Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog"

Today (November 16, 2010) marks the second anniversary of my blog “Reading the Short Story.” It is also the day my second short story has been published. It is entitled “Down Under” and is available at Marco Polo Quarterly at the following address: http://www.marcopoloquarterly.com/downundercmay.html

In the two years I have been writing this blog, I have tried to post at least one brief essay each week. Today is my 114th entry. To mark that occasion, for I dearly love to mark occasions, I am posting a brief discussion of one of the most admired short stories in the history of the form, Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” (as translated by Constance Garnett; translated by David Magarshack as “Lady with Lapdog”; also translated as “Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Lady with the Little Dog” and others).

I also will comment briefly on three modern tributes to the story: “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Man with the Lapdog” by Beth Lordan, and “Reading Chekhov” by David Means.

At the end of the nineteenth century Anton Chekhov, the great master of the short story, perfected the form’s ability to present spiritual reality in realistic terms by focusing on the essentially mysterious and hidden nature of the basic human desire to transcend the everyday. Critic Peter Bitsilli has suggested that the complexity of Chekhov's characters leads us to feel there is something about them we do not understand, a something hidden from us, a something that is part of Chekhov's appeal. That something, I suggest, is Chekhov’s understanding of the connection between the old romance form’s focus on spiritual reality and the modern short story’s focus on the secret inner desire of the individual to participate in that reality.

Although the theme of the basic desire of the secret self could be illustrated in any number of Chekhov’s short fictions, the paradigmatic statement can be found in one of his most famous stories, “Lady with the Dog.” Near the end of what seems to be merely an anecdotal tale of adultery, the central male character agonizes over the division he senses in himself.

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."

In "The Lady with The Dog"--a paradigm for the story of the illicit affair--it is never clear whether Gurov truly loves Anna Sergeyevna or whether it is only the romantic fantasy that he wishes to maintain. What makes the story so subtle and complex is that Chekov presents the romance in such an understated and objective way that we realize there is no way to determine whether it is love or romance, for there is no way to distinguish between them. Although Gurov feels that he has a life open and seen, full of relative truth and falsehood like everyone else, he knows he has another life running its course in secret, a true life, and the false only was open to others. "All personal life," he feels, "rested on secrecy."

At the end of the story, Gurov and Anna wonder how they can free themselves from their intolerable bondage, but only Chekhov and the reader are aware that there is no way to free themselves, for the real bondage is not the manifest one, but the latent bondage all human beings have to the dilemma of never knowing which is the true self and which is the false one. Although it seems to the couple that they would soon find the solution and a new and splendid life would begin, at the same time it is clear to them that they had a long way to go and that the most complicated part of it was only just beginning. Indeed, what seems so simple is indeed complicated.

This division between public life and secret life corresponds to the distinction anthropologist Mircea Eliade makes between the two modes of being, sacred and profane, experienced by primitive man. “The man of the archaic societies,” says Eliade, wished to live as much as possible in the sacred, for the sacred is equivalent, “in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being.” The realm of the sacred, or what Ernst Cassirer calls “mythic reality,” is the central subject of the short story. What Cassirer calls “the momentary deity” and Eliade calls the “sacred” is something that manifests itself as wholly different from profane or everyday reality. Eliade uses the term “hierophany” to designate the momentary disruption that marks the sacred, the paradox of which is that by “manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself.”

This phenomenon is well known to writers who have made the short story their primary fictional mode. Raymond Carver suggests it most emphatically when he notes, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power.” As Flannery O’Connor says, "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.... His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”

As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful. More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause. As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

In Chekhov’s great story, “Lady with the Dog,” The secrecy of Gurov’s idealized desire constitutes true reality for him, just as the sacred constituted true reality for primitive man and woman. Indeed, in the modern short story, idealized human desire--unsayable, unrealizable, always hovering, like religious experience in the realm of the "not yet"--replaces the sacred revelation embodied in primal short-fiction forms. As the couple sit looking at the sea, Gurov feels that “in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves…” When Anna leaves, Gurov thinks it has been just another episode or adventure in his life, nothing left but a memory that would visit him only from time to time. But she haunts him, and he imagines her to be lovelier and himself to be finer than they actually were in Yalta. The story ends with the couple agonizing about how to avoid the secrecy and to be free of their intolerable bondage. “How? How?” Gurov asks. But, of course there is no answer, no way that the romantic, spiritual ideal they store up in their ghostly hearts can ever be actualized, except, of course, as it is manifested in the short story—as the immanent, the liminal, the “not yet.”

Beth Lordan, professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, had just returned from a spring semester in Ireland when she wrote “The Man With the Lapdog,” the first story in her “novel-in-stories,” But Come Ye Back, about an American man and his Irish-born wife retiring to her homeland where the sea is near and the butter has a taste to it, but where he hates driving on the wrong side of the road and doesn’t care for the Guinness.

Although each story in But Come Ye Back is a perfectly formed independent fiction, the separate parts create an even greater whole. And the reason is the reader’s gradual discovery of, and growing concern for, the central characters. As you read each story, you experience shifting allegiances. At one point Lyle seems like a gruff curmudgeon and his wife long-suffering; at another, Mary seems to be shrewishly sharp tongued and Lyle quietly self-sacrificing.

Like most couples who have lived together for many years, Lyle and Mary chaff against each other, find it difficult to say how they really feel, and occasionally fantasize about how it would be to be with someone else. For Lyle, it occurs when he meets an American couple on holiday and discovers that the husband is dying of cancer; he imagines meeting the wife again later, but, as opposed to the famous Chekhov story of illicit love from which “The Man With the Lapdog” gets its name, he quietly values his own relationship.

In the final scene, when Mary goes for a walk with Lyle and they meet the American couple, Mary exhibits the gracious sympathy and hospitality the Irish are famous for by inviting them home for tea and putting her arms around the young American woman. As they part, Mary says, “Such lovely people,” and Lyle, who has rejected taking up Irish idioms, presses his arm against her side and says, “They are so. And it’s a sad thing, it is.” Lordan’s story is a delicately-done love story about those daily irritations and fantasies that tear at married couples and those occasional luminous moments that remind them of what holds them together.

Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (in High Lonesome) is not so delicate. Told from the point of view of the Anna character in Chekhov’s story, it is a modern story of adultery, focusing on a period six months after the lovers have broken it off. It is marred by Oates’ ignoring Chekhov’s famous dictum, “It is better to say too little than too much.” Oates has her female protagonist examine and ponder and wonder endlessly, even, predictably, making a half-hearted suicide attempt. The couple torment themselves with recriminations and shame; the cuckolded husband helplessly tries to hold on.

The basic problem I have with Joyce Carol Oates’ stories is that she does not seem to really like her characters, and she does not respect the intelligence of her readers, feeling compelled to explain everything and to center relentlessly on some thematic idea she wishes to convey. Too many of her stories are aesthetically astute but emotionally cold, resonant with the influence of literature but empty of the mystery of life.

Oates writes a great deal and seemingly publishes everything she writes. It is a fact of her literary life that makes one suspicious that in spite of the serious surface of her work she is a one-woman industry. There is no doubt that she knows the short story form well--has studied it and practiced it more than most living writers. However, her work is often imitative and repetitive, and many of the stories seem to spring from a dispassionate artistic "what if" than from a passionate involvement in the lives of her characters.

Too often, Oates' stories read like creative writing assignments. And indeed, students who want to learn how to write short fiction could do worse than read the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and imitate what she does. For she is a complete craftsman who can mimic the conventions of the form. However, as John Barth has his Genie and the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade say in his book Chimera (1972), telling stories, like making love, takes more than good technique; while both heartfelt ineptitude and heartless skill have their appeal, what one really wants is "passionate virtuosity." No matter how well a writer knows the conventions and techniques of a genre, without a deeply felt sense of human mystery that compels the great writer to write, the result is apt to be bloodless. Oates is certainly a virtuoso, but does she have passion?

David Means’ story “Reading Chekhov,” from his new collection, The Spot, is also a version of “Lady with a Pet Dog.” The story is told in brief sections that move back and forth between the man, who is a 35-year-old part-time student at a seminary, and the woman who is married with a twelve-year-old daughter. They know they are part of the overall tradition of adultery; they read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” together and compare themselves to Chekhov’s lovers.

Means has a very perceptive understanding of the subtleties of adultery, and it doesn’t hurt that his characters here are made intelligent about, and sensitive to, what they are involved in. While lace curtains spread a lattice across her body that he traces with his fingers, “from her belly—with its cesarean scar to her chin—“ he says that adultery is multifaceted: “It’s shapeless but at the same time has a rudimentary figure, like a snowflake; an abundance of clichés surround it and yet it’s unique, an entity different each time.” This, of course, is the challenge to writing a good story about adultery, as Chekhov well knew.

Means creates an irresistible trope of the woman’s skirt, which is charged with static electricity, “clinging in wavelets to her thighs, riding along her crotch, sliding up with each step as she climbed the stairs to his apartment.” When they walk down toward the river off the promenade, he lets her go ahead a few yards “so he could watch her hips shifting beneath her skirt, the movement of her rear against the silk fabric, light-and dark-blue daisy-shaped flowers.”

It is at this point that the story shifts, for her pumps make her unsteady on the soft ground and she twists sideways to the right and falls into the weeds, breaking a bone just above her ankle. She must lie to her husband as to how the accident occurred; and as she sits at home letting the bones heal, she apparently decides to end it. Her explanation to him about the importance of her marriage and her daughter seems so stilted she makes up something specific: “I went last night check my daughter, and she was uncovered and sleeping facedown and I looked at her back, the bones of her back, and they were, well, they reminded me of the bones of a sardine. You could chew and swallow them and not even notice.”
And it is indeed such specificities, both real and imagined, that characterize the affair. Here is how the story ends:

“Much later she’d hold specific memories of it…. She beheld a certain dignity in the exactitudes: the smell of cut flowers at a bodega, rubber bands bright red around their stems; the dusky light off Broadway on summer afternoons; the heavy wall along Riverside Park, cool against their claves, as they sat holding hands during lunch, turning now and then to glance down through the trees to the river, which was broken into shards, blue against the green.”

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.

One doesn’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. One reads David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies. One reads David 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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best American Short Stories 2010

In her introduction to the 2010 Best American Short Stories, which came out recently, Heidi Pitlor has some bad news and some good news about the short story. She laments, as do we all, the demise over the past decade of such venues for the form as Story, Double Take, and Ontario Review, and the budget slashings that have threatened such journals as Southern Review and the New England Review. But then, she suggests, hopefully, perhaps the length of short stories is better suited to new technologies than other literary forms, citing the shift of Triquarterly and Ascent from print to online, and Atlantic’s decision to sell stories through Kindle.

Concluding that there is cause for concern as well as cause for rejoicing, she advises readers how they can help insure the continuing life of the short story: subscribe to a literary journal, buy a short story collection by a young author. However, readers are not going to do either if they do not like to read short stories, and they will never like to read short stories if they do not know how to read them well, or having learned how to read them, still do not enjoy the experience.

Richard Russo’s Introduction to the volume will not do much to encourage readers to embrace short stories. I know authors are chosen as editors for the Best American Short Stories series because their names on the cover may help to sell copies, and I am all right with that. But surely, the folks at Mariner books could have found someone who knows more about short stories, or cares more about them, than Richard Russo.

Richard Russo is a wry, funny, self-effacing writer who carefully constructs big multigenerational sagas about the great American dream—old-fashioned, multilayered, full-canvas epics with vivid descriptions of classic American places populated by colorful blue-collar characters. He has said that he revels in the discursive, the digressive, and the episodic. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course--that is, unless you try to write short stories.

So what does an old-fashioned Dickensian novelist do when he sits down to write short stories? He writes stories like the ones in Russo’s one collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories-- a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based tales with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find his stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them well enough, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again.

Perhaps because he doesn’t know much about short stories, in his introduction, Russo doesn’t tell us anything about the stories in the present collection, which is all right, I guess, if he had only told us something, anything, about short stories at all. Instead, he regales (I always wanted to use that word) us with a little anecdotal recollection (not a story) about a time in the late 1980s when he as an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University when a real short story writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited the campus. The anecdote centers on Singer’s answer to a student’s question about the purpose of literature, to which Singer, elderly and frail, responded, “The purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct.”

Russo then spends a bit of time defending the notion of “entertainment” as opposed to “instruction” (as if those were the only two possibilities for the purpose of literature). The rest of the Introduction describes Singer at a public reading, which turns comically disastrous over his trying to manage his manuscript, which has been stapled together. When he tears off a page, having nothing else to do with it, he lets it drop, and a gust of wind catches it and blow it into the audience. He finally gives up, reaches into his pocket for another manuscript, and reads it instead.

Yeah, that is all very interesting about Singer's difficulty, and how he handled it, etc. etc. Gee, I wish I had been there. In the last paragraph of the introduction, Russo tells us that he read two hundred and fifty stories in order to choose the twenty in the collection, which, he says, felt like some “sort of literary waterboarding.” God help us! If reading short stories is that much like torture for Russo, then why in hell did Mariner Houghton Mifflin not choose an editor who loved short stories? Yeah, I know, I know. Because of the value of the Russo name on the cover.

I have only read half the stories so far, choosing them because of the appeal of the first paragraph, the familiarity of the author, the etc. Here are some impressions, recommendations, impressions, etc. I may get around to the other ten some day.

James Lasdun’s story, “The Hollow,” is the same story as “Oh Death,” which was in the 2010 O. Henry collection. One was published in the U.S. version of his most recent book; the other was published in the British version. I have already commented on Lasdun and this story in previous blog entries. I like Lasdun, and I like this story, no matter what its name is.

Wells Tower, “Raw Water.” I have commented on Wells Tower in a previous blog entry also. He got a lot of buzz last year with his first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I was not impressed with that collection. I think Tower is a clever writer with a lot of surface appeal, but with little or no depth. This story about a couple going to live in Triton Estates, a real estate development gone bad on the shores of a sixty square mile manmade lake in the desert, is more of Tower’s inventive cleverness. Futuristic sci-fi satire with snappy dialogue and funny bits, it will while away some time, but not leave you with anything.

Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian.” Ferris was one of the New Yorker’s Twenty-under-Forty crowd this past summer, so it bothers me a bit that he is writing about a man living alone on his sixty-fourth birthday, as if he knows anything at all about that. Ferris is also a funny, clever guy, and this story made me laugh out loud just for the sheer facility with which Ferris moves merrily along almost extemporaneously through it. The central character Arty Groys bitches a lot about his age, his loneliness, his weight, his gallbladder. When an old friend sends a prostitute to visit him, complete with Viagra, problems arise, if nothing else does. It’s funny; it’s rigged; it’s facile.

Lauren Groff, “Delicate Edible Birds.” I was never sure whether this story was meant to be taken seriously, or whether it was a parody of very bad “lost generation” writing of the twenties. It’s part of a collection of stories about famous women; this one is Martha Gellhorn, best known for being Hemingway’s third wife. It’s about a small group of war correspondents held prisoner by a French Nazi sympathizer unless the Martha Gellhorn type character agrees to have sex with him. As Groff tells us in the Contributor’s Notes, the plot is based on a much better story by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif.” There’s some quite terrible writing in this story, which is so filled with verbal clichés that you begin to predict them. But I think it is a joke. I hope it’s a joke. By the way, for some totally strange reason known only to himself, John Updike chose a not-so-great story by Martha Gellhorn for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In its badness, it sounds a bit like Lauren Groff’s story.

Ron Rash, “The Ascent.” This one was also chosen for New Stories from the South: 2010. It’s the shortest story in the collection, one of those tight, clipped little stories that says little, but make you constantly uneasy. A boy finds a downed airplane in the wilderness near his home. He takes a diamond ring off the body of a woman in the plane and shows it to his parents, saying he found it in the woods. The father says he is taking it to the sheriff, but instead sells it and blows the money. The boy goes back to get a man’s watch, knowing the parents will squander that too. He makes one final trip to the plane. I liked this story. It is the first Ron Rash story I have read. But based on it, I am sending for his collection Chemistry and Other Stories. One of the best things about Best American Short Stories is that it has always been a good way to discover new writers.

Lori Ostlund’s “All Boy,” which I also liked, is, like the Ron Rash story, also about a young boy who seems closed out, alone. In this case, the story moves almost inevitably to the conclusion when the boy learns that his father is moving out to live with a man. I just received a copy of Ostlund’s recent debut collection The Bigness of the World, which won this year’s Flannery O’Connor Prize. I will post a blog on it soon.

Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” is a story about a young man who tries to write fiction, not very successfully, while teaching remedial writing at a community college. When his retired father begins writing also, quite successfully, the narrator has a hard time dealing with this, especially when he recognizes in his father’s stories many of the events from his past that he has also plans to write about. It’s another funny story that made me laugh. Although it violates a common admonition in MFA writing classes never to write about writing, I liked it.

Jill McCorkle’s “PS” is another comic story, this time a bit too gimmicky for me, written in the form of a long letter from a woman to her marriage counselor. Clever and inventive, but nothing much more than that for me.

Jennifer Eagan, “Safari.” This is still another story about adolescent children trying to come to terms with their father. In this case, the father had taken up with a much younger woman who is working on a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Berkeley. The adolescent daughter tries to break up the relationship. Oh, and by the way, they are on safari in Africa with some other people, one of which is a young man the young woman is inevitably drawn to. Oh, it’s all complicated. What holds it together is the anthropology student’s use of a structural schema to organize the needs of each of the characters and the structural relationships they create. For example, the daughter’s situation is described as “structural resentment,” while the father’s relationship with his younger bedmate is described as “structural incompatibility—all suggesting the way anthropologists study relationships among primitive peoples—which I guess basically everyone is.

Maggie Shipstead, “The Cowboy Tango.” Nothing pretentious about this story. Just a well told love story about a man named Glen Otterbausch, who hires a young woman named Sammy to work on his ranch and falls in love with her. But, alas, you know how love stories must be; she does not love him. She falls in love with his nephew who has recently got a divorce and comes to work on the ranch. But then the nephew leaves, for that’s how love stories are. Otterbausch tries to get revenge on Sammy, but ultimately loves her too much to do so. I am a sucker for a love story, so this one sucked me right in with its uncluttered style and heart-scalded cowboys and cowgirls. It ain’t Annie Proulx, but it will do.

I have been buying my annual copy of Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award Stories for many years now. Their multicolored paperback spines line up neatly on my bookshelves. I have most of the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South collections as well. I don’t always agree with the choices in these books, but they do help me keep up with the short story and introduce me to writers I am happy to discover.

Monday, November 1, 2010

David Means, "The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"

Flaubert, who probably invented modern fiction, once famously said he wanted to write "a book about nothing," a book held together only by the "internal force of its style." Other major contributors to modern fiction, such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce have similarly emphasized form and style over content. Only those who have not read them would think that The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story, or that Heart of Darkness is really all about postcolonialism, or that Ulysses is about one day in the life of a guy named Leopold Bloom.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work."

William H. Gass has reminded us that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of “making.” Every other diddly desire," says Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day"

If you are a writer, Gass says the next time someone asks you who is your audience, you must answer, “the ear.” The writer, says Gass, must be a musician. If you think, “but I have a story to tell, characters to create, a plot to contrive,” Gass says, “No. That’s what moviemakers do… You do not tell a story… What you make is music.”

In 1917, the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky said, "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." And in 1948, the American critic Mark Schorer said, to speak of content is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; it’s only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics. “The difference between content, or experience, and achieved content, or art, is technique. When we speak of technique, then we speak of nearly everything."

However, to say that the purpose of art is to experience its artfulness and that the object is not important, or to say that when we speak of technique we speak of nearly everything strikes the social critic as heartless and the noncritical as just plain wrong.

It seems to me that one of the reasons short stories are not often read is that they are often not read well. Indeed, it may be that great short story writers ask too much, unreasonably compelling us to focus on form and style more carefully than we have the time or patience for, certainly more than the content-conscious novel requires. Of all the great short-story writers today who understand this off-putting secret of the short story form, perhaps one of the most dedicated and challenging is David Means.

Means recently published The Spot, his fourth book, which also happens to be his fourth collection of short stories, and I am sure his publishers are getting sick and tired of begging him to give up this devotion to a form they foolishly think is best suited for MFA workshops and do something more mature, like bring them a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. I, for one, am damned glad Means continues to do what he does so well.

Still, his most recent story, “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” in the October 25 issue of The New Yorker, gives me cause for concern. Not because I don’t like it; I most certainly do. But because I despair of trying to get others to like it. Like all good stories, it must be read more than once. Like all good stories, it takes some effort. Like all good stories, it requires paying close attention to structure and style, not just what it seems to be about.

In fact, if you want to know what it is about, you can get this short answer by googling the title: “Short story about two FBI agents on a stakeout in Kansas in 1934.” The additional “information” in the story is the following: The younger of the two agents (Barnes) complains that the criminal they are waiting for (Carson) will not return. The older of the two agents (Lee) says little but is fed up with Barnes’ complaining; he recalls the stakeout several years later while sitting on his porch overlooking a lake. After five days of waiting, Barnes is taking a smoke behind the tree line when Carson and his men drive up; he walks out of the tree line and is cut down by, as the cliché goes, a hale of gunfire.

And as they used to say at the end of the Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s all, folks!” In terms of experience or content, that’s the story. However, in terms of what is really important in this short story--its artfulness, its technique, its style, its form—the real story lies not in the action but in the language.

This story is about what all stories are about--something appears to take place in time and space. The first paragraph emphasizes time by repeating: “Five days of trading field glasses…Five days of surveillance…Five days of listening to the young agent named Barnes…Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern….For five days Barnes talked…Five days reduced to a single conversation.”

But then all stories take place in a past time, so the second paragraph begins, “Years later, retired, sitting on his porch… Two other paragraphs in the story begin, “Years later at his summer cottage in Wisconsin…Years later in the reductive, slowed-down play of memory…”

The last paragraph emphasizes not the passing of time, but a “moment” when Lee “froze up” and Barnes steps forward out of the tree line, dulled by the “persistent tedium of a scene that had gone on. for what seemed to his youthful mind an eternity” into “a single ferocious moment” of a “fury of gunfire.”

And space is emphasized in this story. The two men are hiding at the tree line, watching a farm; their pattern of behavior in space and time is to take turns going back into the trees to smoke and watching at the tree line. They watch the farm’s connection to a number of cat roads (roads made by caterpillar tractors), knowing that Carson only has one way in and one way out. They try to feel assured that that what has been imagined in the Chicago FBI office, using maps and line drawings, properly matches the Kansas reality they are watching. Lee is cautious of the horizon, which he considers an enemy, because if stared at too long, it can mesmerize one.

So in Time and Space, the two men wait. They wait for something that may or may not happen, something that is imminent. The younger man considers probability, considers the type of man that Carson is, considers what he might do or might not do; he weighs the odds of whether Carson will take the risk. He tries to calculate the patterns of behavior as determined by Carson’s previous movements.

The young man knows that Carson operates out of “a deeper psychology.” [Henry James once said that Nathaniel Hawthorne cared for the “deeper psychology,” and T. S. Eliot once talked about James’s “Hawthorne aspect” as being his awareness of a “deeper psychology.” Perhaps the best example of Barnes’ attempt to penetrate Carson’s deeper psychology is when he says: “The guy knows we are looking for patterns, and he’s even considered, I venture to say, the idea that we’d expect him not to come back here, and in expecting him to expect us to expect him not to come back, he’d expect that we’d take that expectation into consideration—the potential pattern—and stake out his old uncle’s farm.”

All this is what all stories are about: time, space, expectation, waiting, sympathetic identification with the other, perceiving patterns, and figuring probabilities—the transformation of the casual into the causal. And all this is transmuted, as a gut feeling to a hunch, “into the form of clear, precise, verbal statements uttered aloud to a receptive listener—internal or external—who returns in kind.”

When Carson and his men arrive at the farm, there is a merging of one kind of world with another—a kind of movement into “another country,” (to cite the title of a great Hemingway story). And this line between one kind of reality and another is the tree line—a boundary between two worlds that momentarily merge. As Lee watches them, frozen into place by the static reality in which he has lived for five days, he would think later, “They had that city jaunt, whereas we had forgotten the way time worked outside the confinement of the farm.”

Then there’s that last paragraph. Barnes has been back in the tree line smoking, feeling a deeper relaxation, thinking “that the moment at hand was somehow reflective of the general state of the world.” And because Barnes has experienced the five days of static reality, combined with the temporary escape in the quiet beauty of behind the tree line, combined with the barrenness of the landscape of the farm, combined with his sense of humiliation of the stakeout—all this makes him momentarily “break free from standard operating procedure, to move naturally” out of the tree line, stepping “forward into a single, ferocious moment.” As he steps into the gunfire, “his mind—young and foolish but beautiful nonetheless—remained partly back in the woods, taking in the solitude, pondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive.”

What is this story made of? As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Words, words, words.” In reply to the Polonius question, “What is the matter?” one must say, there is no matter. Sure, this is a story about two FBI agents on a stakeout, and yes, there is something of a father/son relationship between the two men, and yes, this is a story about one who escaped and one who did not. However, the pleasure the story provides is the music it makes about waiting, about being caught in time and space, about trying to predict the future by making patterns out of the past. Yes, it is a highly stylized story, but that does not mean it is not a human story. However, it is a human story transformed into, and communicated by, a work of art.

The famous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934 in a “fury of gunfire,” “a single ferocious moment.” And what we know of that moment is captured by Arthur Penn in a highly stylized moment that seems much more “real” and “meaningful” than the historical reality of those two ill-fated bank robbers.