Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Best American Short Stories: 2017--Five on the Light Side--Short Story Month

I am reading stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories randomly.  They are fun, but rather lightweight.  It’s not often that BASS is a book you can take to the beach and read without worrying about being distracted.  But these stories don’t take much concentration. Here are some comments on the first five. Maybe the next five will be more challenging.

T. C. Boyle, “Are We Not Men?”
T. C. Boyle is the consummate professional writer, always on the lookout for subjects that might “make a story,” and that’s what he is good at—“making stories.”  The subject of “Are We Not Men?” as he makes clear in his “contributors’ notes” to the 2017 Best American Short Stories, is gene-editing technology.  The title is from H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is about a doctor who experiments with combining animal species, often with humans, resulting in such creatures as hyena-swine, dog-man, leopard-man, etc. In this story, Boyle gives us “crowparrots” and “micropigs” and explores lightly the human use of CRISPR technology which allows the main character and his wife to choose from a menu how their chromosomes can be matched up to create a daughter.  The story reminds us that Boyle is primarily a satirist, not a short story writer--an entertainer, not a powerful artist.

Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
 The title is an acronym for the colors that make up a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Evans says the first thread of the story came from hearing a sermon on Noah’s Ark, which perhaps lead to the first sentence of the story; “Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way.” The rainbow, of course, is a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the earth again with water—which the narrator says seems like a “hell of a caveat.” The story centers on the wedding of Dori, a pastor’s daughter, who has her bridesmaids wear the seven colors of the rainbow. Evans says the real loneliness of the story lies underneath the opening sentences—understanding that “every triumphant story of the things we survive is also the story of the losses haunting it.” However, the reader has to wade through lots and lots of plot stuff to get to this payoff—involving Rena and JT detained in a small hotel in Africa because of the threat of a biological warfare agent, Rena’s sister Elizabeth being shot by her husband because her suspected infidelity, JT disappearing when he was supposed to be marrying Dori, Dori and Rena searching for JT and ending up at a water park, etc. etc.  It is a cluttered story that tries my patience.
Sonya Larson, “Gabe Dove”

Sonya Larson’s “Contributors’ Notes” about this story seem to me more intriguing than the story itself.  She recalls a period a few years earlier when she found herself suddenly single; trying to date again, she discovered that many men were most interested in her race, which is half Asian.  It occurred to her that the dating world may be one of the last remaining realms in which people openly expressed racial preference. Larson says that although we tend to think that attraction is a mysterious, deeply personal force, we often find that forces of history, stereotyping, even public policy may shape what we think is simply personal.  She wondered if what we think is our gut feelings may have a racial bias.  So she set out to write a story that “houses” these ideas—resonating like a bell tower around a bell.  She concludes that although “Gabe Dove” may seem like a simple dating story, what is actually at stake is “nothing less than who we make available to ourselves to love.”  Sounds like complex stuff, but I am  not sure the story can carry this much weight.

Fionel Mazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”
And here’s another story whose originating idea seems more complex than the story itself.  Mazel says the story arose from her thinking about the influence of social media on children because rather than worrying about its detrimental effects, she thought social media was very helpful, finding herself in a community whose shared interest was parenting, but then finding herself uncomfortable with feeling this way. She asked the following questions: Is camaraderie necessarily fake simply because you don’t know the people you are exchanging ideas with?  Does publicizing personal details mean the end of real friendship?  She said the story arose from her desire to find a framework for thinking through how all this stuff might play out in the life of a man “hobbled by grief.” The result—a story about a man who enters a video in America’s Funniest Home Videos of his son being thrown over the handlebars while learning to ride a bike--seems less about a complex human issue than it is an opportunity for Maazel to create some funny scenes and dialogue.

Jess Walter, “Famous Actor”
I posted an essay on Jess Walter’s short story collection We Live in Water´ when it first came out. My conclusion then was as follows:
Jess Walter is a professional writer, a guy who makes much of his living writing—first as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, who has cranked out a political mystery novel, a 9/11 suspense novel, a social satire, and a movie romance epic, and this collection of popular, entertaining, but certainly not literary, short stories.  If Jess Walter signifies the “modern American moment,” then the moment is about fiction that pleasantly passes the time but does not significantly stimulate the grey matter.  Just the kind of disposable stories your Kindle was made for. 
My opinion of his story “Famous Actor” in the 2017 Best American Short Stories  is pretty much the same.  Walter is clever, with lines like: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.”  He invented a “famous actor” because he wanted to write a story about a romantic encounter with a famous actor, adding that he can tell if a story is going to work if he is having fun writing it. Indeed Walter does seem to have fun inventing story lines for the movies and tv shows the famous actor has made.  The result is entertaining, but that’s all. Is that enough?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Novelistic Stories in 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month

Michelle Huneven’s “Too Good to Be True,”
Several stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories raise for me the issue of the difference between the pleasure we get from reading novels vs. the pleasure we get from reading short stories—an issue which may be related to the question of plot vs. form or reality vs. artifice.
The author of four novels, Michelle Huneven calls herself a “novelist by nature” a designation she does not define, although she says she had to “prune” some “virulent digressions” from “Too Good to Be True” resulting from her “novelistic nature.” Laura Furman, the editor of the O. Henry collections, who chooses all the stories included each year, says Huneven’s story exhibits the writer’s skill to permit the “reader to ride on the narrative current without noticing form or technique”-- a novelistic characteristic that is often more focused on reflecting the so-called “real world,” rather than creating a formal world of thematic significance.
David Bradley, the author of two novels, chose “Too Good to Be True” as his favorite story in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories,  admitting that he has always loved the “long, not the short” of a story and that as a teacher of creative writing, he struggled to conceal this prejudice from this students. He says that while he teaches Poe’s insistence that no word should be written that does not contribute to the story’s one pre-established design, he has always found undue length less exceptionable than undue brevity.  Bradley says he has never thought a tale “more elegant just because I could read it between or during bathroom breaks.” He says that what he wants while sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of bourbon and a book was an “old-fashioned story, a la Chaucer, Rabelais, or Balzac, with a beginning, middle, and ending.” Huneven’s story was his favorite because  it kept him sitting longer than he wanted and haunted  him even after his glass was empty and the fire was out. That all sounds very “novelistic by nature” to me.
So I asked myself, one again as I have for lo these many years: What is “novelistic” and what is “short storyistic” by nature—willing to accept all the while that a novel can have short story characteristics and a short story can have novelistic characteristics. If I ask myself what “Too Good to Be True” is about, I would say it is about a young woman who is a drug addict and her family’s pain at their inability to help her escape that habit. The story is novelistic rather than short storyistic because it does not “mean” anything; it is rather "about" "as if" real characters in the real world. 
Here are some other stories that I would characteristic as “novelistic” rather than “short storyistic” in the 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories:

Genevieve Plunkett, “Something for a Young Woman”
There is something of a mystery in this story of a young woman who works for a shop owner who gives her a necklace. She marries someone else, wants to play the viola in a symphony, has a baby, separates from her husband, is drawn back to the shop owner, but makes no contact with him, wears the necklace to his funeral, and cannot make up her mind about returning to her husband.  This could go on and on, much as a novel can go on and on—never coming to a thematically meaningful ending.
Mary LaChapelle, “Floating Garden”
A young boy and his mother escape from an unnamed country in conflict.  He becomes separated from his mother, but continuing on his own, boards a ship and ends up in Oakland. He is taken in by a woman who raises him and goes to a Southern California college on a scholarship. This is a straightforward journey story, told in first person, and could have been a novel had the details of his escape and  his new life in America been more elaborated detailed.  But it has no thematic meaning other than the “as if” real events in the boy’s escape.
Keith Eisner, “Blue Dot”
Although this story begins in fairy tale fashion with “Once upon a time,” it is actually a realistic story about young people hanging out and taking drugs. They talk a lot, but not about anything of thematic significance.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, “Glory”
This story is from Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, a debut collection that received good reviews and stirred up some publicity. It is a story about a young Nigerian woman whose parents named her “Glorybetogod.” But she seems to have come into the world resenting it. When she meets a young man, who seems to have been born lucky, her parents think Glory’s fortunes have changed--that her life will “coalesce into an intricate puzzle.” However, when the young man offers her a ring, she knows she must make a decision. She could go on and on having encounters like this, chapter after chapter.
Manuel Munoz, “The Reason is Because”
Munoz says in the comments at the end of the O. Henry Awards that the character in his story named Nela, who gets pregnant and drops out of school, reminds him of girls he grew up with. He says he does not see characters like Nela in American fiction often and that the story was a way for him to deal with what has been a long standing problem in his fiction—“how to name the violence that shapes the people I write about—the people I love—without veering into stereotype.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Kevin Barry, "A Cruelty" and Heather Monley, "Paddle to Canada"--O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month

Kevin Barry, “A Cruelty”
A few years ago, I did a series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor. Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island, was my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admitted that it was my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.
I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:
*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.
*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.
*I love Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.
I also liked Barry’s story “A Cruelty.” I found the story simple and  irresistible. You know from the very first sentence that the story is about the power of obsession: “He climbs the twenty-three steps of the metal traverse bridge at 9:25 a.m., and not an instant before.”  After a page and a half of obsessive observation, we get the background of the main character Donie, who was first allowed to make the short train journey from Boyle to Sligo on his sixteenth birthday.  He has now made the run every working day for twenty years, and it is his belief that if he is not on the 9:33 train, the 9:33 will not run.  The ritual is his way of controlling his limited life; he experiences a 100 percent day when everything falls into place just as it should.
But of course, as is the nature of a short story, this is an account of a day when things do not go on in the smooth ritualistic way that Donie thinks they should, for as he eats his usual sandwiches on his usual bench, a man appears who manifests an inexplicable cruelty—calling him a “poor dumb cunt” and saying that it looks as though  the best part of Donie “dribbled down the father’s leg.”  The man reminds Donie of a picture of a hyena he once saw in a coloring book, and the image haunts him even after he escapes.  The day is spoiled, of course, and it is not clear if Donie will ever feel at home in the world again.  It is his first encounter with motiveless malignancy—there is no accounting for it. All he can do is go home and retreat into the arms of his mother.
I remember once when I was in a department store with my daughter, a sweet trusting child of  two or three. A woman stood close by looking at clothes with her son, also about the age of two or three.  When my daughter reached out to greet him, he suddenly pushed her away with a frown. I have never forgotten  her face as she looked up at me for an explanation. I had none.

Heather Monley, “Paddle to Canada”
This is another simple story about a family who, while on holiday, get caught in a thunderstorm while paddle boating on a lake.  Heather Monley says the story originated from a memory of when she was four or five and her family were similarly caught in a storm. However, the event is not the story, but rather it serves as the center of a story about telling stories, for the fictional family members never forget the event and often laugh about it. When the father goes back to the boat rental to get his driver’s license, the owner challenges his failure to make a deposit. The father laughs at the idea that the rental required a deposit: “What do they think we’re going to do?  Paddle to Canada?”
But later the story becomes a point of contention after the parents get a divorce.  The mother uses it as an example of the father’s carelessness and selfish stinginess.  The father uses it as an example of the mother’s ineptitude, hysterically shrieking and being no help on the paddleboat.  The children’s memories of the event become “muddled with what they had been told , and what they wanted to believe.”
In her comments on the story, Heather Monley says it is about the nature of stories, a subject she finds herself returning to often.  “I like stories that question themselves,” she says, stories that “point out the tenuous connection between narrative and truth.”  For the children the event becomes an occasion for trying to understand-- “as if thinking hard enough or in the right combination would lead somewhere, would form a pathway to a world that had been lost in the confusion of their lives.” This is a thematically tight story. The peril in the boat, the fear, and then the joy of surviving, and telling the story over and over creates a kind of bond between the family--that is, until the divorce, and the two children get different sides of the parents blaming each other. A broken family is a complex experience for children. Heather Monley has found a story way of dealing with that complexity.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Shruti Swamy's, “Night Garden”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017--Short Story Month

Shruti Swamy, “Night Garden”

Shruti Swamy  says that her story “Night Garden-- about a woman who watches her dog stare down a cobra and drive it away--told itself to her very simply and she wrote it down, noting that every once in a while “a miracle happens, and a story is started and finished in the space of an evening.” She says this has only truly happened to herr once, adding “ it is the sweetest feeling I know.” 
The discovery of a story to tell is partially that which grabs the artist and makes him or her need to tell it; it is something that  involves him with the nature of its latent significance that is compelling. Sherwood Anderson once said, “having, from a conversation overheard or in some other way, got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated.  Something was growing inside me.  At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body."  This involvement of the teller with the tale, this need to give it life and form, says Anderson, grows out of the materials of the tale and the teller's relation to them.  "It was the tale trying to take form that kicked about inside the tale-teller at night when he wanted to sleep." 
Katherine Anne Porter once said her stories spring from a tiny seed and that she always writes a story in one sitting, "one single burst of energy."  Sometimes the story is so unified around this central impulse or tone it seems that the writer must have written in one go.  Critic T.W. Higginson said of De Maupassant's stories that they seem to have been done in one sitting, "so complete is the grasp, the single grasp, upon the mind."  And William Carlos Williams has said that the short story consists of one "single flight of the imagination, complete:  up and down."
Hemingway once said that he wrote "The Killers" and "Ten Indians" in one day, and Franz Kafka supposedly wrote the "Judgment" in one night. This is not to say that the story that the author ultimately published and that we read is what was written in one sitting—but rather that the story was completed in its wholeness in one burst of dominating impulse, one single flight of the imagination or involvement. This suggests something about the short story that does not hold true for the novel—that the form springs from a writer involvement in the story that corresponds in some ways to the lyrical impulse of the poet. 
Elizabeth Bowen has said that the "first necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness.  The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write... The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure--of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind.” Bowen also argued that the story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture.
Shruti Swamy’s “Night Garden” is indeed a picture, but it is also a story about a woman’s creation of that picture—her fascination by  a form manifested in the world outside her window that stands for something mysterious; the story charts her efforts to understand the significance of that spatial form, which draws her in and makes her part of the form she observes.
Although she first is drawn to the shape the dog makes, his tail taunt and his head level with his spine, “so his body arrowed into a straight line, nearly gleaming with a quality of attention,” the snake also catches her attention, for there seems something “too perfect about her movements, which were curving and graceful. Half in love with both, I thought, and it chilled me.”  As night falls, the two animals look like “unearthly, gods who had taken the form of animals for cosmic battle.”
The story ends with the dog winning the frozen battle with the cobra and the woman carrying her exhausted pet into the house.
O. Henry Prize Story editor Laura Furman suggests that there is more at stake for the narrator than her dog’s life, for in watching the silent confrontation she’s “bearing witness as well to the failure of her marriage and the question of how she will face the rest of her life.”  However, I see nothing in the story to suggest this personal backstory, except perhaps the narrator’s general statement that “everyone’s marriage is unknowable from the outside.”
There is nothing personal about this story; it is the creation of a form in space, a picture that means something, which only the picture itself can embody.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fiona McFarlane’s “Buttony”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017-Short Story Month

I wrote about this story when it first appeared in the New Yorker.  Here are some of my remarks:

In McFarlane's story, the central characters are a school teacher named Miss Lewis, a student favorite named Joseph, and the twenty-one other students in her class. On the day of the story, the kids want to play "buttony."  They form a circle, hold out their hands, and close their eyes, while Joseph, who has been sent in to get a button from Miss Lewis's desk drawer, walks around the circle and touches each pair of hands, saying at the same time "buttony."  After he goes to all twenty-one students, they are told to close their hands and open their eyes; each student is given the chance to guess who's got the button. The one who has been holding the button—not the one who guesses correctly-- gets to "hide" it the next time.
On this particular day that the children play the game, something different happens—as it must, or else there would be no story: When Joseph gets the button on a subsequent round of the game, he walks around the circle but does not hide the button in anyone's hand, but rather puts it in his mouth.  Only Miss Lewis has her eyes open to see this action. When the children guess everyone and still cannot find the button, they begin to kick and shout and rebel against Miss Lewis—opening her hands, looking up her skirt, and pulling the pins from her hair to look for the button.
In her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says as the wrote the story she was interested in the "strange ritualistic way in which the game plays out so many childhood fears—of rejection, of being overlooked or lied to or tricked."
And indeed, if you put yourself in the game, you can imagine its potential for significance. The twenty-one kids have their eyes closed and thus live in darkness during the game's duration.  They hold out their hands in supplication, waiting for an undeserved gift, something to be presented to them by a powerful giver, waiting to be chosen—feeling the disappointment of the giver touching their hands but putting nothing in it, and then the joy of feeling the button in the palm.
And when it is time to guess who has the button, all you really know is that you do not have it.  As in a combination of poker-face and counting cards, the players watch the faces of the rest of the players to see if they give themselves away and try to keep track of all those who have played their hand by saying they do not have the button.
Farlane's point is that the game, as it is played in her story, is not merely a child's game, but something more powerfully latent with meaning. 
The key line, one that McFarlane cannot resist using, is: "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell." And yes, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale—a hero with special powers, an adult who is somehow mysteriously guilt and must be punished, a ritual or ceremony, a magic object, children spellbound, a secret, a trick, a childhood rebellion against the adult, and a last-minute rescue.
"Buttony" creates the kind of seemingly trivial, yet ultimately magical encounter with alternate reality that the short story has always done so well. And as usual, it has something to do with the tension between the sacred and the profane—between the spiritual and the trivial—between innocence and experience.
McFarlane handles these traditional short story elements quite well in choice of detail and in storytelling syntax. For example, "All the children handled the button with reverence, but none more than Joseph. He was gifted in solemnity. He had a processional walk and moved his head slowly when his name was called—and it was regularly called."
We know that something must be at stake for one character, and we know it is Miss Lewis, for the story is told from her perspective, and it is she who is "responsible." McFarlane tells us:  "Miss Lewis wanted her children to live in a heightened way, and she encouraged this sort of ceremony."
So it is really no surprise that Miss Lewis is the one who is attacked at the end of the story, for even though the button is secretly hidden in Joseph's mouth, it is she, the children suspect, who has the button. Children always know there is a secret, and who else must have it except the adult, the teacher? 
When one child looks up under her dress, as if there is where the secret must lie, and another tears through her hair, as though it must somehow be in her head, Miss Lewis cries out and sees one of the other teachers running toward her with Joseph behind him, "not quite running, not altogether, but like a shadow, long and blank and beautiful." For Joseph is not so much real as he is a supernatural or spiritual embodiment of forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify.  We don't know what they are, but we know they mean something.
At the end of her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says: "Most of all, I'm drawn to those moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves." 
McFarlane could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Wil Weitzel's "Lion"--O. Henry Prize Stories---Short Story Month

I feel guilty for neglecting my blog for the past several months.  I can only plead a variety of the usual reasons: other work commitments, family responsibilities and pleasures, a few health issues common to my age, etc. etc.  But now that it is May 1, the beginning of Short Story Month--a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute—I will try to compensate for my neglect by taking another look at the stories in the two collections that I have always read and commented on in the past—the 2017 issues of The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories. I will comment on as many stories from the two collections as I have time for this month—focusing on those that I thought were the best of the best and also commenting on those that did not engage me--trying to explain the reasons for my responses. The first is:
Wil Weitzel, “Lion”—originally appeared in Prairie Schooner—O. Henry Prize Stories
I like this story about a young graduate student who lives with an old retired professor. Instead of the old man telling the young student a story, as we might expect, the student tells the teacher a story--about a boy whose family has a lion for a pet until it grows too powerful and has to be released back into the wild.
As we often expect from a story within a story, there seems to be a parallel--between the student’s relationship with the old man and the boy’s relationship with the lion. I have been thinking about the story this week as my wife and I take our 3-year-old grandson to his preschool in the morning.  He often wants to hear a recording of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and he wants to hear it repeated over and over again; it is a great pleasure to watch him in the rear view mirror, nodding in time and singing along. As I sit here and read and reread “Lion,” I am reminded how important it is to hear a rhythmic pattern repeated over and over—a chant, a prayer, a mantra, a poem, a short story—until the pattern seems to get synchronized with your mind—pulling loose things inside of you together and becoming  magically meaningful.
In his comments on the story at the end the O. Henry collection, Wil Weitzel says he  wrote the first version of the story fast because he did not want to think too hard about it or get tripped up by the words—as if it was the rhythm of the story rather than the individual words that mattered.  When he worked on the revision, he said the tried to add logic and clarity, but it did not seem right, so he gave up trying to rationalize the story.
The result is a story that works the way short stories—especially very short short stories—often work—by transforming the characters and events into emblems of something that transcends the everyday.  When the story begins, the old man has died and the young man bathes him and prepares him for burial--completing the process that had already begun when he began to live with him. The old professor seems “as old as old trees, their bark haggard and worn.”  I know that image.  Once, I paid a visit to an old writer/teacher, who had a powerful influence on me when I was young.  He lay in a hospital bed, and I placed my hand on his—a hand that was supple and translucent, as if he had already begun the process of being transformed from mere flesh into spirit or monument, or relic, or manuscript.  He died two days later.  I did what all students try to do:  I wrote about it, and the tribute appeared in a Kentucky journal called Appalachian Heritage.  And this is what Wil Weitzel does in “Lion”—trying to work his way through to the significance of a young man’s search for the lion, trying to tell the story.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible Wins Story Prize, But Does One Read The Separate Pieces as Stories or Chapters?

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible recently won the Story Prize, an annual book award “honoring the author of an outstanding collection of short fiction" with a $20,000 cash award. However, if you check the Amazon page for the book, you will see that Random House has subtitled the book “A Novel.”
I realize that I am probably one of the few readers who gives a hoot about the genre issue of whether a book is called a collection of short stories or a novel made up of related chapters. However, in my opinion, whether one reads a piece of fiction as a stand-alone story or as a linked chapter does make a difference.
Random House subtitled Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible “a novel,” emboldened perhaps by the success of her 2008 collection of stories, Olive Kitteridge, which they subtitled simply “fiction.”  It is a common commercial ploy, since publishers know readers do not particularly like anything labelled “short stories.” I read and commented on Olive Kitteridge when it came out, for  it won a Pulitzer Prize that year, and they don’t usually award the prize to short story collections, even those parading as a novel.
The recurrent appearance of the grouchy schoolteacher Olive sometimes seemed to me to be a gimmick to justify the “novel” designation. She is the central figure in some stories in Olive Kitteridge, but is only referred to in others. Strout’s idea  for the book was to present her in relationships with several different people—her husband, her son, her neighbors, her colleagues, etc.—and thus reveal her to be more complex than any one person thinks she is.  Sometimes this device works; sometimes it seems forced, especially when extreme events are invented to reveal Olive’s hidden nature.  Sometimes you like her; sometimes you think she is a bitch. You never really know what makes her do the things she does.  All you can say is, “That’s just Olive.” Although Olive Kitteridge has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, in my opinion, it did not take the kind of chances, either in style or content, that Sherwood Anderson’s collection did in 1919.
Anything is Possible also has a linking gimmick to justify its “novel” designation—the recurrence, occasionally in person but usually by reference by someone who knows her--of Lucy Barton, the central character in Strout’s 2016 My Name is Lucy Barton.  I posted a blog on that work, commenting on the genre issue of the difference between novel and novella. Here is a quote from that blog:
Many readers and critics may very well fuss that generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah. I would argue that it matters a great deal in terms of what kind of experience readers are in for when they pick up a book called “short stories,” “a novella,” or “a novel.” I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding, or misjudging, it entirely.
Reviewers have called Anything is Possible a novel, a “necklace of stories,” a “story cycle,” a linked group of “chapters,” a “tapestry of tales.” One reviewer said the book exists somewhere between a short-story collection and a novel, while another said it was both a novel and a collection of interlinked short stories., but most agree with the reviewer who said while each “chapter” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone short story, if you read them in order, you will see they fit together like “tiles in a mosaic.” Andrea Barrett, who has written brilliant short stories often linked together by recurring characters, said in her New York Times review that if you read Anything is Possible as a collection of linked stories like Olive Kitteridge or like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with which she and several other reviewers have compared it, you would be missing a lot, observing that in this new book the character Lucy Barton is the “emblematic writer whose work reflects their own lives back to them.”
When I read Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible  last year, I liked the first stories: “The Sign,” “Windmills,” “Cracked,” and “The Hit-Thumb Theory” better than the last stories: “Mississippi Mary,” “Sister,” “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast,” “Snow-blind,” and “Gift.” It was only after I had finished the book and sat there staring at it that I realized why.  The first stories I read as short stories; the last stories I read as chapters in a novel.  Why? Because the last stories made me aware that the characters I read about in the first stories were interrelated, and thus I began to focus on the whole book as a tissue of interconnections rather than the individual stories as unified pieces of fiction.
“The Sign” is about Tommy Guptill, who lost his dairy farm in a fire, for which he thinks he is responsible because he neglected to turn off the milking machines.  Lucy Barton is introduced in this story as Tommy drives by the old Barton house with the sign that read “Sewing and Alterations.” Tommy remembers Lucy as a student when he was janitor at the junior high school after he lost his farm. He sees her book in a bookstore.  We also meet Marilyn Macauley and her husband Charlie, who we encounter in other stories later on in the book. Tommy goes to visit Pete Barton, Lucy’s brother, who still lives in the old house. Tommy is a good man who has shown understanding and empathy with Lucy and then much later with her brother Pete.
“Windmills” focuses on Patty Nicely, who hears about Lucy’s book and buys a copy in the book store where she runs into Tommy. She talks to Lila Lane, who is the niece of Lucy Barton, and at the end apologizes for calling her a piece of filth. Her sister is Linda Peterson-Cornell, who is wealthy and lives near Chicago. Patty loves Charlie Macauley, who is old enough to be her father. The story ends with an emblematic scene of Patty and Charlie sitting on the post office steps talking. Patty says that Lucy’s book makes her feel much less alone. The story embodies this sense of empathy when Charlie opens his mouth to say something, but does not, and Patty feels, “without knowing what it was—that she understood what he was going to say.” She simply touches his arm briefly, “and in the sun they sat.”
“The Hit-Thumb Theory”  focuses on Charlie Macauley waiting for a prostitute named Tracey in a motel, who needs 10,000 dollars, which her son, who is on drugs, owes to a pusher. The title comes from a discovery Charlie once made as a child when  if, while hammering, he hit his thumb, there was a split second when you thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, considering how hard I was hit.” After that moment of false relief, there comes the crush of real pain. Charlie gets Tracey the money and goes to a B&B. While sitting watching television with the proprietor, Dottie, he thinks that more frightening than pain are people who no longer feel any pain at all.  He sits there and waits and hopes and prays, “Sweet Jesus, let it come. Dear God, please, could you? Could you please let it come?”
 “Sister” is the story in which we meet Lucy Barton in person when she  comes to visit her brother, Pete, whom we have already met.  Vicky, their sister, shows up and they take Lucy back to Chicago and then drive back home; at the end Pete asks Vicky if she wants the new rug he
“Gift” brings back Abel Blaine, Dottie’s brother, in a kind of “Christmas Carol” story.  Abel  has a conversation with the actor who has played Scrooge in Dickens’ famous tale.  Abel has a heart attack and at the end thinks of his granddaughter Sophie and her stuffed pony named Snowball. The big woman who comes to get him in an ambulance he sees as his friend.  This, the final story in the book, ends with the title of the book:
“Like his sweet Sophie who loved her Snowball, Abel had a friend.  And if such a gift could come to him at such a time, then anything—dear girl from Rockford dressed up for her meeting, rushing above the Rock River—he opened his eyes, and yes, there it was, the perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.”
I have some reservations about focusing on short stories as parts of a whole rather than as complete artistic entities in themselves. My worry is that because of the notion that bigger is better, focusing on the sequential nature of stories inevitably throws the focus on the novel side of the formula rather than on the short story side.  The question of what makes a short story sequence something other than a group of randomly assembled stories and also something other than a novel is worth examining.  I certainly do not want short stories to be read as if they were sections of a novel.  However, by the same token, I do not want them to be read as “part” of an overarching sequence, a tactic that may result in neglecting the unique characteristics of short stories as individual works of art.
It troubles me that some critics have argued that readers have misinterpreted individual stories because they did not take into account that they have a book-length intertextual context.  The very word “misinterpret” suggests that one cannot really read a story from, say Winesburg or Dubliners, individually, but only within the overall context of the sequence in which they were ultimately published.
I admit there is a certain pleasure involved when you read a story and run across a character you have met in a previous story.   Such character reappearances create pleasurable little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” factor that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around just waiting for another story in which to pop up.
However, in the Dec. 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a long review essay on John Updike’s The Early Stories, says that if you try to name the sensation that an individual story delivers, you might call it a general sense of  Whoa,” which, he admits, is not exactly a term of art, but you know it when you feel it--that shiver of recognition of the “whatness of a thing” being revealed when you read “Snow was general all over Ireland.” 
Basically, I guess, I prefer this “whoa” feeling when a single story comes completely yet inexpressibly together over the “wow” feeling of running across the same characters, settings, or themes in several sequentially arranged stories. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Cat Person" and "Beauty and the Beast"

One of my readers recently wrote: “I’m looking forward to reading your review of ’Cat Person.’ Will you write it?”
Well, now that it has been over three months since the story appeared in The New Yorker and started a flurry of reader response and literary criticism on the Internet (usually called “going viral”), I reckon it is safe to make a few comments.
Josephine Livingston, the “culture staff writer” at the New Republic, wrote that many readers wove the story into the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay, noting that “as an approach to criticism” this turns the story into a tool for “digging in the hole of reality, rather than an imagined world that has its own rules.” I agree. And the rules that govern Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” I suggest, are the rules that govern the genre known as the short story, and that is what I feel somewhat qualified to talk about. 
In the “This Week in Fiction Interview” with Deborah Treisman, Roupenian said the story was based on an incident with a person she met online and it got her to “thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off,” adding that our initial impression of a person is “pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection.” 
Roupenian, who seems to me to be pretty smart about her story, says that much of dating involves an “interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created.” I am certainly no expert on dating, but having some knowledge of the short story, I recognize this as what underlies all love stories. You never fall in love with the person, for you never really know the person; what you fall in love with is the image you have created.
Constance Grady notes  on the website Vox what we well know—that the short story is a medium granted “precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it are holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose, says Grady, not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.” Grady concludes, “regardless of whether or not “Cat Person” is a great short story or just an okay short story, whether it’s deeply subversive or highly problematic, it has been exciting to see the cultural discourse revolve around a short story for a spell. It’s a reminder of how immensely powerful and valuable fiction can be, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to it and learn from it.”
Yes, indeed, it was good to see so many people reading a short story and finding it engaging enough to want to talk about it—something I (but very few others) have been doing for years. I only hope it leads them to reading more short stories for the riches they provide.
“Cat Person” is, of course, about attitudes and behavior that lead two people to move from being strangers to having sex. The primary perspective is the young woman Margot, whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. The reader knows Robert only by his behavior and Margot’s observations of him.
Although many readers have been so impressed by Roupenian’s perceptiveness and  the accuracy of her description of dating attitudes and behavior in the story that they  thought it was an essay about real life rather than a fiction about invented life, I suggest that readers familiar with the conventions of  fiction, especially short fiction, will recognize that Roupenian has modelled her story as much, or more, from her internalized knowledge of those conventions than from personal experience.  Think of “Cat Person” as a variation of the classic Beauty and the Beast story or the Frog Prince fairy tale, in which the beast is, after all, still a beast, and the frog, even after the kiss, stubbornly remains a frog.
There is something “magical” about Margot’s willingness to become intimately involved with Robert.  She surprises herself by giving in to his abrupt demand, “give me your phone number”; When he says “stop fooling around and come now,” she puts a jacket on over her pajamas and goes out to meet him. After having sex with him, she marvels at the “mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.”  Afterwards, although she wants to “ghost” him, instead of sending her breakup text, she says she will get back to him soon, thinking, “Why did I do that?  And she truly didn’t know.”
Margot is the point of view of the story because she truly does not know why she allows herself to become involved with Robert, although she thinks it has something to do with his initially treating her like a young daughter, kissing her gently on the forehead as though she were something “precious.” The fairy tale mystery continues when she is turned away from the club for being under aged and begins to cry, creating a kind of “magic” as Robert wraps his “bearlike” arms around her. She sees him as a big lovable animal, sensitive and easily wounded. 
However, when the sexual encounter begins, she sees his soft, thick belly covered with hair and recoils from it.  When he makes demands, she complies and when he looks “stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a “milk-drunk baby,” she feels her power, thinking this is what she loves most about sex. However, she finally sees him as a fat old man with his finger in her, and her revulsion turns to self-disgust and humiliation.
I think what Roupenian has done here is to competently capture the archetypal encounter of how a young woman (Beauty) plays seductive roles with an older man (Beast)—allowing herself to have sex with him, even though she does not desire him. The spin on the mythic story here is, of course, that the Beast remains the animal that he is—that all physical bodies who are merely human are ultimately—and is not transformed, as in wish fulfillment fairy tales, by love.
“Cat Person” is smoothly, transparently, written. It is smart and perceptive. And, of course, it is timely, even as it is universal.  But it does not have the mystery and complexity that great stories have, even though it has the familiarity that has captured the attention of many people who recognize Margot’s feelings and behavior and even understand Robert’s anger at the end.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Charles Holdefer's Reading of George Saunders' Pastoralia

I recently read a book-length discussion of George Saunders’ Pastoralia by Charles Holdefer, the author of four novels and a collection of short stories entitled Dick Cheney in Shorts.  Although Holdefer currently lives and teaches in Europe, he is originally from Iowa and graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has published short stories and essays in many places, including the New England Review, The Antioch Review, and The North American Review. I met him a few years ago at a conference on the short story in France.
Holdefer’s book on  Pastoralia is one of a series of books called “Bookmarked” published by the Independent publisher, Lg Press; the series is described as a “no-holds barred personal narrative detailing how a particular work of literature influenced an author on their journey to becoming a writer, as well as the myriad directions in which the journey has taken them.” Earlier books featured in the series include John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
It is unusual to encounter an entire volume devoted to one’s personal engagement with a book of fiction, especially a book of short stories. When an interviewer asked Holdefer  about the structure of the book—which devotes separate chapters to an analysis of each of the stories in Pastoralia, accompanied by a related personal story and some reflections on relevant social or philosophical issues—Holdefer said he thought the “personal readings” premise of the Bookmarked series was a good one, “because when you love literature, it is first and foremost personal. Not professional, not some sort of exercise.”
George Saunders is one of my favorite short-story writers, and I have posted several blog essays on his stories and his essays. In many ways, one of the most perfect examples of the short story as a form in Pastoralia is "The End of FIRPO in the World," in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Saunders said he used to think that the artist had an idea he or she wanted to get and then sort of dump it on the reader.  Now, he knows that really doesn’t produce anything; it is condescending. When you study writing, Saunders said, there’s this intentional fallacy that the writer has a set of ideas and the story is just a vehicle for delivering those ideas. He says his experience has been totally the opposite. “You go in trying not to have any idea of what you are trying to accomplish, praying that you will accomplish something and respecting the energy of the piece and following it very closely. Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," I usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll." 
I very much like Saunders' ideas about the essential short story characteristics of mystery, ambiguity, the process of discovery, and human sympathy in the title essay to his collection The Braindead Megaphone. Consider the following:
“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.  If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”
I like the way George Saunders talks about short stories, and I also like the way Charles Holdefer talks about short stories. Consider the following:
Appeals to history, cause and effect, verisimilitude: those are the novel’s bread and butter.  But a short story operates in a different economy. Some weird or terrible event (there are plenty of them in Pastoralia) is not naturalized or expanded in the novelistic manner; there simply isn’t the space to do so.  But rather than feeling like less, the result can feel like more, with an immediacy that is not possible in the spongier, discursive narrative dough of a novel.
A finely wrought short story is more than a miniaturist artefact, a cute little piece of scaled craft.
It’s a trip to another space, another way of seeing.
If you appreciate the short story as much as Saunders, Holdefer, and I do, you will find Holdefer’s reading of Saunders’ Pastoralia a pleasure.  This is not an academic engagement with Saunders’ short stories--although it is a profoundly intelligent one--but a deeply personal interaction.  Indeed,  as you read it, you might sometimes feel that you are learning as much about Holdefer as you are about Saunders.  But, as much as I value sticking close to the work when I write about short stories, usually refusing to wander about in contexts, I have to admit that when I was teaching in the classroom, I often tried to interest my students by giving them an example of my own personal identification with a story. And indeed, if the teacher or the reader/critic does not have a passionate personal encounter with the work, then what the hell’s the point of reading fiction and then talking about your experience with others? Why should they care?
I recommend George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked to you. I have read it with pleasure, for it is always a pleasure to read good writing about good reading. The book is available in a Kindle edition on Amazon for $9.85 and in a paperback edition for $10.37.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula le Guin

In her speech on receiving the National Book Foundation Medal in 2014, Ursula Le Guin, who died this past week at the age of 88, scolded publishers for giving over their responsibility to support good writing and great literature to the sales department, which often promotes authors as if they were deodorant. Books ae not just commodities, Le Guin argued, and said that now that she was nearing the end of her career she did not want to watch American literature get trivialized, for, she proudly insisted, the name of the beautiful reward writers seek is not profit, but freedom.
.  La Guin called her most famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a variation on a theme by William James. In her introduction to her book The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975), she cites the following passage from James's essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" as the ideological source of the story:
[If] the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specific and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain."
Indeed, the story is geometrically neat in its exploration of the nature of human happiness. The first half presents the familiar convention in science fiction and fantasy of the futuristic utopia. 
However, the narrator, aware of the perfect utopian nature of Omelas and of the human skepticism about such complete happiness, chides readers for the bad habit, encouraged by sophisticates and pedants, of considering happiness as something rather stupid and only evil interesting.  To belie these very words, the story inevitably reaches a point at which the narrator says that if we do not believe the joy of the beautiful city, then one more thing must be described.  At this point, the narrator shifts to a description of the hidden child, which is, as Collins suggests, the classic image of the scapegoat.  The magic of the scapegoat depends on the willingness of the people to rationalize the existence of evil as something that exists outside of themselves, for which they have no responsibility.
The people of Omelas are not happy because they are ignorant of the child, but precisely because they are aware of it.  The ones who leave Omelas may be the weaker ones because they cannot live with the knowledge of evil, and thus they leave for some place where they think there is no evil.  As the narrator says, such a place may not even exist. 
Changing Planes, one of her last books, before she decided that her fiction inspiration had dried up, is a classic example of the “what if” school of literary creation. “What if” you took the most tedious hiatus of modern life—the mind-numbing wait in an airport between changing planes—and transformed it into a marvelous opportunity to change planes of reality? 
After a brief introduction describing the method of one Sita Dulip of Cincinnati, who discovered that by an imaginative twist she could go anywhere “because she was already between planes,” Le Guin “what ifs’ her way through fifteen Gulliverian and Borgesian explorations of “interplanary travel.”
Although these playful pieces make no pretense to the biting satire of Jonathan Swift or the profound epistemology of Jorge Borges, Le Guin seems to have great fun here puncturing some of the pretenses of modern society and examining some of the paradoxes of the human condition. Among the Swiftian satires are stories about the Veksi, a species of angry people whose social life consists of arguments, fights, sulks, brawls, feuds, and acts of vengeance; the Ansarac, a migratory race whose elegant birdlike beauty is intolerable to more “civilized” planes; and the Hegns, all of whom are members of a Royal Family. 
The Borgesian explorations include tales of the Asonu, a profound people who have no language because transcendent knowledge cannot be expressed in language; the Hennebet who, because they make no split between body and spirit, have no need for religion, dogma, or formulated metaphysics; and the Frin who all dream the same dreams and thus experience a true communal bonding.
This “what if” method of creation, although sometimes satirically scintillating and occasionally philosophically profound, runs the risk of every so often becoming merely sophomorically silly. For example, if there is an actual Easter Island and an actual Christmas Island, “what if” there were a Halloween Island, a July Fourth Island, a New Year’s Island, etc.? And what about Wake Island?   What would life and reality itself be like if there were a people who never slept at all?  Would they all be geniuses because they did not waste time in idle slumber, or would they only be able to live in mundane fact because the way to truth is through lies and dreams?
The great nineteenth-century poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge once made an important distinction between Fancy and Imagination.  Creative products of Fancy, he suggested, are clever composites of disparate things that may amuse and edify, but creations of the imagination are genuinely new entities that exceed the mere sum of their parts. Although Ursula K. Le Guin has succeeded in the past in creating provocative works of true imagination, in Changing Planes she is mostly just having some fanciful fun.  These are not masterful satires that will alter your view of society, nor are they profound parables that will change your notion of what reality is.  But they are amusing “what ifs” with which you can pleasantly pass some stale time while you are waiting to change planes in an airport, which Le Guin describes as a “nonplace in which time does not pass and there is no hope of any meaningful existence.”
Ursula Le Guin, thank you for the profound sense of a meaningful existence you gave us.  We will miss you.