Short Fiction Notes: Recent Reading (II)

“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.]

New Poem in The Sun

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.)

On Taking Up Fiction

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.