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.


BlogSloth said...

Thanks for this. Will post on HTML Giant ASAP. Keen words here.

Lee said...

Unfortunately, only a brief excerpt from the Ben Marcus essay, which indeed I'd like to read, is available for non-subscribers.

I'm looking forward to next week's post!

Rolf said...

Great stuff, Charles... Have you given any thought to Lydia Davis? I'll have to read back through your posts.

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Randy said...

I've read hundreds of short stories in my life but it is still hard for me to get involved with stories that are blatantly experimental. I've read quite a bit of Donald Barthelme's work and find most of it to be a waste of paper. Coover is somewhat better -- but not much. I have found his work to be often dull. His story "Grandmother's Nose" was one of the weakest stories in Best American Short Stories 2006, and it sounds like he was repeating himself by returning to Little Red Riding Hood for inspiration.

I've read one story each by Evanson and Caponegro. Evanson's "Two Brothers", a selection in the O. Henry Prize series a decade or so ago, was grotesque in the extreme and devoid of any literary merit that I could find. On the other hand. I enjoyed Caponegro's surreal "The Star Cafe", one of the stories in the anthology "You've Got to Read This!"

Of the writers you mentioned in this illuminating essay, my favorite is Gass.