Wednesday, October 12, 2011

David Means' "El Morro"--Literary Quest for the Sacred

My thanks to Dex and Phillip for responding to my last post about entertainment stories vs. literary stories. Dex suggests that the literary story may be one of the last remnants of modernism. Lorrie Moore has, I think rightly, pointed out, that now “the commercial slick story has largely died out, the stories we are left with are almost always all serious art.” The fact that short stories do not sell well and thus that publishers are reluctant to take them on--unless they come with the promise of a novel--is due to the public shift to other media for narrative entertainment. And once the short story is no longer sought after for simple entertainment, it either dies out, or for better or worse, is relegated to the realms of art. Whether cause or effect, it seems clear, as John Updike has suggested, “Short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines.”

I appreciate Phillip’s Virginia Woolf citation about reading Chekhov’s stories and feeling “at first” as if the solid ground had been dislodged from under us, leaving us dangling in mid air with unanswered questions. One of America’s finest short story writers, Joy Williams, says that short story writers love the dark and are always fumbling around in it. “The writer,” says Williams, doesn’t want to “disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.” And the greatest short story writer of the twentieth century, Alice Munro, says, “I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations.” Amy Hempel agrees that she doesn’t like having anything spelled out, but insists, that mystery is not mere vagueness. “Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.” John Edgar Wideman adds: “Stories that don’t acknowledge the mystery at the center of things, don’t challenge the vision of reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day, are stories that disappear swiftly into the ever-present buzz of entertainment.”

The most common characteristic the literary short story shares with the lyric poem, Herbert Gold argues, is that they both tend to “control and formalize experience.” However, this very characteristic, according to British writer James Lasdun, is one of the reasons many readers don’t care for the short story. Lasdun suggests that short stories do not sell well because the genre demands an interest in form more than the novel does, and “people do not seem so interested in form these days.” The literary short story’s emphasis on language and form rather than on content is, of course, one of the primary characteristics of what we loosely call “modernism,” which, as that great short story writer Donald Barthelme reminds us, begins with Flaubert, who changed the emphasis from the what to the how—a shift that is not merely formalism and not at all superficial, insists Barthelme, but rather an “attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one at that.” As Flaubert himself so emphatically proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot. When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.” And no less emphatically, Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”

That the short story is a modernist genre embodying Flaubert’s ideal is a prevalent authorial conviction. Harold Brodkey recites the familiar modernistic mantra about the short story this way: “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “ I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Hempel’s fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg agrees, noting, in classic Flaubert fashion, that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.” And David Means--that brilliant short story writer who after four collections, still fends off his publisher’s demand for a novel—says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.” This deeply mysterious, yet tangible something—what Donald Barthelme calls “rigorous truth”—is related to the formal nature of the short story, which communicates by pattern rather than by explanation or by mimesis.

David Means’ most recent story, “El Morro,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 29, 20011, may be puzzling to many readers because it communicates, as most literary short stories do, more by thematic pattern than it does by character and plot. Consequently, if readers respond to the characters as if they were ordinary real people in the everyday world and to the action as if it merely pointed to actual events in that everyday world, then they may ask, as one blogger expressed it, “What the f**k is this story about?”

The first thing one notices in the story is the repetition of references to the sacred-- beginning with Lenny, the central character, talking about a goddess who lived in a lake, back when it was freshwater.” He says the natives make “pilgrimages” to what is now a muddy hole, dip leaves in the brine (for it has turned to salt water) and “lick them the way you lick a lollipop.” (Lenny will come back to this story of the salt lake later.) The girl, who is unnamed, determines four main things that form the “litany” of Lenny’s thinking.” 1. drugs, 2. native culture, 3. birds, 4. her story. He talks of the Zuni Pueblo tribe, altering history to make them “worshippers” of deep pits, navels. He talks about a “holy” seer named Don Juan, not the fake one who helped Carlos Castaneda, but a true “visionary.”

One of Lenny’s key obsessions is hawks and falcons, which can spot a prey ten miles up and dive for it. “You’d be hard pressed to know which side of the story to look at, because it all meets up right there when the bird hits the prey and the prey, which wasn’t anything, man, becomes something, for a second, at least, and then suddenly it’s nothing but a half-dead carcass being lifted into the sky.”

He has told her about his brother who was killed in the early days of the Iraq war by a wayward U.S. Air Force Missile. “At least for a split second, he knew what was going to hit him, man. You always know what’s going to hit you. Maybe for only a sliver of a second. But you still know. Every second, there’s a missile ready to strike you in the head.” This notion of a sudden assault by an invisible force reoccurs later in the story, becoming a repeated thematic pattern.

Lenny prefers the story he invents to the events lying out there to be reported. He makes up a story for the girl from the few details she had given him back in California. One of the stories she tells is about her friend Kimberly who, one day near the stables in Griffith Park, told her a story of being somewhere in Utah when a “dervish” appears and tells her a story. It is a fable about a guy walking in the desert who comes upon a horse and a dog talking. The dog says he does not want to hear about running free and eating wild grass, but is waiting to be told about hunting a rabbit and tearing meat from a bone. The horse says he is sick of blood and gore and wants to hear about wild clover. The man interrupts and says “Meat and grass. What’s the difference? The function of each is to give you life. Without that function, you’re just bones.” Both animals turn on the man, kills him, and then go back to their argument.

One of the best-known sources for this kind of Sufi teaching story is Indries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes. One has to probe beneath the surface to discover their meaning. After the young woman tells dervish stories in Griffith park, Means shifts the perspective to a group of Japanese tourists on a string of horses above the taking pictures of vistas of Hollywood, “and two homeless girls, pale and gaunt, huddled on a sheet of cardboard.” The image is a telling juxtaposition between the surface and the secret reality of Hollywood. The gap between the surface reality and what lies beneath it is another repeated theme in the story that Means will return to later.

Lenny constantly “riffs” on the girl’s story as they drive north from Tucson. “You spent a summer sleeping on the sidewalk or in cut-rate hotels with other kids who’d embraced a mute acquiescence in a common dream of freedom, a possible salvation in the form of a good time, hanging on an edge of chance that might at any moment give way to complete, abject reality, and it did, man, it did.” Lenny riffs more on the common dream of freedom giving way to freeways and faceless drivers and one more piece of roadside trash sauntering by the roadside, which is all she had left when he found her. “Everything else was gone, pushed away, because you’d come to realize, no, scratch that, you’d learned through trial and error that your only recourse was to forget your past.” The tension between forgetting the past and trying to leave a mark on it is another theme that the story will return to.

When they pass the biggest copper mine in North America with the monstrous trucks and bucket loaders, Lenny shifts back to the theme of fear of an invisible force waiting to destroy one. Each man has his own “unique fear” when he creeps up one of the roads, putting on earmuffs and praying to God he will not be able to hear, for if someone hits a “sensitive vein or digs too eagerly, the ground gives way and the road crumbles. Lenny compares the mine to a similar mine in South America, which is on “holy land” guaranteed to give payback in the form of some catastrophic event, most likely in a hundred-year-rainfall-slash flood-slash mudslide.

They encounter a girl with a stop sign and walkie-talkie, who has a scar on her face that is too deep to cover with makeup, which she got on her honeymoon in Tijuana where her husband showed her his true nature for the first time—another example of the theme of something hidden beneath the surface.

Lenny says he likes the new lady, saying she probably has Zuni blood, or at least something Indian, “a stoic ability to put her woes aside and center in on the moment at hand, to withstand the elements for the sake of some larger vision.” Then he begins to invent a story about her—that she has a little brother with cancer, another brother who works at the copper mine—that he did not think he would work there, but one day his father and brothers put in the application papers in for him to work at the mine. Lenny continues his story, “And this guy—let’s settle on the name Bobby—couldn’t say no. Bobby felt himself caught in the long history of his family. Past generations had opened up an obligation” So he said, what the hell, and worked there until he was too tired to think of reinventing his life.

By the time they cross into New Mexico, the first girl is sitting in the back seat trying to avoid listening to Lenny, and the second girl is in the front, listening attentively. Lenny talks with “delusional precision,” saying he guarantees she is going to meet his hawk, Jag, who has intense focus, who flies out of sight but always keeps Lenny in his vision, and, when he is ready, can dive out of the sky and land gently on his arm; he says he is flying above them now, out of sight, following them.

The second girl and Lenny now become like two souls united by a mutual need formed back during the two hours they had spent navigating the hairpin mountain turns. She tells him how to manage skids, telling him the “myth” is you turn into a skid but in the mountains you have to turn against it as hard as you can, that she has seen trucks turn into a skid and head over the ledge and become a wad of tinfoil. When Lenny tells the first girl to stay in the car while he and the new girl have some time alone, she blocks their voices by remembering the road straightening out like a “magic carpet” when they left the twisty mountain roads.

When they pass through a reservation, Lenny returns to the myth that opened the story, about how the people walk a hundred miles to pay their respects to Old Lady Salt who ran away from Black Rock Lake, taking most of the potable water with her. People come here once a year and place their prayer sticks in what’s left of the lake and draw up granules of salt and take bags of it home.

The second girl starts talking about her younger brother who is gorgeous and is going to be a star in Hollywood. He was driving a truck one day and the road just rolled away from him, and he said he had a “vision.” She shows Lenny a picture of brother who has remorse but also hope in his eyes. Lenny says he looks like Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and James Dean, but then says he is going to tell her what will happen to him. “He’s going to fall like the rest of them and end up holding a spoon over a flame.” Lenny says they will find his body up in the hills or, if he is not lucky, in front of the La Brea Tar Pits, for one does not want to die in front of a tourist from Wisconsin. “No one wants to shatter the congenial blandness they bring, the greenhorn belief in hopes and dreams that settles like the smog and makes it exhilaratingly hard to breathe. And let me tell you, there is nothing better in this world than struggling to breathe. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

When they reach the El Morro national monument, the first girl wakes and leaves the car and hears Lenny talking to the second girl about the men who came here. “They stumbled here astonished at the immensity of the stone formation…They stumbled here in wonderment. How could something like this rise out of so much flatness? It’s the work of the Devil, some said. The work of God, others said. He says they all felt compelled to make a mark on this thing, pointing to the petroglyphs. They all had to leave some indication that they had existed, leave their mark. Now they cannot. He said the last time he was here he marked his name with a pen and ended up in jail. He faces the monument with his arms out: “In a firm, hard voice, he spoke directly to the monument of his country’s urgent need for redemption.” He rhapsodizes about birds flying in formation, tribes moving from one “sacred site” to the next, cookhouses in Washington cranking out pure “sacramental salts.” Then he starts telling the first girl’s story again, about how she never dreamed of this place while on the streets of L.A., saying this is a fitting place to end this thing they have had.

The last part of the story shifts to Ranger Russell, a Zuni, who sees them on a video screen--the man like other white boys who came to vandalize the park who have no respect for the reality of the world. “An element of desecration was caught by these four cameras.” Once or twice a year a few nuns in habits, two monks from Vietnam, Fellow-Zuni. He watches the little drama play out and then goes to the girl who has been left, who is driving a piece of flagstone into the rock. “He saw in the delicacy of her action and in the lift of her toes a balletic movement, and he knew something about her that he wasn’t sure how to articulate…. When she turned, he saw the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak. She kept the mute silence of a soothsayer. He saw that right away. It wasn’t the willed silence of the guilty….. Most in the white world didn’t understand medicine people, he thought, seeing her…. In truth a medicine man never picked his vocation. It was a fate that was bestowed, forcing one to forsake certain pleasures in the world—he thought—in order to become someone who knew a little too much about reality.”

In the last section, Ranger Russell is at home that night, telling his wife about all this. He has a vision of the grandeur and hope of the place, which he cannot see so well while in the midst of it. He thinks he will leave the mark the girl made a secret. When the archeologists come from Santa Fe, he will try to persuade them it had been there for years. “It’s just a scratch, he’d say. A few years of wind and rain will blow it away with all the others.” He thinks it will go against his good judgment and the strictures of his job and the park itself to lie for her, but he feels he must do it, “and with that he fell asleep, carrying with him the monument, his tribal land, and the rest of the world.”

In order to read literary short stories with some meaningful pleasure, one must move in close to the story to identify the repetition of meaningful details and then move back away from the story to try to determine what thematic patterns these repeated details create. The overall pattern of the story is a journey to a sacred place, in which one character plays the role of a seer or medicine man, who creates stories about the precarious life that human beings lead, afraid that at any moment, some invisible force can make the seemingly solid ground fall away or some force from the seemingly harmless sky strike from above. What the seer does in the story is rescue wanderers or waifs and tell them stories that provide them with a context for their lost state—very much what modern analysts do for their patients. The sacred place to which the seekers journey is a promontory, or “el morro,” where wanderers have always tried to leave their mark, if, for no other reason than to signify, “I existed. I was here.” The irony, of course, in making a mark on a solid place, is that the mark signifies the universal human desire to transcend mere place—to assert that true reality does not lie in the stones on which we stub our toes, but rather in some hope for a dreamlike, projective reality that lies beyond mere stuff. All the references to sacred places, drugs, appearance/reality, carving signs of the self, searching for meaning, telling stories, Zuni medicine men, marking/erasing the past create a pattern of the universal human quest for transcendence and significance.

Literary short stories, with their emphasis on form and pattern, are often like Sufi stories, because they present mythic, defamiliarized invariants of universal human action, not temporal, familiar variants of social interaction. Such an attitude has dominated short fiction since Hoffmann, Tieck, and Novalis; it can be seen in Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, as well as in such modern descendants as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and others. Human beings need to hear stories the same way they need to experience religion, says Canadian writer Hugh Hood. "Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The scribe ought not to deviate from the prescribed form. That is because the myths at the core of story are always going on...Myth exists to give us this reassurance of the persistence of some of the fundamental forms of human action."

Stories, like liturgy or Sufi tales, do not teach by concept, says Indries Shah, but rather by some more intuitive method of communication, by rhythm, or as the structuralists would say, by a deep structure that lies beneath the conscious level of concept. We must go back to an early stage to prepare ourselves for story, says Shah, a stage in which we regard the story as "a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work." Such teaching stories depend on an ancient and irreplaceable method of "arranging and transmitting a knowledge which cannot be put in any other way." Carol Cassola, an Italian writer, describes the mental disposition of the modern in a way that is similar to the kind of mental disposition which Shah attributes to the serious writer: "He doesn't observe reality, he contemplates it. He is passively receptive in front of it. He is, if you wish, a mystic: someone who awaits the revelation of truth from the silent language of things. What drives him to write is not psychological curiosity or social interest but a metaphysical need."

Story, like liturgy, like mantra, insists on a rigid formalized rhythm repeated in structures that remain the same regardless of the content until they become coordinated with the rhythm of the unconscious life itself, with the deeper rhythms of human reality as it is sensed to be. In this the reader "becomes" the narrative; that is, during the process of reading, the story establishes a rhythm that corresponds to and structures a rhythm within the thinking or responding processes of the individual. Randal Jarrell claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable.” Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation, and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do. The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object.

However, as much as “El Morro” explores the basic human desire for transcendence, leaving a mark, and ritualistic, story-telling protections against those invisible forces that threaten annihilation, the story also seems to undermine the means by which modern human beings seek to fulfill these desires. If Lenny is a seer, he also seems a self-serving meth-head who exploits the loneliness of others. And if the two young women are seekers after salvation, they also seem misguided victims. Perhaps the only character in the story who seems redeemed by this role is the Ranger, who protects the monument from desecration, for he is the only one in the story who seems to value the “old way.” If primitive peoples seem noble in their affirmation of the sacred, then modern peoples seem merely seeking an easy drug-induced escape. Maybe this is inevitable. Every generation seems to seek its own means of spiritual affirmation, but these seekers always become either dangerous extremists or helpless escapists. “El Morro” is, I suggest, a serious literary exploration both of the human need for meaning and transcendence and the human despair of finding a means for fulfilling those needs.


Karen Carlson said...

Thanks - I'm glad you posted about this story, you've given me more to think about. When I read it a few weeks ago, I was struck by the repetition of 4's - Lenny's four topics, the four cameras, four characters. And by the ranger's god-like watching over the park. And by how this is the second story I've read by David Means which is in large part about story-telling (I was thinking of "The Junction"). And something about Lenny not wanting to know much about the girl, or the traffic woman - he wanted to make up his own stories about them, reality isn't as important as the myth he creates. But your article focuses my thoughts more clearly, I'm going to study it further. So thanks!

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, sloopie72. yes, I have noticed that Means' stories of late have often been about storytelling. I think it may be the case that short story writers are more apt to be self-reflexive than novelists are.