Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2012: Part II

Jennifer Haigh, “Paramour”

Jennifer Haigh is a 2002 graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Since graduation, she has published four novels, the first of which won the PEN/Hemingway award. She has also published a few short stories in Granta, The Atlantic, and Ploughshares  (“Paramour”), and has a short story collection coming out, I guess, when she has enough stories to fill one.

The prose of “Paramour” reminds me of the kinds of words, sentences, and observations that often put me off reading novels.  I am currently reading two novels for review and find both of them rambling ragbags of careless prose and clichéd comments.  I think many short story writers will agree that you can get away with clichés and carelessness in a novel, for the reader is usually so propelled by the sheer mass of character and plot that he or she will ignore or forgive the easy word choice and the sloppy sentence. Not so in a short story.  Also in a novel, the writer can create a narrative that does not seem to be moving toward a meaningful end, but rather just jogging along because, well, that’s often what people in “real life” do.

Too many easy words, comparisons, and sentences mar Jennifer Haigh’s “Paramour” for me.  A few examples that put me off:
 “Christine crossed the street gingerly, on four-inch heels thin as pencils.”
“The wife’s name was lodged in her memory like a bullet that could not be removed.”
“She’d been a mercurial student.”
“She carried the shame like a disfiguring scar.”

The story itself is a cliché of the lecherous teacher exploiting a student, the twist here being that the professor’s wife allowed the relationship with the proviso:  “Look, but don’t touch.”  So what Christine did for the professor while a student (She now has a PhD in French lit, a Fulbright, and a tenure-track job in California.) is take her clothes off and loll about on the bed while he watched—never touching her or himself.  The wife has invited Christine to a Tribute for her bounder husband, inviting Christine as a “present” for him.  But clever PhD that she is, she goes home with a man she meets at the Tribute, instead treating us to this hokey epiphany in a taxi: “She kissed Martin passionately.  Let the ghosts hover: his body was a tangible thing, arms and hands and shoulders.  His mouth felt warm and alive.  Yes to everything, she thought.  Do everything to me.”

Oh My!  Oh Dear! Golly Gee!  Hot stuff!

Good Lord!

Mike Meginnis, “Navigators”

This is a video game story.  Since I have not played video games since my kids were small—and then it was pac-man and the like on an old Atari—that might make much of this story alien to me.  But, in spite of what some of you might think, I try to give every story I read the benefit of the doubt from the beginning—although in some stories I begin to fall away right away as I read. 

After one reading, I must admit I liked this story.  Although I was unfamiliar with the descriptions of specific details of action taking place on the video screen, I do know enough about the basic premise and structure of such games that I could follow the action fairly easily. I liked the story for two reasons: First, once Mike Meginnis sets up the premise and the character configuration of a father and son obsessed with a video game called Legend of Silence, he mainly stays out of the way.  Second, I liked the metaphysically significant switch on the usual game premise.  In this game, the goal is not to become increasingly more powerful, as in Metroid (the actual game on which this fictional game is based), but rather to lose everything so that one can enter Nirvana.

I remember what so fascinated me about pac-man was that what was merely a small circle on the screen took on, when it began to move, the semblance of a living thing—a voracious creature with a mouth that could eat everything in its path.  The computer-generated figure in Legend of Silence is, like Seamus Aran in Metroid, a female—an avatar that takes on human characteristics with which the player can identify and wish to assist and protect.

It’s a predictable device in this story that as the father and son become more and more obsessed with the game (with the father trying to create a map of the world the game represents), they move further and further away from everyday reality—failing to pay the gas bill (but of course not the electric bill), eating peanut butter and jelly, becoming crusted over with cheese-puff dust and stained with cranberry juice cocktail.

Since the purpose of the game is to transcend reality to the ultimate loss of self, the real challenge is how to end the story.  And here, I was disappointed that the end depends on words on the game screen that query the players with yes or no questions, e.g. “Is your enemy in Nirvana?”  When they choose “No,” the game responds: “Your enemy is not in Nirvana, and neither are you.  There is no you.”  When the players say they do not wish to pursue the enemy, the game responds: “The weight falls from your body.  Your body falls from your soul.  Your soul falls from your absence.  The absence is not yours.”  And so on and so on. 

The game tells them they will forget fear and they will forget love. When the game is over, the boy feels a need for that which is about to happen—like when he squeezed his father’s hand waiting for his mother to pluck glass from his foot with a pair of tweezers. The premise of trying to lose everything is, of course, drawn from most religions, such as Christianity, whose central proviso is that one must lose the self to find the self.  I am just not sure that Meginnis’s ending is equal to the power of this paradoxical demand.

Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish”

I read Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” when it first appeared in The New Yorker this year and posted a blog on it.  To keep you from having to look it up, I will reprint some of my comments here.  I am a huge fan of Millhauser.  To me he is the great Romantic of twenty-first century fiction. And thus, one of the greatest short story writers of his era.

“Miracle Polish” is a “concept” story that draws on nineteenth-century German romantic notions, which Millhauser has used before.  It begins in traditional folklore fashion:  A stranger comes to the door with something for sale called “Miracle Polish.”  When the protagonist buys a bottle of the polish and shines his mirror with it, he seems to see himself differently: “There was a freshness to my body, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before… What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, man who expected things of life.”  This transformation becomes an obsession with him, and he polishes all the mirrors in his house and buys many more mirrors to polish and hang so that everywhere he turns he sees his transformed self.  However, when he tries to involve the woman with whom he has a relationship in his mirror obsession, she accuses him of preferring the woman in the mirror to her actual physical self.

As in many other Millhauser stories, “Miracle Polish” is a metaphorical exploration of the Platonic notion that underlies all romanticism—the reality of artifice.  The narrator’s sense of growing obsession is typical of the romantic short story that gave birth to the form in the early nineteenth century.  Edgar Allan Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects.  W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person.  Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane.  However, the repudiation of "reality" as being only everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on.  Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire is true reality.

And it is this Romantic premise that Steven Millhauser continues to explore in his short fiction.  “Miracle Polish” is not, in my opinion, as good a story as many of the complex and magical stories that appeared in We Others:  New and Selected Stories, which came out this past year. But, until the next Millhauser story comes along, it will do very nicely.  If you truly love the short story, you really should give yourself the pleasure of reading We Others.

Alice Munro, “Axis”

I read this Munro story when it came out earlier this year in The New Yorker, and I discuss it in my new book, Critical Insights:  Alice Munro, which came out this month.  I am not allowed to use the same material on my blog that I used in that essay, but will make a few general comments here that I did not make there.  By the way, some of my Canadian readers who already have a copy of Munro’s new collection of stories Dear Life have informed me that “Axis” is not included.  I am not sure why.  I do not know if it appears in the American edition, which I should receive early next week.

Frank O’Connor once suggested that the short story does not deal as the novel does with problems of the moment, but with what John Millington Synge calls “the profound and common interests of life."  The short story, claimed O’Connor, is a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.” I have argued in other places that one of the reasons for the short story’s focus on the “profound and common interests in life” is the form’s origins in myth and folklore, which Mircea Eliade has argued, narrates, “primordial events” in consequence of which human beings became what they are today. Myth, says Eliade, teaches human beings the primordial stories that have “constituted them existentially.”

I is my opinion that Munro’s story, in spite of its realistic appearance is about a primordial, universal event that constitutes human beings existentially.  One of the things the story is about is the primordial experience of “time,” of which Munro has said:

“Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.”  “Memory,” she says, “is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.”

“Axis,” is a good example of what Alice Munro calls a “short story way” of perceiving reality; it is also a good example of Munro’s typical short story concern with “the profound and common interests of life,” a primordial event, as Eliade says about story that constitute human beings existentially—a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.” In “Axis,” the lyric cry is about the nature of time—temporally moving and spatially captured.

Munro is too smart not to be aware of the contrast between time as being marked by a series of solid layers stacked on each other in space and time being something that constantly moves.  The paradox of this stillness that continually moves reminds us of the paradox of the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:  “Thou still unravished bride of quietness.”  The literary critic Murray Krieger in a famous essay entitled “Ekpharasis and the Still Movement of Poetry” has pointed out that the word “still” means both “not moving” and “still going on.”  In the artwork, a “here-and-now” unique concrete action, by means of aesthetic pattern, echo, and repetition, becomes a "forever-now motion." Thus, in the artwork, we perceive both motion and stasis at once.

Although you may shake your head at all this, saying, “Come on, May, this is a story about a couple of young women and what happens to them, not a story about motion and stasis, space and time, and all that abstract stuff.”  I, of course, disagree.  The short story as a form has never been simply concerned with the realistic lives of its characters in the everyday world, but rather, at its best, interested in exploring, as Munro says, “some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH.”

Lawrence Osborne, “Volcano”

 Sometimes a story works when just the right combination of elements come together almost inevitably.  Here it is a 46-year old woman who files for divorce after catching her husband cheating on her and goes to Hawaii to attend a lucid dreaming seminar.  The idea of being able to control your dreams, rather than being helplessly caught by them seems an irresistible metaphor for a woman who is getting older and feeling lonely and abused and wishes to manage her own reality.  It also creates a neither world between dream and reality that the short story has always been quick to exploit, a world in which one is not sure if what he or she is experiencing is actually happening or happening in a dream.  Poe and Hawthorne were masters at creating this kind of uncertain reality. “Young Goodman Brown,” for example, ends with Brown waking up from what he was convinced was actually happening.  Many Poe stories, such as “The Premature Burial,” place a character in a realm of reality that seems both real and dreamlike at once.

All of “Volcano” exists in this kind of neither world as a result of the central character’s distress and loneliness at the breakup of her marriage.  When the woman skips the dream seminar and goes to a small town called “Volcano,” she meets an elderly gentleman in a hotel, which seems deserted because of a volcano warning two nights earlier.  She drinks too much and allows herself to be seduced by the old man, even though she finds him ugly and repulsive.  The story ends with her in bed with the man, who says he is going to penetrate her all night, even as she tries all the techniques she has learned at the seminar to change the dream.

The lucid dreaming trope, which Osborne manages without pushing it to extremes, seems to fit well with the volcano metaphor, as the woman struggles to come to terms with the break up of her life and her husband’s betrayal of her trust.   But her feeling that she can change the dream she now seems to be in with the old man is an illusion, or else something from which she does not wish to awaken.  It is, in my opinion, a well-controlled, delicately balanced, story leading me to sympathize with the woman and identify with her sense of loneliness.


kevin holt said...


In reading "Volcano," am I reaching when I suspect that the main character may have been tricked into falling into a deep sleep and is being raped, either by the leader of the seminar or someone else?

Combining the strange drug with the final images seem to indicate this to me. Her arms are being moved around like a sleeping person and she flinches when something, maybe sweat, hits her face.

If anything, I think it's ambiguous.

Charles E. May said...

It seems to me that if we read the woman's experience as being tricked into a deep sleep and actually being raped, we miss the complexity the story tries to create in that mysterious world that lies, at least in fiction, in between a dream state and phenomenal reality.