Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012--W. W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw"

Happy Halloween to all you folks who celebrate this holiday.  It is one of my favorite holidays because it gives participants the opportunity, even if only for one evening, to live in a world of their imagination rather than everyday reality—the fulfillment of a basic human desire that the short story as a form has always been most effective in embodying—both because such a experience must be, by its very nature, a moment out of time, and because such a moment requires ritualistic precision to evoke.

Reality in the short story is always seen to be fictional, in the ambiguous double sense of that word.  Phenomenal reality, from such a perspective, is a fictional construct that novelists more often than not take as the only real.  However, true reality for the short-story writer can only be perceived in those revelatory moments when fictional reality as fictional reality is perceived.  For the short-story writer, hallucinatory reality is true reality, just as for primitive man, sacred reality is the only reality; profane, or everyday, reality is just an illusion that makes ordinary experience possible.  

Algernon Blackwood once said that his primary concern was stories of extended consciousness. "My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty,” In a preface to a collection of his tales, Blackwood noted that such was beginning to be revealed in the work of Eddington, Jeans, and Whitehead, who have built on the new physics which has wiped matter out of existence and perceives atoms as charges of electricity which may themselves be symbols of something spiritual or mental and as yet unknown. "The Universe, thus, seems to be an appearance merely, our old friend Maya or Illusion, of the Hindus."    

            Many nineteenth-century stories in America, England, German, and France, from Poe to Maupassant to Hoffmann to M.R. James reflected this view of reality. To celebrate Halloween 2012, I have chosen to discuss a relatively modest “horror” story of the turn of the century, W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw.” Published in l902, it is the only frequently reprinted story of this prolific short story writer of the Edwardian period, who critic Walter Allen calls "an exquisite minor artist.”  If you have never read it, you can find it online and might want to give yourself a little “trick or treat” thrill before you read my analysis of its short story characteristics. You can find it here:

            Plot is everything in "The Monkey's Paw," with character developed only enough to sketch the "prosaic wholesomeness" of the family and the romantic mystery of the soldier as a "visitor from distant parts," a teller of fanciful stories and the transmitter of the magical object.  In effect, the soldier is one who brings the magic of fairy tale and the Arabian Nights into the midst of "prosaic wholesomeness."  The story itself is a carefully elaborated game played by the strict rules which often govern folk tales and fairy tales, a process suggested in the very beginning by the chess game the father and son are engaged in.

            The story is based on the convention of the granting of three wishes, in which, as usual in such stories, the means by which the wishes are granted is tightly controlled by the language of the wish itself.  H. G. Wells makes this device more emphatic in "The Man who Could Work Miracles."  Focus on the end of the wish without due care taken to the means by which it is expressed can prove disastrous.  The stated thematic motif here is that an Indian fakir put a spell on the monkey's paw, granting three wishes to one who holds it in order to prove that fate rules people's lives and that people interfere with fate to their peril.
In this three-part story, the tone of Part I is one of domestic self-containment, even after the departure of the soldier, for the son suggests that if his monkey paw is no more truthful than the rest of his adventures, "then we shan't make much out of it."  The son's good-humored mocking of the paw, making it equivalent to fictional stories of the soldier, continues with the suggestion that the father wish for two hundred pounds to pay off their house after which the son sits down at the piano with a mock solemn face, "marred by a wink at his mother," and plays a fanfare for the wish.  Even when the paw seems to twist in his hand, this is attributed to the fancy of the father; and Herbert, well aware of the conventions of such story motifs, says again mockingly that they will find the money tied up in a big bag in the middle of the bed with "something horrible squatting up on top of the wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains."

            The tragic fulfillment of the wish the next day, when the company that the son works for reports he has been killed and that the parents will receive two hundred pounds as recompense, emphasizes two internal moral motivations for the tragic event--that the father has wished for something even though he admits that he already has everything he wants, and that the one who was most ironic and disbelieving about the efficacy of the paw is the one who is destroyed.  

However, the real issue here revolves around the means by which the wish is granted--that rather than as supernatural manifestation, the money comes, as the soldier has said it would, "so naturally" that one might, if he wished to, attribute it to coincidence.  The fictional problem being laid bare here focuses on why events in a story occur as they do: by fate, by coincidence, or by characters interfering with fate. The question the story hangs on is why the son dies, particularly in the horrible way that he does, mangled in the machinery at his work.

The statement by the company representative that Herbert was "caught in the machinery" is, within the context of fate, meddling, and coincidence that the story is based on, ironic, for what makes the story work is that Herbert is caught in the machinery of the story itself.  Given the tradition of the kind of tale that Herbert has mocked, he, of course, must die. However, it is in the last section of the story that the kind of irony typical of the tradition of the well-made story is made clear.  The mother's desire to use the second wish to make the boy come alive again is both scorned by the father (who insists that the first event was coincidence) and feared by him, for he knows of the danger of the means by which the wish may be fulfilled.  His fear that the wish may be granted is matched by his wife's despair that it may not.  The reader's consequent suspicion that the revived son will return in his mutilated form establishes the necessary tension when someone knocks at the door.

            The story reaches its climax quickly when the mother tries to open the bolt on the door and the father scrambles for the paw to make one more wish before the "thing" gets in.  Immediately the knocking stops, the door is opened, the mother wails in disappointment, and the father runs out to find the street quiet and deserted.  The only evidence that anything more than a coincidence has occurred is the knocking at the door.  The machinery of the story, which has caught Herbert within it, now catches the reader.  The twist ending establishes a final irony that refers back to the opening chess game in its elaborate reversal: the father's final wish voids the second which was made necessary only by the first wish.  

Thus, the wishes are all as if they had never been with the exception of the death of the son--a death which the reader still cannot be sure was natural or supernatural.  However, regardless of what the tragedy is attributed to, the effect is that the world of the Arabian Nights, brought into the "prosaic wholesomeness" by the soldier, has transformed the prosaic into the purely imaginative.  The world of the Arabian Nights has become real within the story itself.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Sherman Alexie has recently published an inevitable “New and Selected Stories” collection.  It is entitled Blasphemy and contains thirty-one stories—roughly half from his previous four collections, the rest previously unpublished in book form.

The “selected” stories from his previous four collections are as follows:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven [1993]:
“This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,”
“Because My Father Always Said He was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play
 ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,”
“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,”
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”
“Indian Education”

The Toughest Indian in the World [2000]
“Indian Country”
“The Toughest Indian in the World”

Ten Little Indians (2003)
“The Search Engine”
“Do You Know Where I Am?”
“What You Pawn I Will Redeem”
“What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?”

War Dances [2009]
“Breaking and Entering”
“War Dances”

One opens a new Sherman Alexie collection with the expectation of showman Sherman’s predictable barrage of satiric barbs, comic one-liners, performance posturing, polemical rants, and guilt assaults against the white man’s mistreatment of Native Americans. So it may be a pleasant surprise for readers expecting the same old adolescent Alexie to find themselves responding positively to the adult man at the center of many of Alexie’s more recent stories, for example in Ten Little Indians.  Instead of making you feel guilty for your ancestors’ exploitation of Native Americans, he may move you, even as he makes you laugh

When a man takes the credit for his future wife’s rescue of a lost cat in “Do You Know Where I Am?” and years later must cope with her infidelity, he understands that honesty is the only thing that holds two people together.

Even though a man struggles with his demons as he futilely tries to raise enough money to buy back his grandmother’s stolen regalia, he is able to dance in final celebration in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”

In “The Search Engine,” a female college student seeks out an aging forklift operator whose one book of poetry she has accidentally discovered in the library. His story of why it is his only book, although predictable, leaves the young woman, and perhaps the reader, smiling wistfully.

"What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” is an unlikely, but irresistible parable of an aging, over-weight, ex-basketball player with a heart problem who makes an improbable but delightful comeback to kick the butt of an arrogant young point guard.

Although War Dances, a collection of poems, vignettes, and stories, won the 2010 PEN/FAULKNER Award for Fiction, to many it may seem to be something of a mix tape made up of a few full-length short stories and a lot of detritus that just happened to be lying around in Alexie’s file cabinet.

The title story, the best story in the collection, told in first-person numbered fragments alternating between the narrator’s problem with his loss of hearing and his father’s foot amputation, replays the comic Native American Alexie persona who has appeared in previous collections. When the narrator tries to get a blanket for his hospitalized father, he encounters another Native American with whom he trades Indian jokes and barbs—which seems to be the main purpose of the encounter, although he does manage to borrow a nice heavy Pendleton.

The narrator’s own ailment is a tumor on the brain, but one that his doctor tells him many people live with their whole lives with no problem. After the father dies from alcoholism, the rest of the story is made up of various narrative diversions. First, the narrator does research on his family history, reprinting his interview with a man who had served with his grandfather when he was killed in action on Okinawa during World War II. The story also includes what is termed an “exit interview,” in which Alexie, citing his father, has the opportunity to come up with more one-line jokes at the expense of both whites and Natives. The story ends with a poem about the father slicing his knee with a chain saw, followed by the father’s itemized list of contradictions to the details in the poem. It’s all a lot of Alexie cleverness and one-liners strung together loosely by the relationship between the narrator’s fear of dying and his father’s death.

One of my favorite Alexie stories is the title story of his second collection The Toughest Indian in the World, about a Native American who has left the reservation but yearns for his tribe’s mythic past.

The central event of the story begins when the narrator picks up an Indian hitchhiker and recognizes from the man’s twisted and scarred hands that he is a prizefighter.  The man tells the narrator that he goes from reservation to reservation, offering to fight the best fighter there, winner take all.  The last Indian he fought was a young man billed as the toughest Indian in the world, who refused to go down no matter how much the hitchhiker hit him.  Knowing that the kid would die before he went down, the hitchhiker sat down on the mat and let himself be counted out.

When the narrator stops at the town of Wenatchee, he invites the hitchhiker to spend the night with him.  Later in bed the hitchhiker begins to masturbate the narrator and then says he wants to be inside him.  Although the narrator says he has never done this before and insists that he is not gay, he agrees.  After they have sex, the narrator tells the hitchhiker he thinks he had better leave.

After taking a shower, doing some shadow boxing, and searching his body for changes, the narrator goes to bed, wondering if he were a warrior in this life and if he had been a warrior in a previous life.  The next morning he wakes up and starts walking barefoot away from the motel barefoot.  The story ends with his saying if someone were to break open his heart they would find “the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.”

Often an outspoken advocate for Indians (a term he prefers to “Native Americans”), Sherman Alexie explores in “The Toughest Indian in the World” a typical theme of Indian writers—the yearning of the assimilated professional to make some sort of contact with his primal native heritage.  When the narrator picks up the Indian fighter, he wants him to know that he grew up on the rez, “with every Indian in the world,” so he uses Indian slang and shares the hitchhiker’s jerky with him.  Having moved off the reservation twelve years before to work in the city as a feature writer on a newspaper, the narrator takes pleasure in driving down the road chewing on jerky, taking to an indigenous fighter, feeling “as Indian as Indian gets.”

This narrator’s admiration for the hitchhiker is further emphasized when the fighter tells the narrator about a fight with a young Indian billed as “the toughest Indian in the world,” who refused to go down no matter how many times the hitchhiker hit him.  When the narrator tells the hitchhiker he could have been a warrior in the old days both for his power as a fighter and for his honoring his opponent by sitting down and letting him win the fight, he is excited, wanting to let the fighter know how highly he thinks of him.

The narrator’s yearning to identify with the world of the warrior establishes a basis for his willingness to have sex with the hitchhiker, even though he is not homosexual.   He sees the fighter as beautiful and scarred, a true warrior. And in the world of the warrior of the old times, he senses there were no false gender boundaries.  The mythic nature of the sex act between the two men is reflected by the narrator’s saying that afterwards he smelled like salmon.  He searches his body for any changes, wondering if he is a warrior now and if he were a warrior in a previous incarnation. His inability to understand and articulate why he has sex with the hitchhiker does not suggest that he is a homosexual who is unwilling to admit it.  Rather, when he says he did it for reasons he could not explain then nor can he explain now, he suggests that he submits to the fighter for mythic rather than personal reasons.

To make the reader accept these mythic reasons for the sexual encounter, Alexie ends the story with a scene presented as reality but suggestive of dream.  The narrator says he awoke the next morning and “went out into the world,” walking barefoot upriver toward the place where he was born and will someday die.  Echoing a statement he made earlier about his father—that the old man wanted to break open the hearts of the hitchhikers he picked up and see the future in their blood—the narrator says that if you were to break open his heart at that moment, you would look inside and see the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.  This ambiguous conclusion of the story marks a final transition between the everyday, real world to the world of wish, myth, dream, in short, the fantasy world of sacred reality.

In addition to these fifteen “selected stories”, there are also fifteen “new” stories, which we may well think represents what Alexie is doing in the short story form here lately.

Not a great deal, it turns out: I offer just a line or two about each of these new, quite ordinary, pieces.

“Cry Cry Cry”—narrator tells about his cousin Junior who deals drugs and is put in jail.  It rambles on endlessly with Alexi throwing in whatever occurs to him as clever or funny or interesting, e.g. “I think jail is the only placed where you can find pay phones anymore.”  “A thousand years from now, archeologists are going to be mystified by all the toothless skulls they find buried in the ancient reservation mud.”

“Green World”—Narrator has the job of picking up dead birds killed by windmills until an old Indian plays Don Quixote with a shotgun.

“Scars”—Man has a cauliflower ear from being constantly slapped on the head by his father, until the guy kills his father and does five years for manslaughter.

“Midnight Basketball”—story about basketball as played by Obama and Big Ed, who is a basketball sociopath—terrible shooter but thinks he is great

“Idolatry”—very brief story about a woman who sings Patsy Cline song at an audition but is terrible.  Her mother has always told her she was great. Moral:  “In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.”

“Protest”—Narrator’s friend, a pale Indian, tries to be more Indian.

“Scenes From a Life”—told by a middle-class white girl.  Has sex with an Indian boy, experiences a haboob (sandstorm) in Phoenix, works on documentaries, is married twice, has open marriage with one husband, slept with thirty-two men in her life, has a daughter, gives it up for adoption, etc etc etc etc and on and on aimlessly and endlessly.

“Breakfast”—brief parable about a guy who cooks an omelet with his father in it.

“Night People”—Rambling piece about a man who goes to a woman who works in an all –night manicure joint—more opportunities for Alexie to drop pearls of wisdom, e.g. “A manicure seemed like a public act but a pedicure felt like something private, even sexual.”  “Underrated how name tags give a man permission to briefly study a woman’s breasts.”

“Gentrification”—white guy’s black neighbors throw a horribly stained mattress onto the curb in front of their house. When he takes it off in the night, the whole block shuns him for thinking he is better than them.

“Fame”—guy gets turned down by a woman who makes balloon animals for parties.

“Faith”—guy meets a girl with a prosthetic leg at a party of fundamentalists.

“Old Growth”—guy kills a man thinking it is a deer, buries him.  Twenty-one years later he is diagnosed with cancer, digs up the body and takes the man’s skull home.

“Emigration”—very brief parable fantasy about a man whose mother possesses magic.

“The Vow”—Brief story in which a man makes his young wife promise that if he ever gets Alzheimer’s and forgets who she is, she will put him in a home. 

“”Basic Training”—a rambling, sentimental story about a father and son who run a Donkey Basketball company (they set up basketball games in which the donkeys carry the players around the basketball court). 

At this point in his career, Sherman Alexie seems to be churning out a lot of short stuff that are not necessarily good short stories, maybe just because he knows he can. I hope that is not true. The stories in The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians are some of his best. These fifteen “new” stories are much less engaging and significant.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her

Once or twice every year, a collection of short stories is published to such critical acclaim that my own lukewarm reaction to it makes me wonder if I know what the hell I am talking about here.

Last year, it was Don Delillo’s The Angel Esmeralda, which got rave reviews and was nominated for several awards, although I felt it was self-indulgent and showed no understanding of the uniqueness of the short story form.  This year, it was Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a collection of slick, O. Henry-type trick pieces, but which critics loved and which won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.

When I found out a few months ago that a new collection of Junot Diaz stories was due out, I decided not to buy it.  I did not like the stories in his first collection, Drown, although the critics fell all over themselves praising Diaz’s depiction of the “hardscrabble” (their word) world of Dominican immigrants and Diaz’s “streetwise” (their word) language.

This was the awed opening paragraph of a San Francisco Chronicle interview story on Junot Diaz in September 1996 after the publication of Drown: “Junot Diaz couldn’t read or write Spanish, let alone English, when he came to this country from the Dominican Republic at age 7.  Today he’s being hailed as a major new voice in American literature.”

Named one of Newsweek’s “new faces of 1996,” (a face that publicity photos showed grin-glowering under a shaved head), Diaz got a six-figure contract for his first collection Drown and promised to write a novel. Alan Cheuse, chair of the committee that chose Diaz for the Pen/Malamud Award that year explained, that Diaz wrote about material no one had really focused on before: “the Dominican-American way of looking at things.” The Boston Review called Diaz one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction. Introducing a slice of heretofore-unrevealed life to most American readers.

Six years later, The Boston Globe announced crisply “Then—nothing.” Diaz said he couldn’t write, that he did not feel natural anymore. It took five more years for his first novel to be published, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I listened to all of Oscar Wao--for which Diaz won the Pulitzer--on my Ipod while walking my dog in my safe, white, middle-class neighborhood, and decided that Diaz’s voice and talent for narrative expanse made him a better novelist than a short story writer. Fine, let him write novels about Yunior and his “hardscrabble streetwise” life and leave the short story to others.

Then short pieces of fiction started to appear in The New Yorker. I read them, but I thought they were chapters of still another novel about Yunior.  So when I saw that a new collection of short stories was due out, I decided to ignore it.  But recently Diaz won one of the MacArthur, so-called “genius,” awards, and This is How You Lose Her was nominated for the National Book Award.  
As a life-long fan of the short story—a guy who has read and written about so many stories over the past fifty years that he is supposed to know something about the form and writes about it on a blog, I had no choice.  I downloaded the book and set about trying to figure out why critics think this guy is so great.

Although I had already read most of these stories when they appeared in The New Yorker, I read them all again, shook my head in disbelief, and tossed the book aside to ponder the mysteries of critical opinion.  I have been pondering for the past two weeks, and—given my determination to read short stories at least twice—I am reading them again, trying to reserve judgment.  After all, when I was teaching, I always encouraged my students to “do the research” after having read stories at least once—listen to what other readers/reviewers had to say—then make a considered analysis.

Maybe I missed something.  Maybe I was biased in some way.  Maybe I was exercising some personal preference rather than critical judgment.  So, I did my usual Internet Lexis-Nexis search to see if the many superlatives in the reviews were actually justified or just the result of reviewer reverence for immigrant fiction.

Carmen Gimenez Smith on National Public Radio says that one of the greatest appeals of Diaz’s work is his ability to balance the “less palatable qualities” of his characters—cruelty, abuse, and infidelity. Similarly, Sanjena Sathian, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, says that each of his stories evokes an empathy with the narrator, although the narrator is not the type of person most readers want to like.  I think that is true. Yunior is (to use Diaz’s language) fucked up, but in a way that may not be as simple as it first appears. Sarah Hall says in The Guardian that Diaz has the ability to spend 200 pages on Junior as the perpetuator of unforgivable crimes and in the end making his sorrow and sorrowfulness our own. 

Smith also says that This is How You Lose Her is a major contribution to the short story form, for it exemplifies Diaz’s minimalist and voice-driven writing.  Other critics point to Diaz’s maximalist style. Sam Anderson in The New York Times says Diaz’s work is characterized by a “kind of radical inclusiveness.  My own opinion is that what seems “short-story-like” in Diaz’s often rambling novelistic inclusiveness is a dependence on rhythm, rather than plot, and a movement toward a conventional metaphoric short story type ending.

It seems to me that Diaz appeals to the still trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues among critics.  Carmen Gimenez Smith says that Diaz deals with the “complicated particulars of cultural exile, of want and of the bravado that is born of fear.”  And Leah Hager Cohen in The New York Times says that Diaz’s signature subject is “what it means to belong to Diaspora, to live out the possibilities and ambiguities of perpetual insider-outsider status.  “Invierno” is singled out as a favorite by several reviewers because of its focus on the conventional immigrant experience.

However, in spite of their desire to justify Diaz’s work as being a contribution to immigrant fiction, reviewers cannot help but be most attracted to his prose style. Cohen calls Diaz’s idiom so “electrifying” that it is practically an act of aggression, describing his rhythm as “a syncopated stagger-step between opacity and transparency, exclusion and inclusion, defiance and desire.”  Claire Lowdon in The Observer has suggested that whereas in Drown, Diaz’s voice was not fully formed, “nervous of its own newness,” but in this second collection he has refined Yunior’s voice “into an utterly convincing idiolect that takes in delicate literary detail and tough bilingual argot.”  Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times calls him “one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully electric.” 

No one goes as far as Sukhdev Sadhu in The Telegraph¸ who exults that this collection is so “sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison.”

My favorite story in the collection is the first one, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”—partially because I think it best embodies the typical Yunior voice—clever lines and lyrical descriptions with a bit of street talk and some educated academic language interspersed, but not the gratuitously coarse language of some of the other stories.  Sometimes, it seems as if Diaz wants to write a lyrical realistic story but gets pulled back to the “voice.”  For example, when he and his girl go to the DR, we hear this confession:

“If this were another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea.  What it looks like after it’s been forced into the sky through a blowhole. How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver.”  “And I’d tell you about the traffic…a cosmology of battered cars…”  “But that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having enough trouble with this one as it is.”
His deft combining of the coarse and the academic is obviously appeal to many readers:

“And she’ll turn her head, which is her way of saying, I’m too proud to acquiesce openly to your animal desires, but if you continue to put your finger in me I won’t stop you.”

“Every fifty feet there’s at least one Eurofuck beached out on a towel like some scary pale monster that the sea’s vomited up.  They look like philosophy professors, like budget Foucaults, and too many of them are in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl.”

Diaz sprinkles enough clever sentences throughout the story to keep one looking for them, and smiling when they are found:

“You know how it is.  A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.”

“She treats me like I ate somebody’s favorite kid.”

She is “short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in.”

“She’s sensitive, too.  Takes to hurt the way paper takes to water.”

“Magda gets to her feet and walks stiff-legged toward the water. She’s got a half-moon of sand stuck to her butt.  A total fucking heartbreak.”

“It’s a thousand degrees out and the mosquitoes hum like they’re about to inherit the earth.”

“Our relationship wasn’t the sun, the moon, and the stars, but it wasn’t bullshit either.”

The final epiphany in the story comes when Yunior is taken by a man called The Vice President and his bodyguard Barbaro to the Cave of the Jagua. When they hold him by his ankles and lower him into the hole, he recognizes that it is an epiphany: “This is the perfect place for insight, for a person to become somebody better.”  He cries and they pull him up and call him a pussy. The story ends when he gets back to their bungalow and Magda is packing to go home.  “I sat down next to her.  Took her hand.  This can work, I said. All we have to do is try.”  It is a plaintive cry that will echo throughout the stories.

Two stories focus on Yunior’s brother, Rafa, who is dying of cancer. In “Nilda,” Rafa is described this way: “You should have seen him in those days: he had the face bones of a saint.” Rafa was boxing then and “was cut up like crazy, the muscles on his chest and abdomen so striated they looked like something out of a Frazetta drawing.”

Yunior describes himself this way: “I had an IQ that would have broken you in two but I would have traded it in for a halfway decent face in a second.” He says girls start to notice him and in another universe he would probably be OK, “ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”

In “The Pura Principle,” when Rafa is dying, Yunior is 17. “Dude had lost eighty pounds from the chemo, looked like a break-dancing ghoul.” This story is one of the weakest of the Yunior stories, for it rambles about too much, lacks focus, depends too much on Junior’s tough-talking reaction to Rafa dying, and ends weakly.

“Alma,” the shortest story, whose final line gives the book its title--“This is how you lose her”--is told in second person by Yunior, who has a girlfriend with a “big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.  An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.”

When she finds his journal, he says he is “overwhelmed with pelagic sadness.” I confess I had to look it up.  Does he mean pelagic, meaning relating to the open sea,or Pelagian, relating to the British/Irish monk who denied the doctrine of original sin in 418?

Several reviewers single out  “Invierno,” the most traditional immigrant story in the book, as a favorite.  It deals with a very young Yunior and his mother and brother being first brought to American by his philandering and often cruel father, who often takes him on his pussy runs. “A father is a hard thing to compass,” says Yunior. His father gets the boy’s head shaved and he has to wear a Christmas hat around the apartment to keep warm, making him look like an “unhappy tropical elf.”

At the end of the story, Yunior’s homesick and lonely mother takes them out in the snow for a Joycean ending with a Diaz twist as they look over the landfill toward the ocean. As the mother weeps, they throw snowballs at the “sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp.” 

 In another second person story, “Miss Lora,” a year has passed since Rafa’s death, and (dropping another one of those dictionary words)  Yunior says he feels a fulgurating sadness. (You look it up.). Yunior is 16 and at his most strutting, street-talking self, describing the older, teacher he has sex with this way: “chick was just wiry like a motherfucker, every single fiber standing out in outlandish definition.  Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub.”

The final story,” The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is a kind of compendium of what has gone before.  Yunior is grown up now, but not quite--a professor and a writer, fraught with tenure madness and the pressure of “the book” he is trying to write.  The story is one of the weakest in the collection, for it seems artificially constructed and flawed by easy, clich├ęd phrases, e.g.

“Like someone flew a plane into your soul. Like someone flew two planes into your soul.”

He makes it through the semester.  “You ain’t your old self (har-har!)

“The rest of the semester ends up being a super-duper clusterfuck.”

“You want to move on, to exorcise shit.”

We leave him, pondering his folder (a kind of binder of women) which contains copies of all the e-mails and fotos from his cheating days, the one his ex found and mailed to him with this postscript:  “Dear Yunior, for your next book.”

The “next book”--which we assume is this book--ends not with a bang, but a whimper:

“That’s about it.  In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace—and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.” 

On my third reading, I appreciated the rhythm more than before, but I still do not agree with the rave reviews and the prestige awards.  “That’s about it.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story

When critics use the term "fiction," they most often mean the novel, and it is in the novel, as E. M. Forster points out in Aspects of the Novel that “story” becomes most embarrassing.  Even as we agree that the "fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect," we voice our assent, says Forster, sadly: "Yes--oh, dear, yes--the novel tells a story."

The problem lies, Forster says, in the sense of time, for in addition to the time sense in daily life there is something else, something not measured by minutes or hours, but by intensity, something called value.  Story, qua story, however can only deal with the time sense.  The novel includes the life of values by means of other devices than story, such as character, rhythm, pattern, and plot.  Story, the "naked worm of time" is an atavistic form that presents an appearance both "unlovely and dull."  Yet novelists flout it at their peril.  As soon as fiction is "completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all."

Gertrude Stein, Forster argues, offers an instructive example of one who wished to "emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time" and inevitably failed.  Forster says one cannot abolish story unless one abolishes the sequence between sentences, which in turn cannot be done unless one abolishes the order of words in a sentence, which then necessitates abolishing the order of letters or sounds in the words.  A novel that attempts to destroy the time sense and only express the sense of value "becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless."  The desire to liberate the novel from time is a noble one, but one doomed to failure.  Thus we say sadly, "Yes--oh dear, yes--the novel tells a story."

Forster's distinction between the novel's double allegiance to time and value corresponds to C. S. Lewis's distinction between story and theme in fiction. The basic internal tension of all fiction is the tension between story and theme, a situation that suggests that the means of fiction are always at war with its end. For Lewis, life and art reflect each other in that both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and event.

This definition of a tension-filled life and art is of course a religious one, regardless of whether we use William James's basic definition of the religious impulse as stemming from a feeling that "there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand" (Varieties of Religious Experience), Mircea Eliade's definition of homo religiosus as one whose desire is to live in the sacred is equivalent to the desire to live in objective reality (The Sacred and the Profane), or Rudolf Otto's definition of the Holy as that "wholly other" that  is "quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar" (Idea of the Holy).

The tension between the wrongness of "as we naturally stand" and that which would make us "right," between the sense of the objective reality of the sacred and the never ceasing relativity of the profane, between the familiarity of the everyday world and the strangeness of the holy--is this not the same tension between the time sense and the value sense that bothers Forster?  Is it not the same tension between story (time-event process) and theme (state of being or quality) that Lewis says characterizes fiction and life? 

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal and graspable by experience and reason and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the spiritual.  What I wish to suggest is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story is dominated by the second motive.

The first process requires development in the temporal sense; it requires a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks; it requires then, as philosophy does, a logical development.  It must have the bigness of the comprehensive theory of the whole man facing the whole world.  The second process, on the other hand, requires only the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.

There are, it seems to me, two basic modes of experience in prose fiction:  one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and another that involves single experiences that challenge the acceptance of the everyday world as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

 The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone.  The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him with the world of spirit, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience.

Short fiction is a fundamental form because man's earliest stories were stories of his encounter with the sacred.  Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceptualized, and the short story still retains that primal aspect.   The encounter that serves as the sacred origin of storytelling is the concrete encounter between the two basic realms of time and value that E.M. Forster and C.S.  Lewis suggests is characteristic of fiction.  As Mircea Eliade suggests, hierophany is a paradox in which the object becomes something else, yet remains itself. 

The problem is to determine how story considered in itself, rather than story considered for the sake of character, reveals the spiritual--how story escapes the "naked worm of time" and embodies the hierophanic principle.  The most emphatic and succinct statement and illustration of this primal nature of story can be found in Isak Dinesen's story "The First Cardinal's Tale."  In telling his female penitent a story to answer her question "Who are You?" Cardinal Salviati explains to her how the story has answered her question.  "Stories," the Cardinal says, "have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. (Last Tales)

The Cardinal then goes on to discuss the difference between story and the new art of narration known as the novel.  According to him, the novel sacrifices the story for the sake of the characters in it.  The novelist creates characters who become close to the reader, alive to him because of an interchange of sympathy.  This "literature of the individual" is a noble art, says the Cardinal, but it is only a human product.  "The divine art is the story.  In the beginning was the story."

When the penitent calls this divine art a cruel game that both mistreats and mocks its characters, the Cardinal replies that though this may seem the case, "we, who hold our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, verily, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe.  If you tell them--you compassionate and accommodating human readers--that they bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them.  For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"

Randall Jarrell also talks about the primal nature of story.  What we ask of the story is that it satisfy our wish, and the wish is the first truth about us, "since it represents not that learned principle of reality which half-governs our workaday hours, but the primary principle of pleasure which governs infancy, sleep, daydreams--and, certainly, many stories."(A Sad Heart in the Supermarket) As Freud well knew, says Jarrell, the root of all stories is "in Grimm, not in La Rouchefoucauld; in dreams, not in cameras and tape recorders."  

As many artists have noted, and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams--not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.  In narrative at its purest, says Jarrell, "we do not understand but are the narrative.  When we understand completely (or laugh completely, or feel completely a lyric empathy with the beings of the world), the carrying force of the narrative is dissipated: in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere."

If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material world, as Ian Watt suggests in The Rise of the Novel, then the short story creates a similitude of a different realm of reality, that reality of the sacred which Mircea Eliade says primitive man sees as true reality. The short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality.

Although story may only be able to deal with the time sense, as C. S. Lewis and E. M. Forster indicate, the short story does not focus on time in the profane sense as does the novel; rather it focuses on that very tension between the profane and the sacred wherein the world is hierophanically transformed; it does so not by focusing on characters "as if" they existed in the real world but by transforming them into functions of the primitive and recurring fable itself.  It is in this way that only the story has the authority to answer the cry: Who am I?"  And it is for this reason that, as Dinesen's Cardinal insists, "The divine art is the story.  In the beginning was the story."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Artifice and Endings in the Short Story: Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?"

Since the beginning of the short story as an historically-recognized genre, writers and critics have agreed that the form depends more on a tightly-unified structure and a formalized ending than the novel does. However, critics have often argued that consequently the short story is not realistic, not natural, and therefore not worthy of critical consideration. The assumption underlying this judgment is that since life itself is continuous, the novel is the only narrative form capable of imitating that continuity; the short story, on the other hand, because it is spasmodic and intermittent, is artificial.  Since the short story cannot follow the chronological development of character, but must select a point at which the author can approach life, it has no essential form and thus generates a unity that is abnormally artificial and intense. 

Why, I wonder, when discussing an aesthetic object, should we take "artificiality" to be pejorative, especially the artificiality of unity and endings?  Henry James, in his preface to Roderick Hudson, reminds us that stopping places in fiction are always artificial.  As James puts it, since universally relations stop nowhere, "the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so."  Similarly, J. Hillis Miller has noted that it is always impossible to tell whether a narrative is complete.  If the ending is considered a tying up into a knot, the knot could always be united again; if the ending is considered an unraveling, a multitude of loose threads remain, all capable of being knotted again.  This is why, Miller says, the best one can have is the "sense of an ending."

The coiner of that nicely-turned phrase, Frank Kermode, also reminds us, "We always underestimate the power of rhetorical and narrative gestures."  Endings, says Kermode, "are always faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence."  In other words, any time we arrange a narrative sequence to achieve a meaningful end, that is, any time we make use of the processes of repetition and similarity to convert a temporal flow into metaphoric sets, we inevitably "fake" the ending.  For this faking of an ending is the very act that makes meaning out of the "one-damned-thing-after-another" that meaningless events always are; such faking thus constitutes the essence of narrative art.

Still, many critics have argued that the faking of endings was primarily a negative characteristic of nineteenth-century short fiction; they are fond of citing such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Frank Stockton, and O. Henry as the chief culprits.  Not until the work of Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson and Joyce, many critics like to claim, did the short story develop a "natural" structure that was "open-ended," reflecting a realistic "slice-of-life."

However, I would argue, in spite of all the praise for the realism of the modern short story, from the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov to the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver, the twentieth-century version of the genre has remained highly formalized, artificial, and metaphoric, like its nineteenth-century antecedents. What has changed is that a new convention of the form developed to increase the illusion of everyday reality.  From Chekhov to Sherwood Anderson to Bernard Malamud to Raymond Carver, the short story has been bound to a highly artificial, rhetorically-determined unified structure, and therefore formalized ending, which depends upon the artificial devices of aesthetic reality.

 The Russian formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum was alone among early twentieth-century critics to recognize that what O. Henry, one of the most notorious practitioners of the artificial ending, exploited in his stories was a convention unique and essential to the short story genre.  Ejxenbaum argues that the difference between the novel and the short story is a difference in essence.  Whereas the novel ends with a point of let-up, the short story "gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded."  O. Henry understood this important aspect of the short story, Ejxenbaum argues; his pervasive tendency was to "lay bare the construction of a story and subject the plot to parodic play.”  By this means, continues Ejxenbaum, the O. Henry story opened the way to the regeneration of the short story ala Chekhov, Anderson, and others at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I suggest, however, that the laying bare of the conventionality of the ending of short stories began long before O. Henry. To illustrate my point I will comment briefly on one nineteenth-century story famous for its "artificial" ending--Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings.  The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death.  However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction-making that the reader initially takes to be actuality. 

The story is made up of three sections that correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action.  But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves.  The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff.  At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make:  "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant.  The sergeant stepped aside."  The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another.  It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.

The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament.  The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind.  It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality. 

At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense:  "Peyton Farquhar was dead."  At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story.  Postponing the end of the story until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse.        

Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.  As Boris Ejxenbaum has shown, the stories of O. Henry, rather than being trivial tricks, likewise lay bare the conventions of the short story's dependence on the artificiality of the ending, for all endings in narrative discourse are inevitably artificial.  It is simply that in the short story this artistic truth is laid bare rather than concealed behind the conventions of realism as it often is in the novel.  However, at the end of the nineteenth century many critics, bound to the naive notion that narrative must replicate the real, scorned the stories of O. Henry and rejoiced when the stories of Chekhov seemed to signal the resurgence of realism.

The question that should be asked is:  How "realistic" is Chekhov's realism?  One of the primary characteristics of the modern short story ala Chekhov is the expression of a complex inner state by the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by the creation of a projective parabolic form or by the depiction of the contents of the mind of the character. Significant reality for short-story writers beginning with Chekhov is inner rather than outer, but the problem they have tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only.  The result is not simple realism, but rather a story that even as it seems a purely surface account of everyday reality takes on the artificial aura of a dream.

In Raymond Carver’s "Why Don't You Dance?" from What We Talk About When We talk About Love, the first question the reader asks is: why does the man put all of his furniture out on the front yard?   Because things are described as "his side, her side," although no "her" is present, the reader can infer that the story is about the breakup of a marriage.  However, the answer to the second question the reader asks--why does the man arrange all the furniture outside just as they were inside and plug in all the appliances?--is more problematical since the motivation for his making everything appear outside the house as they once were inside the house can only be explained metaphorically.  "Things worked," says the narrator, "no different from how it was when they were inside." 

But they are different, of course, precisely because what was previously hidden is now manifested for everyone to see.  And of course this is what the modern short story since Chekhov always does. The problem, as it is in this story, is that the manifestation, although it looks like external reality, suggests internal reality.  The story does not supply the realistic answer to why the man plugs everything in, only the metaphoric answer to why everything is indeed plugged in.  In other words, that everything is plugged in is not motivated by the psychology of the character but rather by the aesthetic demands of the discourse.

That everything is plugged in on the lawn is of course a static metaphor.  What the frozen situation needs to make it a dynamic story is the entrance of the young couple who provide what is always necessary for meaning to be manifested in fiction--repetition and recurrence. If the man who has put out the furniture is in a movement of transition from one situation to another, then the couple is also involved in such a transition.  They are the beginning of the story that has ended for the man, for they make use of the materials of his story to create their own.  In the epilogue, which constitutes the "end" of the story, the girl is telling someone about it weeks later.  "She kept talking.  She told everyone.  There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying."  Thus, the story ends with the frustration of trying to reveal by merely telling.  The key line--"There was more to it"--refers to a basic convention of all modern short stories---that indeed there is more to it than the mere external details. 

            A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events that it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Consequently, the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse.  It is therefore hardly necessary to say that the only narrative which the reader ever gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in its aesthetic, eventless way, i.e., via tone, metaphor, and all the other purely artificial conventions of fictional discourse.  Thus, it is inevitable that events in the narrative will be motivated or determined by demands of the discourse that have nothing to do with the psychological or phenomenological motivation or cause of the actual events.

The short story's most basic assumption is that everyday experience reveals the self as a mask of habits, expectations, duties, and conventions. But the short story insists that the self must be challenged by crisis and confrontation.  This is the basic tension in the form; in primitive story the conflict can be seen as the confrontation between the profane, which is the everyday, and the sacred, which are those strange eruptions that primitive man took to be the genuinely real.  The short story, however, can never reconcile this tension either existentially or morally, for the tension between the necessity of the everyday world and the sacred world is one of those basic tensions that can only be held in suspension.  The only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.

If the novel presents life as it is actually experienced, as some critics like to claim, it is only life as a set of categories, that is, in terms of the profane everyday world of necessity.  In this sense, the novel is the most conceptual, least artistic narrative form.  And indeed in the history of the development of narrative forms this seems to be the case. Not until the late nineteenth century when James and Conrad made the novel less conceptual and more aesthetic, and thus less realistic and more symbolic, were critics ready to accept the novel as an artistic form. 

When critics scorn the short story for the artificiality of its highly unified structure, when they take it to task for the falsity of its placing so much emphasis on its ending, they obviously forget in their demand that all narrative follow the conventions of realism that the essence of art is artifice.  Consequently, they forget that the short story is the most artificial and thus the most artistic of all narrative forms.