Small Demon
Jan 152009
 

The novelist Stewart O’Nan came to Clarkson last fall to give the Convocation address & while he was here I had a couple of chances to talk to him, once at dinner, once the next day. He amazed me by reading my book, which I gave him at dinner, by the time we talked the following afternoon. He took notes. And since I’d read some of his fiction, we were able to have one of those good nuts & bolts kind of conversations writers like to enjoy when there is nobody else around to bore. Over the course of that conversation, Stewart suggested I try writing fiction. I really hadn’t written a story since I was an undergraduate & even then I tended to write poetic prose rather than stories. But after Stewart left I began reading his stories, then Chekhov, then everything I could get my hands on, trying to absorb the genre into my creative genome.

A month or so into this reading, I began toying with an idea for a story, taking notes and turning it over in my mind, and was on the verge of sitting down to write when another idea struck me — an image, really, & then an event. Over the next couple of weeks I wrote that story straight through and then did a quick revision. It ran to 5000 words, much longer than I had expected when I began. I sent that story, called “Bye Bye Blackbird” (after the Mel Tormé song that figures in the plot) to my mentor & to another fiction writer I know, neither of whom dismissed it as worthless. In fact, both were encouraging & very kind to my initial effort.I made some revisions & sent the piece off to a magazine that has previously published my poetry & as of this writing I await their response.

That first story concerns a boy, age 9, told in the third person; I began another story about the same boy about a dozen years later, also in third person point of view, but got hung up about half-way through the arc of the plot. (In both stories, I knew in general what was going to happen, but I didn’t know until I was actually writing how it was going to happen.) I set the half-finished story aside & focused on reading as many stories as I could.

In the meantime, I saw an ad in one of the writer’s magazines for a “short-short” story competition: under 1000 words. I had been taking notes for stories and characters in my notebook for several weeks & thought it would be a good exercise to try something very short. Most of the story ideas I had jotted down had something to do with the later life of the boy in the first story & this short-short turned out to be in the voice of his friend, a few years older, when they are both in their twenties. The friend is a bartender and speaks in the first person about a seemingly trivial  incident that occurred in the bar where he was working, but that has stuck with him — he is looking back on the experience several years later. What I didn’t expect is that this same character had another, longer story to tell, in which the boy from the first story is a college student.

On autobiography: I would be lying if I claimed that the central character of the first story was not “me” in some sense, but the events in the story did not happen to the actual me when I was a child. Actually, I took more of the setting than the action from my own experience. The same goes for the later stories — the boy is certainly some version of myself, but combined with aspects of people I knew or know, but the actual events did not happen to me & are in that sense entirely fictional. The very short story, titled “Faith,” doesn’t not feature the boy at all, the speaker being a combination of three different people I knew when I was young; the second bartender story, titled “Charity,” is told from the point of view of the boy’s friend and thus gives an external view of his character.

I have now returned to the story I’d gotten stuck on, moving it slowly forward — in all these pieces I have written straight through, not composing in pieces the way I do with poetry, & only making a few notes about pieces of specific language that I think will be needed later in the piece. This working straight through keeps me in suspense & keeps the action open. As I said, I know in general where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it is going to arrive there, which path will rise from the details to create a structure.

In both of the longer third person stories about the boy, first as a child then as a young man, I am including bits and pieces of actual times & places — in the first, some details about pop music and JFK, in the second, news reports of the fall of Saigon occur at intervals throughout the story. I am attracted to this sort of nailing down the narrative to historical facts & cultural details, which I guess makes me some kind of later day realist. In any case, that’s where I am now, feeling excited & happy about this new direction my work has taken. I was feeling as if my poetry had become narrower & narrower in its concerns & techniques & for whatever reason was no longer an appropriate place to deal with certain psychological states; but I feel free in fiction to play with a whole new set of ideas & techniques. I haven’t felt this engaged in my own creative work for several years — I only hope the results, the stories themselves, are as worthwhile as the experience of producing them.

Jan 122009
 

“Shelter” (Charles Baxter) — This is the first Baxter story I’ve read, but when I began writing fiction a couple of months ago I was greatly influenced by his how-to book, Subtext, which I am reading straight through for a second time. “Shelter” is in Baxter’s collection A Relative Stranger & it’s an effective story, though it feels just a tad too polished, perhaps only in contrast to the more inelegant Andre Dubus stories I’ve been gulping down recently.

“A Day in the Open” (Jane Bowles) — Reads like Chekhov transported to north Africa. Everything is dramatized. Nothing happens but everything happens; or, things happen but they are presented so neutrally that every event — the important & the unimportant, the dramatic & the prosaic, the significant & the insignificant — all have equal weight. Absolutely no moral judgments are made.

“The Man Who Knew Belle Star” (Richard Bausch) — This is a story about the absence of human feeling. The outlaw’s language is perfectly flat, implacable. The tough guy who picks her up hitchhiking has been in trouble, been in prison, but has not left the human world, which Belle has done, completely. Technically, a slow build, the final violent act taking place beyond the narrated time of the story.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates) — Like “The Man Who Knew Belle Star,” this story builds relentlessly through repetition. In both stories, the dangerous character is presented as having a flat affect, a profound disconnect from ordinary assumptions about good & evil. Again, the final violent act occurs after the narrative time of the story concludes.

“In the Zoo” (Jean Stafford) — I vaguely knew that Jean Stafford had been married to Robert Lowell, but hadn’t read any of her stories until this one, which I found in The Granta Book of the American Short Story. This is a bitter but still comic story of two orphan sisters sent to live with a guardian, Mrs. Placer, in a small town in Colorado. The most audacious thing about the story is that they are not clever girls and they do not succeed, really, until their guardian removes the weight of her presence by dying. There is beautiful and harrowing writing about animals in this story. [Good brief  discussion of the story here.]

“Chan Tha” (Tran Thuy Mai) — I read an interview with Mai several weeks ago in the Vietnam News and asked my friend Ly Lan about her. Turns out Lan & Mai know each other, though they haven’t met for years. Lan sent me a couple of stories, “Chan Tha” being much the stronger of the two, I thought. The problem was that it was badly translated. It is common among Vietnamese intellectuals to deny the well-known bit of translation theory that says the final translation of a story or poem ought to be done by a native speaker of the target language. So I retranslated the story over the last couple of days, brining it into idiomatic English. The story takes place during the Cambodian-Vietnamese war (1975-1989) and involves a love story between a Vietnamese soldier and a Cambodian girl. What makes the story work is the detailed and specific use of incident — a braiding of four meetings between the two characters — that is echoed in a braiding of images throughout the story.

“A Poetics for Bullies” (Stanley Elkin) — Elkin sets himself the task of portraying a bully from the inside & except that the first person narrator seems more literate than he ought to be, succeeds in excruciating detail. And the foil, the good boy, the hero, John Williams, is perhaps too good.

Jan 112009
 

If Flannery O’Connor known for her her cruelty toward her characters, Andre Dubus is known for his kindness. Of if not kindness, sympathy. (He is also better at writing women than O’Connor is at writing men, but I’m not really interested in a comparison that, carried any farther, would quickly become tendentious.) I’ve been reading Dubus’s Selected Stories over the last few weeks with real enjoyment. Some of my pleasure is derived from the fact that Dubus’s characters inhabit various working class worlds familiar to me from my childhood and youth. But that, I would tell my students, is a personal association — fine & natural, but not of any general critical use.

So what is it that Dubus’s stories actually do? Many don’t have conventional plots & you can’t even say that the characters are wiser at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. There is often a Chekhovian sense of incompleteness in the action of a Dubus story. The main character of “The Pitcher” simply drives away from the town where he has been playing minor league ball at the end of the season, leaving his wife behind, who has taken up with a married dentist — “straight through to San Antonio,” the radio playing. He’s lost the final game of the season 1 to 0 because his team couldn’t hit behind him. Still, he’s pretty sure he’s going to make it to the majors, unlike his teammates, or his wife for that matter. The pitcher has lost his wife and lost the final game of the season, but he is moving forward, driving straight through.The story reminds me of Chekhov’s “The House with the Mansard” in its optimism in the face of human unhappiness.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read most of the way through Dubus’s Selected Stories, reading them for what I can learn from them about writing fiction. A Dubus story dramatizes the inner life of a character and that dramatization becomes something that is stable enough for the reader to hold in mind — not a symbol because not generalized, but operating something like a symbol. Here’s a list of the Dubus stories I’ve read so far, with brief comments, mostly intended to jog my own memory.

  • “Miranda Over the Valley” — This story never grabbed me, though it is evocative in its parts — seems amorphous as a whole & in fact that is one of the risks Dubus seems willing to run in his fiction: a looseness that can often be a virtue.
  • “The Winter Father” — This one is deftly plotted & hangs together memorably, but lacks the emotional depth of “Miranda.”
  • “Waiting” — A very short story, almost a prose poem, about a waitress who is widowed young by the Korean war and who comes to understand, to sense, that she is surrounded by a great and meaningless indifference. As do several of Dubus’s characters, she is an ocean swimmer.
  • “Killings” — More a schematic drawing of a story than a story, about the perfect crime. Perfect both morally & technically.
  • “The Pretty Girl” — Almost a novella my least favorite piece in the Selected Stories. My own bias prefers short stories at the shorter end of the range, so that my affect my judgment. This has a great fight scene, but too many of the pieces fail to fall together. Unusual for this writer, all the characters are ugly, even the pretty girl of the title.
  • “Graduation” — Dubus has great sympathy for sluts. This seems like a nearly perfect story to me, but then I love redemption in all its aspects.
  • “The Pitcher” — A story about doing one’s job, grace under pressure. Redemption doesn’t often take the form we think it should.
  • “After the Game” — In the same voice as “The Pitcher,” a brief mediation on how things go wrong even for the gifted & lucky among us.
  • “Cadence” — Cutting it & not cutting it in boot camp turns out to be a matter of character rahter than of physical strength. A parable that warns against thinking too highly of one’s self.
  • “If they Knew Yvonne” — My favorite story in the book. Structurally all over the place, that looseness I mentioned earlier a virtue. Spans more time than most short stories.
  • “The Fat Girl” — Dubus at his compassionate best. The narrative technique here summarizes big stretches of time & only dramatizes occasionally, at the moments of highest intensity. Virtually all the dialogue is indirect.
  • “They Now Live in Texas” — Short, mysterious, three strands: A couple comes home from a party drunk, a friend of theirs who has given up drinking, a horror movie the woman watches after her husband has gone to bed. These elements are braided together without comment.
  • “Leslie in California” — A young working-class couple moves to California; he’s a fisherman who can’t get a boat, she stays at home; he drinks & on three occasions he strikes her, though he is contrite afterward; finally he gets a chance to go out & earn some money — their electricity has been turned off — but the night before he drinks & hits his wife. In the morning she cooks breakfast for him and he goes. He will be gone several days. What will she do? Chekhov says that it is the writer’s duty to present the problem, not solve it.
  • “The Curse” — A bartender blames himself because he fails to prevent a rape that occurs right in front of him, in his own bar. Both he & the girl are overpowered. The beauty of this story emerges in the small relationships between the main character, the bartender, and his family & friends, after the fact.
  • “Sorrowful Mysteries” — Dubus is at his best imagining characters unlike his readers that nevertheless draw readers to them. This reader, anyway. Another of Dubus’s loosely jointed stories, its protagonist at first appears too good to be true, but turns out to be just good.
  • “Delivering” — A small gem from the point of view of a fifteen year old paperboy, another ocean swimmer. He has listened, the night before, while his parents had a final, drunken fight before his mother leaves for good — listened while his younger brother slept. In the morning, they deliver his papers, swim, eat doughnuts, and return home, where they play catch. An act of betrayal balanced by a series of small acts of mercy.
Dec 212008
 

I’ve just reread O’Connor’s “And the Lame Shall Enter First” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” & it hasn’t been so long since I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It’s not my purpose in these notes to produce an analysis, but to catch a sense of my own reactions to various writers’ work. If Chekhov is cool, O’Connor is over-heated. She is celebrated for her unflinching portrayal of life’s cruelty, but what bothers me is that she seems to take pleasure in cruelty. Though she was a devout Catholic, here stories give little evidence that she believed in redemption. Indeed, in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” she parodies the very idea of redemption, punishing the admittedly reprehensible Sheppard beyond justice. If the idea is to schematize the idea that there is no justice in this world, well, we can read the (pre-Christian) book of Job. But, for a Christian, O’Connor seems much more fascinated by evil than by the possibility of good. I’m not looking for simple and uplifting tales of moral triumph here, but I find O’Connor’s pleasure in her characters’ pain unseemly.

Her enjoyment of cruelty makes O’Connor an acute observer of hypocrisy, though. I recognize Sheppard in various Sunday School teachers and Youth Pastors I encountered growing up & I certainly wish I had had Rufus Johnson’s wit in order to respond to them, if not his criminality. But I found the reversal of expected belief — Sheppard the atheist, Johnson the believer — implausible. It’s necessary, of course, for the moral reversal the author wants to pull at the end, but it strikes me as forced and hyperbolic. Come to think of it, she also pulls an unbelievable reversal at the end of ‘Everything that Rises Must Converge.” Not that the boy can’t be conflicted & contrary, but that his resistance to his mother throughout the story, until the very end, is ultimately so weak. His weakness makes him less interesting than he might be. Again, there is a remorselessness in this work that repels me. However insightful O’Connor’s imagination, it is insight gained at the cost of moral tunnel vision.

Dec 182008
 

chekhovBecause I have been trying to write some fiction, I have been reading the acknowledged masters of the genre, beginning with a little Barnes & Noble edition of stories. What appeals to me about Chekhov is his coolness, his detailed dispassionate descriptions of people and events. He is sympathetic toward his characters, but he does not indulge them. And Chekhov should also dispell the common notion that a short story must have a crisis and resolution, or that the main character must change or see the world differently. Writing to his publisher (who also wrote stories), Chekhov said that the job of the storyteller is to present and defina a problem, not solve it. That strikes me as good advice, which I am trying to take to heart as I write my own stories.

I spent some time yesterday diagramming the scenes in the famous story “Goosberries,” which is structurally a straightforward story within a story. [The link is to an earlier translation than the one I read.] Ivan tells his friends the story of his brother, a government clerk who has scrimped and saved enough to become a landowner in his retirement. In doing so, he has become complacent and self-satisfied. But the setting is everything. Ivan tells this story while sitting in the upstairs room of his friend Alehin, whose farm Ivan and his friend Burkin have stopped at, taking shelter from a rainstorm. The two farmsteads function almost as two additional characters in the story, with Alehin’s productive and in good trim, while I’van’s brother’s farm is described as chaotic and disorganized (though this description is Ivan’s, not the narrator’s). Ivan urges Alehin not to become complacent like his own brother, which is odd since the two characters are about as different as can be imagined — the obsessive brother and Alehin, who is described as a kind of healthy animal.

Well, my intention is not to retell the story. [Here is a pretty good e-notes summary of the story.] What interests me is the way that Chekhov refuses to take sides. The narrator notes that “no one was satisfied” with Ivan’s story (despite the fact that it is told with passion and good will) and the brother’s situation — which the reader gets only through Ivan’s eyes — is not dismissed or belittled despite Ivan’s attempt to use it as a warning. Alehin is presented as self-sufficient, part of the landscape. The problem the story presents is, How is it best to live? It does not provide an answer.