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.