Monday, August 14, 2006

Lost Girls

I've been on a little bit of a summer hiatus, partly due to a busy summer, partly due to my reading novels lately rather than short stories, and partly due to some uninteresting stories in the summer's issues of The New Yorker. Sorry, but I can't fake an interest in an exciting new short story from Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

However, this week we have a new David Means story, "The Spot." I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed; I feel that I've seen this story before from Means--the story of a lost girl, misled by a bad man, engaged in criminal conduct, wallowing in hopelessness. And there's betrayal, always betrayal: in "Sault Ste. Marie" and "Nebraska," the girl betrays the bad man she has taken up with; in "The Spot," the girl (taught to turn tricks by Shank, her pimp/boyfriend) betrays a John by choking him to death with his bolo tie for no particular reason. The John hit her, but the real motivation seems to be that the tie spoke to her:
You know, those cold metal tips kept brushing me, and it was like they were saying, Here I am, yank me.
The tips of the tie (the aglets, for all you crossword puzzle fans) told her to strangle the guy, so she did.

The story winds up at Niagara Falls. The story is awash with water images, and the Falls provide the final one when Shank encourages the girl to walk out too far at the observation point and she is swept over the brink to her doom, echoing another incident in Shank's life when he drowned another lost girl while supposedly in the act of performing a river baptism.

Anyway, at the end of the day, is there much to this except some pretty writing and a bleak worldview? Not especially. But if you're up for some gritty crime fiction, "The Spot" will hit the spot.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Those Bad Men

A quick note about this week's fiction in The New Yorker, "Carnival, Las Tablas," by Cristina Enriquez. This is the story of a pair of sisters who go to the Panamanian version of Carnival. Men are mean to them. Their father has left the family; one sister's boyfriend bites her on the face; the other sister remembers a boyfriend who cheated on her; etc.

As much as I enjoy and appreciate The New Yorker's commitment to publishing fiction, there are weeks when it seems a story has been selected purely on the basis of the author's name. Why work to find something interesting when you can just look for brand-name bylines, check to make sure the author hasn't been used in the past two or three months, and go to lunch?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dubus on Vertical Writing

It's taken me a while, but I finally tracked down a copy of On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. The book as a whole is sort of odd and haphazardly assembled, half essays and half anthology. The anthologized stories are mostly familiar, including (among others) "Bullet in the Brain," "A Rose for Emily," "The Things They Carried," and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." However, among the essays is one by Andre Dubus, titled "The Habit of Writing," which motivated me to look for the book, because it apparently appears nowhere else.

In the essay, Dubus describes his method of writing, a method he arrived at after 25 years of trying. "I gestate," he says.
I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.
Dubus tells of writing a story titled "Anna," about a young couple who commit an armed robbery, and how he could not get inside the character of Anna. He struggled.
Then one day or night I decided to try a different approach. I told myself that next day at the desk I would not leave a sentence until I knew precisely what Anna was feeling. I told myself that even if I wrote only fifty words, I would stay with this....

At my desk next morning I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook.... In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in those terms. But for years I had been writing horizontallly, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.
He also speaks of waiting until he sees the first two scenes before he begins to write. When he sees the scenes, "It means it is time. The story is ready for me to receive it." Readers of Dubus will recognize the significance of these words. Receiving communion, or the Eucharist, is a central theme in his work, and one of his better known stories, "The Curse," ends with the line "He wished he were alone so he could kneel to receive it." ("It" being the curse the protagonist feels he deserves for failing to stop the gang rape of a young woman in the bar where he worked.)

Dubus is not alone in his somewhat mystical view of writing. Robert Olen Butler gives similar advice in his book, From Where You Dream. Butler says, somewhat cryptically, that a writer should never start with an idea, or a plot, or a character, or anything other preconceived plan, but should instead tap into the subconscious mind and let the words flow. That sounds a little too new-age to be trusted, perhaps, or maybe it's only meaningful to a writer who has reached the stage of unconscious mastery.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Out of Its Misery

I've been reading Shiloh & Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason, originally published in 1982 and winner of that year's PEN/Hemingway Award. Mason, a Kentuckian, has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and especially for the dialect of her homeland. I can hear these people talking--and I know they're authentic, because I grew up hearing this speech--and Mason achieves it through careful diction and phrasing. Rarely will you find a dropped "g," and never a phonetic spelling. This is the way to write regional dialogue.

These stories are about family, and many, but not all, are about troubled marriages. The events of these stories are simultaneously momentous and subdued, as in "The Climber," the story of a woman who has discovered a lump in her breast. On the day the story takes place, the woman has an appointment to see a doctor about the lump. Some men have come to cut down an eighty-foot tree next to her house. She watches the elaborate process of the tree's removal, and eventually goes to the doctor, who informs her that the lump is merely fibrocystic disease, and nothing to worry about.
As she drives home, Dolores feels confused, surprised that her sense of relief feels so peculiar. There is nothing momentous in what she has been through. Nothing important has happened that morning. A tree has been cut down; her daughter has cut out a weskit; the doctor has made a routine examination; Dolores has forgotten to make lunch.
But of course, something momentous has occurred. In a sense, her life has been spared.

Throughout the collection, Mason presents ordinary people dealing with ordinary heartache and getting on with the business of living, the way people do, without making a big fuss. Reading these stories, I feel almost as if I'm crouching in the bushes outside someone's home, eavesdropping. Yet, it would be a mistake to label these tales "slice of life" stories. Things happen. Characters wrestle with decisions and take actions, sometimes small, but always revealing.

In "The Retreat," Georgeann is married to Shelby, a preacher who works as an electrician during the week to make ends meet. Georgeann has grown weary of Shelby and his devotion to the church; the highlight of his year is a weekend religious retreat, but Georgann's preparations for the retreat are reluctant. One Sunday, instead of going to hear Shelby preach at a funeral, she cleans out the hen house. One of the chickens is sick, unable to stand. She brings it food and water, although she thinks, "There is nothing to do for a sick chicken, except to let it die."

Georgeann goes to the retreat, but spends most of the time (and most of their spare money) playing video games. When they return home, they learn that Shelby has been assigned to another church, sixty miles away, meaning that they will have to move. Georgeann tells him that she isn't going with him.
"We're going to have to pray over this," he says quietly.

"Later," says Georgeann. "I have to go pick up the kids."

Before leaving, she goes to check on the chickens. A neighbor has been feeding them. The sick chicken is still alive, but it doesn't move from a corner under the roost. Its eyelids are half shut, and its comb is dark and crusty. The henhouse still smells of roost paint. Georgeann gathers eggs and takes them to the kitchen. Then, without stopping to reflect, she gets the ax from the shed and returns to the henhouse. She picks up the sick chicken and takes it outside to the stump and examines its feathers. She doesn't see any mites on it now. Taking the hen by the feet, she lays it on its side, its head pointing away from her. She holds its body down, pressing its wings. The chicken doesn't struggle. When the ax crashes down blindly on its neck, Georgeann feels nothing, only that she has done her duty.
Yes, you guessed it, an example of the Dead Animal Trope, but a fine one. When a chicken's that sick, it must be put out of its misery, just like a sick marriage. For another example of an animal acting as a stand-in for a doomed marriage, see "Rear View," by Antonya Nelson (mentioned briefly in a previous post: "Extra Credit for Marmots").

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Story of D.

This week in The New Yorker we find "Innocence," by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This is a complicated short story, not so easily summarized, and the complications extend to the structure: it's a reminiscence about a novel translated by the narrator and written by a young man named Dinesh. The novel is based on a time when the narrator and Dinesh lived together (as fellow roomers, not romantically) in a boarding house in India. Dinesh appears in the novel as a character named "D." I've never understood that device, referring to a character only by an initial, as if to protect the character's privacy. I suppose in a confessional it might make the story feel more true.

This story is primarily about the man and woman who own the boarding house, Mr. and Mrs. Malhotra. Their past has been marred by scandal; they participated unwittingly in a gold smuggling scheme, and Mr. Malhotra served some jail time. Mrs. Malhotra, smelling quick riches, goaded him into his actions; hence, they are both to blame, and much of the story revolves around the lingering bitterness in their lives. The foreground of the story concerns Kay, a western (British?) girl who lives in the house for a while and stirs up all sorts of jealousies. (The narrator is also a westerner.)

The story as remembered by the narrator is interwoven with bits and pieces from the novel, i.e., Dinesh's memory of the same story. This allows Jhabvala to present two points of view in a first-person narrative, although very little is drawn from the novel. Is this complicated structure worth it? Couldn't Jhabvala have let the narrator tell the story as she remembered it, and left out the baggage of the translated novel? Probably so. It does, however, clearly establish the narrator's position as reminiscent, which adds the perspective of years to a story that, taken on its face, becomes somewhat melodramatic. Also, I admit, the extra layer adds credibility, especially to the narrator's observations about Dinesh (because she can glean his thoughts from the novel he wrote), and also to her knowledge of things that occurred after she no longer lived in the house. Perhaps the oddest thing is that the first-person narrator plays almost no part in the primary story; she is just an observer. So why didn't Jhabvala just have Dinesh tell the story, and leave out the female narrator? The only answer is that it would have been a different story, seen through the eyes of an Indian man instead of a western woman. Not a small difference.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Little More Means

The summer 2006 Zoetrope All-Story delivers "Nebraska," another David Means story. This story is as textually dense as anything you're likely to read. Nineteen paragraphs in 17 columns (two columns per page). The only dialogue is secondary (aka "reported") dialogue; i.e., the dialogue is related without quotation marks or paragraph breaks, as part of the narrative, perhaps as summary. Also, some of the sentences are extremely long, although Means resorts to liberal semi-colons in places to artificially extend the length. The next-to-last sentence in the story contains nine semi-colons, separating ten independent clauses. Why? It's not for the weak-stomached. Just looking at the long blocks of print can be daunting. But if you allow yourself to be sucked in, the lyrical, lush narrative rolls along with a pace and power that never lets up, and that is not often matched.

This is the story of a gang of self-styled revolutionaries who plan to rob an armored car. Things go awry. End of plot. Profluence is achieved in the same way it is achieved in any caper story. We read to see the crime committed, and to see if it will be successful. Although, in this story, we know almost immediately that the robbery has failed.

As unusual as this story is from a formal perspective, the first paragraph is a textbook example of how to begin:
Where else to begin but beneath the dining room table where she's hiding, dazed and alone, tormented by fear and loneliness, lost to time (it seems), most certainly to be forgotten? The annals of history won't record this lonely moment while the house cracks in the heat, aches high up in the rafters, snaps along the joists; the genuine linoleum in the kitchen glistens oily to the touch, the trees and grass sway in the wind off the river, and she hunches down beneath the table, where she at least feels safe, listening to the wind as it lifts through the trees to make hushed sound and then depletes itself so that a dog's bark, husky and dry, can arrive from far off, and then even farther away a soft hooting sound--someone calling--and then another dog, giving a sharper, more precise bark while she examines her knees, worn to white threads, and then extends her legs and says aloud as she touches her shins and ankles, You've got good long legs, fine, fine legs. She leans back and looks at the underside of the table, the battered legs and feet (Who left this grand artifact here?), and then, looking up, sees the words GRAND RAPIDS stenciled on the underside of one of the leaves.
In addition to establishing a tone of dread, the driving lyrical voice, and an omniscient pov with a metafictional overtone ("Where else to begin..."), this paragraph

  • gives us a character in trouble

  • establishes a mystery (why is she hiding under a table?)

  • creates a strong sense of setting, both interior and exterior (both local exterior--the river, the trees--and a geographical location (Nebraska, Grand Rapids))

  • provides additional sensory detail (the barking dogs, the creaking house, the underside of the table) that establish the tangibility of this world

  • Also, note how Means varies the psychic distance in these three sentences to give us a complete picture. With that first phrase, "Where else to begin," he establishes a point outside the story, above the fray, clearly looking back at the whole mess, and then quickly moves beneath the dining room table, in close physical proximity to this woman, then continues to a tight emotional proximity by revealing her emotions: alone, tormented, lost to time. Then he goes back, briefly to the long shot, to "the annals of history," then back to the house, the "genuine linoleum in the kitchen," then outside to the trees and grass, then back to the woman, under the table, and immediately back inside her head ("where she at least feels safe"). Then back outside to the wind and the barking dogs, then back to the woman looking at her legs, and finally to a place we haven't yet been, her consciousness, her thoughts ("You've got good long legs, fine, fine legs."). Note also the hierarchies observed: Means doesn't leap directly from the annals of history to the woman's thoughts. He progresses from layer to layer, from far to near a step at a time, as if he's twisting a zoom lens.

    I can't overemphasize the importance of varying the psychic distance, especially in the opening. As a teacher of mine says about the beginning of every story, "The reader has just arrived on this planet." Accordingly, he wants to look around and to know where he is, who these people are, and why he's been brought here. Difficult to accomplish with a single camera angle.

    Wednesday, June 14, 2006

    The Immortal Goldfish

    I've been reading David Means' collection, The Secret Goldfish. I also just finished James Salter's collection, Last Night; going back and forth between these two will give you stylistic whiplash, but more on that later.

    The title story in the Means book is probably the most well known. "The Secret Goldfish" originally appeared in The New Yorker and was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2005. This is the story of a marriage, and its demise, as seen from the perspective of the family's pet goldfish. Technically the pov is omniscient, and there are some passages from the pov of the wife, but the overwhelming focus is on the fish. The fish is not excessively anthropomorphised; it doesn't know that the marriage in question is in trouble, or what a marriage is. The fish does not think about the people, or about anything, really.
    All of this stuff, the history of the house, the legal papers signed and sealed and the attendant separation agreement and, of course, the divorce that left her the house—all this historical material was transpiring outside the gist of Fish. He could chart his course and touch each corner of the tank and still not know shit. But he understood something. That much was clear. The world is a mucky mess. It gets clotted up, submerged in its own gunk. End of story.
    Will Fish survive? That's the question that drives the story. Fish lives in a murky sewer of a fishtank ("so clotted it had become a solid mass") that, apparently, gets cleaned about once a decade, until, finally, the divorce is final. Fish does survive. In celebration, the family (sans Dad) moves the fishtank next to the television, where, it is implied, the fish will be forever in the family's sight.

    Is this a story? Yes. Is this a plot? I think you have to stretch the definition to find a plot; nothing happens except that the marriage and the fishtank get mucked up, and the wife and Fish survive. They don't do anything of note to survive. They just hang on. Yet, the story achieves profluence. We have to keep reading to see if Fish makes it.

    Several of the other stories in The Secret Goldfish stretch the definition of story even further. In "Lightning Man," the subject, a man named Nick Kelly, is hit by lightning seven times. The story recounts each strike, and ends with Kelly awaiting Number Eight, the big one. It's entirely episodic, with no plot points, and no meaningful arc except the arcs of electricity that seek Kelly out. The structure of the story is a list, and this list structure is announced in the first sentence:
    The first time, he was fishing with Danny.
    We know that a second strike is implied, and then a third, and we read to reach the end of the line. Similarly, in "Dustman Appearances to Date," the nature of the story as a list is announced in the title; the story is a series of sightings of dustmen, spectres formed from dust and wind in the image of a rancher, a pirate, Richard Nixon, and others.

    I think what makes a structure like this work is that the reader is able to discern a structure, or a pattern, early in the narrative. We know where we are going, to some extent, and that makes us comfortable. The traditional three-act plot structure does the same thing, but in a different way. It's like a piece of music from which we pick out a melody. We get a sense of what's coming, a sense of what we've gotten ourselves into.

    Words from Kilgore Trout

    I grew up reading Kurt Vonnegut novels. In an archived interview at the Paris Review (really an amalgam of four interviews), Vonnegut says this:
    I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away--even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.... When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.
    Plots--ways to keep readers reading. Whenever the tedious old argument about plot v. character arises, this is what I say. A plot is a way, one way, the most proven, time-tested way, to achieve profluence (which is just a fancy word for that quality of a story that keeps readers reading).

    You can eschew plot, but you have to create profluence in some other way. David Means does this in interesting ways. I'm going to look at some of his stories next.