I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood last night. This novel is a sequel to Oryx & Crake, which came out in 2003. Oryx & Crake establishes and develops a near-future North American dystopia that is frighteningly plausible because it is so firmly rooted in the present. In a lecture at MIT shortly after the novel was published, Atwood describes the big scrapbooks of cuttings she compioled in order to ground the novel’s scientific and technological details in present knowledge and practice. She mostly concerns herself with genetics and economics in the first book, the technology of gene splicing and cloning leading to an economy based on the production of new organisms, which are given names like “rakunk,” a pet-like hybrid of raccoons and skunks, in Wikipedia’s phrase, and “pigoon,” a huge, balloon-like pig used to grow extra copies of human organs for transplantation. The names sound as if they come direct from the marketing departments of the industrial-scientific complex — cute and sinister simultaneously. Scientists and their families live in corporate “compounds,” gated and heavily guarded communities with their own stores, medical services, and social activities; the rest of humanity lives in the “pleeblands,” definitely ungated communities of varying degrees of squalor.
A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:
The Story Behind the Story – Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)
12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.
Narrative Design – Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”
The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction – Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop – Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.
I’ve been reading the stories that fall in the middle of Jean Stafford’s Collected Stories, most of which are set in the Rocky Mountains. When I first began reading Stafford, I saw her as a specialist in the grim, a chronicler of the unloved or insufficiently loved. Those impressions are not untrue, but they fail to describe Stafford’s emotional range. As her story, “The Mountain Day” demonstrates, she is a writer with a deep understanding of love and of — for lack of a better way of putting it — maturity. She catches very precisely the personality on the edge between childhood and adulthood. She is also — this came as a surprise to me — a deeply class-conscious writer able to describe the self-delusion and self-hatred of the working class. See in particular, “The Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies” and “The Healthiest Girl in Town,” for examples of this class consciousness.
Technically, the stories are so limpid that I never notice how they are put together. As someone trying to teach myself about writing fiction, I have to consciously backtrack over the texts and ask myself, “No, how the hell did she do that?”
Note: Good essay here by Jonathan Yardly about one of Stafford’s novels, The Mountain Lion, which I have not yet read.
“Prime Evening Time” — Ward Just: Character study of an Army Captain home & working in the Pentagon after three tours in Vietnam. He has won bronze & silver stars & the Congressional Medal of Honor. Only a Captain, he’s on track to be a general. There really isn’t any external action in the story; all the action takes place inside the Captains personality. Not his mind, which seems blissfully blank, but his personality. The story presents the captain’s transformation from a soldier reticent to discuss his war experiences — he doesn’t even talk about them with his wife — to being a mouthpiece for the government’s war effort. He is seduced so easily by the television network that interviews him that he doesn’t even notice the seduction. In general, I find that Just is not a very good miniaturist — I find his longer fiction more effective than his shorter pieces. I like the novels best, then the long short stories; the shorter stories never seem to develop their worlds effectively. [From The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.]
“The Hoaxer” — Walter Kirn: A razor-sharp portrait of a certain kind of American failure. The story is told from the point of view of the hoaxer’s son Travis, who is just entering adolescence when he discovers that his father is in the habit of creating crop circles, Bigfoot sightings, UFO scares & the like, as a hobby. The father, an autodidact (though of limited interests) who never finished his engineering degree, drags his wife & son from one city to another, where he takes low-level computer programming jobs so as to pursue his real passion, creating hoaxes. Told by the son, the story presents a father filled with resentments. [From 12 Short Stories and their Making.]
“Upon the Sweeping Flood” — Joyce Carol Oates: Motivation is a problem at the end of this story. It’s easy enough to imagine why the main character decides to drive into danger instead of away from it, but the murder he commits at the end of the story seems insufficiently motivated. A buttoned down businessman spends the night with a brother and sister surviving an horrific flood that, apparently, washes civilization clean out of him. If the point is that our civilized behavior is but a thin veneer, then the story is banal.
“Sacha’s Dog” — Karen Brennan: A effective story that, while it does not technically take the dog’s point of view, presents the world as a dog might experience it. Which means pretty much unrelenting cruelty & indifference — toward dogs & other humans — on the part of the characters. [From The Story Behind the Story.]
“Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” — Jean Stafford: An early story about a young American woman whose fluent French deserts her as soon as she sets foot on French soil. The story takes place over the ocurse of an afternoon & evening in which she endures a snobbish outing to a country estate, at which she is the only American, followed by a dinner with American friends. [From The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.] Note: I’ll be reading the whole book in the coming weeks and posting more on Stafford, whose work I find very useful to my own writing.
“The Interior Castle” — Jean Stafford: A study of surviving physical pain. Stafford herself was in an automobile accident that disfigured her face, though the circumstances a different form those of the main character, Pansy, in this story. The entire story takes place as Pansy recovers from a skull fracture and badly broken nose & details the ways in which she goes inside herself, into her “interior castle,” which is how she imagines her injured brain. The story is clinical & the narrator dispassionate, rendering the pain in excruciating detail. [From The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.]
“The North Shore, 1958″ — Ward Just: A long, sprawling, inelegant, but very effective story about a particular slice of American cultural history. I like Ward Just because he finds ways to get, not just politics, but the arts, too, into his stories as motivating presences. In this case, some Edward Hopper paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Just’s characters sometimes tend to be types rather than individuals — saved because they are interesting types. [From The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.]
“A Wife of Nashville” — Peter Taylor: Beautifully stylish story with a structure that parcels out the plot according to the timeline of a family’s hired help. A series of maids define the southern, middle-class Depression-era life of the story’s point of view character. How the spirit is made and destroyed. Makes me want to read more Taylor. [From Narrative Design.]
“Depth Charge” — Craig Bernardini: I found the management of detail and action in this story confusing, though once the reader understands the situation & setting, the final action is powerful. This story suffers from a common problem in contemporary fiction, unclear motivation. Or merely mystifying motivation. [From Narrative Design.]
“Daisy’s Valentine” — Mary Gaitskill: Well, it’s a story about a bunch of losers in the city & it generates no sympathy for any of them, which is a problem for me. (In my own attempts at fiction, I am probably too sympathetic toward my characters.) The scenes are drawn very clearly & the pieces of the story — especially images — go together in ways that suggest (without hammering on) thematic concerns. [From Narrative Design.]
“Strike Anywhere” — Antonya Nelson: More of a series of scenes implying a story than an actual story. Seems not to take responsibility for formal completion. [From The Story Behind the Story.]
I have a new poem, “Ballad of Crows & God,” in The Sun, a magazine I rediscovered last summer & have been enjoying since subscribing. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned magazine, with its emphasis on autobiography, first person point of view, and direct expression of feeling; all of these characteristics are tempered with a certain reserve, or elegance, however, that makes for an attractive editorial voice. If you see this issue (February) be sure to check out Ellen McCullough Moore’s short story, “Final Dispositions,” as well as my poem. I haven’t finished reading the issue, but there are no doubt a lot of other things worth reading, too. (Note: well, actually it’s an old poem I completely rewrote last summer at the Blue Mountain Center, whre the resident murder of crows kept me entertained — & woke me early.)