Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Parallel Metaphoric Stories in Jerome Charyn's Bitter Bronx

My primary reason for writing these blog essays over the past seven years is to encourage myself to continue to discover basic characteristics of the short story as a form--primarily in order to develop techniques for reading short stories as complexly and fairly as possible.
When I discuss the stories of a single author, for example, when a publisher, agent, or author rep sends me a new collection, I try to do so from the perspective of what is generically characteristic about them--as well as what makes them unique.
When an author rep sent me Jerome Charyn's recent collection Bitter Bronx, I read the stories with pleasure and then began reading them again while doing some research to give me some perspective on Charyn.
I have to admit I was not very familiar with Charyn's work, for he is not best known as a short-story writer. I first ran across him way back in 1969, when I started teaching, in two volumes he edited for Collier books: The Single Voice and The Troubled Vision.
 The Single Voice contains short stories and excerpts from novels by such writers as Flannery O'Connor, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, as well as the title story of Charyn's first short story collection, "The Man Who Grew Younger," a comic/Yiddish story in the tradition of Sholem Aleichman. If you want a pretty good overview of American fiction in the sixties, this collection provides it. You can find used copies online. The Troubled Vision  included novellas and novel excerpts, such William  H. Gass's "The Pedesen Kid," Norman Mailer's "The Man Who Studied Yoga," and James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."
In one of the few reviews of Charyn's first short-story collection The Man Who Grew Younger and Other Stories (in The Stanford Daily where he was teaching at the time), the reviewer said it was a pity he is so "ill at ease in the short-story form." I am not exactly sure what that means, since the judgment depends on what the critic thinks the short story form is. Charyn has never claimed the short story as his favorite form, although he is indeed a highly versatile writer. He is, in the old-fashioned term," a man of letters," having written thirty novels, three memoirs, plus graphic novels, plays, and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Joe Dimaggio, and Quentin Tarantino.  The man writes (and teaches writing) for a living.
The thirteen stories in Bitter Bronx might suggest that Charyn has returned to the short story form, for they are fairly recent, having originally appeared between 2007 and 2010 in such places as The Atlantic, The American Scholar, Epoch, and The Southern Review. I remember reading the opening story "Lorelei" when The Atlantic was still publishing short stories (and I was still a subscriber).
One of the primary characteristics that I noted when I read the stories in Bitter Bronx, was that although on the surface they appear to be realistic memoirs, they seem also to be structured by a metaphoric pattern. Some reviewers, taking their cue from Charyn's introduction about growing up in the Bronx, have emphasized this memoir-style. One called them a "nostalgic elegy to the Bronx of the past" in which it is hard to tell where fiction starts and nonfiction begins, and another noted the stories were "suffused with the texture and nostalgia of a lost time and place" combined with a keen eye for detail with Charyn's "lived experience."
However, Wendell Jamieson in The New York Times suggested that some of the stories have a "touch of magic realism," and Donna Seaman in Booklist described them as "bewitching urban folktales." It seems to me that if you read the surface story, they do seem to be realistic memoirs, but if you read the metaphoric parallel text, they seem to be folk tales.  Bernard Malamud was probably the most accomplished practitioner of this type of dual tale.
"Lorelei" is a good example of the technique.  It is the story of a grifter named Howell who has spent most of his life conning widows out of some of their money. When he decides to retire back in the place in the Bronx where his father was an apartment superintendent, he encounters the woman he knew when they were both children. The story seems to follow a relatively simple "biter bite" structure, if it were not for the pattern of metaphors that seem to underlie the story.  Here are some examples of the metaphoric parallel pattern:
The widows are "birds of prey" who grasp at Howell with "forceful talons."
The superintendent tells Howell the apartment is like "being on your own planet."
The landlord Hugo Waldaman is the  "paterfamilias of the whole tribe" who live there.
The child Naomi looks like a witch in her mascara. She "bewitched" Howell.
Howell's mother, whose mother has arms that moved like "magical sticks, abandoned the "cave" they lived in and ran off with a "devil of a man" with "silver teeth."
Naomi is "voluptuous" at thirteen, having "vampirized" the charms of her mother.
She wiggles out of her clothes and lies with Howell as if both were "entombed."
As she grows older she develops eyes like "tin telescopes," a little duchess who is confined to a wheelchair that is like an aluminum throne.
Naomi's father has a razor-sharp mustache, like "Smilin' Jack," Howell's favorite character in the funny papers."
The effect of this pattern of imagery is to take the story out of the realm of the real and into the world of grotesque fairy tale with two-dimensional symbolic characters living in a fantastic castle that threatens to swallow Howell up and hold him enthrall forever. If the story is based on Charyn's actual childhood experience, then it is the experience of dream and imagination, not the physical reality of the Bronx.
In "Adonis" and "Archy and Mehitabel," a young man is "captured" to be a model and a prostitute for war widows, who sleep in the coffins of their slain husbands, by a Dracula-like man, who looks like he is made of whitewash and who lives in a world of frosted glass.
But the most interesting characters in the stories are women who are much more fantastic creatures than ordinary females. Angela, an ex-con in "The Cat Lady's Kiss," fancies herself a character from a 1940s film who turns into a ferocious cat when a man tries to kiss her.
Marla Silk is the central character in three stories: "Silk and Silk," "Little Sister," and "Marla." She paints her face white like some "Egyptian queen." She becomes obsessed with a Little Sister, missing so long she felt as she had had been visited by a strange goblin or ghost. Marla's mother, a "half-mad bird of prey," calls the sister a "monster" she had to expel from her loins. Later the sister, a little demon, who had to be put in a gilded cage, is a character in a Kafka story or a fable in a picture book. Men in the stories are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  or "satanic creatures."
Although a  photographer provides the central narrative device in the story "Dee," as usual in Charyn's stories in this book, a photograph is never a realistic depiction of its subject. The central character, Diane Arbus, known as a "photographer of freaks," befriends an eight-foot giant named Eddie Carmel, who works in a circus sideshow. One of Arbus's most famous photographs is "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx in 1967." The image pattern in this story creates another fairy tale of the fantastic. Here are some examples of how the story transforms actual historically real people into figures of fable:
Dee's father is a trustee at a Hospital that looks like a beleaguered castle.
Dee searches for shadows and ghosts "and for the shadow of herself.,"
With her cropped hair Dee looks like Peter Pan.
She tries to capture the Jewish giant with her viewfinder, but she is a haunted ghost and he is outside whatever a ghost could govern.
She is a waif with cropped hair who lives in a pauper's castle.
Eddie is like a "figure out of some fairy tale."
Dee had been born a princess, but is now a princess of nothing at all.
She feels like Alice in a wonderland that is both familiar and remote.
She could have "walked out of a dream."
She is a huntress who has unmasked the quiet dignity of dwarfs in rooming houses and has captured mothers with swollen bellies in the backwoods, but has failed with Eddie.
The technique of creating a metaphoric/fabulistic story that parallels the realistic surface story is a traditional one for the short story. It suggests that no matter how "real" the characters and events seem to be in a short story, there is usually what some critics like to call a "subtext" that supports the significance of the story.
I am not particularly fond of the term "subtext," for it is often used by contemporary critics as if it were a new poststructuralisti discovery, when it actually was observed quite successfully by the so-called formalist New Critics. 
Charles Baxter, in his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Greywolf Press, 2007, says a subtext  "propels readers beyond the plot of a novel or short story into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken."
What is curious about Baxter's discussion of subtext is his insistence that writers have to use a great deal of surface detail to suggest this unspoken and unseen, and the stronger the presence of the unspoken and unseen the more gratuitous details are required, signifying a "world both solid and haunted" adding that "haunted" is the apt word, for he asks us to think of the essays in his small book as the reports of an investigator examining a few stories looking for "the ghosts moaning beneath the floor."
I will talk about the notion of "subtexts" in another blog post soon.  In the meantime, if you want a good example of the use of subtext by an accomplished writer, check out Jerome Charyn's Bitter Bronx. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

E. L. Doctorow, Sweetland Stories

E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), and Billy Bathgate (1989), has died at the age of 84. Although he is much better known as a novelist, he did publish a number of short stories, his best collection, in my opinion being Sweetland Stories in 2004
 Acknowledging that the novel has always been his typical rhythm, Doctorow, in an interview after the publication of this collection of stories, said that while editing Best American Stories: 2000, he discovered that many authors were not writing the tight epiphanic Chekhovian story, but rather were going back to the more leisurely plot-based story typical of the nineteenth century. The result of this realization are these five long stories, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker.
I have discussed one of the stories in this collection, "Jolene," along with the film version of that story, in an earlier blog.  I offer the following comments on other stories in Sweetland Stories in Doctorow's honor.
The stories are primarily plot-based, recounted in a seemingly artless, casual tone--three told in first-person by deluded male narrators and two narrated in third person by ironic storytellers.  What is arguably “sweet” about these stories is the naiveté and innocence, thus ultimately the self-delusion, of the central characters as they seek to achieve the American dream, find transcendence in a savior, or uphold their ideals in the face of political chicanery.
“A House on the Plains” is a comic/horror, con artist story, told by the slow-witted son of a “merry widow” mother. After the father, who the mother says was pretty smart, “for a man,” mysteriously dies, the widow thinks it best that she and her son leave Chicago for a small town in Illinois where no one will jump to conclusions.  Once settled, she takes in three orphans from a New York social organization and ominously declares soon after that if they don’t come up with some money before winter the only resources they will have is the insurance she took out on the three children.
The mother, a bigger-than-life, pragmatic believer in the American Dream, advertises for immigrant men, particular Swedes and Norwegians, to join her in a partnership in a bountiful farm in the Midwest.  However, one by one the men who visit her disappear as her bank account increases from their insurance policies.  When the brother of one of the missing men arrives and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, the mother, nonplussed, formulates an escape plan that, despite its appalling results, is treated as blithely as the rest of the horrors in this comic tall tale.  Quite simply, she cuts off the heads of the nosey brother and her housekeeper to make it look as she and her son have died in a fire and   frames her handyman for the arson.
The story ends with the handyman in jail, Mama in California, and the narrator son reunited with his sexual partner from Chicago. The fact that three orphans, several innocent men, and the housekeeper are all dead is, of course, just part of the comic tone of this tall tale that makes us admire Mama for her achieving the American Dream of financial independence.
Doctorow has said that “Baby Wilson,” chosen for Best American Short Stories 2003, was inspired by his seeing a young woman in a long paisley dress walking along the Coast Highway in Southern California.  Although Doctorow says he is not sure why he made her into Karen Robileaux, the kidnapper of a newborn baby, he thinks he must have decided as a premise for the story that while a man would kidnap a child for ransom, a woman would want the child for herself. 
The story is told by Lester Romanowski, Karen’s shiftless boyfriend.  When she brings the stolen baby home, she declares it is her own newborn child that she is giving to Lester to be his son.  Lester decides he is going to reform himself into a person who makes executive decisions.  He wins some money at gambling, procures six fake credit cards and goes to sleep thinking what a “great country this was.”
 In a family van he buys with an American Express Gold Card, Lester and his “imitation wife and child” head west, of course, to California.  With the sun lighting their way like a “gold road,” he has a revelation of a new life for himself, where he will become a dependable father with a full-time job.  However, his dreams are dashed when he hears on the radio that the family of the kidnapped child has received a ransom note. Can you believe the evil in this world? he asks Karen, who articulates the theme of the story by saying that she has faith that people can be redeemed. 
 Lester and Karen drop the baby off at a church and head to Alaska, another place where people live and let live, a place where nobody asks too many questions.  When Karen gets pregnant, Lester declares himself alert and “ready for inspiration.”
“Walter John Harmon” is also a story about self-delusion.  The narrator, a former lawyer who has joined a religious group lead by an uneducated garage mechanic named Walter John Harmon, insists that he and his wife are not cult victims, and allows his wife to take part in a “purification” sex ceremony with the cult leader. 
The Community survives because many of the followers are lawyers, accountants, public relations experts, and computer specialists, who know how to keep the outside world at a distance.  The story focuses on the means by which Harmon maintains his charismatic hold on the Community and how the members protect themselves from the outside world.
The followers’ need to believe is so strong that even when Walter John deserts them with the narrator’s wife, the Elders, using the vague language and zany logic of philosophic sophistry and Messianic Christianity, argue that this immersion in sin and disgrace is a beautiful paradox of a prophecy fulfilling itself by means of its negation.  The narrator basks in the glory of his unfaithful wife who has been chosen to join Harmon.
Discovering half-burned papers in which Harmon has laid out plans for a wall to be built around the compound, a task the Community finds difficult since all their estates have been placed in Harmon’s name in Swiss bank accounts, the destitute group undergoes a harsh winter.  The story ends ominously with the narrator planning to build the wall, noting that the plans, in spite of Harmon’s lack of military experience, provide the Community with a clear and unimpeded field of fire.
“Child, Dead in the Rose Garden” follows the conventions of a political mystery.  Told by a White House Special Agent, B. W. Molloy, the story recounts the implications and effects of the discovery of a dead five-year-old boy in the Rose Garden of the White House.  Only five months from retirement, Molloy, a twenty-four year veteran of the FBI, gets the case.  Suspecting a symbolic act by terrorists, the administration wants the investigation to be kept secret, and Molloy finds himself running into obstructions from the head of the White House Office of Domestic Policy, who insists that the body was never found, that the event never happened.   Molloy, however, perseveres and flies to the boy’s home in Houston, only to find out that the child’s immigrant parents are being detained by the INS.  Further investigation reveals that the boy’s father was a gardener for a wealthy Texan, been a strong supporter of the President. 
The source of the mystery turns out to be the man’s daughter, Chrissie Stevens, who engineered the placement of the boy, who died of natural causes, to shock those that run things into some sense of responsibility.  After warning the Office of Domestic Policy at the White House that if the boy’s parents are not released by the INS, he will give the story to major newspapers, Molloy resigns from the Bureau and writes a letter to the Guzmans telling them that their son will lie in an unmarked grave in Arlington National Cemetery among others who died for their country.
These are entertaining and diverting stories that explore the nature of individual human hopes and the national mythos of the American Dream told by a master storyteller.

Monday, July 13, 2015

James Kelman and the "Art," Not the Social Message, of the Short Story

One of the many benefits I enjoy from writing this blog is that I occasionally get a message from a fellow-fan of-the-short-story calling my attention to a writer that I have neglected.
A few months ago I received some correspondence from Brian Hamill, submissions editor of the new Scottish journal thi wurd, asking me if I had read the stories of James Kelman, a writer he, and others, call the greatest Scottish writer currently at work on fiction both long and short.
I am embarrassed to say that I had read only two Kelman stories, "Home for a Couple of Days" because it was in The Oxford Book of Scottish Stories (1995), edited by Douglas Dunn, and "Some Thoughts That Morning" because it was in the Clocktower Press collection edited by Duncan McLean entitled Ahead of Its Time (1998). I took another look at the two stories and recalled them as relatively simple, even inconsequential stories—one about a young man who has come back to his home town after an absence of a couple of years to find, not surprisingly, that things have changed and the other, as the title suggests, just some random "thoughts" by a guy on a subway and generalizing about the "great swaths of hypocrisy in the world."
But when a reader of this blog recommends a writer to me, I take it seriously and follow up. Maybe I was just not reading as carefully as I should have. So I ordered copies of Busted Scotch, a selection of 35 Kelman stories previously published in his collections in Scotland, but not so well known in the U.S., and The Good Times, his first book after he won the Booker Prize in 1994. I started reading. I also started reading some background material on Kelman and some reviews and academic criticism of his short fiction. Right away, a couple of issues about Kelman's use of the short story as a form caught my attention..
First there is the issue of language and culture. Kelman has been blasted by some for his overuse of four-letter words, even going so far as to count how many times "fuck" is used in his prize-winning novel.  In his acceptance speech for the 1994 Booker Prize, Kelman insisted that his culture and its language have the right to exist and added, "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether." This connection between elitism and racism bothers me, for it seems to justify a common notion espoused by postcolonial and cultural critics—that if you place a high value on "art" as being aesthetically valuable rather than being socially polemical and possibly useful, you are definitely elitist, and may indeed be racist. Because I have always refused to value fiction as a container for socially significant content, I have been accused of being "elitist" and, by implication, racist.
James Wood, one of the judges of the Booker prize that contentious year Kelman won has said that although Kelman's claim that verbal elitism approaches actual racism may seem "politically overwrought," he adds  that the "overwrought" negative reaction to Kelman's win—with one judge calling How Late It Was, How Late "crap" and one critic saying the author himself was an "illiterate savage"—may justify Kelman's claim.
I am not so sure that one bad diatribe deserves another.
In his New Yorker review of Kelman's collection If It Is Your Life, Wood says Kelman's strongest work is in the short story form rather than the novel. Other critics and academics agree that it is Kelman's short stories, rather than his novels, that will assure his place as a writer. In an article in Journal of the Short Story in English, academic critic J. D. MacArthur says Kelman told him that everything is in his short stories. "If people looked at the short stories they wouldn't ask me the questions they do about the novels."
Adrian Hunter, in his essay on Kelman and the Short Story in the Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman (2010) says that Kelman "approaches the short story not as a condensed, attenuated or unelaborated novel, but regards its shortness as a positive quality. However, instead of focusing on Kelman's mastery of the short story as an art form, Hunter insists that Kelman is attracted to the short story because its "atomistic, discontinuous quality" seems so suitable for stories about a working class that is "powerless and sundered." Kelman is drawn to the short story, says Hunter, because it is a "form that in its very brevity tends towards the fragmentary, inconclusive, atomistic… perfectly calibrated to the portrayal of a working class that has….become…isolated.."
This notion that the short story is an appropriate form for the expression of a Marxist view of the plight of the working class is a popular one recently, and has provided some academic critics vitae fodder in an era when the study of "culture" has surpassed the study of literature in English departments around the world. Although Kelman has stated his allegiance to postcolonial thought, I am not convinced that his form and language are in the service of exposing, to use Hunter's words, "superstructural economic forces" of the plight of the working class, of being on the "wrong side of the labour-capital equation."
The short story has never had a political agenda, has never been politically polemical, has never succeeded as "realism," in the Zola/Howells sense of emphasizing social content rather than aesthetic form. I have never read or heard a short story writer who has argued otherwise.
In his long background piece in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 2000), Stephen Bernstein says the "smallness of event" in Kelman's fiction is a conscious strategy, "part of a thoroughgoing socialist commitment." But Kelman's own remarks on this issue, quoted by Bernstein, does not support this oversimplification of his work.
Kelman says the whole idea of the "big dramatic event, of what constitutes 'plot' only assumes that economic security exists." What Kelman is actually talking about here is similar to what Frank O'Connor says in the opening chapter of his book The Lonely Voice. As an example of the relative unimportance of economic security or social injustice to the short story, O'Connor cites the difference between America and Ireland's success with the short story and England's relative failure with the form and preference for the novel, which he attributes to the difference in the national attitude toward society.  In America the attitude toward society, O'Connor suggests, is that "It may work." In England, as "It must work." And in Ireland as "It can't work."  The novel, says O'Connor, can "adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, of man as an animal  who lives in a community."  But the short story, he says, "remains by its very nature remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
The problem with critics of Kelman's fiction is that although they seem to recognize that he is more powerful as a short-story writer than as a novelist, they seem stumped about how to describe that success—that is, without attributing to Kelman's short stories the kind of realism, social commentary and socialist polemic they find so readily in the novel but which seldom appears successfully in the short story. I suggest that it is doing Kelman a disservice to try to read his short stories as if they were like novels in their social or socialist significance.
I would like to offer some suggestions about a few of Kelman's short stories as just that-- short stories—not sections of novels or novelistic in either technique or theme.
Kelman writes stories that are deceptive in their simplicity. Take the three-page piece in The Good Times, entitled "My eldest." It is a first-person pov of a man at the beach with his wife and three children.  He is sitting on a boulder on the shore staring out to sea in a reverie. Nothing seems to be happening in the world.  But you sense something is going on, something that cannot be easily described or explained.
The story breaks into three separate but related elements: (1) the physical world that the narrator feels and sees; (2) the world of his wife and three children that relate to him; (3) the world of his reverie.
(1)   First there are the water insects that scuttle over his shoes, for which he does not feel anything.  Then there is the little boat in the wide expanse of the ocean. He also sees a green yacht, but it has nothing to do with him. Then there is evidence of a fire.
(2)   His children are behind him, but he intentionally stays in his reverie.  His eldest is in his line of vision, but it is as if he didn't care if he saw him or not. He senses the boy is frightened and trying hard not to be uneasy. The other son and the daughter are only incidental to him; when he teases his daughter his wife smiles, "wiping out the previous bad feeling." When he says he feels like swimming over a submarine, he winks at his elder son and tells him to come to him.  But the boy turns and runs off.
(3)   Although the physical world around him and his family are part of his experience, it is what he thinks about that is central to the story, or rather the process of his thought, for he is not really thinking about anything in particular.
(a)    The wide expanse of the ocean makes him think of the elements, life and death, which makes him think of the old graveyard; when he takes off his tee shirt and throws it back over his shoulder he thinks of the kind of luck he carries, neither good nor bad.
(b)   The  remnants of a fire makes him think of those that had been there, and he thinks if he swam out, he would not drown, unless he had a hopeless cramp or hit some hopeless undercurrent—"things that were hopeless."
The story, it seems to me, like many short stories, is about the isolated self, and the self in this story is intensely self-conscious of this isolation, even meditates on it.  It is as if the eldest son senses the father's strangeness and separation, and it frightens him.
"The Good Times" is another one of these very brief stories about the awareness of aloneness. A man wakes up during the night and senses the strangeness of the house he is in.  He thinks (and thinking is what the story is about) that his lungs are caving in and his flesh is dissipating into a vapour and his belly is full of wind. When his wife is awakened, he feels that unless she takes him with her into her dreams, he will remain alone, wondering what will happen to himself for the rest of his life. When she goes back to bed, he thinks of all his personal possessions, most of which are useless. He says, truth be told, he is fond of his ailments and even fond of his nightmares, because they are the stuff of life. He dreads going back to bed, but thinks it was probably the same for his wife, and he could just lie there and listen to her breath, watching her eyelids twitch.  The story ends with the line, "But these are the good times."
Kelman is very good at creating the subtle sense of isolation in the mind of his male characters, a budding realization of the inevitability of aloneness—a theme typical of the short story as a form.
Although Kelman seems drawn to these very brief impressionistic pieces in his collection The Good Times, he also writes more conventional plotted stories as well.  Perhaps the best known and one of the best liked is "Greyhound for Breakfast," from his 1987 collection.
The central character Ronnie is a fairly typical Kelman character.  He is out of a job, waiting for his monthly handout from the government, short on funds, a bit of a loser.  He drinks a bit too much and hangs out with his mates at bars. In this story he has bought a greyhound, although he cannot afford it, and he is leading it about town avoiding going home to tell his wife what he has done. He visits some bars where he hopes to get a positive reaction to his purchase from his friends, insisting that the intends to race the dog and making his money back. His friends are not so encouraging, Ronnie's son has gone off to London to find work, and he is not happy about it. One of his friends says, "Your boy goes off to England and you go out and buy a dog."
Ronnie becomes angry with his friends and continues to wander about, thinking about how to justify what he has done and how he will confront his wife with the news. He sits and talks for a few minutes with a man and watches some children at play near a pond, expressing some concern that they might get fall in the water or get hurt. As he thinks about how to tell his wife, he thinks that the one thing he was always good at is making excuses.
He thinks of the greyhound as a sort of metaphoric parallel to himself and others—running around a track trying to catch a pot of gold.  He thinks his son is like that. He thinks everyone is racing, or maybe it is only him in a foolish race. His thoughts about the dog and his foolish purchase, his son, and his wife intensify as he continues to wander and postpone going home, worrying about what will happen to his boy in London, wondering what he will says to his wife, until he thinks he will just tell her something or other, "what the fuck he didn't know, it didn't fucking matter; what did it matter, it didnt fucking matter."
Ronnie is a sympathetic character who tries to find ways to give himself some worth, ways to protect those he loves, ways to find acceptance from his friends, ways to make a success of his life. Kelman does a fine job, it seems to me, of creating a character and a basic situation that represents a general human sense of struggle, helplessness, loneliness, desperation. Ronnie, like many men, wants to be a good friend, a good father, a good husband, a good man.  But often one does not know how to do all that.  It sometimes seems too much, just too damned much, and one thinks that no matter what one does, it doesn't really matter.
I thank Brian Hamill for getting me to reread James Kelman. I am sorry that I am not as familiar with his work and with Scottish short fiction in general as I should be.  I hope to remedy that in the near future. I also thank Brian for sending me a copy of the second issue of thi wurd, Summer 2014, which contains, among other delights, Brian's own story, "The Snib," a wonderful "I Am Your Brother" story. The interview with Alan Warner is certainly worth reading, although it might be a bit depressing for the aspiring writer. Warner laments that people just don't buy enough good new books of fiction and poetry nowadays because they are so expensive, noting for example that he went into Waterstones recently and bought two hard backs by favorite writers and paid fifty quid for them. The sad case for many writers is that they spend two or three years working on a book and then publishers have to remainder them because they cannot afford the storage cost; thus they end up pulped. Practically no writers of good fiction can make a living doing so. He noted that James Kelman, who he called "our greatest living Scottish writer," only made about 15 grand last year. Like Warner, I also find these facts "depressing and unsettling."

I wish the editors of thi wurd much luck in their efforts to promote the publication of good fiction in Scotland.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Happy Birthday, Alice Munro

To celebrate Alice Munro's 84th birthday today, I am posting the first few paragraphs of my new essay on Munro, which will appear in a book to be published in Canada soon.  I will give you the publication information and date when I receive it.

Living in the Story:
Fictional Reality in the Stories of Alice Munro
Charles E. May
Professor Emeritus
California State University, Long Beach

Throughout her distinguished career, Alice Munro has frequently been asked by reviewers and interviewers, "Why do you write short stories?" behind which, of course, always lurked the reproach, "Why don't you write novels?" Although she is no longer nagged about her narrative choice of the much maligned short story, reviewers and interviewers have shifted to a new tactic. Instead of chiding Munro for not writing novels, they now try to account for the success of her stories by claiming that they are like novels, not like short stories at all. How else to account for how great they are? Two or three such claims should be sufficient to underline the point:
"No one else quite constructs short stories that have the slow, rich emotional depth of novels."" (Lockerbie)
 “You get, in fact, all the complexity and nuance of a novel, concentrated within several dozen pages.” (Springstubb)
"Each story reads like a novel; each is a vast canvas of complicated characters, tangled events and quietly turbulent revelations.” (Changnon)
Munro definitively answered the impertinent "Why do you write short stories?" question back in 1986, when she said that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but shrugged, “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel" (Rothstein). And now everyone, even, I dare say, her agent and her publishers, are glad she never did.
Given my long-time interest in the genre, I have always been very gratified by Alice Munro's suggestion that there is  a "short-story way" of seeing reality and delighted with her persistent denial that her stories are like novels. She has said she is not drawn to writing novels because she doesn't see that people develop and arrive anywhere, but rather that they live in flashes, from time to time (Hancock)--an image that echoes Nadine Gordimer's famous argument that the short story as a form may be better equipped than the novel to capture whatever can be grasped of human reality where contact is like the" flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness" (180).
Munro has said, "I'm after the intensity of moments and layers of meaning that come from short stories. I want these moments to be bright and clear and also filled with density and mystery. I couldn’t get that from the novel form… I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come from in a novel, and I do in a short story" (Rothstein). On another occasion, she used a metaphor to describe this short-story excitement. “I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby" (Struthers).    
Still, it seems that reviewers can find no other way to explain the complexity of Munro's works except by lumping them together with that "flabby," or, as Henry James once called it, "baggy," monster--the novel. Can we blame her then for not being able to resist a sly jab at short story naysayers in a fairly recent story in Too Much Happiness entitled “Fiction"--in which the central character buys a book written by a woman she has met briefly at a party and is disappointed to find out it is a only collection of short stories, not a novel:  “It seemed to diminish the book’s importance, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside” (52).
Jonathan Franzen scolded critics and judges for the international neglect of Munro a few years ago by chiding, "The feeling in Stockholm is that too many Canadians and too many pure short-story writers have already been given the Nobel Prize." We are all happy now that Alice Munro is safely inside the Nobel gates of Literature—even if she does only write short stories. In one of her first interviews after winning the prize, she graciously said that the award was not only a wonderful thing for her, but a wonderful thing for the short story in general, and she hoped it would bring new readers to the form (Smith).

Despite critics'' insistence on the "novelistic" nature of Munro's stories, the qualities of her work that are so compelling are actually the very qualities that have always made great short stories so powerful: for example, the short story's transformation of seemingly trivial and unrelated material into a tight, thematically-significant pattern. Fellow short-story master, Deborah Eisenberg has said that one of the joys of Munro's writing is "the apparently casual narrative that turns out to have led inexorably to some inescapable juncture." 
And another fellow short-story writer, Lorrie Moore, noted, "The particular and careful ways Munro's themes are laid into her narrative trajectories cause them to sneak up upon the reader" (41). As I have argued for many years, this has been one of the dominant characteristics of the short story form since Gogol, Poe, Hawthorne, Maupassant, Chekhov. Like the stories of her predecessors,  Munro's fictions build toward a tightly unified thematic pattern, not the construction of a mirror in the roadway.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Independence Day 2015 and Hale's "The Man Without a Country"

Independence Day in the U.S.A. this year has special significance for all Americans who have long believed, or have finally come to accept, that an individual should not be discriminated against simply because he or she loves someone of the same gender.
The wide acceptance of the Supreme Court's recent decision that "the right to marry is a fundamental right" and that "couples of the same sex may not be deprived of the fundamental right to marry" makes me proud to be an American.
I was so delighted with the decision that this past Sunday I picked up the Orange County Register, a very conservative newspaper in my area, with anticipation of schadenfreude that the editors would be morally and politically outraged at the decision. I wanted to gloat over that.
However, I was happily surprised that the lead editorial in the Register was headed "Expanding liberty for all." The editors agreed with the Court that to "suppress the freedom of same-sex couples to devote themselves to each other in the same manner as opposite-sex couples is misguided, and we should be proud that our society is turning away from this misuse of law."  The editorial in this very conservative Orange County newspaper agreed with me and many others, concluding: "Today, I feel especially proud to be an American."
Of course, recently Americans have been torn about something for which they are not proud—a reminder of racism that at one time was so strong it threatened to rend the country into two separate entities. And a powerful symbol of that hateful history—the Confederate flag—has been at the center of the debate.
Born in the border state of Kentucky, I understand the powerful symbolism of that flag, even though I repudiate one of the terribly hateful facts that it stood for. I agree with those who feel it is long past time to take the flag down from public buildings and sites, for whatever else it symbolizes, it is a reminder of a shameful chapter in American history.
Independence Day and reminders of the Civil War this year reminded me of one of the most famous short stories in American life—Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without A Country." Written specifically to challenge the Southern Rebellion and to remind the citizens that their allegiance was to the United States of American, the story was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863, even as the tide was beginning to turn in favor of the North. It was pirated and reprinted and sold over half a million copies within the year. It made Hale a celebrity and his central character in the story, Philip Nolan, famous. 
Reviewers said it was unanimously conceded that Hale had no superior in America as a writer of short stories. When he died in 1909, his obituary notice called "Man Without a Country" the most popular short story ever written in America.
In that same year, H.S. Canby, in his book The Short Story in English, said that what makes the story so memorable, even though it lacks the tightness and complexity of the best short stories, is that Hale hit upon a "striking situation" and made the story center on it until the end.
The story is about a young officer who gets seduced by the grandiose and perhaps treasonable plans of Aaron Burr. At his court martial, which takes place on the 23rd of September, 1807, the judge gives the young lieutenant a chance to redeem himself by asking him if he wished to make a statement to show he had always been faithful to the United States. In a mad state of anger and frenzy, Nolan cries out: "Damn the United States!  I wish I may never her of the United States again!" 
The Colonel who is conducting the court, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, is so shocked that he sentences Nolan to have his wish granted—that he shall never hear the name of the United States again. He is to be incarcerated on U.S. ships and never allowed to come any closer than a hundred miles to U.S. shores. Although he is to be exposed to no indignity or be reminded that he is a prisoner, he is denied all books that mention the U.S. Any reference to the U.S. is cut out of newspapers, so he may be reading something and find a great hole or gap in the text.
Nolan laughs at the sentence at first and remains arrogant for a time as he is moved from ship to ship. However, the turning point in the story comes when Nolan joins the officers on deck who are taking turns reading poems and stories aloud. Nolan reads from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," and when he gets to the following lines, he breaks down:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own my native land!
The narrator of the story says Nolan was never the same again and wears the look of a "heart-wounded man."
The rest of the story describes a few episodes of Nolan's life during the fifty-six years of his banishment: his bravery during a battle of the War of 1812, his serving as a nurse to wounded men, his study of plants and insects brought to him by sea men, his acting as a lay chaplain, his empathy for African slaves freed from a slave ship, his eloquent repentance of his denial of his country, and his warning to other young men to be true to their homeland.
The story ends with the death of Nolan in his eighties as finally he is allowed to hear the history of the U.S. during his exile. A slip of paper found in his Bible after his death states what he wishes to be written on his tombstone:
"In Memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.  He loved his country as no other man has loved her, but no man deserved less at her hands."
Although the story is little known now, it once was required reading in junior high and high school textbooks in America. I remember reading it when I was a child in a Classics Illustrated comic book edition. It was read on the radio several times during the 1940's.  For example, Bing Crosby narrated a reading of the story for the Philco Radio program in 1947 just before Thanksgiving. It has also been filmed several times, the most recent being a 1973 made-for-television movie starring Cliff Robertson as Philip Nolan.
In an introduction to the story, Hale says he wrote it in the "darkest period of the Civil War, to show what love of country is." He says he has heard many examples of its "having been of use" during the Civil War. Calling it a "parable," Hale says it was his intention to describe the life of a man "who tried to separate himself from his country, to show how terrible was his mistake."
A simple parable, the story never had much respect among academic critics, and Hale was seldom, if ever, taught in university classroom, nor is it any longer anthologized for the edification of junior high school students, at least as far as I can determine. Even as long ago as 1970, when I did a search for it in print, I could find it anthologized in only one short story text: An Anthology of Famous American Short Stories, edited by Burrell and Cerf for Random House in 1953..
It is of interest to me as a critic and scholar of the short story, for it is one of the rare cases when a short story—not a novel or a play, but a mere short story—had a powerful impact on the minds of its readers.  Granted, it is a simple story, rather carelessly written, and obviously designed for a polemical purpose, but simplistic as it is, it has many of the characteristics of what I have come to recognize as central to the short story as a genre.
It illustrates the central characteristic of the form that Frank O'Connor argued for his book The Lonely Voice, and which I have tried to further clarify and develop in my own modest book I Am Your Brother
"Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness."
The atomistic short story seems perfectly appropriate for dealing with the life of the atomistic and isolated character. Because he has denied his country, Nolan is made to wander, like the archetypal wander Cain. Like the Ancient Mariner, he has denied the unity of life, but even worse than Cain, he is forbidden to tell his story.
In terms of technique, the story tries to create a sense of reality so strong that it makes readers ask, "Did that really happen?" Another story in American literature created this kind of engagement and belief—Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," which had people writing countless letters asking her where the horrifying lottery actually took place.
It is not a story that needs to be read carefully, for it succeeds primarily because of its concept rather than its human complexity or its narrative technique.
You can find the Atlantic Monthly version on the Internet at