Sunday, January 31, 2016

Denis Johnson, Colum McCann, and Elizabeth McCracken: My Favorite Stories in 2015 BASS

I am reading the 2015 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, which has been edited by Laura Furman since 2003.  I don't always agree with Ms. Furman, who is solely responsible for choosing the twenty prize winning stories each year. And during the next two or three weeks, I will try to articulate my agreement/disagreement with her choices this year. However, I do agree with something she says in her Introduction: "The best short stories don't necessarily have the cleverest plots or the most ingenious twists, but they do have the best prose and a full creation of a fictional world."
I think most great short story writers are dedicated to this proposition.  I have always preached the importance of the prose in my short-story classroom and in my writing about the form.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from a paper I presented at a conference on the short story a few years ago and that later appeared in print:
The short story’s poem-like emphasis on language and form rather than on content and social issues is one of the primary characteristics of what we loosely call “modernism,” which, as that great short story writer Donald Barthelme reminds us, begins with Flaubert, who changed the emphasis from the what to the how—a shift that is not merely formalism and not at all superficial, insists Barthelme, but rather an “attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one at that.” As Flaubert himself so emphatically proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot.  When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.”  And no less emphatically, Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell,” barked Capote, “but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”
That the short story is a modern genre embodying Flaubert’s ideal is a prevalent authorial conviction.  Harold Brodkey recites the familiar modernist mantra about the short story this way: “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “ I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”
It is the power of the prose that most affects me in my three favorite stories in the 2015 Best American Short Stories:  Denis Johnson's "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck," and Colum McCann's "Sh'khol."

Of these three favorites, McCracken's "Thunderstruck" is probably the least lyrical, the most transparent in its use of language.  But there is something about the rhythm of the story that seems to work the way Flaubert meant when he said, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot.  When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.”                                                                      I read this story to my wife a few weeks ago, while we were lying in bed, just before sleep.  I often do this, saying, "Listen to this."  There are some stories you just have to read with your lips moving and that you just have to share.
The story opens with this line: "Wes and Laura had not even known Helen was missing when the police brought her home at midnight." Helen is twelve and has been at a nitrous oxide party, inhaling the stuff from garbage bags. Wes and Helen decide to take Helen and her sister Kit, who is seven, to Paris for five weeks to give a jolt to Helen's system before school starts in the fall  "Helen seemed like an intelligence test they were failing, had been failing for years."
"In Paris, Helen became a child again.  She was skinny, pubescent, not the lean dangerous blade of a near-teen she'd seemed at home." The two sisters become friends , "as though their fighting had been an allergic reaction to American air." Helen and her father want to stay in Paris. The mother sees a look on Helen's face, not just of happiness, but the "wish to convey that happiness to someone else, a generosity."  However, later that night, they get a phone call that Helen is in a hospital. With the help of her sister, Helen has been sneaking out at night to hang out with a group of French boys and, having struck her head in a fall, is being kept unconscious to relieve the pressure on her brain.
Later, Laura must take Kit back to America to start school, but Wes stays with Helen, and as she slowly rises back into consciousness she has "the daft look of a saint," her hair cropped like Jeanne d'Arc's. When Wes feeds her some marshmallow fluff, she looks out at him as if she was "sunk in the bottom of a well. Everything above her was hidden in shadows." She cannot speak, but Wes gets her watercolors and a sketch pad, and she begins to paint, and, from her father's point of view, to get better.  However, when the mother returns, she is not so sure—even reluctantly thinking it might have been better had Helen not survived the fall.
And thus the story ends, not with a resolution, since resolutions are often phony, but with a suspension and these luminous sentences:
"Helen painted.  That was real.  He knew his own brain, what it could make up and what it couldn't. He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness.  It was a circus act, a perilous one.  Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip."

"Sh'khol" by Colum McCann is another "lost child" story, this time a temporary loss that foretells a permanent one when a parent must give up his or her child to whatever lies ahead in adolescence/adulthood.  McCann says the story, like many great stories, is a "collision of obsessions." But, he adds:
 Still, the trouble with fiction "is that it often makes too much sense and we allow our obsessions to narrow themselves.  Characters with their conscious actions, plotlines unrolling themselves in in inexorable ways, everything neat, ordered, controlled. You always want to keep the critical heckler alive in yourself. I found myself wanting to write a story that would be grounded in action, but still elusive, tenebrous, and certainly unfilmable.  Nothing is ever, eventually found out."
The plot of the story is the least of it, although without the plot, the story is nothing.  It is about a Jewish single mother, living with an adopted Russian deaf boy with fetal alcohol syndrome in Galway on the West coast of Ireland. It is just after Christmas, for which she has bought him a wet suit, and he disappears.  That's the plot—his going missing, with that damned ill-fitting wetsuit, and then miraculously turning up, only to be lost again to the future. But it is not the plot, but the language of the story that makes it a  mysterious story. Here are some sentences that should suggest what it is about:
"There was a raw wedge of thrill in her love for him.  The presence of the unknown. The journey out of childhood. The step into a future self."
"They stepped out into a shaft of light so clear and bright that it seemed made of bone."
"The onset of an early adolescence. What might happen in the years to come, when the will of his body surpassed the strength of her own? How would she hold him down? What discipline would she need, what restraint?"
"The top half of the front door was still latched. The bottom half swung panicky in the wind. She ducked under, wearing only her nightgown. The grass outside was brittle with frost. The cold seeped between her toes. His name was thrown back to her from among the treetops."
"At the back of the cottage the trees curtsied. The branches speckled the wall with shadows."
"She felt as if she had chewed a piece of aluminum. The pain in her head suddenly cold."
"She moved away from him, closed the door and stood outside in the corridor, listening to his stark breathing and the persistent splash of water, its rhythm sounding out against the faint percussion of the nearby sea."

"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden"
In his interview with Deborah Treisman in The New Yorker, Denis Johnson reminds us that T. S. Eliot spoke of making “quasi-musical decisions” in his writing. "That’s how I’d put it, too," says Johnson.  "Do you know the Billy Strayhorn composition “Lush Life”? The way this story unstrings itself reminds me of “Lush Life.” 
If you do not know "Lush Life," there are a number of versions available on "You Tube."  My favorite is the one by Ella Fitzgerald, but Lady Gaga has a nice recent version with Tony Bennett . I don't think I can explain how Johnson's story "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" somehow evokes or echoes (I hate the clichéd word "resonates") Strayhorn's composition.  But I like the idea that Johnson feels that in writing the prose he was writing music.
Johnson's story "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" is a collection of very short pieces, each independent, but held together by all being told by the same narrator, an advertising man who has left New York to live in San Diego.
The first is an account of people at a dinner party talking about silences, when one man silences everyone by saying the most silent thing he ever heard was a land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan. The second "silence" is about another dinner party when the host, for no apparent reason, puts a valuable painting into the fireplace to be consumed. In the third story, the narrator tells of getting a phone call from his first wife who says she is dying, but after she hangs up, he is not sure if it is his first wife, named "Ginny" who has called or his second wife "Jenny."  The story ends with his wondering, "if you are like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you."
In the last segment, the narrator, who says he is just shy of sixty-three, is lying in bed with his wife watching TV. He thinks that he has "lived longer in the past now than I can expect to live in the future.  I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn't mind forgetting a lot more of it."
He says he sometimes lies awake and reads something "wild and ancient" from one of the collections of folktales he owns:
"Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse."
There is indeed something magical and absolutely story-like about these short pieces by Denis Johnson. They evoke mysteries like those in fairy tales and The Arabian Nights, which exist in an alternate realm of story and only seem to be about reality in a funhouse mirror sort of way. Sometimes, they provoke an open-mouthed awe when, as Johnson's narrator says, "the Mystery winks at you."

The problem I always faced in the classroom was how to compel students to feel what I felt when reading a story.  It was like trying to "share" one's feelings about a piece of music.  I remember sometimes responding so emotionally to a song that I wanted to grab hold of a friend or lover and say, "Listen to this! You just have to listen to this!" and then being disappointed when they listened politely and responded with a quizzical cocked eyebrow.
I once had an old Victorian poetry professor in undergraduate school who would come into the classroom, open book in hand, and say, "Listen to this!"  And then he would read a poem, something like Thomas Hardy's  "The Convergence of the Twain." When he finished, he would close the book and look up at us, with a smile on his round old face as if he had just shared with us a beautiful secret that he hoped we knew.  He never really talked much about the poems, just read them and smiled, as if that was enough, or maybe all that one could do when faced with a piece of music that seemed to defy explanation, but which meant something profound and wonderful.


Karl said...

I love your analogy of the enjoyment of a story sometimes being like the enjoyment of a piece of music. Certainly education and long exposure to literature can help one to appreciate any given story, but inevitably some unquantifiable personal taste is going to figure in as well. Sometimes one loves a story because it just "works" for you, the way a piece of music can work for you, reaching inside you and touching some personal part of your psyche.

As for this year's BASS, I totally agree with you on "Sh'khol" -- my favorite in the anthology -- but with your other two favorites I'm afraid I'm in the "responding with a quizzical cocked eyebrow" group. Perhaps my reading of them was too shallow and uneducated, or perhaps their music just wasn't right for my ears.

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