as normal and ordinary. But blood, as Wilson’s story explores, is not ordinary; it has magical powers beginning in birth, as imaged in the mother’s “bloody show,” and ending in death, when the mother’s blood will not stop flowing. The framework of the story is that of two young parents who have decided they will “make a world apart from the world” by living unaccommodated out in the woods. The immediate focus is on their decision to allow Caleb to assist in the birth of the new baby.
The story establishes a primal scene: The house in the woods, the snow “filling up the space around the house until they were the only people left on earth, three of them crowded together, the fourth still to come.” Then comes the “labor,” the work of childbirth, and the omnipresent blood. All this is intense enough, but then Wilson does a strange thing; he makes the baby a freakish creature, “covered all over in dark black hair…slicked with blood and mucus,” with a long bearlike snout and useless claws for fingers. When the baby growls, Caleb knows that it is not his brother, not a baby, “but an animal, a creature, something wild.”
While the reader is still puzzling over this seemingly superfluous birth of the horrifying and the grotesque, Wilson then does another strange thing. The father leaves to get help and Caleb hears the brakes squealing and a crash, “the sound of metal twisting, the world giving up its shape.” We expect the mother to die, but why the father? If we are not to think of this story as a tale of supernatural horror, in the mode of Ambrose Bierce, then how do we understand the seemingly meaningless death of the father and the grotesque birth of an animal-like baby?
Caleb feels hatred toward the thing that has killed his mother, leaving her hollowed out and empty. However, when he begins to smother the infant, he knows he must obey his mother’s request to protect his brother; he suckles the child with honey on a stick and gives it its first toy--the blood spattered wooden duck his father made for him earlier. He begins teaching the child, saying, “Duck…though the word sounded as if it were from a language that had died out hundreds of years ago.”
I don’t agree with Laura Furman’s view that the story is about how every child is a victim of his parents’ choices, in this case, a joyful arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise the child in a utopia. This all seems to me to be merely the real-world social context for a story about blood, birth, horror, death, and responsibility. And I don’t believe that Wilson is merely trying to give the reader a little shot of horror, although he does succeed in doing that. The story, in my opinion, is about primal reality, unassisted by social support systems of doctors, nurses, and hospitals. We like to think that these can protect us, but ultimately, it is just birth and death. To Caleb the infant is what seems the inevitable result of the blood soaked horror he has witnessed—something alien and strange—an intruder, ugly and unwanted. The mother and the father both die, leaving Caleb alone to suckle and teach his little brother, as a reminder that we are all ultimately alone--except, that is, for our brother, which we must love as ourself, for it is all we have.
Steven Millhauser, “Phantoms”
While most short-story writers in the last two decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies--e.g. Barth, Barthelme, Coover--Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scherazade to Poe and from Kafka to Borges, playfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the mundane and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation. Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction--the magical story of the reality of artifice.
Karen Carlson wrote in a comment to this blog that she was perplexed by the acclaim “Phantoms” has received—having won a Pushcart Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and selected for Best American Short Stories. I have read the story several times and would like to suggest that what Millhauser, one of our greatest short-story writers, has captured in “Phantoms” is an exploration of humankind’s most perplexing existential and social problem—our sense that we live in a world inhabited by “The Other.” In one section of the story—divided into separate sections describing case studies of encounters with the phantoms, theories about what they are, refutations of the theories, and history of their manifestation—Millhauser describes “The Look,” which the phantoms cast in people’s direction before turning away.
In Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre uses the terms “The Other” and “The Look” to refer to the phenomenological problem of human interactions and perception. When one recognizes that someone is a subjective being, then one becomes an object to that person. Thus, to maintain our illusion of our own subjectivity, it behooves us to make objects out of the Other; or else our world is “haunted” by the values of the Other.
The phenomenological terms “the Other” and “the Look,” as further interpreted by Simone de Beauvoir, have been adopted by feminist criticism to refer to the way men have objectified women by their stare, denying them subjectivity, transforming them into objects. More recently, the same terms have been adopted by cultural critics to refer to the way that a dominant culture objectifies another culture, making them into the Other.
What Millhauser has captured here is a quintessential narrative about all human apprehensions of something or someone else outside the self—ranging from the basic impetus for all religion-i.e. that there is another life outside ordinary everyday life—to the basis of human discrimination based on race, gender, sexual preference, etc.
With this perspective in mind, one can understand the purpose of the various sections of the story. For example, one section deals with “crossing over,” which usually refers to intermingling between the phantoms and the nonphantoms. Often phantoms are made scapegoats for fears and weaknesses, and are referred to as “one of them.” Anyone familiar with the history of racism in America will recall that it was not that long ago that the majority of Americans were sternly against white people marrying black people, just as many today are sternly against people of the same gender marrying each other. And, please forgive the reference to an old slur, but many may remember that African Americans were once referred to by whites as “spooks.”
Anytime one individual or one group classifies another person or another group as an object in the world, an “Other,” the pathway is open for scapegoating and placing blame of one’s fears and insecurities on the Other. For example, the fact that when a child goes missing in the story, people say the phantoms have lured him or her into their fold, is an echo of the common irrational belief that homosexuals should not be teachers or scout leaders because they will try to seduce others into the gay lifestyle.
The two theories most central to a social reading of the story are Explanation # 3, which asserts that humans and the phantoms were once a single race, which at some point divided into two societies, and Explanation # 4, which asserts that the phantoms have always been here and that we are intruders who seized their land and drove them into hiding. However, the most basic and encompassing theory is Explanation #6, which, drawing from modern studies in cognitive psychology, claim that our bodies, and thus all objects, are nothing but artificial constructs of our brains. “The world is a great seeming.” Everyone, therefore, is a phantom; there is nothing out there but projections of our imagination.
Lauren Groff, “Eyewall”
In her author comments, Groff says this story came to her in terms of its structure. When she thought of the word “hurricane,” she saw a despairing character at the centre of a harsh circular wind, “whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.” I like this description, because it reminds me that whatever the reader thinks about what is happening in a story, the author is always thinking in terms of how the language and structure of the story create an aesthetic experience. If you come to “Eyewall” expecting Hurricane Katrina social commentary, you will be disappointed. Groff uses a the eyewall of a hurricane—located just outside the “eye” of the storm where the most destructive rain and wind exist--as a real-world vehicle for a story about the disruption of everyday reality, a disruption that intertwines stuff of the imagination with stuff of the world—stuff of the past with stuff of the present.
Groff has great fun using language the way all poets use language--to defamiliarize the world. “I felt, rather than saw, the power out. Time erased itself from the appliances and the lights winked shut.” The world is turned terrifyingly, and yet somehow comically grotesque, upside down, inside out: “My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window.” The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way. (N.B.: When the narrator tells her husband that she is letting his literary career languish, he says, “La belle dame sans merci” (Keats); her old college boyfriend says to her, “You’re old! You’re old! You should wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled” (T. S. Eliot)
Although folks who have experienced hurricanes or witnessed the effects of tornados know that the storm can create strange juxtapositions, such as bathroom fixtures in the tops of trees, and cars pushed into houses, Groff extends these to surrealistic extremes: “On my way downstairs, I passed a congregation of exhausted armadillos on the landing. Birds had filled the Florida room, cardinals and whip-poor-wills and owls.” The story is structurally and rhythmically a language delight, combining, as the short story always does when done well, the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Note: I apologize for an earlier glitch in this post which made the right margins bleed off in sections.