Pushcart XXXIX / BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

15th century illustration from Bartholomew Anglicus, 'On the Properties of Things'

15th c. illustration of a leper rattle from Bartholomew Anglicus,’On the Properties of Things’

My name is John Fuller. I am nine and twenty years of age, born in the year of our Lord 1370, the son of the learned musician and the youngest of twelve children – though the Lord in his wisdom was pleased to take five brothers and two sisters back to the fold. After a grave accident, I no longer possess the use of my hands. Any inaccuracies in this document are not the fault of the scribe, who enjoys a high reputation, but of my own mind. My pain is not inconsiderable. However, I will continue frankly, in as orderly a fashion as I am able, so that these words may accompany my confession to the honorable Vicar of Saint Stephen’s.
My story begins as God knitted me in the womb.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time over the past few months immersed in medieval theology courtesy of Dante Alighieri. Maybe it’s because I can put myself in the story in all three key roles. Maybe it’s because there’s so much crammed in these fourteen pages – sorrow, love, joy, longing, heartbreak, loneliness, alienation, sacrifice, guilt, stoicism bordering on learned helplessness, a harsh and compassionless justice. Whatever the reason: I absolutely loved this story.

Because all the elements of the story fit so well together, it’s impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers; the first paragraph itself is a kind of spoiler, in fact. I haven’t found it online, so I’ll just make some general observations and encourage everyone to find a copy of BASS 2014 (or back issue #78 of Image, a literary journal with a “commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth… poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture”) to see for yourself how McNett weaves together a music teacher, his wife, his student, and the often inscrutable Will of God.

I also admire the process she went through to get here. In an interview with Dan Klefstad of NPR affiliate WNIJ, she explains how she went from a story that felt too “Glee” to the 14th century via research on the history of vocal instruction. That writer’s decision to move the story from a contemporary choir to the 14th century was genius, and allowed so much else to be brought in: socially moderated rules of conduct which, although passé today, are based on aspects of human relationships, emotions, and desires that have not changed in six hundred years, and the overwhelming pressure of religion.

To get the setting and diction right, she read several period texts:

One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
“I don’t know if it was to the Plague or what happened,” McNett says. “But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence’ and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance.” McNett says she’s not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. “So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith.”

~~Molly McNett

John Fuller has more faith on his worst day than most of us do all our lives. Except for one bad moment; yet as for many of us, it’s one bad moment on which everything turns. And it’s the skill of the story that makes me wonder if all that faith is really such a good idea: doesn’t it prevent change? Doesn’t it leave him mired in the past, in rage buried underneath every “Praise be”?

Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal (one of my favorite craft-oriented writer’s blogs) points out how carefully the story is focused. I’ve always found historical fiction to be problematic, but as Ken points out, “McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.” He’s absolutely right: what’s important about the setting is the belief system and the emotional lives of the characters, not what anyone’s wearing. The story does a great job of drawing us into those elements.

And those elements are why the story must be set in the 14th century; a contemporary setting wouldn’t make sense. John wouldn’t accept his wife’s vow of celibacy, and/or he’d hop right into bed with his student; in either case, the story would have to be very different. It’d be the story I’ve read a hundred times. This one’s a lot more interesting. Though the mechanisms are less familiar, the story is generated by fundamental motivations I understand. It’s a kind of defamiliarization.

Some stories are highly visual; this one is highly aural. John remembers two sounds from his childhood, one ugly and one beautiful: the leper’s rattle, and the song of the nightingale, his first encounter with what Jerome of Moravia called “la pulchra nota,” the beautiful note. When his wife labors with their children, she makes such a racket the midwife resorts to stuffing her ears with cotton. And there is another encounter with la pulchra nota, as one of his singing students, and a sweet young thing at that, achieves the perfect note:

I would like to end my story at this moment. I would like to linger here at the very crux of joy, where the note, and these words, were as one to me.
But I cannot. I then understood something about music that I had not learned from my father, or Jerome of Moravia, or Isidore of Seville. La pulchra nota the is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.

After ecstasy, there’s nowhere to go but down (remember that next time a blushing bride declares her wedding day “the happiest day of my life” – because she might just be, cursedly, right) so it’s no surprise when Olivia’s voice sounds less sweet on future notes.

Steve Almond gives writing advice along the lines of “it’s your job as a writer to put your characters through hell” and McNett certainly does give John a full range of emotional experiences: contentment, grief, sexual frustration, desire, joy, disappointment, rage, guilt, and finally, a kind of passive acceptance that seems saintly – or insane. Perhaps a touch of both. Each twist felt very authentic to me; it wasn’t something written to create a plot, but a pitch-perfect (sorry) recording of an emotional life.

Through the story, I was pulling for John, and that’s part of the writer’s job, too (“give the reader someone to care about”). But I was always aware: John’s wife has her own story as well, as does his student. It’s easy to create a hero among villains – that’s soap opera – but to blend together three characters with elements of each – three flawed noble souls who can’t quite get outside themselves to see another’s needs – is where a real story happens.

[Post originally written in Fall 2014 as part of the BASS 2014 read]

I see this story was also selected for a Pushcart 2015 Prize. I couldn’t agree more.

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11 responses to “Pushcart XXXIX / BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

  1. Pingback: Bye-Bye BASS 2014 | A Just Recompense

  2. This was one of my favorites so far as well. I read the first few lines and dreaded what was to follow. I thought, “Oh no, a period piece.” Somehow, I was quickly drawn in and couldn’t stop reading. The unfolding of the internal struggle was so complex, yet the writing gave me such a good understanding of it.

  3. Hello Karen,

    In a blog posting about Antonya Nelson’s “Chapter Two,” you mention a Book Bench interview. Is that interview available online or can you tell me how I might find the interview?

    Thanks

    Keith Hood ( keithhood at mac dot com)

      • Hi Keith – yes, that’s it. I usually provide a link, not sure what happened back then, but I’ve fixed it – thanks for pointing it out, and I’m glad you were able to find what you were looking for. At the time of the interview, NYT’s book discussion blog was called “Book Bench”; it’s since been retitled “Page Turner”.

      • Hello Karen,

        Thanks for the response. I moderate a short story discussion group here in Ann Arbor, Michigan and, this month, we’re discussing stories by Antonya Nelson in preparation for a workshop Nelson is leading here in May. I’m providing a link to your blog and The New Yorker interview along with some other references including this one if you haven’t seen it. http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/35758/short-story-a-process-of-revision-by-antonya-nelson.html

      • What a great essay on writing class technique!

        Nelson’s never been a writer I’ve been entirely comfortable with; not sure why. You might be interested in Ken Nichols’ take on the story over at Great Writers Steal – unlike me, he has actual training in writing (an MFA) so has a better idea of “what to look for” from a writer’s point of view. Me, I just read and react. But I often love what I find.

        Enjoy the workshop!

      • Thanks for that link. I find that most short story collections are hit and miss and I don’t think it’s a matter of quality. All of the stories in a collection might be well written but it doesn’t mean that I’ll LIKE all of the stories in a collection. I’m a big fan of Ron May’s Reading the Short Story ( http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com ). May is quite adamant that stories need to read multiple times before they can really be appreciated. I’m not sure that I agree with him because I’ve read lots of stories that blew me away on first reading (i.e. Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” & Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) I have gained greater appreciation of some stories on rereading. Carver’s “Cathedral” is one example. When I find a collection I really love and want to learn how the writer is doing what they’re doing, I take one of those speckled cover Composition Books and analyze every story in the collection in terms of how the story is written. I look at the time period the story covers. How well the author handles minor characters. I look at the author’s choices for sentence length and how the author uses backstory, interior thought, and flashback. I just started doing that with all six of Nelson’s story collections and it has given me a greater appreciation of her level of craft.

        For the record, I’ve noticed a few things about Nelson’s fiction. One is that she’s a practitioner of the short story as a self-contained world in the sense that her stories are tightly constructed with a place for everything and everything in its place. Michael Chabon has said her stories are “beautifully formed.” They have none of the literary non sequiturs common to the “messy” non-self-contained story worlds of writers like Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Diaz (and I love all three). Secondly, her fiction is very much character based instead of being event or plot based. It’s often not readily apparent what is at stake in her fiction One of my favorite stories by her, “Or Else” is a rare exception to this. Thirdly, she rarely writes first person stories and her third person narratives lean more toward omniscient POV than third person limited (AKA free indirect style) POV. I’ve found reading her work to very helpful in identifying weaknesses in my own work. I am looking forward to working with her next month. Regardless of any opinion on Nelson’s writing, I’ve heard that she’s a great teacher and workshop leader.

      • Prof. May appears frequently in these pages; not only did his blog “teach” me to read Alice Munro (primarily through “Corrie”) but I used his recent essay collection as a summer project last year; I didn’t get very far before other things distracted me, hope to continue this summer.

        And I agree – it’s more important to me to understand what an author is doing, than to “like” a story (which I know pretty easily). I’ve been known to appreciate, yet not “like”, a story. And once in a while, if I look at a story long enough, I figure out where the gold is.

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