Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Story Prize 2013: Junot Diaz and Dan Chaon

The Story Prize, established in 2004 to honor short story collections, especially worthy collections that are often ignored by other Prizes, will have its annual award ceremony on March 13, 2013. The winner will receive  $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.  The three finalists for the award are:

Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake
Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn

I posted my opinion of Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her last October; you can find it, if you are of a mind to, by searching my archive. I swear to God, I read the book three times before writing that blog entry; I absolutely refuse to read it a fourth time for this entry.  I stand by my previous opinion that the main reasons reviewers rhapsodize over Diaz are: his still trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues; his coarse street-smart patois combined with smooth university-wise lingo; and his “I-can’t-commit-but I-am-fuckincool-about-it” persona Yunior, who, after three book’s worth, I am pretty tired of listening to; really now, aren’t you? Yunior/Diaz is just too nerdy-adolescent-horny-pottymouth-self-indulgent-simplistic for my view of what makes good short stories.

I read Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn a few weeks ago, one after the other, and my first-read reaction was that I liked the Watkins book better than the Chaon.  This was not what I expected.  Please allow me to explain my lukewarm response to Chaon in this blog essay and my more enthusiastic response to Wakins in one next week.
Chaon’s first collection, Fitting Ends, which I read and enjoyed, came out in 1996, although it had a bit too much of the “young-man-just-out-of-creative-writing-workshop” feel about it (even if some of the workshops were chaired by Tobias Wolfe).  And I did not agree with the reviews (mostly in the Cleveland Plain Dealer) that, just because Chaon was from Ohio, claimed his work “resonated” (horrid overused word!) with that of Ohio’s most famous literary son Sherwood Anderson.). Chaon’s second collection, Among The Missing, which I also read with some pleasure, was released to considerable more ballyhoo in 2001 and made the shortlist of the National Book Award that year.

After the publication of Fitting Ends, Chaon posted a little essay on the Random House website in which he described his first book in terms that sounded very much like his most recent collection Stay Awake:

“I think of this collection as a series of ghost stories set in the real, non-supernatural world, and I wanted the stories to evoke the mixed emotions that such ‘ghostly’ glimpses can elicit—dread and uneasy courage, sadness and nervous laughter.”

In this little publicity essay, Chaon calls the short story a “solitary and lonely creature” that resists being corralled into a pack with its fellows.” Stories are meant to be experienced singly, he said (echoing a sentiment expressed by William Dean Howells last century) “with a long, silent pause between each one.”  And indeed, in a Los Angeles Times review of Among the Missing, Michael Harris said that the only real drawback to the stories in the book is there is a “sameness to them, in tone and theme, that wouldn’t be so noticeable if we read them as there were written, one at a time.”

This “ tone and theme” may also be one of the problems of Stay Awake.  Patrick McGrath says in his New York Times review that one of the curious aspects of this new collection is Chaon’s recurring use of a few distinctive motifs, the sense of which is of “a narrow cluster of related ideas being urgently worked out.” McGrath concludes,  “These stories feel as though they had been written fast, one after another, expressing with some urgency, a closely related set of various on a given theme.”

As I read these stories a second time, I was torn between whether this sense of “sameness,” “recurrence,” and “urgency” comes from some inner authorial obsession relevant to universal human experience (which would be a good thing) or whether the feeling springs from Chaon’s rapid-writing exploration of a familiar literary genre (which would not be so good except as a “good read” (horrid phrase for easy pop stuff).

In an interview in Publishers’ Weekly on November 28, 2012 Chaon says the idea for Stay Awake came after writing a requested genre story for a 2003 anthology with the “good read” title, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales.  Chaon’s response to that request was the first story in Stay Awake, entitled “The Bees.” While writing the story, Chaon says he started toying with the idea of writing a book of ghost stories, calling his new collection the (his words, my emphasis) “product of playing with the ghost story and with horror forms.”

In his review of Stay Awake, in The Washington Post (2/17/12), Jeff Turrentine notes that ghost stories have long played an important role in literature: as terrifiers, fuddy-duddy moralizers, stand-ins for repressed sexual desire, inducers of guilt, etc.  “But writers of literary fiction usually feel compelled to tread lightly in the graveyard.  For all their spookiness, ghosts can be something of a cheap fix: spectral shorthand for the idea that a character is ‘haunted’ by some weighty matter left unresolved.”  Indeed, there may be something that smacks of the self-conscious “fix” about the stories in Stay Awake, cheap or no.

In his New York Times review, Patrick McGrath says that many of the characters in Stay Awake seem to be hovering on the brink of insanity.  Folks used to say that of Poe’s characters too, but madness in Poe was more complicated that that.  McGrath says the best of Chaon’s stories embody the “great guilt pleasure of good horror fiction: the sickening moment when the monstrosity at the heart of the story’s darkness suggests itself to the eager imagination, while still withholding its true shape.”  The problem, of course, is whether Chaon’s stories are ghostly because of the complex human mystery they explore, or whether their spookiness just springs from crazy guys who go bump in the night.

For me, the best definition of a truly spooky story—the kind of story that Poe pioneered so many years ago—is actually provided by Chaon’s narrator/protagonist in “Fitting Ends,” the title story of his first book, that is: one in which all the details add up so that you know the end even before the last sentence.

One of the characters in Donald Barthelme’s story “See the Moon” says, “Fragments are the only forms I trust. Donald Barthelme himself once said, ''The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century.” Like Barthelme, Chaon says he is a “very collage-oriented thinker,” adding that “fragments are really important to me as a writer.”  He adds in the Publishers Weekly interview that he realizes there is a degree to which in several stories in Stay Awake he is subconsciously commenting on his own writing process, concluding that he is interested in the way collage can create certain moods better than a linear narrative.

“Fitting Ends” is about a man trying to fit all the loose ends of his life together into a coherent story. It does not have a chronological plot structure, but revolves around various stories the narrator Stewart recalls from his childhood.  The first such story, about his brother De, recounts three different appearances of a ghostly figure walking on the railroad tracks near the nearly deserted village of Pyramid, Nebraska and then falling on his knees in front of a train.  A few years after these supposed sightings began, Del, who was seventeen at the time, is killed by a train while walking along the tracks. 

Chaon has said that “Fitting Ends” owes a debt to the self-reflexive story, “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson. Like that more complex story--about a boy who sees a mysterious scene in the woods and tries to understand the meaning of it--Chaon’s self-conscious concern here is with how “storytelling” tries to come to terms with the ambiguous relationship between truth and lies by pulling disparate events together into a significant whole. The theme is announced in the first paragraph of “Fitting Ends” when the narrator tells how his brother’s death has been transformed into the stuff of story in a book called More Tales of the Weird and Supernatural, a book whose author says is based on “true facts.”  The event the author describes is concerned with one of the basic aspects of fiction—the presentation of events that anticipate events yet to occur.  The author’s fascination with the story of the sightings of a ghost on the train track results from the fact that the ghost of Del appears two years before he died.  As Stewart says, it is the nature of story that the reader can “imagine the ending.” This anticipates the ending of “Fitting Ends” when Stewart notes that at certain moments all the loose ends of his life fit together as easily as a writer can write a ghost story in which all the details add up so you know the end even before the last sentence.

The basic technique of the story reflects its theme, for Stewart recounts various anecdotes about his childhood in an effort to make them “come together” into a coherent story.  In his contributor’s notes to the 1996 Best American Short Stories, in which “Fitting Ends” appeared, Chaon says that writing a story for him is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which he writes hundreds of pages of fragments and puts them in a folder hoping they will “mate.” He says he had a folder three inches thick full of jottings about the brothers Del and Stewart.  He says when it came to putting these fragments together, he found it helpful to read the works of others who inspired him, such as Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods” and Alice Munro’s stories about time and loss.

All the characters in the twelve stories in Stay Awake are haunted in one way or another. For example, in “To Psychic Underword,” a man named Critter begins to see upsetting messages in the world around him after the death of his wife, “as if he were a long-dormant radio that had begun to receive signals.” In “I Wake Up,” a boy goes to live with a foster family after his mother is sent to prison, sleeping in the bed of their dead son.  In “St Dismas,” a man rescues his meth-addict ex-girlfriend’s daughter, only to desert her because he cannot handle the responsibility.   In “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” a man feels guilt and responsibility for not attending his baby’s funeral. Other stories in the collection deal with characters who are brain damaged, who lose their fingers in an accident, who commit suicide, and who murder others.  Arguably the three most representative stories are “The Bees,” “Patrick Lane Flabbergasted,” and “Stay Awake.”

“The Bees” centers on a man--who admits he was once a drunk and a monster—being haunted by his past. “Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.” Although he is remarried and has a young boy who is tormented by nightmares, he has been dreaming of his first son, DJ, who he once took on a carnival ride and then made fun of him for being afraid.  He beat his first wife and child until they ran away, and he has not seen them since.  When he dreams that DJ comes back to him as a ghost and threatens him, he awakes to a room full of smoke.  The story ends with this gruesome image: “He sees, off to the side, the long black plastic sleeping bag, with a strand of Karen’s blond hair hanging out from the top.  He sees the blackened, shriveled body of a child curled into a fetal position.”  Yes, it is a spooky, grisly tale of being haunted by your past sins, but it exists solely, it seems to me, to frighten the reader, not to explore the complexities of guilt.

The central character in “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” focuses on a young man living in the home of his dead parents, for whom, “There were simply fewer and fewer things he felt like doing, indifferently aware “that things had probably deteriorated.”  As he cuts himself off in the house, his actual living quarters shrink more and more.  He finds an old Scrabble game in the basement and throws it across the floor when some cockroaches come out, feeling that the tiles had spelled some eerie message to him.  He begins to see markings on his arms in his own handwriting. His feet start to develop a fungus. He feels that video games, the television, and computer images create a small force field around him.  A bagger in a grocery store, he thinks more and more that his days in the store are like being in a zombie movie.  When his sister tells him that he just has to get himself together, he imagines there was a way in which all the pieces of his life can come together—the zombie movie, the Scrabble game, the note his parents left him when they killed themselves—but the story ends with the power shutting down, covering him in darkness. This treatment of the conventional image of a dysfunctional young man haunted by who knows what demons, seems primarily a compilation of clich├ęs—zombie movies, scrabble games, technology media--for disengagement and isolation.

“Stay Awake, the title story, is the most grotesque piece in the book. A man and his wife have twins conjoined at the head, in which the parasitic one fails to develop a body.  The man falls asleep dreaming while driving and has an accident that puts him in the hospital.  He becomes obsessed with the child, doing research on the phenomenon of conjoined twins.  He discovers the concept of Astral Projection, which posits that the self exists outside the body and is connected to the physical self while sleeping by a silver thread.  He imagines that his child, who survives after surgery to remove the parasite head, may have felt the other brain drifting up like astral projection when it is removed.  He thinks that one day she may wake up and remember the way someone else’s thoughts felt, hearing a voice say, “I’m still awake.” 

Perhaps the story began with Chaon’s own research into the phenomenon of conjoined twins (The protagonist discovers on the Internet the story of The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal born in 1783, who lived four years with a separate head before dying of a cobra bite). Perhaps then Chaon saw the possibility of exploring the theme of universal human isolation--never being able to share the mind of another and know how someone else thinks or feels.  However, since the central image is never really bound up with the human isolation theme, the story is interesting only because of the grotesque image of a child with two heads. (You can look up the Two-Headed Bengal Boy on the Internet and see pictures of his dual skull, that is, if you really want to).

Ever since Poe, the short story has been a favored form for the presentation of the obsessive, the supernatural, the otherworldly.  However, the best of such stories are characterized by a tight stylistic control and an exploration of the mystery of the human personality.  The best of such stories are not just about characters who are schizophrenic or psychotic, and thus whose motivations and actions are outside the realm of human understanding.  In the best of such stories, one can usually arrive at a fearful answer to the question, “what made him or her do that?” by examining one’s own inner self.  When the answer to the question is simply “He was crazy,” the story is not among the best of them, just among the most horrifying.  There is just too much of horror for entertainment’s sake in these stories, it seems to me--simple horror that competent writing by a known “literary” writer cannot conceal.

The Publisher’s Weekly interview mentioned earlier ends with Chaon admitting that the stories in Stay Awake were the result of “playing with the ghost story and with horror forms,” but then adding that as he was finishing up the book, he “realized that there was something about the mood of the stories, a mood of loss and dread of what comes next, a sense of things not working out the way we thought they were going to, that really spoke to the current moment in an immediate way.”

An interesting afterthought apologia, but not convincing enough to redeem these stories out of the realm of the simply horrifying into the literary short story world of the complexly meaningful.

Next week:  Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn

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