Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Cynan Jones's "The Edge of the Shoal" Won the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award

The 2017 BBC National Short Story Award (the 12th year the £15,000 has been awarded to a single short story) went to Welsh writer Cynan Jones for a story published in The New Yorker entitled “The Edge of the Shoal.”
Jones has said that the story began as a 30,000-word short novel but was shaved down to 11,500 words because, as he said, “it didn’t work.”  When he sent it to The New Yorker, they liked it but said it was still too long and asked him to cut it in half. Jones says he only had 4 days to pare the story down to 6,000 words, working frenetically to strip out anything that was “decorative.” The halving of the story was fortunate for Jones, since the BBC contest is limited to stories under 8,000 words.  I am not sure of the sequence of events, but it appears that after the story was shortlisted for the BBC Prize, Jones decided the original 30,000-words might work after all. Granta published  it as a novella entitled Cove, which then won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize.
Lucy Popescu of the Financial Times put Cove in the category of survival narratives, such as Robinson Crusoe and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  She says the novella’s “terse lyricism” makes much of it read like a prose poem—a “haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.”
Peter Adkins argues in the Glasgow Review of Books that Jones combines the mythic and the modern, the sacred and the mundane, the poetic and the technical.  Adkins says it is at times hard to tell the difference between the imagined and the real in the novel, for it  reaches a point where reality blurs with the fantastic, situating itself on the “threshold between the active, observing mind and the brute thereness of the sea.” An admirer of the recent academic trend toward so-called eco-criticism, Adkins calls Cove “profoundly ecological.”
Eileen Battersby of Irish Times is not so sure. She calls Jones’s style forced  and “quasi-poetic” and argues that the main character’s struggle to survive never becomes more than a “stagey, choreographed mood piece rife with symbolism.”
The few comments that have been made about the story come mainly from the judges: of the BBC Contest: Jon McGregor called “The Edge of the Shoal” “a genuinely thrilling piece of writing with a completeness of vision and execution that made it an inevitable winner.” Di Speirs said the story is “a perfect illustration of the transporting, utterly absorbing power of a great short story.” And Eimear McBride even went so far as to rave that it is “as perfect a short story as I’ve ever read.”
Claims that the winning story is a perfect short story, a great short story, an exemplary short story  have often been made by judges of the BBC Award over the past twelve years.  I have commented on such claims for the previous eleven winners of the contest on this blog and on the TSS Publishing Website because, although I have no right to second-guess the choice of the judges—they are, after all, the only ones, I presume, who read all the entries to the contest-- when they claim that the winning story is perfect, doing what the short story does best, they imply that they actually know what the characteristics of a “perfect” short story are. I am not always sure their choices bear this out.
The short story has often been characterized as a form in which everything not absolutely essential to its central effect or unifying theme must be mercilessly cut. William Trevor, one of the greatest short-story writers, has said that the short story’s  “strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness.”  The result of leaving things out is often a cryptic sense of mystery that many short story writers insist is an essential characteristic of the short story. Flannery O’Connor, another undisputed master of the form, once said, "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.”
However, I wonder if the mysteries suggested by “The Edge of the Shoal” are intentional thematic mysteries or the accidental result of the cuts Jones had to make to get the story published in The New Yorker. For example, there are frequent passing references to the central character’s father, whose ashes he has in the boat, presumably because he plans to scatter them at sea.  Moreover, there are several scant references to a “her” or “she,” who  the story suggests is pregnant and who the central character left at home while he has made this trip to catch some fish for lunch. These cryptic references to the father and the pregnant woman are more clearly identified in the short novel. Although it might be suggested that these contextual allusions reflect the story’s theme of being caught between birth and death, there is nothing else in the story to support such a justification for the allusions.
I have written about the relationship between the short story and the novella on this blog previously, arguing that the novella is more closely related to the short story than to the novel.  Jones seems to agree that the short story and the novella are closely related, for in an interview in Los Angeles Review, he says he likes the novella form because the “level of engagement” has to be strong and it relies more on implication than explanation, “adding that  short novel is a “moment, not a journey.”  Jones is quoted elsewhere as saying that he likes the short story form for the very same reasons that he likes the short novel form: “Everything counts.” You have to create emotions and judgements, rather than describe them, Jones says, adding, “A short story is a moment, not a journey.”
I have suggested on this blog and other places that it is not content that makes a short story a short story, but rather technique.  In what follows I would like to suggest some of the short story techniques Jones makes use of in “The Edge of the Shoal”—techniques that, if they do not make it a “perfect” short story, at least make it a representative example of the form.
The most predominant short story technique in “The Edge of the Shoal” is its frequent use of metaphoric language, particularly the simile, of which there are fourteen in the story, e.g. “The jaw splits and the gills splay, like an opening flower.” Another typical short story characteristics derives from Jones’s frequent use of  the “as if” trope, of which there are sixteen in the story,  e.g. “Flecks of blood and scales loosen, as if turning to rainbows in his hands. Most of these metaphoric comparisons take place after the man is struck by lightning—primarily to suggest a metamorphosis in the man’s perception of reality.
Another short story technique is the frequent reference to the archetypal nature of the man’s experience. For example, in the first paragraph, the man thinks the sound of the fish thumping in the boat is like a drum beat--“Something rapid and primal, ceremonial.” The primal is also suggested when the man picks up the container of his father’s ashes, and it feels warm from the sun “as if” the ashes were still warm from cremation.  The man is suddenly afraid when he unscrews the lid that he will release some jinni, or ghost. He thinks of reinvesting the ashes with memories, to remind them of moments and thus to “make them the physical thing of his father.
In a simile that is as close to a statement of the story’s theme as Jones will risk, he man sees a fish jump out of the water, like a silver nail.  “A thing deliberately, for a brief astounding moment, broken from its element.” The simile echoes what happens with the lightning strike—an “astounding moment” when the man is thrown out of his everyday element into an alternate reality for which he can no longer easily find a familiar context with which he can identify himself. He sometimes “slips off the world” for a time.  His consciousness is a “snapped cord,” and he asks who he is.
The man confuses external reality with his perception, having forgotten that other life “puppets” around him. He is not sure if a butterfly he sees actually exists in the world or whether it is his own eye. This echoes the familiar Taoist parable of Zhuangzi, who dreamt he was a butterfly, but on awakening, did not know whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly, dreaming he was a man. 
The man experiences several moments when he cannot tell the difference between what is happening in the external world and what his imagination creates.  For example, he feels the warm sun on his neck and thinks it is someone’s breath.  He either sees, or thinks he sees, people on the beach and feels he is in a dream, asking “Where am I?” He hears a child crying and thinks, “This is not real,” but it is the cry of a dolphin calf.
The man reaches a point when he understands that to gain control of his life and return to everyday reality he must establish a rhythm of familiar reality, since that is what has been disrupted by the lightning strike.
The story’s focus on the  man’s efforts to gain some control, to overcome his pain and disabilities to feed himself and get back to shore, have caused some reviewers identify the story with the survival efforts of Robinson Crusoe. However, whereas Crusoe is a classic example of how the novel deals with physical details in the world, “The Edge of the Shoal” is more like Hemingway’s use of physical detail in such stories as “Big, Two-Hearted River” and his novella The Old Man and the Sea, for the physical details in Jones’s story are transformed, as they are in Hemingway’s stories, to significant, thematic details.  
I have suggested in other places that he novel form usually gains the reader's assent to its reality by the creation of enough realistic detail to give readers the illusion that they know the experience in the same way they know external reality.  However, in the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns. For example, the hard details of the external world in Robinson Crusoe exist as an external resistance to be overcome.  However, in Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," the extensive details exist primarily to provide an objectification of Nick's psychic distress and his efforts to control it. Thus, at the end of the story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is a purely metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the real qualities of the swamp, only its aesthetic qualities.
It is the short story that transforms the physical world into meaning, not usually the novel. As Raymond Carver once observed, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Caroline Taylor's collection "Enough"

When I began this blog almost ten years ago (My, my! Has it really been that long?), I announced that my intention was to discuss the characteristics of the short story as a literary genre, even though many of my colleagues have always insisted that the form has no unique literary characteristics, for “fiction is fiction is fiction” whether it is a short story or a novel, or so I have been told countless times.
Nevertheless, I stubbornly persisted. Over the years, whenever I have discussed individual short stories or collections of short stories, my aim has not been to write “reviews”-- although I have written many newspaper and periodical reviews during my career—but to use  individual stories and collections as a basis for discussing general issues about the short story form.
However, occasionally, I get requests from publicists to write a “review” of a new collection of stories.  I never turn these requests down, for, as I said in my first blog almost ten years ago, I am, if nothing else, a “cheerleader” for the short story and am always happy to encourage both writers and scholar/critics who have an interest in the form.
I recently got a request from the publicist for JKS Communications in Nashville, to “review” a new collection by a writer named Caroline Taylor, who I had never heard of before. The collection is entitled Enough, which is also the title of the opening story, and subtitled Thirty Stories of Fielding Life’s Little Curve Balls.  Ms. Taylor is the author of three mystery novels and numerous short stories in various online and small press venues—many of which are reprinted here.
Ms. Taylor did not purposely write thirty stories on the theme of “fielding life’s curve balls”; in a public relations interview, she said that without intending to, she just seems to have written a number of stories about “people confronting the unexpected and the unwelcome,” adding that she selected those stories that “best reflect the myriad ways people handle life’s life surprises.”
This might very well be a description of a great number of short stories I have read during my career as a teacher and critic. The short form is one that lends itself to “unexpected” and often “unwelcome” “surprises.” The issue that concerns me as a reader and critic of short stories is how mysterious are those surprises and how complex are the means by which human beings react to and deal with them.
I read all thirty stories in Enough, and then, as is usual for me, I went back and read them all again.  However, I don’t think that most readers will read them more than once, for truth to tell, they do not require reading more than once—as stories by great short story writers, such as Alice Munro and William Trevor—most always do.
But then, all short stories do not have to be stylistically complex or metaphorically mysterious, do they?  Although these are not the kind of stories I usually taught in the classroom or have written extended analyses of, I did enjoy reading them. They seem to me to be “entertaining” stories--brief enough to read rather quickly and straightforward enough to  grasp without a great deal of soul-searching thought.  This is the perfect collection of stories to take to the beach or on vacation.  You can read one of these stories while filling up your gas tank and not be distracted by it while driving on down the Interstate.  These are stories that may make you smile wryly and nod your head knowingly.  They are the kind of stories that filled Saturday Evening Post and Colliers many years ago when short stories were the entertainments that television took over for later on and made couch potatoes out of us all.
These stories are not brilliant, but they are intelligent.  They are not poetically precise, but they are well written.  They are not psychologically complex, but they are psychologically perceptive. I liked reading them. I just would not feel the need to “study” them. But then only guys like me always feel the need to “study” stories.
I will summarize and comment on only one story to give you an idea of what they are like.  “Maude’s Makeover” begins with the first-person voice of the titular character saying, “Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character.”  She hurriedly amends her statement by saying she does not mean a cartoon character like a hapless rabbit flattened by a falling piano, but rather a woman from a graphic romance novel—with “shoulder-length golden hair, huge tits, a narrow waist, and long, curvy legs.”  But alas, she says, her name is not Paris or Angelina, but Maude—with all the homeliness that the name suggests.
So Maude decides to go to the beauty parlor and get a make-over to try to be like the kind of cartoon character she aspires to, telling the credulous receptionist at the salon that she is one of the finalists in the “Miss Eighteen Wheeler” contest at the National Long-Haulers Association convention.
The National Long Haulers get wind of this and apologize for leaving her name off the list of contestants, and, as you might expect, Maude wins the contest and goes down to the courthouse to get her name changed.
The story is a lot more fun to read than my summary can give it credit for, for Miss Taylor adopts the voice of Maude quite convincingly.  And not all the stories are this flippant and facile.  But they are all entertaining and clever. Once you accept them as this type of story, you can just give yourself over to them while lying on the beach before putting on your sun screen and taking a nap with a smile on your face.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint Almost Got Me Fired

I was sorry to hear of the death of Philip Roth this week.  I have been reading his work ever since his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus,  won the National Book Award in 1959 when I was a senior in high school. I have particularly enjoyed his creation of Nathan Zuckerman throughout the years. However, my favorite Roth book is Portnoy’s Complaint, a book that, indirectly, almost got me fired from my university teaching job. It was Portnoy’s Complaint that inspired me to create a course in the English Department years ago entitled Love and Sex in Literature.  In my course proposal, I argued that novels like Portnoy’s Complaint were works of art that had to be taken seriously, but that because readers were so unaccustomed to reading graphic descriptions of sexuality outside of pornography they lacked any historical/critical context for taking sex seriously in literature.  I wanted to create a course that would “teach” students how to read about sex intelligently.
After teaching the course for a year, one of my colleagues challenged the validity of the course and my authority to teach it—resulting in a charge of unprofessional conduct that lead to an “investigation” by administrators and fellow faculty.  However, by this time, I had made a respected name for myself as an expert in the study of sexual fantasy in literature and had delivered scholarly papers at a number of professional societies and had published several academic research articles on the subject.  My colleagues found the course to have academic validity and found me “qualified” to teach it. It was an interesting period in my career, and I thank Philip Roth for indirectly encouraging me to engage in it. Consequently, today, although it means a momentary departure from my usual discussions of the short story, I pay tribute to Philip Roth by making some comments about one of his most famous novels—Portnoy’s Complaint.  
Portnoy’s Complaint depicts one long quest in which Portnoy uses sexuality as a weapon to rebel against repression, even as he is victimized by sexuality itself.  Caught by what Freud calls "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life," Portnoy cannot unite the two currents of feeling--the affectionate with the sensuous.  Only when the sexual partner is degraded can he freely feel his sensual feelings--which explains his preoccupation with, and his ultimate rejection of gentile women.  When he meets Monkey, who seems the complete embodiment of his adolescent sexual fantasies, he ridicules and humiliates her until he drives her away, for he can neither accept her as a real woman nor be satisfied with her as a sexual fantasy.
Throughout the novel, Portnoy recounts his obsessive masturbation, his constant preoccupation with a pornographic fantasy object he calls Thereal McCoy, and his unsuccessful romantic and sexual experiences with various gentile women. However, he also spends equally as much of his confessional monologue to his complaints against the repressions placed on him by his parents and his Jewish culture in general--which primarily amounts to the constant message that "life is boundaries and restrictions if it's anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other." Finally, when he goes to Israel on a sort of pilgrimage to atone for his transgressions and to come to terms with his cultural roots,  he meets and tries to have sex with a Jewish woman, only to find he is impotent with her.  The novel ends with Portnoy's drawn-out howl at what he calls the disproportion of the guilt he feels, followed by a "punch line"--Dr. Spielvogel's only words in the novel--"Now vee may perhaps to begin Yes?"
In a sense, the entire novel is Portnoy's character, for he not only is its central and entirely dominating  figure, he is its only narrator as well.  Because of his Jewish childhood, particularly his desire to please his mother, Portnoy says at one point that his occupation is being "good." He wants to be a good little boy, but he cannot control the demands of his own physical body as a child, and thus suffers disproportionate guilt for his masturbation and for his adolescent sexual fantasies about every female he meets.
 Portnoy is the living embodiment of what Freud defines as "civilization and its discontents"--a walking personification of the Oedipus complex.  Moreover, he is representative of what many refer to as the "self-hating" Jew, which is what the Jewish woman Naomi calls him in the novel's final section.  He presents himself throughout as both the teller of and the butt of an extended Jewish joke.  He is intelligent enough to know himself well, to know who and what he is, but he is not strong enough to free himself from his dilemma of being torn between his desire to be "good" and his obsessive sexual desires.
Portnoy's mother and father, Sophie and Jack, are less real people than they are stereotypes of the Jewish mother and father in America, with Sophie complaining to her friends that she is "too good," and warning Portnoy about eating gentile junk food, and Jack complaining about his constant constipation, both literally and metaphorically. Portnoy sees them both as the greatest packagers of guilt in society.  Having read Freud, Portnoy sees the Jewish woman, Naomi, whom he unsuccessfully tries to have sex with, as a mother-substitute, and cries out to Doctor Spielvogel, "This then is the culmination of the Oedipal drama, Doctor?  More farce, my friend!  Too much to swallow, I'm afraid Oedipus Rex is a famous tragedy, schmuck, not another joke!" Although Portnoy wishes he could have nourished himself on his father's vulgarity instead of always searching for his mother's approval, even that vulgarity has become a source of shame--"every place I turn something else to be ashamed of."         
The Monkey also is less a real character than she is the embodiment of Portnoy's adolescent fantasy of the sexual woman, the "star of all those pornographic films" he produces in his own head. Uneducated hillbilly turned high-fashion model, she is an aggressively sexual creature instead of the reluctant puritan gentile women he has known before.  Although she has her own needs, Portnoy can focus on the needs of no one but himself. Kay Campbell (Pumpkin), Portnoy's girlfriend at Antioch College, represents his yearning for Protestant middle American values, while Sarah Abbott Maulsby (Pilgrim) embodies New England respectability.  However, as Portnoy himself recognizes, he does not want these women so much as he wants what they represent.
The most basic thematic interest in the novel centers on the Freudian tension between human desires for controlled civilized behavior and the discontent that results from having to give up  impulsive behavior to establish civilization. Portnoy is the extreme embodiment of modern man self-consciously caught in this war between necessary control and desired freedom. However, such a theme sounds much too academic for the means by which Roth's novel embodies it.  For the novel, serious as its theme is, is one of the great comic masterpieces of American literature. 
It is hard to take seriously the Portnoy voice agonizing about locking himself in the bathroom to engage in masturbation while his mother stands outside asking him not to flush so she can examine his stool. Portnoy describes his penis as his "battering ram to freedom," and cries out, "LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID. Liberate this nice Jewish boy's libido, will you please?" However, although Portnoy longs for the uninhibited sexual attitude of his boyhood classmate, Smolka, at the same time, he asks, "How would I like my underwear all gray and jumbled up in my drawer, as Smolka's always is?"
What Portnoy cannot tolerate is the fact that he cannot have both his toll house cookies and milk which his mother supplies, as well as the sexual experiences that Smolka enjoys. Since sexuality is the central taboo impulse which civilization seeks to control to assure its own stability, the nature of sexuality itself is a primary theme of the novel.  "What a mysterious business it is," says Portnoy, "with sex the human imagination runs to Z, and then beyond."  Because sexuality itself is so inextricably bound up with fantasy, the very style and tone of the book combines the realism of Portnoy's experience with the surrealism of his sexual fantasies.  
The fact that Portnoy is Jewish is less important in its own right than it is to embody the extreme insistence on "self-control, sobriety, sanctions" which society says is the "key to human life."  The non-Jewish society which Portnoy often yearns for is no less banal and crippled in its restrictions and recriminations than the values which his Jewish heritage attempts to instill. Thus, the primary themes of the book are both psychological and social, but the medium for both is the hilarious self-satirizing voice of Portnoy, which is alternately sophomoric in its humor and sharply critical of social absurdity.
Portnoy's Complaint is somewhat of a cultural milestone in fiction of the 1960's, for, although its obsessive focus on sexuality and its constant use of taboo words seemed to align it with many of the conventions associated with pornography, it was a serious novel with a serious theme.  Consequently, its publication forced many cultural critics to reevaluate their previous assumptions about sexually-explicit literature.  It was hailed by many reviewers, made the best-seller list, and became a topic of cocktail-party conversation in an era in which "pop porno" became acceptable. Not since the works of Henry Miller had autobiographical fiction and explicit sexuality been so forthright and engaging.
Although much of the criticism of the book has focused on its Jewishness, many have recognized it as typically American as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951)--as a comic masterpiece of the cultural and personal conflicts of growing up in American society. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Best American Short Stories: 2017--Five on the Light Side--Short Story Month

I am reading stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories randomly.  They are fun, but rather lightweight.  It’s not often that BASS is a book you can take to the beach and read without worrying about being distracted.  But these stories don’t take much concentration. Here are some comments on the first five. Maybe the next five will be more challenging.

T. C. Boyle, “Are We Not Men?”
T. C. Boyle is the consummate professional writer, always on the lookout for subjects that might “make a story,” and that’s what he is good at—“making stories.”  The subject of “Are We Not Men?” as he makes clear in his “contributors’ notes” to the 2017 Best American Short Stories, is gene-editing technology.  The title is from H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is about a doctor who experiments with combining animal species, often with humans, resulting in such creatures as hyena-swine, dog-man, leopard-man, etc. In this story, Boyle gives us “crowparrots” and “micropigs” and explores lightly the human use of CRISPR technology which allows the main character and his wife to choose from a menu how their chromosomes can be matched up to create a daughter.  The story reminds us that Boyle is primarily a satirist, not a short story writer--an entertainer, not a powerful artist.

Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
 The title is an acronym for the colors that make up a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Evans says the first thread of the story came from hearing a sermon on Noah’s Ark, which perhaps lead to the first sentence of the story; “Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way.” The rainbow, of course, is a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the earth again with water—which the narrator says seems like a “hell of a caveat.” The story centers on the wedding of Dori, a pastor’s daughter, who has her bridesmaids wear the seven colors of the rainbow. Evans says the real loneliness of the story lies underneath the opening sentences—understanding that “every triumphant story of the things we survive is also the story of the losses haunting it.” However, the reader has to wade through lots and lots of plot stuff to get to this payoff—involving Rena and JT detained in a small hotel in Africa because of the threat of a biological warfare agent, Rena’s sister Elizabeth being shot by her husband because her suspected infidelity, JT disappearing when he was supposed to be marrying Dori, Dori and Rena searching for JT and ending up at a water park, etc. etc.  It is a cluttered story that tries my patience.
Sonya Larson, “Gabe Dove”

Sonya Larson’s “Contributors’ Notes” about this story seem to me more intriguing than the story itself.  She recalls a period a few years earlier when she found herself suddenly single; trying to date again, she discovered that many men were most interested in her race, which is half Asian.  It occurred to her that the dating world may be one of the last remaining realms in which people openly expressed racial preference. Larson says that although we tend to think that attraction is a mysterious, deeply personal force, we often find that forces of history, stereotyping, even public policy may shape what we think is simply personal.  She wondered if what we think is our gut feelings may have a racial bias.  So she set out to write a story that “houses” these ideas—resonating like a bell tower around a bell.  She concludes that although “Gabe Dove” may seem like a simple dating story, what is actually at stake is “nothing less than who we make available to ourselves to love.”  Sounds like complex stuff, but I am  not sure the story can carry this much weight.

Fionel Mazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”
And here’s another story whose originating idea seems more complex than the story itself.  Mazel says the story arose from her thinking about the influence of social media on children because rather than worrying about its detrimental effects, she thought social media was very helpful, finding herself in a community whose shared interest was parenting, but then finding herself uncomfortable with feeling this way. She asked the following questions: Is camaraderie necessarily fake simply because you don’t know the people you are exchanging ideas with?  Does publicizing personal details mean the end of real friendship?  She said the story arose from her desire to find a framework for thinking through how all this stuff might play out in the life of a man “hobbled by grief.” The result—a story about a man who enters a video in America’s Funniest Home Videos of his son being thrown over the handlebars while learning to ride a bike--seems less about a complex human issue than it is an opportunity for Maazel to create some funny scenes and dialogue.

Jess Walter, “Famous Actor”
I posted an essay on Jess Walter’s short story collection We Live in Water´ when it first came out. My conclusion then was as follows:
Jess Walter is a professional writer, a guy who makes much of his living writing—first as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, who has cranked out a political mystery novel, a 9/11 suspense novel, a social satire, and a movie romance epic, and this collection of popular, entertaining, but certainly not literary, short stories.  If Jess Walter signifies the “modern American moment,” then the moment is about fiction that pleasantly passes the time but does not significantly stimulate the grey matter.  Just the kind of disposable stories your Kindle was made for. 
My opinion of his story “Famous Actor” in the 2017 Best American Short Stories  is pretty much the same.  Walter is clever, with lines like: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.”  He invented a “famous actor” because he wanted to write a story about a romantic encounter with a famous actor, adding that he can tell if a story is going to work if he is having fun writing it. Indeed Walter does seem to have fun inventing story lines for the movies and tv shows the famous actor has made.  The result is entertaining, but that’s all. Is that enough?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Novelistic Stories in 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month

Michelle Huneven’s “Too Good to Be True,”
Several stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories raise for me the issue of the difference between the pleasure we get from reading novels vs. the pleasure we get from reading short stories—an issue which may be related to the question of plot vs. form or reality vs. artifice.
The author of four novels, Michelle Huneven calls herself a “novelist by nature” a designation she does not define, although she says she had to “prune” some “virulent digressions” from “Too Good to Be True” resulting from her “novelistic nature.” Laura Furman, the editor of the O. Henry collections, who chooses all the stories included each year, says Huneven’s story exhibits the writer’s skill to permit the “reader to ride on the narrative current without noticing form or technique”-- a novelistic characteristic that is often more focused on reflecting the so-called “real world,” rather than creating a formal world of thematic significance.
David Bradley, the author of two novels, chose “Too Good to Be True” as his favorite story in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories,  admitting that he has always loved the “long, not the short” of a story and that as a teacher of creative writing, he struggled to conceal this prejudice from this students. He says that while he teaches Poe’s insistence that no word should be written that does not contribute to the story’s one pre-established design, he has always found undue length less exceptionable than undue brevity.  Bradley says he has never thought a tale “more elegant just because I could read it between or during bathroom breaks.” He says that what he wants while sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of bourbon and a book was an “old-fashioned story, a la Chaucer, Rabelais, or Balzac, with a beginning, middle, and ending.” Huneven’s story was his favorite because  it kept him sitting longer than he wanted and haunted  him even after his glass was empty and the fire was out. That all sounds very “novelistic by nature” to me.
So I asked myself, one again as I have for lo these many years: What is “novelistic” and what is “short storyistic” by nature—willing to accept all the while that a novel can have short story characteristics and a short story can have novelistic characteristics. If I ask myself what “Too Good to Be True” is about, I would say it is about a young woman who is a drug addict and her family’s pain at their inability to help her escape that habit. The story is novelistic rather than short storyistic because it does not “mean” anything; it is rather "about" "as if" real characters in the real world. 
Here are some other stories that I would characteristic as “novelistic” rather than “short storyistic” in the 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories:

Genevieve Plunkett, “Something for a Young Woman”
There is something of a mystery in this story of a young woman who works for a shop owner who gives her a necklace. She marries someone else, wants to play the viola in a symphony, has a baby, separates from her husband, is drawn back to the shop owner, but makes no contact with him, wears the necklace to his funeral, and cannot make up her mind about returning to her husband.  This could go on and on, much as a novel can go on and on—never coming to a thematically meaningful ending.
Mary LaChapelle, “Floating Garden”
A young boy and his mother escape from an unnamed country in conflict.  He becomes separated from his mother, but continuing on his own, boards a ship and ends up in Oakland. He is taken in by a woman who raises him and goes to a Southern California college on a scholarship. This is a straightforward journey story, told in first person, and could have been a novel had the details of his escape and  his new life in America been more elaborated detailed.  But it has no thematic meaning other than the “as if” real events in the boy’s escape.
Keith Eisner, “Blue Dot”
Although this story begins in fairy tale fashion with “Once upon a time,” it is actually a realistic story about young people hanging out and taking drugs. They talk a lot, but not about anything of thematic significance.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, “Glory”
This story is from Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, a debut collection that received good reviews and stirred up some publicity. It is a story about a young Nigerian woman whose parents named her “Glorybetogod.” But she seems to have come into the world resenting it. When she meets a young man, who seems to have been born lucky, her parents think Glory’s fortunes have changed--that her life will “coalesce into an intricate puzzle.” However, when the young man offers her a ring, she knows she must make a decision. She could go on and on having encounters like this, chapter after chapter.
Manuel Munoz, “The Reason is Because”
Munoz says in the comments at the end of the O. Henry Awards that the character in his story named Nela, who gets pregnant and drops out of school, reminds him of girls he grew up with. He says he does not see characters like Nela in American fiction often and that the story was a way for him to deal with what has been a long standing problem in his fiction—“how to name the violence that shapes the people I write about—the people I love—without veering into stereotype.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Kevin Barry, "A Cruelty" and Heather Monley, "Paddle to Canada"--O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month

Kevin Barry, “A Cruelty”
A few years ago, I did a series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor. Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island, was my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admitted that it was my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.
I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:
*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.
*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.
*I love Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.
I also liked Barry’s story “A Cruelty.” I found the story simple and  irresistible. You know from the very first sentence that the story is about the power of obsession: “He climbs the twenty-three steps of the metal traverse bridge at 9:25 a.m., and not an instant before.”  After a page and a half of obsessive observation, we get the background of the main character Donie, who was first allowed to make the short train journey from Boyle to Sligo on his sixteenth birthday.  He has now made the run every working day for twenty years, and it is his belief that if he is not on the 9:33 train, the 9:33 will not run.  The ritual is his way of controlling his limited life; he experiences a 100 percent day when everything falls into place just as it should.
But of course, as is the nature of a short story, this is an account of a day when things do not go on in the smooth ritualistic way that Donie thinks they should, for as he eats his usual sandwiches on his usual bench, a man appears who manifests an inexplicable cruelty—calling him a “poor dumb cunt” and saying that it looks as though  the best part of Donie “dribbled down the father’s leg.”  The man reminds Donie of a picture of a hyena he once saw in a coloring book, and the image haunts him even after he escapes.  The day is spoiled, of course, and it is not clear if Donie will ever feel at home in the world again.  It is his first encounter with motiveless malignancy—there is no accounting for it. All he can do is go home and retreat into the arms of his mother.
I remember once when I was in a department store with my daughter, a sweet trusting child of  two or three. A woman stood close by looking at clothes with her son, also about the age of two or three.  When my daughter reached out to greet him, he suddenly pushed her away with a frown. I have never forgotten  her face as she looked up at me for an explanation. I had none.

Heather Monley, “Paddle to Canada”
This is another simple story about a family who, while on holiday, get caught in a thunderstorm while paddle boating on a lake.  Heather Monley says the story originated from a memory of when she was four or five and her family were similarly caught in a storm. However, the event is not the story, but rather it serves as the center of a story about telling stories, for the fictional family members never forget the event and often laugh about it. When the father goes back to the boat rental to get his driver’s license, the owner challenges his failure to make a deposit. The father laughs at the idea that the rental required a deposit: “What do they think we’re going to do?  Paddle to Canada?”
But later the story becomes a point of contention after the parents get a divorce.  The mother uses it as an example of the father’s carelessness and selfish stinginess.  The father uses it as an example of the mother’s ineptitude, hysterically shrieking and being no help on the paddleboat.  The children’s memories of the event become “muddled with what they had been told , and what they wanted to believe.”
In her comments on the story, Heather Monley says it is about the nature of stories, a subject she finds herself returning to often.  “I like stories that question themselves,” she says, stories that “point out the tenuous connection between narrative and truth.”  For the children the event becomes an occasion for trying to understand-- “as if thinking hard enough or in the right combination would lead somewhere, would form a pathway to a world that had been lost in the confusion of their lives.” This is a thematically tight story. The peril in the boat, the fear, and then the joy of surviving, and telling the story over and over creates a kind of bond between the family--that is, until the divorce, and the two children get different sides of the parents blaming each other. A broken family is a complex experience for children. Heather Monley has found a story way of dealing with that complexity.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Shruti Swamy's, “Night Garden”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017--Short Story Month

Shruti Swamy, “Night Garden”

Shruti Swamy  says that her story “Night Garden-- about a woman who watches her dog stare down a cobra and drive it away--told itself to her very simply and she wrote it down, noting that every once in a while “a miracle happens, and a story is started and finished in the space of an evening.” She says this has only truly happened to herr once, adding “ it is the sweetest feeling I know.” 
The discovery of a story to tell is partially that which grabs the artist and makes him or her need to tell it; it is something that  involves him with the nature of its latent significance that is compelling. Sherwood Anderson once said, “having, from a conversation overheard or in some other way, got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated.  Something was growing inside me.  At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body."  This involvement of the teller with the tale, this need to give it life and form, says Anderson, grows out of the materials of the tale and the teller's relation to them.  "It was the tale trying to take form that kicked about inside the tale-teller at night when he wanted to sleep." 
Katherine Anne Porter once said her stories spring from a tiny seed and that she always writes a story in one sitting, "one single burst of energy."  Sometimes the story is so unified around this central impulse or tone it seems that the writer must have written in one go.  Critic T.W. Higginson said of De Maupassant's stories that they seem to have been done in one sitting, "so complete is the grasp, the single grasp, upon the mind."  And William Carlos Williams has said that the short story consists of one "single flight of the imagination, complete:  up and down."
Hemingway once said that he wrote "The Killers" and "Ten Indians" in one day, and Franz Kafka supposedly wrote the "Judgment" in one night. This is not to say that the story that the author ultimately published and that we read is what was written in one sitting—but rather that the story was completed in its wholeness in one burst of dominating impulse, one single flight of the imagination or involvement. This suggests something about the short story that does not hold true for the novel—that the form springs from a writer involvement in the story that corresponds in some ways to the lyrical impulse of the poet. 
Elizabeth Bowen has said that the "first necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness.  The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write... The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure--of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind.” Bowen also argued that the story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture.
Shruti Swamy’s “Night Garden” is indeed a picture, but it is also a story about a woman’s creation of that picture—her fascination by  a form manifested in the world outside her window that stands for something mysterious; the story charts her efforts to understand the significance of that spatial form, which draws her in and makes her part of the form she observes.
Although she first is drawn to the shape the dog makes, his tail taunt and his head level with his spine, “so his body arrowed into a straight line, nearly gleaming with a quality of attention,” the snake also catches her attention, for there seems something “too perfect about her movements, which were curving and graceful. Half in love with both, I thought, and it chilled me.”  As night falls, the two animals look like “unearthly, gods who had taken the form of animals for cosmic battle.”
The story ends with the dog winning the frozen battle with the cobra and the woman carrying her exhausted pet into the house.
O. Henry Prize Story editor Laura Furman suggests that there is more at stake for the narrator than her dog’s life, for in watching the silent confrontation she’s “bearing witness as well to the failure of her marriage and the question of how she will face the rest of her life.”  However, I see nothing in the story to suggest this personal backstory, except perhaps the narrator’s general statement that “everyone’s marriage is unknowable from the outside.”
There is nothing personal about this story; it is the creation of a form in space, a picture that means something, which only the picture itself can embody.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fiona McFarlane’s “Buttony”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017-Short Story Month

I wrote about this story when it first appeared in the New Yorker.  Here are some of my remarks:

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, all 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.
Farlane's point is 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 it 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." 
McFarlane could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Wil Weitzel's "Lion"--O. Henry Prize Stories---Short Story Month

I feel guilty for neglecting my blog for the past several months.  I can only plead a variety of the usual reasons: other work commitments, family responsibilities and pleasures, a few health issues common to my age, etc. etc.  But now that it is May 1, the beginning of Short Story Month--a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute—I will try to compensate for my neglect by taking another look at the stories in the two collections that I have always read and commented on in the past—the 2017 issues of The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories. I will comment on as many stories from the two collections as I have time for this month—focusing on those that I thought were the best of the best and also commenting on those that did not engage me--trying to explain the reasons for my responses. The first is:
Wil Weitzel, “Lion”—originally appeared in Prairie Schooner—O. Henry Prize Stories
I like this story about a young graduate student who lives with an old retired professor. Instead of the old man telling the young student a story, as we might expect, the student tells the teacher a story--about a boy whose family has a lion for a pet until it grows too powerful and has to be released back into the wild.
As we often expect from a story within a story, there seems to be a parallel--between the student’s relationship with the old man and the boy’s relationship with the lion. I have been thinking about the story this week as my wife and I take our 3-year-old grandson to his preschool in the morning.  He often wants to hear a recording of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and he wants to hear it repeated over and over again; it is a great pleasure to watch him in the rear view mirror, nodding in time and singing along. As I sit here and read and reread “Lion,” I am reminded how important it is to hear a rhythmic pattern repeated over and over—a chant, a prayer, a mantra, a poem, a short story—until the pattern seems to get synchronized with your mind—pulling loose things inside of you together and becoming  magically meaningful.
In his comments on the story at the end the O. Henry collection, Wil Weitzel says he  wrote the first version of the story fast because he did not want to think too hard about it or get tripped up by the words—as if it was the rhythm of the story rather than the individual words that mattered.  When he worked on the revision, he said the tried to add logic and clarity, but it did not seem right, so he gave up trying to rationalize the story.
The result is a story that works the way short stories—especially very short short stories—often work—by transforming the characters and events into emblems of something that transcends the everyday.  When the story begins, the old man has died and the young man bathes him and prepares him for burial--completing the process that had already begun when he began to live with him. The old professor seems “as old as old trees, their bark haggard and worn.”  I know that image.  Once, I paid a visit to an old writer/teacher, who had a powerful influence on me when I was young.  He lay in a hospital bed, and I placed my hand on his—a hand that was supple and translucent, as if he had already begun the process of being transformed from mere flesh into spirit or monument, or relic, or manuscript.  He died two days later.  I did what all students try to do:  I wrote about it, and the tribute appeared in a Kentucky journal called Appalachian Heritage.  And this is what Wil Weitzel does in “Lion”—trying to work his way through to the significance of a young man’s search for the lion, trying to tell the story.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible Wins Story Prize, But Does One Read The Separate Pieces as Stories or Chapters?

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible recently won the Story Prize, an annual book award “honoring the author of an outstanding collection of short fiction" with a $20,000 cash award. However, if you check the Amazon page for the book, you will see that Random House has subtitled the book “A Novel.”
I realize that I am probably one of the few readers who gives a hoot about the genre issue of whether a book is called a collection of short stories or a novel made up of related chapters. However, in my opinion, whether one reads a piece of fiction as a stand-alone story or as a linked chapter does make a difference.
Random House subtitled Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible “a novel,” emboldened perhaps by the success of her 2008 collection of stories, Olive Kitteridge, which they subtitled simply “fiction.”  It is a common commercial ploy, since publishers know readers do not particularly like anything labelled “short stories.” I read and commented on Olive Kitteridge when it came out, for  it won a Pulitzer Prize that year, and they don’t usually award the prize to short story collections, even those parading as a novel.
The recurrent appearance of the grouchy schoolteacher Olive sometimes seemed to me to be a gimmick to justify the “novel” designation. She is the central figure in some stories in Olive Kitteridge, but is only referred to in others. Strout’s idea  for the book was to present her in relationships with several different people—her husband, her son, her neighbors, her colleagues, etc.—and thus reveal her to be more complex than any one person thinks she is.  Sometimes this device works; sometimes it seems forced, especially when extreme events are invented to reveal Olive’s hidden nature.  Sometimes you like her; sometimes you think she is a bitch. You never really know what makes her do the things she does.  All you can say is, “That’s just Olive.” Although Olive Kitteridge has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, in my opinion, it did not take the kind of chances, either in style or content, that Sherwood Anderson’s collection did in 1919.
Anything is Possible also has a linking gimmick to justify its “novel” designation—the recurrence, occasionally in person but usually by reference by someone who knows her--of Lucy Barton, the central character in Strout’s 2016 My Name is Lucy Barton.  I posted a blog on that work, commenting on the genre issue of the difference between novel and novella. Here is a quote from that blog:
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.
Reviewers have called Anything is Possible a novel, a “necklace of stories,” a “story cycle,” a linked group of “chapters,” a “tapestry of tales.” One reviewer said the book exists somewhere between a short-story collection and a novel, while another said it was both a novel and a collection of interlinked short stories., but most agree with the reviewer who said while each “chapter” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone short story, if you read them in order, you will see they fit together like “tiles in a mosaic.” Andrea Barrett, who has written brilliant short stories often linked together by recurring characters, said in her New York Times review that if you read Anything is Possible as a collection of linked stories like Olive Kitteridge or like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with which she and several other reviewers have compared it, you would be missing a lot, observing that in this new book the character Lucy Barton is the “emblematic writer whose work reflects their own lives back to them.”
When I read Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible  last year, I liked the first stories: “The Sign,” “Windmills,” “Cracked,” and “The Hit-Thumb Theory” better than the last stories: “Mississippi Mary,” “Sister,” “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast,” “Snow-blind,” and “Gift.” It was only after I had finished the book and sat there staring at it that I realized why.  The first stories I read as short stories; the last stories I read as chapters in a novel.  Why? Because the last stories made me aware that the characters I read about in the first stories were interrelated, and thus I began to focus on the whole book as a tissue of interconnections rather than the individual stories as unified pieces of fiction.
“The Sign” is about Tommy Guptill, who lost his dairy farm in a fire, for which he thinks he is responsible because he neglected to turn off the milking machines.  Lucy Barton is introduced in this story as Tommy drives by the old Barton house with the sign that read “Sewing and Alterations.” Tommy remembers Lucy as a student when he was janitor at the junior high school after he lost his farm. He sees her book in a bookstore.  We also meet Marilyn Macauley and her husband Charlie, who we encounter in other stories later on in the book. Tommy goes to visit Pete Barton, Lucy’s brother, who still lives in the old house. Tommy is a good man who has shown understanding and empathy with Lucy and then much later with her brother Pete.
“Windmills” focuses on Patty Nicely, who hears about Lucy’s book and buys a copy in the book store where she runs into Tommy. She talks to Lila Lane, who is the niece of Lucy Barton, and at the end apologizes for calling her a piece of filth. Her sister is Linda Peterson-Cornell, who is wealthy and lives near Chicago. Patty loves Charlie Macauley, who is old enough to be her father. The story ends with an emblematic scene of Patty and Charlie sitting on the post office steps talking. Patty says that Lucy’s book makes her feel much less alone. The story embodies this sense of empathy when Charlie opens his mouth to say something, but does not, and Patty feels, “without knowing what it was—that she understood what he was going to say.” She simply touches his arm briefly, “and in the sun they sat.”
“The Hit-Thumb Theory”  focuses on Charlie Macauley waiting for a prostitute named Tracey in a motel, who needs 10,000 dollars, which her son, who is on drugs, owes to a pusher. The title comes from a discovery Charlie once made as a child when  if, while hammering, he hit his thumb, there was a split second when you thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, considering how hard I was hit.” After that moment of false relief, there comes the crush of real pain. Charlie gets Tracey the money and goes to a B&B. While sitting watching television with the proprietor, Dottie, he thinks that more frightening than pain are people who no longer feel any pain at all.  He sits there and waits and hopes and prays, “Sweet Jesus, let it come. Dear God, please, could you? Could you please let it come?”
 “Sister” is the story in which we meet Lucy Barton in person when she  comes to visit her brother, Pete, whom we have already met.  Vicky, their sister, shows up and they take Lucy back to Chicago and then drive back home; at the end Pete asks Vicky if she wants the new rug he
“Gift” brings back Abel Blaine, Dottie’s brother, in a kind of “Christmas Carol” story.  Abel  has a conversation with the actor who has played Scrooge in Dickens’ famous tale.  Abel has a heart attack and at the end thinks of his granddaughter Sophie and her stuffed pony named Snowball. The big woman who comes to get him in an ambulance he sees as his friend.  This, the final story in the book, ends with the title of the book:
“Like his sweet Sophie who loved her Snowball, Abel had a friend.  And if such a gift could come to him at such a time, then anything—dear girl from Rockford dressed up for her meeting, rushing above the Rock River—he opened his eyes, and yes, there it was, the perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.”
I have some reservations about focusing on short stories as parts of a whole rather than as complete artistic entities in themselves. My worry is that because of the notion that bigger is better, focusing on the sequential nature of stories inevitably throws the focus on the novel side of the formula rather than on the short story side.  The question of what makes a short story sequence something other than a group of randomly assembled stories and also something other than a novel is worth examining.  I certainly do not want short stories to be read as if they were sections of a novel.  However, by the same token, I do not want them to be read as “part” of an overarching sequence, a tactic that may result in neglecting the unique characteristics of short stories as individual works of art.
It troubles me that some critics have argued that readers have misinterpreted individual stories because they did not take into account that they have a book-length intertextual context.  The very word “misinterpret” suggests that one cannot really read a story from, say Winesburg or Dubliners, individually, but only within the overall context of the sequence in which they were ultimately published.
I admit there is a certain pleasure involved when you read a story and run across a character you have met in a previous story.   Such character reappearances create pleasurable little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” factor that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around just waiting for another story in which to pop up.
However, in the Dec. 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a long review essay on John Updike’s The Early Stories, says that if you try to name the sensation that an individual story delivers, you might call it a general sense of  Whoa,” which, he admits, is not exactly a term of art, but you know it when you feel it--that shiver of recognition of the “whatness of a thing” being revealed when you read “Snow was general all over Ireland.” 
Basically, I guess, I prefer this “whoa” feeling when a single story comes completely yet inexpressibly together over the “wow” feeling of running across the same characters, settings, or themes in several sequentially arranged stories. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Cat Person" and "Beauty and the Beast"

One of my readers recently wrote: “I’m looking forward to reading your review of ’Cat Person.’ Will you write it?”
Well, now that it has been over three months since the story appeared in The New Yorker and started a flurry of reader response and literary criticism on the Internet (usually called “going viral”), I reckon it is safe to make a few comments.
Josephine Livingston, the “culture staff writer” at the New Republic, wrote that many readers wove the story into the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay, noting that “as an approach to criticism” this turns the story into a tool for “digging in the hole of reality, rather than an imagined world that has its own rules.” I agree. And the rules that govern Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” I suggest, are the rules that govern the genre known as the short story, and that is what I feel somewhat qualified to talk about. 
In the “This Week in Fiction Interview” with Deborah Treisman, Roupenian said the story was based on an incident with a person she met online and it got her to “thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off,” adding that our initial impression of a person is “pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection.” 
Roupenian, who seems to me to be pretty smart about her story, says that much of dating involves an “interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created.” I am certainly no expert on dating, but having some knowledge of the short story, I recognize this as what underlies all love stories. You never fall in love with the person, for you never really know the person; what you fall in love with is the image you have created.
Constance Grady notes  on the website Vox what we well know—that the short story is a medium granted “precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it are holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose, says Grady, not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.” Grady concludes, “regardless of whether or not “Cat Person” is a great short story or just an okay short story, whether it’s deeply subversive or highly problematic, it has been exciting to see the cultural discourse revolve around a short story for a spell. It’s a reminder of how immensely powerful and valuable fiction can be, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to it and learn from it.”
Yes, indeed, it was good to see so many people reading a short story and finding it engaging enough to want to talk about it—something I (but very few others) have been doing for years. I only hope it leads them to reading more short stories for the riches they provide.
“Cat Person” is, of course, about attitudes and behavior that lead two people to move from being strangers to having sex. The primary perspective is the young woman Margot, whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. The reader knows Robert only by his behavior and Margot’s observations of him.
Although many readers have been so impressed by Roupenian’s perceptiveness and  the accuracy of her description of dating attitudes and behavior in the story that they  thought it was an essay about real life rather than a fiction about invented life, I suggest that readers familiar with the conventions of  fiction, especially short fiction, will recognize that Roupenian has modelled her story as much, or more, from her internalized knowledge of those conventions than from personal experience.  Think of “Cat Person” as a variation of the classic Beauty and the Beast story or the Frog Prince fairy tale, in which the beast is, after all, still a beast, and the frog, even after the kiss, stubbornly remains a frog.
There is something “magical” about Margot’s willingness to become intimately involved with Robert.  She surprises herself by giving in to his abrupt demand, “give me your phone number”; When he says “stop fooling around and come now,” she puts a jacket on over her pajamas and goes out to meet him. After having sex with him, she marvels at the “mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.”  Afterwards, although she wants to “ghost” him, instead of sending her breakup text, she says she will get back to him soon, thinking, “Why did I do that?  And she truly didn’t know.”
Margot is the point of view of the story because she truly does not know why she allows herself to become involved with Robert, although she thinks it has something to do with his initially treating her like a young daughter, kissing her gently on the forehead as though she were something “precious.” The fairy tale mystery continues when she is turned away from the club for being under aged and begins to cry, creating a kind of “magic” as Robert wraps his “bearlike” arms around her. She sees him as a big lovable animal, sensitive and easily wounded. 
However, when the sexual encounter begins, she sees his soft, thick belly covered with hair and recoils from it.  When he makes demands, she complies and when he looks “stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a “milk-drunk baby,” she feels her power, thinking this is what she loves most about sex. However, she finally sees him as a fat old man with his finger in her, and her revulsion turns to self-disgust and humiliation.
I think what Roupenian has done here is to competently capture the archetypal encounter of how a young woman (Beauty) plays seductive roles with an older man (Beast)—allowing herself to have sex with him, even though she does not desire him. The spin on the mythic story here is, of course, that the Beast remains the animal that he is—that all physical bodies who are merely human are ultimately—and is not transformed, as in wish fulfillment fairy tales, by love.
“Cat Person” is smoothly, transparently, written. It is smart and perceptive. And, of course, it is timely, even as it is universal.  But it does not have the mystery and complexity that great stories have, even though it has the familiarity that has captured the attention of many people who recognize Margot’s feelings and behavior and even understand Robert’s anger at the end.