Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween 2016: Poe's "Descent Into the Malestrom" and "Pit and the Pendulum"

Halloween is always about exposing and exploiting the gap between the everyday and alternate reality.  Here is a brief discussion, excerpted from my book on Poe, of that gap.
Poe was interested in all human experiences that challenged or undermined the easy assumption that everyday reality was the only reality worth attending to.  Although some readers may think that this preference for alternate realms of experience was part of his psychological makeup, it is much more likely that it grew out of his acceptance of the German romantic tradition of short fiction as a vehicle for presenting experiences that break up the ordinary.
One of the most common such "alternate" experiences, of course, one that is accessible to every human being, is the experience of dream.  However, Poe was not only interested in presenting dreams as if they were reality, he was also interested, as was typical of the Blackwood fiction of the day, in presenting experiences that were so extreme that they seemed to have the nightmarish quality of dream.  To present dream as reality and reality as dream was, for Poe, to blur the lines between the two forms of experience.  It was to give the human construct of a dream the hard feel of the external world and to give the seemingly hard contours of the external world a sense of being a human construct. 
Two of Poe's best-known stories which blur this dream/reality distinction are "Descent into the Maelstrom" (May 1841) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842).  Both present characters placed in an extreme situation; however, the situations differ in a crucial way.  In the first the extreme situation is a natural phenomenon, in spite of the fact that by its extremity it seems unnatural. It is a favorite Poe technique to create the extreme situation by pushing the ordinary situation to extraordinary lengths, to suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes.
 In the second story, the ontological status of the situation is ambiguous, for although  the character knows physically where he is, he does not know psychically what state he is in.  The stories also differ in terms of what motivates the extreme state.  In "A Descent into the Maelstrom," Poe devotes most of the story to setting up the situation, normalizing it, locating it in space; once the situation is established the story is almost over.  In "The Pit and the Pendulum," how the character got to his present situation is left vague; a great deal of the story is spent considering whether he is in is a dream or a waking state.  However, the means by which the two characters cope with their situations is similar; both make use of careful and lucid observation to try to escape their fate.
"Descent into the Maelstrom" begins in the typical Blackwood magazine manner by presenting a character who has undergone an "event" which has never happened to a human being before and who needs, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, to tell about it.  Moreover, Poe follows the device common to romantic dramatic lyric poetry of having the narrator tell the story while located the self at that point where the events of the story took place, informing his wedding-guest-like auditor: "I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned--and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye." 
However, the teller also makes use of the eighteenth-century technique of verisimilitude, using a "particularizing manner" to give  precise details of the physical phenomenon he is describing.  The listener adds to this particularizing technique of authenticating the event by quoting from written sources such as Rasmus and the Encyclopedia Britannica, but asserts that no matter how "circumstantial" or detailed the descriptions are, they fall short of conveying the horror, the magnificence, or the "sense of the novel" which the scene of the whirlpool elicits, noting, however, that he is not sure from what "point of view" previous commentators viewed the whirlpool.  It is this notion of point of view that motivates the story, for, as the teller has said at the beginning, no one has had the viewpoint he has had--the typical romantic perspective from within rather than from without.
The storyteller presents himself as an inadequate teller, for he often claims the inability of his words to capture the event; he says it is "folly to attempt describing" the hurricane which hits, and when he knows he is close to the whirlpool, he says, "no one will know what my feelings were at that moment."  However, if his feelings of horror are indescribable, his feelings when he loses his sense of horror are calm and logical.  Indeed, when he makes up his mind to hope no more, he becomes composed and begins to reflect on how magnificent it would be to die in this manifestation of God's power:
I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the while itself.  I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make, and my principle grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see.
It is precisely this obsession to observe, an obsession that Dupin experiences also, which saves the narrator.  The nearer he comes to the bottom of the whirlpool, the keener grows what he calls his "unnatural curiosity."  It is a combination of memory and observation of the geometric shapes which are less apt to be drawn down in the whirlpool that marks the means of his escape.  Lashing himself to a cylinder-shaped barrel, he throws himself off the fishing boat into the whirlpool and hovers half-way between the top and the bottom, between chaos below and salvation above, until the whirlpool--which is, after all, limited in time, subsides.  At this point, the teller ends his tale by  moving from the past to the present-tense, reflecting on the tale itself:
As it is myself who now tell you this tale--as you see that I did escape--and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say--I will bring my story quickly to conclusion.
And indeed, he does; however, he has been transformed by the experience from participant to manipulator of his own discourse, for he says his companions on shore "knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land."
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is much more ambiguous about the epistemological or ontological state of the extreme situation than "A Descent into the Maelstrom."  Although the entire story takes place inside a prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character, has been thrown, the story does not indicate what the nameless narrator has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition responsible for his imprisonment.  It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist's spirit and his own methodical attempts to escape each new horror that they put in his path.
Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" only focuses on one character, the reader actually discovers very little about him.  We do not know his name, what he has done, whether he is guilty, whether he is a criminal, what he misses about life in the everyday world--in short, we know none of those things about the character that we might expect to learn if this were a novel in which a man spends several years in prison.  Although such a lack of knowledge would make readers quickly lose interest if they were reading a novel, it is indeed all that it is necessary to know to become involved with Poe's short story.  For this is not a realistic story of an individual human character caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story about every person's worst nightmare and an allegory of the most basic human situation and dilemma. 
The story is a Poe paradigm.  Focusing on a character under sentence of death and aware of it, it moves the character into a concrete dilemma which seems to "stand for" a metaphysical situation in an ambiguous way that suggests its "dreamy," "indeterminate" nature.  In this story we find the most explicit statement in Poe's fiction of his sense of the blurry line between dream and reality.   The narrator considers that although when we awake even from the soundest sleep, "we break the gossamer web of some dream," the web is so flimsy that a second later we forget we have dreamed at all.  However, sometimes, perhaps much later, memories of the details of the dream come back and we do not know where they have come from.  This sense of having a memory of that which did not in fact occur is central to the story's ambiguity, for as the narrator tries to remember his experience, it is not clear whether the memory is of a real event or a dream event that has been forgotten.
He does not know in what state he is; the only thing he does know is that he is not dead, for he says "Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence;--but where and in what state was I?"  The narrator's task is simply to save himself, but in order to survive he must know where he is, and the first crucial task he undertakes is to try to orient himself.  However, his efforts are complicated by his moving back and forth between sleep and waking; each time he falls asleep, he must reorient himself all over again.  This explains why even after trying to demarcate his position, he awakes and, instead of going on forward, retraces his steps and thus overestimates the size of his cell.
Like the protagonist in "A Descent into the Maelstrom," he is preoccupied with curiosity about the mere physical nature of his surroundings, taking a "wild interest in trifles."  However, in spite of his deliberative efforts, it is the accident of tripping that saves him from the pit the first time.  Waking from another interlude of sleep, he is bound down, and this time above him is a picture of time, synonymous with death, carrying not the image of a scythe, but rather an actual pendulum which sweeps back and forth.  In this situation, surrounded by the repulsive rats, with the scythe of time and thus death over his head, he again moves back and forth between the states of sensibility and insensibility. 
This pattern of moving in and out of consciousness is much like the pattern in "Ligeia" and is typical of Poe, for in such an alternating state, consciousness has some of the characteristics of unconsciousness and vice versa; one state is imbued with the qualities of the other state.  As a result, Poe's stories are neither solely like the consciousness of realism, nor the projective unconsciousness of romance.  As the narrator totters on the brink of the pit, the walls rush back and an outstretched arm catches him as he falls.  The ending is not an ending at all, but rather the beginning of waking life, the movement from the gossamer dream or nightmare which constitutes the story itself.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What If These Were the Best American Stories of 2016?--Part 3

Well, I have, with some effort, read all the stories in the 2016 Best American Short Stories twice, and I am definitely underwhelmed. Maybe I have read too damned many short stories over the last fifty years since I began teaching the form. I tell you, my friends, I did not, with the exception of a few, find these stories very powerful or distinctive or irresistible. Indeed, I thought most of them were predictable, pedestrian, routine, ordinary jobs of work—just not powered by the obsessiveness of a writer's sense of the mystery of human experience and not controlled by a writer's careful mastery of the language necessary to evoke that mystery.  In this blog post and one final one next week, I share with you my readings of the remainder of these stories.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears" (What if I Used the Goldilocks Plot?)
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum first came to public attention in 2004 when she was one of the five nominees for the National Book Award who became famous because they were so obscure.  Her second book Ms. Hempel Chronicles, has been dubbed a “novel-in-stories,” if for no other reason than the same central character appears in all of the stories in the book. The publishers knew better than to use the label “short stories” on the cover or in the promotional material, hoping readers would assume the book was a novel. And sure enough in her brief bio in this year's BASS, Ms. Hempel Chronicles is termed a novel.
Bynum says that for "The Bears" she had an experience she wanted to write about—her stay at a writer's retreat when she was pregnant—but she did not have a plot, so she borrowed one, something she has done before. A few years ago, she wrote a story entitled "The Erlking, "which was published in the New Yorker series “20 Under 40" it was originally written for a collection of fairy tales.  Based on Goethe’s poem of the same name, "The Erlking” does seem to follow many of the basic fairy tale conventions, although it does not take place “once upon a time,” but rather in the present world of anxieties experienced by a mother and her child (In Goethe’s poem, it is a father and son).
For "The Bears," she borrows the Goldilocks story and has her central character, a young woman who has recently miscarried, at a writer's retreat, wandering around in the woods and going into a house owned by a bear-like man.  She also makes use of the psychologist William James, about who she is supposed to be writing, by referring to James's paper "What is an Emotion," in which he uses the example of a person meeting a bear. When she sees the hulking bear of a man coming toward the house, Goldilocks-like, she jumps out the window and runs away. It's a facile little story, well-written and entertaining, and there may even be some relevance of the William James theory about emotions being the product of physiological responses we associate with them, but I doubt it.  Primarily it seems a writer's experimental attempt to graft a fairy tale plot on to some material she had lying around.

Ben Marcus, "Cold Little Bird" (What if a Child Suddenly Hated his Parents?)
This is a relatively simple "What if" story:  What if a young child suddenly and coldly refused his parents' love for him?  How would they handle it?  What would they do? How would it affect their marriage? The story does not provide an answer as to why the ten-year-old boy suddenly tells his parents he does not love them. For to provide an answer, e.g. parental neglect, abuse, bullying, e.g., would remove the mystery of the story. And it is the mystery that provides the piece with a sense of complexity; an explanation, by the psychologist, for example, would reduce the story to domestic melodrama. Throwing in an insert aside  about the boy reading a book that proposes that Jews were behind 9/11 is just a red herring.

Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian" (What if an Instructor Did not Belong?
This is a story about a post-doc philosophy instructor getting challenged by an obnoxious student who tells her she does not know what she is talking about when she talks about Roland Barthes on the nature of everyday reality, or the quotidian.  Millner says in her Contributor's Notes that the heroine of the story is facing a contemporary problem: "She's talented, she's a striver, and she's a person of color who's failing to make her way in a historically homogeneous institution." However, there is no mention of the fact that the central character is a "person of color."  The only hints we have are the following: When she is in boarding school, the narrator says (1) "She looked different from the other kids, came from a different kind of family, didn't have the money to go on their kinds of vacations." (2) When she talks with a colleague she has not seen in a while about her encounter with the student, he  asks her, "You're doing something with ethnic studies, right?" (3) When a photographer comes to take her id picture, he apologizes for the color filters which he says are designed for lighter skin, adding if he had known he would have brought different ones.  When she asks "known what?" he laughs and says, "I mean, they said the philosophy department."
So if we are sharp enough to catch these hints, or if we take the time to look Millner up on Google and see from her pictures that she is African American, we are to assume that the central character's difficulties are due to bias against her race in a philosophy department. This gives the secretary's remark "You don't belong here," what Millner calls added "resonance" (that terribly overused word).

Daniel J. O'Malley, "Bridge" (What if An Old Couple Jumped Off a Bridge?)
At a little over three pages, this is a simple image.  A young boy staring out his window sees an old couple take off all their clothes and jump off a railroad bridge. Ostensibly, the story is about the boy's trying to understand the significance of the event.  At the end, he invents or imagines that the two old people become birds when they  jump off the bridge and fly away. 

Yuko Sakata, "On This Side" (What if an Old Friend had a Sex Change Operation?)
This story depends solely on this line: "More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy." A transsexual comes to find refuge with an old friend from school from a boyfriend who has abused her when he finds out her history. It takes twenty pages of insignificant talk and the quotidian to get to the conclusion you are expecting—that the old friend will become attracted to her, but that she will go back to the boyfriend.

Sharon Solwitz, "Gifted" (What If My Son Had Cancer?)
According to Solwitz's "Contributor's Note," this story is based on her son dying of cancer. That being so, it feels uncharitable to speak ill of the story. But when a writer puts a story out there, there is no choice but to treat it as a story.  Solwitz says she is now working on a "novel in stories" or a "collection of interrelated stories" about a fictional family who has a son with cancer. The focus of "Gifted" is on a forty-three-year-old woman whose son is diagnosed with a large abdominal tumor just before his bar mitzvah. The boy handles it with grace. On the other hand, she has an affair with a man she meets on business in London and squabbles with her sister with whom she has always competed. But if you want to know what happens to her son, the man, her marriage, etc., you will have to pick up the "novel in stories" or "collection of interrelated stories" whenever it becomes available.

Lauren Goff, "For the God of Love, for the Love of God" (Who Cares About These Beautiful People?)
This is a story about Amanda and Grant, who are visiting—actually kind of mooching off—Genevieve and Manfred, who have a home in Paris.  There is a lot of dialogue, without quotation marks, which gets a bit tiresome (dialogue is hard to sustain interest in unless it is loaded with significance). These are "beautiful people," (gotta have quotes around that phrase), and, of course, somebody is having se with somebody's wife , in this case, Grant is having sex with Genevieve.  Gen and Manfred have a son, a four-year-old named Leo, who seems pretty precocious for his age—enough so that when Amanda's beautiful  twenty-one-year-old niece Mina shows up,  that Leo seems quite smitten by her so that he is looking forward to her giving him a bath and getting him ready for bed. "The gleam on Mina's legs up the stairs. He would eat her if he could."
There's a bit of forced mythic subtext when Leo, inspired by seeing a picture of  the Phoenix aflame, sets a falcon on fire that has fallen dead out of the sky in the driveway. The story ends tediously enough with Mina thinking she will stay in Paris, for she is young and beautiful and can do anything she wants.  "Anything was possible.  The whole world had been split open like a peach." My, my, my!

Smith Henderson, "Treasure Slate" (Who Cares About These Worthless People?)
Henderson, who was born and raised in Montana, says this story came to him practically whole cloth, after reading an article about some clever rural burglars who check the newspapers for recent deaths and then go to the home funeral and rob the person.  Sometimes I wonder why stories about Montana so often focus on no-account crooks and ner-do-wells—part of a wild west tradition, I reckon.  This story about two brothers who aren't worth powder and lead to blow out their own brains just seems too fricking facile and superficial to me.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Integrating the Supernatural and Making Science the Context: Best American Short Stories 2016--Part 2

Integrating the Supernatural:
Louise Erdrich, "The Flower"
Karen Russell, "The Prospectors"
It seems appropriate that we take a look at these two stories together, not only because they both appeared in The New Yorker in June, 2015, but because they both share a similar structure: beginning as a realistic story with an historical context and then shifting into a supernatural story of the kind that has gained literary credence by being termed "magical realism."
 Let me say right up front that I like Erdrich's story, but do not have any positive reaction to the Russell story.  I know that part of this is due to my reactions to previous works by both writers.  I have read Erdrich since she first started writing and have always valued the way she recreates a magical world of Native American folklore.  I have read all of Karen Russell's short stories and have always found them light weight pop lit entertainments. You can take a look at my previous comments on both writers in earlier blogs by searching their names.
Basically, Russell's "The Prospectors" is about two young female hustlers in the 1930s who move to Oregon from Florida and are invited to a grand opening of a mountain lodge.  However, they take the wrong chairlift and end up at another lodge—one that was destroyed in an avalanche killing all the Civilian Conservation Corps young men building it.  Thus, the story focuses on the two women's encounter with these two dozen dead men who do not know they are dead.
The story just goes on and on and you can't wait until it ends. What irritates me most about Karen Russell is that she writes these superficial stories and then tries to convince us they are heavy-weight. In her interview for the "This Week in Fiction" blog and the BASS Contributor's Notes, she tries to justify this story as being a serious exploration of existential philosophy and cultural context.  For example, she says the word "prospecting" was highly "resonant"  (Aren't you tired of this terribly clichéd word?) for her of the notion of "staking an existential claim," for, after all, she says, the two women go to a party where their hosts demand that they "mint them into reality." 
Russell says with high seriousness that she loved the idea of a story about two friends who "survive the painful collapse of a fantasy, of a phantom structure of reality, and live to tell the tale." In her interview with New Yorker  editor Willing Davidson, she even dares to bring in Nietzsche to justify the dynamic between the two women: "Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species."  Good Lord! All this to justify a silly superficial story that even Stephen King could do better.
Louise Erdrich says her story about a seventeen-year old young man who tries to rescue an eleven-year-old native American girl from an old drunken white trader has its roots in journals kept by fur traders, as well as traditional Ojibwe and Cree stories. In her "This Week in Fiction" interview with Deborah Treisman, Erdrich justifies the supernatural elements in the story, e.g. the disembodied rolling head of the trader that chases the young people, by saying it comes from an traditional Cree/Ojibwe origin story, which suggests the damned person is doomed to roll forever detached from his body. She says the situations are based on such well-known stories and skills that she did not think them fantastical while she was writing them, for the training of spiritual people in many indigenous societies involves learning how to leave one's body.
Basically what makes Erdrich's story of the supernatural believable and Russell's story of the supernatural silly is the difference between the voices that tell them. Whereas Russell's story has the kind of self-conscious, elevated language that characterizes much of her work, Erdrich's story has the restrained, matter-of-fact tone that can present the incredible as belonging to a cultural world that accepts it and therefore makes it credible. After the poison given to the old trader makes his head swell up to a grotesque size, the fact that the head can become an independent entity seems perfectly acceptable. The fairy tale nature of the young girl who is a beautiful princess beneath her muddied face and who is saved by a young prince charming pursued by a maddened detached head would seem absurd if it were not for the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the storyteller. Whereas there is nothing to motivate the entrance into the supernatural in Russell's story, Erdrich's story takes on the same kind of credibility that fairy tales do. We believe it because we have agreed to enter into the cultural world in which such tales explain what mystifies us.

Science as a Context:
Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age"
Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore"
It is curious, but perhaps only incidental, that there are two stories with a science context in this year's Best American Short Stories: Andrea Barrett's "Wonders of the Shore" and Yalitza Ferreras's "The Letician Age." Andrea Barrett has used science as a background context many times before. I have posted on her stories before. Ferreras, who grew up moving back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New York City, is younger than Barrett and published less. She describes the origin of her story in what she calls a terrifying incident at an Hawaiian lava field that she wrote an essay about in a nonfiction writing class at Mills College.  This story is a fictionalized version of the essay, which maintains a list of famous geologists that appeared in the original. 
Ferreras says that when she was writing the story, she realized the list was made up solely of white males, and thus she understood the "real engine" of her story: "the quest for power by someone who feels powerless.  The story became about how Leticia embodies this desire."
"The Letician Age" begins with episodes from Leticia's childhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and in New York City. These episodes are interspersed with brief bios and accomplishments of famous geologists, e.g. Louis Agassiz, Georgius Agricola, George Barrow, etc. Leticia is fascinated, even obsessed with geology, keeping a rock collection and talking to the rocks. The geology obsession becomes a unifying metaphor in which Leticia thinks of her sister in terms of a mineral hardness scale, sees the eyes of a boy she meets as translucent crystals, her falling in love as a polarity reversal of the earth, etc. 
All this moves along in metaphoric fashion until something powerful must happen, and it does when she and her beloved boyfriend go to Hawaii and she obsessively tries to put her hand in molten lava and loses fingers and part of her hand. After surgery, she decides she and her boyfriend are mismatched, and she becomes convinced that her injury is due to a curse of the God Pele for taking  a volcanic rock from a volcano the day before the accident. The story ends with her scratching the rock and thinking of a painting of Pele that hangs in the post office in Hawaii. Her boyfriend had said that Leticia looked like Pele—a goddess who moves the earth.
The story works too self-consciously to make the science context an integral structural device. And it stretches the reader's imagination to believe that Leticia would put her hand in molten lava just because the story thematically demands it.
The difference between Andrea Barrett's use of a scientific context and Ferreras's is the difference between a purely human story that just happens to have a scientific context, and a somewhat forced story that depends solely on the scientific obsession that energizes it.   
I have read all of Andrea Barrett's stories in Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, and Archangel; the first two I reviewed, and the last I posted a blog on. I like her short stories--not because they are grounded in an historical context or because they are often linked together—but because of the careful prose with which they are written and the delicate and mysterious human relationships on which they focus.
As usual with Barrett's stories, this one features a fictional character embedded in a context of historically real characters—usually late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century scientists.  "Wonders of the Shore" focuses on an invented character, a thirty-three-year old teacher named Henrietta Atkins, who assists the botanist Daphne Bannister, particularly one summer vacation in 1885, when they visit the Isle of Shoals off the coast of Maine, where Bannister becomes friends with writer Celia Thaxter, well-known as a friend of  writers Whittier and Sarah Orne Jewett, and painter William Morris Hunt.
When Thaxter shuns the company of Henrietta and increasingly pulls Daphne away to entertain her famous friends, Henrietta is drawn to a young painter named Sebby Quint. The crucial event in the story takes place when Henrietta receives a chatty letter from a well-meaning but dull man named Mason who wants to marry her. Although some part of her thinks she wants a life with him, when she finishes reading the letter, she crumples the pages and her eyes fill with tears.  When Sebby asks her what is wrong, she says Mason has met someone else and wants to break off with her.   She has no idea why she impulsively tells this lie, but it immediately increases Sebby's interest in her, and so she persists in it.
In 1901, after Thaxter has died and Bannister has published her book Wonders of the Shore, Bannister brings to Henrietta a package of Sebby's sketchbooks dated the summer of 1885, sent to her by a roommate of Sebby, informing her that he has died in an accident.  It is only then that we learn that Henrietta had an affair with Sebby that summer, and for sixteen years he had been present in her imagination, "leaping to mind unexpectedly when a wave lapped at a hull with a particular sound, or a cedar branch shook off the rain drops beading up on its needles." Many of the sketches are of Henrietta—a woman's hand, wrist, and forearm, a woman's naked back, a woman with her face hidden by her raised arms, a pair of woman's legs dangling over the edge of a rowboat.
The story ends by reminding us of the framework announced at the beginning—the friendship of Daphne and Henrietta that has lasted many years—with Daphne making frequent visits, about which notes are published in the newspaper, "which are colored by something that wouldn't be there if either of the women had married.  Now they seem to point at something.  They might not have read that way then." 
It is the secret life of Henrietta with Sebby and the secret night life of Daphne with Mrs. Thaxter that binds the two women together. Only the lie that had started it all remains Henrietta's secret, although Daphne probably knew about the affair. The story ends with Henrietta, who for a week after receiving Sebby's sketchbook, can feel his hair against her lips.
It is a delicate story that one must read slowly and carefully.  You have to love the language to love the story.  If you read it hurriedly, you will think it much about nothing, but if you let your lips move as you articulate the words and follow the rhythm of the syntax, you will appreciate the mysterious motivation of the two women whose relationship lies at its heart. Although science provides an historical context for the story, it is the complexly human that animates it—not an artificial plot provided by science.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thom Jones 1945-2016

American short story writer Thom Jones has just died at age 71, from complications from diabetes.  Here are some comments about a few of  his stories I wrote several years ago:

Thom Jones appeared on the literary scene in the early 1990’s with a flurry of awards.  His first story, ”The Pugilist at Rest,” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1992 and won first prize in the 1993 O. Henry Awards.  His first book, also titled The Pugilist at Rest, was short listed for the 1993 National Book Award.  The story “I Want to Live” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1993.  “Cold Snap” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1994, and “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” appeared in Best American Short Stories in 1995.  Jones was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1994 and 1995. His other short-story collections include Cold Snap, 1995, and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, 1999.

Jones was born in Aurora, Illinois in 1945, the first of three children.  His father was a professional fighter who became an engineer in the aerospace industry. After his father left when Jones was a child, his mother remarried.  Jones spent most of his childhood with his grandmother, who ran a grocery store.  His interest in boxing came from his father who often took Jones, beginning when Jones was seven, to the gym for boxing lessons.

Jones entered the Marine Corps in 1963, preparing to go to Vietnam.  However, after receiving a head injury in a boxing match, he became epileptic and was not deployed overseas.  On discharge from the service, he went to school at the University of Hawaii and then earned a degree in English from the University of Washington.  He was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1973.  He bounced back and forth between work in Aurora as a janitor and work in Chicago and Seattle as an advertising copywriter.  He got married and worked as a janitor for twelve years at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia, where his wife was librarian.  In 1986, he began rehab treatment for alcoholism, after which he became diabetic.

Jones has said that one morning in 1992, he had got home from the graveyard shift and was watching the Today show on television and drinking ale when he saw an old Iowa classmate, Tracy Kidder, being interviewed.  He said he was as low as he could get and just decided to start writing again.  In his biographical comments in the 1993 O. Henry Award Prize Stories, he says he wrote the story "The Pugilist at Rest" in a sort of "controlled ecstatic frenzy."  He recalls that one day, just as he was getting ready to go to work, his agent called to tell him that The New Yorker had accepted “The Pugilist at Rest.”  About two minutes later, he says, she called to say that Esquire had accepted another story.  Just as he started out the door to go to work, she called a third time to tell him that Harper’s  was going to publish the story “I Want to Live.”

Between 1992 and 1999, Jones published three collections of stories, went on book tours, did readings, taught part time, and conducted seminars and writers’ workshops.  He taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a guest instructor between 1994 and 1996.  However, since the publication of his third collection, he published little else, instead doing some screenplay writing.  He lived in Olympia, Washington.

Some critics have suggested that Jones is a realist who introduces us to a segment of society that we do not often see and do not really know--captives of veterans’ hospitals, wanderers around the fringes of prize fighting gyms, whacked-out refugees of disillusionment, existential absurdists in a drug-induced world of their own. However, Jones's stories are less realistic than hallucinatory, more figural than sociological, more metaphoric than mimetic.  When you enter a Thom Jones story, you put normality aside and live momentarily in a world that most of us only know in those rare moments of hallucination when we are fevered or highly medicated.  What is most characteristic of Jones's style is the runaway voice of characters spaced out, speeded up, and thus somehow in touch with a strange magic that transcends the everyday world and throws the reader into a nether world between fantasy and reality.

The title story of Jones’s enthusiastically received first collection of stories is typical of the style and narrative method that early readers found irresistible.  The voice of the narrator, who describes training and fighting as a marine and a boxer, sounded so raw and convincing that many early reviewers declared, incorrectly, that Jones had served in Vietnam.  The story begins with a young recruit called Hey Baby being razzed for a letter he wrote to a girlfriend.  When Hey Baby begins harassing the narrator’s buddy Jorgeson, a guy who admires Jack Kerouac and wants to practice Zen Buddhism, the narrator hits him in the temple with the butt of his M-14, fracturing his skull. 

After boot camp, when the narrator runs into Jorgeson again at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Jorgeson has become a gung-ho Marine.  The only Vietnam War scene in the story describes a battle in which the narrator’s gun jams and he watches helplessly as many of his comrades are killed, including his buddy Jorgeson, all of which Jones recounts in gruesome detail. The story then shifts to the narrator’s discussion of the concept of bravery, referencing the gladiator Theogenes, a powerful boxer who is depicted in a famous Roman statue named “The Pugilist at Rest.”  The narrator says he has discovered a reservoir of malice and sadism in his soul that poured out in Vietnam, where he served three tours, seeking payback for the death of Jorgeson and his other comrades.  After returning home from Vietnam, he takes up boxing and gets hit so hard and so repeatedly by another boxer that he develops epileptic seizures, which cause a kind of aura that he describes as being satori.  The story ends with his realization that good and evil are only illusions and doubting whether his vision of Supreme Reality is anything more than like the demons visited on madmen. 

Thom Jones provided a bit of welcome ragged, rough-edged relief to the clean lines of M.F.A. storytelling at the end of the 1980s, but it is probably his linking a rambling macho voice with the seeming erudition suggested by his quotations from Schopenhauer that made early critics so enthusiastic about this story.

Jones has suggested that his stories often begin with an overheard line around which he develops a distinctive voice. Then, "like a method actor," he says, he falls into character and writes "instinctively without a plan or an idea as to what will happen." Jones creates a persona for his possessed writing style in the character Ad Magic, featured in the story "The White Horse" in The Pugilist at Rest and "Quicksand" in Cold Snap.  Whereas Ad Magic winds up in India after a seizure of epileptic amnesia in the earlier story, in this new piece, he is a direct mail wizard in Africa, writing fund appeal letters for the Global Aid Society hunger effort.  Ad Magic, who takes his name from his ability to lapse into a trance-like state and tap into a writing frenzy, is, like other Jones characters, suffering from a variety of pains, ills, and drugs.  In this story, his thumb, which has been broken, throbs with pain, and he has malaria--complete with chills, hypnogogic dreams, and "visceral evacuation.”

Typical of Jones's physically tormented characters, Ad Magic feels caught in the quicksand of Africa's heart of darkness, "sinking deeper and deeper," existentially filled with angst and a sense of absurdity, feeling like a marionette in a Punch and Judy show and that life is nothing but a big cartoon.  As Ad Magic says at one point, "Life's a dream."  Ad Magic is filled with anger at the lies, duplicity, and deceit at the heart of life; however, he gleefully engages in deceit himself by sending small baggies of crushed up Milk Bones with his appeal letter, telling recipients that it is the only food that poor Africans have to eat.  "Quicksand," whose title comes from a 1960s song by Martha and the Vandellas, ends much as the earlier Ad Magic story does--with Jones's fevered persona caught up in one of his frenzied writing seizures and, as usual, going too far.

In the title story of Jones’s second collection, the central character is back from Africa after malaria and a "manic episode" got him sent home, where he lost his medical license for drug abuse.  Like Ad Magic with his broken thumb, Richard, the character in this story, has a throbbing thumb, which he cut while trying to assemble a battery tester, and for which he must go to doctor where he gets the inevitable pain pills.  Richard's younger sister, Susan, a schizophrenic, who in one of her many suicide attempts puts a bullet through her temple and gives herself a perfect lobotomy, is the most important figure in this story, for she provides him with his best hope for finding some relief from his own episodes of depression.

Richard, who says he is in one of his Fyodor Dostoevsky moods, cures himself temporarily by putting a gun to his head, spinning the cylinder, and pulling the trigger.  The relief he experiences he attributes to what he calls the Van Gogh effect, for Van Gogh said he felt like a million dollars when he cut off his ear.  However, Richard's more promising and possibly more lasting "island of stability" occurs when Susan tells him about her dream of the two of them driving a 1967 Dodge around Heaven, where he will not have to ask any more existential questions. The story ends as they sit in the front seat of his car and eat the lunch he brought--"the best little lunch of a lifetime"--while outside it rains and inside the radio plays the Shirelles singing "This is Dedicated to the One I Love."

In "Tarantula," 38 pages are devoted to making life hell for John Harold Hammermeister, an ambitious, admittedly not very likeable, young academic who takes the job as assistant principal at W.E.B. Du Bois High School in urban Detroit.  Hammermeister, who has big plans of climbing the ladder to the position of state superintendent, keeps a tarantula on his desk to intimidate students and faculty, but meets his comeuppance from a janitor who reads Joseph Conrad and who stabs the tarantula with a number one Dixon pencil.  Then, with the help of another janitor, he puts duct tape over Hammermiester's eyes and mouth and beats his legs, knees, and elbows with a baseball bat.  All great satiric fun, with ex-janitor Jones self-indulgently enjoying himself.

One of the better stories in Jones last collection is the title story, which deals with an adolescent male who tries to find some heroic or romantic meaning in the world.  Although Sonny Liston is not really a friend of Kid Dynamite, the young boxer in the title story, he does meet him once (as Jones has said he himself did when he was a young man), and Liston signs a picture for him, "To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston."  The story is an engaging combination of young boy stuff--throwing snowballs at school, being awkward with a girlfriend, trying to cope with a step-father--and adult stuff-- fighting in the Golden Gloves, trying to establish a career, coping with a dangerous nemesis.  Although the Kid wins his big fight by a split decision, he loses in the long run because a cut over his eye puts him out of the tournament.  The story ends with the inevitable realization that "the real world, which had seemed so very far away all these years, was upon him."

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Best American Short Stories 2016--African Cultural Context: Adichie, Ali, Hadero

I have received my copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2016, edited by Junot Díaz. Truth to tell, I was not expecting a great deal.  Anyone who has read my blog over the past several years know that I do not admire the work of Junot Díaz. Named one of Newsweek’s “new faces of 1996,” Díaz got a six-figure contract for his first collection Drown. The Boston Review called Drown one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction, introducing a slice of heretofore-unrevealed life to most American readers. Díaz appealed to the trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues.
Well, I have read all of Díaz's fiction, including his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and his last book, the collection This is How You Lose Her. I found the stories self-indulgent and careless, lacking any serious significance.  If you wish, you can read my comments on his stories, including the award-winning "Miss Lora" by searching Díaz by name in this blog.
Although I did not expect much from the twenty choices Díaz made from the 120 stories Heidi Pitlor sent him, I must admit I was impressed by Díaz's introduction to BASS 2016, for he seems a genuine admirer of the short story as a form, calling himself a "true believer," adding that the short story is the genre he feels most protective of.  Whenever someone says he or she does not read short stories, he finds himself "proselytizing like a madman," sending favorite collections to the person in question. Here is what Díaz says about the short story.
I am as much in awe of the form's surpassing beauty as I am bowled over by its extraordinary mutability and generativity. I love the form's spooky effects, how in contradistinction to the novel, which gains its majesty from its expansiveness, from its size, the short story's colossal power extends from its brevity and restraint….
Short stories are acts of bravura, and for a form junkie like me, to read a good one has all the thrill of watching a high-wire act…few literary forms can match the story at putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythm. It's the one great benefit of the form's defining limitation…
To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times, places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers…my lie has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else.
Díaz himself would say, "That's good shit."  However, I have not found his own stories to be examples of the form's beauty, and spookiness. Now that I have read half of the twenty stories in the  BASS 2016 collection that Díaz chose, I am pondering whether they are examples of what Díaz calls high-wire acts of bravura.
Many of the stories fall within the category of "multicultural," a trend that I thought had peaked and was receding in favor of aesthetic excellence and complexity rather than political and social "relevance" and "context." I have talked about this issue visa a vis before on this blog. If you are interested, just type in "social issues" in the search line to the right of these comments.
What I want to focus on in three of the stories in the 2016 BASS is the relationship between their cultural background/context and their characters and themes. I think the two stories in which the cultural background is highly foregrounded are Mohammed Naseehu Ali's "Revalushan," which takes place in Ghana, and Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase," which takes place in Ethiopia. Kirkus Reviews said about Ali's collection of stories, The Prophet of Zongo Street, (2005) that he "shows an almost anthropological interest in his characters, and that his book is a "richly rewarding cultural study." Although the comic tone and focus of Hadero's "The Suitcase" is quite different than the horrors of "Revalushan," it could also be called a "cultural study" of "anthropological interest." Neither, in my opinion, are more than that.
The best indication of "Revalushan's" dependence on its cultural context is that the story itself is simply a graphically detailed dramatization, in the same prose style, of the background Ali provides in  his "Contributor's Notes." He says the story is based on the three-month coup of June 4, 1979 in Ghana in which a "War on Corruption" was waged against wealthy people suspected of hoarding, smuggling, or profiteering.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the neighborhood known as Zongo Street. Although his age is not mentioned, his sanguine acceptance of the initial violence seems to suggest he is young, although the story is told from an adult perspective, e.g. "We felt that the tranquil, naïve state of our lives was about to be altered in a way and manner we couldn't have ever imagined."
The writing is often careless, e.g. the redundancy of "way and manner" and the  wordiness of "none of the newspapers made mention of the march or the attack."  The language is clichéd, e.g., "The inauguration of the Zongo Street PVC ushered in an era of social upheaval in our small community."  After one businessman is brutally beaten by the soldiers, the narrator says they "sped off, leaving behind a cloud of red dust and a trail of sorrow and tears on Zongo Street." This is less a story than a description of an horrific historical event.
Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase" is also completely dependent on background—this time the cultural conventions of Ethiopian people determined to send aspects of that culture back to America. The central character, Saba, is twenty and has come back to Addis Ababa, the place of her birth, for the first time. Her visit has been marred by her failure to adapt to the conventions of her birth culture, but they are relatively minor conventions—the stuff of comedy, not tragedy.  For example, when she is unable to cross a busy intersection and has to take a cab across, she is convinced she is unable to take a walk on her own. "What she thought would be a romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn't belong there."
We know immediately that the purpose of the story is to redeem Saba from this sense of being a "stranger in her homeland, but to do so in a humorous, if not sentimental, way.  This is achieved by the device of the suitcase, which gives the story its title.
Saba has two suitcases—one for her clothes and personal possessions, and another which is to be returned filled with gifts from relatives and family friends.  Of course, there are too many gifts, and the second suitcase is just too heavy;  thus, inevitably, most of the story must be devoted to a comic interchange of the family and friends as they try to determine which gifts--all cultural gifts of food and drink that will remind the Americans of their home—can be packed.  There are loaves of bread, a porridge fed to women after childbirth to give them strength, and of course doro wat, a famous Ethiopian chicken stew, which the maker has frozen to make the trip.
What the story must do is find a way to fit all the stuff in the suitcase, for they are all items to make the American relatives remember them and their country.  And, of course, since the young woman has tried for a whole month to learn the culture and fit in, she must be the one to solve the problem by making a sacrifice of kindness equal to their kindness to her.  And, of course, she does.  You will not be surprised, although you might be moved, when she dumps out her own suitcase of her favorite possessions. It is a pleasant story, but culturally bound and thematically easy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Apollo" is less culturally bound. "Apollo"  takes place in Nigeria, but Nigeria is not really important in this story; it is merely a place where the event takes place—a story about a young boy who loves but betrays the family houseboy.  In " The New Yorker's "This Week in  Fiction," Adichie said she was drawn to endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning; she said she thought of Okenwa's attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of "first love," which is "that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself." Because the story is about the mystery of first love, it leaves the nature of the young boy's love unnamed and unacknowledged, even by the grown-up narrator who tells the story.
The introit to the story is a description of how the young man's parents, now in their eighties, have changed: they seem shrunken and they look more and more alike, as if they are blending into each other. Most importantly, they have what the narrator calls a "baffling patience for incredible stories," folklore tales of the supernatural.  Fifteen years earlier, he says, they would have scoffed at such stories. Now they seem to have a kind of innocence, a new childhood of old age.  Significantly, they ask the narrator when he will get married and give them a grandchild. One the stories they tell him, one without a supernatural element is of an armed robbery in which the ringleader is their old houseboy, Raphael. The narrator says with the mention of Raphael, "My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents' storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory."
In the narrator's tale of his childhood, he says he felt like an interloper in the house, for he did not like the things his parents liked.  When Raphael is hired, he finds someone who shares his interest in kung fu, and they do Bruce Lee routines together.  He feels that it is only with Raphael that his "real life" begins. When Raphael gets conjunctivitis, which the family calls "Apollo," the narrator attends to him in secret, putting the medicine in Raphael's eyes, even though Apollo is highly contagious. The narrator says Raphael looks at him with a wondrous look, for he has never felt himself the subject of admiration. He says he feels "haunted by happiness."
When the narrator himself gets pinkeye, he sees Raphael flirting with a young woman.  When he asks Raphael why he did not come to see him, he feels injured that Raphael has not repaid his kindness. When he accidently falls, he says Raphael pushed him, and his father discharges the young man.  The story ends with the narrator saying he knows he could have spoken and said it was an accident.  "I could have taken back my lie and left my parents merely to wonder."

And indeed, the story is more about wonder,  the mystery of motivation—what makes things happen—than about the culture of Nigeria. Although the narrator's story may indeed be about early suggestions of homosexuality, such terminology is not important. The story holds together formally by the repeated motifs of what is seen and not seen, whether causes are natural or, supernatural, what is felt but not articulated, how the past conditions the present.  It is a universal story that could happen anywhere; it just happens to take place in Nigeria in Adichie's story.