It is not often that James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard and a staff writer/critic for The New Yorker, talks about short stories. In his book How Fiction Works, you would think that the only fiction that works are novels, for he only briefly mentions three or four stories, e.g. Joyce’s “The Dead,” Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog” and “The Kiss.” His one sentence about the great fiction writer Alice Munro, who unfortunately, for Wood, only writes short stories, is: “All the great realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists.”
So when Wood devoted three full pages in the March 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker to a debut collection of stories entitled I Want to Show You More by an unknown writer named Jamie Quatro, I sat up and took notice. What was it about this collection of stories that originally appeared mostly in small circulation quarterlies that caught the eye of Professor James Wood, arguably one of the most influential literary critics in America today?
Adultery! Virtual Sex! Religion!
Wood predictably opened his piece by citing the great adultery novels, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, although he did give a nod to Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the (Little, Pet, Lap) Dog.” This was followed by a reference to Jesus’ seemingly contradictory judgments on adultery—let him who is without sin cast the first stone vs. he who has looked upon a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery. Wood argues that the first injunction (which involves deferring judgment) is a thoroughly novelistic gesture, while the second (thinking something is the same as doing it) is thoroughly anti-novelistic—“the enemy of fiction’s freedom.” I am not sure exactly what Wood means by “novelistic” here, and he does not bother to enlighten me, assuming, I suppose, that it is perfectly obvious.
Based on his “novelistic” perspective, Wood says the best stories in I Want to Show You More are the stories about adultery, even though the “adultery” stories make up only about 12% of the book:
“Caught Up”—3 pages
“You Look Like Jesus”—2 pages
“Relatives of God”—2 pages
J. Robert Lennon in his New York Times review, which also appears in The International Herald Tribune, does not find the adultery stories so intriguing. He says that I Want to Show You More organizes itself around “two magnetic poles,”—“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” in which runners in a marathon must carry weighted statues with phalluses, and “Demolition,” about the effect on a small town church of a charismatic deaf man who begins the gradual physical destruction of the church that finally leads to much of the congregation returning to a primitive state. Lennon is of the opinion that the very brief stories about adultery that Wood likes so much clutter the book and would have worked better had they been parts of a longer story. Lennon concludes that although Quatro is gifted at “conventional psychological realism, she is strongest when she ventures into the fantastic.”
And what is it about the adultery stories—which Quatro classifies as “flash” pieces--that so engages James Wood? He says they are: “passionate, sensuous, savagely intense, and remarkable for their brave dualism.” However, I am not sure if Wood admires Quatro’s philosophic bravery of body/spirit dualism or her social bravery in being so forthcoming in her sexual openness.
Wood is quite taken by the fact that Quatro’s female character (it seems to be the same character in all five of the stories) “yearn and lust, and that the stories articulate that lustful yearning with an exciting literary freedom.” The word “freedom” is not defined here; but surely Wood does not mean female literary sexual “freedom.” Everyone knows that Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James is a woman; perhaps Wood is using “literary” in an honorific way that elevates Quatro’s stories above best-selling soft core.
Wood is particularly impressed by the fact that the infidelities and imagined infidelities in Quatro’s stories “play out against the shadow of Christian belief and Christian prohibition,” which Wood says is unusual in modern fiction generally. I am not sure it has ever been unusual. Or is it just that New Yorker folk are of the mind that Christians eschew sex generally. He also seems to be quite fascinated by the fact that much of the adultery in the stories is phone/email sex—sex that does not actually happen except in the imagination. This long distance love, it seems, is a uniquely modern innovation, according to Wood, as if Elizabeth and Robert Browning never wrote letters to each other.
Wood reminds us that short fiction is “closer to poetry than the novel, and very short fiction is even closer.” He singles out the first story, “Caught Up,” an image of “my wrists pinned over my head” that he says sounds like an “erotic crucifixion.” Imagine, if you will, the woman as Jesus. He also cites an image of a kiss in the companion story, “Imperfections,” which the woman says is “Like you put a seal on my forehead and hot wax dripped down into my eye.” Wood says this echoes the Song of Solomon verse, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealously as cruel as the grave.” Note, however, that only the word “seal” in the Quatro story echoes the Psalmist, not the poetic use of it.
It is this combination of the “secular and religious” that so fascinates Wood, as if it were an absolutely new phenomenon, in spite of the fact that, as every English major knows, John Donne’s religious poems are quite sensual and his love poems are quite sacred—so much so you can often not distinguish which is which. Quatro did not learn this technique from the metaphysical poets, but rather from the quintessential minimalist Amy Hempel (Quatro’s thesis director). Indeed, when Quatro tells one interviewer, “A lot of what I write starts with a cadence,” that each one of her stories has its own “music,” she is repeating something she has heard her mentor say, as Hempel did once in an interview:
“Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”
Indeed, it may be the visceral that most appeals to James Wood in these stories; however, it does not seem to be the musical visceral quality of Quatro’s sentences, but the physicality suggested by the female narrator of the four short “flash” stories.
Baynard Woods in The Baltimore City Paper and Rebecca Jones Schinsky on the Book Riot blog are perhaps more straightforward about this visceral appeal. Woods rather extravagantly says that occasionally a book can “shake the world awake with its extraordinary singular vision and voice, reinvigorating language,” concluding that Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, which he calls sexy in “a scary sort of way” is such a book—and “Holy fuck, is it”
Rebecca Jones Schinsky is even more obvious about Quatro’s appeal: “Yowza…This one is going to be big…It’s so good, I kind of want to lick it.” You can’t get more visceral than that.
What’s scary about the sex in Quatro’s stories? Maybe it has to do with lines like these:
“I recognized the feeling—what I felt every time the other man, the faraway man, told me what he would do if he had me in person, my wrists pinned over my head.It would be devotional, he’d said. I would lay myself on your tongue like a Communion wafer.”He’d taken a picture of himself at that very moment….One hand was holding the phone to his ear, the other arm flung out to the side. His mouth was open slightly, his brow furrowed as if in pain. An erection arched rose-colored against his navel.And what do I look like to you now, he said.”“Won’t you send me a picture of your foot, breast, ear, some part of you so long as it’s you; and when I said, Well, but there are freckles, plus this funky trilobite mole just above my navel, he said—another thing I hope he remembers---But it’s your imperfections I want to fuck.”
Yowza! Holy fuck!
I must say I am skeptical about the extravagant praise heaped on Jamie Quatro’s debut collection. The fantasy/parable/fable stories, such as “Demolition,” “Sinkhole,” and “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” seem, on their surface, interesting tropes, but when you examine them more closely, their metaphors do not hold up. And the sexy flash stories seem interesting only because, well, they are sexy. The rest of the stories seem just ordinary.
The book has not been reviewed widely and has not appeared on any best-seller lists I have seen, but from the “blurbs” on the back cover you would think Quatro’s stories are brilliant examples of the genre. I know that you cannot really trust the objectivity of blurbs. I mean, after all, publishers would not print a blurb if it were not great praise. But sometimes blurbs go a bit too far, don’t you think. Basically, they are “advertising,” and maybe we should not expect “truth in advertising.”
But Good Lord! David Gates blurbs the stories as a “miracle in which any reader can believe.” Tom Bissell says, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what short fiction is for.” Tom Franklin blurbs that he salutes a”brilliant new American writer.”
But the blurb that shocks me most is when David Means, who in my opinion is one of today's greatest American short story writers, says Quatro has “earned a place alongside Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, and Alice Munro.”
Well, maybe almost Amy Hempel. But surely David Means does not think Quatro is in the same literary universe as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. And a final skepticism: Even though some of Quatro’s former teachers, such as Jill McCorkle, provide blurbs for her book, why did she not get a blurb from her thesis director, Amy Hempel?