Just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Kindle Single short story, “Starved for You” & while I am a great admirer of her work, I have to say Atwood seems to be coasting here, or that it is the first chapter of something longer that didn’t pan out. It certainly ends as if there could & probably should be something more. But beyond that relatively superficial level of plot mechanics, the fictional world seems a little thin here. One might compare it, for instance, with the opening chapter of Oryx & Crake, where Atwood is writing at the very top of her form, to see what second-level Atwood looks like. The writing in this story remains graceful & stylish, but the imagination falters.
The story is set in a near-future dystopia in which prison communities run by a corporation have been developed in which citizens spend half their time living as prisoners and the other half as “prisoner-civilians” in the gated community that surrounds the prison. For the residents, once you sign up it’s a lifetime commitment. One month as a prisoner, one month as a civilian tending the prison & surrounding town — for the rest of your life. As in Oryx & Crake, life outside the confines of the corporate community has degenerated into a nasty amalgam of poverty, criminality, and disease. People go into the Conciliance (for so the town is called) program because it offers them security, though at the cost of their freedom. Instead, they are given a simulacrum of freedom.
Predictably, for some characters the simulacrum proves insufficiently stimulating & it is from that dissatisfaction that Atwood fashions her plot, which revolves around unapproved sexual desire. But the characters, particularly Max, are cartoons. (Ah, it just occurred to me writing that last sentence, this would have made a good graphic novella.) In an interesting twist, one of the characters whose sex drive seems to be trying to compensate for her loss of freedom, has the job of euthanizing prisoners who cannot be reformed. It is a job she takes seriously & performs responsibly, feeling no conscious remorse. No sense of guilt or complicity clouds her idealism in performing this task & the scene in which we see her at work is deeply creepy, certainly the strongest in the story. Would that the sex scenes rose to this level. Perhaps if this story gets developed into something more, that will happen. The final scene of the story certainly suggests kinky possibilities.
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.
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.
In this book of stories Johnson specializes in the narcotic grotesque. The basic message of these stories is that people do terrible things to each other, especially when drunk or stoned. People run each other over and shoot each other, but all without meaning any harm, without affect. Or, the affect is one of impotent desperation. All of the pieces in this collection — some of which are very short — are told in the first person and (mostly) by the the same first person narrator, a drunk and an addict and a petty thief. Minor characters and settings reappear from story to story. “Emergency” is the centerpiece here and has been anthologized widely. By itself, this story feels like not much more than an account of two guys who work in a hospital completely fucked up on drugs, first at work then after work. But in the context of the other stories, which flesh out the speaker and central character, “Emergency” takes on a kind of down and out grace. The other “big” story in the collection is the final one, “Beverly Home,” in which the speaker — the same person as in the earlier stories — is a recovering herion addict who works part-time in an “old folks home” producing the bi-monthly newsletter. But this final story is not about to present the reader with an easy path to redemption; the speaker, when not producing his chirpy newsletter, spends his time secretly looking through the windows of an Amish couple and it is during one of these perverse peeping sessions that he discovers the very difficulty requirements of redemption and forgivness. [New York Magazine profile of Johnson here. Another here.]