Short Fiction Notes: Chekhov

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.

Short Fiction Notes: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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.]