Wednesday, July 13, 2016

T. C. Boyle's "The Fugitive": Social Realism Does Not a Great Story Make

If  this story had been written by anyone other than T. C. Boyle, The New Yorker probably would not have published it.
 But a short story by Boyle cannot be ignored, for he has written so many of them and they have been enjoyed by so many readers that he has made a place for himself in the history of the form.  Boyle is a professional writer, making at least part of his living from his writing. As a result, he is probably always on the alert for something about which to write a story. When New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman commented on the magazine's website that his fiction is often politically or culturally topical and asked him if he imagines his way into a scenario while reading or watching news stories, he says he reads widely and that as a fiction writer, he cannot help transposing what he learns into a scenario for a novel or a story
For example, “La Conchita” (which originally appeared as one of the two dozen stories he has published in the New Yorker over the years, and which reappeared  in his collection Wild Child), is one of those stories that Boyle culled from the newspapers. In early January 2005, Southern California had received more than its average rainfall for an entire year.  La Conchita, a small town between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, tucked up against the hills separated from the ocean by Pacific Coast Highway, was struck by a landslide, burying many homes and killing several people. 
To make a story out of this tragedy, Boyle had to come up with something personally human at stake created by the mudslide.  Since it was not only a disaster for the locals, but it also blocked the highway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Boyle invented a courier who tells the story in tough film noir language and carries a hidden pistol. While transporting a human liver to Santa Barbara, he is stopped by the slide. While trying to get the liver to the man whose life depends on it, he also tries to dig out a man and his daughter from underneath a house.  Although exciting, it is a predictable plot-based action story, "ripped from the headlines."
For "The Fugitive," Boyle focuses on a story that appeared in Southern California newspapers in the late summer of 2014 about a young farm worker, age 24, named Agustin Zeferino in Santa Maria, which is just north of Santa Barbara. The following newspaper article appeared in a Southern California newspaper t on August 23, 2014:
Santa Barbara County health officials issued an arrest warrant Friday for a 24-year-old man suffering from tuberculosis who discontinued his medication. The man poses a public health risk, county officials said.
Agustin Zeferino, 24, had received medication for his illness, but then stopped his treatment about two weeks ago. Zeferino has drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is a highly contagious and rare form of the disease that can be spread by coughing or sneezing.
Even though tuberculosis can be cured with treatment, people with drug-resistant cases are required to continue taking medication for 18 to 24 months. In California, it is a misdemeanor to discontinue treatment ordered by a health official.
Boyle told Treisman about this story: "What is vitally important to me is point of view.  I want to dig into the actual and see what it's like at is core.  Each of  us justifies his/her own views and actions.  Sometimes, we find common ground; more often, we don't."
However, he does not tell the story from the point of view of the young Mexican, who he names Marciano, but rather from a third-person point of view of a more educated narrator, albeit from the perspective of the young Mexican—a tactic that allows Boyle to insert some authorial comments or observations. For example, the case worker is named Rosa Hinojosa, which Marciano keeps repeating over and over in his head because of the rhyme, which somehow made him feel better." It also allows Boyle to use language he has picked up from websites about multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—language that Marciano would not use, since he has not read the same websites, e.g. "because he'd  stopped taking his medication a year ago, his case of tuberculosis had mutated into the multi-drug resistant form, and his life was at risk, because after this there were no more drugs."  When Marciano is being pursued by authorities, Boyle/narrator says for him: "Paranoia was when you felt that everybody was after you even if they weren't, but what would you call this? Common sense?"
When Treisman asks Boyle whether his authorial sympathies were with Marciano, "who doesn't ask for very much in life and whose freedom is at risk, or with Rosa Hinojosa, who is simply trying to do her job and protect society—or with those countless others whose lives Marciano puts at risk," Boyle says his sympathies lie with both characters whose points of view he hopes to "inhabit in order to explore not only the dramatic possibilities of the scenario but the ethics as well." However, this simply is not true, for we never get the perspective of Rosa. We only get Boyle's answer to the question about Zeferino's behavior many Southern California residents must have had on their minds--"what was he thinking?" To this date, Zeferino has not been located.  Many think he managed to get back to Mexico, where he died of his illness.
It's not a great story, but then most stories that are "ripped from the headlines"--stories that deal with social issues or that simply report mere historical facts are usually not great stories.
However, when a story presents "hard facts" within a symbolic structure, objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful metaphors by the motivating force of the story's own thematic and structural demands. For example, in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the spatial symbolism of the story, in which the characters are positioned between two railroad tracks--each for trains going in opposite directions from the other--and between two kinds of landscape--one alive and green and one brown and dead--is motivated by the basic inescapable nature of the conflict between the characters, not by the realistic necessity of verisimilitude. 
In the old allegorical tale or romance form, the received traditional conventions of the story or its underlying conceptual  framework justified the structure of its events.  In the romantic Poe tale, the obsessed mind of the teller or central character created the hallucinatory world of the story.  In the O. Henry well-made story the "reality" of the fiction derived from the preconceived ironic pattern that governed or motivated its events and objects.  In the modern short story, no received tradition, obsessed narrator, or calculated pattern exists to justify or motivate its tightly unified structure.  However, in spite of what seems to be a realistic style in which events are motivated primarily by mere sequence and verisimilitude, modern realistic stories are still able to create a metaphoric sense of reality.
Fully mimetic characters in a story do not make the story realistic if the situation they confront eludes their power to incorporate it within a framework of the familiar, natural world.  The realistic impulse creates a realistic story only when it succeeds in convincing the involved character or the reader that the mystery confronted has been, or can be, integrated.  When a character moves from ignorance to knowledge--a common structural device in the realistic novel--this indeed means he or she has been able to bring the confronted experience or phenomenon within the realm of the naturalistic, cause-effect world. 
If, however, the knowledge arrived at is metaphysical and inchoate, that is, not satisfactorily the knowledge of social, natural, psychological frameworks, then it remains revelatory, intuitive, unsayable.  Revelation does not necessitate change if what is revealed is an aspect of human behavior that cannot be accounted for socially, naturalistically, psychologically, or is so morally intolerable  that no change in the perceiver can affect any change in the basic situation:  in short, when nothing can be done about it and when language seems inadequate to express it.
Raymond Carver knew well the short story's tradition of centering on that which can be narrated but not explained.  He accepted Chekhov's demanding dictum:  “In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,--because--I don't know why!”  The writer from whom Carver learned about the short story’s shunning of explanation was Flannery O'Connor, who insisted that the peculiar problem of the short-story writer “is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible."  The storyteller's effort  to make the reader see what does not exist in the world of external perception is a primal source of the storytelling impulse, as old as myth, legend, folktale, fable, and romance--all forms that attempt to objectify and actualize that which exists as a purely subjective state. 
As Flannery O'Connor says: “If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious,... then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”  For this this kind of writer, O’Connor says, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." 
Short prose narrative since Boccaccio has always been more structure than stuff, more form than content, more artifice than nature--which is simply to say, more art than reality.  This fact of  the form has always been a thorn in the side of readers who believe that the purpose of fiction is to provide as faithful a mirror to external reality as it is possible for language to do.  Ever since Boccaccio's ten young storytellers fled plague-ridden reality for the language-bound world of story, short narrative has been characterized by its self-conscious creation of an alternate world of artifice.
I note parenthetically that the short story has been criticized since the nineteenth century by a number of critics and novelists concerned with art's social involvement and awareness.  It was criticized by naturalist writers in the nineteenth century and has been scorned by Marxist writers and critics of the thirties to the present day.  James T. Farrell scolded the form in the thirties for its sterile formality and its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology.  Maxwell Geismar lashed out against The New Yorker school of short story writers such as Salinger, Roth, Malamud, Powers, et all in 1964 for the narrow range of their vision and subject matter and their stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story.  Malcolm Cowley has criticized advocates of the so-called anti-story for having nothing to write about except their own effort in finding it difficult to write about anything.  And more recently, so-called minimalist stories have been blasted for being so damned minimalist and lacking in social context and relevance.
T. C. Boyle's "Fugitive," in spite of the suggestion of universality of its title, never creates the kind of symbolic structure of human mystery that a great short story embodies.  It is simply a narrative of an unfortunate young man who contracts a disease that, if not controlled, may contaminate others. It’s a social issue of local importance, not an existential issue of universal significance.

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