Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Said Sayraefiezadeh's "Appetite": How I Read a Story

In response to my last post on several New Yorker stories, Elissa, one of my readers, made the sort of “comment” that professors, young and old, can never resist: “I would love to know what you thought of….” Since I have spent my professional life telling folks what I think of short stories, and since Elissa wanted to know what I thought of Said Sayrafiezadeh’s story “Appetite” in the March 1 issue of The New Yorker, I dug it out from the pile of mags by my bed and reread it.

After I first read the story, about a month ago, I laid it aside without much thought. I am not familiar with Sayrafiezadeh’s work, although I vaguely remembered his name associated with a memoir about skateboards. At Elissa’s prompting, my second reading (which--I never tire of saying--every short story deserves) made me consider some guidelines for reading short stories that I have always followed.

When I read a story for the first time, after I have read the first paragraph, I stop and start over again. It takes a little time to make a transition from the real world around you to the fictional world you have entered. Sometimes I feel tempted to skim and thus do not get attuned to the voice of the story, fail to grasp relationships between characters, and cannot quite picture the setting. As a result, I begin to flounder and rush through the story, finishing with a shrug and a sense of puzzlement or a feeling of “so what.”

When I finish a story that interests me, I read it again. This time, the details of the story have more significance and weight because I have the whole story in mind. I know, somewhat vaguely as I begin the second reading, that “Appetite” is a first-person story about a young guy with a routine, low-paying job, who wants to ask for a raise, but doesn’t have the confidence, who wants to ask a waitress out, but lacks the nerve, who feels that he is a loser.

But in my opinion what the story at first seems to be “about” is not really the story. The story is the “means” by which the author transforms this ordinary character facing this ordinary sense of failure into a meaningful language-constructed narrative. I am interested in how the author uses language to transform a series of temporal events, i.e. “one damn thing after another,” into an aesthetic totality, existing all at once. The primary way an author performs this transformation is by the process of redundancy, that is, the obsessive repetition of similar motifs. The way I read a story is to identify these repeated similarities or echoes, to arrange them into bundles that constitute themes, and then to try to understand how these bundles of themes relate to each other.

There are many repeated motifs that cluster together to create themes in Sayrafiezadeh’s story. A careful reader becomes intuitively aware of them as the story becomes transformed from a temporal flow of events into a spatial pattern of meaning. It is not necessary to identify all of them unless one is writing an analytical article, so I am only going to identify the central theme here. (I am trying hard to avoid being the pedant here; I just want to respond to Elissa’s request and characterize how I read a story).

In my opinion, the primary theme of “Appetite” is announced in the first sentence: “Things were not going as I had hoped.” This is, of course echoed in the first sentence of the second section of the story: “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” The speaker/protagonist of the story is always making plans for future events that never quite pan out as he hopes they will. He is not quite sure what figure he should strike in the world, so he is always posturing, posing, and he is always self-consciously aware of the gap between how he wants to look and how he fears he really looks. In other words, he lives in a world that seldom corresponds to reality.

The key phrase in the story, the phrase that is repeated obsessively, is “as if.” According to my count (not that I am urging anyone to count such things), the phrase is repeated 14 times. Forgive me if I risk playing the professor for a paragraph here. The most famous coiner of the phrase “as if” is Hans Vaihinger, a German philosopher of the late nineteenth century, whose book The Philosophy of As If argued that because we cannot really know the world, we construct useful fictions and behave “as if” the world matched those fictions. The literary theorist Frank Kermode, in his book The Sense of an Ending, argued further, “I see no reason why we cannot apply to literary fictions what Hans Vaihinger says of fictions in general, that they are mental structures.” The implications of this notion have been pushed further in poststructuralist theory to suggest that what we call reality is always a fiction, an elaborate construct that we continually make. Thus, if one wishes to study reality, one should study the means by which human beings construct reality, for reality is a process, not a product.

However, the theory of “as if” that I have chosen to help me understand Sayrafiezadeh’s story was popularized by that well-known twentieth-century Valley Girl philosopher Alicia Silverstone in that classic masterpiece movie “Clueless." Any time she wished to suggest that something that someone thinks is going to happen is never going to happen is to state the assumption or plan, and follow it with an emphatic “as if.” e.g: “He thinks he’s so hot. As if!” or “He thinks I am going to go out with him. As if!”

This disjunction between what the narrator/protagonist of "Appetite" hopes/thinks/plans will happen and what really happens constitutes the central theme of the story. This Bobby Burns idea of “The best laid schemes of mice and men” is echoed by the narrator/protagonist’s reference to himself as a hamster. He knows others may think of him, “What are you—a man or a mouse?” This central disjunction appears throughout the story in many ways.

This kind of character has always been a favorite one for the short-story writer. Whereas the novel, springing from the epic, may have an heroic figure with whom the reader can identify, the short story, springing from the folk tale, as Frank O’Connor has noted in his wonderful little book The Lonely Voice, is most often about the little man, citing Gogol’s great story “The Overcoat” as one of the first modern short stories.

I could go on at length about Sayrafiezadeh’s story, but that is a professorial occupational hazard I will resist at this point. I suspect many of my students often wished I had resisted it much earlier and more often.

So, Elissa, in answer to your request, this is what I thought about “Appetite.” I would love to know what other readers think about it.


Elissa said...

Thank you so much, Mr. May! I loved the story -- though I loved it much in the way I love a lot of poetry, without the need to understand why and even without the need to fully understand the poem. I know a lot of people who hate poetry, usually because they don't feel they "get" it. I think part of the reason I'm able to love poetry is that I feel no obligation to "get" it; I'm able to enjoy the visceral experience of it whether or not I could talk about it with any authority. With that said, it is a delight to read your deconstruction of this and many other stories.

Charles E. May said...

You know, Elissa. I don't think it is necessary to analyze a story to just intuitively "know" that it is a good one and that you like it. I think if you read enough stories, you internalize the techniques by which writers create good stories and thus respond to those techniques in each new story. In other words, to know how to read stories, you need to read stories. It's just that when I was teaching, I had to try to make up in quality what my students lacked in quantity. Does that make sense?

Elissa said...

Were you teaching lit students or writing students? (I just emailed you, by the way!)