Monday, April 22, 2013

Jamie Quatro's I WANT TO SHOW YOU MORE: Pardon my Skepticism

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
“Imperfections”—2 pages
“You Look Like Jesus”—2 pages
“Relatives of God”—2 pages
“Decomposition”—14 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?


Keith Hood said...

Here's my "Puzzle the Prof" question. Does the ending of "Escape from Spiderhead" work for you? I really enjoyed the stories in Tenth of December and I even enjoyed "Escape from Spiderhead" until the end. As it started to dawn on me what Saunders' narrator was doing and how the story was going to be narrated from the beyond, I found myself doing a mental equivalent of throwing something at the TV saying, "No, no, no. You can't end a first person narration that way. You've destroyed all believability." Most novice writers in most creative writing classes would be firmly admonished not to end a story that way. Does Saunders get away with it because he's George Saunders or am I just missing something and is the ending really working in a way that I'm not getting?

Keith Hood said...

Another "Puzzle the Prof" question. You list All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones as of your "100 Favorite Short Story Collections of the Twenty-First Century" and you name "Marie" from Jones' earlier collection as one of "200 Short Stories [you] admire From Boccaccio up to the 21st Century." I'd love to see you blog about Jones and particularly about his omniscient voice and the whole worlds he presents in stories like "In the Blink of God's Eye," the opening story from All Aunt Hagar's Children.

Jones has said that he tries to write stories within which you can find “the possibility of a whole world.” Garth Risk Hallberg" has written: "That Edward P. Jones Omniscient Voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet, given to sudden, lurching glimpses forward and backward in time. Less James Earl Jones than Jeffrey Wright. The Voice wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live."

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the stories of Edward P. Jones.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Can't say I'm fond of Wood's criticism, although, as you say, he is one of the most influential critics around, for some reason I can't explain.

I still read his books now just in case I might miss something, but I end up feeling like I've wasted my time. I've sent for a couple of your books by the way.

I have not yet read Jamie Quatro's stories, and after your comments here, I won't be doing so. I think that blurbs and even reviews by other authors have become increasingly irrelevant.

Blurbs are now merely a form of politeness, like country people waving at cars going by their house, whether they recognize the car or know the people inside or not.

Keith Hood said...

I do have another "Puzzle the Prof" question in harmony with "requests for interpretations of specific puzzling stories." I'd love to hear from anyone who's read Ron Rash's collection. Just what happens at the end of "Cherokee?" I've read and reread the final paragraph of the story and I just don't get it.

The story ends: "When she opens the handbag, all the money is there. The elevator closes behind her, and she walks toward a man who knows as well as she does that their luck couldn't last."

I sense some irony at work here but I'm not getting it. I understand the ending more if the sentence read "their luck [wouldn't] last" but the "couldn't last" leaves me scratching my head.

Mr. May's review of the story says, "You expect the worse when they win the thousand and then must decide whether to go on, but Rash is not that easy."

I guess he's right. "Rash is not that easy."

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Re: Cherokee

Not his best story, but there is something to admire here.

The couple are an example of the working poor. Beset on all side by salemanship and billboards, tourists with shopping bags, come-ons from casinoes that operate as a tax on the poor.

Persuaded to buy the new truck by the salesman and his creative financing, they have stretched themselves to the very limit of their income. One disaster will sink them, as the wife knows, even before the husband loses his job.

They scheme to raise the $1000 to keep their truck from being repossessed, but even after they luck out and get the money to pay the bank what is then due, they are still on the bottom.

The change that first occurs in the novel occurs in the husband, who sees his glass as half-full when the wife sees her glass as empty and wants another, and then another, and then another...She knows her limit but goes beyond it, in drink as a metaphor.

She gets so drunk with the power of their winnings that she thinks it is the best day of their lives, better even than their wedding day.

When she awakes from her drunken illusions, she worries that her husband has taken the money and gone back to the slot machines to gamble it. But he has resisted those temptations. Instead she finds him in the midst of the gamblers but still sober, drinking coffee.

The story ends ok, as they both now realize that this has been simply luck and that any thought that they have exerted control of their luck through a rabbit's foot or personal exceptionalism is merely superstition.

Their winning is something temporary, because nothing gold can stay. But they are better off at the end of the story, more mature, and we can hope, more appreciative of love, of the immaterial things that make life worth while.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Here's a good "Puzzle the Prof" story, one you will definitely enjoy if you have not read it before.

The story is "A Happy Vacancy" by Stephen Dobyns, and it is his lead story in the EATING NAKED collection. It starts out clever and ironic but before the end of the story it critiques cleverness and irony and becomes profound and deep. Perhaps too deep.

Dobyns, whose work I greatly admire, had a couple of other stories in this collection appear in the Best American Short Stories collections. But this is the one I prefer.

Uday Shankar said...

Dear Sir, your writing and blog is very-very useful for my research. I was reading your blog since 2012, but comment is happened today. Sir, I am a PhD student in Hindi literature, topic is related to Hindi Short story Criticism, at JNU, New Delhi. Actually I have an encounter with one writer called in my basic text and mine basic text/critic also influenced by that writer(Morris bodien). But, It's not searchable for me. Maybe its possible that its not well spelled because it is wriiten in Devnagri Script(and my english writing skill is so-so weak). So, I think that maybe you can helpful for me.
thank you