Friday, June 17, 2016

Ben Lerner's "The Polish Rider": Exphrasis, Self-reflexivity, Intertextuality, and Other Genius Stuff in The New Yorker Summer Fiction Issue

Although Ben Lerner's story "The Polish Rider" narrates a simple plot of a young female artist named Sonia who searches for two of her paintings she left in an Uber the day before her show in a New York Gallery, it is complicated by the fact that Lerner is also an art critic interested in the relationship between the actual and the virtual, particularly in regard to ekphrastic works—verbal constructs, i.e. poems and stories, that replicate, encounter, engage visual constructs, i.e. paintings or other works of art.
 Lerner admits that his story is imbued with his aesthetic thought, telling the interviewer on New Yorker's "This Week in Fiction" that the ideas about the relationship between literature and visual art expressed in the story have been with him for a long time, confessing that at several points in the story the narrator "steals language" from his essay entitled "The Actual World" that appeared in the art magazine Frieze in 2013.
The example of ekphrasis Lerner gives in "This Week in Fiction" is the same one he gives in the Frieze  essay, in almost exactly the same language: "The classic example of ekphrasis—the description of Achilles's shield in Homer's Iliad—is so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail. (This makes sense, since the shield was made by a god.) The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can't actually make, can't even effectively paint."
 (Lerner, who is often very conscious of his use of language, will forgive me for pointing out that the language of the interview (supposedly oral) is actually copied and pasted from the Frieze article, right down to the parentheses around the shield-made-by-a-god phrase). Perhaps he intended this to be another play with the relationship between two kinds of media.
Lerner (and his persona narrator in the story) likes to play self-reflexive games with the relationship between the virtual and the so-called actual. For example, after finding a copy of a textbook named Late Art, which contains one of his essays, while helping his friend the artist try to get back her paintings, the narrator starts writing the story we are reading and says he will read the story he is writing at Sonia's opening. If the paintings are not found, he will publish the story of "their loss and recuperation through literature" (which, of course, he does, the story we are reading in The New Yorker) He says Sonia has allowed him to add one more piece to the show—he will drop the copy of the book Late Art, which he found, on the gallery floor to be a piece of "found art."
All this self-reflexive stuff is right out of Borges, Barth, and others from the sixties, and indeed, Lerner even mentions the Borges story "Pierre Menard," in which works somehow change even as they remain the same when their context changes.   Although anyone who reads English can read Lerner's story, it would not be the same story if that reader knew little or nothing about ekphrasis, or Borges, or Duchamp, or self-reflexivity, etc.  As a result of this demand for a literary/philosophical/aesthetic context, the story, dare I suggest, becomes just a bit too self-conscious and self-important. 
The narrator tells us how he loves stories such as Henry James's "The Madonna of the Future," in which the painter plans a masterpiece for decades but ends up with a blank canvas, and Balzac's story "The Unknown Masterpiece," in which the painter works the canvas so much it becomes a garbled mass of paint. (Another little note of allusion: James's narrator cites the Balzac story) The narrator quotes from his own (Lerner's) art criticism, noting that all ekphrastic literature, even when it claims to be describing a work of visual art is actually asserting its own superiority.  To which, Sonia says, "Your students are very lucky."—a self-congratulatory complement that any professor would treasure—that is, if he were not indeed making it about himself and putting it in the mouth of a fictional/real character.
When Lerner is asked, as all writers are, the origin of his story on the "This Week in Fiction" website, inevitably he talks, in Derridan fashion, without Derridan sophistication, about the difficulty of such questions. He says the events of the story, which he seems to suggest he wrote in order to make his ideas about art "felt," are loosely based on something that happened a few months previously to a painter he knows, and that the fictional paintings Sonia loses in the Uber are similar to the actual paintings he discusses in an essay he wrote about his friend who lost them.
The fact that his acquaintance lost the paintings in an Uber allowed Lerner/persona, so he says, to cross an old medium like painting with the "new platform of capitalism" of Uber and thus "open up a space for thinking about some of the competing and changeable networks that make up contemporary life."  And this, Lerner, a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur "Genius Award," says is what makes fiction "politically interesting" to him—"how it can represent—and how it can make felt—the inextricability of self and systems."  How Uber is a cultural or political system that can play such a role, simply because a painter had to pee and thus ran off and forgot two of her paintings, I leave it up to other geniuses to determine.
However, it is the relationship between various systems or modes of representation that Lerner obsessively toys with throughout the story.  For example Sonia's paintings are different versions of the famous kiss between Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Leonid Brezhnev the head of the U.S.S.R from 1964-1982.  You can look up the original photograph of the kiss taken in 1979, as well as the painting of the kiss on the East side of the wall by Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel with the caption "God help me to survive this deadly love affair." 
The narrator says although all the paintings in Sonia's exhibit depict this same image, in a Borgesian sense he knows that is not exactly true: "Did a particular painting of Sonia's depict the actual kiss? The photograph of the kiss? The painting of the photograph of the kiss? Or was the painting the repainting of the painting of the photograph of the kiss."  (You have to really love this sort of stuff to tolerate all this quasi-complexity.)
The story ends with the narrator thinking about kisses and art, as well as his own first kiss, which, although at the time it was life, is now at the time of writing art. How so, one might ask, unless all that exists only in memory is, by its very distance and subjectivity, a work of art?
The fact that the culprit in this story is Uber, whose rigid rules of customer privacy makes it impossible for Sonia to recover the paintings, makes the narrator inevitably think of the old TV series "Taxi"—you know the one with Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman as Latka, and Dany DeVito, up in his cage.
The Lerner narrator asks his readers to imagine that the building at 203 Rivington, where he thinks perhaps the thief who has the paintings lives, is built over the gas station where Louie De Palma ran the Sunshine Cab Company in "Taxi."  He says let's imagine that Louie can coordinate all the systems, "private and public, above ground and under: Uber, subway, gallery, representational, temporal, spatial, national, natural, supernatural, not that any of these things, by itself, exists." Okay, we can imagine that, but why should we?
Finally, he imagines Bob James's theme song from "Taxi," (which I am listening to right now), "a song without words that can be described but not played, notes that fall one after the other all at once, Romantic music, unheard melodies in F major, a portal or door, the news a mentor almost brings you in a dream, the living record of your memory.  That sort of thing."
Yes, indeed, "that sort of thing" is the sort of thing Lerner's story is about.  I kind of like it, although I have come across it many times before in James and Kafka and Borges, and Keats.  But I am a literary academic, a pedant, who always likes this "sort of thing."  But do you have to be a pedant to like it? What do you think?  Does it make you feel smart? Or does it make you think Lerner is smart? He has been officially designated as a "genius," you know.
And one final arty allusion, the title of the story.  "The Polish Rider" is a Rembrandt van Rijn painting, famous for its mystery.  The painting was done in 1655, or thereabouts, and is in the Frick Collection in New York City.  You can find a copy at many places on line. It depicts a young man on a horse in a dark landscape, behind which rears a large mountain with some building on top of it. The man sits stiffly on the horse, holding a bridle in one hand and a sword heft in the other. The horse is old and bony, almost skeletal. No one seems to know whether the painting is a portrait of a real person or whether it depicts a mythic, generalized figure. Several art critics have written analyses of the painting, suggesting the man on horseback is an allegorical figure representing a Christian knight or that he is the Biblical prodigal son whose father's house sits on the hill behind him.
In Lerner's story, the primary character, Sonia, is Polish and a rider of the Uber vehicle.  However, I am not sure why Lerner chose this title except perhaps to suggest that his story embodies a mystery as well. Or perhaps to suggest that although Sonia's story is about a particular event, it is also a universal event. Or because, he just wanted to keep reminding the reader that he and the story are imbued with art.

 Lerner packs a number of other art allusions in the story, but I can only take this sort of thing so long before the fun runs out. The primary system on which the story most referentially depends is, of course, the Internet, which allows me (and you, if you so desire) to look up all the allusions Lerner plays with. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bloomsday 2016: A Few Comments on the Irish Short Story

            Because today is Bloomsday, I felt I had to post something to commemorate it.  However, Leopold Bloom is, of course, not a character from a short story, but rather that great novel Ulysses. And I have already posted a series of short essays on the stories in Dubliners.  So I am posting a few comments on the Irish short story before Joyce's collection, with a brief note on what makes Joyce's stories so important.

Oral Tales
It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story, just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors.  Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society.  Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work."  The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition.  According to J. H. Delargy, in a frequently cited study of the Gaelic story-teller, ancient Ireland fostered an oral literature unrivalled in all of western Europe, a tradition that has influenced the growth of the modern Irish short story.
Delargy describes Irish story-telling as being centered on a gathering of people around the turf fire of a hospitable house on fall and winter nights.  At these meetings, usually called a céilidhe (pronounced "kaylee"), a Gaelic story-teller, known as a seanchaí (pronounced "shanachie") if he specialized in short supernatural tales told in realistic detail, or a sgéalaí (pronounced "shagaylee") if he told longer fairy-tale stories focusing on a legendary hero, mesmerized the folk audience.
It is the shorter, realistic seanchas or eachtra (pronounced "achthrah") rather than the longer, epical fairy tales that have given rise to the Irish literary short story.  This type of story, which usually featured supernatural events recounted with  realistic detail suggesting an eyewitness account, has been described by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German writers as the source of the novelle form, which usually  featured a story striking enough to arouse interest in and of itself, without any connection to society, the times, or culture.   This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction. 
One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction.  The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility.  The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience.  It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the story-teller.
William Carleton
Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature.  William Carleton is the most important Irish mediator between the folk tale and the modern realistic story because of his attention to detail and his creation of the personality of the teller.  His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story.  The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton, and later Poe and Hawthorne knew, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective.
Critics of Irish fiction generally agree that Carleton's story "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is his best, similar to the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne in America.  "Wildgoose Lodge" recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a Catholic secret society.  Although ostensibly merely an eye-witness report by a former member of the society, the structure of the story reflects a self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story.  A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how romantic short-story writers developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without using allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot.
What makes "Wildgoose lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and self-consciously aware at once.  Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from a mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure.  It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.  
Georege Moore
Many critics of the short story have suggested that the modern Irish short story begins in l903 with the publication of George Moore's The Untilled Field, thus agreeing with Moore's own typically immodest assessment that the collection was a "frontier book, between the new and the old style" of fiction.  Moore felt that The Untilled Field was his best work, boasting that he wrote the stories to be models for young Irish writers in the future.  And indeed, as critics have suggested, the book had a significant effect on the collection of short stories that has become one of the most influential short story collection in the twentieth century--James Joyce's Dubliners
In combining the coarse subject matter of the French naturalists with the polished style of the fin de siecle aesthetes, the stories in The Untilled Field seem unique for their time.  However, they still maintain an allegiance to the folk tale form and to the importance of story as a means of understanding reality.  Moore's adherence to the folk tale form and the need to understand reality by means of story can be clearly seen in one of his best-known and most anthologized stories from The Untilled Field--"Julia Cahill's Curse."  The story-with-the-story, told by a cart driver to the first-person narrator, recounts an event that took place twenty years previous when a priest named Father Madden had Julia put out of the parish for what he considered unseemly behavior; in retaliation, Julia put a curse on the parish, prophesying that every year a roof would fall in and a family would go to America.  The basic conflict in the tale is between Julia, who in her dancing and courting, represents free pagan values, and the priest, who, in his desire to restrain her, represents church restrictions.
The conflict between Julia and the priest is clear enough; however it is the relationship between the teller and the listener that constitutes the structural interest of the story, for what the tale focuses on is an actual event of social reality that has been mythicized by the teller and thus by the village folk both to explain and to justify the breakdown of Irish parish life in the late nineteenth century.  Whereas the folk may believe such a tale literally, the modern listener believes it in a symbolic way.  Indeed, what Moore does here is to present a story that is responded to within the story itself as both a literal story of magic and as a symbolic story to account for the breakdown of parish life.
   "So on He Fares" is a more complex treatment of how story is used to understand a social situation.  Moore himself had a high regard for this story, even going so far as to say in his boastful way that it was the best short story ever written.  The basic situation is that of the loneliness of the child Ulick Burke who chaffs against the harsh control of his mother and dreams of his absent father and of running away from home.  The story is very much like a fairy tale, complete with the evil parent, the absent soldier father, and the child's need to strike out and make his fortune.  When Ulick becomes a man and returns home, he is met by a small boy, the same age as he when he left, whose name is also Ulrick Burke. 
"So on He Fares" is an interesting experiment with the nature of story as a projection of desire, in this case the basic desire of the child to escape his controlled situation.  In one sense, it can be read literally; that is, that when Ulick returns he indeed finds a younger brother who has the love that he himself never had from his mother.  In another sense, it can be read as a symbolic projection of the child who throws himself into the river to escape his loneliness and then is reborn into a child the mother loves.  Ultimately, it can be read as a projection of a child's desire to escape and still remain home at the same time; it is thus a story about story, about a childhood fantasy presented as if it really happened.
Frank O. Connor singles out Moore's "Home Sickness" as representative of the direction that the Irish short story would take in the twentieth century, arguing that it has the "absolute purity of the short story as opposed to the tale."  The story seems simple enough.  James Bryden, an Irish immigrant who works in a bar in the Bowery, goes back to Ireland "in search of health," and for a short time considers marrying a peasant girl and remaining there.  What unifies the story beyond its simple narrative structure is the understated but sustained tone of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of nostalgic reverie, which he is disappointed to find remains unrealized.
Although Bryden longs for the Bowery as he contrasts the "weakness and incompetence" of the people around him with the "modern restlessness and cold energy" of the people in New York, and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason for returning to America, the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by counterpointing a detached dream-like mood of reverie against Irish village reality.  The story is about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory. 
James Joyce
The most influential modern Irish short-story writer is, of course, James Joyce, although that influence is based on one slim volume, Dubliners (1914).  Joyce's most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the "epiphany," which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero:  "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."  
In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events.  Joyce's technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern.  Two of Joyce's best-known stories, "Eveline" and "Araby," end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
In "Eveline," the reader must determine how Eveline's thoughts of leaving in Part I inevitably to her decision to stay in Part II.   Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening "invade" the avenue.  Nothing really "happens" in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life.  It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.
The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline's past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay?  The basic tension is between the known and the unknown.  Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable.  Because these events have already happened, what "used to be" is still present and a part of her.  However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect.  Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to stay is ultimately inexpressible.
What Joyce achieves in one of his most anthologized stories, "Araby," derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their role or context, not by their preexisting symbolic meaning.  The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images that suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance.  The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time for the boy's spiritual romanticism is embodied in the realistic objects of his world.  This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire.  Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it.  Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance."  Thus, when he visits Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires. 
The conversation he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its trivial flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made profane.  To see his holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself.  The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the sacred desires human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
"The Dead" is the most subtle example of Joyce's innovative technique.  The first two-thirds of the story reads as if it were a section from a novel, as numerous characters are introduced and the details of the party are reproduced in great detail.  It is only in the last third, when Gabriel's life is transformed, first by his romantic and sexual fantasy about his wife and then by his confrontation with her secret life, that the reader reflects back on the first two-thirds of the story and perceives that the earlier concrete details and the trivial remarks are symbolically significant.  Thematically, the conflict that reflects the realistic/lyrical split in the story is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in actual experience and life perceived as desire.
The party portion of "The Dead" reflects Gabriel's public life; his chief interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly.  However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire.  During their short carriage ride to the hotel, he indulges in his own self-delusion about his relationship with his wife: "moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory."
When Gabriel discovers that Gretta has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he sees the inadequacy of his public self.  Michael Furey, who has been willing to sacrifice his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's smug safety.  In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is.  "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday.  At the end, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, he loses his egoistic self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness.  "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Zadie Smith's parable:"Two Men Arrive in a Village"--New Yorker summer fiction issue

I have been reading the stories in the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker—June 6 & 13, 2016.
I liked the Zadie Smith story "Two Men Arrive in a Village" and, with some reservations, the Ben Lerner story "The Polish Rider." In this post, I will talk a bit about the Zadie Smith story. Next week, I will talk about Ben Lerner's story.
However, I am not going to talk about the Langston Hughes story "Seven People Dancing," which I found was only historically interesting as the recovery of a mss about a dated cultural system. Nor will I talk about  the Jonathan Safran Foer piece, for drawn from his new novel Here I Am, which will be out in September, it is not a story—just a lot of loose writing. I thought about commenting on the difference between chapters in novels and short stories, but according to Foer, this is not a chapter, but a composite piece from several hundred pages in his upcoming novel. Not really interesting to me.

Zadie Smith, "Two Men Arrive in a Village"
In the "This Week in Fiction" on-line New Yorker feature,  Zadie Smith is asked, as most authors are, about  the "source" of her story. Smith said the story had two sources: the Romanian movie "Aferim," which had an archetypal setup of two men going around a country terrorizing people. The other source, she says, was a conversation she had with an old school friend of hers, who had given her a Hungarian fabulist novel to read that he liked—a sort of allegory with characters called "The Grandmother," "The Soldier," etc. She says although she wanted to like it because her friend did, she had trouble getting over the idea of "mythic archetypes."
When she expressed this reservation to her friend, he replied, "Well, your fiction is so obsessively local, but there's another, more universal way of writing that has a different kind of power."  Then, Smith says she was annoyed, as most postcolonial writers and critics often are, with the word "universal," perhaps suspecting that it marginalizes third-word countries and privileges Western European thought and values.
However, Smith says her friend's comments got her to thinking how the local and the specific perhaps enable one kind of "engagement" while blocking another, particularly when you are talking about violence, for example, "Oh, that's just what happens in Africa." She began to think that perhaps specific details in fiction allow the reader to hold certain situations at a distance. She wondered: "Is it possible to write a story that happens in many places at many times simultaneously? That implicates everybody."  Smith mentions this notion also at a reading of "Two Men Arrive at a Village" she gave March 1, 2016 at Newcomb College, Tulane University," asking, "Is there a way to write a story not just about one person's pain in one particular place, but about pain in general, in all places, at all times, amongst all people?"
The story is quite short—a little over five New Yorker columns, or about 2,000 words. Smith's reading of it, which you can listen to on New Yorker's podcast "The Author's Voice," takes less than 15 minutes. Smith says the story, including the title, all came together at once when she was sitting in a cafe in Calgary, and she wrote it in  a few hours—the first time such a thing had ever happened to her.
"Two Men Arrive at a Village" is a fairly straightforward narrative of two men coming to what seems to be an African village, robbing the people, killing a boy, and raping young girls. The narrator identifies herself as one of the villagers in this early sentence in the story: "What we can say with surety is that when these two men arrived in the village we spotted them at once, at the horizon point where the long road that leads to the next village meets the setting sun. And we understood what they meant by coming at this time."
However, since the story is told or written at some point in time after the event occurred, as most stories necessarily are, the narrator, whoever she is, reflects and comments on the significance of the arrival of the two men, seeing it, although a specific event, as indeed, typical or archetypal.  In the opening paragraphs she says that the men come sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot or in a car.  "But if we look at the largest possible picture, the longest view, we must admit that it is by foot that they have mostly come, and so in this sense, at least, our example is representative.  In fact, it has the perfection of parable."
And with this self-conscious, self-reflexive comment, the piece is established not as a description of a particular time when two men arrive at a village, although indeed it does focus on a specific time that the narrator has made a story about, but rather a time, like many other such times and thus typical or representative, i.e. a parable that universalizes such a visit.
Given the parable nature of the story, the two men are presented as two-dimensional stereotypes.  The narrator says: "It goes without saying that one of the men is tall, rather handsome—in a vulgar way—a little dim and vicious, while the other man is shorter, weasel-faced, and sly." There is no essential reason that the two men are physically as described, except for the narrator's need to create stereotypes—stereotypes the narrator or reader might be more apt to know from movies than from reality.
The narrator continues to universalize or stereotype the two men, making assumptions about their typicality as srepresentative of human nature in general: "The two men like to arrive in this manner, with a more or less friendly greeting, and this might remind us of the fact that all humans, no matter what they do, like very much to be liked, even if it's only for an hour or so before they are feared or hated."
The story is marked, of course, by the tension felt by the villagers and, of course, the reader, as they and we expect something horrible to happen.  And when it does happen--the vicious machete slaying of a fourteen-year-old boy who stands up to the men—" a kind of wildness descends, a bloody chaos, into which all the formal gestures of welcome and food and threat seem instantly to dissolve."
Since the visit takes place at a time when only old men, women, and children are in the village, it is the women who band together against the two men, standing in a linked circle around the young girls. But the narrator sees this as "pointless courage," for one of the men kicks a woman in the groin, breaking up the protective circle, and the narrator, who now experiences the horrible "afterwards" in which to generalize, says, "bloody chaos found no more obstruction to its usual plans."
The next day the chief's wife, who, the narrator says, is more of a chief to the villagers than the chief has ever been, returns to the village. The narrator describes her as a "sly and courageous" woman who believes that such men who have visited the village are like the wind that blows there, anonymous, inhuman forces, who "lose themselves, their names and faces, and can no longer claim merely to bring the whirlwind, they are that wind.  This is of course a metaphor. But she lives by it." It is a metaphor that prepares for the story's conclusion.
The chief's wife goes to the girls who have been attacked and finds one who has the courage to tell her story in full, the end of which, the narrator says, is "the most strange." For the short, sly man has told the girl he was an orphan who has suffered as all men do and has seen horror and now wants only to have babies with this girl and live far away from villages and towns.  The girl, stunned by the idea, says the young man wanted her to know his name. "He had no shame," she tells the chief's wife.  He said he did not want to think that he had passed through my village, through my body, without anybody caring what he was called. It is probably not his real name but he  said his name was—"
And at this point, Zadie Smith makes this account a unified short story with this abrupt ending of the chief's wife refusing to hear the man's name.
"But the chief's wife stood up suddenly, left the room, and walked out into the yard."
I have only been able to find a couple of people on line who have said they have read the story, both on the reddit website.  One says, "I didn't get the ending. Why did the chief leave" Another says, "I wonder the same.  Also what was the connection between the political situation in their country and the arrival of the two men?"
It seems to me that these two questions are typical of readers who try to read this piece as if it were a portion of a novel rather than as the unified short story parable it is.  In my opinion, as a reader of short stories, there are two reasons the chief's wife leaves before the young girl can tell her the name of the man who raped her:
 In terms of the details of the story, the chief's wife does not want the rape to be personalized, wants the villain to remain that faceless, anonymous horror that he is, wants no possible justification or explanation for the horror of the acts. 
And in terms of the nature of the story, Smith wants, to the very end, to have written a story in which horror is universalized, not particularized—a parable of a universal horror, not a realistic story of a particular event.

The reddit reader who asks about the connection between the relationship between the political situation of the country and the two men, just wants the kind of social context that a novel might try to provide—not the bleak universal horror of two faceless men who, one horrible day, like all such horrible days, arrive in a village. It does not need a social or political context, any more than it needs the name of the young man.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Novel to be Read as a Short Story: Elizabeth Strout's "My Name is Lucy Barton"

As many of you who have been following my thoughts on "reading the short story" over the years know, I usually only read novels under special circumstances: for example, when someone is paying me to review one (which is seldom), when one gets such a lot of attention I just have to know what the fuss is about (which is rare), or when I am just too lazy or exhausted to read a good short story (which is occasional). This past Sunday it was the latter circumstance that led me to a novel I previously had no intention of reading.
I had not been feeling well—some transient bug or another that left me drained of energy, reduced to lounging on the couch.  My wife had just finished reading Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, which had only taken her about two hours, and it was just lying there on the coffee table, waiting to go back to the local library.
I had read Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a collection of thirteen loosely linked stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years ago, and was not impressed, although I was pleased that the Pulitzer judges had graciously grant the prize to a collection of short stories, which they seldom do. I am suspicious of collections of short stories "linked" together and packaged by publishers as a novel. And the character Olive in Strout's stories seemed just that—a set-up surrounded by various other characters to reveal her supposed hidden nature.
However, Best American Short Stories 2013, which Elizabeth Strout edited, was one of the best of the Best I had read in many years. I wrote at that time: "If you love short stories, you will relish this collection; however, if you prefer novels, or if you just never got the hang of reading short stories, you may want to pass it by." I congratulated Elizabeth Strout for choosing stories that read--for better or worse, depending on your perspective--like short stories unified by a complex theme, not like loose, randomly-arranged chapters of novels.
Furthermore, the fact that my wife had read Lucy Barton  in only two hours (and she is not a skimmer, but a careful reader) made me think that perhaps it was not a novel at all, but rather a novella. In the Random House hardback, it is190 pages, and the pages have much more white space than large black letters—wide margins and double spaces between the lines.
I did a quick estimate—25 lines per page of approximately 8 words per line equals 200 words, which then equals just about 38,000 words. I checked the various critics in the past who dared tentative definitions based on the relationship of length to terminology, and they generally agreed that a novella, short novel, novelette, nouvelle, novelle—whatever they called that thing longer than a short story but shorter than a novel--was usually somewhere between 20,000 to 50,000 words.
While I was pondering whether I wanted to spend two hours of a spring Sunday afternoon reading a novel by someone I had not found that interesting as a short-story writer, but who seemed to really know what good short stories were, I picked up the Los Angeles Times and read the following opening paragraph of a review by A.N. Devers of a new novel by Max Porter entitled Grief is the Thing With Feathers:
"You can't judge a book by its thickness. It is time to retire the diminutive words often call upon to describe shorter novels and novellas and works of nonfiction—slim, spare, compact, jewel of a, or worse, quick, fast, tight, little, anything that suggests a book is missing something in length or heft—for the underlying (perhaps unintentional) implication is that the book is a simpler or speedier read or that it was somehow easier to write."
Devers concludes her favorable review by saying that Porter's book is a complex story, not simply told or sparse, and missing nothing. "Let it be a call for more great books of this length to be recognized for what they are—whole." Well, yes, indeed, thank you, Ms. Devers. I will read this book for what you say it is—a novella—not an abbreviated novel.
I  then took a look at some reviews of Strout's Lucy Barton, and damn all! the first one I came across was a "Bottom Line" piece on the Huffington Post, which  concluded:
"My Name is Lucy Barton is a slight novel, easily consumed in one sitting, and Strout's prose is light, clear, and deliberate, ever offering the telling detail but no more than that.  Yet at times one can't help but wish there was more story to tell, though she continues to tell this one very skillfully."
Well, now my interest was aroused.  Any time a fiction gets scolded for being too short, I want to read it.  So I did.  And two hours later I decided that Strout's new book was indeed a novella—in other words, not a novel that was short, but rather a short story that was long. Which for me means a piece of fiction that must be read as one reads a short story, not as one reads a novel.  And if you read My Name is Lucy Barton as a long short story, you will not "wish there was more story to tell," but be glad that Elizabeth Strout is not interested in merely spinning out a novelistic narrative, but in creating a complete and unified story.
Although the term "novella" is used to refer both to the short pieces of fourteenth-century fiction best exemplified by Boccaccio's Decameron and the highly-developed nineteenth-century German form, it is more often used in the twentieth century to refer to a number of works of mid-range length, somewhat longer than the short story and somewhat shorter than the novel.   In his Preface to "The Lesson of the Master," Henry James says  that among forms there was "on the dimensional ground-for length and breadth—our ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle; the generous, the enlightened hour for which appeared thus at last to shine."
James argues that that the nouvelle's “main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” The comment has led to the observation that the novella has the novel’s complexity and the short story’s control.   But my question is: Is the “complexity” of the novella the same kind of complexity that usually characterizes the novel?  And is the “control” of the novella the same kind of control that usually characterizes the short story
Based on my reading of hundreds of novels and novellas and thousands of short stories, I believe that the novella is closer to the short story both in theme and technique than it is to the novel.  So, for me the question is not what makes the short novel shorter than the novel, but what makes the novella longer than the short story. To run the risk of oversimplification, I would hazard the following tentative distinctions.  The complexity of the novel is primarily social, historical, and cultural.  The complexity of the novella is primarily psychological, mythical, and philosophical The novella is a form that, at its best, is closer in style, structure, and theme to the short story than it is to the novel.
And from my point of view, there is a difference between a novella and simply a novel that is short. For example, whereas Andre Dubus III's short novels in his collection Dirty Love are merely novels that are short—just lots of "as if" real stuff about semi-interesting characters living in what seems like a "real world," Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, although marketed as a novel, is best read as if it were a short story—that is, as a novella.
The stories in Dubus's Dirty Love are not short fiction at its best; they reaffirm critical opinion that there is little danger Andre Dubus III will be called a "writer's writer," which is probably just fine with him, for he writes in a grittier, more realistic, digressive novelistic style than the lyrical, tightly woven poetic style of his father, one of the great short-story writers of the 20th century. These four works of fiction are more like "short novels" than novellas.
However, although Brooklyn reads like a novel throughout most of its length, somewhere along the way, everything seems to tighten and pull together—not like a novel, but like a short story—and the reader is thrown back to the whole of the story and made to see everything in a new light—the precise, poetic style of the work, the careful creation of a literary world with a rhythm of reality all its own.  The story is not a realistic novel about a particular woman in a particular time and particular place, but rather a lyrical tale about the universal dilemma of anyone who is displaced, tries to go home again but cannot, returns to the displacement, and finds out that neither the old home nor the new home feels like “home.”  Brooklyn is a classic story of homesickness, a story that does not simply give a particular example, but rather explores and defines the complexity of that kind of loneliness. 
Many readers and critics may very well fuss that generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah,", I would argue that it matters a great deal in terms of what kind of experience readers are in for when they pick up a book called “short stories,” “a novella,” or “a novel.” I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding, or misjudging, it entirely.
Readers and reviewers who read Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton as if it were a novel might very well be dissatisfied by the book's "shortness"—might indeed wish there were more details about Lucy's life, some context (for context is an important concept to young assistant professors trying to collect vitae fodder these days) to account for the experience that shimmers at the center of this purposely small book.
But readers familiar with how short stories work will notice right away that the very tone of the voice we hear establishes a parable-like rhythm, beginning "There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks."  We do not know what physically ails Lucy, for that is not important, for what ails here is what ails us all—loneliness, mystery about our isolation. As Lucy says, "To begin with, it was a simple story." But of course, it is the central story of all life, which her mother's stories and her memories remind her of throughout.
Lucy's creative writing teacher Sarah Payne tells her: "You'll write your one story many ways.  Don't ever worry about story.  You have only one." And by this, she does not mean, as one reviewer suggests, the "inverse of the old saw that everyone has a novel in them," but rather the human central story that Payne states most explicitly when she tells her students to go to the page without judgment and reminds them that they "never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully."
Lucy thinks this seems like a simple thought, "but as I get older I see more and more that she had to tell us that.  We think, always we think, What is it about someone that makes us despise that person, that makes us feel superior?"
Everything in My Name is Lucy Barton reflects on this one story—the one human story that I have observed in the short story in everything I have written about it over the years. It is why Frank O'Connor famously said "there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness." It is why I titled my last book about the short story I Am Your Brother.
One of the many references to this motif of loneliness in Strout's book is Lucy's description of the statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that engages her with both love and anguish. It is Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's "Ugolino and His Sons, "which depicts Dante's description of Count Ugolino, sentenced to starve to death. Ugolino looks at the faces of his sons surrounding him and in grief bites his own hands:
"And suddenly from the floor arising they,
Thinking my hunger was the cause of it,
Exclaimed: Father eat thou of us, and stay
Our suffering: thou didst our being dress
In this sad flesh; now strip it all away."
Lucy reads the placard that explains that the children are offering themselves as food for their father to make his distress disappear. "They will allow him—oh, happily, happily—to eat them.  And I thought, So that guy knew.  Meaning the sculptor. He knew.  And so did the poet who wrote what the sculptor has shown.  He knew too."
And what do they all know?  The one story that all short story writers know--the story of loneliness and the yearning to find the self by losing the self in the other.