Monday, December 22, 2014

Ghosts of my Past, or Why I Can't Write Short Stories

Christmas is always about the past. Ebenezer Scrooge's first and most poignant visit is with the ghost of Christmas Past.  And Truman Capote 's "Christmas Memory" begins with fruitcake weather when he was a child.
I indulge myself today and strain the patience of my readers by recalling a bit of my own past, primarily for folks who know me.  My occasional readers may, with my apologies, skip over it and get back to the serious stuff I try to write about the short story as a literary form.
I used to amaze and appall my students with stories about my childhood. While they sneaked tweets and texts on their i-phones, they  smiled that we did not have electricity in our house until I was twelve—and, of course, no running water, or natural gas, not to mention no indoor plumbing. Carrying the slop jar out to the toilet and gouging small chunks of coal out of a snow-covered frozen pile in the yard were two of my responsibilities.
Now that I am seventy-three, I recall that pre-adolescent era of my life with a kind of arrogant pride, especially when I watch my seventeen-year old grandson transfixed in front of his laptop, ear bud wires stringing down his cheeks, playing video games involving the kind of super heroes I used to read about in limp and ragged comic books that we swapped with cousins who lived on the other side of the railroad track a mile away.
I was the oldest of five children and helped my mother care for my two brothers and two sisters, spaced, between three and five years apart, from the time I was four. My father was a truck driver and was usually gone on runs up to Cincinnati, Ohio or down to Knoxville, Tennessee except on the weekends, which he spent listening to ball games on the battery-powered radio. By battery, I don’t mean those little marvels of compression that I have to constantly recharge, but rather a heavy pack of dry cells that could have been used to start a car.
I always mark the beginning of my life with a memory I never really had of my maternal grandfather and grandmother.
I see my grandmother sitting in a small shack stringing and breaking green beans into her aproned lap. Her tanned hands, although young, are already cracked and wrinkled from washing my grandfather's clothes in hard lye soap and hoeing in the garden. She breaks the beans quickly with a sharp snap and looks at her wedding day portrait on the wall.
I look at a black and white copy of that picture today on the wall behind my computer screen and remember it hanging above the bed of my grandfather's living room, the string of flowers draped across my grandmother's brimmed black hat tinted a faded rose. She stands straight and proud, her round face solemn above the high white collar of her blouse. Beside her, my grandfather stares straight into the camera with  coal-black eyes and a thin moustache. He was twenty six at the time; she was 21. Although only taken the year before, already the girl in the picture must have seemed distant to the woman looking at her. Her husband was down the road playing cards with men he worked with in the mines.
Years after my grandmother died, when my grandfather, paralyzed by a stroke, lay in bed in his small living room, I would stare at that picture with the fire light flickering on the faces and be afraid my grandmother's ghost haunted the house. When I was five, I had clutched my mother's dress in front of her open coffin  before the cold fireplace in the same room, the sickly sweetness of the flowers mixing with the musty odor of the house. And didn't my grandfather once tell us that he had heard her voice speaking to him from a large rock at the corner of the garden up on the hill? He never told us what she said.
She might have smiled looking down at the beans in a lap, made smaller by the child in her belly. Then she heard the shot. A sharp crack that made her jump and spill the broken beans. She must have known immediately that it was Jarvey, for she grabbed a kitchen knife and cut the newspaper backing off the picture, removing it from the frame and rolling it up with a ribbon. Then she got the cardboard suitcase from under the bed and placed the picture in it carefully, packing her stockings and cotton underwear around it. She was gathering the rest of their few pieces of clothing when, red- faced with drink, he came through the door. "I've shot a man," he said. "We have to get out of here."
My grandmother told this story to my mother many times, and she in turn told it to me—so often that it took on a mythical quality, and I filled in with my imagination details that my mother's sketchy version left out. I don't think my grandfather really killed that man, for the law never came after him. But he was capable of it. He was known as "Black Jarvey" when he was young, and it was said (another mythic story of my family) that Devil Anse Hatfield asked him to ride with him in that well-known feud that the History Channel and Kevin Costner have made more famous. He turned Hatfield down. But I know he used to carry a small black thirty-eight revolver that always tempted me from where it hung behind a picture of my great-grandparents by the fireplace mantle.
Avoiding the main road, they took off  through the woods on foot and headed north toward Eastern Kentucky, my mother said, where my grandfather knew a man who might let him do some sharecropping. Somewhere in the mountains, my grandmother gave birth to a premature boy, and, to my grandmother's everlasting sorrow, my grandfather left it in a shallow grave. They walked, I don't know how many days, until they came to a narrow valley along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in Johnson County, Kentucky, where, indeed, a man my grandfather knew did take him on as a sharecropper and gave him the use of a hillside above the river where he built a living room and bought a cast iron bed. It was in that bed that my mother, their last child, was born. And sixteen years later, it was there that my mother gave birth to me, her first.
The house, which is just south of Paintsville, Kentucky in an area called "The Nars," had a living room with a fireplace, a narrow windowless kitchen, a concrete-floored dining room, and two small bedrooms. The Nars, is, I learned at some point in my childhood,  a mispronunciation of the word "Narrows." It aptly describes a long, lean corridor created by Levisa Fork, bounded on both sides by hills so high that, depending on the season, the sun came up late and set early. Just above the river was the C&O railroad line. And just above that, in front of my grandfather's house, ran U.S. Highway 23.
By sharecropping, my grandfather earned a strip of land about sixty yards wide, extending vertically from the top of the hill to the edge of the river. There was very little of the steep rocky hillside he did not cultivate. "If you can't eat it," he would say, "I don't see no use planting it."
The two-mile strip known as the Nars was anchored on one end by Depot Hill, at the top of which a bootlegger named Peg Ward with a white pine 2x2 for a left leg lived and did business in a small tar-paper shack. On the other end was Dead Man's curve, a hairpin, where my father always said you could meet your own arse going around it. These were the points where, no matter where you stood in the Nars, your line of vision ended. There were only half a dozen modest houses in between.
Coming up U.S. 23 from town, after you passed Peg Ward's place, there was a quarter mile of sheer rock cliffs, where the road was so narrow that the big coal trucks nearly blew me off on to the railroad track below. Then came what was called "the breakdown" and the black-looking house of old Bob Rice and his wife Sallie. Bob was a drunk, and when he couldn't afford Peg's bootleg whiskey, he drank Mennen After Shave. The branch between his house and Papaw's was filled with the squat, green empty bottles.
Just past Papaw's place was the little house where I lived with my mother, father, two brothers, and a sister. Perched on a rock cliff just above and beyond us was the house of Charlie Ray Baker and his wife Nannie, a big woman my tiny mother almost had a fight with once, and their four children. Just past another stretch of rock cliffs that lined the road was the house where my paternal grandmother lived, and just above and beside it a small house which for several years we rented from my Uncle Bill for twelve dollars a month.
About a half mile on up the road, where the river took a sharp bend, was Fred Price's big gray stone house with an elaborate fish pond in front. If the Nars had been a far and distant land in a fairy tale, Fred Price's place would have been the castle. Price owned the pasture land above the highway all the way up to Dead Man's Curve. He also owned the big red bull that chased my brother and me when we went to pick blackberries or gather paw paws--a story my children and my grandchildren never tired of hearing.
The last house, located at the sharpest point of Dead Man's Curve belonged to my uncle Bill's girlfriend. Most everyone thought she was a witch; she once took warts off my fingers by holding my hands, closing her eyes, and mumbling words I couldn't understand. Just past the curve was the Newsom Family Cemetery, where all my mother's people, as well as my parents, are buried. There is a place marked out for me there, where Jordan, my younger daughter, has promised to take my ashes. I have a small polished wooden box on my bookshelf, which originally held an expensive bottle of Irish whiskey, reserved for that purpose.
My grandfather's farm held a great deal for such a small scrap of land. A few steps away from the house was the smokehouse, where salted sides of meat lay on newspaper-covered shelves and brown hams hung from hooks in the ceiling. Next was the open-slatted crib filled with corn which I shelled for the chickens and threw in the pen for the hogs. The barn had three stalls––one for the chickens and one each for a horse and a cow, both of which were sold before I was born. The barn had a mysterious second floor, which once held hay, but now was used for storing just about anything that would not fit anyplace else. 
My Uncle George, a small mine owner, kept his black powder there, wrapped in heavy waxed paper in rough wooden boxes. I  was warned never to go near it. But who could resist its powdery pungency? Also there, hanging from cross beams, stretched on boards, were hides of muskrats trapped by my uncle Charlie. Beside  the barn was the hog pen, with one large old sow that Uncle Bill was fattening. In the fall, my grandfather would hit it on the forehead with a short-handled sledge, slit its throat when it fell to its knees, hoist it up on a tripod, and expertly gut and dress it. Finally, at the farthest edge of the property was the toilet perched on the side of the hill above the road––a three–seater well stocked with slick-paged Sears catalogues and corncobs.
From the time I was five years old until I was sixteen, the Nars was pretty much my whole world. I went to school in town––a county seat of a little over four thousand. No other children from school lived in the Nars, so it was often lonely. Town, however, filled with strangers, was frequently frightening, so I was always glad to get home.
My students at California State University, Long Beach, where I taught for forty years, would of often ask me, if I knew so much about the short story, why I did not write short stories. I have tried to write stories about my life for the last  sixty years and still have in my file cabinet ragged typed pages of material I wrote when I was twelve. I really would like to create a group of short stories from these experiences.  But what often happens is that I get bored trying to write them. Just moving my persona across the room seems so tedious to me. I really love sentences rather than plots, but am not quite sure how to construct a voice that captures the mysteries of my life.
Maybe my life has no mysteries; maybe that is the problem. Whenever I begin to write, I hope I will find some meaning in mere experiences, some central core in various anecdotes that will pull the piece together and make it glow with significance. Part of the problem is that I don’t seem to have that obsession that makes writers write fiction, that compulsion that drives them to carry on and on. I used to think I did, when I was young.  But now I know better. I am a reader, not a writer. 
Happy Holiday to those who stumble on this bit of personal background. I will get back to the real business of my blog right after Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read: The Short Story as Quintessential Narrative Art

I ran across Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read recently while doing the research for my blog post on Best Books for 2014. Always interested in the nature of the reading process, I ordered it, especially when I saw the subtitle was A Phenomenology, for I have long been interested in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty; furthermore, I could not see how anyone writing a popular book would risk subtitling it A Phenomenology.  And that's what What We See When We Read  is–a popular book intended for a general audience.
Written by the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon Books, this is an entertaining graphic treatment of concepts that have been around a long time among philosophers and literary theorists, but which may not be familiar to the general reader, although any reader may find the ideas compelling, and cleverly presented.
The range of Mendelsund's references can be seen in the first two headnote quotations—one from Wittgenstein—"A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it"--and the other from Agatha Christie about her first imagined image of Hercule Poirot—that he was like something on the stage. Although the range of cites is fairly extensive, there are no footnotes and no list of sources at the end—just as well, for the general reader will probably not want to follow up on the originators of these ideas.  With lots and lots of graphics—more graphics than text really—it is a book to enjoy for itself.  I read it in about three hours, but you can spend more time just flipping through the images.
Mendelsund confronts his basic question—what do we see when we read—immediately in the book by challenging us to describe Anna Karenina. He concludes that we cannot do this—that we will come up with a body type or a vague image, for characters in fiction are not so much physical beings as they are choreographic figures who have only those few features that "signify" something.  The implication of this—that characters are ciphers or sets of rules and that narratives are made richer by omission—is particularly relevant to the short story—although Mendelsund, as might be expected, primarily uses novels for his illustrations.
Indeed, I find that much of what Mendelsund says about narrative is directly applicable to the short story because—no surprise to my readers—I think the short story is the primal mode of narrative—the mode closest to a basic human need and impulse to tell stories and respond to them.  I also think, of course, that the short story is the most "artistic" narrative form; consequently, what Mendelsund says about "artistic" narrative is directly applicable to the short story.
Mendelsund reminds us that when we read we withdraw from the phenomenal world, turning our attention inward.  Rather than looking through a clear glass to some world outside, we look at the book as if it were a mirror and we are looking inward.  I won't clutter up my comments here by referring the reader to the origins of Mendelsund's remarks, but one of the philosophic sources of this one is Jose Ortega y Gasset, who notes that when we read we have the choke of looking through a glass or looking at the glass itself to see what it reflects. I have always argued that the short story is more a matter of form than content.  James Lasdun's remark, which I quoted in my blog on Hilary Mantel, emphasizes this also.
Mendelsund says that the openings of such novels as To the Lighthouse and Moby Dick are confusing to us because we have not been given enough information to begin processing the narrative, "But we are used to such confusion.  All books open in doubt and dislocation."  True enough, which is one of the reasons folks don't like short stories, for they don't give us enough time to get oriented to the language-created world we have entered.
Mendelsund says words are like musical notes in that the significance of a word is contingent on the words that surround it. Furthermore, in order to make sense of a book's words and phrases, he says we must think ahead, anticipate. "Reading is not a sequence of experienced 'now's…Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment—and in the performative reading moment as well." He cites Merleau-Ponty here: "With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change: I still have it in hand and it is still there, but already it is sinking away below the level of presents..." One of the aspects of Alice Munro's stories that makes them so compelling to read is her manipulation of time to remind us that our reading experience is not a "sequence" of nows.  In the past, I have commented at some length on the short story's being structured like music, dependent more on rhythm and form than on content.
"All good books are, at heart, mysteries," says Mendelsund. Indeed, I have argued in other places that the short story focuses on mystery.  For the most provocative considerations of this aspect of the form, see Flanner O'Connor's Mystery and Manners.
Writers not only tell us stories, they tell us how to read stories; when we read we put together a set of rules—a method for reading this particular work, a manner of thinking about this particular work. "The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much." One of the problem readers have with reading short stories is trying to figure out the rules for reading the short story as a form, and this particular short story they are reading before the short story has ended.  That's why short stories have to be read more than once.
Mendelsund uses the detective mystery as the model for this process, with the characters as archetypes acting like players on a game board. Characters are mostly seen in action, Mendelsund reminds us, not as physical entities. I have posted earlier on why I think the short story began in America with the detective story by Edgar Allan Poe and how the short story is like a detective story in its structure and sense of mystery and order.
The writer takes something from its context in the real world, where it exists in a state of flux, and holds it fast in language, making it an immobile wave, no longer fluid.  Yes, indeed, this is what poetry does, of course. And the short story is closer to poetry than it is to the novel.
When we examine something the author has immobilized through the lens he has given us, what we observe is not so much the thing itself, but the tools the work has made us construct in order to observe the thing. When we praise finely observed prose, we praise the efficacy of the ideas and the beauty of the equipment both at once.  The inability to separate the language and the content in a short story is what makes the form so challenging—that is, if one is not sensitive to the language.
Mendelsund quotes Italo Calvino, whose collection The Uses of Literature have just started rereading as a Christmas present to myself:  "For me, the main thing in a narrative is…the order of things…the pattern; the symmetry; the network of images deposited around it…"  No comment necessary; see everything I have ever said about the short story.
Mendelsund speaks of the book as a sort of musical score which we perform and attend the performance at once. See above on short story and music.
When we read we co-create.  "We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude—because the sketches, at least, are ours. And yet, readers still contend that they want to 'lose themselves' in a story." Good books incite us to fill in an author's suggestions in a co-creative act. "Some things we do not wish to be shown." Mendelsund cites the familiar example of Kafka's insisting to his publisher not to provide a likeness of his famous dung beetle on the cover of "Metamorphosis." Very nice:  Who the hell wants verisimilitude? If I wanted reality, I would go out in the world.  And I don't want to lose myself in a work; I want to be aware of what the story is doing. 
Mendelsund says we do not refer to Hamlet as a character, but rather as a role, one who is meant to be played. I used to argue with my students, to no avail, that Hamlet's famous inability to act was because he was aware that he was always acting.
Mendelsund quotes Moses Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed: "There is no real unity without incorporeality." That which exists in time has nothing to do with the sacred, don't you think? And unity has nothing to do with the seemingly real.
Mendelsund's central point is that we do not have pictures in our minds when we read; rather, we read for the intermingling of abstract relationships, which may sound like an unenjoyable experience, but in truth is what happens when we listen to music. "This relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements."  Yes, indeed.  Please read that quote again; then read a great short story.
"When I'm reading a novel or story, the contents—places, people, things—of the drama recede and are supplanted by significance.  The vision of a flowerpot, say, is replaced by my readerly calculation of the meaning and importance of this flowerpot. We are ever gauging these significances in texts, and much of what we 'see' when we read is this 'significance.'"  The problem many readers have with short stories is that they just read for the content and not the meaning of the content.
Mendelsund quotes a passage from Wharton's House of Mirth" in which a man thinks of the hair and eye lashes of a young woman he is walking with, but it is not the physical image we sense, rather a "rhythm" of the words that convey the young man's elation.  In other words, it is the rhythm of the language we feel, not the merely physical object.
He quotes Beckett on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself."  No comment necessary.
"Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce, replace, emblemize. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal.  So we reduce… Picturing stories is making reductions. Through reduction, we create meaning." See Levis Strauss on reduction as an aesthetic act.
"Maybe the reading imagination is a fundamentally mystical experience—irreducible by logic.  These visions are like revelations.  They hail from transcendental sources, and are not of us—they are visited upon  us. Perhaps the visions are due to a metaphysical union of reader and author.  Perhaps the author taps the universal and becomes a medium for it."
In some way, Mendelsund says, readers are "see-ers" and the reading experience derives from the tradition of visitation, annunciation, dream vision, prophecy, and other manifestations of religious or mystical epiphany." He asks whether the visions of literature are like religious epiphanies or Platonic verities, more real than phenomenal reality. "Do they point toward some deeper manner of authenticity? (Or: by mimicking the real world, do they point toward its inauthenticity."  
Flannery O'Connor would have loved these two paragraphs.  Alice Munro would also.  As would have Chekhov.   And, believe it or not, so would have James Joyce.  Why else would he call his short stories epiphanies? This is why I titled my recent book on the short story I Am Your Brother.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hilary Mantel's "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher"

Hilary Mantel must be chortling in her chops now that the BBC has decided to broadcast her story "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" on its Book at Bedtime show in January.  The Tories are saying that it is a purposeful attack on them by the Left-wing biased BBC, "a sick book from a sick mind" says former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit, whose wife was paralyzed when the IRA tried to murder Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing.
I read the book that includes that purposely-provoking story when it first came out a few months ago and decided to say nothing about it on this blog, for I found practically all of the stories trivial and lazy and of interest only because Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her highly praised historical novels about Cromwell.
One might wonder what she would do with the short story genre.
Not much, it seems to me.
Then I read the reviews and saw the book had been placed on the "Best" list of several publications and decided that perhaps it deserved another look.
Not so. my initial judgment did not change: the stories seemed mostly self-promotions, calculated to  sell the book not because of its worth, but because of Mantel's reputation and her mean-spiritedness.
 It is hard not to be harsh with Mantel since she is so well-known for being mean to others.  Not only as she boasted in public about her own fantasies to assassinate Thatcher, whom she admits she loathed, she also got a lot of attention a few months ago by attacking the future Queen, calling the Duchess "a machine-made princess, designed by committee," a "shop-window mannequin" with a "plastic smile."
With a title story (that originally appeared first in The Guardian and The New York Times Book Review) that describes a woman's sympathetic support of an IRA gunman who invades her apartment in order to shoot Margaret Thatcher, I suspected that reviews of the book might reflect the political leaning—left or right—of either the newspaper or the reviewer.  It is also difficult to know whether reviewers might be merely influenced by Mantel's work in the genre of Historical novel, or who are swayed by the fact that she is the only woman who has ever won the Man Booker twice. I don't know.
The only two reviews that struck me as interesting is the one by displaced British writer James Lasdun in The Guardian and another by Stanford professor Terry Castle in The New York Times Book Review--and not just because these two papers originally published the story.
Lasdun, himself a fine short-story writer, whose work I have discussed on this blog, opens his Guardian piece with the following paragraph, with which I agree so fully I could have written it myself. In fact, I have written it in various places over the years:
Short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians. Their brevity invites us to engage with them as formal structures in a way that novels generally don't. We judge them as artefacts even as we consume them as narrative, and consciously or not, we demand all kinds of contradictory things from them. We want them to feel inventive but uncontrived, lifelike but extraordinary, surprising but inevitable, illuminating but mysterious, resolved but open-ended. It's a tall order, as anyone who has tried to write one will know.
It's interesting that the one story in the collection that Lasdun calls "easily the best in the book" was originally published as a memoir. "Sorry to Disturb" recounts a Mantel experience of being somewhat "stalked" by a Pakistani businessman while living in Saudi Arabia during the 80's. Lasdun calls it a "comedy of cross cultural sexual politics" and says it fulfills all the criteria for a short story that he listed in his opening paragraph.
And, yes, there is some of the mystery of motivation in the story that we associate with great short stories.  The narrator's admission that after the events occurred it was difficult to grasp what had happened, Lasdun says is part of the story's power—"the sense that for all her vivid analyses and articulations of her own behaviour, she remains a little baffling even to herself." Perhaps it was Mantel's personal involvement in this experience that makes it the only effective story in the collection. 
Lasdun is not so fond of the title story, which he dubs "jeerleading." Other stories, such as "Comma," "Winter Break," and "The Heart Fails Without Warning," he quite rightly, in my opinion, sees as trivial, plot-based stories of the grotesque. His conclusion: "four or five flawed successes and interesting failures; one knockout."
Terry Castle, professor of literature at Stanford, and author/editor of The Apparitional Lesbian, Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, and the Literature of Lesbianism, calls Mantel a "master storyteller," and compares her to Edgar Allan Poe at his best in "Fall of the House of Usher." Castle puts Mantel in a long lineage of British female story-telling from Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield through Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O'Brien, Muriel Spark, and Zadie Smith. (One gets the feeling Castle is not talking so much about Mantel the short-story writer as she is Mantel the historical novelist, for she is rather careful to give only a cursory glance at the stories contained in Mantel's collection, being content to generalize about Mantel herself.
Castle concludes, "Mantel is such a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer that part of what one's praise must mean is that if you're intelligent and quirky enough to take the book up at all—and anyone reading to this point most likely will be—she's got quirks enough of her own to match you, if not raise you 10."
Well, I am glad that Castle thinks she is intelligent and quirky enough to admire this book. I reckon I am just not intelligent enough or quirky enough, to appreciate Mantel's adolescent game-playing with disfigurement, birth defects, attempted assassination, and rants about poor hotel accommodations.  Not to mention, just plain sloppy, rough draft writing.
More like very poor "Twilight Zone" than Edgar Allan Poe.
Not worth my time. Not worth yours. Unless you are just bound and determined to reward nastiness and condescension and shameless exploitation of one's own fame. The short story deserves better. Mantel is certainly no "master" of the form.

Although some Mantel admirers may find this blog a bit of  a bashing, I assure you that it is nowhere near the nastiness that Hilary Mantel is guilty of.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Best Short Story Collections of 2014--According to the Experts

I have recently checked  the "Best Books of 2014" postings for the following twenty different newspapers, magazines, and websites: 

New York Times
The Huffington Post
Publisher's Weekly
The Telegraph
Time Magazine
Library Journal
Washington Post
The Globe
National Public Radio
Amazon's Best Books of 2014
Wall Street Journal
Good Reads
The Economist
Los Angeles Times
Boston Globe

Although there are many more novels listed than short story collections, according to the experts at the sources listed above, the "Best" or "Notable," or "Recommended collections of short stories (and the number of times they were picked) this year are:

Phil Klay, Redeployment, 8
Lorrie Moore, Bark, 8
Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher 5
Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't 4
Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress 4
The Stories of Jane Gardam 3
Elizabeth McCrackin, Thunderstruck 2
Alice Munro, Family Furnishings 2

Also listed are three books that are not short story collections, but on which I may post:

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Peter Mendelsund ,What We See When We Read

Other collections of stories that were picked at least once are:
 Julia Elliott, The Wilds
Rivka Galchen, American Innovations
Tove Jansson, The Woman who Borrowed Memories
Paul Theroux, Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories
Graham Swift, England and Other Stories
The Derek Smith Omnibus

During December and January, I plan to post on :

Lorrie Moore's Bark
Phil Klay's Redeployment
Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style
Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Magic of Alice Munro: Family Furnishings: Selected Stories--1995-2014

Back in May, when I participated in the Alice Munro Symposium at the University of Ottawa, I asked Munro's U.S. publisher and U.S. agent if there were plans to publish a Collected Stories of Alice Munro. They said there were so many stories (139) a single volume would be too big, and multi-volume sets were not great sellers. However, they did say they were working on a volume of  selected stories published since the 1997 Selected Stories—1968-1994, containing twenty-eight stories from Munro's first seven collections. They said they had a great title for the new volume, Family Furnishings, which was the title of a story that appeared in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories—1995-2014, Munro's final book, if we take her at her word that she has retired, came out in early November in the U.S. It contains twenty-four stories.

Since the table of contents is not posted on Amazon, or anywhere else I can find, as a public service to my readers, here is the TOC of Family Furnishings, including the titles of the volumes where the stories originally appeared in book form.

The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
"The Love of a Good Woman"
"The Children Stay"
"My Mother's Dream"

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)
"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"
"Family Furnishings"
"Post and Beam"
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain"

Runaway (2004)

The View From Castle Rock (2006)
"The View From Castle Rock"
"Working for a Living"
"Hired Girl"

Too Much Happiness (2009)
"Child's Play"
"Too Much Happiness"

Dear Life" (2012)
"To Reach Japan"
"The Eye"
"Dear Life"

I don't know who was responsible for the selections in Family Furnishings. I suspect Munro, in consultation with her  Knopf editors, made the choices.  Nobody asked me, but I would have made some different choices.  Just to single out two, I would have liked to have seen "Wenlock Edge" from Too Much Happiness and "Corrie" from Dear Life.

Because these stories have all appeared in separate volumes, which were widely reviewed in America, Canada, and England, I did not expect there to be new reviews of Family Furnishings. And indeed, a search of Lexis-Nexis turned up only a brief notice on Kirkus and only full reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle review is by Molly Antopol, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and now a creative writing lecturer at Stanford, author of a collection of stories, The UnAmericans. It is a routine praise  piece, providing no insight other than that Munro disdains literary rules and gives us complicated characters capable of both kindness and cruelty.

David Ulin, book critic for the LA Times, is also at a loss for words in his attempt to account for what makes Munro the great writer she is, content with an agreement with Jane Smiley in the Foreword that Munro's stories promise no drama or transcendence, but rather domestic reflections of reality—whatever that is.  "Such a line between reality and fiction, life and literature," says Ulin, "seems especially the province of the short-story writer, who can work by inference in a way novelists cannot." 

Ulin does not bother to explain what he means by the line between reality and fiction or how inference in the short form walks that line better than the novel.  That would have been helpful.  I do think that Ulin is right when he says that Munro's characters tell stories "not just to mark their passage but also to survive." It is an issue I am exploring in my current essay on Munro as a Scheherazade who has to tell stories or die.  Ulin also says it is Munro's willingness to "blur the line" (the line between reality and fiction?) that is part of "the elusive power" of her later works." But this may be simply because Munro has, at least since The View from Castle Rock, been writing what she has called "not quite stories," but rather memoirs on the borderline of stories.

In her "Foreword," Jane Smiley says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward" and that in her last six books, she has become more experimental rather than less so. Smiley says that Munro has made something new out of the short story, "using precision of language and complexity of emotion to cut out the relaxed parts of the novel and focus on the essence of transformation."  I like that phrase, but wish that Smiley had talked a bit more about what she mean by "transformation."  Is this the transformation of reality into fiction, the line that Ulin says Munro blurs so brilliantly?  Perhaps.

Smiley says that since Munro's chosen form is the short story, "her overriding theme is brevity—look now, act now, contemplate now, because soon, very soon, this thing that involves you will be over." What is the "theme of brevity"?  That we are poor players who strut and fret and have but short a time on stage? Perhaps she means something similar to what Nadine Gordimer mean by her metaphor of "fireflies" several years ago, which I include in my Short Story Theories collection. I have quoted it before, but here it is again. It's worth repeating:

"Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time  to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist.  Short-story writers have known--and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped by human reality. 
How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.  Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."

Smiley joins other writers who vow and declare that they do not understand how Munro does what she does. In a "Page-Turner" piece in which the New Yorker asked several writers what Alice Munro's fiction has meant to them, Julian Barnes said he sometimes tries to work how she does it, but never has succeeded and is happy in the failure. In the same piece, Lorrie Moore says, Munro is "a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do." 

Smiley says her favorite tribute to Munro is by the Canadian writer David Macfarlane, who says that although he has paid "enjoyable close attention" to Alice Munro, he can't quite figure out how she does what she does. "I guess by magic." Macfarlane says he has decided to leave it at that.

Many writers and critics have admitted they are stymied by what makes Alice Munro great, although they all—well almost all—agree that she is. A couple of years ago, Christian Lorentzen, an editor at London Review of Books, received quite a bit of flak from Munro lovers by writing a somewhat caustic review in LRB. 

Several others have reacted to this rare attack on Munro, (see Kyle Minor's riposte in Salon, June 10, 2013) so I won't bother, except to suggest that Lorentzen's objections, in my opinion, boil down to his failure to understand how short stories work.  Basically, his complaint with Munro is her content; in short, her focus on domestic, rural Canadian women bores him or depresses him.  He says his reading of ten of her books over a short period of time left him in a state of "mental torpor" that made him sad with the shabby, grubby world of her stories, as well as her emphasis on the "real," i.e. physical, world she creates. 

What he does not like about her style is her "anti-modernism," her old school realism, her sanding her prose to an "uncommon smoothness." In a cutesy metaphor, he says reading Munro's sentences is "something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: It's a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren't wet."  I am not sure how Lorentzen can criticize Munro's fiction for its grittiness and also for its smoothness. 

But, this is the seeming contradiction that Jane Smiley praises when she says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward."  This is what David Ulin and many others like about Munro's blurring the line between reality and fiction—indeed what all great fiction does.  This is the magic of Alice Munro. It is the magic I will be trying to  understand in the three essays on Munro I am currently working on.