Friday, April 22, 2016

Colin Barrett's "Anhedonia, Here I Come"

Colin Barrett's first book, the collection of short stories, Young Skins, won  the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.  I commented on my favorite story in the collection on this blog when the book first came out in America, but I did not really care for the other stories. Barrett's characters--mostly men—are uneducated, drink, shoot pool, screw around, and do drugs.  I have no objections to any of those aspects of life as the subject of fiction, but they do tend to get flat and tedious after a time.
What bothers me most about Barrett's most recent story, "Anhedonia, Here I come" in The New Yorker, April 18, is the language—not the language of the dialogue, but the language of the narrator, whosever he is.

The action of the story recounts the journey of a man named Bobby to buy some marijuana from his young female supplier. Bobby is a poet, so he says, although we don't have any evidence of the nature or quality of his poetry. At a pub he discovers that a man he has been trying to get to publish his first book of poetry has already published a collection by someone else.  Bobby goes home depressed and tries to light a joint with a cigarette lighter in his apartment building which is filled with gas from a leak.  What happens then is anyone's guess, if anyone cares.

Barrett obviously thinks language is important. In his March 3, 2015 Paris Review Interview with Jonathan Lee, Barrett says:

"If you get the language, the story follows, and in Young Skins the language flowed out of the concept of the town, somehow. What’s a vernacular, a dialect? It is language, weathered and textured and defined by time and geography, the same way a wind-eroded mountainside or a listing, flaking fence post is. I follow the language back to the mouth out of which it is being spoken.
What I look for in sentences is a gnarl, a knuckliness. It’s textural, like a striae or a burr, some embedded trace within the sentence where the register changes or shifts. It’s hard to explain, of course, because it sounds like damage of a kind, but it has to be the right kind of damage, and it may be visual or mental as much as it is aural. Sound in prose is important, but it is not everything. I like a sentence that does exactly what it needs to, just not in the way one would have thought it needed to do it. I like a sentence that booby traps its cadence if required. I like sentences that go on, and ones that end before you think. 
The kind of writing I don’t like is the stuff I call lethally competent. Language that takes no chances, that seeks to efface itself as language, as a material, and offer the clear windowpane on reality, et cetera. The kind of prose a review might call pellucid, or limpid. Pellucid, limpid is the biggest insult there is, to me. In every genus of art, the stuff that has lasted has made a demand."
The following is a definition of Anhedonia from

"Anhedonia: Loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. The inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences. Anhedonia is a core clinical feature of depression, schizophrenia, and some other mental illnesses. An anhedonic mother finds no joy from playing with her baby. An anhedonic football fan is not excited when his team wins. An anhedonic teenager feels no pleasure from passing the driving test. "Anhedonia" is derived from the Greek "a-" (without) "hedone" (pleasure, delight). Other words derived from "hedone" include hedonism (a philosophy that emphasizes pleasure as the main aim of life), hedonist (a pleasure-seeker), and hedonophobia (an excessive and persistent fear of pleasure).

In the New Yorker "This Week in Fiction" blog, Barrett says this about anhedonia.

"If Bobby is to some degree self-aware, he is still dunderingly oblivious in many respects. He thinks he’s sincere but deep down worries he’s a fake. Even though he’s a malign grotesque, there is, I think, that poignant core to him. How do you know you really love the things you think you do? That your concept of self is sincere? The question, despite his own virulent assertions otherwise, is whether Bobby had, or is, succumbing to a state of anhedonia."
 If you look up "Anhedonia," you might want to look up some of the words in the following sentences from Barrett's story:

"one hand broodingly ensconced within a pocket"
"no noise but the late-night dysphagic groans of the elevator's recurringly jammed doors"
"Bobby's peregrinations tended to bring him, as now, into intermittent contact with this body of water"
"He noted the tarry density of its bilious murk"
"[He] took a spumous dump in a toilet cubicle"
"he felt that every other poetic topic of concern was an obfuscation, an eschewal, or a bald retreat from this theme"
"Bobby's psychic sturdiness was, he feared, a manifestation of a submerged but profound and pullating narcissism."
"Becky's caman-wielding cohort lounged on a nearby wall, observing with studied wrath."
"He picked his nose, unseated a gratifyingly intact clump of dried matter, palpated it between his fingers, and flicked it away."
"Then he realized he was abandoning an infant to a vehicle under the operation of a man kneading tinctures of a patently illicit substance into his face.."
"Bobby could feel himself, in her spectral, incipiently canonical gaze, being transubtaniated, molecule by molecule, into obscurity."

I have not found many talking about this story online, but one reader, a man named Dan on GoodReads says:

This is, potentially, the worst short story ever written. It’s bad, it’s dreadful, it’s poorly written, it has no point, it’s not clever. This story is so bad it is an insult to the man who chopped down the tree that was turned into the paper the story was printed on. This story is so terrible the woman who drives the truck that delivers the printing ink to the New Yorker is considering holding the next shipment hostage until the editors apologize personally to her and her family for their incompetence. She works too hard, puts up with too much traffic and back pain to waste her time allowing the staff at the short story department of the New Yorker to waste all that ink on something this bad.
(And he goes on for another five paragraphs)
This is a bit extreme, it seems to me.

However,  it just is not clear why Barrett uses the language that he does in this story.  It does nothing to encourage the reader to identify or sympathize with the central character. Indeed, it does nothing but draw attention to itself and irritate the reader—at least this reader.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ann Beattie's "For the Best"

Ann Beattie's short stories began to appear in small quarterlies while she was a graduate student in the early 1970s.  When, after many rejections, The New Yorker accepted one of her stories in 1974, she devoted herself to writing full time.  Critical reactions to her early collections--Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), Where You'll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991), was pretty much split between those who admired her pin-point portraits of the yuppie generation of the 60s and 70s and those who accused her of psychological vacuity and sociological indifference.  Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie was alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine versions of the characters on television's Seinfield, unable to understand themselves or others.
Park City (1999), was a sort of retrospective summation of her short-story career--containing many Beattie favorites that are entering the canon as anthology selections in college and trade texts, such as "Dwarf House," "A Vintage Thunderbird," "Shifting," "The Lawn Party," "Jacklighting," "Greenwich Time," "The Burning House," "Weekend," "Janus," and "What Was Mine."
Beattie's early stories reflect a keen awareness of how the modern short story since Chekhov explores complex human relationships while seeming on the surface merely to be anecdotal events.  For example, in "Janus," a classic of the so-called minimalist genre, the central character is a real-estate salesperson who uses an elegant bowl as a sort of trick to get buyers interested in a house.  The bowl not only has a personal meaning for her because her lover gave it to her, it also has a mysterious symbolic significance, for it seems to be both practical and spiritual at once.  Every house she puts it in becomes the home that she and her lover never had.  When she refuses to leave her husband, her lover asks, in an obvious reference to the title of the story, "Why be two-faced?"  However, like most Beattie characters, she is unable to make a break, a decision, a commitment.  The dichotomy of the bowl is emblematic of how Beattie makes use of concrete details in  her stories.  For even though it is ordinary, practical, even mundane, it is simultaneously subtle, significant, and shimmering with meaning. 
In contrast to her earlier stories, the eight more recent short fictions in her collection Park City seemed to be moving more toward length and elaboration, making more use of novelistic techniques of character exploration and realistic, non-metaphoric, detail, for example in Going Home with Uccello" and the title story "Park City."  In the former, a woman on a trip to Italy with her sometimes boyfriend has a realization about why he has taken her there when he flirts with a Frenchwoman about an Uccello painting.  She understands that he has taken her to Italy not to persuade her to join him in London forever, but to persuade himself that he loved her so much that no other woman could come between them.  The story ends in a typical Beattie ambiguity about whether the man in the story can commit himself to a relationship or whether he is continuing, as so many of Beattie's male characters, to look for some ineffable dream.
In "Park City," the central character spends a week at a Utah ski resort during the off-season looking after her half-sister's daughter, Nell, who is three, and half-sister's boyfriend's half-daughter, Lyric, who is 14.  The story is filled with dialogue between the three females in which it seems increasingly clear that the woman is more naive than the precocious 14-year-old.  In one particular encounter, the girl spins out a long invented tale to a stranger about having had breast implants.  The story ends when the central character tries to get on a ski lift with the child Nell and the two almost fall off.  They are saved by a man who, significantly, tells her, "the one thing you've got to remember next time is to request a slow start."
In her last collection of "new" short stories, Follies (2005), Beattie left realistic minimalism altogether and just seemed to have a good time writing parodies and creating comic voices.  Several stories in the collection are light experiments with various academic and literary conventions.  In “Duchais,” a graduate student fills in for his sick roommate, taking a job as a professor’s research assistant. However, he is actually made to do a variety of household chores--going to the dry cleaners, mixing drinks, serving as a butler and houseboy at the professor’s home.  Years later, after he has become a lawyer and has returned to Virginia for a twentieth class reunion, he stands in front of the old professor’s house and remembers himself as a young man who had tried to prove he could face difficult things, but instead had felt like a helpless child.
“Apology for a Journey not Taken,” subtitled “How to Write a Story,” is a playful literary game in which a woman has to postpone a planned trip over and over again because of a variety of unexpected events.  The story begins with the narrator saying she could explain why she was not where she should have been, but that perhaps the story should itself evolve.  In fact, the story--perhaps an illustrative exercise for one of Beattie’s creative writing classes--is about the basic narrative truth that stories are, by their very nature, postponements of completion, for if there were no postponements, the story would end immediately. 
“Find and Replace” is based on the metaphor of the word processing function by which a novelist can immediately change the names of her characters by finding all instances of the name and replacing it with another immediately.  The protagonist returns to the home of her childhood in Florida to be with her mother after the death of her father six months earlier.  However, she finds that, in a seeming immediate “find and replace” fashion, the mother is planning to marry another man.  The story is energized by the flippant voice of the daughter narrator, who at first is distressed by her mother’s precipitous action, but, because of a serendipitous encounter with a young man at a car rental agency, realizes how things change, even in a very short time.
Finally, after ten years of short-story silence, Beattie published Maine: The State We're In (2015), which contained fifteen stories she said she wrote all in the summer of 2014—pretty rapid-fire and slap-dash work from a writer who made her reputation writing constrained and crystalline stories of precise prose. I reviewed the collection for Magill's Literary Annual and, for copyright reasons, cannot repeat any of that review here.  I will simple say I was disappointed in the stories. I thought they were loose, rambling, and unfocused—poorly written and careless in syntax and word choice.
Consequently, when her most recent story, "For the Best," appeared in The New Yorker on March 14, 2016, I did not look forward to it.  I have read all of Ann Beattie's stories and have taught many of them before I retired.  I always treasured them because they were such tightly constructed and glowing examples of what has always made me love the short story as the finest fictional form.
However, like most of the stories in her last collection, Maine: The State We're In, "For the Best" is just not anywhere near up to Beattie's best. I have read it three times now, and just cannot find the story in it.
It begins with a 79-year-old man, Gerald, who has just received an invitation to an early Christmas party, warning him, as it were, that his ex-wife Charlotte, who he has not seen since their divorce thirty-one years ago, has also been invited.
The day before the party, Gerald runs into an old acquaintance named Ned on the street and has coffee with him, which provides the opportunity for some back story about Gerald's earlier modelling work and also a dream he has about he and Ned swimming in waters where a shark was "lurking Nearby." Not sure of the relevance of this encounter or dream, that is, if "relevance" is even an issue in this piece of writing.
We meet, briefly, several people at the party, none as interesting as those at the most famous short fiction Christmas party in literature in James Joyce's "The Dead."  And we also learn that this particular day is the same day as the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California.
The ex-wife Charlotte, which the first paragraph has alerted us to expect, does not arrive until Gerald is leaving, when she jumps out from behind a Christmas tree in the lobby and says "Boo."  Why does Charlotte do this?  Beattie says she personally would love to jump out from behind a Christmas tree that way—which would even be more fun than writing such a scene.
They walk toward Rockefeller Center, chat about their son, the past, etc., and he puts her in a cab to take her home. Then he runs into, "of all people," Tod Browne, a gay acquaintance who was at the party and who takes him home in his limo.
Gerald's final encounter is with Alonzo, his doorman, and they talk briefly about being a foreigner in America and about Alonzo's wife who has died.  Gerald is guiltily puzzled that he did not know about Alonzo's wife, but finally manages a bit of social consciousness when he scolds a young woman from the penthouse of his building who asks Alonzo to walk her dog.
The story ends with Gerald thinking back about his ex-wife, catching sight of himself in the mirrored wall of the elevator and realizing that he had grown old.
If you lay this story alongside Joyce's "The Dead" and carefully analyze the language, I think you might find what makes one a brilliant short story with all the attributes of the form in subtle arrangement and the other just a lot of stuff that happens one night in New York just before Christmas.  (I have talked a bit about "The Dead" in a couple of places on this blog. You can search for those discussions if you are interested.)
Certainly there are similarities between Joyce's Gabriel and Beattie's Gerald, but Gerald does not have the insight that Gabriel does, and Beattie does not establish a thematic pattern of self-deception that Joyce does.  Everything that happens in Joyce's story leads up to Gabriel's recognition in the hotel room mirror, whereas a helluva lot of "stuff" happens in Beattie's story that seems just "stuff that happen—not all of which leads to any recognition for Gerald, except "I grow old, I grow old."
In her interview with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman in "This Week in Fiction," Beattie even admits that much that happens in this piece is just stuff that seemed to happen when she was writing it or thinking about writing it.  For example, she says she just "happened" to be in New York on the day on the San Bernardino shooting. Although she says she knew that her being there and what happened in California might not have any inherent place "literarily" in her story, "Still, that's what happened, and sometimes when I'm writing I just go with the givens of a situation."
Going with the "givens" does not describe writing a good short story.  It is not something that Chekhov or Joyce or any great short story writer would give in to.
Granted, Gerald seems to have gone through life rather oblivious to the lives of those around him—God knows where his mind has been all these years—but this rambling and crowded account of the night of the Christmas party does not clinch together with meaning to give any human or literary significance to his realization in the last words of the piece that "he'd grown old."
 I miss the Ann Beattie of my youth.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Fiona McFarlane's "Buttony"

I have been a subscriber to The New Yorker for many years, primarily for the fiction (which is usually a short story, but sometimes--sad to say--a chapter from a novel. They pay the best for stories, and thus can demand the best, which often, but not always, works out well for both writer and reader. 
However, since the mag comes out once a week (mostly), I sometimes do not get a chance to read the stories right away. So after scanning through the cartoons and the poems and reading a compelling article, I stack them on my desk, promising myself to "get to them" soon. Stories, although they may be shorter, just take me longer to read than nonfiction—after all, I am not just questing for content--I want to have some time to read slowly, with my lips moving, and read again and again.
Today, after neglecting the stack on my desk for the past six weeks, I decided to "do my duty" and catch up a bit. I share with you my reading experience of Fiona McFarlane's story from the March 7, 2016 issue, "Buttony."
McFarlane, an Australian writer, who has spent some time in the U.S., is the author of one novel—The Night Guest (2013) and a collection of short stories, The High Places, which is due out in May of this year. She is in her mid-thirties and has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and an M.F.A. from University of Texas, Austin.  She published one previous story in The New Yorker, entitled "Art Appreciation" (May 13, 2013), which I somehow missed.  I dug it out and will read it later.
In the magazine's usual "This Week in Fiction" blog, McFarlane talks with fiction editor Deborah Treisman about the story, which centers on a child's guessing game involving a hidden button. Treisman asks her if she has ever played the game or whether she invented it.  McFarlane says she ran across the game in a book by Steven Connor entitled Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, but cannot remember ever playing it. (Connor is a literature professor from London; I just ordered the book—which is why I am being crowded out of my office by books, even though quite a few are now stored in that mysterious place called "the cloud" accessible by my Kindle Fire).
I don't know if this game, which McFarlane calls "buttony," is played in Australia, but I remember it as a popular game from my childhood—I am surprised that Treisman did not know it—called "button, button, who's got the button?"
In McFarlane's story, the central characters are a school teacher named Miss Lewis, a student favorite named Joseph, and the twenty-one other students in her class. On the day of the story, the kids want to play "buttony."  They form a circle, hold out their hands, and close their eyes, while Joseph, who has been sent in to get a button from Miss Lewis's desk drawer, walks around the circle and touches each pair of hands, saying at the same time "buttony."  After he goes to all twenty-one students, they are told to close their hands and open their eyes; each student is given the chance to guess who's got the button. The one who has been holding the button—not the one who guesses correctly-- gets to "hide" it the next time.
On this particular day that the children play the game, something different happens—as it must, or else there would be no story: When Joseph gets the button on a subsequent round of the game, he walks around the circle but does not hide the button in anyone's hand, but rather puts it in his mouth.  Only Miss Lewis has her eyes open to see this action. When the children guess everyone and still cannot find the button, they begin to kick and shout and rebel against Miss Lewis—opening her hands, looking up her skirt, and pulling the pins from her hair to look for the button.
In her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says as the wrote the story she was interested in the "strange ritualistic way in which the game plays out so many childhood fears—of rejection, of being overlooked or lied to or tricked."
And indeed, if you put yourself in the game, you can imagine its potential for significance. The twenty-one kids have their eyes closed and thus live in darkness during the game's duration.  They hold out their hands in supplication, waiting for an undeserved gift, something to be presented to them by a powerful giver, waiting to be chosen—feeling the disappointment of the giver touching their hands but putting nothing in it, and then the joy of feeling the button in the palm.
And when it is time to guess who has the button, only you really know is that you do not have it.  As in a combination of poker-face and counting cards, the players watch the faces of the rest of the players to see if they give themselves away and try to keep track of all those who have played their hand by saying they do not have the button.
The game has been mentioned in several places, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, but perhaps the most important reference is from Robert Frost's 1922 "The Witch of Coos," that begins with a witch saying:
Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't "Button, button,
Who's got the button," you're to understand.
 However, it is precisely McFarlane's point that the game, as it is played in her story is not merely a child's game, but something more powerfully latent with meaning. 
The key line, one that McFarlane cannot resist using, is: "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell." And yes, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale—a hero with special powers, an adult who is somehow mysteriously guilt and must be punished, a ritual or ceremony, a magic object, children spellbound, a secret, a trick, a childhood rebellion against the adult, and a last-minute rescue.
"Buttony" creates the kind of seemingly trivial, yet ultimately magical encounter with alternate reality that the short story has always done so well. And as usual, it has something to do with the tension between the sacred and the profane—between the spiritual and the trivial—between innocence and experience.
McFarlane handles these traditional short story elements quite well in choice of detail and in storytelling syntax. For example, "All the children handled the button with reverence, but none more than Joseph. He was gifted in solemnity. He had a processional walk and moved his head slowly when his name was called—and it was regularly called."
We know that something must be at stake for one character, and we know it is Miss Lewis, for the story is told from her perspective, and it is she who is "responsible." McFarlane tells us:  "Miss Lewis wanted her children to live in a heightened way, and she encouraged this sort of ceremony."
So it is really no surprise that Miss Lewis is the one who is attacked at the end of the story, for even though the button is secretly hidden in Joseph's mouth, it is she, the children suspect, who has the button. Children always know there is a secret, and who else must have except the adult, the teacher? 
When one child looks up under her dress, as if there is where the secret must lie, and another tears through her hair, as though it must somehow be in her head, Miss Lewis cries out and sees one of the other teachers running toward her with Joseph behind him, "not quite running, not altogether, but like a shadow, long and blank and beautiful." For Joseph is not so much real as he is a supernatural or spiritual embodiment of forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify.  We don't know what they are, but we know they mean something.
At the end of her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says: "Most of all, I'm drawn to those moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves." 
She could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.
 If you have not read the story and still have the March 7 issue of The New Yorker lying in your "gonna get to it" stack, then you might enjoy this little two-page tale. Let me know what you think.  One of the things I most miss about teaching—maybe the only thing—is talking to other readers about what we have read.
I will try to get to the Ann Beattie story "For the Best" in the March 14, 2016 issue next.