Thursday, February 27, 2014

New York Times Notables: Aimee Bender's COLOR MASTER and Ramona Ausubel's A GUIDE TO BEING BORN: Concept Stories

I always check The New York Times Notable Books list each year, because, you know, being in New York, where all the publishers are, they are supposed to know what they're doing.  On their Fiction list this year, they chose only five collections of short stories. (By the way, speaking of New York:  I am currently reading MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, which contains pieces about the "two centers of gravity of American fiction," by writers, critics, students, and profs.  I will make some comments on it in March).
Of course, George Saunders' Tenth of December was a NYT Notable, for it was everywhere this past year.  Like everyone else, I admired the collection and wrote a couple of blogs on it when it first came out.  It was chosen for NPR's Best list (along with Karen Russell's  Vampires in a Lemon Grove, on which I also commented in an earlier post),  Both these books were chosen by The Huffington Post and Tenth of December  was chosen by The Washington Post and The Daily Beast and made the shortlist for The Story Prize and a whole basketful of other prizes.  Such publicity, like that surrounding Alice Munro's Nobel Prize win, is good for the often neglected short story.
Also chosen by The New York Times was Jamie Quatro's  I Want to Show You More, on which I commented on April 22, just after it came out (I did not particularly like it); and the collection of long stories, Dirty Love, by Andrew Dubus III, which I definitely did not like (You can see my comments on a January 19, 2014 post, if you are of a mind).
I just finished reading the two collections on the NYT Notable list I missed when they first came out—Aimee Bender's The Color Master and Ramona Ausubel's A Guide to Being Born-- entertaining but definitely underwhelming in my opinion.
As usual, after I finished  reading the books, I surveyed the reviews, primarily those in print, but also some on line.  I was once questioned about how dare I write a review after having read other reviews.  My answer was:  It has never been my intention on this blog to write reviews of books, but rather to discuss issues relevant to reading and studying short stories; often such issues arise from checking what other commentators have said about short stories. I try to follow the advice I always gave my students: Do your research; see what other folks think before you develop your own thoughts; you may just be repeating what has already been well expressed.
Although I often try to give my readers some idea of what collections I read are like overall, I don't think a series of summaries are of much value. I prefer to focus on only one or two stories contained therein—usually my favorite (for I prefer to talk about stories I like rather than stories I do not, unless, of course, they illustrate an important short story issue) and to discuss the issues the stories raise in a bit more depth than newspaper  reviewers usually do.
Aimee Bender's new collection got more reviews--practically all of them favorable—than Ramona Ausubel did.  But then, Bender has been around a bit longer and published more books than Ausubel, including two previous collections of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures; this is Ausubel's first collection of stories, although her novel No One Is Here Except Us got good notices when it came out.
Bender's stories are primarily "concept" stories; that is, they are based on a kind of "what if" premise; for example, what if a woman agrees to have sex with her husband only if he pays her for it; what if a woman asked two male friends to have sex for her viewing pleasure?  Many of the Bender stories are whimsical, clever, and, it seems to me, inconsequential—savagely sweet, but basically just empty calories. I have no objections to such stories; I often enjoy them, but like other sugary products, a little goes a long way, and too much might make you feel bloated. Everything depends on the cunning originality of the concept of the story and the controlled cleverness of the writing.  Bender is both cunning and clever.
However, the two most interesting stories in the collection are based on concepts that Bender did not create, but that she got from a previous bit of artifice. "Tiger Mending" is a narrative version of a painting by artist Amy Cutler, and the title story—the most talked-about story in the collection—is based on Perrault's seventeenth-century fairy tale, "Donkeyskin."
Bender is often placed in a category of writers who have mastered—in one degree or another—the fabulist or fantasy story—e.g. the omnipresent George Saunders, the more profound (in my opinion) Steven Millhauser, the deeply darker Angela Carter, the often brilliant Italo Calvino, and the up-and-coming Karen Russell. Most of Bender's stories, to my mind, are less complex and less thought-provoking than those of Calvino, Carter, Saunders, and Millhauser.
The Perrault fairy tale on which Bender's title story is based, "Donkeyskin," can be googled online, if you want to read what inspired Bender to write this story. The story is about a king who owns a donkey that poops gold coins. When the queen is dying, she makes her husband promise that when she is gone he will marry a woman wiser and more beautiful than she is. Of course, the only woman in the kingdom who fits that description is the king's daughter.
The Princess's fairy godmother advises the distraught daughter to agree to the King's proposal of marriage only if he can fill various seemingly impossible requests: The first is a dress the color of the sky, which he fulfills; the second is a dress the color of the moon, which he fulfills.  The third is the skin of the prized gold-producing donkey, which he also fulfills. The fairy godmother then advises her to disguise herself in the donkey skin and run away to a far country, which she does.  But she is so repulsive looking no one will give her shelter or work. In this new country there is a young prince who happens to see her wearing her dress the color of the sky.  He falls so in love with her that he sinks into a deadly melancholy, insisting that the donkeyskin girl make him a cake with her own hands.  Her ring falls into the batter and when the Prince finds it, he institutes a search for who the ring will fit.
 Of course, in Cinderella fashion, all works out as we would wish and they live happily ever after.   The moral is, " It is better to undergo the greatest hardships rather than to fail in one's duty, that virtue may sometimes seem ill fated, but will always triumph in the end."
Bender combines the medieval milieu of the original fairytale with a modern era in which the narrator works in a fancy store that is "Ex-Pen-Sive." The story begins with a Duke who requests a pair of shoes the color of rock so that when he walks on rocks, it will seem that he is floating. The workers in the shop attend modern-sounding "visualization seminars" where they try to imagine what it was like to be a rock, and finally summon the Color Master for help by sending, in medieval fashion, a goat to fetch her.
The Color Master has the special ability to see the world in a thousand times more detail than others.  When she sees a tomato, for example, she sees blues and browns and curves and indentations, shadow and light--not just a pleasant looking fruit.  She develops a color for the shoes that makes the narrator feel the original mountain from whence the colors came in the room; she shoes looks like the rocks themselves.
Later, the king requests a dress the color of the moon, as in the original Perrault tale, but the Color Master is ill, dying she says, and the task falls to the narrator.  With her workers, she engages in a creative-writing exercise (ala U. of Iowa Workshop) about their first memory of the moon and how it affected them.  The Color Master advises the narrator that she should make sure to put anger in the dress color because the king wants to marry his own daughter; however, she forgets to do so.
The king next asks for a dress the color of the sun; again the Color Master who is getting weaker, tells her to put righteous anger into the color of the dress.  Again, she neglects to do so.  It is with the request for the third dress, the color of the sky, that the narrator understands that the Color Master wants anger in the color of the dress, not for any cultural taboo reasons or for any biological risk, but rather for a logic the Color Master states forthrightly: "You birth someone. And then you release her.  You do not marry her, which is a bringing back in.  You let her go." 
When the Color Master dies, the narrator finds her true anger at the injustice of her loss, and she wants to shake her fists at the heavens: "We shake our fists at the big blue beautiful indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge."  Of course, the narrator becomes the new Color Master, and the Princess escapes her father's demands.
Karen Ausubel is also often placed in a category of writers given to fabulism and fantasy, e.g. Lydia Davis, Kevin Brockmeier, and Steven Millhauser, although she is not, to my mind, as mind-bending as they are.  Like Bender's stories, the pieces in A Guide to Being Born are concept stories.  What if people grew a new hand (the better to touch you with, my dear) whenever they fell in love with someone?  What if the concept of a "chest of drawers" were literalized to the extent that a soon-to-be father, who by his own biology cannot give birth, grows drawers in his chest into which he places tiny toy babies to compensate for his essential emptiness? What if a woman who has been raped by a stranger fantasizes giving birth to various nonhuman creatures, including a giraffe? Ouch!
The most emotionally complex story, it seems to me, is the opening story "Safe Passage." It is a curious choice for the introductory story, for in its fantasy concept—a bunch of grandmothers on a sort of purgatorial ship headed toward whatever lies ahead when one dies—is so disorienting that one might be tempted to read no farther, or at least skip ahead to more easily grasped concepts, of which there are several.
"Safe Passage" opens with these sentences: "The grandmothers—dozens of them--find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there."  Of course, to be "at sea" is an idiom for being lost, and the grandmothers are indeed lost, in the ultimate sense, for they are in a seemingly in-between state, asking "are we dead? Are we dying?" Why this state of being is objectified as being on a freighter is not quite clear, except for the fact that Alice and her second husband once traveled by freighter. The central character, Alice, remembers a hospital room with beeping machines behind her.  Much of the story describes the general state of being grandmothers, e.g. living alone, watching television all day, eating frozen dinners, etc.
The story seems to suggest that all that is happening is a pre-death dream or fantasy of Alice, as she recalls her past two husbands  and fantasizes about the lives of women her age who are also nearing death.  However, a great deal goes on in the fantasy that does not seem to be unified around a central theme or concept about death in general or Alice in particular.  When Alice lowers herself into the water by a rope ladder she has made, she wonders whether her two husbands will be hers again. As the ship moves away from her, she floats on her back, dives into the water and flips back again, in elegant gestures that seem to signify her letting go of life.  The final image is of her throwing her arms wide in a "ta-da" position, and the water flying off her arms in a great "celebration of sparks."
I like  Bender's "Color Master" and Ausubel's "Safe Passage" because they are more ambitious in intention and execution than the more trivial stories, played mainly for cleverness, in these two collections.  However, I am never quite sure of the integrity of the theme of "Color Master," for the anger the Color Master feels about the king's demands on his daughter do not seem to be grounded in anything more profound than, "you just don't do that."  And the grandmother's fantasy about being on a freighter, which is at the heart of the Ausubel story, does not seem grounded in anything intrinsic to the kind of experience the grandmother imagines she is having.
In short, a "concept" story by its very nature, depends on the significance of the concept explored; it seems to me that neither of these stories seems unified successfully around a coherent and profound mystery of human experience.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Andrea Barrett's "The Ether of Space" in ARCHANGEL: Fiction Vs. Nonfiction

If short story collections often play second fiddle to novels, then pity the poor novel, which must play second fiddle to nonfiction.  A quick check of books sales make it quite evident that more people buy nonfiction than fiction books.  And the recent adoption in many states of the so-called Common Core, which insists on students reading more nonfiction and less fiction, seems to reinforce the widespread assumption that no real knowledge can come from reading something someone has made up.

I would argue that the common cause of the Common Core attitude toward fiction is due to a general misunderstanding about how to read "literary" fiction--which the short story is more apt to illustrate than the novel—and a general underestimation of the human value of reading literary fiction.

A recent study by David Comer Kid and Emanuele Castano in Science (vol. 342-18 Oct. 2013), which got a bit of publicity in the popular press, concludes that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests that reflect folks' ability to understand other people's mental and emotional states than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

I plan to talk more about this study next month, using the stories of Alice Munro, as examples of literary stories, in order to make some suggestions as to why reading "literary" stories might improve one's ability to identify and understand the subjective states of others, while reading popular stories and nonfiction--not so much..

The general preference for nonfiction might suggest that if writers of fiction create stories that make use of or communicate the kinds of ideas that we often encounter in nonfiction, e.g. science, history, sociology, readers might find those stories more appealing. Is it any wonder that some short story artists, finding themselves at least three seats down the row in the string section playing third fiddle, might make themselves more popular by incorporating nonfiction in their stories. Jim Shepard is one of the best-known such writers.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”

I have already talked about this issue in an earlier post on Shepard and his colleague Andrea Barrett, expressing my reluctance to believe that one of the real values of "Big, Two-Hearted River" is to learn about how to catch fish, even as I expressed my admiration for the stories of Andrea Barrett. Barrett, who has published some well-received novels, as well as three collections of short stories. Her most recent collection, Archangel has made the shortlist for the Story Prize this year, and once again, as in her two earlier collections, she integrates history and science into her fiction.

Uncertain about a chosen career, Andrea Barrett was in and out of graduate school in the late 1970's and early 1980's, doing advanced study first in zoology and then in medieval and reformation history.  She held a number of  jobs--receptionist, billing clerk, customer server representative, greenhouse technician, clerk, secretary, and research assistant; in the late 1980's, she did free-lance medical editing, book reviewing, and teaching.   She has said she learned a great deal of biology and medicine from several of these jobs, which she has used in her fiction. 

Barrett has said that she shifted from science to writing because she realized while in graduate school that what she had was a passion for the passion of science; she says that it took her many years to realize that what she mistook for her own obsession with science was, in fact, other people's obsessions. Andrea Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.  The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.

Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett seems equally interested is in the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse.  Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: they involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present.  All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

The title story of her second collection, Servants of the Map, is a carefully constructed novella about a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Max Vigne discovers the power of writing to construct reality and thus the ability to go beyond mapping and recording to actually “seeing,” thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind.

Barrett’s conviction of the basic similarities between science, history and storytelling is based on her conviction that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.

As she did in Servants of the Map, Barrett has created some links between stories in her new collection Archangel.  A young boy named Constantine or Stan, who appears in the first story "The Investigators," later shows up in the final story as a World War I soldier.  And a middle-aged woman named Henrietta Atkins, who influences Stan in "The Investigators" later appears as a young woman in "The Island." Finally, a young boy named Sam, who appears in "The Ether of Space," later shows up as a central character in the story "The Particles."  I am no real fan of such inter-story connections, for I think they are often promoted as quasi-novels, shifting focus from the integrity of individual stories to novelistic connections. Thankfully, Barrett does not push this linked-story device; each story stands fully on its own.

Rather than summarize the five stories—which deal with such facts of history and science as Darwinism, genetics, manned air flight, and x-ray technology—I will talk a bit about my favorite story in the collection, "The Ether of Space."  Most reviewers favor "The Particles" (chosen for this year's O. Henry Award Stories), which deals with genetics, or "The Island," which deals with the still-controversial issue of Darwinism vs. creationism, as propounded by naturalist Louis Agassiz.  I suspect that those two stories are reviewer favorites precisely because they focus more on what they like to call "hot-button" issues involving genetics, race, and religion than on individual human complexity and universal human themes. Stories that seem to focus primarily on current social issues are more appealing to readers who prefer nonfiction, for they deal with issues that nonfiction often makes its own.

I like "The Ether of Space" best primarily because it does not deal with a current "hot-button" social issue, but because I think it deals with the more general philosophic conflict between what human beings can know and what they yearn for, i.e., between what is and what is desired.

The story is set in 1920.  An American astrophysicist named Owen is intrigued by theories of Sir Oliver Lodge, who affirms the reality of the ether as a means by which the living can communicate with the dead.  The other central character is Phoebe, a writer of popular science books, whose husband Michael, an astronomer, died ten years previous.  The conflict within her is between her scientific acceptance of Einstein's theories and her human desire to believe the opposing  theories of Lodge.  She and Owen correspond by mail, and she challenges his tentative acceptance of Lodge's theories.

Phoebe goes to a lecture Lodge gives on "The Reality of the Unseen,"  in which he argues that there are things known to be real, even though no one can see them, for example atoms, radio waves, radar, etc. He also talks about the reality of mental events, such as thoughts and feelings, and from these analogies, he posits that the human personality exists after death in a form invisible, but which makes communication after death possible.  He says the dead are only separated from us by a "veil of sense" and that the senses have been developed through necessity for the physical survival of the fittest.  He argues that the space that separates us, one from the other, is not empty, that indeed we connected by it and communicate through it.  Lodge is interested in "imponderables," "things that work secretly and have to be apprehended mentally," such as electricity and magnetism.  Since Phoebe knows that Einstein is only "possibly" right, Lodge is "possibly" not wrong—at least about the ether, although she thinks he is utterly wrong about spirits of the dead that exist in the ether.

A reporter in  a newspaper article about Lodge calls him a "typical Victorian," in the tradition of Darwin and Huxley, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson and who "appreciates the poet's wonderment in those days at the marvels of science."

Lodge argues that the ether is the most substantial thing in the universe and that we have failed to discern it for so long precisely because it is so universal.  He offers the example that if we were fish surrounded by water, with no sense of anything but water, water would be the last thing we would discover. He argues that although we cannot apprehend the ether as we do matter by touching or smelling it, we move through it without any friction whatsoever.  He claims that a body can only act on another body through a medium of communication. "Always look for the medium of communication," says Lodge. "You cannot act at a distance without some means of communication; and yet you can certainly act where you are not, as when by a letter or telegram you bring a friend home."  He insists the ether of space is, in the material world, the "fundamental substantial reality," claiming that the whole problem with Einstein's relativity theory is that it rejects the ether as our standard of reference and replaces it by the observer, that is, instead of claiming the potential connection of all human kind, asserts the isolation of the individual and all reality as relative.

Phoebe struggles with the implications of Lodge's theories: "The ether was a home for ethereal beings, the medium by which soul spoke to soul; perhaps God lived there: perhaps it was God himself."  What torments her is the possibility that if Lodge is right, her husband has been within her reach all the time and she could have been talking to him.

Owen writes her and asks if she has fallen into the old trap "of trying to make, from the symbols we use to reason about reality, pictures we can view in our minds?"  He reminds her that we make "models" because they help us think.  She thinks that although she has lost Michael and is at a loss with Sam, "on the page she could make an object that was shapely, and orderly, and on occasion helpful to others."  (This is what Barrett's story tries to do--create an orderly, patterned fiction that help us think about what it means to be a human being in the world).

The heart of the story comes near the end when Phoebe reads what her son Sam has written about his father Michael and the theories of Lodge: "I don't know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart.  What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings."  As Phoebe  listens to her father playing Bach while she and Sam and her mother read, she knows that "space between her and her family wasn't empty at all but held light and music, feelings and thoughts, and a bond that could be stretched without breaking." And indeed, whether she denies Lodge's theories about the ether, she recognizes something that connections all human beings—the music of Bach, for example, something that Carl Jung called  Synchronicity—an underlying pattern or connection between things.

Lodge, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson, theorizes a reality that might best be described as "aesthetic," a theory that may not correspond to external physical reality, but that holds together in a beautiful "wish," like a myth or a metaphor.  It may be "wrong," but it may reveal more about human complexity than what is "right." As William H. Gass says, the core of creativity lies in metaphor, in model-making.

Walker Percy talks about this in his  essay "Metaphor as Mistake" in The Message in the Bottle.
He opens with an example about a coin-operated juke box manufactured by Seeburg Co., which, in the South, was often called "seabird." He says this reveals a feature of metaphor that has always troubled philosophers—that it is wrong; that it asserts of one thing that it is something else.  But Percy argues that in conceiving of the juke box under the "wrong" symbol "seabird," rather than the "correct" description "Seeburg," we know the object better, "conceive it in a more plenary fashion, have more immediate access to it, than under its descriptive title."

Percy also gives the example of a boy who calls a "blue darter hawk" by the mistaken name "blue dollar hawk" because the bird's flight suggests some "incommunicable something," which Gerard Manley Hopkins called "inscape." He says the situation of the boy is like that which philosopher Ernst Cassier calls the "mythico-religious Urphenomenon," in which primitive man comes upon something so distinctive that it seems to have a presence, which gives rise to the "momentary deity," a sense of the unformulated presence of the thing; "the metaphor arises from the symbolic act in which the emotional cry of the beholder becomes the vehicle by which the thing is conceived, the name of the thing."

Or as Andrea Barrett's character Sam says, the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.   Several chapters in my book, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies deal with Cassirer's theories and how they illuminate the means by great short stories make possible human understanding and empathy with other human beings.

I plan to talk more about what is called Theory of Mind and how reading literary fiction improves understanding other's mental states during March and April, as I prepare for a keynote presentation I will be making in May at the Canadian Literature Symposium in Ottawa on Alice Munro.  You can take a look at the program at

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant

Lovers of the short story are mourning the death today of Mavis Gallant, one of the finest perfectionists of that delicate art form. I post in her honor the following comments on her 1996 book, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

Mavis Gallant began her life-long association with The New Yorker in 1950 rather insecurely.  As she tells the story, she procured the services of an agent in America because she knew she was going to be traveling around in Europe and sent him several stories, all of which he said he was unable to place.  It was only when she was destitute in Madrid in 1952 that she happened to see a copy of The New Yorker with one of her stories in it. She contacted the magazine and found out that her agent did sell the stories to The New Yorker and other magazines, giving out a fictitious address for her in Europe, and kept the money. Gallant has said that the feeling of dismay she experienced when she believed every story she sent was a dead failure never really left her.  Editor William Maxwell signed Gallant to a “first refusal” contract, and she subsequently published well over a hundred stories in The New Yorker, about half of which were published in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant in 1996.

In the Preface to her Collected Stories, Mavis Gallant insists, quite rightly, that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along.  Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant's stories one after another;  even though the plots and characters change, they change only slightly, and the rhythm of the prose is fairly consistent throughout this volume.

An example can be seen in two stories that focus on the same characters, "Speck's Idea" and "Overhead in a Balloon."  The first focuses on Sandor Speck, who runs an art gallery in Paris.  As are most art fanciers in Gallant's stories, Speck is more interested in artistic reputations than in artist merit.  The plot concerns his ineffectual efforts to revive interest in a forgotten artist so that he can profit by a renewed interest in his gallery.  However, in this comic satiric story that reads much like minor Henry James, Speck, after much wrangling with the artist's widow for a number of his canvases, fails to bring off his artistic/commercial coup. 

"Overhead in a Balloon," the title story of one of Gallant's collections, centers on Speck's assistant Walter.  Speck never appears in the story but is unflatteringly referred to throughout by Walter as "trout face"; the character Walter is so similar to Speck that with a name change they would be relatively indistinguishable.  Like his boss, Walter is also made the ineffectual victim of an artist who, like Walter and Speck, is more concerned with the practical matters of establishing reputation than he is interested in the integrity of art.

Four interrelated stories focus on Henri Grippes, a Parisian novelist, diarist, and critic, who, like Speck and Walter, lives on the fringes of the artistic life, and who focuses his attention on making a name for himself by capitalizing on the rising and falling stock of various literary and artistic fashions.  In "A Painful Affair," Grippes is passed over to speak at the commemoration ceremony for a wealthy patron of the arts by a man that Grippes feels is only a minor critic and thinker.

 "A Flying Start" moves back in time to the story of how the lesser critic  courted the favor of the benefactress and thus edged Grippes out of his moment of fame.  The theme of changing fashions of what constitutes art and therefore what establishes fame is emphasized throughout the story by a sort of running gag about a planned dictionary of literary biography that over the years is constantly altered because of changes in literary taste and thus is never produced.  In "Grippes and Poche" Grippes fights a continual battle with a tax auditor who, because he is an admirer, saves Grippes from financial harm; finally in "In Plain Sight" Grippes, grown old and crotchety, ironically complains about the increasing commercialization of the arty area of Paris where he has lived for so many years.   These stories reflect a representative side of Gallant's work--her skill at creating comic satire about the artistic life--which partially explains why she is often referred to as a writer's writer.

A series of four interrelated stories follows the life of a man, Edouard, B. who, having married an older Jewish-born actress during World War II so she would not be captured by the Nazis, finds that, although he has never lived with her, he remains somehow responsible for her.  Like many other male characters in the Gallant gallery, Edouard finds himself trapped by past romantic ideals.  "A Recollection" recounts the story of the marriage and the couple's journey to safety in the south of France where they part company.  The second story, "The Colonel's Child," deals with Edouard's meeting his second wife, Juliette; the third one, "Rue de Lillie," focuses on Juliette, who sees through to Edouard's first marriage with the actress Magdalena, as if they were characters in a fiction, albeit a fiction in which she too in entangled.  The final story, "Lena," centers on a meeting  between Magdalena and Edouard when they are eighty and sixty-five respectively, both still bound together by an idealistic gesture many years in the past.

Another significant series of four interrelated stories focus on the Carette family.  The first, "1933," introduces Mme. Carette and her two daughters, Berthe and  Marie, shortly after the death of her husband has plunged them into genteel poverty.  The strict social conventions of the Montreal middle-class Carette family is most clearly reflected by the mother's insistence that the children never refer to her as a seamstress, but must say instead, "My mother was clever with her hands." 

"The Chosen Husband" centers on the family in 1949 after Mme. Carette's receipt of a legacy of eighteen thousand dollars from a brother-in-law makes it possible for the daughters, now in their early twenties to marry.  The plot of the story revolves around Marie's courtship with Louis Driscoll, which provides an occasion for social satire in the Henry James/Jane Austen fashion.  For example, when Driscoll makes his first call and gets choked on one of his own chocolates, Gallant describes it delicately as, "He was in trouble with a caramel," and the Carettes look away so that the young man can "strangle unobserved." 

The last two stories of the Carette family, "From Cloud to Cloud" and "Florida," jump many years ahead to focus on Marie's son Raymond when he enlists in the American army during the Vietnam war and then later when he settles in Florida and marries a rather common (by old Montreal social standards) young divorcee.  The story ends with Raymond storming out after a minor quarrel, leaving his mother and his pregnant wife once again without a man in the house, thus bringing the saga full circle.

Although Gallant is not a popular writer widely enough read to make any one of her stories well-known (She is seldom anthologized in the ubiquitous literature anthologies that keeps short stories alive for undergraduate and graduate students, nor are her stories chosen for the highly visible Best American Short Stories  or O. Henry Award Stories  collections.), some of the strongest and most memorable works in The Collected Stories are the title stories of some of her earlier anthologies, such as "The Pegnitz Junction" and "Across the Bridge."

The first, the longest story in The Collected Stories, focuses on a young woman who becomes involved with an older man (not an unusual situation in a Gallant story) who is divorced and has custody of his young son.  The story follows the threesome on a holiday trip that becomes a minor nightmare when, because of an airline shutdown, they must return home on a train that winds its way slowly and tortuously through the European landscape as the young woman tries to cope with a spoiled child and a man who cannot evenly divide his time and attention between his son and his lover.  The title of the story, of course, refers to an important junction in the relationship of the three people.

"Across the Bridge" also has a metaphoric title.  The bridge is at first merely a physical presence, for the story begins with the narrator Sylvie walking across a bridge in Paris with her mother who has the invitations to her wedding in a leather shopping bag.  When Sylvie tells her mother she has her heart set on another young man, saying she has thoughts of throwing her self off the bridge if she is forced to marry the family choice instead of the man she loves, her mother dumps the invitations off the bridge into the water.  The story develops in typical drawing-room comedy fashion with Sylvie falling in love with her family's original choice after all.  It ends in romantic poignancy as Sylvie takes the long way home after seeing her fiancee board his train, for she thinks it unfair to arrive home before he does.  She says she will never tell anyone about this, that it will remain a small and insignificant secret that belongs to the "true life" she is almost ready to enter. This is the bridge crossing reflected by the title of the story; it is a significant metaphor for many of Gallant's stories, for often small and seemingly insignificant secrets are what give her fiction its life.

The stories of Mavis Gallant may be an acquired taste--delicate constructions that seem to be artless vignettes rather than carefully patterned stories.  Gallant's characters do not seem significant in the large scheme of things, but as Gallant says in one of her essays, no life is more interesting than any other; what really matters is what is revealed and how.

Mavis Gallant, one of the truly great short-story writers, has died

Like her Canadian colleague Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant has always placed her primary literary allegiance with the often-unappreciated short story form.  In her Preface to the Collected Stories  Gallant insists that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along.  Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant's stories one after another, for, with their careful and precise style, they demand close reading.

Mavis Gallant is one of those authors often referred to as "a writer's writer,” a title suggesting someone whose writing is so polished that it is best appreciated by other authors; on the other hand, it often suggests someone who is seldom read by anyone else but other writers.  She is not widely enough read to make any one of her stories well known.  Gallant's stories are often irresolute and seemingly plotless. 

When she was writing a weekly column about radio for the Montreal Standard newspaper in the late 1940's, she once described one writer's plays as being unlike the usual radio play because they did not come to a traditional fictional climax, defending this practice by arguing that real problems do not always resolve themselves in tidy ways and that if stories seem incomplete, that is because they are true.  However, in spite of this seeming allegiance to the relatively ragged nature of reality rather than to the neat patterns of art, Gallant claims in one of her essays that style is intentional and inseparable from structure.  And indeed, all of Gallant's stories reflect this apparent paradox.  Whereas they seem relatively artless, simple sketches of minor characters caught in impasses of their own making, they are carefully crafted and highly stylized structures of rigid social patterns. 

Although Gallant has been compared to Henry James and Anton Chekhov, she is probably more related to Jane Austen.  As a result, she poses a problem for readers expecting stories that seem to have a clear point, a metaphoric texture, or a sense of closure.  Rather, Gallant's stories seem to be so forthrightly focused on the everyday lives of her characters that there is little to say about them.  They certainly do not appear to need interpretation, the only mystery about them being the mystery of what they are about. 

However, this seeming simplicity of Gallant’s writing is an illusion, for her stories are carefully structured, highly stylized creations of character interrelationships.  In one of her better known essays, "What is Style?" collected in the anthology Paris Notebooks (1986), Gallant claims that style is intentional and inseparable from structure; it is part of whatever the writer has to say, she claims, concluding--as Henry James might well have--that content, meaning, intention, and form make up a unified whole that must have a reason to be. 

Of course, both James and Chekhov were also accused of presenting little slices of life or huge chunks of verbiage that were really little to do about not very much.  However, Gallant's stories do not have James's convoluted syntax, reflecting the complexity of his characters’ minds; nor do they seem to have Chekhov's calculated conciseness, suggesting that more is left out than put in.  In fact, Gallant's characters don't seem very complex at all, at least self-consciously, and Gallant appears to say everything that needs to be said about them.

Instead of moving toward some explicit or implicit patterned intention, as readers have come to expect in the modern short story form, Gallant's stories seem as if they could go on and on, creating a novelistic "feel" that violates the reader's usual expectation that short stories will meaningfully lead somewhere.  Trying to find out where the meaning lies or how meaning is communicated in a Gallant story is not so much challenging as apparently beside the point.  Careful readers get so caught up in the creation of character and milieu that they do not care what the story means; inattentive readers may tire of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the story and just stop reading.

Like Jane Austen, Gallant presents characters within a circumscribed social world going about their usual manners and morals business without obvious conflict, analytical self-doubt, or troublesome introspection.  The comedy of manners that results is a form that seems usually too leisurely and too detailed for the relatively short space of the short story.  For example, the stories of the Carettes, because they focus on significant points in the life of one Montreal family, are typical of the novelistic tendency of Gallant's technique. 

However, upon reading the stories carefully, one soon realizes that if Gallant had put together enough stories about this same family to fill a book, the result would still have been a collection of short stories rather than a novel.  The reason for this distinction between novel and short story derives from Gallant's selectivity of focus and detail as well as her ironic style.  On closer analysis, the reader begins to realize that her stories are not quite as realistically inconsequential as they first appear.

Gallant has described her method of getting something on paper as a painfully precise play with the language.  In discussing her "outrageous slowness," Gallant says that she sometimes puts aside parts of a story for months, even years.  The story is finished when it seems to tally with a plan she has in mind but cannot describe, or when she believes that it cannot be written satisfactorily any other way.  It is precisely this kind of care for the individual word and sentence that has lead to Mavis Gallant often being referred to as "a writer's writer."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rebecca Lee's "The Banks of the Vistula" in BOBCAT

One of the many differences between short stories and novels is that often I read a short story that I really like but am not quite sure why I like it.  When I read a novel that I like, its very length usually provides enough development, explanation, sense of reality, and as-if-real characters to make me confident I can explain what I like about the book. Short stories, by their brevity, often seem to be elliptical, cryptic, laconic, lyrical, suggestive, and so mysteriously unreal that I might respond positively to the story, but not really be sure why.
I have been reading Rebecca Lee's collection of stories, Bobcat (shortlisted for the 2014 Story Prize) for the past couple of weeks and, although I like the stories, I am feeling pressed to explain why. It appears that several reviewers have had the same reaction.  Janet Maslin in her New York Times review calls the book "mesmerizingly strange."  She says the collection is "full of shivers and frissons, some surpassingly strange." Maslin seems primarily to be responding to Lee's metaphors. For example, when the plagiarist college student in "The Banks of the Vistula" decides to confess to her professor, she says in her narration, "I had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion."  Maslin calls this the kind of "eccentric eloquence" that makes Lee's stories "potent and unpredictable."  She refers to these metaphors as having a "mysterious beauty."

Robin Romm says in her New York Times review that she could spend the entire review pulling "beautiful lines" out of Lee's "textured and nuanced" collection, adding that the book has so many good passages that "any linguaphile could spend a great afternoon in a little spasm of dazzle."  However, Romm tries to go further than expressing her admiration of Lee's language. She recognizes that many of Lee's stories do their best work deeper down, as in the way " The Banks of the Vistula" ties together its parts," noting that the plagiarized book is about language, and that the girl begins to see "profundity" everywhere, e.g. birds that "look like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins…straining against the requirements of such a physical world."  The girl's former disregard for the power of words is transformed into awe, says Romm.

Romm's reaction sounds similar to mine, but she does not have the space or time in her short review to explore and explain her reaction in any detail.  Since I have world enough and time and owe no allegiance to the limitations of a newspaper review space, I will make an effort to explain why I think Romm and I like the story and why we suspect that its best work is "deeper down" than mere plot, or character, or even "beautiful lines."

The first thing we notice about the first-person narrator of "Vistula" is her language, which seems self-consciously pushed, even a bit sophomoric, yet still intriguing and otherworldly.  In the first sentence, she says it is dusk and the campus had "turned to velvet." Ambiguously, she says, "I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the books of Psalms." Although we know she is talking about walking toward a building named Humanities, the notion of walking toward Humanities suggests thematic significance that we suspect the story will explore.

When she walks into her professor's office, she sees him framed in the window (the first of several such window-framed images); behind his head is the college, looking like a "rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose."  The transformation of objects into thought, or looking at objects that seem to stand for thought is, like the picture framing metaphors, another repeated motif in the story.

Where did this young woman get this language?  What is the time span between the actions of the story and her narration of the story?  At the time of the events of the story she is only in her third week of college.  We do not know the time of her telling this story, and the only events we know of in between these two periods of time are the events in this story. So, Robin Romm is I think, correct in inferring that it is the events of this story that has transformed her use of language, enabling her to tell it the way she does.

The professor, whose name is Stasselova, teaches a course entitled "Speaking in Tongues:  Introductory Linguistics." The course title is a reference to sacred language, whereby one is touched by the Holy Spirit to speak in a language that is unknown to the person speaking it.  And indeed, the sacred or magic nature of language seems a significant theme in the story.  When the young woman leaves the professor's office, out the window she can see the edge of the sun falling down off the hill on which the campus was built.  "I'd never seen the sun from this angle before, from above as it fell, as it so obviously lit up another part of the world, perhaps even flaming up the sights of Stasselova's precious, oppressed Poland, its dark contested forests and burning cities, its dream and violent borders."   The image suggests another important theme in the story—the relationship or connection between separate people and separate cultures.

In class, Stasselova lectures that the reason for the sentence is to express the verb—"a change, a desire.  But the verb cannot stand alone; it needs to be supported, to be realized by a body, and thus the noun—just as the soul in its trajectory through life needs to be comforted by the body."  The power of the sentence, he says, is that it acts out the drama of control and subversion.  "The noun always stands for what is, the status quo, and the verb for what might be, the ideal." Once again, we hear the theme of the relationship between body and spirit, between things and desire.

When the young woman burns the book to hide her plagiarism and throws it into the water, she recalls that in one of its "luminous chapters," she had read that the ability to use language and the ability to tame fire came from the "same warm, shimmering pool of genes, since in nature they did not appear one without the other."  When she leaves the ravine, she hears hundreds of birds alighting from the elms.  "They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world."  Ideas, not objects; that is, verbs, not nouns constitute what is truly human, although obviously ideas and verbs cannot exist without the support of objects and nouns. The former seems frail and must be supported by the latter; however, it is actually the latter that is meaningless without the former.

When the young woman and her roommate Solveig go to Stasselova's office, the light still lingers outside the windows "like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy." And indeed, the story does seem to exist in a realm somehow elevated above the mere world of everyday reality—a world governed by the power of language, a world of artifice—shimmering with significance.

The theme of the connection between different people and different cultures is emphasized when in Stasselova's office, she asks if she can have some of "this" cream for her coffee. He calls to her attention her little verbal tic of drawing a  line between things she considers "this" and things she considers "that—a perimeter of her sphere of intimacy—telling her he is flattered that she considers him within her sphere.  Once again she looks out the window beyond his head and sees the campus as if it were an hallucination be, "like some shadow world looming back there in his unconscious."

When she and Stasselova go to pick up her roommate at a party, Stasselova walks toward her with drinks, and behind him the picture window "revealed a nearly black sky, with pretty crystalline stars around.  He looked like a dream one might have in childhood."

When she reads her paper to prepare for her  presentation, she realizes that "almost miraculously" she had crossed an invisible line beyond which people turn into actual readers, when they start to hear the voice of the writer as clearly as in in a conversation." She begins to realize the significance of what the propagandist author from which she has plagiarized says about language, in which the language fortifies itself, "becoming a stronghold—a fixed, unchanging system, a moral framework."

When she goes to Stasselova, she realizes that he can see in her all his failed ideals, "the ugliness of his former beliefs."  He has found in her someone he might oppose and thus absolve himself.  She sees behind his head the sunset in which the sun does not seem to be falling but rather receding farther and farther.
She now knows the "murderous innocence" of the book she copied from.  Inside the lecture hall where she is to read her paper, the windows stretched to a full height so "that one could see the swell of earth on which Humanities was built."

When she finishes, she waits for Stasselova to confront her and reassert his innocence in opposition to her presentation, but he does not. Instead, he once again frames himself in front of the room's high windows to teach her a little lesson about the "importance of, the sweetness of," the sentence.  She thinks at that moment she did long for one true sentence of her own, "to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows."  The story ends with her looking out the window above Stasselova's head at the storm clouds which were dispersing, as if frightened by some impending goodwill, and I could see that the birds were out again, forming into that familiar pointy hieroglyph, as they're told to do from deep within."

It is not the foregrounded plot story, so easy to summarize, about  the ethical/moral issue of a young woman plagiarizing a college paper, or even the political moral issue of the professor's betraying his home country Poland by joining the Russian army, that makes this story seem so strange and nuanced, so textured and eccentric, as Janet Maslin and Robin Romm have suggested.  Nor is it merely the separate self-conscious metaphors that reviewers like to quote, as beguiling as they are.  Rather what makes the story such an intriguing and engaging story is the pattern of significance created by the repeated reference to the relationship between words and things, objects and ideas, nouns and verbs—indeed how language has the power to illuminate, to unify, to expose, to create.

The young woman's  increasing ability to identify with the complexity of her professor's past decisions, however misguided they might have been, and her increasing ability to transform mere events and objects into the stuff of human empathy and imagination, is made manifest by the very story she tells.  And by means of the imaginative world she creates, a result of the stuff of Humanities, her professor is transformed into a radiant image of the human mind in all its simultaneous power and frailty.

One can like the story without hypothesizing this complex pattern of thematic significance created by language.  However, it seems to me that making an effort to articulate this thematic complexity "makes speak" the mystery of the story's appeal.