Friday, July 22, 2016

Jonathan Tel's "The Human Phonograph"--Winner of 2015 Commonwealth Prize and 2016 Sunday Times EFG Prize

The British are more generous giving awards for short stories than the Americans.  The only American short story award of significant value is The Story Prize, established in 2004, which awards a stipend of $20,00 for the best collection published in the U.S. The Story Prize has been awarded to such writers as Edwidge Danticat, Mary Gordon, Tobias Wolff, Anthony Doerr, Steven Millhauser, and George Saunders.
England has the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award (£30,000), the BBC National Short Story Award £15,000), The Commonwealth Short Story Prize (£5,000, The Fish Short Story Prize (3,000). And these generous prizes are for a single short story, not a collection of stories.
Philip Hensher has complained about the British emphasis on contests in his Introduction to the two-volume set he edited, The Penguin Book of the British Short Story. Hensher says that he attended the Sunday Times award dinner a few years ago and watched the judges hand over the £30,000 check for an "utterly routine piece of work by an American author about a tragically dead rock star and a terminal illness." (That would be 2014, when Adam Johnson won the prize for his story about Kurt Cobain, "Nirvana," from his collection Fortune Smiles).  I agree with Hensher's opinion of that story, but hell, they gave it the year before for the rambling, coarse, simplistic piece, "Miss Lora," by Junot Diaz, and the year before that for the entertaining, but certainly not great, "Beer Trip to Llandudno" by Kevin Barry. But never mind; that's one of the contentions of contests—who does the judging.
Hensher argues that with the same money the Times awards each year for one story, they could publish a story every week for £1,000 each.  Similarly, he says the BBC's annual short story competition prefers handing out a single big check each year to paying writers properly to write for regular broadcast. Hensher complains, rightly, that there are very few publishing outlets in England willing or able to pay sufficiently for short stories to encourage writers to write them. This seems to be improving in England, perhaps largely due to the rise of interest in university creative writing programs there, but despite the popularity of such programs in America, short-story writers still get short shrift here.
I have to admit that after Junot Diaz and Adam Johnson won the big EFG Awards, I lost interest in subsequent winners. But this year, I decided to take another look at the most recent winner of the biggest prize.
The winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize was Jonathan Tel's "The Human Phonograph."  AND the winner of the 2016 Sunday Times EFG Award was also Jonathan Tel's "The Human Phonograph." Can that be right?  That's £45,000, or at today's exchange rates, is, correct me if I'm wrong, $58,268.00.  Can a single short story be that good? And if so, what makes it so good?
"The Human Phonograph" takes place on a nuclear base in Qinghai province in northwest China in 1969, the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The central characters are a married couple separated for seven years, having been married for only nine months when the government sent the geologist husband to this base and left the wife alone in Beijing. The story begins with the wife being told by the government that she will be allowed to join her husband.
So at the outset, what the story has in its favor is an exotic, even top secret, locale and the important historical context of Mao's quest for the Bomb and America's conquest of space.  However, perhaps more important is that within this geographical and historical context, there may be a significant generic context: "The Human Phonograph" is first and foremost a love story.
A love story usually must be delicately told, with some restraint, and have a lyrical framework, or it will lapse into sentimentality or comedy. There must also be some impediment to the fulfillment of the love/passion that drives the story, e.g. an illness, another spouse, warring families, racial difference, social disapproval, etc. And usually, a love story ends in the death of one, or both, of the lovers.
Tel announces the love story theme in the first few lines of his story, placing it within the combination of the romantic and the scientific context of the moon landing, which is so unreal, yet so utterly real at once--a scientific encounter with one of the most romantic of all images. The story opens this way:
"And as a figure in reflective helmet and articulate suit half-walks half floats over the unreal surface she make-believes he is her husband and the moon itself could perfectly well be Quinghai province for all anybody can tell…and she shades her eyes with her hands so nobody can see her cry.
It has been seven years.
There are thoughts that cannot be spoken but can only be sung."
With this line about thoughts that have to be sung, Tel prepares the reader for the titular metaphor of the human phonograph.  One of the judges, British writer Rose Tremain, who says the decision of the judges was unanimous about this story, calls it a "troubling, well-wrought story," but that that what "elevates it to something truly memorable" is the image of the title—"of a man, who, in a silent, punitive and desolate world, can remember the old songs and sing them perfectly every time."—which suggests, as is often the case for the short story, it is the metaphor that makes the story.
The historical context is presented early on, with information about China's first atomic bomb test in October, 1964, after Mao broke with Stalin, even mentioning an actual photograph (available online) of about 20 dark figures (faces not visible) with their left arms raised high, facing a mushroom-shaped cloud that looms in the background. The narrator says the husband is the third scientist from the left, and notes that the photograph was obviously posed, for no one could have actually been that close to the blast.
The story begins in July, 1969 as the wife makes an eight-day journey to a secret location in the northwest of China and sees her husband for the first time in seven years. They meet formally, she greeting him with the salutation "Comrade"—which has both personal and political significance. When they have sex, she thinks of herself in terms of the terrain of the province Quinghai, as her husband, a geologist, "sets out on an exploratory trip.  He examines her, investigates her, takes a core sample…and as Quinghai thrashes and screams, she is a tiny figure within the province of herself."  But in her mind, she is cast back to Beijing, seeing the city in an ecstatic vision, distorted: "Instead of a flat street with cyclists, there is a broad highway lifted high in the air….and instead of a vista of a horizontal apartment buildings, glittery towers stretch up into a misty heaven, and passersby dressed in bright wisps stare back, not seeing her. She yearns for impossible Beijing…She is a wife on a hard bed, a husband's weight holding her where she is." The image combines the romantic political ideal with the immediate actuality of the couple's reunion.
Throughout the story, the situation of the wife and husband alternates with the historical context of Mao and Stalin becoming friends, then quarreling, and Mao developing the bomb.  This historical context is linked to a mythical background as the source of the name of the Bomb test—Operation Qilin—is a mythical creature with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, and a single horn; according to legend, if you burn the horn like a torch, you will see the future. The linking of the romantic and the scientific is a recurrent motif throughout the story.
Although the husband always wants to make love to the wife, he seems distant—"a not very married man"--as if he has secrets, as if he is somehow unfaithful to her. He goes on expeditions and when he returns he seems weaker and yet refreshed. Although he is attentive, he is "not quite present, like a dissatisfied ghost." And as he makes love to her, she continues to have the vision of the "impossible Beijing" with a "throbbing music unlike any that exists in real life, a rhythmic skeleton of a song bedecked with a jangle of rhymes."
Even more important than this historical/mythical context is the metaphoric context of the title—the human phonograph—the husband's assistant, a local man—who is able to sing folk songs called "Hua'er," from memory, over and over, identically each time. The husband tells his wife that the songs, usually about love and longing, are exchanged between a man and woman.  The first half of the song is a description; the second half is an explanation.  She knows this is the closest he has come to telling her that he loves her and had missed her.
He also tells her that in the early days of the development of the Bomb many men got sick from the radiation and died.  He says he and his colleagues observed the test of the Bomb too closely—perhaps a reference to the photograph mentioned earlier showing the scientists watching the mushroom cloud, although the narrator suggests that the photograph was probably faked.
The story repeats the motif of the American moon landing mentioned early, with the wife waiting for the lunar landing in the lecture hall of the Institute where she studied and worked. She dreams of a snow-capped mountain and a mushroom cloud, and a creature with the body of a man up to the neck and the horn of an old-fashioned phonograph as his head. Both images, of course, combine the scientific with the romantic.
She knows that her dream is inspired by Chekhov's story "The Kiss," in which a bashful officer in the army wanders into a dark room at a party and is kissed by a woman who thinks he is her lover.  In her dream she is the woman in Chekhov's story, who goes in search of the man.  She thinks Chekhov is a sadist for not allowing the shy man to meet a woman and fall in love and live happily ever after. By this intertextual reference to one of the great short story writers, Tel reminds us that the love story always unites the ideal and the real—always depends on a dream.
At this point in the story, the husband becomes more and more ill from radiation poisoning. The wife brings him a gift—his assistant, who sings one of the love songs for him, a song about thousands of summer flowers blooming. She shuts her eyes and once again enters her fabulous Beijing, where workers are building a high tower and in the background there is the Hua'er music.
When her husband dies, the wife is sent back to Beijing. She watches the passing landscape and sees a flock of sheep, an antelope, a woman milking a yak, and a gathering of young people, the men and women pairing off.  Although she cannot hear them, she imagines that each man is singing to his woman, and each woman is singing to her man.
One of the judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Romesh Gunesekera said: "The Human Phonograph' ranges from the personal to the universal. Its resonances remained with the judges long after reading. We were drawn into the lonely world of the leading character and we stayed there. It is a disconcerting, extraordinary story of an individual in search of independence and reassurance in a difficult world."
What is "troubling" and "disconcerting" to the judges and made them choose "The Human Phonograph" is what makes it a classic love story--the lyrical attempt of the short story writer to express "that which cannot be spoken but must be sung"—the human attempt to triumph over that which separates us, and the difference between how scientific and social constructs try to accomplish this and how it is achieved by the frail, but ever hopeful,, individual.

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.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Alice Munro 85th Birthday Tribute: Always True to the Short Story

          Alice Munro has said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.”  Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another.   Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.  Munro used the term “feeling” again when interviewer Geoff Hancock asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event.  “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well.  There has to be a feeling in the story.”  Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.”
          It should be noted, however, that most critics impressed by the complexity of Alice Munro’s work have usually attributed it to the form from which Munro has always turned away.  At the beginning of her career, critics and reviewers tried to dignify Munro’s short stories by highlighting their linked nature, thus attributing to them the dignity of the novel.  In 1972, in an interview with Graeme Gibson, Munro noted that many people said her novel Lives of Girls and Women was only a collection of long short stories, but, in a remark that must have irritated her critics and aggravated her publishers, she shrugged, “This doesn’t particularly bother me, because I don’t feel that a novel is any step up from a short story.”
          Asked a few years later if she thought Lives of Girls and Women was more of a novel than Beggar Maid, she replied that the former was an episodic novel, while the latter was a collection of linked stories.  She said she began writing Lives as a much looser novel than it turned out to be with a lot of things going on at the same time, but it was not working, so she began making the material into what are “almost self-contained segments” that could “almost stand as short stories.”  But, she continued, the sections of Lives are still all a bit too loose to be short stories.  Basically, she seems to suggest that whereas the chapters in Lives are like weak short stories, the stories in The Beggar Maid are genuine stories that were never meant to be chapters.  She says if the latter is going to be judged as a novel, it doesn’t work “because it doesn’t explain enough.”  She added that it might have been possible to go through the book and add a lot of “explanatory paragraphs and weave people in, but that would have weakened the stories as stories.”
Although Munro has insisted in more than one place that she does not write as a “true novelist” does, many critics and reviewers have tried to give her fiction the dignity they think belongs only to the novel by suggesting that her stories are “novelistic” and therefore more complex than short stories. Dan Cryer in Newsday said the title story of The Love of a Good Woman “opens up an entire world and feels almost like a novel,” by which he seems to mean that Munro’s creation of a multiplicity of realistic details and numerous characters gives rise to more complexity than the short story does. 
Another reviewer likened short stories in general to fireworks, e.g. launch, trajectory, burst of color, fading sparks.  In Munro’s new stories, she said, you get the history of the man lighting the fuse, the memories of an old woman watching, the implications for a couple at the display on a blind date.  “You get, in fact, all the complexity and nuance of a novel, concentrated within several dozen pages.”  Another said each story in The Love of a Good Woman “reads like a novel,” for “each is a vast canvas of complicated characters, tangled events and quietly turbulent revelations.”  The unexamined assumption of these remarks is that if the focus of the work is on numerous characters, interconnected events, social ideology, and the mimetic creation of a physical similitude, the story must therefore be more complex than a story with fewer characters, fewer events, and minimal context.
This same attribution of novelistic complexity also marked reviews of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  Mona Simpson, in her Atlantic review of Hateship, said that like the “astonishing title story” of her previous collection, the title story here “contains more range, drama, and tonal echoes than most contemporary novels.”   And Lorrie Moore claimed in The New York Review, that Munro” has a vision of the world that is like a novelist’s.” Munro always insisted that such judgments about her work were simply not true.
Regardless of what trends fiction followed during her writing career, Alice Munro continued to go her own way, so confident of the nature of the short story and her control of the form that she needs to observe no trends nor imitate no precursors.  Certainly she did not write in a vacuum, clearly aware of those short-story masters who have preceded her--Chekhov, Maupassant, Flannery O'Connor, Sherwood Anderson--but Munro found her own unique rhythm and controlled it consummately. Although a Munro story might initially appear to be novelistic,  her stories are deceptive; they lull the reader into a false sense of security in which time seems to comfortably stretch out like everyday reality, only to suddenly turn and tighten so intensely that the reader is left breathless
In her 1983 interview with Geoff Hancock, Munro talked about facing all those people who always ask her if her next book will be a novel, or at least a series of connected stories, and how everything falls away for them when she says no. Munro replied,  ”I think the most attractive kind of writing of all is just the single story.  It satisfies me the way nothing else does.  I will probably, from now on, just go on writing books of short stories which are not connected as long as my publisher will consent to publish them.” 
Readers should be grateful both to Alice Munro and her publisher for staying true to the short story throughout her life.
Happy Birthday, Ms. Munro. I miss reading new stories by you. The New Yorker just isn't the same.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Roxana Robinson Asking for Love--Cheever in Content, But Content is Secondary to Great Stories

I got an email from a publisher marketing associate recently, suggesting that since I was such a fan of Alice Munro I might also like the stories of Roxana Robinson and perhaps be willing read her collection Asking for Love and review it on my blog.
I was familiar with Roxana Robinson's stories from the past, so I said yes and started the process of getting a copy of the book in e-format online, which involved registering with NetGalley, a website that started back in 2008 (but with which I was unfamiliar), which allows publishers to distribute digital galley proofs of  books—a cheaper alternative to sending out those paperbound galley proofs I used to get regularly when I was reviewing books for newspapers.
After a bit of a struggle, I got the book to my Kindle Fire and started reading the first couple of stories. I thought they sounded vaguely familiar.  So I checked my file cabinet, and sure enough there was a Roxana Robinson folder, and damn all, there was a review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1996 for a collection of stories entitled Asking for Love. I then checked my bookcase, and sure enough, there was a hardback copy of  Asking for Love, albeit with a different cover than the one that showed up on my Kindle. What is this, thought I?
A little research revealed what the marketing associate neglected to tell me, perhaps thinking I already knew: The publisher of Robinson's "new" book, Open Road Media, specializes in publishing the "backlist"--books that have been around for a few years, but out of print, or at least not available as ebooks.
Co-founded by Jane Friedman, who was once the CEO of HarperCollins, Open Road Media seeks out authors or author estates and offers them a 50% cut of whatever profits the book earns as an ebook—something they can do because they do not have the overhead that traditional publishers face--storing stock, maintaining big offices, hiring lots of salespeople, etc.
Pretty smart, especially since many readers these days prefer reading on a Kindle or i-pad to turning paper pages.  Actually, nowadays I find myself reading more Kindle copies than physical books.  I have over a hundred books on my Kindle now. They are often cheaper (although that seems to be changing), and space on my bookcases is getting sparse (I keep boxing them up for a local Friends of the Library), and I can read at night without turning on the bedside lamp (thus keeping my wife awake).
However, most all the books that Open Road Media offers (although they are starting to publish new books) are also available at on-line used book stores.  A quick check on Amazon reveals three versions of Asking for Love, with three different covers: Open Road's Kindle version of  Asking for Love will cost you $11.49, whereas you can get a used hardcover copy in "good" condition for $.24 and a used paperback copy in "very good" condition for $1.15. Of course, you have to add $3.98 for shipping.  So, you ask yourself: do I spend $11.49 for an e-version or $4 or $5 for an old-fashioned physical version, perhaps with a few underlining? Maybe Open Road should lower their prices.
I have just finished my second reading the fifteen stories in Roxana Robinsons' Asking for Love on my Kindle.  Twenty years separate this e-reading and my original hard-cover reading. Since I did not review that first reading, I cannot compare, for I have forgotten my first response.  I have read a helluva lot of stories since then. But here's what I thought this time around:
Perhaps the most frequently quoted comment on Roxana Robinson's stories is the one by fellow author Bret Lott in his New York Times Book Review of her first collection A Glimpse of Scarlet (1991). Lott said that Robinson "may be John Cheever's heir apparent." It's on the cover of this new ebook edition of Asking for Love.  However, Lott was referring to the similarities between the characters and social context of the two authors—e.g. New York City, the Hamptons, Greenwich, Conn,  post-dinner-party fights, affairs both known and suspected, husbands and wives with some money and lots of marital angst, etc.
In 1996, when Brooke Allen reviewed Robinson's second collection of stories Asking for Love, she began with this sentence: "Every time a new and promising WASP writer comes along, it is his or her inevitable misfortune to be compared with John Cheever."  Allen then argued that although Robinson focuses on the same social class of characters, she is "not nearly as good as Cheever; her vision is neither as dark nor as rich, and her outlook is somewhat limited in that it is an exclusively feminine one."
Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Janice Harayda also weighed in on the Cheever comparison by suggesting that pairing Robinson to Cheever reflected declining critical standards in 1996. "The sort of encomiums that might once have been reserved for the masters of the art are now doled out to the merely gifted."  Harayda also acknowledged that there were some social context similarities between Cheever and Robinson, e.g. stories that centered on the East Coast world of money and privilege, boarding schools, dancing and horseback lessons, summer house in the tonier regions of northern New England.  But Cheever's stories, argues Harayda, "have a moral and spiritual dimension" absent from those in Asking for Love.
I did a short blog essay on Cheever a few years ago, going back to read such stories as "The Torch Song, "The Enormous Radio,” “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” The Country Husband,” The Death of Justina,” and “The Swimmer.”  I did not find them as compelling as I did when I first read them in the sixties.  But when I looked at them again this week in comparison to the stories of Roxana Robinson, I appreciated them all over again. 
Let me provide some brief critical summaries of some of Robinson's stories in Asking for Love and then risk a comment or two on what I think makes Cheever's stories more powerful examples of the short story form than Robinson's, although, indeed Robinson's stories are quite readable and capable. [a side note: most writes have a tic they probably should be aware of and try to avoid.  Reading on a Kindle, you can quickly spot one of these and then do a search for the rest. Robinson has a tic for "heart pounding." I have cited them in brackets."]
In the opening story, "Leaving Home,"—a 13-year-old girl goes with her family for a yearly summer visit to a cousin's farm in Mass. She has just become aware that, unlike her honorable parents, she is "deeply deficient in virtue." In a bit of childish pique, she disappoints her parents by saying she hates her 11-year-old cousin Gloria.
Cuing us that this is a coming-of-age story of sorts, Robinson tells us this is the first summer the girl does not feel nourished by her family and comforted by being in the farmhouse. She meets a neighborhood girl who is so sophisticated that she feels lanky and wrong. She wants to be one of the in crowd, but, alas, she likes to read. She wants to keep her virtuous unacceptable family secret from the smart crowd.
When the dorky cousin asks her to go swimming, she fears it will destroy her façade, contaminate her, expel her from the in crowd. When she sees the sophisticated girl in a canoe, she swims to it and deserts the cousin. "I fixed my gaze ahead, as though I could put my family behind me forever, as though I would never have to look at them again." It's straightforward and pretty predictable, a standard treatment of an obvious adolescent girl transition.
In "Sleepover," a seven-year-old girl named Bess wants to see her mother as someone with a secret life. And indeed,  Mom seems to be having an affair.  Thus, the title refers to the mother rather than the child. The  father tries to tolerate all this, but he looks around the living room "as though he were on a doomed island, a tiny decaying principality that was slowly sinking, lowering itself into destruction."  ["Bess took a step back from him, her heart pounding."]
"Slipping Away" gives us the point of view of a woman who has been married for seven years and is having an affair. She and her husband have a 27-year-old Spanish maid who has a "tempestuous private life." The woman says, "It is like having the third act of an opera in your kitchen every morning." She says her husband mistrusts all women and wishes all women were there only to serve him. The story centers on a melodrama about the husband listening to the wife's phone calls on another phone and her anxiety level increasing. The wife  thinks the maid's marital drama never happens in English. The story ends with her feeling her orderly life slipping way, "slipping into Spanish, right before my eyes."  It's an entertaining a comic story about a woman's life becoming a telenovela. ["Still my heart was pounding." "My heart was still pounding." "My heart was pounding even more."]
In "The Nile in Flood," a couple married for five months take a boat trip down the Nile on a belated honeymoon. She is forty-nine. He is sixty-five.  Much of this story is about the wife's thoughts about her life. Feeling suffocated, she slips out of their cabin one night. She wants something romantic in her life, but feels that it is too late. The story ends with this: "She had not known that the line at the end of passion would be so clearly marked, that the life that lay before her would be so pale, so dry."  This is a pretty conventional story of a woman feeling she is growing too old for the passion and romance of her youth. ["Nora's heart was pounding."]
In "Asking for Love, "the title story of the collection, the narrator is at her parents' summer house in Maine with Melissa, her seventeen-year old daughter. She is  divorced from a twenty-year-marriage, and has been dating a man for eight months. Melissa, who has been at boarding school, does not want to see her mother with anyone but her father. "She doesn't want me to be single; she wants me to be a mother."
 The narrator does a lot of thinking, mostly as a writer would think, e.g.: "I think love should be inexhaustible, like air, that we should give and take it freely, without doubt." When her new lover kisses her, she thinks: "This is something that never fails to surprise me—this sudden melting, turning-to-gold sensation.  Before I married Michael I thought all sex was good sex, I thought good sex was a given. Now I've learned that it's not a given but a gift."
When she recognizes the young waitress at a restaurant, she thinks: "This transformation from girl into young woman is a miracle, like a flower revealing itself." She wants love from Melissa but will not ask for it.  "Asking for love is the saddest question in the world, and if you have to ask, the answer is too painful to hear."   More authorial thinking: "Memory is kaleidoscopic: the slightest shift creates another picture, detailed, complete, convincing." When she and her lover are locked out of her house accidently, and try to climb in a window, he steps away and she feels emptiness beneath her. She cannot pull herself up and her heart seems to "have gone out" of her--a final metaphor of her precarious position with daughter, new man, etc.
"Halloween" is a simple story about a woman being frightened of an adolescent boy she has allowed into her house on Halloween. And who she fears is more interested in sexual tricks than innocent treats. The theme is explicitly stated at the end:  "The boy never came back.  I never saw him again, and I never forgot him.  I never forgot what he had taught me: that here is as dangerous as anywhere, that safety is a fragile membrane, easily pierced…. Maybe I was wrong to be alarmed…Or maybe I was lucky." ["My heart was pounding." "My heart was still pounding."
"Reign of Arlette" is about a woman who hires a twenty-five year old au pair girl who initiates her son into sex.  This story is also full of authorial statements, e.g.: "When you're a single parent, you feel solely and wholly responsible for your children, as though you were refugees, making your way through a war-torn landscape." ["Unaccountably, my heart began to pound."]
"Breaking the Rules" focuses primarily on a woman visiting Scotland and getting into a quarrel with a Scottish man about gun control, with all the usual clichés about that debate. ["She marched upstairs her blood pounding." "With her heart pounding, she clambered at last up." "her blood pounding in her ears, her face now slick with sweat."
"King of the Sky" moves toward a horrifying accident involving a young rebellious boy, which makes the female narrator, who has a son of her own, think the following explicit thematic thoughts:
"Most often there are miracles; most children are saved.  When a miracle doesn't happen, when you hear that a child is lost, the terrible sound of it echoes within your mind, a series of slow reverberations.  They continue, deep inside you, distant and sinister. You feel terror, the vertiginous pull downward, the drop that you escaped from no reason. And you hold our own child close to you, close, no matter how he struggles."
["These were loud, pulse-pounding moments."]
There are many differences between the stories of John Cheever and Roxana Robinson, and Bret Lott did her no favor by comparing her to him. Robinson's stories are written on a different level than those of Cheever.  They are primarily plot-based with understandable character motivation. They do not take chances, with Robinson always making sure, usually with explicit statements of theme, that the reader knows exactly what the story is meant to illustrate. Cheever, on the other hand, always created a mythic, symbolic, folktale subtext that paralleled his plots, and, like Chekhov, knew when to keep quiet and allow the reader to infer the thematic significance he explored.
If you have a kindle or other i-pad that you can read in the outdoors, Asking for Love is a fine book to read around the pool or take to the beach.  It will not make demands on you, and will reassure you that the author is a smart psychologist or philosopher or sociologist, who knows the people and the society about which she writes. And is happy to make sure you know them too.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Karen Russsell's "Bog Girl": More Adolescent Jokes Parading as Meaningful Adult Fantasy

Ever since her first collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, came out in 2006, Karen Russell, who was 25 at the time, has been hailed as a "rising star" among the next generation of "great writers." The New Yorker named her one of the twenty best writers under the age of forty; Granta named her one of the Best American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation put her in their list of the five best writers under the age of thirty-five.
Her novel Swamplandia  was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. (They did not name a winner that year.) Then, in 2013, she received one of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants" (which comes with a five-year stipend of $125,000 per year.) Her most recent book is a novella entitled Sleep Donation, an e-book published by Atavist Press. (which, just to be fair, I read this week and found to be typical "what if" generic stuff) She has said she is now working on a novel.
My old guy reaction to the stories in Karen Russell's first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) was that whereas they are fun to read as childlike fantasies and illuminate some of childhood’s strangeness, they lack the depth that real exploration of these experiences require.  When it comes to magical realism or philosophically significant fantasies, Karen Russell just needed more intellectual background, it seemed to me. For profound explorations of the issues she explores superficially here, I prefer the mature vision of Borges, Garcia Marquez, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Steven Millhauser.  But then, that’s just the way we old guys are.  We prefer fiction that makes us think, not just makes us smile.
Six years later in my blog on Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I said that although I enjoyed reading Russell’s stories, I sometimes felt they were, if you will forgive me, a cheap thrill—a Ray Bradbury, T.C. Boyle, Stephen King kind of thrill  (apologies to all Bradbury/Boyle/King fans), whose stories I enjoy reading, but who cleverly stay on the surface.  In my opinion, Russell is a fine writer who knows her away around a sentence, an image, a metaphor with what one reviewer has called “pixie” charm—apologies to Tinkerbell—but I still failed to see any depth in her work.
The basic problem I have with Russell is that she writes simple concept stories—stories that start with a "what if" idea and stick with it—e.g. the idea of kicking a habit vis-à-vis vampires and lemon juice; the idea of feminist liberation, vis-à-vis Japanese girls rebelling against producing silk from their own bodies.  The basic critical question about the stories of Karen Russell may well be:  Is she the protégé of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, or is she a child of The Twilight Zone and Stephen King?
Her most recent story "The Bog Girl," which appears in the June 20 issue of The New Yorker, reaffirms my view that she is the latter--a lightweight, not, as she has been called, a "rising star among the next generation of great writers"—at least not yet.
Her interview in The New Yorker's "This Week in Fiction" website makes the "what if" intention of "The Bog Girl" quite clear.  She says she had been reading some reports about eight-thousand-year-old human remains being found in a Florida bog. So she said she started to wonder: "What if one of these bog bodies could blast us with the fullness of her life? Turn the fire hose of her interior life onto those seeking to define her from without? I pictured an ancient young woman rearing off the table, taking on dimension, shredding our assumptions, challenging our ventriloquy of her mute body." She said she wrote the story to explore how often we "project our fantasies onto the mask of another person's face, then feel betrayed when they turn out to have needs and depths of their own?"
Sounds like serious stuff.  But I have read the story several times and keep coming up with the usual "what if" Karen Russell jokes and tricks and gimmicks, and none of the heavy weight stuff she promises in the "This Week in Fiction" feature.
What if a fifteen-year-old boy living on a small island in a Northern European archipelago found the body of a two thousand year old girl while cutting turf and fell in love with her?
That's the story. The rest is Karen Russell playing with the idea. The boy, whose name is Cillian, lives with his mother, whose name is Gillian, and has had no experience with girls, for he is working to save enough money to buy a car, which he hopes will make it possible for him to sleep with a girl or woman. The girl he finds is well preserved and has thick red hair—probably patterned after the famous Yde Girl, found in 1897 in the Netherlands, and more famously facially reconstructed in 1992 as a conventionally attractive young woman. (Both the bog girl and the reconstruction can be viewed in a Dutch museum, and of course online.) She has a noose running down her back— patterned after the famous Tollund Man, who was discovered with such a noose in Denmark in 1950.  Again, you can also find lots of pictures of him online.
Since this all takes place on a remote island, there are no hordes of scientists arriving to take the body for examination.  And to make it possible for Cillian to cuddle with her, thanks to a Karen Russell miracle: she does not deteriorate as such bodies, once exposed to the open air, inevitably do.
As a result, Cillian and the bog girl can watch sitcoms together on the telly and his uncle can make jokes about his nephew going after a mature woman, a cougar, as it were, and advise him that women lie about their age, warning him she might be three thousand years old rather than just two thousand. (Ha ha). The mother is concerned, but knowing her son is in love "commanded her respect" and is unwilling to "turn an orphan from the Iron Age out on the street" (chuckle, chuckle). Although she allows Cillian to take the girl into his room and close the door, she says "Everyone has to wear clothes."
More jokes follow. Cillian goes to visit a travelling exhibit of bog bodies, for it is only fair that he get to meet her family, takes her to school with him, propping her up like a broomstick against the lockers.  All this is accepted by teachers and school administrators because they do not want to anger a visitor from the past.  When the vice-principle calls Cillian into his office to give the bog girl a visiting student badge, she slumps over into his aloe planter (chortle, chortle)
Whatever real-life implications all this has is suggested by Cillian's accusing his mother of not wanting him to grow up when she reminds him of her devotion to him as a child, by girls at the school being envious when Cillian tells them he has dedicated himself to learning everything about her, and by his mother's warning him that he should not throw his life away on some Bog Girl (snort, snort).
Of course, Cillian has to take the Bog Girl to the annual school dance, and when a friend asks, "Do you guys----, Cillian preempts the questions with: "A gentleman never tells." (snicker, snicker). Russell justifies all these jokes by the presumed intellectual observation in her interview: "Howls of laughter and howls of terror aren't so far removed from one another, I don't think."
Then, finally, Russell has to get to her stated intention in the story—to "turn the fire hose of her interior life onto those seeking to define her from without."  She has to make it the Bog Girl's story.  So , inevitably, she brings her to life. "The Bog Girl sat up and says Cillian's name. Ponderously, Russell says: "His mind was too young and too narrow to withstand the onrush of her life…Some mental earthquake inside the Bog Girl was casting up a world, green and unknown to him, or to anyone living: her homeland."
Cillian is terrified as the Bog Girl reaches out to him, and his mother tells him to take the girl home and to "let her down gently." When he takes her to the bog, Russell cannot resist: "This was a bad breakup," and Cillian and the Bog Girl roll in the mud, with his crying "It's over, it's over." As she falls back into the Bog, she begins to break apart.  But, of course, she haunts his memory, even as he cries, "Who was that?' or "What was that?"
It's all pretty predictable and silly, but Russell seems determined to insist that it is serious stuff in the "This Week in Fiction" interview, finally taking a cue from the interviewer that the story is about aging, responding that the Bog Girl reminds Cillian and Gillian that they are basically children on this planet, part of an extended family "barnacles on the hull of a ship, riding through time together."  Russell opines that by the end of the story the Bog Girl's stare has altered both mother and son and "allowed each to see hidden parts of the other."
Russell's conclusion about her story goes this way:
"I would just add that I believe that people who survive a trauma or have a powerfully disruptive experience (so, all living people, let's assume) can often feel that a part of themselves is trapped in amber at that age, even as clock time moves relentlessly onward.  The Bog Girl somehow became a way for me to think through the haunted experience of growing old in a body while simultaneously carrying the past forward with you.  And certain things—bewilderment and jealously and fear and pair and love—we humans don't seem to age out of them.  I think Cillian gets this by the story's end."
Oh my, oh my! We can only nod sagely at such wisdom and thank The New Yorker for once again giving us the stuff of genius.

I don't know about you, but I prefer Lars and the Real Girl. In that treatment of the old Pygmalion story, there is something quite real and moving about an entire town rallying behind the innocent delusion of a young man's love for an unreal girl. Russell may think she is exploring serious human reality, but she is really just going for laughs.