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.