Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dorothy Johnston's "Eight Pieces on Prostitution"

Dorothy Johnston, an Australian writer who reads my blog and has sometimes commented on it, recently sent me an email about her new collection of short stories entitled Eight Pieces on Prostitution. Dorothy self-published the collection on Smashwords, and it is available for download from Amazon for $9.99. 

On her website, Dorothy says that the stories were written over her writing life, including her first published story, “The Man Who Liked to Come with the News.” She says the subject of prostitution has always interested her, that her first novel Tunnel Vision is set in a massage parlor. Although she does not say why the subject of prostitution has always interested her, she does note that many of her stories are set in Canberra, where she lived for thirty years, and where after the city gained self-government, it pioneered the de-criminalisation of prostitution, which, she says, “remains an interesting prism through which to view our national capital.” - See more at:

I like the stories because they are so well-written and because they deal with the difficult to treat subject of sexuality in a delicate and restrained way.  If you are expecting sweaty realism and explicit sexual descriptions, these may not be the stories for you, but if you might be intrigued with the emotional engagement of prostitutes with their profession, evoked in a poetic and somewhat idealized manner, these stories are worth your attention. Dorothy Johnston is not reluctant to use explicit language and graphic description in these stories, but salaciousness is not her goal.

 I prefer the seven short stories to the one short novel, “Where the Ladders Start.”  In this long story about a client who dies during sex, the issue is whether his death by strangulation is an accident brought on by his own sexual desires, or whether he was murdered by the prostitute who served him. Moving of the body by colleagues complicates the criminal aspect of the story, as does blackmail by a neighboring shop owner who says he saw the body being moved. The major interest in the story is plot—i.e. what happened and why, and how it will all end—not what the story means. The short stories, on the other hand, focus on more subtle matters concerning the meaning of the motivation and desires of the women who provide sex for their clients.

Johnston uses various means to distance the narrative from the gritty physical and economical aspects of prostitution.  Professional women are referred to as” colleagues.” Men who visit them are called” clients.”  Their place of business is called a “studio.” The sex act is not usually described.  One prostitute is a university student who studies between clients; one is a mature woman just trying to make a living.

In “The Studio,” the client brings his paintings to show to Eve, the central character. She tells him there is no love in his paintings, that he should paint at least one with love in it. Their sex is described as a meeting of bone and muscle, a “certainty of where she ends and another living being begins.”  When he brings her a painting of herself as Eve in the Garden of Eden, she sees it is her eyes and her naked body, but the painted feelings are those of someone else  When she goes to a gallery exhibition of his paintings and comes up to speak to him, he denies that he knows her. It is as though in the gallery she has momentarily forgotten that she is a prostitute and he is a client. The story ends with an effective ambiguous metaphoric conclusion.

In “The Man Who Liked to Come With the News,” the central character provides services for a man who is referred to only as “the man who liked to come with the news.” This is a very short story that lightly links politics with sex and the normal with a momentary break with the normal.  The story ends emblematically with a radio announcer telling of the collapse of the government and listeners stopping their regular activity momentarily before everything continues again as is “perfectly normal.”

“Mrs. B” opens with a cue reference to a coffee shop/cafĂ© significantly called the Scheherazade, priming us for storytelling as a thematic activity. She works in a message parlor and refers to sex “decorously as ‘the extra’ or ‘the finish.’” She lays out the prices, the necessity of showering, and the use of condoms to clients as if “a hostess before a dinner party.”

The tone of the story elevates Mrs. B above the physicality of what she does in sentences like this:
“And strange it was, but men who came to the shabby house in Acland Street warmed toward Mrs. B.  In spite of, or perhaps because she’d found a way to sing, her body never lost its ambiguous receptiveness.”
The story ends in an ironic poetic image after Mrs. B. and her colleague Denise serve fifteen clients between them without a break. The exhausted Mrs. B. has a vision of herself serving tea with jam: 

She felt her smile slide along the surface of an internal river that was flowing so fast now there was no hope of stopping it…she stood up and danced out of the kitchen, singing loudly and taking charge at last, negotiating the corridors in a series of intricate and dainty steps, out into the traffic at the wrong end of Acland Street.

“The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry” introduces Harry who visits the message parlor/brothel dressed in sixteenth garb, complete with an “authentic Shakespearean cod-piece, preserved for centuries in a mixture of camphor and methylated spirits.” He has sex with Maria, “whose daily experience was that of being inhabited by the body of another.”  After sex with Henry, she thinks of the principle of disorder in the universe, feeling that “someone, somewhere out there, was preparing for them—for herself and Harry, a disjointed, disorderly end.”

The story is built on the extended metaphor of the sexual encounter as a play. When her landlord raises the rent and forces her to move to another place, she misses Harry and his costumes. “Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’d been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company that understanding had been no more than a breath away.”

And what she seems on the verge of understanding she writes in the story’s last sentence in a child’s school exercise book she uses as a diary: “That we must continually take off our costumes and replace them means no more to us than it did to Harry. It means no more than an acknowledgement of love.” 

Although Dorothy Johnston is perhaps best known as a writer of mystery novels, these stories, with the exception of the short novel Where the Ladders Start, which seems primarily a character –based, plot-dependent, genre mystery fiction, are literary stories that depend on short story techniques of lyrical language, metaphoric resolutions, and universal thematic significance. I recommend them to my readers, for the pleasure of their prose and the complexity of their meaning.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tim Horvath's "Understories"

A few months ago, Tim Horvarth, who teaches creative writing at Chester College of New England, was kind enough to send me a copy of his first collection of short stories entitled Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012).  I read the stories and enjoyed them, but got caught up in another project I am working on that I have not had the opportunity to share my thoughts about the stories with my readers.  I apologize to Tim for this neglect of his very thoughtful and beautifully written collection. I have gone back and reread several of the stories; I recommend the book to my readers.

What fascinates me about Tim’s stories is how they focus more on ideas than on the everyday life of characters in the real world.  The stories alternate between what-if concept stories, fantasy pieces, parables, and seemingly realistic narratives.  However, even the realistic stories are less centered on the everyday life of folks than they are on the essence of human experience.

My three favorite stories in the collection are: “The Understory,” “Circulation,” and “The Discipline of Shadows.” 

“The Understory” is a fiction based on at least one historical person, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The central character, Schoner, a Jewish professor of Botanical Science at the university in Freiburg, is, I assume, a fictional figure.  The time of the primary action is in the early 1930s, although this is a flashback from the 1970s in America, after Schoner fled the Nazi persecution. 

Schoner teaches his students out in the forest more than in the classroom.  When he meets his colleague, Professor Heidegger, they go for walks in the woods, and while Schoner talks of cycles of growth, decay and regeneration, Heidegger talks about poetry, art and music.  It is this dichotomy—between what Heidegger calls the essence of science and what Schoner reveres as the living world—that creates the narrative energy of the story.

When Heidegger is appointed rector of Freiburg University, Schoner is confident that he will speak out against Hitler’s rise to power. But he is disappointed to hear him talk of German destiny, historical mission, and the will of the people.

When Schoner flees to New England, he marries, has a child, and learns to love the woods of New Hampshire.  He writes to Heidegger, who has since become disillusioned with the Nazi promise and resigned as rector of Freiburg, and tells him: “Trees have always defined the forest for me.  I climbed the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was.  But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined.”
It’s a relatively simple narrative line told in carefully wrought prose, but it has complex implications about the dichotomy between ideology and actuality.

“Circulation” is told in first person by a man who has grown up with his father’s obsession to assemble a book called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things.—a book that attempts to document the complex chain of events by which things come to be what they are and where they are. After his father is hospitalized, the narrator is charged with cleaning out his apartment and finds only bits and pieces—nothing that “even approximated a coherent text.”

The father has previously written one book, a thin self-published volume entitled Spelos: An Ode to Caves, which recounts his passion for going into caves. Most of “Circulation” recounts the circulation of a single copy of the book from the library for which the narrator is the Director of Circulation.  However, the stories about the book’s circulation that the narrator tells to his hospitalized father are all invented.

One obvious inspiration for the story is perhaps the most famous story about libraries, Borges’ “Library of Babel,” for the narrator sometimes imagines himself the proprietor of Borges library—a library that “essentially comprises the whole of the universe—the universe as library.”

Another inspiration is The Arabian Nights, for in Scheherazade fashion, the son tells his father story after story of his one book’s circulation, which sustains the dying man. But if telling stories evokes literature’s most famous storyteller whose very life depends on her storytelling skill, a book about caves inevitably also evokes that most famous cave of all—Plato’s metaphoric cave in which perceived reality consists of shadows cast on the cave wall. The story ends after the father’s death and the son immortalizes his book in a realm somewhere in between actuality and fictionality—a realm in which what is is that which is invented.

“The Discipline of Shadows” is told from the first person pov of a philosophy professor who chairs a department of umbrology devoted to the study of shadows. His epiphany occurs when he realizes that printed words were the shadows of referents, and thus that all fields of study were umbrology--that all academics spend their lives studying shadows. Once again, it is inevitable that the study of shadows would find its source in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic, which recounts the Myth of the Cave.

If you come to fiction to experience the gritty feel of physical reality, then you may not find these stories engaging.  But if you think about, why on earth would you want to come to fiction, especially short stories, to experience the gritty feel of reality?

The short story has always had an ambiguous relationship to what pragmatists like to call “reality.” Poe was criticized frequently for the lack of humanity in his stories—that is, until Borges redefined what constituted humanity in short fiction. From its origins in myths, folktales, fables, and parables, the short story has always been more interested in what the mind makes than what simply exists in the physical world.  The short story has always been more focused on human desires, wishes, fears, hopes, obsessions, anxieties, and dreams than on human actions in real time. As a result, short fiction is more oriented toward “meaning," more directed toward a significant conclusion, than merely in recounting one thing after another.

I like Tim Horvath’s stories and agree with other readers of his work that he belongs in a tradition that follows the short fiction of  Borges and is continued in the fiction of Barth, Barthelme, Gass, Millhauser, and Saunders. I like the clarity and complexity of his prose, and I like his frequent focus on the relationship between fictionality and actuality, which has been one of the most important themes of short fiction since Poe.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ring Lardner's "Haircut"--Library of America's "Story of the Week"

The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” this week ( is Ring Lardner’s famous “Haircut,” a kind of dramatic monologue delivered by the town barber to a captive listener about the death of the town bully and prankster.  You can read the story at the Library of America’s website. I offer the following thoughts about the story to suggest, as I have often done over the years, that short stories should be read carefully and often, not carelessly and only once. I first published these remarks many years ago in the journal Explicator.

Reader response to the story over the years has been largely determined by Cleanth Brooks’s and Robert Penn Warren’s early discussion in their famous collection Understanding Fiction over fifty years ago:  “We have the moral satisfaction of seeing the biter bit, the joker caught in the destructive consequences of a joke whose destructive nature for other people he could never have understood or cared about.”  In his book on Lardner, published in 1963, Walton R. Patrick agrees, saying that Jim Kendall meets his death as the result of his meddling and “richly deserves his fate.”

In addition to making this rather simple moral judgment, the critics, of course, point out that the barber-narrator’s acceptance of Jim Kendall’s jokes deepens the action so that we have, as Brooks and Warren suggest, “a sense of brutality and evil thrive by a kind of connivance on the part of those who do not directly participate in it, a sense of the spreading ripples of complicity always around the evil act.”

However, such a reading ignores the act in the story more evil than Jim’s jokes; that is, Jim’s “accidental death.”  Perhaps because the killer is what folks at the time called a “halfwit,” readers have felt that no one is guilty.  But I believe that Lardner’s satire is even more savage than most people think.  I suggest that his attack is not just on the practical joker and a small town’s obtuse moral sense, but even more on the reader’s willingness to approve of the extreme penalty for Jim as his just punishment for his practical jokes.  The reader becomes as morally implicated in the death as the barber and the townspeople by accepting what was obviously their use of the young man Paul to rid themselves of a troublemaker and prankster that they hated and feared.

Many clues in the story suggest that the townspeople are neither so delighted with Jim’s jokes as the barber implies, nor that the barber himself is as obtuse as we would like to believe.  But the reader is so busy feeling superior to the barber, so busy making fun of him and feeling appalled at Jim’s jokes that he fails to sense the horror of the murder and the town’s willing acceptance of it. 

For example, that Jim has his own special chair in the barber shop and that if anyone was sitting in it, “why they’d get up when Jim came in and give it to him”; that when he is making fun of Milt Sheppard’s Adam’s apple, Milt would have to “force a smile”; that when Jim fails in his efforts with Julie, Hod Meyers “had the nerve” to kid him about it—all this should be sufficient to indicate that Jim is not so much admired as he a bully who is feared.  The barber’s final comment—“It probably served Jim right, what he got”—has at least as much emphasis as his “we miss him around here.”

Moreover, several details in the story suggest that the barber and the townspeople are more sympathetic with Julie’s dilemma than with Jim’s pranks and that the barber doesn’t think that Paul is such an idiot after all.  For example, when telling about Jim’s calling Paul crazy or cuckoo, the barber says,”Only poor Paul ain’t crazy, but just silly.” He also has been told by the doctor that the boy was getting better, “that they was times when he was as bright and sensible as anybody else.” Nor is the barber so insensitive and crude that he fails to recognize and understand Julie’s love for the doctor: “I felt sorry for her and so did most other people.”

Moreover, the barber can well imagine the doctor’s response and dilemma when he learns about the joke Jim played on Julie. “It’s a cinch Doc went up in the air and swore he’s make Jim suffer.  But it was a kind of delicate, because if it got out that he had beat Jim up, Julie was bound to hear of it and then she’d know that Doc knew and of course knowin’ that he knew would make it worse for her than ever.  He was goin’ to do something’, but it took a lot of figurin’.”

And finally, the barber knows that the doctor told Paul that “anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live.” Such clues surely indicate that the barber is neither so crude that he applauds Jim’s joke on Julie, nor so stupid that the thinks Jim’s death was “a plain case of accidental shootin’.”

“Poor Paul” is nothing but a pawn, encouraged by the doctor and abetted by the town.  Brooks and Warren are surely right that there is a sense in the story of “spreading ripples of complicity always around the evil act”; but the evil lies in something more than Jim’s jokes, and the complicity than just the barber’s apparent sanction of them.  The whole town, by its acceptance of the so-called “accidental shootin’,” is implicated in the crime; and the reader becomes implicated his or her willingness to accept Jim’s death as a fate he “richly deserves.”

The barber says at the end that “Jim was a sucker to leave a new beginner have his gun….” But the biggest sucker of all is the reader who, by allowing him or herself to be taken in by Lardner’s control of the story and thus feel so morally superior to the barber, becomes an accomplice to the most evil act of all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"Rip Van Winkle" and "Sleepy Hollow": Happy Independence Day 2013

It’s The Fourth of July in the U.S.A., and at mid-day my wife and I just had a classic American hot dog with chili, mustard, and pickle relish.  I will fire up the bar-b-que this afternoon to grill a couple of New York steaks and accompany it with twice-baked potatoes. And then the fireworks, which explode at an air force base not far from our house. And yes, I do have an American flag flying outside the front of my house.

I have no discussion of an American patriotic story to regale you with. Patriotic polemics, while appropriate for July Fourth parades and picnics, do not always make good stories.  So I thought I would commemorate the Fourth with a brief discussions of two of America’s earliest short stories--both of which center on the shift from the colonies to the republic.

The first sentence of Fred Lewis Pattee's classic history of the American short story states authoritatively, "The American short story began in 1819 with Washington Irving." Claiming that with his craftsmanship, originality, and style, Irving made short fiction popular by stripping away the form's moral and didactic element and by adding richness of atmosphere, unity of tone, humor, definite locality, and individual characters, Pattee concludes that in Irving the "Addisonian Arctic current was cut across by the Gulf Stream of romanticism," to give birth to the American short story, "a new genre, something distinctively and unquestionably our own in the world of letters."

Actually, a number of genres and narrative conventions come together in the work of Irving: travel sketch, folktale, gothic romance, historical romance, and neoclassical essay. The first problem for students of the short story to consider is the effect of linking a descriptive genre--the sketch--with a narrative genre--the folktale--in Irving's two most famous short fictions.

It is well known that the plots for "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" came from German legend. However, in a letter dated September 4, 1824, Irving made it clear that these plots were merely vulgar vehicles for what he considered a respectable rhetorical purpose: "I wish, in everything I do, to write in such a manner that my productions may have something more than the mere interest of narrative to recommend them, which is very evanescent; something, if I dare use the phrase, of classical merit, &c., which gives a production some chance of duration beyond the mere whim and fashion of the day.” 

One of the most important results of Irving's devaluation of the tale and elevation of style and tone is that tale conventions are foregrounded and parodied by the sophisticated teller who mocks the supernatural basis of the tale. Furthermore, because sketch conventions focus more attention on specific detail than the primarily narrative tale form, the formerly projective and plot-based gothic tale is altered by the presence of a skeptical narrator who is more concerned with expressing his own impressionistic perspective than with telling a story. Moreover, because the teller is highly self-conscious of his use of realistic techniques of the sketch to present psychological projections of the tale, the resulting story tends to foreground, and thus thematize, storytelling elements; this is a very common effect when a short story self-consciously adopts the conventions of previous genres as a means of parodying them. Finally, the self-conscious skeptical narrator tends to probe beneath the supernatural base of the story to expose its origins in dream and wish fulfillment. 

"Rip Van Winkle" is the most obvious example of this exposure of the wish-fulfillment base of the traditional story. If the folklore source of "Rip Van Winkle" is undisclosed, its self-conscious literary source is foregrounded in the prologue, which attributes the tale to Diedrich Knickerbocker, an historian who, although he does his research among the folk, treats the folk as though they were the "clasped volume of a black-letter" book which he studies with the "zeal of a book-worm." The tone here is not that of the folklore teller, but of the ruminative sophisticate who considers the meaning of what he tells, in this case meditating on how shrewish wives may make the tempers of their husbands pliant, concluding, with an ironic Addison/Steele style aside: "A termagant wife may, therefore, in some respects be considered a tolerable blessing; and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice blessed."

That Rip's disappearance into the mountains is the result of his desire to escape his wife, not just for a day, but forever, is suggested by the fact that his departure is simultaneous with the depth of his despair when he is psychically ready for deliverance; and indeed, just as he looks down into a deep mountain glen, "wild, lonely, and shagged," an embodiment of his despondency, he sighs and hears his name, the identify he finds intolerable, called out.

The most significant leap of time in American fiction--the twenty years that Rip sleeps--is made in the space between the end of one paragraph and the next, which begins, "On waking." And on waking, Rip is, of course, not where he was when watching the men playing, but rather back at the edge of the wild glen where he felt such despair and heard the name called of an identity he will now have reason to doubt. As is typical of other 19th-century short-story characters who undergo experiences they cannot naturalize precisely because their experiences exist within the realm of a different genre from the one they seem to inhabit, Rip feels "perplexity" and wonders whether he is bewitched or if the world is. Time has passed as time must, but Rip sleeps in the realm of one story while events go on around him in the realm of another. And since one's identity is determined by the story he inhabits, Rip believes he is not himself but someone else. When he sees his son, who has lived in the time-bound world of reality while he has lived in the timeless world of dream and folktale, Rip says, "That's me yonder." Like Hawthorne's Wakefield, he has stepped aside into a story of his own desire for escape and thus has been displaced in the world of phenomenological reality.

It is poetic justice and narrative inevitability that just as Rip has objectified his deepest desire in oneiric story, on awaking in the world transformed from the old Dutch sleepiness into the new American wakefulness, his new identity would become that of storyteller. And like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Rip does tell his story, over and over again, to anyone who will listen, sometimes varying its details, which the skeptical narrator, in typical Hawthorne fashion, says is "doubtless owing to his having so recently wakened." The narrator concludes with a foregrounded essayistic meditation on the wish-fulfillment source of the story: "It is a common wish of all henpecked husbands..... that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon."

Even more than in "Rip Van Winkle," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" sustains a world of dream where story contagion is in the air. Just as the deep glen is an objectification of Rip's deepest desire to escape despair, Sleepy Hollow is a place that does not exist except in the imagination, a timeless region located in space, a placeless place where one could steal away and dream his life away. It is dreamy, bewitched, spellbound; people are given to marvelous beliefs, are subject to visions, see strange sights; it is tale-haunted world, an enchanted region, a region of shadows. By placing such a timeless story in the realm of the time bound, Irving creates a hybrid tale quite different than what has gone before. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a story about fiction's ability to alter the nature of reality, self-consciously particularizes a timeless legend by localizing it in space and grounding it in social reality.

The most obvious sign of the story's hybrid nature is the pervasive overdetermination in the story; everything is extreme, overdone, multiplied. Katrina is plump as a partridge; Brom is Herculean; Ichabod is American literature's quintessential grotesque. One of the most puzzling of these overdeterminations is the fact that Katrina's sending Ichabod away after the party makes Brom Bones' headless horseman trick unnecessary. However, whereas practical explanations may suffice in a realistic tale, they will not do in a folk legend, for the short story convention insists that Ichabod's story world must be actualized. "No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow." Thus, the skeptical narrator leaves the conclusion of the story--whether the headless horseman or Brom Bones chased Ichabod out of the valley--open, leaving the mix of two types of stories--folktale of headless goblins or realistic story of one man getting rid of a rival--in suspension.

Both stories are grounded in the radical tension between the old European cultures that established the American Northeast and the developing new Yankee American culture.  In “Rip Van Winkle,” Rip sleeps through the whole American Revolution, waking to a brave new world.  In “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” although Brom Bones saves the sleepy old Dutch world from the omnivorous Yankee appetite, the respite is only temporary.

Happy Fourth of July!