Small Demon
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.

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.

Dec 152008
 

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.]

Dec 132008
 

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]