Friday, August 31, 2012

T. C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood, “Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House,” and Ian McEwan’s “First Love, Last Rites”—Memory Piece vs. Meaningful Story

In his brief  “This Week in Fiction” chat with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman (, T. C. Boyle says that his current story in the magazine, ”Birnam Wood,” is based on a remembered event: ”I lived in that shack and I lived in that mansion with the pool table, too. This is fiction, but there are autobiographical elements here as well. I think of it as a memory piece.” Indeed, “Birnam Wood” may be a “memory piece,” but is it a story?”
In response to my blog post on Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker story “Amundsen” last week, I am happy to say that several of my readers joined the discussion with comments.   T.C. Boyle’s new story provides me with an opportunity hopefully to advance that discussion with Jon, Steve, and Jay--which seems to center basically on the issue Jon’s argument for “maintaining that basic sense of the author having created characters we respond to in a flesh and blood sort of way. Otherwise, it seems like we become one of those types who read fiction, not as an inherent pleasure, but as a necessary chore just to offer an object for dry analysis.”
Well, I certainly would not like to think of myself as “one of those types” who read fiction not for pleasure, but as an onerous opportunity for a “dry analysis.”  Jon says that he has “met people who say they don't really like to read, but only do it because they enjoy analysis (they're usually coming from the perspective of one of the "isms.”)  And certainly I am aware that in the world of academic criticism today, there are those who are more interested in theory or social issues than in literature, but I have never been accused of that.
Jon seems to advocate that we should relate to characters as if they were real people engaged in actions that simulate actual events in the real world.  And indeed, this is what T. C. Boyle seems to suggest about his recent “memory piece,” that is, that “Birnam Wood” recounts something that happened to him--after a fashion.  Boyle is a natural old-fashioned storyteller; as I have noted in this blog before, he knows how to tell a plotted tale in an engaging and entertaining way.  I have sat in a theatre full of people and watched him hold the audience spellbound as if they were huddled around a fireplace in an old Irish cottage.
However, in this new piece in The New Yorker, he seems to have chosen to write something less like a story and more like a remembered event.  I would like to compare “Birnam Wood” to a couple of well-known stories by Ian McEwan and Raymond Carver that also focus on a male/female couple in a certain place at a certain time experiencing both union and conflict. 
“First Love, Last Rites,” the title story of Ian McEwan’s debut collection (his master’s thesis, by the way, supervised by Malcolm Bradbury in the MA program in creative writing at University of East Anglia) generated quite a bit of buzz and controversy when first published in 1975, when he was twenty-four.
“Chef’s House” first appeared in Raymond Carver’s third book, Cathedral, after, we presume, he had broken away from the insistent editing of Gordon Lish, although not, obviously, from the taut style Lish had taught him. 
I have no idea if “First Love, Last Rites” is based on an actual event in Ian McEwan’s life, but clearly “Chef’s House” is based on an actual event in Carver’s life—a temporary reunion with his estranged wife Maryann.  In fact, Maryann has said that when she read “Chef’s Wife,” she was “almost offended that the could call it fiction.  All he was doing was writing an account of what happened there.” However, this may only indicate that Maryann was unaware of the importance of style in transforming something that merely happened into a fiction that means something.
David Means, a very fine short storywriter, whom I have discussed before on this blog, reads “Chef’s House” and talks about it with Deborah Treisman on the New Yorker podcast at
David Means, a Carver fan, disagrees with Maryann’s assessment.  Regardless of what actually happened when Carver and his wife made one final effort to reconcile, “Chef’s House” differs from that remembered event by being a story, not a “memory piece,” like T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood.”  And what makes it different than a “real event,” involving characters in a “flesh and blood,” way is what David Means calls the story’s “style,” that is, all the language choices the writer makes about what to include and what to leave out that creates a meaningful form or pattern with significance, theme, meaning.
I would argue that Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” and Ian McEwan’s “First Love, Last Rites” are short stories because they create a meaningful thematic pattern, whereas T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” is simply a “memory piece” because it has no meaning at all, but is just about “flesh and blood” people in an “as-if-real” event.
Rather than offering extended critical analyses of the style, language, form, and theme of the Carver and McEwan stories, I will simply make a couple of brief comments on what I think makes them stories rather than “flesh and blood” “memory pieces” and urge the reader to read them or reread them and compare them to T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood.”
McEwan establishes a metaphor at the beginning of his story that persists throughout of a creature scratching behind the wall.  During sex, the male narrator has fantasies of making a creature grow in his girlfriend’s belly—not a child but a creature “growing out of a dark red slime”—eggs, sperms chromosomes, features, gills, claws.  He is caught like an eel in his fantasy of this primeval force, feeling that he and his girlfriend are also creatures in the slime.  When they finally encounter a large rat, the narrator associates it with the smell of his girlfriend’s monthly period.  When he splits the rat open, five small fetuses fall out, and he sees one quiver, as if in hope. His girlfriend carefully folds them back into the rats’ womb and closes the flesh over them. Many early readers of the story were repulsed by “First Love, First Rites,” but McEwan has said that he has always thought of it as an affirmative story about pregnancy.
And indeed, the story does end on an affirmative note as the couple decides to pull themselves out of the slime, clean up the room and go for a walk, and the narrator presses his palm against her belly and says, “yes.”  Birth and death are inextricably intertwined in the story—a story of life in all its hopeful beauty originating in the slime of the primeval swamp.
In contrast to McEwan’s thickly textured story of blood and creatures, slime and sex, Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” is lean and clean, depending only on a single metaphor of the house itself and the delicate and difficult borderline between hopeful stability and a fall into the abyss.  Carver’s first New Yorker story, “Chef’s House” is also one of the few Carver stories told from a female point of view.  The first-person narrator, named Edna, receives a phone call from her estranged husband, Wes, who has rented a furnished house north of Eureka, California from a recovered alcoholic named Chef; Wes tells Edna he has stopped drinking and wants her to join him so they can start over.
The idyllic summer, during which Edna and Wes only drink soda pop and fruit juice, takes three paragraphs of the story, but is enough to suggest it is a romantic return to the old Wes, the Wes she married.  When Chef tells them his daughter’s husband has left and that she needs a place to live, Wes gets “this look about him,” a look that Edna knows well and knows the summer is over.  When Edna tries to get Wes to accept this and “go easy,” she finds herself talking about the summer as if it were something that happened years ago.
The central thematic point in the story occurs when Edna tells Wes:  “Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time.  Just suppose.  It doesn’t hurt to suppose.  Say none of the other had ever happened.  You know what I mean?  Then what?”
But Wes says he does not have that kind of “supposing” left in him.  When Edna says she did not throw away a good thing and come six hundred miles to hear him talk like that, he says he cannot talk like somebody he is not. “I’m not somebody else.  If I was somebody else, I sure as hell wouldn’t’ be here.  If I was somebody else, I wouldn’t be me.   But I’m who I am.  Don’t you see?”
As Wes sits patting his chin, like he was trying to figure out the next thing, Edna looks around at Chef’s living room, at Chef’s things and thinks, “We have to do something now and do it quick.” But given who Wes is, there is nothing to be done.  The fact that it is Chef’s house and Chef’s things and not theirs is brought home to Wes, and he must give up the fantasy of the summer that it all belonged to Edna and himself.  Wes goes to the window and pulls the drapes, “and the ocean was gone just like that.” Edna goes to the icebox for the last of the fish they had caught and she things, “We’ll clean it up tonight…and that will be the end of it.” 
As David Means says, “Chef’s House” is an “incredibly intimate story” that evokes a painful sense of loneliness.  It suggests Nick Carraway’s realistic reminder to Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel that you cannot repeat the past and Gatsby’s incredulous response—“can’t repeat the past.  Of course you can.”  The fact that the reader feels so sympathetic to Edna and Wes’s effort to repeat the past is a result of Carver’s quiet, restrained style.
T. C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” has neither the metaphorically thick thematic significance of Ian McEwan’s story, nor the tautly restrained thematic significance of Raymond Carver’s story.  It is simply is a “memory piece” about a couple who move from a damp shack to a lavish apartment the size of a basketball court, but whose relationship falls apart because of the male narrator’s foolish bit of bravado with another man.   Boyle’s follow-up to Deborah Treisman’s question about why he chose the name “Birnam Wood,” with its Macbeth allusion for the story—that just as all seems well for Macbeth since Birnam Wood could never come down to Dunsinane, all should be well for the couple since they have such a great place to live—seems shallow and unconvincing.
Why the couple break up seems primarily due to the narrator’s resentment of his girlfriend—anger that she will not get “off her ass and find a job,” anger that she did not keep her eyes open to find the house while he was driving and she was bitching, condescension that she might not be able to hold down a job as a hostess.  He says he wants to break down her strong-willed nature, maker her dependent on him, but at the same time hold up her end.
When he meets the guy in the bar who is attracted to his “old lady,” he says his feelings were complicated when he says, “She can be a real pain in the ass…. Sometimes I think she’s more trouble than she's worth.” But it is not complicated—just ego-proud guy talk.  When the man shows up at their place with a bottle of tequila, the narrator says he wants to do something right for a change, to confess, tell her that he loved her, but he does not; she takes one look at him and knows that he has betrayed her. 
The story ends predictably when the girlfriend, in revenge for the betrayal, welcomes the stranger and the narrator walks across the frozen lake and looks in the window of a couple getting ready for bed.  What he feels is probably what Gatsby felt when he looked in the window and saw Daisy and Tom Buchanan in an intimate conversation.  Boyle’s narrator knows he is on the outside looking in at a relationship that he, by his own immaturish behavior, has lost.
“Birnam Wood” is a story about “flesh and blood characters,” a “memory piece” about something that perhaps actually happened, but that does not make it a story—just something that happened to real people, something that Boyle has failed to transform into a meaningful fiction.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Alice Munro's "Amundsen" and The Stories in Her New Book, Dear Life

The novel form usually gains the reader's assent to its reality by the creation of enough realistic detail to make readers feel they know the experience in the same way they know external reality.  However, in the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns.

For example, the hard details of the external world in Robinson Crusoe exist as an external resistance to be overcome.  However, in Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," the extensive details exist primarily to provide an objectification of Nick's psychic distress. As opposed to Crusoe, Nick is not concerned with surviving an external conflict but rather an internal one.  In "Big, Two-Hearted River," the story's obsessive focusing on the external world does not derive from the compulsion to combine details linearly, but the metaphoric need to select, repeat, and thus understand the essence of the experience that the details create.   Thus, at the end of Hemingway's story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is a purely metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the real qualities of the swamp, only its aesthetic qualities.

Alice Munro’s new story, “Amundsen,” which appears in the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, may be misunderstood, and thus unappreciated, by some readers, if they read it as if it were a simple realistic story about a particular woman who has a brief affair with a particular man, who decides at the last minute not to marry her.  Perhaps it might be well if we remember what Munro herself has said about how she reads a story and how she tries to write one.

Munro has said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.”  Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another.  Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.”   She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest.

Munro uses the term “feeling” again when interviewer Geoff Hancock asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well.  There has to be a feeling in the story.”  Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” 

Daniel Menaker, editor-in-chief at Random House, once said about Munro:  “You get the feeling she’s trying to help you get at some true emotional psychological insight, but that often takes the form of a kind of philosophical surrender to the unknowability of people’s motives and characters, a dark existential uncertainty about what makes people tick.  And this, it seems to me, is very important and very abstract—but doesn’t do justice to the liveliness and richness of her characters.” 

I have read “Amundsen” three times—first in a purely temporal fashion, responding to the characters as if they were particular and real and the plot as if it were made up actual events occurring one after another; second highlighting all those points in the story that seem to mark a specific authorial choice of language, detail (e.g., when she describes something metaphorically or cites something in a way that might very well have been described in a different way; and third, commenting in the margin on the repetition of those details. Then, following Munro’s suggestion, I have tried to see what “feeling” or “climate” the story creates, from combination of the details—resulting in what Daniel Menaker calls the story’s “true emotional psychological insight.”

One of the most predominant details repeated throughout the story is emphasized when the first person narrator, Vivien Hyde, because a coffee shop does not have a “ladies room,” must go past the entrance to a beer parlor to use the facilities in a hotel.  The loggers there pay little attention to her, for they were “deep in a world of men, bawling out their own stories, not here to look at women.” This “world of men” theme is introduced early in the story when Hyde, a teacher on her way to a new post, waits on the train while a group of men burst out of a building, jamming on their caps and banging their lunch buckets against their thighs, and dash to the train. 

The theme of a “world of men” culminates at the end when Vivien and her lover, Dr. Alister Fox, sit in the car, and he tells her he cannot go through with the wedding. They are briefly interrupted by a man, trying to park a delivery truck in front of them, who asks them to move to make room. Vivien says that although what Fox has been saying to her is terrible, his attitude after he had spoken to the truck driver changes. “He rolls up the window and gives all his attention to the car, to backing it out of its tight spot and moving it so as not to come in contact with the van, as if there were no more to be said or managed.”   He has a new tone in his voice, almost jaunty, a tone of relief.  He takes her to the train station and leaves her in a special “ladies’ waiting room.”

A number of details in the story accentuate a dichotomy between male and female worlds, as when Vivien sees the girl Mary in a snowball fight involving “girls against boys.”  On their way out of town to get married, Vivien is “aroused” by Fox’s “male awareness,” which she knows can quickly change to its opposite.  She fantasizes that she would lie down with him “in any bog or mucky hole” or feel her spine “crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter.”

This is a new world for Vivien, who, until her sexual encounter with Fox, was a virgin, although her passion surprises both of them.  It is a world she is introduced to on the train when she smells raw meat a woman carries in oilpaper parcels. Since the school where she is to teach is in a TB sanitarium, she is also introduced to the world of death, as Mary tells her quite nonchalantly that her best friend Anabel is dead, for that is “something that happens a lot around here.”  If it is a world of flesh, therefore death, it is also something of an aestheticized world.  Vivien tells Fox that the landscape makes her think she is living in a Russian novel.

Susan Sontag talks about the metaphoric significance of tuberculosis in her 1977 book, Illness as Metaphor, reminding us that in the fiction of the nineteenth century, TB was associated with a “spiritualization of consciousness,” elevating one above earthly physical existence.  Because TB was associated with the lungs, the penuma or spirit, it was supposed to make one more sensitive and passionate, its pallor suggesting melancholy.  Death, which occurred easily, was “aestheticised.”

However, the aestheticised world in which Vivien lives, a world of the fiction of Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann (In Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp makes a transition from a mundane world of the flatlands to a spiritualized introspective world of a mountain TB sanitarium.), is not the world of Alister Fox, whose books suggest his desire to “possess great scattered lumps of knowledge, and who thinks characters in The Magic Mountain are windbags. 
Although Fox is a surgeon and lives a life of “minimal but precise comfort that a lone man—a regulated lone man—might contrive,” he is capable of what, to Vivien, is a male coarseness.  Mary tells of his shooting a dog and his ability to “tear a strip off you if he felt like it” (a Canadian expression for giving someone a harsh scolding). He lives the life of a simple bachelor, serving Vivien a modest dinner of pork chops, instant mashed potatoes, canned peas, and an apple pie from the bakery.
The questions that may puzzle many readers—why Vivien agrees to marry Fox and why Fox decides at the last minute not to marry her—cannot be answered by appealing to any simple psychology of the two characters as if they were particular people in the world, but rather by referring to what Henry James once said about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concern with a “deeper psychology”--what Daniel Menaker has said about Munro’s trying to help the reader “get at some true emotional psychological insight, but that often takes the form of a kind of philosophical surrender to the unknowability of people’s motives and characters, a dark existential uncertainty about what makes people tick.”
Vivien’s attraction to Fox is derived from her romantic, fiction-based, fascination with his mysteriousness maleness. His decision not to marry her derives from his desire to maintain his own concept of maleness apart from any female involvement.  Ten years later, when she passes him crossing a crowded street, “going in opposite directions,” they share a brief, perfunctory greeting and the story ends as follows:

“No breathless cry, no hand on my shoulder when I reached the sidewalk.  Just the flash that I had caught when one of his eyes opened wider than the other. It was the left eye—always the left, as I remembered.  And it always looked so strange, alert and wondering, as if some crazy impossibility had occurred to him that almost made him laugh.
            “That was all.  I went on home.
            “Feeling the same as when I’d left Amundsen.  The train dragging me, disbelieving.  Nothing changes, apparently, about love.”
 What is the story about?  Perhaps it’s about the mysterious nature of the dichotomy of the physical and the spiritual, the male and the female, the romantic and the realistic. The attraction between male and female, what brings people together and keeps them apart, is always a mystery.  Love stories never change; they always end in separation and thus perennially exist in the world of the imagination.

Alice Munro’s New Book, Dear Life

Alice Munro usually includes between eight and ten stories in her collections, for example:

Open Secrets, 1994, eight stories
The Love of a Good Woman, 1998, eight stories
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,  2001, nine stories.
Runaway, 2004, eight stories
The View From Castle Rock, 2006, eleven stories/memoirs
Too Much Happiness, 2009, ten stories

To the best of my knowledge, the following twelve stories are those published in periodicals by Alice Munro since her last collection, Too Much Happiness, which came out in 2009.  

“Corrie,” The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010.
“Axis,” The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 2011.
“Pride,” Harper’s, April 2011.
“Gravel,” The New Yorker, June 27, 2011.
“Dear Life,” The New Yorker, Sep. 19, 2011.
“Leaving Maverley,” The New Yorker, Nov. 28, 2011.
“Haven,” The New Yorker, March 5, 2012
“In Sight of the Lake,” Granta, Winter 2012.
“To Reach Japan,” Narrative, Winter 2012.
“Train,” Harper’s, April, 2012.
“Dolly,” Tin House, Volume 13, Issue No. 52, 2012
“Amundsen,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.

Her new book, Dear Life, which is due out on November 13, 2012, will probably include eleven of the stories listed above. I am not sure about the most recent, “Amundsen,” which may have been written too late to be included in the new book. She will surely include the piece “New Life” (although it was identified as a memoir rather than a story when it appeared in The New Yorker), since it provides the title for her new book

I have posted blogs on many of these stories in the past two years and will discuss the rest of them when Dear Life comes out in November.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stephen King: The Story as Joke

“It’s all about structure,” Phyllis Diller once told a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer.  “If there’s one thing I can do, it’s write a joke.  Too many comics today ramble.”  Diller, who died recently in her sleep, reportedly with a smile on her face, has reminded me that short stories, like jokes, are also highly dependent on structure.  Her comment rang especially true to me after having just read a recently discovered short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The New Yorker (8/6/12) entitled “Thank You for the Light.” It’s a one-page story, found among Fitzgerald’s papers, written in 1936, but never published.  Lacking the complexity of Fitzgerald’s most famous stories, such as “Winter Dreams,” “Babylon Revisited,” and “Absolution,” it is representative one of his popular (as opposed to literary) stories that made him lots of money in his heyday.

There once was a time, when big slick magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Good Housekeeping published many “easy-read,” plot-based stories and paid good money for them.  And lots of people read them, making the short story a very popular form for a period of time from the twenties into the fifties. William Peden, in his 1964 book The American Short Story (quaintly subtitled Front Line in the National Defense of Literature) has noted that “technical adroitness has always characterized the slick story,” and to make a buck F. Scott Fitzgerald knew how to structure successful popular short stories.

One of the differences between the development of the short story and the novel in American literature is that whereas the popular, sometimes sensational, novel has always remained a big seller (Need I mention Fifty Shades of Grey?), the serious literary novel has managed to stand its own ground and survive alongside best sellers. Most folks can usually tell the difference, although I once had a fierce argument with a woman who resented the fact that I called The Bridges of Madison County (which she thought was great writing) pulpy and pretentious.   The popular short story, on the other hand, has virtually disappeared, and the serious literary short story has mainly survived in small circulation university-sponsored or independent mags. (Thanks goodness, there’s still The New Yorker and Harper’s, which mainly publish literary stories.)

Fitzgerald’s little story “Thank You for the Light” is, a pop piece and, as Phyllis Diller has said about a joke, “all about structure.” Here is a brief plot summary:

Mrs. Hanson, a 40-year-old corset and girdle salesperson, has recently been transferred to a route that covers Iowa-Kansas-Missouri.  Whereas in her old big-city route, she was often invited to have a drink and smoke with a buyer, now, in the so-called American Bible-belt, such actions are frowned upon.  Smoking, the narrator tells us, is important to Mrs. Hanson, a widow with no family, having “come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road.”  However, she must now deal with clients who “are hatchet-faced men who did not like other people’s self-indulgences.”

One day, walking to see her last client, and longing for a smoke, yet knowing that, as a woman, she cannot smoke on the street, she sees a Catholic cathedral and has “an inspiration: If so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make do difference.”  In the church, discovering she has no matches, she thinks she will get a light from one of the votive offering candles, but an old man extinguishes the last one to avoid wastefully leaving them burning all night.  When the old man, says, “I guess you came here to pray,” she kneels and prays for her employer and her clients.

She sits down in a corner pew below an image of the Madonna six feet above her head and imagines/dreams that the Madonna comes down and sells corsets and girdles for her.  When she awakes, she smells a familiar scent that is not incense, and her fingers smart.  She then realizes the cigarette in her hand is burning.  She takes a puff and looks up at the Madonna, saying “Thank you for the light.”  But sensing that did not seem to be enough, she kneels down, “the smoke twisting from the cigarette between her fingers.  ‘Thank you very much for the light,’ she said.”

It’s a simple little story, like a joke, with a “punch” at the end, although Fitzgerald obviously also had a bit of meaning in mind.   Finding herself in a Bible-belt world filled with hatchet-faced men who do not like other people’s indulgences, the increasing difficulty of having a smoke has made her feel the weight of her “sin,” thinking “Perhaps I ought to give up cigarettes.  I’m getting to be a drug fiend.”  But when she thinks about smoking in the church, mingling her cigarette smoke with incense from votive candles, she considers the broad spirit of Christianity rather than narrow rules, thinking “How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?”

The “punch” comes, of course, when Mrs. Hanson is granted a transcendent “indulgence“ for her “self indulgence” by being given a light.  She responds initially with an everyday “thank you,” but then realizing the spiritual nature of the indulgence, she bows and offers a prayerfully sincere “thank you.”  It’s the kind of story that may bring a nod of recognition and a wry smile as the incongruity of the profane and the sacred are momentarily reconciled.  There are many such “joke” or “punch” stories in the history of the short story, some of them famous for their so-called “surprise ending.” O. Henry was, of course, a master at such “stinger in the tail,” joke stories.

There are many theories about both the structure and significance of jokes, from Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious to Victor Raskin’s Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, and I have no time here to discuss them.  If you are interested, there is a good summary of contemporary linguistic theories of humour at the following site:

Many of the theories of joke structure focus on the notion of what Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964), called “bisociation,” which refers to the juxtaposition of two different frames of reference that either oscillate back and forth or collide with each other in a puzzling or revelatory way.  Jokes often set us up to expect one thing and then surprise us by giving us another.  Many of the most famous “punch” short stories, such as O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” and Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl reek Bridge” do the same, although the end result is sometimes not a laugh but a shock.

Stephen King’s recent story in Harper’s, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” (September 2012), although about the serious subject of Alzheimer’s, is no less a joke story than Fitzgerald’s little piece, for it is not the subject matter that makes the story/joke, but the structure and tone.

Told in third person by an omniscient narrator, the story is about a middle-aged man named Sanderson who goes each Sunday to pick up his Alzheimer’s impaired elderly father at his nursing home to take him out to lunch.  The story recounts, in comic fashion, many of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s—even the most familiar jokes, e.g. “The good news is that you meet new people everyday.”  The father is apt to “cut up rough” sometimes, using language not suitable for the situation, e.g. he stands up in the restaurant and says aloud that he is about to “piss so bad he can taste it”; he is going through a kleptomaniac phrase, stealing things for no reason; he gets confused about which son Sanderson is and is capable of “random cruelties.”  He mixes up events from the past, prompting the narrator to say ponderously, “Memory is such a mystery.” 

Indeed, King often throws out pretentious phrases to suggest a seriousness that the story itself does not support, e.g., When in the restaurant the father asks his son if they have been here before, the narrator says: “Sanderson briefly considers the metaphysical possibilities inherent in this question.”  No such metaphysical possibilities are explored in the story; this is just a pretentious phrase that probably occurred to King at the moment he wrote the question.

One memory Sanderson and his father recall is of a Halloween night when Sanderson was eight and his father took him “Trick or Treating,” dressed as Batman in some old grey pajamas with a cape cut out of an old bed sheet and a leather tool belt in which his father has filled with screwdrivers and chisels.  The memory is a hurtful one to Sanderson because the father says of a woman they visit, “That woman had tits like pillows.  She was the best loving I ever had.”

The story moves toward the “punch” when Sanderson is cut off in traffic by a stereotype—what the narrator calls a “south Texas staple,” wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulders, a chain running from a belt loop to his back pocket, and “tats on his arms.”  This encounter, of course, leads to the “altercation” of the title, when “Tat Man” begins beating up Sanderson.  Then suddenly, there is the “punch” when Tat Man cries out and Sanderson sees blood dripping from the side of his neck, “which has sprouted a piece of wood.”  When he recognizes it as the handle of a steak knife from the restaurant, we are reminded of the kleptomania mentioned earlier—Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall.

The father, knowing only that the man was beating up on his son, begins to cry, and “Sanderson smells shit.  His father has just dropped a load.” It’s a coarseness that the story does not call for—just another Stephen King self-indulgence. The story ends with a reference to the title, as Sanderson “helps the eighty-three-year-old Caped Crusader into the car” while a police car pulls up.  “The sixty-one-year old Boy Wonder, hands pressed to his aching sides, shuffles back to the driver’s side to wait.”

The title, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is an echo of the title of Sherman Alexie’s story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” although there is no similarity between the content of the two stories—just a similarity in quasi-clever coarse tone.  At least Alexie's title illustrates a cultural conflict. The relevance of King's title is unclear.

In spite of focusing on a serious human problem—Alzheimer’s and the demands placed on children whose parents suffer from the disease—this is not a serious story, but a self-indulgent Stephen King joke about a father who “redeems” himself by rescuing his son from a bully, surprising the reader with a "punch" at the end.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What Actually is the New Formalism? Why is It important to the Short Story?

I apologize for neglecting my blog for the past two weeks, but I have been on a jury in California involving a criminal case and have had little time for little else. 

One of the reasons I have waited so long to write a book on what I have learned over the years about reading short stories is that the dominant approach of literary criticism--at least since the late 1980s--has focused less on literature itself than it has on the political/cultural/social/historical content and context of literature—none of which has ever been that important to short stories.

Several years ago, I had a contract with a prominent publisher to write a book on the generic development of the short story.  However, when I submitted about half of the manuscript, the academic readers to whom the publishers sent it for evaluation complained that it did not take into account the new trends in criticism toward cultural and political content, that it did not take a sufficiently Marxist or Postcolonial or Multi-cultural approach—that it was, in short, too focused on the generic development of short stories themselves.

Unwilling to give in to pressures from the cultural critics, I cancelled my contract with the publisher and put the manuscript away until a more sensible critical climate developed.  Perhaps that time has arrived.  At least, with the advent of the so-called “New Formalism,” I hope so. I may even go back and finish that academic magnum opus history of the form after completing this book on Reading Short Stories.

The term “New Formalism” began to be used in the late 1980s, not in reference to a critical method or movement, but rather to a revival of formal verse among young poets. In “Notes on the New Formalism” (The Hudson Review, Fall 1987) Dana Gioia (former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts), says the first signs of the revival can be seen at the end of the 1970s, when such magazines as Paris Review began publishing sonnets, villanelles and rhyming poems.  Gioia notes that this revival has occurred in spite of the stubbornness of some old threadbare clich├ęs from the sixties, to wit, that form is “artificial, elitist, retrogressive, right-wing, and (my favorite) un-American.” Gioia summarizes the schism between academics and the public brought on by theory and cultural studies as follows:

With the best of intentions the university has intellectualized the arts to a point where they have been cut off from the vulgar vitality of popular traditions and, as a result, their public has shrunk to groups of academic specialists and a captive audience of students, both of which refer to everything beyond the university as ‘the real world.’ Mainly poets read contemporary poetry, and only professional musicians and composers attend concerts of new music.

However, he says that young poets have rejected this split between their art and its traditional audience and hope to reaffirm poetry’s “broader cultural role.” Gioia thinks that the central debate in the future will focus on form in the wide, elusive sense of poetic structure: “How does a poet best shape words, images, and ideas into meaning? The important argument will not be about technique in isolation but about the fundamental aesthetic assumptions of writing and judging poetry.”

I think the important task for me is to find a way to bridge the gap between the academic reader and the general reader by examining how a short story writer uses language to transform an “experience” into meaning.  I think all writers and readers are interested in learning how to participate in that extremely important and vitally human process.

The most greatest impediment I face writing this new book on Reading Short Stories aka, How to Read Short Stories, is my own determination to be both conscientious and comprehensive--coupled with my desire to direct the book to three related, but often estranged, audiences: the engaged general reader of the short story, the dedicated professional writer of the short story, and the committed academic teacher/student of the short story.  The problem is figuring out how to write a book that is not opaque to the general reader, simplistic to the academic reader, or alien to the artists who create short stories. I do not think this can be done without focusing on what Gioia suggests the New Formalism seems to herald: understanding form in the inclusive sense of how writers shape language into meaning. 

In an essay in Philological Quarterly (June 2007) Thomas DiPiero says, “Virtually every discussion of the new formalism, whether remonstration or encomium, mentions some variant or synonym of the word ‘return’, which should cause us to wonder what the ‘new’ in the ‘new formalism’ is.”  He notes that advocates of the new formalism study the language, genre, structure, and aesthetic nature of the literary text and encourage readers to identify textual patterns and repetitions, as well as acknowledge the aesthetic pleasure derived from literary form.  Many have joined the ranks of the new formalists because they believe that “literary criticism has overstepped the bounds of its discipline, that it has become too politicized, and/or that it has simply lost use of some of the most fundamental tools at its disposal for the analysis of literary works.”

DiPiero is interested in the means by which a text’s formal features encode the social circumstances surrounding the systematization of those features into conventions or genre.  He says, “We need to arrive at a fuller understanding of how form signifies in order to grasp how prose—the apparently formless form—conveys meaning beyond the level of literal signification.” This is indeed a crucial point for my own studies—how a short story conveys meaning beyond its literal referential function.  When DiPiero uses the word “prose,” he, of course, means the novel, for no critic ever thinks of the short story as deserving of serious consideration.  And although the novel may often be thought of as a “formless form,” this is just not true for the short story.  This is one of the main reasons why the emergence of the so-called “new formalism” is important to me.

Kelcey Parker, in her essay, “Reading Like a Writer: A Creative Writer’s Approach to New Formalism,” soon to appear in a new collection of essays on the New Formalism, says that a New Formalist approach attempts to uncover just how language artificially constructs a ‘reality’ that gets mistaken for the Real.” “A New Formalist approach to literature,” Parker says, investigates a text’s formal devices and structures (how an author communicates with a reader), and it also examines form at the level of content (what the text assumes, questions, and communicates about ‘reality’).

In her essay, “Form and Contentment” (Modern Language Quarterly, March 200), Ellen Rooney says that form is a “reading matter: the real terror is the terror of formlessness, and it has erupted because reading has lost its place.”  Neglect of the study of form in recent years, says Rooney, has resulted in the tendency to reduce “every text to its ideological or historical context, or to an exemplar of a prior theory.” She says that history, sociology, anthropology, and communications are all disciplines that “have long since mastered the art of reading-as-summary, reading sans form.”  However, she also notes that literary studies over the past forty years have “diluted the will to form” and made “thematic analysis” the sole mode of formal analysis.”  She looks to the new formalism as a matter not of “barring thematizations but of refusing to reduce reading entirely to the elucidation, essentially the paraphrase, of themes—theological, ideological, or humanistic.”  

Caroline Levine  (“Strategic Formalism:  Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies.”  Victorian Studies, Summer, 2006) is another of those critics, like Ellen Rooney, Susan Wolfson, and Heather Dubrow, who recognize the inevitable return of formalism and want to integrate it into cultural studies--to see form “as part of a politically aware historicism.”  Levine says the new formalism suggests a “reevaluation of the force of the major cultural-political categories we have long recognized, such as gender, race, and class.”  She urges a broad redefinition of form.  Not the formalism of the New Critics, she says, or of their detractors, but of both:  Levine defines “form” as follows:

Form, in my definition, refers to shaping patterns, to identifiable interlacing of repetitions and differences, to dense networks of structuring principles and categories.  It is conceptual and abstract, generalizing and transhistorical.  But it is neither apolitical nor ahistorical.  It does not fix or reduce every pattern to the same.  Nor is it confined to the literary text, to the canon, or to the aesthetic.  It does involve a kind of close reading, a careful attention to the ways that historical texts, bodies, and institutions are organized—what shapes they take, what models they follow and rework.  But it is all about the social: it involves reading particular, historically specific collisions among generalizing political, cultural, and social forms.  One could call it ‘social close reading’; I prefer to call it ‘strategic formalism.’

Is the New Formalism the critical wave of the future?  If it is integrated into the currently popular cultural studies, will it be merely an adjunct, an admission that culture cannot be studied with studying the nature of form?  In the introduction to a special issue of the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, (March 2012), Nicholas Birns begins by saying, “ Formalism had to come back in literary criticism.  The question was only how.”   Noting that the New Formalism has made important contributions to the way we read literature, it has not “commanded the field; nor has it overthrown or even seriously vexed the historicist consensus.  Indeed New Formalism in academia today is somewhat like a tolerated opposition party in a relatively mild dictatorship that is allowed to exist simply because there is no way it will ever have the popular support to seize power.”

As Marjorie Levinson pointed out in the PMLA essay I referred to a couple of weeks ago, the new formalism might be “better described as a movement than a theory or method.”  However, one could say the same thing about cultural studies, gender studies, new historicist studies, etc.  What is important for my own book is that the short story is, like poetry, more dependent on form than the novel, which is often referred to as formless.  Moreover, the short story is less focused on exploring social and political issues than the novel is.  Consequently, a critical climate that shows some respect rather than scorn for the importance of aesthetic or formal issues is a climate in which my book on the short story might at least find a hospitable publisher and perhaps even an interested audience.

In the weeks ahead, I will increasingly focus on my developing plans for Reading Short Stories, aka How to Read Short Stories.  I would appreciate any suggestions you might have for what you would like to see in such a book.