BASS 2014: O. A. Lindsey, “Evie M.” from Iowa Review #43.1

Chris Arendt: "Standard Operating Procedure" (2010) via Combatpaper.org

Chris Arendt: “Standard Operating Procedure” (2010) via Combatpaper.org

You must adore digital cable. The search options have revolutionized me and everybody. Technology marches, no matter. You can be groped inside the hot metal gut of a troop carrier, or you can see things die and see pieces of dead things. I promise you it will not affect the remote control. Though I forgot to write down the name of the pop singer, with digital cable I can see into the future, and I will find her. This is amazing. She will come back.

People in chaotic situations often fixate on small details: if I can control the press of the fabric I wear, the distance between towels in the bathroom, the number of calories I eat, if I memorize the bus schedule for the entire city, maybe that means I’m in control of my life. Evie M. is in a chaotic situation. It doesn’t help that the chaos is inside her.

Here’s another hard-to-follow story. Because it’s told in first person, I wasn’t sure if the narrator was Evie M., or if the narrator is even male or female, since there are clues either way. Slowly, it dawned on me: Evie M. is a veteran of the war in the desert, with all that implies, and her post-war life has become an obstacle course of tv show reruns, frozen foods cooked with to-the-minute timing, recalcitrant copy machines, small packets of coffee creamer, and a workplace full of idiocy where the insignificant is magnified out of all proportion.

Supervisor yelled at me today. So close I could smell his cologne. He barked that I wasn’t “into it” the way I needed to be. Sandalwood. In consequence, I couldn’t finish my first note, to my father. What if everyone counted on someone else to locate the clerical errors?, he demanded. What if everyone produced reports whose pages crinkled because of a stupid copy jam? What if the whole damn order of things broke down?

Too late. The whole damn order of things broke down for Evie somewhere in the desert when this dog… well, that would be a spoiler, and an unnecessary one at that, since the story (a fairly short one) is available online (thank you, Iowa Review!).

Also available is an interview with Lindsey, a veteran himself. He comments on the character of Evie, for whom “even the trivial is terrorizing. Perhaps this is a result of war—itself a juxtaposition of mundane and atrocious—or maybe it’s because she just doesn’t fit her surroundings.”

It’s interesting how we never seem to realize what our veterans are going through until the arts – literature, movies – tell us. Maybe that’s self-preservation of the status quo: We couldn’t vote for politicians who raise fears to continue wars, expand wars, start new wars, if we had any idea what we were subjecting our fellow citizens, our fellow humans, to as a result. We’d rather not know, have some vague idea of PTSD from some news report that quotes statistics, and pat ourselves on the back for our patriotism. Evie M. isn’t a statistic. I’m not sure what she is – I’m not sure she knows either – but a statistic isn’t even among the choices.

A word about the header art: I discovered the Combat Paper Project while researching this post; art from the project was used to illustrate this Spring 2013 issue of Iowa Review:

Through papermaking workshops, veterans use their uniforms worn in service to create works of art. The uniforms are cut up, beaten into a pulp and formed into sheets of paper. Participants use the transformative process of papermaking to reclaim their uniforms as art and express their experiences with the military.

~~Combat Paper Project

Stop by, check it out. The art is marvelous. The project is even better. Maybe through art, we can understand, and that’s where change begins.

Poetry MOOC (no, not that one, a new one)

Course: The Art of Poetry
School: Boston University via edX
Instructor: Robert Pinsky
Quote:
 
Poetry lives in any reader’s voice, not necessarily in performance by the poet or a trained actor. The pleasure of actually saying a poem, or even saying it in your imagination—your mind’s ear—is essential….
The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense, exigent reading, requiring prolonged— in fact, repeated— attention to specific poems.
The readings will include historical poems, as well as contemporary work. The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry’s relation to music; the nature of greatness—with only incidental attention to schools of poetry, categories and trends.

Poetry Foundation ran an article about this course; I wasn’t going to take it, since my experience with edX has been less than productive, but at the last minute I went for it. I’m glad I did.

Each week featured Pinsky (US Poet Laureate 1997-2000) giving brief lectures and discussing various poems with a diverse group of readers from the Favorite Poem Project. This wasn’t a technical course on poetics; it wasn’t the super-close reading of ModPo; it was more of a personal exploration of the meaning of poems to individuals.

The first few weeks looked at approaches to poetry: Difficulty/Pleasure (I was thrilled to see Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” linked to Michelangelo “To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”), Freedom/Meaning, Form/Quality.

The middle of the course took a more thematic approach: courtship/teasing, music/poetry, humor/tribute. These were the weeks I found most engaging. I never thought I’d say that about courtship poetry, but once I realized the Courtly Love sonnets were madrigals, I felt at home, and moving on to Millay and Williams in the “teasing” segment came just in time. Then came music and poetry, featuring Pinsky reading Ben Jonson to a jazz trio. I referred to this as “slow-jamming Ben Jonson” which I hope was not taken as a sign of disrespect – I loved it! And, by the way, it’s available on YouTube.

The centerpiece of this course was writing: forum posts, weekly writing assignments, and, most notably, a personal anthology, a sort of do-it-yourself favorite poems project. This was a collection – twelve in all – of our “favorite” poems, along with a brief statement of why the poem was important to us, and any analysis we wished to make. Within a 200-word-limit per poem, which was difficult (I can’t write a 200 word grocery list) but just the process was informative: what poems should I choose? What should I say about them? Why do I so love the poems I love? Is it the poem itself, how I came across it, or what it evokes in me? I’ve appended it to this post, just because it was so much fun to do.

Initially the weekly writing assignments were peer-assessed, the first time I’ve seen that technique used on edX (it’s very common on Coursera). Problems developed; several of us received straight 0’s even on objective criteria, like word count. This may have been a technical glitch or simply a different attitude in the student base. The peer-assessed grades were dropped and “grading” such as it is for any mooc returned to the self-reported completion model (an “I did it!” button after each assignment). Good on them for flexibility; mooc grades are pretty meaningless anyway, particularly in a course such as this, where one’s personal opinion predominates over any knowledge base. I enjoyed the assignments in any case, and found the work that went into them to be productive. That’s the point, after all.

I seem to finally (after, what, 5 or 6 disasters) be getting the hang of the edX forums, as I was able to enter into several highly interesting discussions along the way. The intensity of the Coursera boards is still lacking, but communication in this session rose well above the waste of time I’ve found the edX forums to be in the past.

Two “Office Hours” segments were scheduled, which were more or less Pinsky’s responses to questions students submitted. I didn’t have the patience for them (why didn’t they have the questions arranged beforehand?) but they went well beyond course material. The course in general was run by technical staff, and TAs showed up on the discussion forums from time to time, which is how things usually work with a “name” professor (though there are exceptions).

With peer assessment and forum participation turned into self-report, multiple-choice questions provided the bulk of the “graded” material. Is there anything more antithetical to poetry than multiple choice questions? Week 3 seemed particularly bad: what was the last word of a paragraph? Who wrote “Moonlight in Vermont” (the song was mentioned in the video discussion, so it isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, but still). I suppose it provides some evidence of participation – a live body has to answer the question – but I think the course would’ve been better off without them. At least there were only a few MCs per unit.

Minor glitches aside, I enjoyed the course quite a bit, particularly the middle weeks. I discovered some poetry I’d never heard before (though, since I’m new to poetry, that isn’t hard). I loved the Personal Anthology project; it was like writing a bunch of short blog posts, but only about poems with particular meaning to me. The writing assignments provided good opportunity for thought as well – I very much enjoyed talking about the structure of Susan Sommers-Willet’s “Tallahatchie” as well as the very different parodies of Longfellow and Kipling – and I discovered more by reading other students’ work (peer assessments were still required though the grades didn’t count, which is a great model for peer assessment generally, by the way). I had some great conversations, particularly about music (medieval English madrigals of John Dowland, Paul Simon, and Eminem – all fit into this course) and about humor.

I’m glad I signed up; this course had its charms. Like slow-jamming Ben Jonson. I can recommend it for anyone who wants a gentle introduction to poetry. Or anyone who likes to just think and write about poetry.

Favorite Poems Anthology
 
1 Haiku
Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831)

There’s more to haiku than seventeen syllables in three lines: semantics enter into it as well. A seasonal word starts things off, then there’s a “cutting word” that separates the two parts – “The two parts are sliced in half, and there’s an open space which the reader, the audience, is supposed to enter into” says Haruo Shirane. I’m not sure if “thief” was at the time of this writing considered a seasonal word – unlikely – but there’s a lovely sense of “what does this mean?” that allows me to enter into it, and write it with Ryokan, even centuries after his death.
There’s a story (several variations exist) behind this haiku: a thief entered Ryokan’s hut, but found nothing to steal. Ryokan felt so bad, he offered the man his clothes, then after the thief left, wished he could’ve given him the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) as well. There’s so much to read into this: the nature of possession, of theft, of giving, and, in this day when genes are patented and property extends from the core of the earth to the stratosphere (really, it does, look it up), who owns nature? I also like the switch in atmosphere, from the thief – oh no, what did he leave behind? apprehension – to the beauty of the moon.

 
 
2 “Song of Myself“, part 23
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with math and science: they tantalize me, but -perhaps because? – they’re always slightly out of reach of my grasp. Here, Whitman, himself lacking much formal education beyond primary school, pays tribute to the other side of the room. I love his metaphor of “they are not my dwelling, I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling,” a sentiment he also touches on in “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”. I’ve always had the sense of math as a door I couldn’t open, my nose pressed up against the glass, so I cherish this idea of Whitman entering his own dwelling – poetry – via this house, passing through but not dwelling there. Though he deals in what we might call metaphysics – throughout Song of Myself, he emphasizes the unity of all things, he is one with the grass as well as every other person past, present, and future – he begins in reality, and uses it to develop his universalist view, that even as we all turn to dust, we become again from the dust.

 
 
3 “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

For me, this works with the above selection from Song of Myself as one.

 
 

4 “Prayer to Persephone
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950

I first encountered this poem – just the last few lines, really – in a novel, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. In the book, an inner-city teacher is trying to get her students to think about this poem, and reads the lines; “Persephone / Taker her head upon your knee: / Say to her, “My dear, my dear, / It is not so dreadful here.” The teacher asks the class of misfits and academic disasters who might be speaking these words, and one student offers: “Maybe a teacher?” I was about 12 when I read that, and hadn’t yet learned to view school as hell. Later, when I read the entire poem, I was more taken with the notion of “She that had no need of me” and sensed a mother-child relationship, an adolescent who was in the painful process of disattaching from the nuclear family to make her way in the world, when some tragedy struck. I later found out Millay wrote this poem, a cycle of elegiac poems, in fact, for a college friend who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. What I find especially moving is not that the speaker asks Persephone to send the woman back to life, or comfort the grief, but to relieve the fear and insecurity she knows underlay the confident surface of the beloved. “She that had no need of me” has a touch of bitterness to it, but it’s saved by this selfless act of concern.

 
 
5 “I, Too
Langston Hughes 1902-1967
video with audio recorded by Langston Hughes

I’m very fond of poetic “conversations” – poems written in response to other poems. In 1860 Walt Whitman wrote “I Hear America Singing,” but he left someone out – the voices of those who were still enslaved. Hughes wrote this reply less than a century later, but while Jim Crow still reigned. He begins with “I, too, sing America” as a direct response to Whitman, and closes with a slightly different line: “I, too, am America” with both lines separated, standing singly, isolated. That closing line can be viewed several ways: an indictment, perhaps: while you’re all singing how proud you are on the Independence Day on which slave-owners announced their freedom while they simultaneously denied it to others, remember that I, too, AM America; I am what you have created, I am here to remind you that you have made tragic, hideous mistakes and you still haven’t made it right. Or it can be read as an announcement: like it or not, I am the America of which you are so proud, so stop treating me as an Other.

 
 
6 “The Woman with Two Vaginas
Denise Duhamel (1961-)

Denise Duhamel writes a lot of sexual poetry, but this particular poem, despite its title (and though it does deal, somewhat explicitly, with sex), comes from a book of poems based on Inuit mythology. As bizarre as it seems, I find this poem very moving: husband abandons wife due to custom rather than his own displeasure, she’s wailing on the ice floe, he’s weeping into the “barren palms” of his new wife, and for what? To maintain some kind of community-imposed normality? It’s as tragic a story as Heloise and Abelard, or Violetta and Alfredo, Romeo and Juliet, or any other pair of lovers who are separated by some societal demand while their love remains strong. The tercet structure interests me: why three lines? Tercets are often found in highly structured forms, like terza rima or villanelles, but here, there’s neither rhyme or a strong rhythm (many lines are pentameter, but many are not). Maybe the idea is to use a stanza associated with a structured form, then break the structure – as these people might have remained happier had they broken the structure of society? Do they symbolize the woman, the man, and the concept of “normality” which disrupts their lives? Is there some significance to the number “3” in Inuit culture? I don’t know; all I know is that I can hear her sobbing on the ice floe, and I can hear his mourning in his hut, and I wish they’d been wiser.

 
 

7 “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
Eduoardo Corral (1973-)

In his video reading of this poem, Eduoardo Corral says he uses code-switching in his poetry – using Spanish words here and there, not italicized – which would normalize the English and “otherize” the Spanish. That seems like a reflection of the wish to not “otherize” Latinos, which would be even better. I like the couplet structure of the poem, since I can see two strong “duo” elements in the poem: the speaker and his father, and the two identities the speaker wrestles with. He wouldn’t have a problem with them, if one of those identities were not so hostile to the other in contemporary society. Some of the Spanish language is easy, or inferable, but some is more opaque; I didn’t realize “aguila” was the word for “eagle,” nor did I realize an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its mouth is on the official national Seal of Mexico. Then the last line: “The snake is torn.” So is the speaker, whose father did so much for him, whose shirt he wears: “The gaze of the moon / stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin” – the speaker literally takes on the mantle of his father.

 
 
8 “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong (1988-)
(I wrote a more extensive post on this poem last May)

The poem opens with “Instead let it be the echo to every prayer” – instead of what? And what is the “it”? I love the openness of these words, in view of the poem’s setting (a friend of Vuong’s, fellow émigré from Vietnam, possibly a lover, shot himself at age 18) it might be, Instead of the life being silenced, or Instead of the dirge of mourning, or Instead of the gunshot fading, or Instead of the war that, though long over when we were born, still poisoned our lives, or Instead of being shamed and harassed for whom we love. The poem combines so many echoes, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface, and it’s the sort of poem I might want to keep reading for years, and see how it changes. I came across it early this year in the 2014 Pushcart anthology, and liked it so much, I ordered Vuong’s chapbook, the first book of poetry I’ve purchased since I was a teenager.

 
 

9 “Ballade of the Hanged Men
Francois Villon (1431-1463) / Transl. Richard Wilbur (1921 – )
I wrote a far more extensive post on this poem – with a translation comparison chart – last June.

I’m captivated by the translation of this poem. It’s in a highly restrictive form – a Ballade Supreme – with strict rhyme and meter requirements, yet the translation works perfectly aesthetically and practically. The poet – Villon was himself condemned to death at one point, though he was pardoned – speaks for a group of hanged men in first person plural. To me, there’s an accusory tone: you may be revolted by our rotting bodies, but was it not you who executed us? So don’t judge us harshly – and then, the repeating refrain, “Pray to God that He forgive us all”. Us all, meaning the executed criminals, but also those who executed them, and those who scorn their remains and feel superior. We are all guilty; we all require forgiveness for what we’ve done here. Then there’s the use of “forgive” instead of “absolve” – I don’t know French well enough to know if that’s standard practice, if there’s a different French word for the English concept of absolution, and in theological terms, there is a difference: “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. It is for God to absolve, it is for man to forgive. So though the prayer is aimed at God, it’s directed at the observer, the reader, who is also a participant in this scene. There’s a lot to think about here.

 
 
10 “The Mrs. Gets Her Ass Kicked
Tracie Morris (contemporary; no birthdate available)

This is a bit of a change-up. I discovered Tracie Morris through another poetry MOOC, and though this poem is odd – it’s sound poetry and must be performed rather than read (the link is a video) – it’s amazingly thought-provoking, uniting Doris Day, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, and the impact of slavery on the African American woman. Doris Day was a squeaky-clean actress in the 50s who epitomized the standard middle class dream every woman had: to meet a man who would support her. The song’s lyrics echo this “Heaven, I’m in heaven” and then the sound starts, with Tracie patting on her chest to break up the words – it reminds me of something out of a war movie where a helicopter evacuates the wounded. Then she sounds like she’s strangling, all the while singing this insane song about how happy she is. This slowly morphs into “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa”, linking domestic violence against black women to the overall devaluation of human life through slavery. It’s powerful experience, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.

 
 

11 “Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

I came across this poem in connection with a short story from The New Yorker, “Kattekoppen” in which a Breugel painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appears on a postage stamp sent to a Dutch soldier in Afghanistan. At the time I was taken with William Carlos Williams’ poem, which is very similar to Auden’s; they both make clear the “life goes on” quality, that one person’s catastrophe might not even be noticed by someone else with the routine business of living on his mind. Williams’ poem is subtler, I think, but I prefer the reflection of Auden on the wisdom of the Old Masters. There’s also an odd rhyme scheme, I’m not sure if it’s even deliberate (it must be), it’s very irregular, but noticeable. It’s interesting that these two have such a similarity with Steve Smith’s poem as well; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to them.

 
 

12 “Not Waving But Drowning
Stevie Smith 1902-1971
video with audio of Stevie Smith reading

I began this course with this poem as my “favorite poem” in the first week; since I feel very strongly about it, and since it’s ok to re-use it here, I’m including it again. Stevie Smith wrote it after she’d read a newspaper story about a man at the beach who’d drowned as his friends waved to him, not realizing he was in danger. The irony of that situation touches me, but the poem treats it beautifully by making it unclear who the speaker is in each stanza. How is a dead man moaning? Or was that before he was dead, was it another man perhaps? Who says “I was much further out…”, is that the man speaking (as a ghost), or the poet speaking metaphorically? That phrase gets repeated at the end, again with the same ambiguity about who is speaking. The middle stanza seems to be onlookers at the beach, or possibly at his funeral, absolving themselves from responsibility. But really, how could they have known – it was a mistake anyone could make, isn’t it? Or were they just having too much fun, were they too comfortable in the sun, to really pay attention? How many signals do the drowning send before they go under? Maybe we need to pay more attention to each other, make sure we see the difference between waving, and drowning.

BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

Marcel Duchamp, "Portrait of Chess Players," 1911

Marcel Duchamp, “Portrait of Chess Players,” 1911

After his second heart attack, the judge knew that he could no longer put off informing his wife about the contents of his will. He did this for the sake of the woman he had been keeping for twenty-five years, who, ever since his first attack, had been agitating about provisions for her future. These had long been in place in his will, known only to the lawyer who had drawn it up, but it was intolerable to the judge to think that their execution would be in the hands of his family; that is, his wife and son. Not because he expected them to make trouble but because they were both too impractical, too light-minded to carry out his wishes once he was not there to enforce them.

I don’t insist on likeable characters (or I’m trying not to), but I find it’s helpful to feel some kind of empathy for some character in a story. I felt none here. With the exception of one powerful scene, this story (available online) seemed to me to tread the space between farce and melodrama, leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of soap opera.

The Judge – for once, we have an unnamed male character, though I suppose his title is more imposing than a name would be – seems unconcerned about wife Binny’s reaction to his revelation, or even his admission that he’s put his paramour in the will. Binny isn’t concerned, either; she seems concerned only with son Yasi, who’s relation to her is so overwhelmingly incestuous in tone (though not in deed, relax), it’s hard to focus on anything else. Not only does she refer to him as a gossip-partner, as a substitute for the friends she dropped years ago, and as her closest confidante (including, presumably, her husband), she almost literally “left” her husband for her son when he was just a baby:

Although this bedroom had meant nothing to Binny for many years, now her thoughts were concentrated on it, as they had been at the beginning of the marriage. The judge had been an overwhelming lover, and those nights with him had been a flowering and a ripening that she’d thought would go on forever. Instead, after about two years, the judge’s presence in their bed was changed into a weight that oppressed her physically and in every other way. It had been a relief to her when Yasi was born and she could move with him into her own bedroom.

Again, I’m torn between looking at this as spoof or pathos. It doesn’t hit the sweet spot of funny, funny-in-a-sad-way, or sad-in-a-funny-way. Or even weird-in-an-interesting-way. I suppose I should look at my own need to categorize everything, but for me, it misses the mark, which is to impact me in some way. It’s a rather bizarre set of relationships, yet with the overdramatic judge and his paramour, and the strangely detached Binny, their situation doesn’t intrigue me as much as I’d expect.

The judge has been keeping Phul, sheltering her, since she was fifteen, and so she has only learned one thing: keeping him happy. Hence her concern about his impending death, leaving her without means, a reasonable concern; and also hence his concern to provide for her after his demise, a laudable intent though generated by a distinctly un-laudable root. In many ways, she’s the underside parallel of Binny: they’re both dependent on the judge, though Binny has the official claim and thus legitimacy.

Complications to the judge’s efforts to ensure Phul’s security ensue as Yasi starts out as the emissary but is soon replaced by Binny herself. I suspect there’s some important thematic development here, but it all seems a little overcomplicated to me, yet trivial at the same time.

Until the chess game, when things get interesting. Don’t they always, when chess is involved. It’s all very rich and powerful as Binny and the Judge finally relate to each other: an overwhelmingly understated move, followed by a dramatically overstated reply. The chess game seems to reflect the marriage: just who is in charge in this relationship, emotionally? Is Binny’s seeming indifference a gambit? It’s quite a nice climactic scene. Maybe that’s the point: a sudden rush of intense emotion and intimacy.

When I don’t invest emotionally in a story, I tend to pay more attention to mechanics, so there’s an up side to everything. Yet, here again, I’m left puzzled. The first two paragraphs are clearly from the judge’s point of view, and there’s a smooth and clever transition to Binny, his wife, in the third, using the opportunity created by her departure from the room. But since the narration remains with Binny for the rest of the story, I’m left wondering: why these two paragraphs? There must be a reason. Granted, POV-hopping isn’t the major sin it used to be, but it’s usually still done for a reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is here.

I’ve lately been thinking more about what my reaction to a story says about me, than what it says about the story. I’m not sure what my overall indifference to this one (in spite of the moments of brilliance) says about me. But I think I need to keep wondering.

Addendum: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away just yesterday; she leaves a rich legacy of work as a remembrance.

Second addendum:The above post (and addendum) was written in April 2013 when I first read the story in The New Yorker.

BASS 2014: Lauren Groff, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” from Five Points #15.1&2

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of the swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.
Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the University, and if snakes hadn’t slept their way into the hot house, his father would have filled with them anyway. Coils of rattlers session formaldehyde on the window sills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coupes out back where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.

In many ways, this story was for me the opposite experience of the prior story, Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” in that I found the first half far more engrossing than the second half. Perhaps I gave up hope too soon. Or I was just too angry – first, at the adults who let this child down, and then, at his inability to heal.

Yet it was also a similar story; both use poetry, or song, to bring in a spiritual element. Instead of a bluegrass tune, here we have a sonnet by John Donne, arranged for chorus many times by a wide variety of composers:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

~~John Donne

Now, I’ll admit I’m no match for Donne. But Linda Gregerson is, and I got a great deal out of her reading of this sonnet.

For example: one important poetic element in his poem (besides “violent enjambment”; I do love coming across these new poetic terms) is the change of heart at the turn of the sonnet. For the first half, the speaker is all gung-ho for the End of Days; then he realizes, maybe he needs more time to deal with his own issues. That dovetails nicely with the story on several levels, particularly in Jude’s return to the Florida house, and in the way he was never able to fully accept “the density or lateness” of his mother’s love, but belatedly finds a different kind of peace in the knick of time.

Then we have the paradox of the title: how can a round earth have corners? Gregerson explains: It’s an allusion to the rising acceptance of scientific awareness of Donne’s time (he was a contemporary of Galileo). While the spherical nature of the globe was at least subliminally accepted in the educated (and seafaring) world, the Church was still irrationally doing everything it could to prevent official recognition of that fact, in honor of various biblical passages, including Revelation: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” Donne manages to grasp the paradox by the tail and tame it: he makes those corners imaginary, symbolic, metaphorical. This deals a blow to scriptural literalists everywhere, but so be it (if anyone wishes to take a lesson for contemporary society from this, be my guest).

The geometry of the title fits particularly nicely with the story in another aspect: Jude’s love of mathematics:

At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an ant hill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute he thought, that meant 720 departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother’s lap, the women chatting with her at the counter this took his something for sadness. “I’m sure the boy misses his father,” one lady said, intending to be kind.
“No,” his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.

Geometry in particular plays a larger part later on in the story, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say it’s not by accident that a letter has four square corners.

By the way: you know you’ve taken too many math moocs when you start to feel annoyed that writers, when they want to portray an alienated, emotionally inhibited, but highly intelligent character, will reach for a mathematician. At least the herpetologist-father was a twist.

But discovering Groff’s inspiration for the story (equal parts Central Florida, about which she admits feelings of both love and dread, and the Donne poem) in the Contributor Notes made the above a faint protest. Once she chose the title – or rather, once the title chose her – Jude the geometer was inevitable.

BASS 2014: David Gates, “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” from Granta #126

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: 'Day was Departing' (1857)

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: ‘Day was Departing’ (1857)

The name Paul Thompson won’t mean any more to you than my name would, but if you’d been around the bluegrass scene in New York some thirty years ago, you would have heard the stories. Jimmy Martin had wanted to make him a sunny mountain boy, but he refused to cut his hair. He’d turned Kenny Baker on to pot at Bean Blossom and played a show with Tony Trischka while tripping on acid. Easy to believe it all back then. The first time I actually saw him he was on stage, wearing a full-length plaster cast on his – give me a second to visualize this – his left leg, holding himself up by a crutch in each armpit, playing mandolin with only his forearms moving. And someone had magic-markered the bottom of the cast to look like an elephantine tools-leather cowboy boot. This was at an outdoor contest in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1977, the summer I turned eighteen.

I have a tendency to meld into whatever obsession I have going at any time. The mystery is why one thing takes precedence, and not something else, but right now, I’m into Dante. The Inferno, to be specific. So when Dore’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy showed up in this story, the entire story became, not about the narrator’s long relationship with his musical mentor, culminating the way such stories often do, but about the older poet Virgil giving young Dante a guided tour of hell.

The set-up was terrific. I was as charmed as anyone could be by a bluegrass group whose members have day jobs as English and math professors, with the iconic Paul Jackson himself a science writer at Newsweek. I grew a bit puzzled, even a little bored perhaps, by the shift to the narrator’s routine marriage and academic career, punctuated by brief mentions of what drew me in to begin with. I figured there was some underlying thread I was missing, but I couldn’t tell where it was. As Heidi Pitlor said in her Foreword to the volume many of this year’s stories “tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory rather than accelerate toward some definitive endpoint.”

Eventually, I felt like there was a turn, and I had some idea where we were going. And make no mistake: the initial material is essential, it just didn’t feel that way as I was reading. I did go off on one tangent: when the narrator says, “But most of the time, Paul wasn’t anybody I thought about much, though I know now that he was thinking about me,” I envisioned a completely different story than the one that actually unfolded. I still think there might be something of that tangent as subtext, but I think it was wise of David Gates to leave it at that.

In spite of the pivotal role played by Paul, it’s the narrator’s story, a story about moving on when it’s time, and paying attention to when it’s time. I think we all have some trouble with timing, but when it counts, he gets it right. Twice. Series editor Jennifer Egan says it ends with happiness. I’m not sure the narrator ends up happy, but he’s definitely better off than he might’ve been, had not the hand reached down to guide him. Come to think of it, Dante called his work a “Comedy” not because it was funny, but because it had a happy ending.

Granta included an illuminative conversation with David Gates (available online), including the source of the title: “My Sinful Past”, a bluegrass song, of course, from the Stanley Brothers:

The hand reached down to guide me
The smile was sweet to see
I heard a sinner murmur
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.
 

~~Carter Stanley

It is Dante, isn’t it.

BASS 2014: Nell Freudenberger, “Hover” from The Paris Review #207

It started a few weeks after we separated for good. In this line of work, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. But to call it “flying” might be too misrepresented it. It wasn’t as if I were soaring above the house tops, gliding over the wide boulevards to see the sun setting over the Santa Monica Pier. If it was anything, it was hovering: a little lift, when I least expected it.

Some readers will groan when a story begins with the protagonist’s involuntary levitation, and some will say, “Wow, cool.” Just like some readers, when reading a story featuring a delicate moment in parental relations between a recently divorced mother and her adorably confused child, will say, “Awwww…”, and some will say, “Again?” I tend to fall into the second category in both cases – but I always make room for exceptions. This story split the difference, and I ended up very happy.

In her Contributor Note, Freudenberger says she’s “never written a story with a supernatural element before.” I think she got it just right, because after the mention at the beginning (which hooked me for sure), it faded into the background as I became more and more interested in her kid. I’m not a kid person. At all. But this kid – a kid who becomes attached to a bag of flour, sleeping with it, taking it to school, treating it for all intents and purposes like a teddy bear – is my kind of kid.

My friends have gently suggested that Jack’s attachment to a bag of King Arthur unbleached self-rising flour has something to do with his parents’ separation, that he sensed it coming, and it’s the kind of allegation you can’t dispute without sounding defensive. But I know for a fact that Jack had no inkling of our problems until we told him his father was moving out and that his relationship with the flour began several months earlier, coinciding exactly with the time he began asking questions about death.
“What do people do after they die?”
“How do dead people pee?”
“Will you die?”

So I bought him the flour. It sat on the shelf with the books he’d outgrown sometimes it was incorporated into a building made of Bristle Blocks or playground for the Lego people, who used it for a trampoline. He named it Malfin, which he pronounced to rhyme with dolphin.

It’s the knight on the label, I suppose – a heroic figure mounted on a powerful steed, bearing armor and a sword and a proud banner. What kid with death anxieties wouldn’t want him on their toy shelf, watching over them as they slept at night? I wondered about the name – a five-year-old wouldn’t know it’s a brand name overseas for a morphine based medication, nor would he look at the Latin “mal” and “fin” and come up with “bad end”. Maybe it was just a rhyme on dolphin.

Mom’s in denial, I suspect, about how much Jack knew and when he knew it. But Mom, presumably a writer, has her own view of the world, a view in which she is to blame for everything, and in which she compares herself to everyone, usually unfavorably.

I can’t help feeling that other people had better reasons for their breakups than we did. (This is characteristic of me, Drew would say, the way I am always comparing. How can you be happy if you’re constantly measuring your life against the lives of others? And not even examining, he would say. Inventing … fictionalizing! How can you know what anyone else’s life is like?)

See why I forgot about the flying?

Flying does play a part in the story, of course; like Chechov’s Gun, you can’t put flying in the first paragraph and have it just hang there. Mom’s hover features in a hilarious scene of a parent-teacher conference disrupted by “a peculiar carbonated sensation”. And there is, as served right up front, the symbolism of the timing. That got me thinking: is the flying about feeling light and free and joyous? Or is it about a desire to escape? Mom thinks it’s one; I suspect it’s the other.

I noticed the preponderance of the word “it” in the first paragraph, quoted above. “It” appears seven times out of 72 words, even repeated sequentially between two sentences. “It” is important, whether “it” is the ability to fly, or the need to hug a bag of flour. I also noticed another writer’s choice (though I suppose everything in every story is a writer’s choice): Mom as first-person narrator goes out of her way to avoid giving her name, even in instances where it would fit naturally, and, in most stories, that’s exactly where the author would slip it in. To wit: a conversation between Mom and ex-hubby:

Drew was incredulous. “He brings the flour to school?”
“Just for the past week or so.”
“Jesus,” he said, and he used my name, which he never does.

That’s interesting (not to mention a cute ironic twist, since he uses her name, which she doesn’t use, something he never does, except he does, but she doesn’t… never mind), particularly since she’s the only nameless character in the story. Now, that’s frequently the case in first-person narration, but here it seems highly deliberate. I wondered about some kind of divine implication – thou shalt not utter the sacred name of God, Mom as God – but that doesn’t really work. Identity plays a much bigger role in the story.

The end of the story trickled off for me. I think the last sentence is supposed to be a kind of epiphany, maybe another one of those moments everyone but Mom understands. After such an engrossing narrative, I’d expected something a little more definitive, but in a story about a woman who worries so much about what other people think, maybe it’s perfect. It’s an interesting place to stop, I’ll say that. And in a story that resists classification, it might be the most appropriate ending of all.

BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

BASS 2014: Craig Davidson, “Medium Tough” from AGNI #77

Claudio Goldini: "Right Hemiatrophy" (1992)

Claudio Goldini: “Right Hemiatrophy” (1992)

There’s a line where the two halves of my body intersect. It begins to the left of my throat, centers itself between the points where my collarbones meet, cleaves the breastplate and rib cage, then snakes to the left down my abdominals and carves right again before finishing at my groin. To the right: densely muscled, proportionate. To the left: austere devastation.…
My face is unaffected. Should you see me walking down the street in trousers and long sleeves, you would not notice much amiss. Were we carnally acquainted, however, you might wonder if I’d not been born so much as fused from separate cells. During maiden intimacies it’s my habit to disrobe slowly, explaining things. An educational striptease.

I never thought I’d cry over arm wrestling.

About a year ago, I read Calvino’s fanciful fable The Cloven Viscount about a medieval noble split into a good half, and a bad half. Jasper Railsback’s problem should be so simple: he is one person, living with a weak half, and a strong half. I found it most interesting to try and parse out which half is which.

Not physically, of course; that’s made clear from the start.

My right is a bricklayer’s hand. It can be taught blunt-force tasks. But I can feel music through my left hand. The right is my hammer. The left, an instrument of God.

Then again, maybe not so clear. Jasper – known as “Jazz” – arm wrestles with his right arm. He repairs premature infants’ brains with his left. Now “strong” and “weak” get hazier: is it stronger to break a guy’s arm in a match, or to thread a hair-fine filament into the ventricle of a three-pound baby to give him a shot at reaching four pounds? Is it stronger to pick up a hooker in a roadside strip club, or to teach her disabled son that technique can beat strong and fast? Is caring stronger than bitterness, forgiveness stronger than hate? Is there even forgiveness here – or just acceptance?

You’ve got to be tough for contingency’s sake. My mother was tanks to the gills when she told me this. She had left the stove element on and I’d touched it. My right hand still bears the concentric scar. She pressed ice to the burn cavalierly, never setting down the jelly jar in her free hand. You’re only medium tough, kiddo, she’d told me. Right in that meaty part of the curve.

It’s the detail of the jelly jar – not a glass, can, or bottle, but a jelly jar – that creates an entire scene out of few sentences. I can see the stove (sloppy with spills) in the cramped kitchen, the expression on mom’s face, hear her tone of voice, because of that jelly jar.

How do we measure tough, and what does our choice of yardstick say about us?

In her Introduction to this collection, Jennifer Egan said she chose this story because of the language: “The language is technical, lyrical, and sensory – qualities whose seeming incompatibility makes their fusion even more potent.” Even the poetics echo the fusion of weak and strong.

What truly captured my heart was outside the story, however. In his Contributor Note, Davidson says something few are willing to acknowledge:

“I’ve always been interested in broken characters…. There’s that Hemingway line about bones being strongest at their broken point… I don’t buy that. I’m sure it’s true in a physical sense, but the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” jazz doesn’t carry water with me. I think what doesn’t kill you can make you weaker and more frail and fearful, but despite that fact most of us still summon the will to carry on after life breaks us in the little ways life tends to…”

This demonstrates the risk of philosophy-by-aphorism: Yes, the winner standing on the stage clutching the trophy, says, “Dreams do come true if you work hard,” but witness the stream of losers backstage who also had dreams and worked just as hard. Jazz Railsback is a doctor; most would consider him a great example of Nietzsche’s dictum. But read the opening quote again, about maiden intimacies. If you’re made stronger by the burden you carry – if all that extra strength created by the burden is devoted to carrying it – is it really stronger? And couldn’t he have been a doctor with two matching sides? For that matter, how many parents take one look at him, and bring their broken babies elsewhere?

Thought-provoking story.

BASS 2014: Nicole Cullen, “Long Tom Lookout” from Idaho Review Vol. XIII

The boy sleeps in the passenger seat. He’s five years old and too small to ride in the front, but Lauren is too tired to fight. He wears a bicycle helmet and her husband’s old high school letterman jacket, the letter decorated with four gold winged-foot pins. Lauren places her hand on the boy’s back to know he’s breathing, and she thinks what she’s been thinking since they left Texas – that she has no intention of being his mother…
The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect – the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps. In Kansas, when Lauren pried the road atlas from the boy’s hands, he banged his head against the passenger window. That’s when she bought him the bicycle helmet. When he wet himself in the tumult of a Colorado hailstorm, she put him in Pull-Ups and he’s worn them every day since. She’s ashamed to admit that for three days the boy has eaten only french fries, and that for the past three hundred miles he’s been doped up on NyQuil.

I don’t know much about kids, but I’m thinking it’s a good idea she has no intention of being his mother.

But I found it hard to be judgmental towards this woman. After all, if my husband had a child five years ago with another woman, and then while he was off in the Gulf of Mexico cleaning up an oil spill, some social worker showed up and handed the kid over to me, the official stepmother, since the Other Woman’s now in jail on drug charges, I might not be feeling all that maternal, either. Like Lauren says, “[W]e’re both cleaning up someone else’s mess.”

She’s in Idaho headed for her sister’s in present tense, left Texas for New Orleans in past tense, encountered the woman her husband is staying with when he’s not on the oil skimmer, encountered her own judgmental mother… if it sounds confusing (and it was for me) in a well-written story where re-reading and underlining is always an option, imagine what it feels like to a five-year-old autistic boy who’s living it in real time.

Long Tom Lookout is a forest fire prevention station. Lauren needs a job, and by prevailing on an old boyfriend (presumably; it’s never spelled out), she ends up as a lookout. The Boy comes with her.

The instructor says, “You are the eagle’s eyes.” She says, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a fire lookout. You must be quick and decisive. You must be patient and steadfast. And you must know how to be alone.” Lauren does not now if she is any of these things, but she writes down everything the woman says.

This is the second story where I’ve had trouble catching on. I’ve been a bit concerned about a possible decline in my cognitive processes lately, and I wonder if this is more of that. Or, if it’s part of what series editor Heidi Pitlor called the “sense of disorientation” she found in many stories she read this year. Though I never really got over my initial annoyance at the confusion, I was far more affected by the ending than I’d expected. I think that means it was a successful story.

BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

The Djuvanovics came to live with us after the flood because they had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s not really true. They had plenty of places to go, they had the whole world to go to, but they came to us, and that was because of Reverend Judy. It was her idea, and Reverend Judy’s a very persuasive person. I suppose that’s a good quality in a minister, but I have to say I find it somewhat grating. The Djuvanovics had to go somewhere because the house was condemned. One wall had buckled and the roof had caved in. Everyone said how lucky it was that they weren’t all killed when the house collapsed, but they were not killed. Although they did lose pretty much everything they owned.

This story grabbed me right away, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s not really my kind of story. But it’s exactly my kind of story, in that it left me staring at the last paragraph, amazed at what I’d just experienced. Then I read it again, and found even more.

The narrator’s voice is perfectly captured – a no-nonsense, knows-her-own-mind kind of voice, with no interest in what’s current but willing to live and let live, a digressive style suggestive of speech rather than writing. Something very midwestern or New England about it. It’s not a voice that often grabs me (except for the digressions, which, well, you know). This time it did. I knew something was being held back, something would be revealed. I couldn’t wait to find out what.

I wasn’t disappointed.

However, it’s not easy to write a blog post about a story in which every paragraph contains another level: another significant insight into who these people are, another astute observation about who we all are and how we make certain choices, another “aha” moment. At some point, I have to narrow it down or I’ll be quoting the entire story (which is not available online that I can find, but is well worth the effort to obtain through Subtropics or your public library).

So what did I like so much? Voice, I’ve already mentioned. Then there’s character. Character in fiction is more about quirks and qualities; it has to inform what people do. And we need to know the characters pretty quickly in a short story so we can recognize significance and understand why they do what they do. We learn a lot about the narrator from this casual thought:

I was born and raised in this town. I always thought I would move away at some point, there are so many things that can take a person somewhere else, but none of those things ever happened to me, so here I am. It’s not that I want to live somewhere else; this is a very nice town and I can’t imagine a nicer place to live except perhaps someplace where it doesn’t snow so much, but I suppose every place has its good things and bad things.

So we have a woman who doesn’t move unless she’s acted upon by an outside force. Here comes the outside force: the flood. And Reverend Judy.

I’ve heard writers talk about trapping characters together, so they’d be forced to deal with each other. Put Jane Eyre in the same house as Mr. Rochester; turn one family member into a cockroach; even Stephen King put his writer into a house with a psycho in the middle of a snowstorm. That’s part of the role Reverend Judy plays: she forces characters together on many levels.

Although the narrator does take in the Djuvanovics, she isn’t happy about it, for a couple of reasons. One is her history with them; the other is her history with herself. She’d met Mr. Djovanovic at a minor social event, and tried to make small talk; unfortunately, it didn’t go very well:

I said, “What kind of a name is Djuvanovic?” No, I meant this in a very nice way, not at all like it was a suspicious or bad or foreign name, but I know that’s how it sounded because Mr. Djuvanovic looked at me oddly and said, “well, what kind of name is Evarts?” And I said, “I think it’s just a plain old American name, but your name is so interesting and I wonder what it means.” “Means?” Asked Mr. Djuvanovic. “It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” I realized by his hostile tone that my question had offended him, even though I had meant it in the friendliest possible way, so I tried to think of how to restore the balm of fellowship to our conversation. “Is it European?” I asked him, because no one can be insulted for being taken for a European, but this seemed only to annoy Mr. Djuvanovic further, for he said, “No, it’s not European,” and he turned away and walked over to the doughnut table and grabbed a fistful of Pop-ems. And that was the extent of my relationship with any of the Djuvanovics, and now they were coming to live in my house.

What we have here is a privilege gap. It’s the sort of conversation people of good will take for granted; it’s also the sort of conversation people who’ve taken a lot of crap because of their “origins” are not going to appreciate. The narrator would never consider a name to be a problem; Mr. Djuvanovic seems to be lacking that luxury. I doubt the narrator was being cruel, even in a subconscious way, but I can see how it easily might have felt that way to Mr. Djuvanovic. Of course, the narrator’s never been bothered with worrying about fancy notions like “privilege.” Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the most significant marker of privilege.

She’s also remembering back when she was young and foolish and had some rather unkind thoughts about the people who lived down by the river, and she doesn’t like being reminded of those unkind thoughts. She doesn’t like being reminded about a lot of things.

The reveal that explains everything that happens in this story is doled out at a glacial pace, but somehow it has an extraordinary momentum; I think that momentum, in addition to the perfect pitch of the voice, is what so grabbed me. A slow reveal has its drawbacks, and its possibilities, but here, the hints kept building. Even when I thought I knew, I knew I didn’t know. I’m astonished at how well this was done.

As the writer forces characters together, he also has to figure out what happens as a result of that. In spite of the suspense I felt all along, what happens here was inevitable. How does that happen?

A word about the image used above: it’s the image the author chose to symbolize this work when he published it in limited edition through his own Wallflower Press (now Shrinking Violet Press). It isn’t anywhere near the image I would have initially chosen – I found a great drawing from a newspaper article about a 1941 flood in Peru, and a lovely abstract mixed media piece by Kara Barkved titled “Flood Plain”, both of which had the horizontal framing I would’ve preferred to have used. But once I thought about it for a while, I realized: the author’s selection of image, like his selection of language, is exquisite.

So here I am, the fan of unusual narrative style or bizarre situations or linguistic play, giving a standing ovation to quiet domestic realism. Because you gotta go with what works, and this story really works.

BASS 2014: T. C. Boyle, “Night of the Satellite” from The New Yorker, 4/15/13

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: "Installation"

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: “Installation”

What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 A.M. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. A small thing, really, but by this time it had grown out of all proportion and poisoned everything we said, as if we didn’t have enough problems already. Mallory was relentless. And I was feeling defensive and maybe more than a little paranoid. We were both drunk…. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
“You asshole,” she snarled.
“You’re the asshole,” I said.
“I hate you.”
“Ditto,” I said. “Ditto and square it.”

Ah, love.

I was considering this story at the same time I stumbled across a poem new to me on the discussion boards of the “Art of Poetry” MOOC: Billy Collins’ “Men in Space.” Then there’s #Gamergate as background music.

Don’t you just love it when things fall together like that?

Because this story (available online) isn’t so much about male-female power struggles, as it is about how men and women see the other sex’s power. Perception has caused more wars than reality has, I suspect.

It begins, not just in media res, but in media bellum – perhaps in media bella would be more accurate, since several wars rage over the course of the story: Mallory and the narrator, the couple on the road, dogs vs. sheep, man vs. satellite, civilization vs. gravity.

We then back up to a “before” snapshot and discover: “The day had begun peaceably enough…” But just look at the language:

I got up with a feeling that the world was a hospitable place…. Mallory was sitting up waiting for me, still in her nightgown but with her glasses on—boxy little black-framed things that looked like a pair of the generic reading glasses you find in the drugstore but were in fact ground to the optometrist’s specifications and which she wore as a kind of combative fashion statement.

Even the atmosphere is defensive: the weather is “…too hot, up in the nineties, and so humid the air hung on your shoulders like a flak jacket…”

And then they run into the silver Toyota, “stopped in our lane and facing the wrong direction.” Bring on the bella (and my apologies; my last Latin class was sometime in the 80s).

It’s an epiphany story. “If something from the sky tapped you on the shoulder, you might consider it an omen of some sort,” says Boyle in his TNY interview. And if, at the same time, if you’re watching another couple engage in the same path of mutually assured destruction you’re on, you might see yourself, and wonder why you’re on that path.

At first, I thought this was a continuation of the lives of the couple Boyle portrayed in “Birnam Wood” a couple of years ago. There’s the same sense of “why are these people together anyway?” and the same grad-student aimlessness (so many writers with graduate degrees seem to like this; makes me wonder why anyone bothers to go to grad school – or, if those who got in are trying to close the door behind them). Apparently he also used the things-falling-from-the-sky plot before as well: a meteor shows up in his 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. It’s kind of an interesting post-modern technique to mix-and-match pieces of other works into a collage of a new work, but I don’t get the impression that’s what he was doing. I almost which it had been.

BASS 2014: Ann Beattie, “The Indian Uprising” from Granta #126

Tina Modatti: "Telephone Wires, Mexico" [modified] (1925)

Tina Modatti: “Telephone Wires, Mexico” [modified] (1925)

‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘Cynicism’s better?’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’

This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.

I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.

“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”

It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.

Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”

“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.

Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.

I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.

…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.

I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.

That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.

That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.

BASS 2014: Charles Baxter, “Charity” from McSweeney’s #43


“I’m Quinn.” He held out his hand. Black Bird did not take it. “My friend Morrow told me about you.”
“Ah huh,” Black Bird said. He glanced up with an impatient expression before returning to his book. Quinn examined the text. Black Bird was reading Othello, the third act.
“Morrow said I should come see you. There’s something I need.”
Black Bird said nothing.
“I need it pretty bad,” Quinn said, his hand trembling inside his pocket. He wasn’t used to talking to people like this. When Black Bird didn’t respond, Quinn said, “You’re reading Othello.” Quinn had acquired a liberal arts degree from a college in Iowa, where he had majored in global political solutions, and he felt that he had to assert himself. “The handkerchief. And Iago, right?”
Black Bird nodded. “This isn’t College Bowl,” he said dismissively. With his finger stopped on the page, he said, “What do you want from me?”

In a lecture at the 2013 Bread Loaf writers’ conference (helpfully excerpted by Graywolf Press), Charles Baxter talked about how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us. As it happens, he has a story collection coming out in February 2015 where each story is named after a vice or a virtue, and each story includes a “request moment.” This story (as well as “Bravery” from BASS 2013) will be in that collection.

I see three requests in this story; or, more accurately, two requests and one non-request, a void where a request should have been. That void steals the show for me.

The overwhelming image I have of the story is one of metamorphosis: how people change, and how, even when they realize they’re changing, they’re unable to prevent the change from occurring.

Matt Quinn starts out as a caring do-gooder in Africa. We see only the faintest glimpse of this in the first paragraph, before his metamorphosis begins: he returns to Minneapolis with some kind of viral arthritis that leaves him in serious pain. Doctors are less than helpful, and the predictable decline begins: from aid worker to thief, Matt robs a guy for enough money to buy street drugs.

Cut to Matt in a seedy bar buying drugs from Black Bird. It’s interesting that Black Bird is reading Act III of Othello; it’s where Desdemona drops her handkerchief, Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago, leading to later disaster. In college I wrote a paper convicting Emilia of Desdemona’s death (hey, come on, that’s the secret of success in humanities classes, come up with an outrageous thesis to perk up the prof who’s read thousands of essays about the depths of Iago’s evil), because she was the only character with enough of a moral compass to know what she was doing was wrong, and she did it anyway. Maybe Black Bird’s in the same category.

What lifts this out of the category of routine drug deal, in story terms, is, I think, Black Bird’s insistence that Matt bring a book as well as cash to their next meeting when the actual exchange of goods and tender will take place. Matt doesn’t bring a book, but he brings cash, and that’s enough for Black Bird. It’s also enough to reclassify Black Bird from someone interesting, to just another dealer. I’m sure he has his story, too; in his story, I’ll bet there was a time when he refused to sell the drugs, for any amount, to a bookless patron, but maybe he’s metamorphosed himself since then.

Then the story does something I find very interesting: it switches pov, from a relatively distant third-person with Matt as the pov character, to first-person a la Harry, the boyfriend Matt met in Africa. This switch surprised me; as I read on, I appreciated more and more the wisdom of this writer’s choice.

Their relationship is fascinating. When they meet, Harry is in Africa on business, selling medical supplies; he’s drawn to Matt’s compassion. But Matt doesn’t seem to see much compassion in Harry; as desperate as he is as he goes from sick to addicted to homeless, he won’t ask Harry for help:

He could be prickly, the boyfriend, and the two of them were still on a trial basis anyway…. The love might not travel if Quinn brought up the subject of debts or his vial arthritis and inflammation of the drug habit he had recently acquired.

Y’think?

Matt does make another request of Harry. It’s perhaps significant in that it shows how incomplete his journey back is. But the absence of request, in the context of their relationship, is the most interesting part of the story for me. Whether or not, in the end, the love travels, is a matter of opinion. Harry thinks it doesn’t; I think otherwise. I think the roles reverse. The word “charity,” while derived from the Latin caritas, is in older translations of the New Testament used as the English equivalent of Greek word agape: love in its chaste, selfless, most divine form; other-centered love.

The closing scene, while beautiful, seems overly explained and perhaps a little on-the-nose. Charles Baxter is not the sort of writer who spells it all out for his readers. That I think he does so, left me wondering if I’d missed the point entirely. Instead of metamorphosis, maybe I should look at, duh, charity. Perhaps one form of charity – love – is to accept, to allow someone else to give.

BASS drop 2014

This year, I detected a certain uncertainty in short stories, a sense of disorientation, perhaps a reflection of these unsteady times for publishing and readers. A lot of story writers relied on a character’s intuition or impulse to fuel the forward motion of their stories. As a result, many stories tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory – rather than accelerate towards some definitive endpoint. While some stories that I’ve read this year were built up on or around some narrative roadway – and many of those appear in this volume – plenty were not.

~~Heidi Pitlor, “Foreword”, BASS 2014

Renovations on a recently-vacated storefront near my apartment building indicate a new shop is moving in. What will it be? Maybe a sandwich shop like the last tenant – will they be a great place to go for a late lunch, friendly neighbors willing to change a dollar once in a while? – or maybe a store selling something I never knew existed – I never realized foot soaking could be a commercial venture until Soakology opened – or something totally boring like insurance, or something completely unexpected, like a druid shrine or a sock store (there’s already a sock store opening down the block, I doubt my small city could support two specialty sock stores)…

Photo: 'ready to jump' by ouzouzouz; see more on deviantartAnticipation is fun.

My anticipation of each annual Best American Short Stories starts when I close the cover of the prior one for the last time. What stories have I read, or heard about, that might make it, or that I dread seeing in the table of contents? What authors would I like to see more from – or fear encountering? What would I pick?

That’s why one of my favorite moments of what has become my Annual Blogging of the BASS is the trip home from the bookstore, before I’ve looked at the table of contents, before I’ve read a word of the foreword or introduction or any of it. Maybe I’ll find confirmation of my opinion of a story from the year, or a new something from a favorite author; maybe I’ll discover an author new to me, or someone new to everyone. Chances are I’ll find a story that will make me wonder what the hell is so great about it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll also find several that will end with me staring at the page in awe, or maybe show me something new that, yes, you can do in a short story.

Last week, series editor Heidi Pitlor began tweeting single lines from stories in this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. I was surprised to recognize two of them right away, stories I’d read during the year, from these single lines (I later recognized another, but it was after I’d seen the TOC so it doesn’t count; I also missed one. The tweets continue still).

Pitlor’s foreword begins, as quoted above, with an indication that these stories are not all linear. I found it interesting that the foreword was also not linear. In fact, it seemed as if the bulk of it – adapted into a Huffpo post – was written as a standalone, and the above opening paragraph and a few others added on to connect it to BASS. In large part, it’s a concern that writers might be outnumbering readers.

I don’t know anyone, other than writers, who reads short stories (low-end writers’ workshops openly acknowledge this; they’re writing for writers). Oh, maybe they read the one in The New Yorker once in a while (skimming it is more likely, followed by a complaint that “stories don’t make sense any more”), but when the Reading Group at my library got to Alice Munro’s Dear Life, the most frequent comment was, “I don’t like short stories.” It seems most people decide the stories are over before they have a chance to get into them; but that’s when the story starts, for me. Some have this idea that short stories aren’t “serious” literature, and since they aren’t on best-seller lists, they’re not party-talk, so what good are they?

What good is Mozart, Picasso, the doily your nearly-blind 93-year-old grandmother crocheted for your wedding gift? The good of art is in how it changes the way we see the world, the things we notice, in how it changes us. And that changes the world.

I’m rambling. Must be this unsettled, wandering thing in the air. Then again, rambling is one of my favorite things.

Jennifer Egan guest edited this edition, meaning she had the final say of which of the 120 pre-selected stories would appear.

I’m biased toward writers who take an obvious risk, formally, structurally, or in terms of subject matter, over those who do a familiar thing exquisitely.
If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders, it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world.… The vehicle for this transport into alternate worlds is vivid, specific language.

~~Jennifer Egan, “Introduction”, BASS 2014

As it happens, I have a similar bias: I like some kind of weird in my stories, and I’m not fussy about how or where the weird comes in: odd sentence structures? My kind of thing. Unusual narrative technique? Great! A character I’ve never seen before (and, since I’m not that widely read, this one tends to be easy), a bizarre plot? Bring it on. First person plural, second person, third person plural, fluid povs? My favorites (though I think they’re my favorites partly because editors do a good job of weeding out the “ok” stories in the selection process – a second-person story has to be really good to make it into a magazine, or a prize collection). A good sign?

Maybe the table of contents is a more reliable sign. Out of the 20 stories, I’ve read four of them; two of them I loved, one I seriously appreciated, and even though I wasn’t convinced by the fourth, it included a spectacular scene. I’m looking forward to seeing what Karen Russell brings. I’m downright thrilled to see Stephen O’Connor; his “Another Nice Mess” from One Story #162 was one of those miracle stories that left me open-mouthed, and though I followed up with a collection of his, I wasn’t able to connect, a miss I hope to rectify now.

I’m always slightly peeved to see how clustered the selections are around the same cluster of big-name journals – The New Yorker, Granta, McSweeney’s, etc. I understand there’s a reason those are big-name journals, but I also know there’s some wonderful work out there from less-obvious places. I see an unfamiliar title in the list this year: Image. No idea what the journal is, no idea what the story is, but I’m glad to see it there.

Another confession: I miss the old cover design. I'm just not the glossy-slick-bright-shiny-colors typeI confess: I haven’t been reading current stories in 2014. It isn’t lack of interest, it’s lack of time. As I take more and more MOOCs (right now, I’m juggling Kierkegaard, logic, music history, Dante, and a poetry course, as well as a variety of MOOC-inspired math learning projects), I have less time for contemporary reading. That makes me sad, but I don’t know how long MOOCs will be around, how long they’ll be free, and how long they’ll be as unique as some of them are right now (Robert Pinsky is teaching the poetry MOOC, and, by the way, the University of Iowa is running a “How Writers Write” MOOC; you haters can get over yourselves) so I’m cramming everything in while I can. I’ve taken the time from reading/blogging TNY and One Story. I’ve even dropped the O.Henry prize volume from my anthology rotation.

If I ever drop BASS, check my pulse; I’m probably dead.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story

Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"

Sharon Burgmayer, “Interface”

My assumption is that when we discuss the differences between long fiction and short fiction, we must discuss basic differences in the epistemology of the two forms, that is, the way they attempt to “know” reality. The short story is short first of all because of the kind of experience or reality embodied in it. And the kind of experience we find in the short story reflects a mode of knowing that differs essentially from the mode of knowing we find in the novel. My thesis is that long fiction, by its very length, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that primarily derive from, and in turn establish, the primacy of “experience” conceptually created and considered; whereas short fiction, by its length and tradition, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that derive from and establish the primacy of “an experience,” as John Dewey has distinguished these terms, directly and emotionally created and encountered.
 

~~Charles May, “The Novel and the Short Story”, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never understood the distinction between short story and novel as do those who have a more thorough grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of both. I think this chapter of May’s book – with a little help from John Dewey and Isak Dinesen – has helped close that gap a bit.

Start with Dewey. I’ve always thought of him in terms of educational theory, but here, Art as Experience is the focal point particularly Chapter III, Having An Experience. May applies Dewey’s separation of “experience” and “an experience” to the novel and short story, respectively. Dewey’s distinction:

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living…. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience.…
             In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives solutions; the game is played through…. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience….
              An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience…
 

~~ John Dewey, Art as Experience

As I read it (and, always keep in mind, I’ve been known to head off my own track from time to time), May sees the territory the novel covers as experience, whereas the short story focuses on an experience. Much of that seems to be a by-product of length. A novel, which might be read over the course of days (or weeks, or who knows, months), has as its foundation experience. Theoretically, there is a force of unity, but there are sub-plots, character-defining scenes, backstories and expositions to cover before the central thrust of that unity can be delivered. A story, on the other hand, is intended to be read in one sitting; the experience of reading is itself an experience, and the story recounts an experience. A great deal of experience might be omitted – we don’t know the heroine’s relationship with her mother or the hero’s favorite childhood toy, no matter how character-revealing it is, unless it is central to the “an experience being recounted. It’s a slightly different angle on the “unity” required of the short story, as described in May’s Chapter 1 on genre.

As I was paging through Stanford’s Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (often referred to as “Plato”) to make sure I was understanding Dewey correctly, I stumbled over an idea I’d overlooked in the original chapter:

Dewey believed it unfortunate that no term covers the act of production and the act of appreciation combined as one thing…. production and consumption should not be seen as separate….
                Dewey believed that art brings together the same doing/undergoing relation that makes an experience what it is. Something is artistic when the qualities of the result control the process of production. ….Aesthetic satisfaction must be linked to the activity that gave rise to it. For example the taste of the epicure includes qualities that depend on reference to the manner of production of the thing enjoyed.
 

~~Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Plato”), “Dewey’s Aesthetics

This brought me to Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen. Though I suppose it’s the other way around; Dinesen is the pseudonym, but the name by which I always think of her.

Dinesen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” is used as a reference point in this chapter (and in a future chapter); I’d already read it in preparation, and I’ll discuss it presently. Part of that story, indeed, is a clear explanation of the difference between novel and story by one of the characters, making it self-referential in a way I adore. But the above exegesis on Dewey brought to mind another wonderful Dinesen work, my first encounter with her, in fact, though originally through film rather than through text: “Babette’s Feast.” I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but what remains is this: Everything in that story comes down to a magical meal that redeems lives and talents tragically wasted by circumstance; and the line, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist, ‘Give me the chance to do my very best.'” The meal is an experience, rising far above culinary delight; in fact, at first the sisters are determined to stoically reject any pleasure it might bring, out of some notion of Christian asceticism, but it is the “an experience” that triumphs, lifting all to that encounter with the sacred. Reading the story is, likewise, anan experience.

“The Cardinal’s First Tale” is also an experience for the reader, and for the characters in the story. The Cardinal of the story must answer a penitent’s question: “Who are you?” The story is wonderful; I found a chapter from Susan Brantly’s book Understanding Isak Dinesen to be helpful along with May’s notes.

The Cardinal of the title tells a self-referential story to answer the question, “Who am I?” The story-within-the-story itself is great, a tale of an overwhelmed teenage princess impregnated both physically and spiritually (the latter being an idea I discovered in, and have enthusiastically embraced from, Brantly’s analysis) to the point where she delivers twins. The twins are regarded in classic opposition: a studious Priest-to-be for the Prince, an artistic sensualist for the Princess. There’s a bit of a mystery which leads to the revelation of the artistic unity of sacred and profane.

When the Cardinal has finished relating his tale of the twins, he talks to his penitent at length about story versus novel, using the very tale he’s just told as an example of the centrality of plot. She’s a little dismayed by the way “story” knocks people – characters – around, separates lovers, puts enemies together, and so forth (this reminds me of Steve Almond’s prescription in his teeny-tiny self-published book of flash and writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: “[I]t is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires”), but he assures her, that the story will provide (“Love your characters” means to give them a story to inhabit) and that it is story, first, last, and always, that makes us human:
 

“Mistake me not,” said the cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking [the novel]– the literature of individuals, if we may call it so – is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what his named the day of judgment….
              “Hard and cruel as it may seem,” said the cardinal, “yet we, who hold of our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, fairly, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them – you compassionate and accommodating human readers – that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that’s one cry of heart of each of them: “Who am I?’
 

~~Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal’s First Tale” from Last Tales, 1957

As I read that last line, I felt a great deal of similarity, in tone, to a line from “Babette’s Feast”: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” But even more, this harks back to May’s “Introduction” chapter, in reference to C.S. Lewis’ ideas on the basic human conflict, “which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.” In this story, the sacred and profane are literally embodied in the Dionysian/Apollonian twins, their union unintentional but nonetheless profound, surviving even the physical destruction of one.

An experience. I love that phrase, as I understand it. We all have many moment like that, of course; a conversation that resonates for decades, a magical night when the stars seem aligned. They don’t have to be universally pleasant, I don’t think. I can remember, as a teenager under the spell of an absurd crush, seeing the object of my feelings with another girl, and realizing they looked right together, in a way he and I would never look right. As devastating as it was, it was also highly instructive; forty years later, I still remember the color of the sky and the feel of the grass. During each of my once-a-decade experiments to see if I still suck at writing fiction, I try to capture it in prose, and fail each time. But at least now I know what to call it, and that, with a plot that makes the moment surprising yet inevitable, it belongs in a short story.

I’m not sure why I never read more of Dinesen’s stories; I quite enjoyed this story. With so much to read, a lot ends up deferred, but I’d like to revisit her at a later time. And, of course, I’ll keep reading Prof. May’s book; I’m quite enjoying it as well, and encountering numerous wonderful treasures in its pages.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story

Boccaccio: The Decameron - Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

Boccaccio: The Decameron – Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

My own study of the short story is based on the assumption that a group of literary conventions cluster around short fiction because of its shortness and its relationship to other genres throughout its history. … The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

Having established some guidelines for “the genre” of short story in Chapter 1, May now turns to looking at the development of the form over time, with a more historical approach to the development of the short story: its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the Renaissance and embraced a few centuries later by the Romantics; the nineteenth-century period of development showcased by Poe and Hawthorne; and the modern tale of Chekhov and Carver. I’m a bit disappointed not to see any indication of the more post-modern take on story, where narrative itself is optional, but, after all, the current historical period is still open. In any case, since my weakest knowledge is of the past, this is a good place for me to focus. There’s some overlap with Chapter 1, as these are all previously published academic essays collected in this volume, but the focus is one of time, not genre.

A good place to begin, in any history is the beginning; but what was the first short story?

Perhaps the most equitable and yet the most manageable starting point is that era when short narratives, written in prose first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and religious allegory and qualified as a form of individual human art. Most historians agree that such a point was reached with the publication of Boccaccio’s revolutionary collection The Decameron in the middle of the fourteenth century.

This surprised me. In high school, I was taught Guy de Maupassant was the first short story writer; in college, that shifted to Poe. The Renaissance? Interesting…

I can see the point, though. At the time of Boccaccio, religious allegory was the major formal literature in Europe (and we are taking a highly Eurocentric view of literature throughout this book). But folk art will not be denied, and “vulgar popular folktales” consisting of “anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales without established traditions of narrative procedures and rhetorical devices” (pg. 31) coexisted with the approved forms. Boccaccio’s achievement was to combine these approaches: to write a tale with a narrative structure and a point, but to base characters and events on real life people and situations instead of idealized visions that existed only to personify morality. Part of the task, May says, was to ” transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern” – to create the inevitable surprise that underlies successful fiction.

I have not read The Decameron nor do I particularly wish to (I’m about to dive into Dante via another MOOC, and I only have so much verbal energy, not to mention time for intense reading). Overall, the structure of the whole reminds me of The Canterbury Tales, which has its share of vulgarity, as well as significant resentment of higher religious authorities (those who think popular culture today is a mess should check out Chaucer): an assortment of people find themselves together (in a village escaping the plague-ridden city, or on a pilgrimage to Canterbury), and tell stories to pass the time. Canterbury was, of course a poem, not prose, but the comparison remains.

I did read one story chosen at random (I.6, An honest man, with a chance pleasantry, putteth to shame the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders), and perhaps saw the “poetic justice” and “ironic patterning” to which May refers, as incorporated into the plot. This, he says, marks a shift from the religious allegory, which exemplifies a religious ideal thus refers to an external moral point, to story form, in which the plot takes on the burden of creating meaning by the structuring of events. In the story, a winemaker is taken to task by religious authorities for claiming he has a wine fit for Christ to drink, and is assigned to eternal torment; on payment of a fee to the official, the sin is mediated. He later invokes a Bible quote to embarrass the official by pointing out the greed and gluttony of the cleric’s habit of feeding only his table scraps in a broth to the poor, thus hoisting the man of god on his own petard, so to speak – the “reversal of intention” May links to such stories as “The Gift of the Magi.”

The basic romantic tendency is to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine. The return to romance of the nineteenth century is a return with a difference; the formulaic stories remain much the same, but they are now given a new basis of authority – the subjectivity of the teller – even as the story events themselves are presented as if they were objective events in the phenomenal world….This focus on the individual perspective creates a new tension in the old tale – undermining the mythic or supernatural authority of the story and placing an increasing emphasis on the relativity of reality, the ambiguity of the event, and the skepticism of the teller.

When I read this, I thought of the Greek & Roman Mythology MOOC I recently completed. Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania talked about instances of Vergil’s “rationalizing impulse” in The Aeneid: is Dido’s undying love of Aeneas due to the meddling of the gods, or to the sympathetic framing of the hero caring for his son; is Anchises’ appearance in a dream a visitation from the spirits, or a psychological manifestation of Aeneas himself? I think that’s something like the tension analyzed here.

May then turns to the Romantic period of the 19th century. There was, in fact, a resurgence of interest in Boccaccio at this time, and The Decameron was again of interest to scholars. To illustrate the Romantic period, I chose to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which May mentions as an example of a work which “presents a situation that is seemingly supernatural and symbolically significant, but which the narrator simultaneously undermines with his skeptical ironic point of view.” In the Introduction, he also mentioned it was the source of the title of this collection of essays: the main character, teased and harassed, finally breaks his tolerance with an outcry: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and, though he is never aware of it, those words have a profound effect on one of the bullies and allow Gogol to spell out the direction of the tale: upcoming revelation of hypocrisy and artifice.

In these moving words, other words resounded –”I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and noble.

 
~~ Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, “The Overcoat”

I wish we could all have those moments at critical times – when an abused child braces herself for a blow, when a minimum-wage worker is told how motivating poverty is, when a young boy cries, “Don’t shoot!” perhaps. But back to the story, and the tension between hints of the supernatural, against the ironic distance of the narrator.

References to the supernatural are scattered throughout, from the granting of Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin’s very name (was it the fate of opening the calendar to certain days, or merely a family name handed down – or a mother’s disregard for her child?) to the “involuntary sensation of fear, as if his heart warned him of some evil” just before his cloak is stolen (the presence of a wraith, or the usual fear of being in a deserted, strange area late at night?), to the rumored haunting of the Kalinkin Bridge by a dead man (or was it the same thief – was there even a thief at all, given that the coachman saw nothing amiss, or was it the magistrate’s conscience that tricked him into creating a thief out of the wind?). All of this, as May says, is related by a highly visible narrator who maintains a tone of reason throughout. Yet the “poetic justice” of the second theft somewhat relieves the sadness of the first – I say “somewhat” since, after all, Bashmatchkin is still dead.

May revisits Poe’s discussion of aesthetic unity as the primary requirement of the short story, adding “the psychological obsession embodied in a first-person narrator” to the array of techniques used in the nineteenth century. Just the mention of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is enough to illustrate this point. I wonder if the repetitive nature of Poe’s poetic forms, such as “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee”, suggested or merely dovetailed into this notion.

We move forward to the era of the “modern” short story:

…[R]eality in the modern short story seems to be a purely objective event, even as at the same time the intense selectivity practiced by Chekhov, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver results in an intensification of reality that no longer seems objective and real, but what some critics have called “hyperrealism”…. reality is so attenuated and restricted (rather than developed and expanded as in the realistic novel) that it takes on an hallucinatory, dreamlike effect….objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful by the motivating force of the story’s own thematic and structural demands.

I chose to re-read two stories as exemplars for this section: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “Chef’s House”; neither are explicitly mentioned in this chapter, but they seem to fit the bill, both of the above hyperrealism, and of what May refers to as the movement of the character from ignorance to knowledge.

In Hemingway, the landscape itself becomes symbolic of the conflict between the couple. As such, it’s constantly emphasized: the arid, sun-bleached hills on one side, the lush greenery on the other. I was always taught that the dry side signified barrenness, thus the option of abortion, which the man prefers, while the other side is associated with life should the pregnancy continue. That’s fine – but I’ve always wondered if the man’s viewpoint might reverse those, if he sees the stark side as his life burdened with woman and child, while living will forever be at his back. Not to excuse him – I certainly see him as a bit of a bully and shirker in this – but to mix things up a little. Two people look at the same landscape, and have opposite associations. Different readers often come to very different conclusions about this story: just what was decided, if anything?

In the context of this chapter, I’m more interested in the movement of both characters from ignorance to knowledge. The knowledge, I think, is not one of which side to choose: each knows more about the other, and more about him/herself and the extent of his/her power in their relationship. I also suspect this relationship is doomed.

“Chef’s House” shows another couple moving towards knowledge of the other; it’s a favorite of mine. I read it a couple of years ago having seen it mentioned in Prof. May’s blog in connection with another story. I see here also the landscape, the details, exaggerated and symbolicized to this dreamlike state. I said at the time: “you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – the ocean is on the other side of ‘access’ and ‘free’.” There’s a double negotiation: in the beginning, Wes convinces Edna to come live in Chef’s House with him, and at the end, Edna tries to convince Wes that the loss of the house need not be the end of their idyllic (to her) summer. Wes prevails in both cases, as each discovers what he/she wants, and whether or not the other can participate in that goal.

In neither case of these “modern” stories is the supernatural, or some higher moral principle, or even a narrator, an element. The story is in the setting, the characters, and the choices they make, the actions they take.

The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

May’s historical view of the short story ends here. I wonder, on reflection, if the emergence of the importance of form in narrative over the past 20 (50?) years is a new trend, or just another glint in the window. I’m a fan of unusual narrative devices: lists, dialog captures, found text, instructions. Most recently, comix (aka “graphic stories”) which have a grammar of their own – One Story opened up a world I’d previously dismissed with Matt Madden’s “Drawn Onward” in Issue #182. I look forward to new things.

I also look forward to Prof. May’s Chapter 3, “The Novel and the Short Story.” My life is about to be complicated by concurrent MOOCs, plus the publication of BASS in October, so I can’t promise a schedule; it will happen, however. Inevitably, surprisingly.

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?'”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.

Charles E. May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (2013) – “Introduction”

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second.… There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relations – a realm that the novel has always taken for its own – and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable – a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

I discovered Charles May – Professor Emeritus at Cal State, short story specialist – several years ago through his blog in which he discussed some BASS and PEN/O’Henry stories; he was particularly helpful as I untangled Alice Munro’s “Corrie” and a few other of her stories. I don’t always see what he sees in particular short stories, but I’m always interested in what he has to say, so when he recently self-published I Am Your Brother, a collection of previously published essays on the short story form, I bought it right away. I’ll be going through it slowly, chapter by chapter, over the coming months, enjoying along the way some of the stories he uses to illustrate his points.

In the Introduction (which is available online via two posts on his blog) May delimits the short story and the novel: “As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams–not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.” Maybe this is why short stories appeal to me, given my fondness for the “weird” – unusual narrative techniques, structures, diction, characters, situations, reactions.

Another key concept May uses is that of the “I” versus “other”, which weaves through psychology, theology, philosophy, cognitive science, and, of course, literature. Last summer I spent a few months happily exploring this theme (“the only way to understand the other is to become the other”) in literature via The Fiction of Relationship , a MOOC taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, which spanned novels – Beloved, Jane Eyre, Disgrace – as well as short-form (Borges, Kafka, Melville), so I’m not sure I’m ready to concede the “mythic” to the short story quite yet. Still, it’s a theme that resonates with me:

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.… This tension constitute fiction’s chief resemblance to life, says CS Lewis… For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and events.

I’m intrigued by May’s exploration of this theme through, first, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. During my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I encountered several explanations for various parts of this tale: Cain’s “fruits on the ground” meant rotten fruit, it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, he didn’t offer enough. Just poking around the Internet, I see lots of similar explanations, including one that admits the appearance of unfairness, and incorporates it into the theme of the story. All of these, however, have a religious, rather than a literary, grounding. May sees it a bit differently, as I understand it: it’s almost as if God models free will by capriciously rejecting Cain’s offering, then Cain turns around and exercises his own free will by killing Abel, resulting in separation from his brother, and, later, from his people.

He also examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one of my own favorites from the standard Western canon I’ve otherwise largely ignored. I spent some time listening to a splendid dramatic reading (Richard Burton, John Neville) while following along with the text. May’s reading: the Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is an expression of free will, one pole of the human dilemma mentioned above; the rest of the poem shows the consequences of this free will, this separation from the whole resulting in a loss of unity, in aloneness: “The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world… a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck.…”

May also references Robert Penn Warren’s essay on Coleridge, “A Poem of Pure Imagination.” I have to admit I don’t quite see the distinction, as May does, between Robert Penn Warren’s “One Life” assertion, and his own “Separation of Life” but they both go deeper into literary theory than I’m equipped to handle. What I love about Penn’s essay is his discussion of the Mariner’s motivation for shooting the albatross in the first place, a starting place for many an English Lit paper:

The fact that the act is unmotivated in any practical sense, that it appears merely perverse, has offended literalists and Aristotelians alike… The lack of motivation, the perversity, which flies in the face of the Aristotelian doctrine of hamartia, is exactly the significant thing about the Mariner’s act. The act symbolizes the Fall, and the Fall has two qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says, “out of time,” and it is the result of no single human motive.

It’s right there in the poem, with the placement of a comma: we are all, all alone. Whether you want to call it Original Sin – separation from God – or free will – separation from each other – and whether you see one as a creation, or consequence of the other, is up to you.

May also uses Andre Dubus’ “Dancing After Hours,” from the story collection of the same name, in this Introduction. It’s a story new to me, and though I didn’t see what he saw in it (that happens sometimes). I enjoyed it for the focus on time from the very start. “Dancing after Hours” is an evocative phrase itself, speaking of an evening that’s over but must continue. The story opens with Emily’s age – 40 – which, as unfair and ridiculous as it is, has a certain echo; a 40-year-old woman bartender is very different from a 40-year-old male bartender, or a 25-year-old female bartender (stop before you write that nasty comment: 40 was a long time ago for me). In the first paragraph: “….she went outside to see the sun before it set.…” And she does.

Where Prof. May and I didn’t connect on this one was in the central climax of the story, the actual dancing after hours, which I saw as clichéd and overwrought with a Hallmark Hall of Fame Epiphany of the Week: Let Love In Even If You Fear Getting Hurt. May sees in the dancing that occurs, this union that fulfills the yearning proposed of the psyche. I see it in terms of what might be called “flow,” the sense of time stopping when you’re fully immersed in a soul-deep venture, be it physical (like sports), creative (writing), or exploration (reading, listening to music). I can see how the possibilities intersect I can also see the wonderful writer’s touches that go into the story, from the details of the opening I’ve already mentioned, to how Emily observes in great detail a man in a wheelchair exiting his van, eating, talking. That kind of detail, taking it all in, noticing, isn’t just exposition; it’s part of her character to be so intrigued. But the “And they all rode off into the sunset having grown a bit and everything will be all right and tomorrow’s full of possibility” ending felt a bit too pat for me; I have a nasty urge to see a postscript in which Emily gets seasick on her fishing trip with Jeff, Kay and Rita find no chemistry and come to work the next day awkward and embarrassed, and Drew never returns to the bar. I still have some growing to do as a reader.

I’m looking forward to continuing this book, and to encountering more stories new to me along the way and learning more about how the short story works.

Joel Christian Gill: Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (Fulcrum, 2014)

As an undergrad, I had researched some ideas for paintings based on lynching photographs. Now, I felt was the time to follow through. I listened to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, and I decided to call my paintings “Strange Fruit Harvested: He Cut the Rope,” showing me with a noose around my neck, holding the frayed end. I was trying to say that I was in some ways freed from the fear that had plagued my father and grandfather. However, I also wanted to convey that because the rope was still there, we still had a ways to go.
What does this have to do with black history, you might ask?… I wanted to tell stories – sometimes great and sometimes tragic – of other people who were also able to “cut the rope.” So, I began to research and draw comics about obscure black history. I looked for stories of people who were not in mainstream history books. I wanted to tell stories that people had not heard.

I’ve just recently gotten over the major stick-up-my-butt about graphic novels thanks to Matt Madden’s One Story #182 selection, “Drawn Onward”, a wonderful piece that introduced me to the heretofore unknown (to me) grammar of comix. So when I saw a post on Brain Pickings for Gill’s collection of nine lesser-known black history biographies presented in comic-style, I had to check it out. I’m so glad I did.

In How To Be Black, one of Baratunde Thurston’s riffs starts with the notion that Black History Month recycles the same five or six historical biographies of African Americans, and that’s about the extent of it. That’s what I love about this book: these aren’t people anyone’s likely to know. They lived before television, certainly, but they also lived before anyone in the mainstream thought ordinary people, let alone ordinary black people, could possibly live lives worth celebrating. Yet their lives have been preserved and celebrated, and now, Gill recelebrates them with all the nuance and significance of a Great American Novel. Because this, though denied for centuries, this is the Great American Novel. Maybe not the one we expected. But it’s the one that shows us, all of us, for who we are. Heroes are everywhere, especially when mere survival requires a level of personal heroism most of us never approach.

My favorite of the biographies – if “favorite” is the right word; perhaps I should say, the one that struck the hardest, since it happened here in Maine – is “The Shame”, Gill’s casting of the story of Malaga Island, and the wholesale institutionalization, criminalization, and in some cases, sterilization of members a law-abiding, hard-working, but mixed-race community. For those who keep insisting slavery was a long time ago, the eviction of these people occurred in the 20th century; an official apology to the descendents was issued in 2010.

Gill’s own favorite is “Two Letters” featuring, as the only text, two letters written by escaped slave and Union army soldier Spottswood Rice. The first letter he wrote to his children, still enslaved, to assure them he would be back for them, and that, though their owner at the time claimed that would be stealing property, he believed God would give precedence to the relationship between father and child over that of child and slaveowner. The second letter was to the slaveowner, to inform her in no uncertain terms that he and an army of black men would be coming to get his children. Gill’s artistic interpretation uses a unique grammar of comix, one I’m delighted to learn about –speech bubbles devoid of words, with the intensifying colors signifying escalating anger and fear; images instead of words; and, of course, the use of the letters as the only text.

This is great work, and makes innovative and powerful use of the combinations of words and images. Gill’s website includes more information about the construction of the book (happily, Volume 2 is in the works). I again must apologize for my years of dissing this art form.

But, more importantly, the timing of this book reminds me we are living now – last weekend, this week, as we watched Americans line up to yell at and threaten frightened children, this past year, in which voting rights are being etched away day by day, these past two years in which teenagers can be shot with impunity as long as someone believes black skin is itself a danger – in a moment for which we will again be apologizing for a long, long time, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.