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.