Friday, February 26, 2010

Artifice and Artificiality in the Short Story: A Defense

In this week’s post, I ask your patience while I try to provide something of a theoretical context for my argument against “realism,” and for “artifice” in the previous post about drama and the short story.

In my opinion, there is nothing negative about the short story's artificiality. Why, when discussing an aesthetic object, should we take "artificiality" to be a bad word, especially the artificiality of unity and endings—two of the most important conventions of the short story form? Henry James, in his preface to Roderick Hudson, reminds us that stopping places in fiction are always artificial. As James puts it, since universally relations stop nowhere, "the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." Similarly, critic J. Hillis Miller has noted that it is always impossible to tell whether a narrative is complete. If the ending is considered a tying up into a knot, the knot could always be united again; if the ending is considered an unraveling, a multitude of loose threads remain, all capable of being knotted again. This is why, Miller says, the best one can have is the "sense of an ending."

The coiner of that nicely-turned phrase, Frank Kermode, also reminds us, "We always underestimate the power of rhetorical and narrative gestures." Endings, says Kermode, "are always faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” In other words, any time we arrange a narrative sequence to achieve a meaningful end we inevitably "fake" the ending. For this faking of an ending is the very act that makes meaning out of the "one-damned-thing-after-another" that meaningless events (as opposed to end-directed and meaningful discourse) always are; such faking thus constitutes the essence of narrative art.

Many critics have suggested that the faking of endings was primarily a negative characteristic of nineteenth-century short fiction; they are fond of citing such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Frank Stockton, and O. Henry as the chief culprits. Not until the work of Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson and Joyce, many critics like to claim, did the short story develop a "natural" structure that was "open-ended," reflecting a realistic "slice-of-life."

These critics ignore that at the very height of the so-called "artificial-ending" phase of the short story in America, writers were so aware of the formalized nature of short-story endings that they parodied this convention by making it the very subject of their stories. Moreover, in spite of all the praise for the realism of the modern short story, from the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov to the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver, the twentieth-century short story has remained highly formalized, artificial and metaphoric like its nineteenth-century antecedents. What has changed is that a new convention of the form developed to increase the illusion of everyday reality. From Chekhov to Sherwood Anderson to Bernard Malamud and finally to Raymond Carver, the short story has been bound to a highly artificial, rhetorically-determined unified structure, and therefore formalized ending, which depends upon the artificial devices of aesthetic reality.

One of the primary characteristics of the modern short story ala Chekhov is the expression of a complex inner state by the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by the creation of a projective parabolic form or by the depiction of the contents of the mind of the character. Significant reality for short-story writers beginning with Chekhov is inner rather than outer, but the problem they have tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only. The result is not simple realism, but rather a story that even as it seems a purely surface account of everyday reality takes on the artificial aura of a dream.

I suggest that a basic difference between the novel and the short story has to do with their use of detail. The novel gains assent to the reality of the work by the creation of enough detail to give the reader the illusion that he "knows" the experience, although of course he cannot know it in the same way that he knows actual experience. In the short story, however, detail is transformed into metaphoric significance.

For example, the hard details in Robinson Crusoe exist as a resistance to be overcome in Crusoe's encounter with the external world. However, in a short story, such as Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," which is also filled with details, the physical realities exist only to embody Nick's psychic problem. As opposed to Crusoe, Nick is not concerned with surviving an external conflict but rather an internal one. In the short story the hard material outlines of the external world are inevitably transformed into the objectifications of psychic distress. Thus at the end of Hemingway's story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is purely a metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the "real" qualities of the swamp. Only aesthetic resolution of the story is possible.

When critics scorn the short story for the artificiality of its highly unified structure, when they take it to task for the falsity of its placing so much emphasis on its ending, they obviously forget in their demand that all narrative follow the conventions of realism that the essence of art is artificiality. Consequently, they forget that the short story is the most artificial and thus the most artistic of all narrative forms.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Short Story and Drama: "The Subject Was Roses"

Last night, my wife and I ventured up to Los Angeles to see a new production of Frank Gilroy’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Subject Was Roses.” A simple domestic drama set in 1945 with only three characters—a husband, a wife, and a son just back from WW II—the play was revived by the production company of Martin Sheen (famous for darkly brooding in the film Apocalypse Now and liberally pontificating in television’s “The West Wing”). Sheen played the son in the original Broadway production and in the 1966 film version. In the new version at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, Sheen plays the hard-drinking, hard-driven Irish father, originally played by Jack Albertson. (The wife, originally played by Patricia Neal, is played by Frances Conroy, best known for her role as the mother in the TV series “Six Feet Under”; the son is played by Brian Geraghty, who can currently be seen in the film The Hurt Locker.)

In my efforts to understand the unique characteristics of the short story as a genre, I have often considered its relationship to other literary forms. Based on my study, I think the short story’s affiliation with the novel is less significant than its relationship to poetry, for example, because of its emphasis on language and form rather than plot and character. I also think there is much to be learned about the development of the short story by studying how it evolved out of the essays and sketches of British 18th and 19th-century writers such as Goldsmith Addison and Steel, Lamb, as well as 19th century American writers, such as Washington Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, who experimented with many different generic forms. I have not spent as much time considering the short story’s relationship to drama, but thought about it last night when my wife and I enjoyed “The Subject Was Roses.”

Charles McNulty, the Theatre Critic for the Los Angeles Times, condescended to the production, calling it “dated” and “old-fashioned.” What got me to thinking about drama’s relationship to the short story was McNulty’s comment: “Instead of sinking into the realism, I found myself often observing good actors act.” Aside from the obvious fact that a drama critic should not apologize for “observing good actors act,” I was interested in his complaint about not “sinking into the realism.”

I am not sure that it is possible for a staged drama to be “realistic,” allowing, even encouraging, the audience to forget that the people on the stage are actors. The Mark Taper is a sort of “theatre in the round,” with a limited number of seats in a semicircle around an open stage. The set for “The Subject was Roses” was a kitchen and a living room, side by side, with no wall between them. Scenes, separated by a fade-to-black, were enacted by the actors, in one of the two rooms. There was no way one could get lost in the “realism” of the scenes, as if the characters are real people in the real world, in spite of the fact that everything looked real. You still knew that when characters left the set to go out the front door or enter a bedroom that they were going back stage. You knew there was no “real” world out there. I am not even sure how it would be possible for LA Times critic McNulty to sink into the “realism,” since “realism” is a style, a set of conventions for representing reality, not reality itself. Gilroy's drama is a highly formalized group of set pieces, carefully staged to explore the complexity of a mysterious human relationship.

One of the complaints often lodged against the short story is that, as opposed to the novel, one cannot get lost in the “reality” of the story. Why? Because it is too short, because we seldom have a background context for the action or the characters, because it often draws attention to itself as a language-construct rather than a clear glass through which we can see something we like to find comforting as “reality.” Short stories are more like dramas than they are like novels because neither the short story nor the play wants us to sink into some as-if reality, but rather to participate in a highly formalized similitude that has some unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, core that gives it form and meaning. Reality, on the other hand, is formless and meaningless, that is, until someone gives it form and meaning, and then it is a representation or enactment, calling attention to itself as a creation, not just something lying around out there on which you might stub your toe.

All dramatists know this, of course. My favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, because Shakespeare never lets us forget that it is a play. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet cries, a highly formalized, even ritualistic, pattern of enactment. Even in “The Subject Was Roses,” which, like many short stories centers on an important symbolic object, has a brief little moment of self-reflexive acknowledgement, when the son points to the audience and refers to some fictional spectator sitting in the back, as if he were an actor in a play, which, of course he is. The famous critical conundrum about Hamlet’s inability to revenge the death of his father—an inability to act that is the central action of the play—is due, of course to the fact that he is acting.

Like the drama, the short story’s relationship to “reality” is much more complex than a simple replication. And reality, as the artist always tries to remind us, is more complex than the stuff we experience everyday. Neither drama nor the short story invites us to “sink into realism,” but rather to pay careful attention to the means by which meaningful artifice is created.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Experimental Short Story: Part II: David Means, Stephen Millhauser, George Saunders, Steven Dixon

Rolf asked, vis a vis The Experimental Short Story: Part I, if I had considered Lydia Davis’s short fiction. I have read several of Davis’s stories in various places, but have not yet had a chance to read her Collected Stories that was on several “Best Books of the Year” lists for 2009. Sorry to say I have not got to J. G. Ballard’s Collected Stories either. So much to read! So little time! So I will have to content myself with four “experimental” writers that I have read—two of which are my favorite writers, and two that I find thoughtful and clever. Lydia Davis and J. G. Ballard join several others on my "must read; get the lead out" list of short story collections.

David Means

Although David Means’ Assorted Fire Events (2000), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave reviews both in America and England, still, for many critics, it was just a collection of short stories. His most recent collection of stories, The Secret Goldfish, reaffirms that like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.

To understand that “short-story way,” pick up The Secret Goldfish. But don’t rush through the stories. Read one, put the book by and meditate on the mystery of the human condition the story explores. Then wait a while before reading another. The short story is often misunderstood and underrated because readers read it the same way they do sections of novels. Don’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. Go to David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies and for the shock of recognition that those you thought you knew you don’t really know at all.

You go to Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed, stark and astonishing. The first paragraph of the first story in Secret Goldfish, “Lightning Man,” makes clear that the realm of reality that matters for Means is sacramental, ritualistic, miraculous--a world in which the old reassurances, such as lightning never strikes twice in the same place, are shown to be nonsense. Here a man is struck seven times throughout his life by a powerful revelatory energy until he becomes a mythic creature, waiting for the inevitable eighth.

In the short-story world of David Means, a mundane tale of infidelity and divorce gets transformed by the metaphoric stillness of a neglected goldfish in a mucked-up tank, surviving in spite of the stagnation around it. Means’ short stories are seldom satisfied with linearity of plot and thus often become lists of connected mysteries. “Notable Dustman Appearances to Date” is a series of hallucinatory manifestations of famous faces in swirling dust kicked up by wind or smoke: Nixon, Hemingway, Gogol, Jesus. “Michigan Death Trips” is a catalog of catastrophic disruptions, as people abruptly disappear beneath the ice of a frozen lake, are suddenly struck on the highway, or hit by a stray bullet from nowhere. “Elyria Man," lays bare mummified bodies found lying beneath the soil, as if patiently waiting to embody some basic human fear or need.

In each of his stories, David Means reveals the truth of our lives the way great art always has—by making us see the world as it painfully is, not as our comfortable habits hide it from us. David Means is a brilliant master of the short story who fully understands and respects the form’s power.

Stephen Millhauser

While most short-story writers in the last three decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies, Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Poe, to Kafka, to Borges, Barthelme and Barth--playfully and powerfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the merely real and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation.

Steven Millhauser's short fictions are often basically "suppose" stories. Suppose someone built the ultimate shopping mall? Suppose adolescent female mystery was really caused by witches? Suppose there was an amusement park that opened the door to an alternate reality. However, Millhauser's most obsessive "suppose" is: "Suppose you took an ordinary entertainment, illusion, or metaphor and pushed it as far as it would go." One could say that all of Millhauser's stories go "too far," that is, if the intensive "too far" existed in his vocabulary. His favorite personae are the impresario, the maestro, the necromancer, the wizard, Prospero on his island, Edison in his laboratory, Barnum in his circus ring. Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction--the magical story of the reality of artifice.

Although the thirteen stories in his most recent collection, Dangerous Laughter, are divided into three categories--Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures, and Heretical Histories—they are united by the romantic quest for transcendence. Even the opening cartoon, which uses fast-paced present-tense to create the illusion that you are watching a Tom and Jerry animated short, concludes with erasure of the physical and reinstatement of illusion.

The stories in the first group are the most intriguing in their transformation of the mundane into the miraculous. “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” is not a simple crime story. When the narrator and his former high school classmates look Elaine Coleman up in their yearbook, they cannot recall her, finally understanding that she did not suddenly disappear but rather gradually became more and more invisible. That the drive to transcend can begin in the most ordinary ways and lead to the most terrible results is explored in “Dangerous Laughter,” a story of how, pushed to extremes, any activity can become both obsessive and powerfully significant. It begins with adolescents laughing at little until the laughing becomes an end in itself, part of the “kingdom of forbidden things.”

The stories in the “Impossible Architectures” group,” although like previous Millhauser stories about artificial and enclosed worlds, are less compelling. “The Dome” begins with transparent domes to cover houses, which then develop into larger domes to cover neighborhoods and then towns, until the entire country and then the world is transformed into a giant mall. And if you encounter a Millhauser story entitled “The Tower,” you can guess that the issue is “how high?” Millhauser’s trope means to explore the complications and implications of religious desire, but it’s just too mechanical a metaphor.

The “Heretical Histories” section gives us stories about two “might-have-been” inventions that could have transformed the way we experience “reality.” In “A Precursor of the Cinema,” Harlan Crane, a late nineteenth century painter creates a pigment that reproduces the object so faithfully that it actually moves on the canvas--a forerunner to current experiments with holographic images. In “The Wizard of West Orange,” one of Thomas Edison’s researchers creates a device called a haptograph, a wired suit which, when put on, simulates various sensations of touch and, more significantly, creates new ones. However, the device’s promise of revelation, transformation, and transcendence dooms it, for the ever-practical Edison knows it will never bring in profits.

Millhauser’s stories are not mere ingenuity, although Lord knows, they are devilishly clever. No, Millhauser is motivated by the same obsessions that drove Blake--to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. In my opinion, he is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion and ultimate reality is always sleight of hand.

Steven Dixon

The most frequent terms used to characterize the short fiction of Stephen Dixon are: "experimental," "fabulous," quirky," and "tour de force." Previous writers with whom he has been compared include Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. However, the problem with so many of his stories is that, as imaginative and inventive as they may be, they largely seem to be just that--bloodless experiments with devices and techniques rather than real human events.

Many of Dixon's stories are experiments with traditional narrative structures. For example, "Man of Letters" makes use of the epistolary form in which a man named Newt, who features in a number of Dixon stories, writes a series of letters to a woman he has been seeing. Although he begins the first letter with the sentence, "I don't want to see you anymore," by the time he has verbally examined the relationship and justified his decision by writing a whole stack of letters, he ends by saying, "No matter what I'll be seeing you Friday night." It is as if the very act of writing has so self-consciously engaged the protagonist that he cannot state his feelings; he is too busy trying to impress instead of saying simply what he wants to express. Many of Dixon's stories convey this sense of becoming bogged down in verbal and narrative cleverness and thus never quite expressing a truly human experience.

A more radical narrative device is attempted in the story "14 Stories," in which a potentially tragic central event of a man trying to commit suicide is presented as a kind of comically botched job in which his attempt affects a number of people around him. The story begins with a graphic description of the bullet smashing the character's teeth, leaving his head through the back of the jaw, and then crashing through a window in the hotel room. As the story focuses on the man's effort's to try to get help, it simultaneously describes the reactions of a young boy on the roof at whose feet the bullet finally rests and a chambermaid who discovers the body and, at the end of the story, must clean up the bloody room. Although such an emphasis on characters on the fringes of a central drama is a common short story technique, in Dixon's treatment, the reader remains uninvolved in either the central tragedy or its incidental ramifications for other characters.

Such a transition, within a single story, from the realistic to the absurd, is an example of Dixon's favorite technique--what some critics have called "experimental realism," in which stories seem grounded in solid everyday reality and at the same time completely fantastic in their plots and character configurations. This narrative method was of course made famous in the early twentieth century by Franz Kafka in such stories a "Metamorphosis"--a fiction that seems absolutely realistic in its most minute details--that is, once the reader accepts the fantastic initial premise that the central character is a giant dung beetle. It is also similar to what has been called "magical realism," as practiced by South American writer Gabriel García Márquez, in which fantastic and fabulistic events are described as if they were taking place in a specific real world instead of within the once-upon-a-time world of fairy tale or the purely imaginative reality of folktale and parable.

"Darling" is a typical example of a Dixon story that begins realistically enough with the male protagonist describing his care for an elderly invalid woman. As she asks him to turn her over in bed, to give her medicine, and to bath her, he does so in routine fashion, until the very repeated requests and her constant reference to him as "Darling" begin to irritate him, and the reader, so much that when he starts tormenting her by pouring her drinking water on the floor, turning on the light when she wants it off, and finally dumping her out of bed, all this seem not only normal, but inevitable.

Dixon can narrate the most shocking and horrifying events in such a flat, deadpan style that the event becomes transformed into a kind of surrealistic and highly stylized set of gestures that the reader accepts, only to become appalled at that very acceptance. "The Intruder," perhaps the most extreme example of this technique, begins with a man entering his apartment to find his girlfriend being raped by an intruder who is threatening her with a knife. The story describes in graphic detail the intruder's forcing both the woman and the man to engage in sex acts with him. However, it is the stripped-down and matter-of-fact style with which the acts are described that creates the strange unreal effect the story has. As horrifying as the events are, they seem to take place in a world without emotional response.

George Saunders

When George Saunder's first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned." Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. In fact, that prominent periodical was so impressed by Saunders that it originally published all six of the stories in his new collection, Pastoralia. If that were not encouragement enough, three of the stories in Pastoralia have won O. Henry Awards prizes: "The Falls" in 1997 (which won second prize), "Winky" in 1998, and "Sea Oak" in 1999.

The reviewers of Saunders' two collections have called him variously "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Typical of the satirist's need for an object of attack, 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," he usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll." Comparing Saunders to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, critics have praised his demented black comic view of modern culture that showcases Americans' fears, shames, and their need to be accepted.

A primary way Saunders creates this view is to zero in on our pop culture entertainments. Whereas the focus of the title story of Saunders' first collection is a virtual reality theme park that simulates America during the Civil War era, the locale of the title story of the new collection is a museum in which two people pretend to be a cave man and woman for the entertainment and edification of the public. The protagonist "caveman" is paired up with a woman who does not perform her job with sufficient commitment; she often speaks English instead of inarticulate grunts, and she quarrels with her son who visits her on the job. Although the protagonist, who must fax reports to management about his fellow worker, tries to protect her, he is soon discovered and she is forced to leave. When a new woman assigned to the cave is more scrupulous than he; the story ends with the reader's suspicion that it won't be long before she has him replaced.

One of Saunders’ most problematical story--so absurdly pop-culture gothic it is not surprising that one of the judges who picked it for the 1999 O. Henry Award Prize Stories was Stephen King--is "Sea Oak." The story focuses on a man who works at a male strip club called Joysticks and who lives with his aunt, sister, and cousin in a subsidized apartment complex called Sea Oak, where there is no sea and no oak, only a rear view of FedEx. Saunders evokes some funny bits here: the Board of Health who visits the club to make sure the men's penises won't show, a television program of computer simulations of tragedies that never actually occurred but theoretically could. However, the story becomes most absurd when aunt Bernie dies and returns from the grave as a zombie who urges the narrator to show his penis so he can make more money.

The ostensible satiric point of the story is Bernie's expression of the unfulfilled longings of all the losers who die unheralded. However, what the reader most remembers is the grotesque image of Bernie's ears, nose, arms, and legs decaying and falling off. If there is a central thematic line in the story, it occurs when the narrator puts what is left of Bernie's body in a Hefty bag, thinking maybe there are angry dead people everywhere, hiding in rooms and bossing around their scared relatives. The story ends with Bernie's voice in the narrator's dreams crying the anthem perhaps of every pathetic, and somehow sympathetic, loser in Saunder's collections--"Some People get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?"

The short story as a form seems a natural for so-called “experimentalism.” If the experiment fails, then not so much is lost, since short stories are so, well, you know, short. And because the short story is short, it is more apt to focus on technique than mimesis, more apt to use language in a self-conscious way than simply as a clear glass through which to gaze at “reality,” whatever that is. Poe knew this at the beginning of the form, and many narrative writers who like to “play” with language have paid tribute to Poe. Although some critics like to draw contrasts between “traditional” or “realist” short story writers, such as Chekhov, Hemingway, Munro, Trevor, etc and the experimentalists I have discussed in these two blogs, in my opinion, Chekhov, Hemingway, Munro, and Trevor are no less experimentalists than Borges, Barth, Barthelme, Millhauser, etc. All great short-story writers are more enamored with language than with what some folks confidently call “reality.” As a result, all great short stories must be read with close attention to how style, technique, form, language creates the “reality of artifice,” (if I might be so bold as to quote the subtitle of one of my books on the short story).

It seems to me that there are two basic kinds of “experimental” short story—the “what if” stories of Barthelme and Saunders and the “alternate reality” stories of Barth and Millhauser. Of the two types, I prefer the latter, for the former often seem to me to be merely satire. And satire, for my taste, too often focuses on social issues rather than individual human complexity. And social issues, it seems to me, are not dealt with in a very complex way in short stories. The experimental stories of David Means and Stephen Millhauser interest me more than the satiric stories of David Saunders and Steven Dixon because they explore individual human complexity in subtle and penetrating ways.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Experimental Short Story--Part I: Caponegro, Evenson, and the Experimentalists of the Sixties

Mary Caponegro and Brian Evenson are often characterized as “experimental” writers. I had only read their stories occasionally as I ran across them in the journal Conjunctions and in trade anthologies such as Ben Marcus’s The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. However, I recently read their new collections All Fall Down by Caponegro and Fugue State by Evenson (both published by Coffee House Press).

If you have never read Caponegro, this new collection may be the one to begin with, since the four stories in it are somewhat more traditional than her usual “experimental” style. The two novellas in the book are closer to the challenging syntax more often associated with Caponegro. “Ill-Timed,” the longest piece in the collection, is challenging, if for no other reason than its lengthy repetition of banter between two women. However, the witty dialogue makes it relatively more porous and comprehensible than the final novella, “The Translator,” in which self-conscious literary monologues about language threaten to mire one down in the inky print on the page.

I enjoyed Evenson’s stories even more than Caponegro’s, for no one pushes the envelope of the Poe/pulp tradition with more bravura than he does. In “Mudder Tongue,” chosen for the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories, the central character loses his ability to communicate with others when the words he speaks are not the ones the thinks. In “Dread,” a graphic tale illustrated by Zak Sally, a man’s identity crisis is caused when he is haunted by a phrase--“He no longer resembled me”-- from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. “Ninety Over Ninety” is a laugh-out-loud satire on the publishing industry, while the title story is a Borges-like nightmare in which dissociation is a contagion that causes characters to morph from one to another. Fugue State is an irresistible mélange of the comic and the terrifying. I recommend both Caponegro and Evenson to you.

However, what the two books got me to thinking about was the meaning of the term “experimental,” especially when used to describe a type of short story. I remembered that the debate about experimental fiction made some literary news a few years ago and dug out an old issue of Harper’s (October 2005) and reread Ben Marcus’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” Marcus, whose penchant for “experimental” fiction can be seen in his own work, as well as the choices he made for The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, takes on Jonathan Franzen for his attacks on James Joyce, William Gaddis, and other nontraditionalists.

Franzen has said that praise for Ulysses as one of the top ten books of the century “sends this message to the common reader: Literature is terribly hard to read. And this message to the aspiring writer: Extreme difficulty is the way to earn respect. This is fucked up. It’s particularly fucked up when the printed word is fighting other media for its very life.” In another place, Franzen calls Gaddis “unreadable, needlessly obtuse, and frequently indifferent to his reading audience.”

Marcus argues: “If reading is a skill, with levels of ability, and not simply something we can or cannot do, then it’s a skill that can be improved by more, and more varied reading. The more various the styles we ingest, the better equipped we are to engage and be moved by those writers who are looking deeply into the possibility of syntax as a way to structure sense and feeling, packing experience into language, leveraging grammar as a medium for the making of art.”

I align myself with Marcus’s argument that fiction writers use syntax to explore human complexity, but would further argue that writers such as Alice Munro and William Trevor, who are often called “realists” or “traditionalists,” use language in this self-conscious way, as well as so-called “experimental” writers such as Evenson and Caponegro. If you are interested in this debate, you can find Marcus’s essay online, as well as the various pieces by Franzen that he refers to. I would be happy to discuss the issue with anyone who wants to resurrect it. However, as a student of the short story as a genre, I am more interested in what kind of short fiction is often called “experimental.” I went back over a number of writers I have read and written about in the past to see what is characteristic of the “experimental” short story, if there is such a thing.

I will mention briefly four writers from the late sixties who were called “experimental” (Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and William H. Gass) and four writers from the nineties who have likewise been dubbed something other than traditional (Stephen Dixon, Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, and David Means). I will make a few comments about the Sixties writers in this blog and discuss the four Nineties writers in next week’s blog. I will then try to draw some conclusions about what is the typical “experimental” short story.

Robert Coover's first collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants (1969), consists of a number of stories based on fairy tales, legends, folktales--all of which are made more earthy and "real" than their mythic originals. "The Door" is an erotic, self-reflexive retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood," while "The Magic Poker" is an elaborate exploration of fictional creation, ala Shakespeare's The Tempest, and "Seven Exemplary Fictions" is an homage to Cervantes. However, the most popular story in the collection is "The Babysitter," a complex play with the shifting intermixture of fantasy and reality. "The Babysitter" ultimately asks the basic question "What actually happened?" for as you read the story you are never quite sure at any given point if you are reading a fantasy or a description of so-called reality. Although the story seems filled with ominous events, nothing actually happens, except in the sexual fantasies of the participants, which predominate over ordinary reality. At the end of the story, when a television program enters the mix of fantasies, it seems no less real than the character fantasies throughout. Few stories have gone as far as "The Babysitter" in undermining the easy assumption that reality refers merely to external events in the physical world.

When Donald Barthelme's first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appeared in 1964, critics complained that his work was without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader's understanding. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes. Because so much contemporary language has become trash, dreck, Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. For Barthelme, the task is to try to reach, through metaphor and the defamiliarization that results, that ineffable realm of knowledge which he says lies somewhere between mathematics and religion "in which what may fairly be called truth exists."

Barthelme has noted that since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century, the point of which is that "unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality." One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual temporal, cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry.

The most basic example of Barthelme's use of this mode is "The Balloon," in which a large balloon has encompassed the city. The persona of the story says that it is wrong to speak of "situations, implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." In this story there are no situations, only the balloon, a concrete particular thing that people react to and try to explain. The balloon is an extended metaphor for the Barthelme story, to which people try to find a means of access and which creates varied critical responses. To plunge into a Barthelme story is to immerse oneself in the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, for his stories are not so much plotted tales as they are parodies and satires based on the public junk and commercial media hype that clutter up and cover over our private lives.

In 1967 and 1968, John Barth made his alignment with the postmodernist focus on fiction as a self-reflexive art form explicit. First he published a controversial essay in the Atlantic entitled "The Literature of Exhaustion," which, although it has been much misunderstood to have argued that contemporary fiction writers have "run out" of a subject for their work, actually urged more of the kind of self-conscious experimentation practiced by the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges. Secondly, he turned from the novel form to the short story, publishing Lost in the Funhouse, an experimental collection in which the stories refused to focus their attention on their so-called proper subject--the external world--and instead continually turned the reader's attention back to what Barth considered their real subject--the process of fiction-making.

Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is only there to be transformed into fabulation. The artist's ostensible subject is not the main point; rather it is only an excuse or raw material for focusing on the nature of the fiction-making process. Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of what it seems to be about, about itself. Perhaps more than any other American writer Barth made fiction intensely conscious of itself, aware of its traditions, and of the conventions that make it possible. If, as the main currents of modern thought suggests, reality itself is the result of fiction-making processes, then John Barth is truly a writer concerned with the essential nature of what is real.

A philosopher particularly interested in the fictional nature of reality, William H. Gass's contribution to the postmodernist short story came in his 1968 collection, In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. Gass, as well known for his philosophical literary essays as for his fiction, has always reminded readers that "stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words." A character in a story, Gass insists, is not an object of perception, and "nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be said of him."

"Order of Insects," which Gass thinks is one of his best short fictions, charts the growth of a woman's obsession with a species of insects that inhabit her home. By limiting her vision obsessively, she transforms the insects into mythic creatures, ultimately feeling as though she has been entrusted with a kind of "eastern mystery, sacred to a dreadful god." As opposed to humans, the insects, whose skeletons are on the outside, retain their shape in death. They are beautiful in the ideal sense with a fierce joy in their very composition, a joy of stone that lives in its tomb like a stone lion. Never seeming to participate in decay, they are perfect geometric shapes representing pure order.

The title story of Gass's collection is a lyrical evocation of being in "retirement from love." The voice of the narrator, who has come to a small town in Indiana because he has "love left over" which he would like to lose, mixes his response to the inhabitants of the town with his meditations and memories of a past love, who was, as all romantic lovers are, a fiction. "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" is the narrator's attempt to organize himself, pull himself together by means of the language of poetry.

I will try to draw some general conclusions from all this next week when I discuss four major nontraditional short story writers from the nineties.