Monday, May 27, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story"

In the dwindling days of Short Story Month and my “Puzzle the Prof” contest for 2013 , Richard Pangburn has asked my opinion of Rick Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story.”  I am happy to oblige, for I like the story very much.  For those who have not read it, let me provide a brief summary before I comment on it.

“The Hermit’s Story,” a magical tale about the entry into an alternate reality, begins with a sort of poetic overture about the blue color of an ice storm.  The narrator and his wife have gone to the home of Ann and Roger for Thanksgiving dinner.  The power is out, and after the two couples eat pie and drink wine before a roaring fire, Ann tells a story about an experience she had twenty years before up in Saskatchewan with a man named Gray Owl who hired Ann to train six German shorthair pointers.

After Ann has trained the dogs all summer and into the fall, she takes them back to Gray Owl to show him how to continue to work them.  She and Gray Owl take the dogs out into the snow, and Ann uses live quail to show Gray Owl how the dogs will follow the birds and point them.  They work the dogs for a week until they get lost in a heavy snowstorm, drifting away from their home area by as much as ten miles.  When they come to a frozen lake and Gray Owl walks out on its surface and kicks at it to find some water for the dogs, he abruptly disappears below the ice.

Ann decides to go into the water after Gray Owl, for even if he is already drowned, he has their tent and emergency rations.  However, when she crawls out on the ice and peers down into the hole where Gray Owl disappeared, she sees standing him below waving at her.  When he helps her down, he says that what has happened is that a cold snap in October has frozen a skin of ice over the shallow lake and then a snowfall insulated it.  When the lake drained in the winter, the ice on top remained.  Ann goes back to the shore and hands the dogs down into the warmth created by the enclosed space beneath the ice.

The world under the ice is a magical one, the air unlike anything they have ever breathed before. The cold air from the hole they made meets with the warm air from the earth beneath the lake to create breezes.   Although the ice above them contracts and groans, they feel they are safe beneath a sea watching waves of starlight sweep across their hiding place.  When they build a fire from cattails, small pockets of swamp gas ignite with explosions of brilliance.

The two head for what they hope is the southern shore, the dogs chasing and pointing snipe and other birds.  They finally reach the other shore and walk south for a half a day until they reach their truck.  That night they are back at Gray Owl’s cabin, and by the next night Ann is home again. The story ends with the narrator considering that Ann is the only one who carries the memory of that underworld passage.  He thinks that it perhaps gave her a model for what things are like for her dogs when they are hunting and enter a zone where the essences of things. 

When  “The Hermit’s Story,” appeared in the 1999 Best American Short Stories collection, Rick Bass said in his contributor’s note that as soon as he heard about a frozen lake with no water in it, he knew he wanted to write a story about that.  Because he was trying to train two bird dogs at the time, he made up a bird-dog trainer as a sort of wish fulfillment and had her go up to Canada and fall into such a lake.

Such an event alone, as dramatically potential as it might be, does not, of course, make a story.   What makes the event a story is Bass’s exploration of the symbolic significance of the magical world into which the characters enter.  That magical world is presaged even before they break through the ice with the blue world of the ice storm described by the narrator in the opening paragraphs in which the blue is like a scent trapped in the ice.  It is further emphasized by the fact that the storm has knocked out the electricity, creating a world of darkness.  In the midst of this cold, blue, dark world, the two couples sit before a fire, creating the classic setting for a story to be told.

When Ann and Gray Wolf work the dogs in the snow of Saskatchewan, they travel across snowy hills, the sky the color of snow so that it seems they are moving in a dream.  Except for the rasp of the snowshoes and the pull of gravity, they might believe they had ascended into a sky-place where the entire world was snow.  All this is preparation for their descent into the improbable, magical world underneath the frozen lake.  When they look up, the ice is clear, and they can see stars as if they were up there among them or else as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

The closest the narrator can come to articulating the meaning of the experience is to suggest that it perhaps was a zone where the appearances of things disappeared, where surfaces faded away and instead their very essence was “revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.”  Much like a magical journey in a fairy tale, the experience under the ice is a journey into a realm of dream and desire, which suggests that the world is a much more magical and mysterious place than we usually think.

Style is especially important to this story, for without Bass’s poetic descriptions, his rhythmic prose, and his suggestions about the mythic significance of the experience it would be merely an interesting anecdote, depending solely on the unusual nature of the frozen empty lake.  The opening paragraph, by repeating the reference to the color blue and the fictional metaphoric phrase “as if,” sets up the entry into the fairy tale world.  This “as if” metaphoric quality also is used to refer to Ann’s transformation of the dogs from wild and unruly pups into well-trained hunting dogs, “as if” they are rough blocks of stone with their internal form existing already, waiting to be chiseled free.  If the training is neglected, they have a tendency to revert to their old selves, “as if” the dogs’ greatness can disappear back into the stone.

Although often metaphoric, Bass’s style is not flowery, but rather simple and straightforward.  He does not tell the story in Ann’s words, but rather has the narrator retell it, thus filtering the story through two points of view.  Neither Ann nor Gray Owl talk much during their experience, and when they do it is in the simple straightforward language of people reduced to basic states.  In telling Ann about the lake, he says “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.”  And when she asks if he knew it would be like this, he says, “No.  I was looking for water.  I just got lucky.”  Although there is no indication, other than his name, that Gray Owl is Native American, his dialogue reflects the common literary convention of having Native Americans speak in short declarative sentences. 

Bass, a naturalist who has written nonfiction books about the Yaak Valley in Montana, also devotes much of the story to his fascination with the natural world of, as well as the dogs and the birds they hunt.  For example, when the birds flush out snipe from the cattails underneath the ice, Bass spends at least two pages pondering the presence of the birds, wondering if they had been unable to migrate because of injuries or a genetic absence. 

With the curiosity of the naturalist, he wonders if the snipe had tried to carve out new ways of being in the stark and severe landscape, holding on until the spring would come like green fire.  If the snipe survived, the narrator reckons, they would be among the first to see the spring; they would think that the torches of Ann and Gray Owl were merely one of winter’s dreams.

The fairy-tale, folklore nature of the story persists throughout, with the narrator considering at the end that Ann holds on to her experience as one might hold on to a valuable gem found while out for a walk and thus containing some great magic or strength.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: A Few Words about Annie Proulx's Stories, especially "The Great Divide"

      For my “Puzzle the Prof” contest, I received a request to talk a bit about Annie Proulx’s story “The Great Divide” from her 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is.  However, for some reason, this “comment” disappeared from my blog.  I cannot remember who sent the request, but I do recall that the sender liked the story very much and wondered what I thought about it.  Before I comment on the story, let me put it in context.

     Proulx bookends the stories in the third volume of her “Wyoming Stories” series. Fine Just the Way It Is, by citing the book’s title in the first and last tale, thus locating them in time and space. In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity.  Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.”

      In her powerful 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, one of Annie Proulx’s narrators says ominously, “Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.”   Well, if that book painted the desperate side of rural big sky life, then her second collection, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, is largely a light-hearted companion volume.

        Made up of six very brief tall-tales and five longer stories, Bad Dirt (which refers to rough country roads) is, by and large, a snort-out-loud hoot.  For example, in “The Wamsutter Wolf,” Buddy Millar moves right next door to Cheri, an overweight hellcat from high school, and the bully who once broke his nose.  Well, things just go from bad to worse, culminating with Cheri sneaking over to Buddy’s trailer and climbing into bed, late night runs to the emergency room, fear of jealous reprisals, guns at the ready, and so on and so on.  Great fun.

        In the third volume, Fine Just the Way It Is, although Proulx depicts a Wyoming that many of the natives like just the way it is, the way it was, and often still is, is often unforgiving and vicious.  The five strongest pieces are perhaps better characterized by the title of the final story, “Tits-up in a Ditch,” which refers to a cow that tried to climb up a deep slope and slid back down in the ditch and died.

         Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you.  In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” one of my favorites, Archie and Rose try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.

            In “Testimony of the Monkey,” a silly argument over whether to wash the lettuce splits up Marc and Catlin, two rugged outdoors enthusiasts.  When in anger and spite, she takes an ill-advised trip into harsh territory alone and catches her foot in the crevice of a rock, the rest of the story, which alternates between her painful efforts to free herself and her hallucinations about rescue, is predictable, but none the less agonizing.

            Proulx indulges herself in this third collection in a couple of playful fables about the devil in “I’ve Always Loved This Place” and “Swamp Mischief” and a couple of more serious legends about a Bermuda Triangle sagebrush and an early Indian buffalo hunt in “The Sagebrush Kid” and  “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl.”

However, the most powerful stories are those that reverberate on the final page of the collection when Dakota Lester tells the parents of her husband, who has lost both legs and half his face in Iraq, “Sash is tits up in a ditch.”  And so are they all in this scrupulously written Annie Proulx collection.

“The Great Divide” covers a twenty-year period—from 1920 until 1940—in the life of Hi Alcorn and his wife Helen, and thus has the temporal “feel” of a novel, albeit recounted within a brief span of twenty-five narrative pages. The story is located in the area of Wyoming where the Continental Divide—that line that separates where water flows either West toward the Pacific or East toward the Atlantic—is located. If you drive on Interstate 80 through Wyoming, you will cross the Great Divide twice—first about 5 and a half miles west of Rawlins, Wyoming and then again about 58 miles west of Rawlins.

The young husband Hi Alcorn has succumbed to the sales pitch of a man named Antip Bewley who is selling plots for a so-called colony he has named The Great Divide.  Helen met Hi only a few months after he had returned from The Great War.  He is nine years older than Helen, who is nineteen, and has suffered from mustard gas and a wound in his leg, leaving him with a limp.

Failing in several attempts to make a go of it, Hi decides to throw in with Helen’s brother-in-law, Fenk, capturing wild horses, but gives it up when he cannot tolerate the fact that the horses are sold for pet food.  He gets work in the mines in Rock Springs, but his son gets polio from the school children in the town and has to be put in an iron lung.

By 1940, Hi feels the pull of the wild desert and takes up with Fenk again catching wild horses.  The story comes to a rapid close when Hi is pulled off his horse and breaks his leg, which necessitates his being taken into town to a hospital.  When the doctor examines him, he discovers that the kick of the horse has caused a blood clot that has killed him.  The story ends when Fenk goes to tell Helen:

Her mind snarled like a box of discarded fiddle strings.  Civilization fell away and the primordial communication of tensed muscle, ragged breath, the heaving gullet and bent fingers spoke where language failed.  She knew only what Fenk had not yet said and didn’t need to say. And shut the door in his face.

I can understand the appeal of this story’s straightforward narrative flow and language style.  However, it seems to me that a summary of the story pretty much sums it up.  Compared to what I think are more stylistically and thematically complex stories, such as “Them Old Cowboy Songs” and “Tits Up in a Ditch,” I find it novelistically ordinary and flat.  It has the classic simplicity of a young couple trying to make it during the Depression in the rough world of rural Wyoming, but for me it lacks the complexity of other stories in the collection.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: The Voice of Edward P. Jones's Stories

In response to my “Puzzle the Prof” contest, Keith Hood writes that he would like to hear what I have to say about Edward P. Jones, noting that I cited Jones’s Aunt Hagar’s Children as one of my favorite collections of the twenty-first century so far and his story “Marie” as one of the 200 stories from Boccaccio to the twenty-first century that I most admire.  Keith quotes from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review of All Aunt Hagar’s Children about Jones’s “omniscient voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet,” adding that the voice “wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live."

Indeed, I have admired Jones’ stories since the publication in 1992 of his first collection Lost in the City.  Let me comment briefly on that first collection before taking a look at “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the opening story of All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

Convinced that most readers had only a narrow idea of what Washington D.C. was like, because they were familiar with it only through novels that dealt with downtown power, and politics, Edward Jones has said that in his first book he wanted to create a collection of stories that, like James Joyce’s Dubliners focuses on ordinary people in various African American D.C. neighborhoods.  Lost In The City, published in 1992, was short listed for the National Book Award and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Jones has said that he spent the next 10 years thinking about a story of black ex-slaves, who became slaveholders themselves.  The result was The Known World, his first novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and the Lannan Literary Award. The following year, Jones won the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius award.” All Aunt Hagar's Children, a second collection of short stories, several of which featured characters introduced in Lost in the City, was published in 2006, and was short listed for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Widely praised by reviewers and critics, Jones represents a new wave of African American writers who write about individuals rather than about race and about the personal rather than the political.

The fourteen stories in Lost in the City, patterned loosely after Joyce’s Dubliners, are about people of various ages who face challenges of growing up, surviving, and succeeding in African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Some of the stories are brief lyrical pieces in which characters face loneliness and loss.  For example, “Lost in the City” is about Lydia Walsh who, while at a hotel with a man, receives a call that her mother has died in the hospital.  She does a line of coke and calls a cab, telling the driver to get her lost in the city so she can postpone accepting her mother’s death.

Strength of character in the face of disappointment and disillusionment is the motivating force of Jones’s stories. Typical of his proud and capable characters is the young mother in “The First Day,” a brief lyrical piece about a woman taking her daughter to her first day of school.  The story is told in first person by the child, who is learning things about her mother, for example that the higher up on the scale of respectability someone is, the less her mother will let them push her around. 

The strongest character in Jones’s collection is eighty-six year-old Marie Delaveaux, living alone on social security. When she is condescended to and ignored by a young employee at the social security office, she slaps the girl.  Two weeks late, a young university student comes to interview her for an oral history project.  When he sends her copies of the tapes, she plays them and then puts them away, saying she will never listen to them again, even though they recount a history of hardship and courage.

The central themes of Jones’s stories are dependant on the trials, challenges, and triumphs of his characters.  When Lost in the City was first published, many critics noticed immediately that although all the characters were African American, the stories did not focus directly on racial prejudice or adversity resulting directly from white oppression.  In fact, there are very few references to color in any of the stories.  Instead of being about characters suffering as a result of their race, the stories were about characters who just happened to be black, facing the problems of living with very little money in small neighborhoods in a large American city. 

This does not mean that the situations the characters confront have nothing to do with their color.  It does mean, however, that Jones writes stories that are not narrowly limited to issues of race.  If there is a central theme, it comes from a warning that an old man tells his five-year-old grandson:  “Don’t get lost in the city.”  This is repeated in a variation in another story when a father warns, “Never get lost in white folks’ neighborhood,” and echoed when the young woman in the title story tells a cab driver to get her “lost in the city.”  Finding one’s way in the city by identifying with one’s neighborhood is the driving force of many of Jones’s stories.

“All Aunt Hagar’s children” is a phrase Jones says that his mother often used to refer to black people.  He originally planned to use the phrase as the title of his novel, which he finally decided to call The Known World.  Hagar was the female servant of Sarah in the Old Testament, a kind of iconic mother figure for African-Americans. W. C. Handy once wrote a song called “Aunt Hager’s Blues.” You can hear Louis Armstrong play and sing it on YouTube.

“In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the opening story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, may be a fairly representative example of the “voice” that Keith Fort refers to.  It’s also an example of how Jones echoes characters in his first collection by referring to them in the second collection.  A minor character, Miles Patterson, in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” in Lost in the City shows up in “In the Blink of God’s Eye” as the baby that Ruth Patterson finds hanging from a tree in Washington, D. C. “So this was Washington,” the voice says, “where they hung babies in night trees.” 

The baby hanging in the tree may be an allusion to the famous 1930s song, “Strange Fruit,” written as a poem by a Jewish high school teacher after seeing a photo of two lynched African Americans, and then made famous as a song by Billie Holiday.

Darryl Pinckney, in his March 29, 2007 review of All Aunt Hagar’s Children in The New York Review of Books, says that Jones’ attitude toward his characters has much to do with what he calls “the gentle caressing tone” of the stories in his second collection.  Pinckney says that Jones is the “shepherd of his invented world; protective toward his flock, his people.” He calls Jones is an “historical lyricist,” using language to shield and elevate his characters.

Whether you call it “voice, style, or tone,” the magic of a writer’s language to create a certain musical rhythm is difficult to describe, even more difficult to account for how language can “elevate” characters.  The two central characters in “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the young newlyweds, Ruth and Aubrey Patterson, are indeed described in something other than a realistic or naturalistic way, and the result of the lyrical, folklorish word choice and rhythm of the language does indeed make them seem characters in a traditional folklore tale rather than characters in a realistic story.

The story takes place in 1901, just after Ruth and Aubrey have gotten married and moved from Virginia to Washington, D.C.  It opens with Ruth “hearing” the old song of the night the way she did in Virginia and “ever mindful of the wolves, would take their knife and pistol and kiss Aubrey’s still-hairless white face and descend to the porch.” The verb “descend,” and the reference to wolves and the song of the night prepare the reader for Ruth’s seeing in the glow of a gaslight a “bundle suspended from the tree in the yard, hanging from the apple tree that hadn’t borne fruit in more than ten years.”  The appearance of the bundle is strange enough to make her fear something “terrible and canine” to burst from it and to create a supernatural aura around the experience:

 An invisible hand locked about her mouth and halted the cry she wanted to give the world.  A wind came up and played with her coat, her nightgown, tapped her ankles and hands, then went over and nudged the bundle so that it moved an inch or so to the left, an inch or so to the right.

 The simple device of repeating the phrase an inch of so to the left, an inch or so to the right adds to the sense of an otherworldly moment.  The ballad-like nature of the story is echoed throughout.  For example, when Ruth learns that Aubrey has decided to move to Washington, she does not want to leave her generations of family in Virginia, but knows she is a married woman pledged to her husband.  “And God had the baby in the tree and the story of the wolves in the roads waiting for her.”  In one of the few references to race in the story, the Voice situates the couple in the folklorish world of their heritage: 

They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with—the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves.

However, as the book title reference to the Old Testament slave Hagar suggests, Jones locates their heritage even more primally in the Judeo-Christian folklore of the origins of human life itself.  The sermon the preacher gives after coming back from burying his mother emphasizes the storytelling rhythm at the heart of “”In the Blink of God’s Eye”:  “I’m next in that long death line that started with our Daddy Adam.  And with Mama Eve.  O Mama Eve, we forgive you for pickin that fruit and biting into it with not a care for all of us what was to come after you and face death.”

Because the plot of the story centers on the conflict between Ruth’s desire to keep the baby found in the tree and Aubrey’s desire to father a child of his own, the story must, in ballad fashion, end with a resolution to this conflict; Jones presents the resolution in the tone and rhythm of an otherworldly tale. 

Aubrey has gone to Virginia to bring Ruth back, but when he sees her chopping wood in the snow, he also sees the “grey smoke rising from the chimney with great energy, and it was, at last, the smoke, the fury and promise of it, the hope and exuberance of it, that took him back down to the horse.”  Aubrey’s decision to turn back and give up hope of reclaiming Ruth because of the smoke rising from the chimney is a device typical of fairytale rather than realistic narrative.  The metaphor “In his mind, Ruth’s husband shrugged” is based on something inchoate and intangible.  In the terms of the folktale, he is no longer Aubrey, but rather “Ruth’s husband.”  His trip back to Washington on a horse through the snow ends the story in fairytale fashion.  “The dank smell of the horse rose up and held fast like a stalled cloud before his face.  Ruth’s husband smiled and told the horse he forgave her.”

When Aubrey reaches the bridge across the Potomac, the story ends this way:

The horse stepped onto the bridge to Washington, her white breath shooting forward to become one with the white of the snow.  Ruth’s husband patted her neck. The top button on his coat came loose again and he rebuttoned it, thankful that he hand had not yet stiffened up.  His heart was pained, and it was pain enough to overwhelm a city of men.”

What Jones succeeds in doing in this story, and many of his other stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, is  transforming--by the Voice of the storyteller-- mere people in the world into characters in universal stories—not just individuals who live and die and are forgotten, but rather characters who embody the desires, wishes, dreams, and fears of all of us.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: Stephen Dobyns' "A Happy Vacancy"

Richard Pangburn has suggested a story for me to consider for “Puzzle the Prof” this year—Stephen Dobyns’ “A Happy Vacancy,” from his collection Eating Naked (2000).
Richard says the story “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.”

As it happens, I read Eating Naked several years ago and do remember with pleasure the opening story “A Happy Vacancy,” although I like the very funny title story about the guy who hits a deer and changes his life even more.  Thanks, Richard, for sending me back to “A Happy Vacancy,” which I have enjoyed once again. I am intrigued by your suggestion that the story starts out clever and ironic but ends up critiquing cleverness and irony to become something profound and deep—perhaps too deep.  By “too deep,” do you mean that Dobyns is too explicit about the profundity of the concept he illustrates here or that the concept is heavier than the story that carries it?

It seems appropriate to me to begin a consideration of “A Happy Vacancy” at the end of the story, since everything before the end seems to lead inevitability to it, where the concept that governs the story is stated rather explicitly in a few dialogues  The first three quarters of the story exists for three purposes, it seems to me—to make us laugh, along with everyone else but the dead poet’s wife; to illustrate a philosophic view of life, death, and the comic; and to get the wife to laugh with the rest of us.

Harriet, the wife of the poet who has died by being squashed by a falling pig, has, eight weeks after his death, decided to leave Cambridge, for the laughter that the manner of her husband’s death has stimulated all around her has made her think that her former life has been shallow, that her and her husband’s seriousness existed to keep people at a distance, served as a strangler of spontaneity and impulse, and rigidified her life.  She now thinks that the absurdity of her husband’s death may have opened a new life and a new way of living to her; she just needs to articulate the view to justify this new way of living.

She moves to Ann Arbor and gets a job at a hospice, for since her husband’s death had made death a joke to her, she now needs to make death “big” again.  She tells a cancer patient that death is a process that begins with birth and accompanies us all through life.  This is, of course, the notion that Freud proposes in his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, i.e., that “the goal of all life is death” (1920). Old people in the hospice tell her stories, e.g. one old woman says she was a freshman at Clark University when Freud presented his lectures on the Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis. 

Harriet realizes that these stories made time seem causal and that she is attempting to “repair her sense of causality,” since her husband’s death seemed to lie outside of causality.  She thinks that all those people who laughed at the manner of his death should have been terrified, for it indicated the awful truth about the cosmos—“that if it had a divine direction, then its prime mover is whimsy.”  This very well may echo Gloucester’s speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, They kill us for their sport.” Or it may just illustrate the common shrug, “shit happens.”

Harriet meets a doctor who comes to the hospice and tells him that she thinks people try to make their lives too serious and that if you stare long enough at the most serious things in life, maybe you can come out on the side of laughter. When he asks if she thinks that seriousness is connected to fear, she says that we want other people to think us serious, which “suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected” but she wonders what seriousness gets us, for “It neither delays our death nor makes it easier to bear.”

When the doctor asks Harriet what she thinks is the opposite of seriousness, she says, “love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct.”  She says she is not against seriousness, but that she is against the earnestness of seriousness, that she wants to go beyond it, that she wants seriousness to be an element in her life, but not its reason for being; seriousness can be no more than self protection, but life can come along and brush it aside, by, for example dropping a pig on your head.

The story ends with a conversation between Harriet and a ninety-five year old man named Franklin.  When she asks him what is the funniest thing he can think of, he says it is the story of the man who was crossing the street in Boston and a pig fell out of a helicopter and crushed him.  Franklin says he has to die in the bed he lies in and wonders why he couldn’t have been killed by a pig falling out of the sky, for then he would, like the poet, be famous forever.

Harriet begins to laugh, and it is the laugh of someone whose seriousness has been overthrown, a laugh that erases every other concern.  Dobyns ends the story this way: “It is the sound of the world disappearing, as all the content is sucked from our heads, to be replaced—briefly, oh too briefly—by a happy vacancy.  And doesn’t this sustain us? Doesn’t it provide the strength to let us bear up our burden and continue our mortal journey?”

It seems to me that this is a story that does not demand interpretation, since Dobyns has provided the “meaning” of the story at the conclusion of his narrating of the event that illustrates that meaning. 

Although I have taught Dobyns’ story “Eating Naked,” I have never discussed “A Happy Vacancy” with students.  If I were discussing this story in a class, I would probably focus on the notion of a “concept” story—a story which begins with a “what if” notion—e.g. what if a pig fell out of the sky and killed a man.  The problem for the writer, and thus the reader, would be what to make of such an event. 

This story may have been motivated by the story of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus being killed by a tortoise dropped on his head by an eagle.  Or it may have begun with Dobyns considering death as the inevitable end of all human life.  Or it may have begun with the notion of undermining seriousness.  I don’t know.  But, surely, if anything needs to be made tolerable by laughter, it is death—that universal human leveler.  It makes no difference if you take it seriously or you meet it with a laugh; it makes no difference if you meet it with dignity or with a hoot, it comes to us all.  It makes no difference whether you go gentle into that good night or whether you rage against the dying of the light, you go nonetheless.  It seems somehow appropriate that the greatest mystery of human experience might well be met with one of the most significant human defenses against all that assails us—laughter.

I like this story. Although death itself is not funny, the idea of someone who takes himself so seriously being pulverized by a falling pig is irresistibly funny. If you gotta go, and yeah, everyone does, then going in such a way that generates laughter rather than tears may not be so bad. I don’t know how I will die, but I sure as hell don’t want anyone crying after it happens.

My sister has a lung disease that the doctors say is terminal.  About a year ago, she was admitted to a hospice.  I flew back to Kentucky to visit with her, thinking that it might be my last opportunity.  But now a year later, she is still alive, albeit tethered to an oxygen tank.  The hospice kicked her out because she refused to die.  She and I joked about it when I saw her last—that she got kicked out a hospice because she would not die fast enough for them.  Together we enjoyed the “happy vacancy,” even for a brief moment, of not taking ourselves seriously, of facing the inevitable without sentimentality, with a hearty laugh. 

Thanks, Richard, for sending me back to Dobyns’ story. It made me think; it made me laugh.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: The Ending of Ron Rash's "Cherokee"

Thanks again to Keith Hood, who has submitted another “Puzzle the Prof” challenge. Keith says he would like to hear from anyone who's read Ron Rash's collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay.  He wants some other opinions about what happens at the end of the story "Cherokee,” saying he senses some irony at work in the phrase about the couple’s knowledge that their luck “couldn’t last,” but is not sure what it is. Keith says he would understand the ending better if the sentence read "their luck [wouldn't] last" but the "couldn't last" leaves him scratching his head.

Thanks much to Richard Pangburn, who has some suggestions about “Cherokee.” He says the story is about a couple who exemplify the “working poor,” who have been persuaded to buy a truck they cannot afford and now are taken in by the lure of the casino that “operates as a tax on the poor.” Richard says drink is a metaphor in the story as the wife goes beyond her limit and gets drunk with the power of their winnings. He notes that 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,” adding that 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.”

In my opinion, the story does not have such serious social/moral/emotional implications as Richard suggests. I’m not sure that Ron Rash is really concerned with the exploitation of the “working poor” in this story, nor do I think the couple have become more mature, have rejected superstition, and have learned something about eternal human values.

Every once in a while, it seems to me, writers, especially writers of short stories, think about the conventions of narrative, kinds of stories, techniques of telling a story, reader expectations, etc, and decide to play a little game with those conventions.

To quickly review some sophomore-level intro to lit: One of the most basic conventions of story—recognized at least as long ago as Heraclitus and Aristotle’s Poetics – is that the two basic causes of what makes things happen to people in the world are fate and character, most evident, of course, in Tragedy.  Oedipus’s pride in thinking he could go against the Gods causes his downfall, but it is fate that put him on the road where he meets his father. 

Luck and fate may be thought of as quite different--luck defined as random events and fate defined as predetermined events. However, they both share the basic characteristic of being out of human control, for regardless of one’s character, luck and fate are just things that happen.  Luck is what, it seems to me, Ron Rash’s story “Cherokee” is about, although it is also ultimately about character.  As in all stories, the reader’s interest lies here in what will happen; and what will happen is dependent either on luck or character.  It seems to me that what Rash is doing in this little story is playing with this basic narrative convention and reader expectation.

The theme of “luck” is announced at the very beginning of the story and is sustained throughout.  The story opens with reference to the young man wearing a rabbit’s foot on his belt and a four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, both of which suggests the human wish to influence luck.  It also opens with the possibility of fairytale magic as the young woman recalls the story of someone rubbing a magic lantern and being granted three wishes, which suggests doing something to make something happen. The young couple only has one wish—perhaps just as fantastic as the genii in the jar—to play the slot machines to transform their savings of $157.00 into a thousand dollars so they can keep the bank from taking away their Ford Ranger pickup.  Lisa, the young woman, whose perspective governs the story, knows that all it would take is a bit of bad luck—getting laid off or an accident—to lose the truck. The two are hoping that a bit of good luck will insure them against possible bad luck.

In terms of character, the young couple have worked hard during the three years of their marriage, with Danny, the young husband, growing out of his boyish drinking and horsing around with his friends to become a responsible man.   Both Lisa and Danny agree that the only way they might get the needed thousand dollars is by luck, for character (as defined by their responsibility and hard work) is not going to be enough.  They do not see that pinning their hopes on luck, especially on slot machines on which the odds are notoriously in the favor of the house, is foolish, unrealistic, and downright unlikely.  Lisa fondles the rabbit’s foot when she thinks maybe they will win, for “It’s not for lack of trying,” although she has doubts when she sees the imposing casino and wonders, “How could anyone hope to win against such a place?” Of course the only way one can “try” to win is to take a chance and gamble.

Torn between hope and doubt, Danny and Lisa play a slot machine, with the number of credits registered on the machine moving up and down as they win and lose.  The two men who are witness to the couple’s playing are, like everyone else in the casino, depending on “luck”—not knowledge, not skill, not experience—just luck, with one of the men asking to rub the rabbit’s foot and playing some money on Danny’s “lucky” streak.  Throughout the story, the references to luck continue, with one man saying, “You got to ride this kind of luck out,” believing that once you get these machines in a mood to give it up you best stay on them, as if one can, by sheer will and effort, influence the machine.

Finally, when Danny and Lisa win enough to accumulate the needed thousand dollars, Rash has basically three alternatives as to how to end the story—either they will lose it all, or they will win more, or they will quit and go home.  Lisa looks at Danny watching the players after he cashes in, but cannot tell if he is thinking, as she is, that they might win enough to fulfill more of their wishes—pay a year’s rent, start a family, etc.  Lisa thinks that since they have had two experiences of good luck—winning the money and being given a free room—a third time might be a charm.

In the last section of the story, when Lisa wakes the next morning, hung over and finds Danny is not in the room, she, and the reader, suspect the worst—that he has taken the money and gone downstairs and lost it all.  Rash quite purposely sets up this expectation in the reader, for given the overwhelming focus on luck in the story and the conflict between character and the couple’s desire for more good luck, the couple seems narratively set up for a final loss. 

However, when Lisa opens her handbag and finds all the money still there, the story ends with this line: “The elevator closes behind her, and she walks toward a man who knows as well as she does that their luck couldn’t last.” The story does not end with the phrase “their luck wouldn’t last” because there is no clear indication that they are going to continue to gamble; Lisa is sober with the needed thousand safely in hand, and Danny did not take it out of her purse when he had the opportunity.  So the end of the story depends on the couple’s decision about which notion of luck to believe—that luck comes in threes or that luck cannot last.  The first is a wish; the second is a sure thing. 

But there is another possibility: It is not surprising that Danny has not taken the money and gambled with it while Lisa sleeps, for in this story, the couple does everything together.  At the end of the story, they have had continued good luck.  But as she walks toward him, they may be preparing to continue to gamble together—a decision that would mean their luck has now ended, for both know their “luck couldn’t last.”

So what will influence their decision when the story ends—their character or their wish for luck?  Will they feel they have fulfilled their goal and go home and make the payments on the truck, or will they create new goals and hope their luck will continue? It is up to the reader to decide.

The most famous example of an open story like this is Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger.” Ostensibly "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, that is, the only kind of justice possible in fiction--poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional alternative endings of comedy or tragedy--marriage or death.  The fact that this particular story "ends" before it ends, giving the reader the freedom to choose a conclusion, is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice enacted. 

Stockton urges readers to close the story not by choosing what they want to come out of the door, but rather in the way readers always achieve closure--by looking back at the plot, the tone, and the thematic motifs to determine the story's thematic "end."  Since the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady-like and tigerish, what readers are really asked to decide is which aspect of the princess dominates at the end--her lady side or her tiger side.  Because the presentation of what goes on the princess' mind makes quite clear which side that is, the reader is not so free to choose as it first appears.    

The story is most interesting, however, for its focus on the reader's need for closure.  For even though the story leaves little doubt that the tiger pounces out at the end (for the princess has more tiger in her personality than lady), most readers feel somehow tricked or cheated that the author leaves the final choice ostensibly open.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: The Ending of George Saunders' "Escape from Spiderhead"

Thanks to Keith Hood for playing my “Puzzle the Prof “ game during Short Story Month. Keith’s query is about George Saunders' story “Escape from Spiderhead,” which was selected for Best American Short Stories: 2011 and was included in his highly praised collection this year, Tenth of December.  I commented briefly on “Escape from Spiderhead” in blogs on both those collections, but said little about it because it is a “concept” “satiric” story, which I did not see as one of Saunders’ best.

What bothers Keith about the story is the ending, which is narrated by the first-person narrator after he kills himself.  Keith says when he realized that the ending of the story was going to be narrated from the beyond, he did “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."

For me, the issue of “believability” in a story is determined by my understanding of the “kind” of story it is, and since for me “Escape from Spiderhead” is a concept/satiric story, its believability is not dependent on its sticking to the rules of everyday reality, but rather sticking to the rules of the concept or satiric target that unifies it.

Saunders is not coy or mysterious about the concept at the center of this story.  At one point, Abnesti, the lab tech responsible for administering the experimental drugs to the human lab rats in the Spiderhead lab, states it quite explicitly. After having been induced by drugs to fall in love with (not just be sexually aroused by) two young women, Jeff is asked to decide which one he would choose to be administered a drug that induces suicidal depression.  When he cannot make a choice, Abnesti says the fact that he is totally cleansed of love for the two women is a “fantastic game-changer,” that they have unlocked a “mysterious eternal secret.”  If someone cannot love, the drug can make him love, if someone loves too much, the drug can tone it down.  “No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift…. Can we stop war? We can sure as heck slow it down!”  With the drug, soldiers can be made to feel fond of each other, dictators can become great friends.

The satiric target is, of course, the contemporary use of drugs, many of which already exist, to govern the emotions,—drugs that induce euphoria, reduce (or cause) depression, create or increase desire, increase energy, etc.  The broad concept that governs the story is the eternal problem of human aggression.  Perhaps the most famous fictional exploration of this issue is Anthony Burgess’s novel Clockwork Orange, which Saunders obviously echoes in “Escape from Spiderhead.”

At every given moment throughout human history, people have killed each other for a variety of reasons, or sometimes for no reason at all.  It is the ultimate element of human freedom to be able to do so.  The Judeo/Christian mythos situates the origin of this freedom in the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of man against man in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is possible only because of the previous Original Sin of humans against God.  As a result of eating the apple, the first humans are cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which they were formerly at one.  However, perhaps the most important result of the Fall is the separation of human beings from each other. 

The story of Cain and Abel is the inevitable result of this separation--a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality of the Fall.  No real explanation is given for God’s making a distinction between the two brothers. Cain has given his best just as Abel has.  It is certainly not, as many casual readers think, that Cain offered rotten fruit.  Moreover, it trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story simply to attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices.

God’s distinction may be better understood as an explicit objectification of what is implicit in the Fall:  All humans, even brothers, are ultimately separate.  By this act, God says, “You are isolated from one another.  It is therefore possible to make a distinction between you.”  Cain reacts to this realization by testing it in the extreme—by rising up against Abel and slaying him.  Cain kills Abel because he can, because he is separate from him, because he is free to do so.  God’s response is, of course, to make Cain the original symbol of isolated man.  He cuts him off from other men completely: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.”  Thus begins the nightmare reality of man’s isolation from his fellow man—a reality that makes him horrifyingly free to slay his brother because he is separate from him.

When Jeff witnesses Heather’s anguish after being given the drug Darkenfloxx, and when he is given the drug Verbaluce, he eloquently expresses the central concept of the story:  “Every human is born of man and woman.  Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father.  Thus every human is worthy of love.”  He feels a great tenderness hard to “distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain?”

When Jeff must witness the other girl Rachel suffer, for the sake of the experiment, the suicide-inducing Darkenfloxx, he resists even though Abnesti tells him, “ A few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel, years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks.”  When he realizes that they are going to Darkenfloxx Rachel just to hear him describe it, he knows that if he is not there to describe it, they would not do it.

Jeff’s decision to take an overdose of Darkenfloxx himself is a decision to sacrifice himself for the sake of Rachel.  Within the Judeo/Christian mythos, it is the Christ like decision to endure death in order to be resurrected to eternal life.  Death, of course, is the ultimate human mystery—a mystery that gives rise to all religion. Since an experience of the afterlife cannot be verified, there is no way the ideal of redemption can be substantiated except to follow Jeff’s consciousness into that afterlife. 

The notion of dying and then immediately hovering above the world one has just left is one of the most common concepts of after-death stories--from simple popular ghost stories to complex theological resurrection stories.  Within the Christian mythos, the ultimate aim of a life of sin and separation is to achieve redemption, thus ending a life of separation and entering that pre-Fall state of complete at-oneness.  To quote the words of an old hymn I heard my father sing as a child: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Thus, “Escape from Spiderhead” ends with an experience of the ultimate escape from our fallen state:

“From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward.  I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”

In my opinion, from the perspective of the concept on which I think Saunders’ story is based, Jeff’s ascension into the afterlife of at-oneness, is not only believable, it is inevitable.

Thanks again to Keith Hood for his “Puzzle the Prof” challenge. I do not pose my explanation of the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” as the only answer to his query—merely as my attempt to solve a narrative puzzle.

More "Puzzle the Prof" challenges in a couple of days.