Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thom Jones 1945-2016

American short story writer Thom Jones has just died at age 71, from complications from diabetes.  Here are some comments about a few of  his stories I wrote several years ago:

Thom Jones appeared on the literary scene in the early 1990’s with a flurry of awards.  His first story, ”The Pugilist at Rest,” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1992 and won first prize in the 1993 O. Henry Awards.  His first book, also titled The Pugilist at Rest, was short listed for the 1993 National Book Award.  The story “I Want to Live” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1993.  “Cold Snap” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1994, and “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” appeared in Best American Short Stories in 1995.  Jones was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1994 and 1995. His other short-story collections include Cold Snap, 1995, and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, 1999.

Jones was born in Aurora, Illinois in 1945, the first of three children.  His father was a professional fighter who became an engineer in the aerospace industry. After his father left when Jones was a child, his mother remarried.  Jones spent most of his childhood with his grandmother, who ran a grocery store.  His interest in boxing came from his father who often took Jones, beginning when Jones was seven, to the gym for boxing lessons.

Jones entered the Marine Corps in 1963, preparing to go to Vietnam.  However, after receiving a head injury in a boxing match, he became epileptic and was not deployed overseas.  On discharge from the service, he went to school at the University of Hawaii and then earned a degree in English from the University of Washington.  He was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1973.  He bounced back and forth between work in Aurora as a janitor and work in Chicago and Seattle as an advertising copywriter.  He got married and worked as a janitor for twelve years at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia, where his wife was librarian.  In 1986, he began rehab treatment for alcoholism, after which he became diabetic.

Jones has said that one morning in 1992, he had got home from the graveyard shift and was watching the Today show on television and drinking ale when he saw an old Iowa classmate, Tracy Kidder, being interviewed.  He said he was as low as he could get and just decided to start writing again.  In his biographical comments in the 1993 O. Henry Award Prize Stories, he says he wrote the story "The Pugilist at Rest" in a sort of "controlled ecstatic frenzy."  He recalls that one day, just as he was getting ready to go to work, his agent called to tell him that The New Yorker had accepted “The Pugilist at Rest.”  About two minutes later, he says, she called to say that Esquire had accepted another story.  Just as he started out the door to go to work, she called a third time to tell him that Harper’s  was going to publish the story “I Want to Live.”

Between 1992 and 1999, Jones published three collections of stories, went on book tours, did readings, taught part time, and conducted seminars and writers’ workshops.  He taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a guest instructor between 1994 and 1996.  However, since the publication of his third collection, he published little else, instead doing some screenplay writing.  He lived in Olympia, Washington.

Some critics have suggested that Jones is a realist who introduces us to a segment of society that we do not often see and do not really know--captives of veterans’ hospitals, wanderers around the fringes of prize fighting gyms, whacked-out refugees of disillusionment, existential absurdists in a drug-induced world of their own. However, Jones's stories are less realistic than hallucinatory, more figural than sociological, more metaphoric than mimetic.  When you enter a Thom Jones story, you put normality aside and live momentarily in a world that most of us only know in those rare moments of hallucination when we are fevered or highly medicated.  What is most characteristic of Jones's style is the runaway voice of characters spaced out, speeded up, and thus somehow in touch with a strange magic that transcends the everyday world and throws the reader into a nether world between fantasy and reality.

The title story of Jones’s enthusiastically received first collection of stories is typical of the style and narrative method that early readers found irresistible.  The voice of the narrator, who describes training and fighting as a marine and a boxer, sounded so raw and convincing that many early reviewers declared, incorrectly, that Jones had served in Vietnam.  The story begins with a young recruit called Hey Baby being razzed for a letter he wrote to a girlfriend.  When Hey Baby begins harassing the narrator’s buddy Jorgeson, a guy who admires Jack Kerouac and wants to practice Zen Buddhism, the narrator hits him in the temple with the butt of his M-14, fracturing his skull. 

After boot camp, when the narrator runs into Jorgeson again at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Jorgeson has become a gung-ho Marine.  The only Vietnam War scene in the story describes a battle in which the narrator’s gun jams and he watches helplessly as many of his comrades are killed, including his buddy Jorgeson, all of which Jones recounts in gruesome detail. The story then shifts to the narrator’s discussion of the concept of bravery, referencing the gladiator Theogenes, a powerful boxer who is depicted in a famous Roman statue named “The Pugilist at Rest.”  The narrator says he has discovered a reservoir of malice and sadism in his soul that poured out in Vietnam, where he served three tours, seeking payback for the death of Jorgeson and his other comrades.  After returning home from Vietnam, he takes up boxing and gets hit so hard and so repeatedly by another boxer that he develops epileptic seizures, which cause a kind of aura that he describes as being satori.  The story ends with his realization that good and evil are only illusions and doubting whether his vision of Supreme Reality is anything more than like the demons visited on madmen. 

Thom Jones provided a bit of welcome ragged, rough-edged relief to the clean lines of M.F.A. storytelling at the end of the 1980s, but it is probably his linking a rambling macho voice with the seeming erudition suggested by his quotations from Schopenhauer that made early critics so enthusiastic about this story.

Jones has suggested that his stories often begin with an overheard line around which he develops a distinctive voice. Then, "like a method actor," he says, he falls into character and writes "instinctively without a plan or an idea as to what will happen." Jones creates a persona for his possessed writing style in the character Ad Magic, featured in the story "The White Horse" in The Pugilist at Rest and "Quicksand" in Cold Snap.  Whereas Ad Magic winds up in India after a seizure of epileptic amnesia in the earlier story, in this new piece, he is a direct mail wizard in Africa, writing fund appeal letters for the Global Aid Society hunger effort.  Ad Magic, who takes his name from his ability to lapse into a trance-like state and tap into a writing frenzy, is, like other Jones characters, suffering from a variety of pains, ills, and drugs.  In this story, his thumb, which has been broken, throbs with pain, and he has malaria--complete with chills, hypnogogic dreams, and "visceral evacuation.”

Typical of Jones's physically tormented characters, Ad Magic feels caught in the quicksand of Africa's heart of darkness, "sinking deeper and deeper," existentially filled with angst and a sense of absurdity, feeling like a marionette in a Punch and Judy show and that life is nothing but a big cartoon.  As Ad Magic says at one point, "Life's a dream."  Ad Magic is filled with anger at the lies, duplicity, and deceit at the heart of life; however, he gleefully engages in deceit himself by sending small baggies of crushed up Milk Bones with his appeal letter, telling recipients that it is the only food that poor Africans have to eat.  "Quicksand," whose title comes from a 1960s song by Martha and the Vandellas, ends much as the earlier Ad Magic story does--with Jones's fevered persona caught up in one of his frenzied writing seizures and, as usual, going too far.

In the title story of Jones’s second collection, the central character is back from Africa after malaria and a "manic episode" got him sent home, where he lost his medical license for drug abuse.  Like Ad Magic with his broken thumb, Richard, the character in this story, has a throbbing thumb, which he cut while trying to assemble a battery tester, and for which he must go to doctor where he gets the inevitable pain pills.  Richard's younger sister, Susan, a schizophrenic, who in one of her many suicide attempts puts a bullet through her temple and gives herself a perfect lobotomy, is the most important figure in this story, for she provides him with his best hope for finding some relief from his own episodes of depression.

Richard, who says he is in one of his Fyodor Dostoevsky moods, cures himself temporarily by putting a gun to his head, spinning the cylinder, and pulling the trigger.  The relief he experiences he attributes to what he calls the Van Gogh effect, for Van Gogh said he felt like a million dollars when he cut off his ear.  However, Richard's more promising and possibly more lasting "island of stability" occurs when Susan tells him about her dream of the two of them driving a 1967 Dodge around Heaven, where he will not have to ask any more existential questions. The story ends as they sit in the front seat of his car and eat the lunch he brought--"the best little lunch of a lifetime"--while outside it rains and inside the radio plays the Shirelles singing "This is Dedicated to the One I Love."

In "Tarantula," 38 pages are devoted to making life hell for John Harold Hammermeister, an ambitious, admittedly not very likeable, young academic who takes the job as assistant principal at W.E.B. Du Bois High School in urban Detroit.  Hammermeister, who has big plans of climbing the ladder to the position of state superintendent, keeps a tarantula on his desk to intimidate students and faculty, but meets his comeuppance from a janitor who reads Joseph Conrad and who stabs the tarantula with a number one Dixon pencil.  Then, with the help of another janitor, he puts duct tape over Hammermiester's eyes and mouth and beats his legs, knees, and elbows with a baseball bat.  All great satiric fun, with ex-janitor Jones self-indulgently enjoying himself.

One of the better stories in Jones last collection is the title story, which deals with an adolescent male who tries to find some heroic or romantic meaning in the world.  Although Sonny Liston is not really a friend of Kid Dynamite, the young boxer in the title story, he does meet him once (as Jones has said he himself did when he was a young man), and Liston signs a picture for him, "To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston."  The story is an engaging combination of young boy stuff--throwing snowballs at school, being awkward with a girlfriend, trying to cope with a step-father--and adult stuff-- fighting in the Golden Gloves, trying to establish a career, coping with a dangerous nemesis.  Although the Kid wins his big fight by a split decision, he loses in the long run because a cut over his eye puts him out of the tournament.  The story ends with the inevitable realization that "the real world, which had seemed so very far away all these years, was upon him."

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Best American Short Stories 2016--African Cultural Context: Adichie, Ali, Hadero

I have received my copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2016, edited by Junot Díaz. Truth to tell, I was not expecting a great deal.  Anyone who has read my blog over the past several years know that I do not admire the work of Junot Díaz. Named one of Newsweek’s “new faces of 1996,” Díaz got a six-figure contract for his first collection Drown. The Boston Review called Drown one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction, introducing a slice of heretofore-unrevealed life to most American readers. Díaz appealed to the trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues.
Well, I have read all of Díaz's fiction, including his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and his last book, the collection This is How You Lose Her. I found the stories self-indulgent and careless, lacking any serious significance.  If you wish, you can read my comments on his stories, including the award-winning "Miss Lora" by searching Díaz by name in this blog.
Although I did not expect much from the twenty choices Díaz made from the 120 stories Heidi Pitlor sent him, I must admit I was impressed by Díaz's introduction to BASS 2016, for he seems a genuine admirer of the short story as a form, calling himself a "true believer," adding that the short story is the genre he feels most protective of.  Whenever someone says he or she does not read short stories, he finds himself "proselytizing like a madman," sending favorite collections to the person in question. Here is what Díaz says about the short story.
I am as much in awe of the form's surpassing beauty as I am bowled over by its extraordinary mutability and generativity. I love the form's spooky effects, how in contradistinction to the novel, which gains its majesty from its expansiveness, from its size, the short story's colossal power extends from its brevity and restraint….
Short stories are acts of bravura, and for a form junkie like me, to read a good one has all the thrill of watching a high-wire act…few literary forms can match the story at putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythm. It's the one great benefit of the form's defining limitation…
To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times, places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers…my lie has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else.
Díaz himself would say, "That's good shit."  However, I have not found his own stories to be examples of the form's beauty, and spookiness. Now that I have read half of the twenty stories in the  BASS 2016 collection that Díaz chose, I am pondering whether they are examples of what Díaz calls high-wire acts of bravura.
Many of the stories fall within the category of "multicultural," a trend that I thought had peaked and was receding in favor of aesthetic excellence and complexity rather than political and social "relevance" and "context." I have talked about this issue visa a vis before on this blog. If you are interested, just type in "social issues" in the search line to the right of these comments.
What I want to focus on in three of the stories in the 2016 BASS is the relationship between their cultural background/context and their characters and themes. I think the two stories in which the cultural background is highly foregrounded are Mohammed Naseehu Ali's "Revalushan," which takes place in Ghana, and Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase," which takes place in Ethiopia. Kirkus Reviews said about Ali's collection of stories, The Prophet of Zongo Street, (2005) that he "shows an almost anthropological interest in his characters, and that his book is a "richly rewarding cultural study." Although the comic tone and focus of Hadero's "The Suitcase" is quite different than the horrors of "Revalushan," it could also be called a "cultural study" of "anthropological interest." Neither, in my opinion, are more than that.
The best indication of "Revalushan's" dependence on its cultural context is that the story itself is simply a graphically detailed dramatization, in the same prose style, of the background Ali provides in  his "Contributor's Notes." He says the story is based on the three-month coup of June 4, 1979 in Ghana in which a "War on Corruption" was waged against wealthy people suspected of hoarding, smuggling, or profiteering.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the neighborhood known as Zongo Street. Although his age is not mentioned, his sanguine acceptance of the initial violence seems to suggest he is young, although the story is told from an adult perspective, e.g. "We felt that the tranquil, naïve state of our lives was about to be altered in a way and manner we couldn't have ever imagined."
The writing is often careless, e.g. the redundancy of "way and manner" and the  wordiness of "none of the newspapers made mention of the march or the attack."  The language is clichéd, e.g., "The inauguration of the Zongo Street PVC ushered in an era of social upheaval in our small community."  After one businessman is brutally beaten by the soldiers, the narrator says they "sped off, leaving behind a cloud of red dust and a trail of sorrow and tears on Zongo Street." This is less a story than a description of an horrific historical event.
Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase" is also completely dependent on background—this time the cultural conventions of Ethiopian people determined to send aspects of that culture back to America. The central character, Saba, is twenty and has come back to Addis Ababa, the place of her birth, for the first time. Her visit has been marred by her failure to adapt to the conventions of her birth culture, but they are relatively minor conventions—the stuff of comedy, not tragedy.  For example, when she is unable to cross a busy intersection and has to take a cab across, she is convinced she is unable to take a walk on her own. "What she thought would be a romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn't belong there."
We know immediately that the purpose of the story is to redeem Saba from this sense of being a "stranger in her homeland, but to do so in a humorous, if not sentimental, way.  This is achieved by the device of the suitcase, which gives the story its title.
Saba has two suitcases—one for her clothes and personal possessions, and another which is to be returned filled with gifts from relatives and family friends.  Of course, there are too many gifts, and the second suitcase is just too heavy;  thus, inevitably, most of the story must be devoted to a comic interchange of the family and friends as they try to determine which gifts--all cultural gifts of food and drink that will remind the Americans of their home—can be packed.  There are loaves of bread, a porridge fed to women after childbirth to give them strength, and of course doro wat, a famous Ethiopian chicken stew, which the maker has frozen to make the trip.
What the story must do is find a way to fit all the stuff in the suitcase, for they are all items to make the American relatives remember them and their country.  And, of course, since the young woman has tried for a whole month to learn the culture and fit in, she must be the one to solve the problem by making a sacrifice of kindness equal to their kindness to her.  And, of course, she does.  You will not be surprised, although you might be moved, when she dumps out her own suitcase of her favorite possessions. It is a pleasant story, but culturally bound and thematically easy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Apollo" is less culturally bound. "Apollo"  takes place in Nigeria, but Nigeria is not really important in this story; it is merely a place where the event takes place—a story about a young boy who loves but betrays the family houseboy.  In " The New Yorker's "This Week in  Fiction," Adichie said she was drawn to endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning; she said she thought of Okenwa's attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of "first love," which is "that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself." Because the story is about the mystery of first love, it leaves the nature of the young boy's love unnamed and unacknowledged, even by the grown-up narrator who tells the story.
The introit to the story is a description of how the young man's parents, now in their eighties, have changed: they seem shrunken and they look more and more alike, as if they are blending into each other. Most importantly, they have what the narrator calls a "baffling patience for incredible stories," folklore tales of the supernatural.  Fifteen years earlier, he says, they would have scoffed at such stories. Now they seem to have a kind of innocence, a new childhood of old age.  Significantly, they ask the narrator when he will get married and give them a grandchild. One the stories they tell him, one without a supernatural element is of an armed robbery in which the ringleader is their old houseboy, Raphael. The narrator says with the mention of Raphael, "My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents' storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory."
In the narrator's tale of his childhood, he says he felt like an interloper in the house, for he did not like the things his parents liked.  When Raphael is hired, he finds someone who shares his interest in kung fu, and they do Bruce Lee routines together.  He feels that it is only with Raphael that his "real life" begins. When Raphael gets conjunctivitis, which the family calls "Apollo," the narrator attends to him in secret, putting the medicine in Raphael's eyes, even though Apollo is highly contagious. The narrator says Raphael looks at him with a wondrous look, for he has never felt himself the subject of admiration. He says he feels "haunted by happiness."
When the narrator himself gets pinkeye, he sees Raphael flirting with a young woman.  When he asks Raphael why he did not come to see him, he feels injured that Raphael has not repaid his kindness. When he accidently falls, he says Raphael pushed him, and his father discharges the young man.  The story ends with the narrator saying he knows he could have spoken and said it was an accident.  "I could have taken back my lie and left my parents merely to wonder."

And indeed, the story is more about wonder,  the mystery of motivation—what makes things happen—than about the culture of Nigeria. Although the narrator's story may indeed be about early suggestions of homosexuality, such terminology is not important. The story holds together formally by the repeated motifs of what is seen and not seen, whether causes are natural or, supernatural, what is felt but not articulated, how the past conditions the present.  It is a universal story that could happen anywhere; it just happens to take place in Nigeria in Adichie's story.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

O. Henry Prize Stories 2016--Part 2

Well, I have spent the last couple of weeks rereading the rest of the stories in O. Henry Prize Stories: 2016, in the hope that I would find something in them I missed the first time around—something that would make me like them better.  But, alas! I did not.  I just don't find the stories in this year's O. Henry compelling; they seem, well, just ordinary. And perhaps much of that is due to the fact that I just don't like the central characters.
I know, I know, I don't have to like the characters.  I just finished reading and reviewing the new novel by Ethan Canin, A Doubter's Almanac—admittedly at 576 pages, a far different experience than reading short stories.  And the central character, mathematician Milo Andret, is a thoroughly unlikeable character.  But I understand Milo; he is a complex character who is the way he is and does the things he does for complex reasons.  I just don't perceive that kind of complexity in most of the central characters in this year's O. Henry.

*There are two stories that focus on what might be called "bad neighbors":
Diane Cook, "Bounty"
Editor Furman calls this "an imaginative meditation on privilege" and says one of the pleasures of this story about the nastiness of humanity under pressure is the comedy of possessions, of "having just the right thing." It's a story of an apocalyptic flood that leaves what appears all of mankind struggling to survive. The focus in on one man of means who refuses to help his neighbors who call on him for help. The central character is just, well, self-serving and selfish.
Ottessa Moshfegh, "Slumming"
Furman says the "lure" of this story is watching the narrator become "a real neighbor, not wishing for it in the least." I am not sure this is true.  The narrator is a high school English teacher who buys a summer house and visits it during her summer vacation, buying drugs and hunkering down. She feels superior to the vagrant townsfolk , who she calls zombies. The rest are young people crashing junk cars, dirty diapers littering the parking lots, boarded up store fronts, etc. She says it is not that she lacks respect for the people of the town, but that she does not want to deal with them. O.K.  But it makes me not want to deal with her.

*There are three stories that deal with writers, and the problem with stories that deal with writers is that since they are written by writers they always seem somehow narcissistic.
Frederic Tuten, "Winter, 1965"
This is a story of a man trying to write, but although there are many people around him who have stories worth writing about, he seems only interested in writing about himself. Furman says the real story is in the writer's ruminations. But I don't really see significant ruminations about writing here. Peter Cameron picked it as his favorite, although he says he is usually wary about stories about writers, especially writers writing a story.  Cameron really says little about the story except he liked the warm and welcoming world it created. Nothing really warm and welcoming, or even interesting, about the central character.
Rebecca Evanhoe, "They Were Awake"
Evanhoe says the story is about the kinds of nightmares or disturbing events that threaten women disproportionately. It is based on a group of women in her MFA fiction writing program, who regularly meet and tell stories of their dreams.  It is mostly dialogue, and I find dialogue stories often awkward unless they are highly stylized and thus manage to communicate much more than mere information. These MFA confessions communicate only narcissistic self-concern.
Elizabeth Tallent, "Narrator"
The title of this story should tip the reader off at the beginning that there is some authorial self-consciousness here or some self-reflexivity. And indeed we do discover very quickly that the narrator of this story is a young aspiring writer who is attracted to an older successful writer. She has reached a point in her love of his writing that she now reads to construct someone she could love.
After she decides not to return to her husband, but to stay with the writer, they turn sex into stories, which does not surprise us, since writers, who must be obsessed to be successful, turn everything into stories. After the affair ends, twelve years later, she has divorced her husband, written three novels and is teaching at a university. The lover has written a novel about the time they were lovers and she, inevitably critiques his narrative treatment. The narrator explains how her past lover's novel should have given the female character some independent perceptions, made her less vulnerable and clinging.  Her consequent "realness" would have made the situation more ambiguous, concluding that this would have made it a better story—and the "better story" is the one we have just read.

*There are three stories about people dealing with the death of a relative:
Charles Haverty, "Storm Windows"
The narrator recalls his childhood in a house that his father loved, but the rest of the family, not so much. He recalls particularly a Christmas when the paramedics must be called for his father, who wants to make waffles for them.  Because of the father's cantankerousness, the story is primarily a comic remembrance. Comic line: Andy Williams singing "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and the father saying, "This can't be the music I die to." The titular device is the storm windows the father insists on putting up each fall in preparation for winter. The story ends inevitably with the narrator getting a call from his sister saying "He's gone," which  echoes an earlier comic scene when the narrator goes to the hospital to see his father and the nurse says he's gone—but it is just that he has checked himself out, for he just had heartburn, not a heart attack.
Marie-Helene Bertino, "Exit Zero"
This is a "death of a parent" story based on a central metaphor—the appearance of a silver unicorn—evoked mysteriously in magical realism fashion. However, since the metaphor must suggest not only the spiritual beauty of what the father leaves for his daughter, but also the inevitable physicality of that inheritance, this is not a unicorn of adolescent pastel purity, but something that looks more like a "pissed-off donkey," that eats and farts, and shits on the carpet.
Adrienne Celt, "Temples"
This is still another story about tidying up after someone's death, this time an aunt.  The theme is once again the tension between what is lovely because it is transcendent and what is merely physical or fleshly.  The theme is announced in the first paragraph when the narrator talks about the pillow that her aunt slept on for ten years, thus shedding up to a pound of skin. It continues throughout the description of Aunt Marjorie's physical self until, predictably, when the narrator and her mother scatter the aunt's ashes, they blows back into their faces, so that Aunt Marjorie is in her ears and under her fingernails, "dusting the part in her hair."

*There are two stories about young women in love
Shruti Swamy, "A Simple Composition"
The narrative is quite simple—a  16-year-old girl learning to play the veena, falls in love with her teacher, an older man. They have sex.  Then she gets married, and has sex with her husband's department chair at the university where he teaches. The first-person voice of the story gives us a young woman who seems to fall into these two sexual encounters passively.  Shruti Swamy says in her authorial comments that this is the "ugliest" story she has ever written, and that she was genuinely dismayed by the young woman's sexual encounters.  The story ends with a metaphor of Punch and Judy puppets in a parade she watches--not stringed puppets, but actual people in large masks with contorted features of delight. If anything makes this story work, it is the metaphor of the puppets, for the woman sees herself, indeed sees life itself, as a stylized acting out of behavior that seems somehow beyond her control.
Zebbie Watson, "A Single Deliberate Thing"
Watson says the story is about telling and not telling. It is the voice of a young girl in a summer after her boyfriend has joined the army and left her--a summer when she lost a horse. The language of what appears to be a letter to the boyfriend, is sprinkled with diction that jars against the persona of the speaker, e.g. "I fetched the electric clippers."  "One of those wicked summer storms." "It was an unbearably heavy week."

*The final three stories are based on historical fact, newspaper headlines, or a psycho-physical puzzle.
 David H. Lynn, "Divergence"
David Lynn's comments on writing this story suggests that it springs from both an actual event—a friend getting badly injured in a bike accident—and his long time fascination with the subject of how a physical trauma such as a car crash can bring about profound changes in someone's personality, in their sense of self. The fact that the central character here is a university professor makes the central character's thoughts about no longer being his old self more plausible; he is a man who thinks about himself and ideas.  What is his "self" he wonders.  Was it not "some sort of amalgam of memories collected from boyhood on?"  Over the years, he thinks he has often spoken to his students of such matters—that events remembered, "distant in time and space, no longer existed anywhere except within the precincts of an individual skull." 
Lydia Fitzpatrick, "Safety"
There is something uncomfortably "ripped from the headlines" about this story of a shooter in an elementary school. Fitzpatrick says she started writing this story on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, and just after she had had a baby; it expresses her fears. Furman says the story illustrates how even the most evil character is capable of love.  She says the story is about the implicit agreement between children and adults that adults will promise safety in return for children's trust. The horror of an unknown shooter for an unknown reason breaking into an elementary schools is obvious enough.  The fact that at the end of the story, the reader discovers that the shooter is the brother of one of the students does not really mean anything except that the brother, like all such shooters is "disturbed."
Asako Serizawa, "Train to Harbin"
The story's impact depends on the syntactical and lexical style, which sounds much like a nineteenth-century novel in its formality, juxtaposed against the horror of the biological experiments conducted with such cold calculation during the war in 1939 between Japan and China. The narrator is a Japanese physician, carrying out experiments for the Japanese government on prisoners of war.  Under what the narrator calls a "veneer of normalcy," they "harvest human data" for the lives of their entire nation depended on it."
Molly Antopol chose this as her favorite story.  She loves the prose and says that all the research that must have gone into the story creates a world that sweeps her away.  Lines and descriptions, not scenes, are what stay with her. She calls it a "haunting, visceral, and ethically nuanced story." Indeed, it is the prose—detailed, factual, cold and formal—used to tell a story of atrocities as horrifying as those perpetuated by the Nazis that makes the story as powerful as it is—that and the reader's repulsion at the scientist telling the story in such clinical fashion.

I should get my copy of the Best American Short Stories 2016 next week.  I am hoping for the "Best"--at least "Better" than the O. Henry.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Part I: O. Henry Prize Stories: 2016

One of my reservations about the O. Henry Prize Stories is that the twenty stories published each year seem solely the choices of the series editor—since 2003, Laura Furman, a short story writer and novelist who is now professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin.  That means for the past thirteen years, the "winners" reflect her taste and judgment and hers alone. Best American Short Stories series editor Heidi Pitlor, on the other hand, chooses 100 of what she considers the "best" stories and then turns them over to a different guest editor each year who selects his or her choice of the 20 "best." At least with BASS, there are two different judgement calls.
My other reservation is that somehow the O. Henry Prize franchise has managed to publicize the stories that are chosen for the volume as "winners" of a "prize." There is no actual prize, only, as in BASS, republication in the yearly volume. Before Furman became editor, three guest "jurors" chose three stories to appear in first, second, and third place "prize winners." No actual prize was given. Now the three jurors are simply asked to pick their favorite and write a short piece about it.  Still no prize.  But if you do a search of the universities where most of the "prize winners" teach creative writing, you will find a puff piece in their newsletter or alumni review touting one of their faculty as a "winner of the O. Henry Prize."
I have spent the last week and a half reading the twenty stories in this year's collection, and I have that vague feeling of disappointment I often have with the O. Henry Prize stories. Granted, this is a result of only a first reading, and I always read every story I discuss more than once.  But one of the things that bothers me is that most of the stories in this year's volume only need one reading, for they seem to lack the complexity that the" best" stories embody.  And the subtitle of The O. Henry Prize Stories is "The Best Stories of the Year.
The first thing that strikes me about this year's collection is the large number of stories that rest on a "gimmick," or are "one note" tour de force stories that depend primarily on the novelty of the writer's concept or the facility of the writer's prose. I think there is a lot of good writing in the O. Henry stories this year, but not a lot of "good" stories. I suspect there can be bad stories with good writing, but not good stories with bad writing.

Elizabeth Genovise, "Irises"
One of this year's jurors, Lionel Shriver, picked this story as her favorite. Shriver, born in North Carolina, lives mostly in England.  Her story "Kilifi Creek," was in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories; I thought it was too easy and "popular."  But then what do I know? The story won the 2014 BBC National Short Story Contest. Go figure! Furman calls "Irises" very much a "woman's story."
Shriver says that the premise of Genovise's story is not one that she would usually find appealing—that the narrator is an unborn fetus whose mother, Rosalie, is planning to abort her—too precious, too politically partisan, complains Shriver. I guess the fetus pov did not bother her quite so much. (Sidebar: I just read a review of Ian McEwan's new novel Nutshell in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. It appears the McEwan also uses the fetus as storyteller gimmick, in a novel that imagines the events leading up to Hamlet—set in modern London).
However, in spite of her reservations about the politically partisan predictability of the theme, Shriver thought the first sentence--at least the second half of the first sentence, "I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit"-- had an "artful elegance" that "efficiently" reflects how little the mother cherishes the pregnancy.
I agree with Shriver that the quality of Genovise's prose is high and the style is mostly "cut-glass clear." Shriver says the sentences that stand out as particularly fine do so "because they marry formal grace with trenchant content." Indeed, what more could you ask for in a short story—a style that seems intrinsically at one with the content.  As Shriver points out, the tension in "Irises" is a universal one—between a reputable repetitive life and a risky romantic life. 
Rosalie's husband has never known "immersion in an art, never taken the artist's gamble," while she, having been thrown out of her career as a ballet dancer, "like a vagrant from a freight train," longs for a return. When she discovers she is pregnant, she cannot imagine trading in "the weightless grace of a dancer's body for the anchored solidity of motherhood." When she meets and is drawn to the drifter pianist Joaquin, who shares her addiction to the possibility of loss, a paradox that keeps them both alive, she decides to get an abortion and go away with him.
A great deal of finely wrought language illuminates the story, that is, until Genovise must resort to plot to resolve the tension between the weightless danger of the world of art and the heavy solidity of security.  In an unlikely bit of plot maneuver, Genovise puts Joaquin in the Museum of Science and Industry where he sees an exhibit of the development of a fetus and decides not to meet Rosalie at the train station, so she goes back to her staid husband and foregoes the abortion.
The final plot problem is how to resolve the fetus pov gimmick, which Genovise manages by fast forwarding to the pov of the now adult woman-who-was-a-fetus as she tells her mother she is thinking of leaving her spineless husband and her bully of a son, who make it impossible for her to write the poems she wants to write. And so it goes. As Furman says, very much "a woman's story."

 Geetha Lyer, "The Mongerji Letters"
You can expect fantastic stories to involve some sort of gimmick—a fact that often, unfortunately relegates many such stories to the realm of the "merely generic." Geetha Alyer's story uses the gimmick of the epistolary structure—an old, time-worn technique, albeit here we only get one side of the letter-writing—never the other side, for the communications from the other side are not words, but rather actual creatures that have been discovered by geographic explorations.  We know we are in for this leap of fantasy when we read the first sentence of the second paragraph, referring to a polar bear the sender has stuck in the envelope. It is an amusing concept, and the reader goes from letter to letter, smiling at the description of each new creature that springs miraculously from the envelopes and takes on actual physical life. But the story seems just to depend on the cleverness of the trick, not on any significance of the trick.
Furman observes that fantastical stories are based on some level on familiar human life and then tries to make a case for the "relevance" of the trope of the creatures in the mail. She says the story's tension is between the timelessness of the strange events and "our overwhelming sense that we are watching a dying planet." I don't see that "message." Lyer says the story came from the tactile desire to hold the world in your hands. That makes sense in a metaphoric way, but not when you think about it for very long.

Joe Donnelly, "Bonus Baby"
Furman says this  baseball story is in the mythic tradition of Malamud's The Natural in which the baseball players are great warriors. I am not sure the story carries that much weight.  Instead, what the story depends on is the moment-to-moment experience of the pitcher on the mound and his sense of perceiving himself in a significant situation—confronting the "mystery of the pitch, the enigma of the game, the loneliness of the mound, "the maddening mystery of baseball." Donnelly says the story was inspired by his imagining what it would be like to be on that mound attempting to come to terms with the self and with the game. What makes the story work is the plot suspense of the pitcher's going for a perfect game. Furman says the reader is with the pitcher every inch of the way. Yes, I agree; it's an experience that Donnelly creates quite nicely, but not with the mythic aura or existential weight that he and Furman claim for the story.
As a sad side note, I just read that William P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe, the novel that became the basis for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” died in Canada, at age 81. He built a fantasy world of baseball, and for a time there, all of us came to enjoy it.

Sam Savage, "Cigarettes"
Furman says this story is more tender than we might expect for a "meditation on cigarettes." She says it is about choosing and loving. Nonsense!  This is a two-page riff on smoking and has no place in a book claiming to hold the "best stories of the year."  Even if I had not been a smoker for most of my adult life and could not imagine my life without a pack in my pocket, and even if cigarettes had not killed my father and his brother, I still cannot justify this bit of puff, pardon the pun, as being anything more than a little play with language, a sort of MFA workshop assignment.
Even the stories by the best-known and most accomplished writers in this collection seem more like tour de force exercises than like complex stories that spring from something pressing in the writer's imagination and explored with a sense of discovery.

Robert Coover, "The Crabapple Tree"
Furman  notes that this story reads more like a tale from Grimm than a chapter from Winesburg, Ohio. Of course it does, for, as Coover says in his brief comments in "The Writers on Their Work,"  he wrote it to set the Grimm brothers story "The Juniper Tree" on the American prairie. Retelling fairy tales is the way Coover made a place for himself in the so-called postmodern realm of metafiction in 1969 with his short story collection Pricksongs and Descants, featuring such fairytale retells as "The Magic Poker" and "The Gingerbread House." "The Juniper Tree" is a particularly gruesome Grim story, and Coover is obviously having a lot of fun  playing with it, as if to say, "Look, I can still do this, nothing up my sleeve, just the magic of the fairy tale."  By the way, this is the only story in this year's O. Henry Prize Stories from The New Yorker. Furman says the subtext of the story is the "power and anarchy of regret."  More fun than power, it seems to me.

Wendell Berry, "Dismemberment"
I hate to put Wendell Berry's piece in this category of tour de force exercises, for I love his writing for its clarity, its poetry, and its honesty.  But this is less a story than a redo of an old piece that Berry says first appeared in his novel Remembering—how Andy Catlett lost his right hand in a corn picker in 1974 and then, triumphed with a great deal of determination,  ingenuity, and the kind "by God, I can do this" grit that characterizes the Kentucky folks I grew up marveling at.  I love this piece, but it is less a good story than just damn good writing. In her obvious way, Furman notes the piece's "unity of language and thought" that characterizes all the best short stories.

Ron Carlson, "Happiness"
And I love this piece, but it is not a story, but rather a paean to a fishing trip, in which Carlson describes everything in loving detail—including a long list of food stuffs. Furman says that although happiness might inspire, it doesn't last--a truth she says that is not stated but "implied by the aesthetics of the story."  I am not sure how the "aesthetics"--which might be described as a lingering over everything that is pleasing and purely pleasure—suggests this. What implies that happiness does not last is that by its very nature the events described in the story are limited to a certain place and time. Carlson says he recalls the events in the story as giving him a feeling he identified as "happiness," and he wrote the story immediately, afterward wanting to stay close to each small event. It's a joy to read—good meticulous, loving writing, but not a story with any significance or exploration of human complexity.  I am surprised that since Furman called the first story in the collection "very much a woman's story," she did not call this one "very much a man's story."

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Part 4: Best British Short Stories 2016

Most of the longer stories in Best British Short Stories 2016 are in the final quarter of the book, approximately 20 pages each. Nicholas Royle has also reserved the last quarter of the book for the best-known writer in the anthology (at least best-known to me) Janice Galloway.  Her story, "Distance," is from her new collection Jellyfish.  Also represented in this final quarter of the book is the author who has received the most attention this year, Claire-Louise Bennett. Her story "Control Knobs," is from her very well-received and much talked-about book Pond, which reviewers are reluctant to call a collection of short stories, but prefer to label as a novel or a novella, or maybe a collection of soliloquies, dramatic monologues, essays, meditations, etc.
Kate Hendry, "My Husband Wants to Talk to Me Again"
But first, there is one more very short anecdotal story to mention, Kate Hendry's "My Husband Wants to Talk to Me Again." In five pages, Hendry gives us the voice of a wife who has agreed to what appears to be an amicable divorce and wants to get on with it, for there are things to be done "separately."  But the husband wants to talk about things, primarily the division of property, e.g. who gets the Marvin Gaye CDs.  She, however, just wants him out of her face so she can get the laundry done.
She thinks, with some relief, that in a few weeks she will be doing washing for three rather than four, but still resents every heavy pair of jeans he puts in the hamper. She is willing to let him have everything he wants, if he will just get the hell out of the way and let her do the wash. She thinks once he is out of the house she is going to treat herself to a tumble dryer.  And she is going to buy a DIY how-to book so she can take care of the little fix-it chores he always did.
The story ends with him off to work, and her, with mixed feelings about the silence in the house, with only the sounds she now makes—"The suck of water as it drains from the sink, mugs on their hooks chiming against each other, the end of conversation."  It's a neat, tidy little story that very capably captures the mixture of relief and regret, hope and fear, distraction and focus that characterizes the breakup of a marriage.  If you have ever been there, you will recognize it. I have been there.

Graham Mort, "In Theory, Theories Exist"
I have also been where Ralph, the central character in Graham Mort's story, has been.  He is fifty-four, has had by-pass surgery, and is on a hike up a mountain in the heat of the day—a sort of "prove-it-to-myself-by-God-I-can-doo-it" sort of hike.  The story recounts what is on his mind during the hike—some of which involves his lack-luster career as a lecturer at the university, some of which involves his relationship with his lover, but much of which involves his by-pass.  The central focus of the story might well be this sentence: "Being close to death had brought him face to face with a vast ignorance. All the things he couldn't name and didn't know."
The title of the story comes from his thinking of his physical relationship with his lover, a theorist who spends his time with Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, but who knows the secrets of touch. "In theory, theories exist.  In practice they don't. Who was that? Latour?"  
Mort, who is professor of creative writing and transcultural literature at Lancaster University, cited this same quote in an interview in response to a question about whether he was conscious of manipulating the reader during composition, making decisions about a story’s structure, point of view, sequence of events, or whether they were engendered incidentally as he concentrated on thematic qualities of the story.
Mort says he thought such formal effects were engendered through the unfolding narrative, but he did not think they were entirely incidental or accidental either. Then he cites the Bruno Latour statement:
‘In theory, theories exist. In practice they do not.’ So the theory of ‘blanks, gaps and indeterminacies’ is immensely useful in understanding how text and the reader interact, and it offers a degree of rationale for the intended texture and level of detail in our writing. But to what extent such ‘porous’ writing becomes deliberately formulated as a result is hard to say. I prefer to think that this knowledge becomes active at a tacit or even haptic level within the kinetic writing process."
This response helps me understand the process of the character Ralph coming to terms with his "vast ignorance." The story is about how thinking about an experience is not the same as experiencing it, yet if one never thinks about it, the experience may never really be experienced except in an inchoate way. In an essay on Yeats and Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney once said, "when a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life." Heaney's remark echoes Anton Chekhov's statement about the "life" in short stories as being the life of art, not the everyday life of external reality. I am working on a long essay on Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, in which I explore this concept in some depth. More about that at another time.
Mort's story ends with Ralph thinking: "The future was uncertain again and in a good way. It was a premonition, like poetry coming on, its aura.  The way things had to begin again had to exist before they could mean anything."  He finds some ripe blackberries which are tart and sweet at once and he takes a drink of water that has the brackish taste of soil and rock. "He never thought he would die."
The story explores the difference between the way an artist responds to an experience and the way the rest of us do. I had a triple by-pass several years ago, but I was not drawn to seek the formal elements of that experience, nor was I impelled to impose formal elements on it. So, while the experience became a story for Mort, for me it remained just something that happened.

Claire-Louise Bennett, "Control Knobs"
Pond is Claire-Louise Bennett's first book, and it has received a great deal of praise.  First published in Ireland, then in England, and finally in America, it includes 20 "pieces," originally called "short stories" on the jacket cover, but later changed to "chapters," because, as we all know, novels sell better than short story collections. Some reviewers reject the "short story" designation for the book as if such a characterization would diminish the "pieces" in some way, i.e. 'These are not just short stories."
I have not read the entire book, and, after having read "Control Knobs" and the reviews, as well as listening to Bennett reading some other "pieces" on line, I am not sure I am going to read it. Based on the many reviews, I conclude that a young female academic who has stopped work on her doctoral dissertation has decided to live in a small cottage on the west coast of Ireland and has written a number of soliloquies or meditations on her experience. The title of the resultant book, "Pond," has prompted several reviewers to compare the book to Thoreau's Walden, albeit with significant differences. Reviewers have rhapsodized over the voice of the book.
Here is what some reviewers have said:
Andrew Gallix: "One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator—whose brain and body we inhabit—yet how little we know about her….. What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.  Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous quality."
Philip Maughan: "What makes the book unique is the voice in which …moments are described—unfolding in a bird-like language that feels closer to thought than public address…. Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude. It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human."
Dwight Garner: "Ms. Bennett has a voice that leans over the bar and plucks a button off your shirt. It delivers the sensations of Edna O'Brien's rural Irish world by way of Harold Pinter's clipped dictums…. Pond is filled with short intellectual junkets into many topics.  At other times it drifts, sensually into chapters that resemble prose poems. You swim through this novel as you do through a lake in midsummer, pushing through both warm eddies and the occasional surprisingly chilly drafts from below."
Catherine Taylor: "The idea of personhood as an elemental force is central to the book, especially as realised in the figure of the self-sufficient, inaccessible woman, unkempt in appearance, abstracted in thought, and sometimes capaciously contrary."
Meghan O'Rourke: "Pond is one of those books so odd and vivid that they make your own life feel strangely remote…The stories shun conventional narrative devices (like plot), instead dramatizing the associative movement of the narrator's 'mind in motion.'"
Jia Tolentino: "What moves the reader forward is the sense the stories convey of a real-time psychological fabric: the reader experiences the narrator's world at the same pace she does, a thing chopped up into irregular units organized by vague questions and obscurely colored moods."
With all this high praise for a collection of pieces or, as one reviewer calls them, chapters that resemble short stories, I feel no real need to discuss "Control Knobs," which is filled with what one reviewer describes as "casual asides and existential ruminations" by a woman whose control knobs for her kitchen stove get broken and she cannot find a replacement—a domestic bit of trivia that leads her to contemplate death, especially the possibility of suicide, as well as what it might be like to be the woman in a novel she is reading who is the last person alive.

Thomas McMullan, "The Only Thing is Certain is"
This is a story with a highly emotional center—the death and cremation of a man's child—whose body has been vaporised by the highly efficient new cremation methods so that there is literally nothing in the urn he takes away from the mortuary.  Indeed, the core of the story is so emotionally dense that it hardly necessitates much language to describe it.  However, the story is filled with a great deal of detail that, while it may exist primarily to help the man avoid confronting the absence at the center of the story, seems distractingly irrelevant..  I like the story, but there just seems to be too much of it.
Stuart Evers, "Live from the Palladium"
I like this story also.  It is the funniest story in the book.  Indeed, it is about being funny, about jokes, about comedy, about being a comic. The central joke—a bit that repeats at various points in the story is the line the central character's mother has taught him: "When I grow up I want to be a proctologist."  She reminds him that the best jokes are always in the present tense. "You can depend on a joke," she says, "A joke is always happening." It made me laugh in the painful kind of way that good comedy always does.
Janice Galloway, "Distance"
I first read Janice Galloway's fiction twenty-five years ago when her collection Blood came out. At that time, Peter Matthews in The Guardian said her stories were the reverse of beautifully crafted. "Ugly, discordant and truncated, they provide few of the obvious satisfactions of compact characterisation and neat moral epiphany.  Galloway probably feels that the traditional virtues of the short story are too genteel for the primal anxieties and uncertainties that interest her."
With all due respect to Mr. Matthews, although such a view may have true for the British or Scottish short story a quarter of a century ago, it is certainly not true now.  Or perhaps Mr. Matthews was just not familiar with the stories of James Kellman.
Galloway has not published short story collections for a time—too busy making a name for herself as a Scottish novelist to be reckoned with.  In her new collection Jellyfish, she says on the Acknowledgements page, "Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they'd love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels."  When she was interviewed by The Scotsman, she said she was delighted that the publisher Freight Books was willing to take this collection on. Does this mean she could not find a larger publisher to take it on?
As Alistair Braidwood has noted, although publisher reluctance to risk a collection of short stories may have been true in the past, some of the best new fiction that has appeared in Great Britain recently has been in the form of short stories—often by little known writers published by small, independent publishers.
I have remarked on this rise of interest in the short story in Great Britain before. This series of Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, and published by Salt Publishing, is one of the best examples of the new interest in the form, perhaps encouraged by the increase of MFA writing programs in England in the past several years and the willingness of small presses to publish short stories. If no one is reading short stories but folks who want to write short stories, that may indeed be audience enough to make it worth publishing them.
Reviewers of Jellyfish have been happy to quote Galloway's remark about the short story, but they also have been quick to notice one other quote from the book—David Lodge's remark, "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life's the other way round."  Several reviewers, including The Guardian's Stuart Kelly, have called attention to the fact that Galloway's new stories suggest a shift in focus from the physical life of young woman to "the parent-child bond."  Royle has chosen the last story in the collection—a story that several reviewers have called the strongest in the book, "Distance," about a woman whose three-year-old son splits his head on a sheet glass table and almost dies. The child survives, but the mother, Martha, almost does not. Breaking up with her husband and cutting herself off from her son, Martha, according to her puzzled husband, has become "overcome by the horror of normal life" and has fallen to pieces.
It's a powerful story fraught with mystery of motivation, as the woman compares her situation to that of George Orwell, who took his four-year-old son out into danger and then had to save him from drowning. When she gets cancer, the doctor's news that it is treatable and that she has little to worry about, disappoints rather than elates her. The story ends with her making a trip to Jura, the island where she imagines Orwell in his "stupid little boat, imagining he could spite the sea" and his son "that terrified boy." When she accidently hits a stag, ignoring the danger, she gets out of her car and goes to it, whispering to the  panicked animal, ""I'm here, "I'm here"—as a mother would try to comfort a frightened and injured child.  "She was Martha. A rock. She was forty-one years old. And despite herself, still here. Incapable of letting go."
It's a powerful story, and it makes it glad that Janice Galloway has come back to the short story.

Thanks again to Nicholas Royle for this fine collection of British Short Stories.  I only hope that America editors do as well in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 and Best American Short Stories 2016, which I will be reading and writing about in September and October.  I hope you will join me.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Part 3: Best British Short Stories 2016

John Saul, "Song of the River"
Two women, no longer in their twenties, move in together in a  place near the Thames in a section of London. It is spring and cow parsley, or Queen Anne's lace, is growing everywhere.  As the title suggests, the story is a short piece of music that depends less on the "story" of  the two women going down to the river to wait for the racing shells to come by than the rhythmic repetition of several motifs that compose the song this story is: an escaped monkey that Molly imagines finding and taking in; the lightness of Molly's beach chairs vs. the heaviness of Susan's piano; Susan's playing river tunes on the piano; Molly's attempt to get over a relationship with an older man; the pervasive cow parsley;  and the "word thing," suggesting that Molly's ex-lover uses words, "words added to things everywhere," to point out her shortcomings; and finally, the women seeing the ex-lover as the chittering escaped monkey, whose language has no words at all. It's an engaging example of how the short story expresses emotion by making words into music and a story into a song.

Greg Thorpe, "1961"
If you are a Judy Garland fan, the date of this story tells it all.  April 23, 1961, the night of the famous Garland Carnegie Hall concert that has been called "the greatest night in show business history."  Garland sang 27 songs to an audience that included Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson, and many other stars.
In a performance that was recorded by Capitol Records and released in a two-album set a few months later, it was interrupted by numerous applause, and when the first few bars of "Over the Rainbow" were played, they almost brought down the house. You can watch a pirated short home movie clip on  You Tube, and if you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to the whole concert.  That's what I am doing as I write this. Or maybe you have a copy of the old album, as many do.
This story is built on the context of Garland's famous status as a gay icon. It focuses on a man in his mid-twenties in New York, who appears to be straight, but is attracted to an older man from Chicago he meets in a bar, who, albeit married, appears to be gay. They go to the famous Garland concert, but near the end, when Garland is singing "If Love Were All," the narrator rejects the man's modest advances and leaves. The story ends eight years later, when with his wife and son, he reads that Judy Garland is dead at 47. The story is delicate and restrained and works by saying very little. It is the clipped syntax of a lonely man who may or may not be gay caught on the cusp of, as he says, ""I don't know what to do about any of it."

Crista Ermiya, "1977"
I read this as one of the more realistic stories in the collection, because the language exists primarily to describe characters, objects, and events, rather than to function as a syntactic rhythm or to create a metaphoric reality. However, the story does begin with a sentence that suggests magical realism: "Memet Ali was eight years old when a woman on his estate gave birth to a cockerel." And the story of an older man, Suleyman, bringing home a teenage bride named Elif from Turkey, who the superstitious neighbours accuse of being a witch, also suggests the possibility of magical realism.
However, we gradually find out that this seemingly supernatural context is the result of the superstitions and jealousy of the neighbors and the innocence of Memet Ali, the eight-year-old boy who serves as the focal third-person point of view of the story. The story is peppered with references to a magic talisman, mating with the devil, witches, being transformed into a rooster, and the evil eye. But this is all part of a culturally biased connection between sexuality and evil.
When Suleyman dies of a heart attack and Elif is left pregnant and alone, the boy, fascinated by her, befriends her and visits. When the baby is stillborn and neighbors gossip that it was born a goat or with two heads, Elif leaves the area, and the boy wonders if the baby was his brother and born a cockerel or rooster.  In spite of all the suggestions of magic realism, there is no magic here— just the realistic story of childish fascination, cultural superstitions and prejudice.

David Gaffney, "The Staring Man"
I like stories that are mysteriously suggestive of significance—stories that model the ambiguity and profound mysteries of human desires, fears, dreams, motivation.  "The Staring Man" is, for me, such a story.  It is very brief and compactly packed with meaning about how human beings try to model and understand universal human misery.
The plot is simple. A woman named Charlotte is making a scale model of a park that has been refurbished. An old man named Ted Mooney comes over to see the model and brings the woman an old picture of himself, his wife, and his 3-year-old daughter Heather. However, this simple situation is energized by the story of how stories come into being and what they try to reveal. The background plot comes at the end.
The following are, in my opinion, some of the key concepts of the story:
"The couple looked innocently happy, their small trim frames somehow weightless, as if in those days there had been less gravity."
The old man looks at the model "from every possible angle, as curious as if it were a 3D map of his own mind."
The woman says, "We make things smaller so that people can understand them better. Show us how the world would look if everything was simpler. We depict what you can see not what you know is there."
She says, "The models should not look like separate individuals, but like a group who are co-operating…. I have to convey all that from their position in the model and how they are spaced in relation to each other."
The miniature person in the model that is one of the woman's favorites she calls "Staring man." She says "He adds something intangible.  Takes you out of the model and makes you feel there is something beyond…he added a spiritual dimension, as if he was searching for God in a world where people killed things."
She says that model maker's don't model the unseen, adding, "There is nothing but the surface."
At the end of the story, the old man tells of his wife and daughter, who was born disabled, dying and leaves, looking at the woman "as if she might have an answer to his problems from the past."
At the end of the story, a man connected with the effort to refurbish the park comes by and tells the woman the back story of the old man, who, when his daughter was aged fifty, one day he looked at his wife and daughter watching Antiques Roadshow on television and, so filled with an "enormous rush of love," he killed them both with a claw hammer.
Charlotte looks at the staring man in her model and thinks how poorly her model reflected the real world. She pulls the staring man away from his place and puts him under a building lying on his back looking at the ceiling. The story ends with these two sentences: "No one would ask what his function was any more.  Her model would be just a model, and nothing else."
It seems to me the story is about the relationship between life and art. Even the old man's killing of his wife and child is an attempt to, as art does,  freeze the moment.  And Charlotte's changing of the staring man from looking for God to staring at the ceiling is a reminder that we have no explanation for the mysterious motivation of people in the world.

Tony Peake, "The Bluebell Wood"
This is also a story of the relationship between reality and the world of the imagination, but not as complexly packed with meaning as "The Staring Man." The single event of the story is a woman named Martha, along with her two children Lucy and Owen, taking her sister Sarah, who is dying and in a wheelchair, on an outing to the bluebell wood.
As opposed to "The Staring Man," which explains nothing, but models everything, this story explains all in the last three paragraphs. Sarah thinks that from her sister's perspective her life has meaning little—that even the novel she has said she is writing is only a jumble of incomplete notes.  She thinks: "So what if she'd never committed anything of consequence to paper? Her so-called novel had nevertheless still given her an interior life, a life of the mind, richer, fuller, and more various than any reality, certainly any reality of which she felt capable."  She thinks it does not matter if they do not reach the bluebell wood for she has seen it in her imagination and it was her wood, so real to her that an actual wood would probably disappoint. 
The following paragraph does not really seem necessary: "
The truth as with all truth, was unutterably simple.  If you wanted a bluebell wood, you had merely to close your eyes. It was that easy. Just close your eyes. And there it was, waiting for you in your imagination, as you'd always known it would be: cool, inviting, seemingly without end."

The story ends dramatically, and rather predictably, with Sarah "floating completely clear of the ground. As if she'd crossed a line and was able, therefore, to admire each flower without doing damage to any of them. To savour the moment as if should be savoured. In complete accord with it. In perfect peace."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Part 2: Best British Short Stories 2016

The second five stories in Best British Short Stories 2016 seem to depend on an intertextual literary context, using works of literature or criticism to provide a framework for the stories or exploring stories in which characters live in a literary work or a literary world.

Ian Parkinson, "A Belgian Story"
What do you do when you are lonely?  You write a story.  What do you do when you are alone in Belgium? Well, you write a Belgian story, of course. And in this story, Belgium is a depressing place infested with a plague of rats with no Pied Piper to lure them away.
The narrator, who suffers from depression, meets a man who identifies himself as an English writer. The man has bought a pellet gun for the rats in his apartment and invites the narrator to join him in a little competition over who can kill the most rats.
At first the writer says what they are doing is like a scene in Graham Green's novel Heart of the Matter, in which two men pass the time by killing cockroaches for drinks.  Then he says it is like Albert Camus's The Plague,  in which rats spread a plague in an Algerian city.
When the writer returns to England, the narrator can find no evidence on the Internet of an English writer with the man's name, and he begins to wonder if he had invented him.  He tells his readers that they should not treat the rats in the story as being "in any way symbolic," for that has not been his intention. Indeed, as the conclusion suggests, he seems to have had no intention, although this does not mean the story has no meaning.
When he is told by immigration officers that they have lost his papers and that he will have to do them all over again to be able to leave Belgium, he buys paper for the dozens of letters he knows he will have to write, and the story ends this way: "And so started this Belgian story, on nothing more than a whim, beginning on the night I met the English novelist in an empty bar… and leading I don't know where." Thus, the story ends the way all stories end—with the beginning of the story—a story that seeks to make a story out of a basic situation of infestation and a basic sense of isolation.

DJ Taylor, "Some Versions of Pastoral"
This is a story about trying to live in a literary world--with contextual references to Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," and William Empson's critical study, Some Versions of Pastoral, which expands the definition of the form.
The plot of the story, which is less important than the literary context the story creates, involves a couple's visit to an elderly couple named the Underwoods. We know we have entered a literary world, albeit a juvenile one, in the first paragraph when the narrator says to negotiate the Underwoods' garden is to "pass through the pages of a children's picture book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay." 
When the visiting husband goes with Mrs. Underwood into the kitchen for tea, "the thought of being in a Beatrix Potter story where Johnny Town Mouse might soon appear at the window with his tail twirled over his top-coated arm was rather too strong for comfort." When he sees an empty bird cage with gilded bars and open door, he thinks there is something horribly symbolic about it. When Mrs. Underwood takes the tea things back in the kitchen, she makes curiously jerky movements "like some marionette whose strings were twisted from on high."
The central symbolic event in the story is a dual or mirror event, for just as the husband breaks a china cup in the kitchen—a cup Mrs. Underwood has said is Lytton Strachey's cup—Mr. Underwood and the wife break another tea cup out in the garden. 
On the ride home, the wife tells her husband that Mr. Underwood  had asked her if she would come and live with him and be his love and that she pushed him away, causing the tea cup to shatter. When the wife tells her husband that someone once told her that Mrs. Underwood had once had an affair with the poet Philip Larkin, the husband imagines the old woman sitting in a restaurant with Larkin—a scene that he thinks "had a tuppence-colored air of unreality."
The husband thinks that somewhere in the world there "lurked an art which you could set against the armies of commerce and bureaucracy to lay them waste," but it was not to be found in the Underwoods' garden.  And so they go back home to a world where "nobody, whether in jest or earnest, asked anyone to live with them and be their love." A melancholy acceptance of reality.
Come live with me and be my love, 
And we will all the pleasures prove, 
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields, 
Woods, or steep mountain yields. 

Colette Sensier, "Mrs. Świȩtokrzyskie's Castle"
This is a story about living in an alternate reality that becomes more real than the ordinary physical world.  It is less about an old woman getting cheated into spending all her money on a computer game than it is about what it means to live in an alternate world.
This is a plot-based story, which accounts for it being one of the longer stories in the collection.  The length is inevitable since the story is actually two parallel stories—the so-called "real life" story of Mrs. Świȩtokrzyskie, the man she is involved with, and her two adult children, and the fantasy story she lives within the computer game—a world that, because it is an objectification of her dreams, is more "real" (whatever that means) than the world of everyday reality, in which—like all of us—she is dying.

Neil Campbell, "A Leg to Stand On"
At some point in a collection of British short stories you might expect a story about how creative writing programs in academic departments are bollocks.  This is that story.  The segue is a dialogue about football players who get injured in play and then write books about the experience. The phrase of the title suggests a situation in which the argument presented has no real support. Two British football players who get an injured leg—Paul Lake and Colin Bell— literally end up with not a leg to stand on.
Some of the rather predictable observations of the writers in the story are: "It seems the work can't just stand for itself any more. You  have to be able to explain it." "That's why academics can't write fiction. They analyse it too much; they can't free themselves up or let themselves go."  "We know that a lot of creative writing in academia is bollocks."
 The story is a sort of dialogue between two points of view about writing—neither of which seem to have a leg to stand on. Anyone in any graduate program in literature or creative writing in the U.S. or England knows about the tacit, sometimes open, conflict between the two programs.

Alex Preston, "Wyndham Le Strange Buys the School"
This is a lyrical story of four veterans of WWI, damaged by the war, who come together at the school they once attended.  It is the lyricism of the story that makes it work.  The key phrase repeated throughout is "as if," for the men live in an "as if" world of fictional reality at the school.
The narrator says he feels life seeping back into his bones at the school, that life is slowly, hesitantly, crawling out from under the rock of the war. "It is as if we have entered some sacred grove whose nepenthe an air has overthrown all the ills of the young century, and we are back were we began."
The narrator finds a copy of Chekhov's stories and reads them aloud. "The stories unknit something in us, and in the depths of them we find parts of ourselves that we feared lost forever." When he reads "The Lady with the Little Dog" to the men, they seem to be rendered almost invisible by the brightness of the light, as if they are made of air or the light.
One by one, the men begin to awaken from some terrible dream to "feel the firmness of the living world," and one by one they begin to leave.  When only the narrator is left, he realizes that he needed this retreat even more than the others--"a haunt away from a world that carries on as if the war never happened."

Of these five stories, this is my favorite. But then how could a lover of the short story like me resist a lyrical story that uses stories to mend the lives of broken men—especially the stories of Chekhov?