Pollock, Donald Ray. The Devil All the Time. New York: Doubleday – Random House, 2011. Print.
“He’d been brought up to believe that you never talked to God when you were under the influence. A man needed to be sincere with the Master all times in case he was ever really in need.”
~ Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (17)
How do I annotate a book that moved me, disgusted me, pushed my morals around, and infected me? Carefully, sure, but it’s not a rhetorical question I’m asking myself. I’ve been going around in circles trying to decide which is the most necessary angle with which to approach a critical analysis of this work. The choices, for me, are threefold. First, I could go craft analysis and discuss Pollock’s writing. Second, I could open the can of rotting worms that is the content of this book (violence, morality, religion, perversion, and everything else). Third, I could dig into the flag this book’s been raising among readers and writers – the one tied to the question of “is this literary fiction?” So, abandoning the typical narrow lens approach with which I prefer to study the books I read, I think I’ll try and go for all three angles, because I can’t decide which is most important to me as a reader or, more importantly for a work like this, as a writer.
Craft first, because, without it, the book wouldn’t work, right? Probably. Thankfully, Pollock’s committed to his craft. While there were times I felt like the writing was a little green (and, it is, considering this guy’s a newly minted MFA), overall, I was impressed with the constancy of the tone of the book. Pollock went after the sound of down and dirty southern gothic and he nailed it. His POV shifts initially bothered me, as I’ve never been much a fan of full omniscient storytelling as it, in my opinion, makes things too easy for the writer and not mysterious enough for the reader. However, I came to enjoy being inside the character’s heads freely throughout. And, it aided to the structural integrity of the story. At times, I found myself frustrated by the easily contrived nature of the stories as they connected to each other. But, all novels tend toward some easy coincidence or convenient connection and as far as novel structure goes, this one does it well without relying too much on how things will come to a head by the end (which, boy do they). The other elements of fiction craft are there, as well, but I’ll address some of them in a bit while looking at the literary qualities of the book. Perhaps, in the craft side of it all, it’s Pollock’s language that most made my experience a good one.
They kept praying and spilling blood on the log and hanging up twisted, mashed roadkill. All the while, Willard was considering the conversation he’d had with the fat-ass landlord. He’d run it through his head a hundred times, figured Dunlap probably wanted him to kill the black man or the wife or maybe both of them(48).
Stepping back up on the metal bucket, she put the noose around her neck and tightened it. A trickle of sweat ran down her face, and she caught herself thinking that she should do this out in the sunlight, in the warm summer air, maybe even wait another day or two…She started to loosen the noose and the lard bucket began to wobble. Then her foot slipped and the bucket rolled away and left her dangling in the air. She had dropped only a few inches, not nearly enough to break her neck clean…Her face turned purple. She was vaguely aware of urine running down her legs. The blood vessels in her eyes began to burst…(187).
And these two who just picked him up, another couple of losers. The woman seemed to think she was sexy or something, the way she kept smiling at him in the mirror and licking her lips, but just looking at her gave him the willies. There was a ripe, fishy smell coming from somewhere in the car, and he figured it had to be her. He could tell the fat man was dying to suck his dick, the way he kept turning around in the front seat and asking stupid questions so he could take another look at his crotch (209).
The above examples lead into the content of the book. It would be easy to give example after example of the mixed content of the book. Breaking it down into topics: violence, religion, poverty, sex, perversion, murder, lying, stealing, rape, prostitution, etc. The themes that stem from these content decisions are just as mixed: redemption, forgiveness, revenge, education, journey, consequence, moralization, etc. It’s packed full of so much, the reader begins to wonder why? Why cram in so many deplorable acts? So many filthy settings? So many despicable people? Sure the area and the time in which this two-decade long story is set wasn’t so dark, so unforgiving, so hopeless, was it? Maybe it was. That’s not so much the point, though. The point, I think, Pollock is trying to make is that the ‘badness’ (the Devil, evil, whatever) in us is unrelenting, and that filth begets filth begets filth. And, really, to give the story, its characters, and its themes their infective power, he had to commit to the rotting of things, the festering of people and places, the fatalism that existed for his characters. There was no such thing as a happy ending, even a twisted one, for any of them. To go after that kind of content means unwavering dedication from the writer. So, while I was grossed out, offended at times, I was ultimately impressed and moved by the darkness of the story.
And that’s what brings me to the ultimate question of whether this fits into literary fiction or not. This is a tough one to answer, because the definition is so loose and, for many, comes down to a combination of taste and definition. I’ve come to a very simple, isolating characteristic (albeit, reductive) that helps me identify a work as literary or not (this doesn’t regard the blending some works tend to do as not all genre fiction or literary fiction is mutually exclusive). For me, it comes down to the word instruction, and whether or not a piece is instructive. It’s still loose, yes, but it helps to weed out those works that masquerade as literary behind language and style. While this piece doesn’t flaunt language, it does boast style, and it uses many common literary techniques and tropes. But it’s still hard to answer, because the content is borderline (and, often over the line) gratuitous. So it comes to the second part of the question for me in determining it’s instructiveness as a literary novel: Could it do what it does without the content being so abhorrent? Would I be forced to question my beliefs, refine my morals, define my worldview (religion, violence, sexuality, treatment of other people) by a tamer version of this story? I don’t think so. I think if the content were toned down, the book would begin to bleed into genre fiction – murder story, crime noir, guttery southern gothic. And it wouldn’t do what it does in its true, disgusting form. Of course, considering that, a new question begs asking – one that pushes me further into the camp of “this is literary fiction because it gets me thinking about bigger things in my life.” That question is: are the boundaries moving? Is desensitization really happening? Does it take this kind of pushing of every boundary to get people to consider the fortification of their own moral code? And I wonder: did anyone have similar thoughts at the time when Flannery O’Connor published A Good Man is Hard to Find? I have a feeling this book, while it will never hold a candle to some of our greatest literary successes, will be regarded by future writers and readers as a piece of important American Literature.
Loory, Ben. Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
“The knife flies cleanly through the air – and lands perfectly in the center of the friend’s stomach.”
~ Ben Loory, “The Knife Act” from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (122)
A pocket full of fun stories. They’re like popcorn in the way they can be read handfuls at a time, but they don’t melt away, calorie free. Ben Loory’s stories, though, fables might be a better word, are fast, deep-reaching experiments in touching on the simple darkness that exists around the root of human imagination. The fun he has on the page translates to a reading experience that’s addicting, engaging, enlightening, and liberating. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down. Each time one of his short stories ended, I turned immediately to the next to keep the buzz going. When I finished the book, I actually thought about flipping back to the beginning and reading it again. Not so much because of how much fun it was to just let go and allow the stories to bubble inside my mind, but because I wanted to read closer – to study Loory’s craft, to see how exactly he did it. It’s a mix of rule-breaking, fear-inviting, and fat-cutting.
First off, and getting right to the point – Loory breaks all the rules of contemporary crafting. He skips naming most of his characters, he leaves nearly everything setting-wise to the imagination, he even drops a lot of pretense, punctuation, and grammar. Now, it needs to be clear that he’s not ignorant of the rules nor missing them. He’s breaking them. And I think his intention here is clear: he’s interested in getting to the heart of the story. He’s taking the whole convoluted process of literary fiction and carving it back to the place of simple story begets meaning. Like the story told around a campfire or in a darkened cabin full of bunks. His language is short and choppy and he doesn’t rely on long words or thesaurus sourced modifiers. He lets adverbs do some of the heavy lifting, and it pisses me off, because he makes it work. He cuts to the bone (more on this in a bit) and lets the absolute action do the work. He dose rely, it should be noted, on limited third person POV, surrealism/magical realism, and fable style prose. Like contemporized dark fairy tales. Which, for the content, this is a wise decision. The sparseness in the prose and in the characters leaves so much room for the reader to inhabit and imbue.
The girl, in the meantime, hasn’t seen much of the boy. He hasn’t been calling her back. He hasn’t been coming to pick her up from work.
In fact, she hasn’t seen him at all.
And so she walks home, all by herself, late at night through the streets of the town. And she stands staring into the dark window of the travel agency, looking at the posters on the walls.
Rome. Paris. New York City. The pyramids. Ayers Rock.
So many wonderful places to be.
And look at where she is (72, “UFO: A Love Story”).
The moose turns and looks at him in horror.
You’re trying to kill me, he says, his voice a whisper. You brought me here to kill me!
What? says the man. Why would I do that? I don’t understand.
But the moose is too scared to explain. He stumbles backward to his feet. He points a hoof at the abomination on the wall.
The man sees it. Then his eyes go wide.
My God! he says. I just didn’t think!
He reaches out to reassure the moose.
But his hand grabs the T-shirt and it rips and falls off, and then, to make matters worse, the moose’s hat tumbles to the floor.
A moose! they cry. Get him! Get him! Get the guns (150, “The Man and the Moose”)!
Within Loory’s use of surrealism and magical realism is what I believe to be the most important aspect of his short stories: fear. He makes no bones about plying readers with their deep fears – he invites the fear. Aliens, death, loss, impossibility, misunderstanding, monsters, the undead, wild animals, weapons, the unknown, legends, and the list goes on. But, it’s not a matter of scaring the readers. No, Loory takes the fears and makes them ridiculous without ridiculing their reason for inducing fear. In this way, he’s using dark humor in a new (kind of) way, and giving readers something to think about. A real achievement – using the irrational in an absurd way to create rational responses. Genius, really.
It is a tremendous thing, the monster below – so big the man missed it before. It is jet-black and featureless and lying stretched out, covering the entire bottom of the (swimming) pool.
And the worst thing is that it is staring at the man – staring right back up at him. Staring with that black, unblinking eye (10-11, “The Swimming Pool”).
A hunter returns to his village one night with a severed human head in one hand. He jams the head onto a stake and sticks it into the ground by his hut.
Then he goes inside and falls asleep (41, “The Hunter’s Head”).
The boy and the girl strain and pull and pull. And when the last few yards come in, they see why pulling had become so hard – there’s an immense, canvas-wrapped objected tied to the end.
What is it? the girl says.
I don’t know, says the boy.
The two move closer to the object. The boy bends down and unties the knotted rope. Then he peels back the canvas.
Oh God, says the girl.
The boy stares down.
Inside are two dead bodies (118, “The Rope and the Sea”).
The woman wanders down the passageway.
This is more like it, she says.
The passageway is narrow and very dark. The woman turns on the flashlight.
There are spiderwebs all over the place, and it is eerily quiet. The woman’s heels make a clicking sound.
I wonder where this goes, she says.
Just then the passageway takes another turn.
Oh, says the woman, stopping short.
In front of her is a wall.
The passageway has come to an end (182, “The Woman and the Basement”).
Coming back to the sparseness of Loory’s stories. Some might identify his prose as minimalistic. It is certainly economic. I’m not sure I’d call it minimalism, though. Minimalism is an approach – a very specific style intended to give the reader maximum room to breathe while inhabiting a piece. Minimalism purposely leaves much unsaid for the sake of experiential opportunity. Loory’s not leaving things unsaid for that purpose, and in most cases, he’s not leaving things unsaid. I’d label what Loory’s done as a trimming of fat. Really, almost a removal of fat. It’s not about minimal presentation, it’s about getting rid of everything that doesn’t matter for the sake of the story experience. Like people, stories often grow best under layers of fatty tissue, like skin. The more fat, the slower the movement happens, even if it warms (more importantly here, protects) the body. Loory’s cut the fat – all of it – until his stories are skeletal. We can see everything when we read them – like looking at a skeleton in a high school lab or at a tree without its leaves. The look alone is creepy, other-worldly, alien while still the root of something else. Loory’s done this so that the readers might be the bodies that grow around his stories. But, like skeletal things, there are pockets of shadow and points of mystery.
Two boys are walking home from school when one of them sees a drainpipe set back in the woods.
Look at that, the boy says. I never knew that was there. Let’s go in and see where it goes.
But the other boy takes one look at the pipe and quickly shakes his head.
Uh-huh, he says. Not me. No way.
Why not? says the first boy. Are you scared?
I just don’t want to, his friend says, and takes a single step back.
Come on, says the first boy. It’s just a pipe.
But the other boy won’t be swayed.
I’ll see you later, he says.
And then turns around and runs.
The first boy watches as his friend disappears, and then he turns again to the pipe. Its open mouth is very dark, and very, very wide (13, “The Tunnel”).
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Loory’s collection of short stories was the way it made me want to try new things in my writing. The culture of modern literary fiction is one of abundance, of dedicated attention to detail and style and richness. Not that Loory doesn’t go after those things, but he does it his way, and it makes for something fresh and refreshing. Break some rules, face some fears, cut some fat. Write something fun.
Doerr, Anthony. Memory Wall. New York: Scribner – Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
“…in every genealogy someone will always be last: last leaf on the family tree, last stone in the family plot.”
~ from “Procreate, Generate” in Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (95)
When I want a new story I can count on, to do exactly what a short story should do, to bring me into it and deliver my imagination from my life, I turn to Anthony Doerr. His stories are lovely. Memory Wall is his second collection of acclaimed (and awarded) short stories. Like his first collection, The Shell Collector, Memory Wall keeps its promises of interesting, three-dimensional characters, well-structured story-lines, and emotive, unforgettable reading experiences. The stories hold their own because Doerr knows what he’s doing. Rather than spend the time detailing his expected craft successes, I’ll use this annotation to dissect two critical components of his storytelling style: His long reveals (or, anti-reveals), and his inclusion of the earth and its matter as characters rather than just setting.
While his first collection of short stories included a number of stories that were fewer than twenty pages, it is not so with Memory Wall. Aside from one ten page story, each story in the collection is at least twenty pages, the average being just over thirty, with two stories breaking sixty pages, and the title story being nearly ninety. Why is this? Because Doerr takes his time. His prose is not weighed down with run-on sentences or polysyllabic words; he writes with direction as a manner of form, and his language is still one that would often be classified as economical. And yet, his short stories are very long. I’ve read a number of short stories that are longer than they need to be. It’s safe to say this is common. With Doerr’s, this is not the case. At the end of each long story, I felt the need for even more, so strongly had he presented the story and its elements. The long reveal (and, as I said, anti-reveal, but I’ll get there in a moment) works for him (and the reader) because it allows the story time to build steam and the characters time to exist in their flesh. The greater understanding of the long short story form that Doerr exhibits is that the reveal, in the classical definition, isn’t really what the reader is after. There exists a paradox in stories: that is, the reader wants to know what’s coming but he also wants to be surprised. Good short stories can succeed in doing both, but the point, by the time the end of a short story rolls around, is neither that the reader pats himself on the back for knowing what would happen nor is it feeling of questions being answered or mysteries being solved. These are good feelings, but no: The point is that the reader experiences the story from start to finish. If a short story writer banks on some revelatory moment or neat conclusion, no reader will invest the time. Or, worse, the reader will feel swindled. Armed with this knowledge, Doerr tells – really tells – his stories. He lets his characters move around, act and react, exist. He keeps the story moving along, too, but it’s at a life pace to which the reader can relate. And the experience is so rich, that by the time the story is getting its ending, Doerr either pulls it together or lets it hang, depending on how the story progressed as it did. It’s not maddening for the reader to have the ending come, and is probably less maddening when the ending is unsaid, because Doerr put his skill into the story and its characters, rather than just slapping details and plot points ahead of some contrived disclosure.
Equal in its weight to the rest of Doerr’s characters is the earth itself. The natural world, in each of his stories, is not just setting or environment. No, Doerr writes slices of the planet into his stories as beings capable of acting and reacting along with the human’s whom populate the stories. In the title story, the rocky, fossilized desert of South Africa breaths sleepy secrets. In “Village 113,” the land around a life-sustaining river slowly gives up its life and family to the force of greed and energy. In “Procreate, Generate” the barren, isolated Wyoming landscape sympathetically juxtaposes the story’s human characters as they grapple with infertility. Doerr taps the potential of the natural world. The take-away for other writers in this is huge: the natural world, when given the freedom to interact and develop a voice, will offer synergistically increased depth to the development of human characters. Simply: it is how real people live real lives. The natural world is not flat, unmoving, or ineffectual, so why leave settings in stories to be just places things happen to people? Doerr’s “outside” characters are stronger the further he takes the story from civilization, which confirms that his crafting of them is 1) intentional and 2) following the lead on real human experience.
On a concluding, personal note: Anthony Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, not far from where I grew up. I have a feeling he writes the meandering, human stories with the natural world as an interactive character because of his connection to the lifestyle of the mountains. I hope this is true. The part of me that lives and loves living in the rural mountains of Idaho wants to believe that this kind of approach to writing has a growing home in the literary community. Writers like Anthony Doerr, Alan Heathcock, and Brady Udall (all Idaho residents) are giving credence to the hope. Here’s to Anthony Doerr continuing to offer long short stories that really mean something and to writing the living world into them in a noble, sustainable way.
Posted by Lee on Oct 29, 2012 in Fiction, Novel | 0 comments
Banks, Russell. Lost Memory of Skin. New York: ecco – HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
“He’s remembering the night he got busted and the watery feeling he got all over his body when he realized that nothing was what he thought it was and no one was who he and she claimed to be.”
~ Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin (170)
Russell Banks writes long, complicated, insightful human narratives. The Lost Memory of Skin lands on Banks’s quickly growing list of books that are intended to challenge stereotypes, to convince readers that there are paradigm shifts happening (or needing to happen). The book takes place in south Florida. Its two main characters (I hesitate to use protagonist or antagonist labels as each is transgressive and neither fits the fully pro- or anti- structure) spend the book exploring each other’s past as it relates to present circumstances (the book is mostly written in present tense) and their respective outlooks. One is a homeless convicted sex offender (The Kid), and one is a genius sociology professor with a mysterious past and strange interest in the cause/effect relationship between sexual predation and homelessness. The content of the story alone is worth discussing, but what fascinates me more than the content is how Banks has crafted around it to create a book worthy discussion. Banks had to make some interesting story choices to keep this book in the realm of literature without sliding into a description fitting of genre fiction (the professor, it turns out, is a former spy, after all). Banks has created in Lost Memory of Skin a work not as much about the story (though the story is there, and Banks has an instinct for action) as it is about what the character discussions and interactions do to inform or sway the reader’s way of thinking – thinking about some extremely difficult cultural paradigms and human stereotypes. To keep this a craft analysis, I’d like to examine two pros and one con in Banks’s work: intelligent and authentic dialogue crafted to create depth in characters, a keen sense of human development and relationships (including broken ones), and excessive detailing (its purpose and potential for distraction).
Banks relies heavily on the use of dialogue. While exposition plays its role in his craft (and, I’ll get to that with the excesses in a bit), it’s Banks’s dialogue that tells the story, develops the characters, and shows what Banks can do in creating a world worthy of the readers imagination. Regarding the devices he uses for dialogue: he’s inventive. He utilizes no dialogue tags, gives the sounds of character voices no descriptors, and leaves quotations out. Rather, Banks italicizes dialogue to set it apart from the rest of the text. Stylistically, it adds to the presentation on the page, but, and perhaps he realizes his exposition is unnecessarily thick (again, more on that in a bit) and utilizes the type change to draw readers to the parts of the page that they know they’ll find the story Banks is after, spoken through his characters. There are a number of chapters that are simply transcripts of interviews between the Professor and the Kid, and in these, all text is italicized, though, because of the quantity of dialogue, he tags each change in speaker with the first letter of their character title. Because Banks’s dialogue is generally so strong, so realistic, it’s when characters are speaking that the reader slows down and homes in on exactly what’s being said.
P: You didn’t complete basic training?
K: You could say I got discharged early. Not a dishonorable though. I got what they call a general discharge. So I never made it to Afghanistan. Pissed me off. I think I would’ve done good there, kicked some serious Arab ass. I could like kill people with my bare hands, man. They teach you that in basic.
P: Why were you discharged early?
K: (long pause) Porn. Distributing pornography, they said.
P: Pornography! What type of pornography? You mean children?
K: No, no! Just the usual kind. Videos. Triple and quadruple X. Your basic hard-core. I wasn’t really distributing them anyhow. I was only giving them away free to my buddies. Some DVDs I bought and paid for myself. It’s a long stupid story. You don’t wanna hear it.
P: I do want to hear it. Tell me (138).
Something Banks does well both in his exposition and in his dialogue is putting into words the intricate complexities that define human development and relations. These two things should be the core of literary fiction, insomuch as they give the reader opportunities to consider his or her own development and relations. While many writers might start out with this goal in mind, and many writers may feel that they’ve achieved it with finished stories, the truth is very little fiction rises above stereotype or contrivance. Banks is just as guilty as the rest of utilizing stereotypes to assist his readers imagining of his settings and characters. But he also proves he knows the difference by crafting truthful moments and peppering his narrative with them.
Boys like it when you talk to them as if they were grown men – at least he always did when he was a kid – because they pretend that’s what they are anyhow, grown-up men, and they do it for their entire lives. Even old men playing golf or pinochle or watching TV in their retirement homes or sitting half-asleep in the Jacuzzi tub are only pretending to be adult men. But little girls are more complicated and mysterious than little boys. At least to the Kid they are. They don’t want you to talk to them like they’re grown-up women. Maybe it’s because grown-up women aren’t like men. Maybe women really are adults and not little kids in disguise (37).
Tears are running down his cheeks and he feels like a big baby. He’s ashamed of himself not for crying but for having been such a coward and though he feels rightly punished by having his best friend taken away forever Iggy did not deserve to die. Iggy never once did anything to be ashamed of. All he did all his life was be his natural self. Unlike the Kid. Who doesn’t even know what his natural self is (67-68).
This brings me to the thing that burned me about the book. It’s a long novel, over four hundred pages, and the content is thick, to be sure. Unlike a short story, I can overlook cliché or missed linguistic/structural opportunities in something of this size. What I can’t overlook, however, is over-writing or over-describing. I began to wonder if Banks came up against a length requirement or deadline and started filling in open space to widen the narrative. There were times in just about every chapter that I was tempted to start skimming because the descriptions got so heavy; long paragraphs that did nothing to inform the story or the characters. In some places, the excess bordered on pedantic. For example (and I won’t transcribe it all here); page 267 – the beginning of chapter one of section four – opens with a two hundred plus paragraph describing the movement of the eye of a hurricane through which the Professor is passing, but it does nothing for the story that picks back up with paragraph two. Or, the opening chapter of section two is a background (sweeping) of the Professor (the first time the reader meets him, more than eighty pages into the book because there is SO much exposition in first section, though little of it moves the story forward) written like it’s a biography. While reading it, I broke the information into two categories: useful and not, and wondered by Banks didn’t just season the narrative with the useful background while he told the story – why write it all into the first chapter in which the reader meets a character? It was a slog and by the time the story picked back up with chapter two of section two, I was bored with the professor. Given the magnitude of the content and the social discourse the book should inspire, Banks seems to be sabotaging his potential, literally undoing his craft, by carrying on and on with the details about which readers don’t (and shouldn’t) care.
If I were to edit Lost Memory of Skin, cutting the unnecessary detailing/exposition, its four hundred sixteen pages might come to fewer than two hundred fifty. But, they would be two hundred fifty remarkable pages full of broken, human characters interacting, exploring, and giving readers an experience in reflection and paradigm dissolving. For those craft examples, the book is worth fighting through the swamp of extra material.
Udall, Brady. Letting Loose the Hounds: Stories. 1997. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
“There is something gratifying about having a serious injury and no serious pain to go with it.”
~ Brady Udall, “Buckeye the Elder” from Letting Loose the Hounds (29)
For a western writer, Udall doesn’t write the west the way other western writers do. The differences are many and reside primarily in his characters and plot decisions. He doesn’t present any common tropes, he tends toward comedy where others might fork into despair, and his American west is dry and rich and contemporized without the expected mythos of the American West. His sweep of publishing credits varies almost as much as his character voices. Because these decisions are rooted in craft, this annotation will look at three elements of Udall’s writing that show up in each of his stories: interesting story openings, life is better than expected, and strange character motivation.
As any writing teacher might repeat, the opening line(s) of a story or essay are as important as the final ones. While an opener doesn’t (read: shouldn’t) need to grab a reader by the throat, it should implicate the reader’s imagination in a way that the reader cannot help but continue reading. A reader involved from the beginning will stay involved, assuming the writer can keep good on the promises made by the first line(s). Udall’s opening lines are quietly interesting, each distinct both in content and voice promises. Every story (with the exception of the title story) in this collection is told in the first person, and Udall voices each narrator differently. More on that in a little bit – the point of its mention here is that the myriad voices give the stories opportunities to start uniquely and well. Here are the opening lines to a handful of the stories in this collection:
Roy growls and gives me the evil eye from inside his doghouse (13, “Midnight Raid”).
Things I learned about Buckeye a few minutes before he broke my collarbone: he is twenty-five years old, in love with my older sister, a native of Wisconsin and therefore a Badger (27, “Buckeye the Elder”).
I couldn’t deny it anymore: Juan, the man in my life, was out of his mind (58, “Ballad of the Ball and Chain”).
Though she doesn’t like to admit it, the fact that I live with three crazy people is the reason Ansie won’t stop by the house to visit (114, “The Opposite of Loneliness”).
My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage dumpster this morning (135, “The Wig”).
It’s the biggest snake I ever seen without the aid of liquor (165, “Snake”).
I am a cowboy. There are others in his outfit who prefer to call themselves ranch hands or just “hands,” maybe they think cowboy is a little too flamboyant for this day and age, who knows, but shit, I herd cows, I vaccinate, brand, dehorn, and castrate cows, more often than not I smell exactly like a cow – I am a cowboy (190, “He Becomes Deeply and Famously Drunk”).
Perhaps the most remarkable element to Udall’s stories is the way he makes the lives of his characters good and bad and real in a way to which most readers can easily relate. While there is no shortage of motivation, of passion or despair, the general sense readers get from Udall’s characters is that they come to a place of understanding: that life (their lives) are not that bad. He does this primarily by having the characters witness pain, loss, broken love, etc and make comparative observations. It’s clever writing and it’s instantly human. And, it’s so different from other contemporary short stories – where the tragedies of the protagonists become the definition of their lives. Udall’s characters don’t redefine the bleakness of their lives and change via despair: they realize, usually in funny ways, that they don’t have it too bad, and that it could easily be a lot worse.
One of my biggest worries is that I will be sterile. I don’t know why I think about this; I am young and have never come close to having a girl. About a year ago I was perusing the public library and found a book all about sterility and the affliction it causes in people’s lives. The book said that for some people, it is a tragedy that transcends all others. In what seems to be some sort of fateful coincidence I went home and turned on the TV and there was Phil Donahue discussing this very topic with four very downtrodden-looking men and their unfulfilled wives. I didn’t sleep that night and I worried about it for weeks. I even thought about secretly going to the doctor and having myself checked. I guess I believe my life has been just a little too tragedy-free for my own comfort (41, “Buckeye the Elder”).
Character motivation: a necessity in any kind of story, sure, but what motivates characters is half of the draw, right? Readers want to experience something new, and they want to watch the characters work through the process, to root for or against them. This is not news and it’s not new. But, Udall’s characters are motivated by strange, interesting, and usually very specific things. There are no tropes here, either. And I think what really sets Udall’s characters’ motivations apart from his contemporaries’ characters’ is that most of Udall’s characters are driving to know something about themselves by knowing something about someone else. And, though this motivation isn’t necessarily new, either, it’s so different in his stories. In “Midnight Raid,” Udall’s protagonist delivers a pet goat to his son in his ex-wife’s new house with her new husband in a gated community. His motivation is not to get the goat to his son – it’s not even really to see his son. His motivation is to know that he still matters. This, the first story in the collection, sets the theme for the collection – that the characters are motivated not by money or by materials or by action. They’re motivated by knowledge, and in many cases, faith. As in “Buckeye the Elder,” the characters compare themselves to other characters, measuring up their compulsions, their reasons, their beliefs, and coming to deeper understandings. It’s age-old fiction method, sure, but it’s fresh.
I listen for as long as I can, but there is something so tight in my chest it almost hurts and I can’t listen anymore. I get up and throw off my clothes and jump with Robert into the river. The water is cold and deep; it comes from old glaciers close to the sky. The current is slow and pushes me slowly forward and down. Robert and me chase each other back and forth. I look over from time to time where Green and Wade are talking and laughing. They are discussing religious matters while I am in the river with a dog (186-187, “Beautiful Places”).
I feed some paper into the dusty old machine and begin typing. I’ve decided not to tell anyone about Buckeye’s last visit; it will be the final secret between us. Instead, I go to work composing the letter Buckeye would certainly have left had he learned to write. I address sit to Simone and just let things flow. I don’t really try to imitate Buckeye’s voice, but somehow I can feel it coming out in a crusty kind of eloquence. Even though I’ve always been someone who’s highly aware of grammar and punctuation, I let sentence after sentence go by without employing so much as a comma. I tell Simone everything Buckeye could have felt and then some. I tell her how much she means to me and always will. I tell her what a peach she is. I’m shameless, really. I include my parents and thank them for everything, inform them that as far as I’m concerned, no two more Christian people ever walked the earth. I philosophize about goodness and badness and the sweet sorrow of parting. As I type, I imagine my family reading this at the breakfast table and the heartache compressing their faces, emotion rising in them so full that they are choked into speechlessness. This image spurs me on and I clack away on the keys like a single-minded idiot. When I’m finished, I’ve got two and a half pages and nothing left to say. A little stunned, I sit in my father’s chair and strain in the dim light to see what I’ve just written. Until now, I’ve never been aware of what being drunk can do for one’s writing ability (56-57, “Buckeye the Elder”).
It’s one of the only collections of short stories I’ve come across that’s full of more comedy and humility and despair and tragedy, and it’s delightful to read stories that do as much to instruct in writing/method as they do in considering life. Udall’s commitment to making normal, “goodness,” and recovery interesting and motivating pays off, both for readers seeking freshness and for writers seeking permission (and models) for writing that doesn’t depress.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Mariner – Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
“Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra care, to try to figure out what made him different.”
~ Lahiri Jhumpa, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” from Interpreter of Maladies (30)
Recently, I came upon a claim that made a distinction between literature and everything else. Simply: literature has some quality that instructs. If the material doesn’t instruct in some way – worldview, meaning of life, cultural opening, relational, etc – then it can’t be true literature. While some might debate the reductive quality of the claim, I think it makes sense. Of course, the argument would lie in the definition of instruction, but that’s for another place. If we’re to define literature by its instructiveness, then Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Interpreter of Maladies is high literature and a no-surprise winner of the Pulitzer. If I had to pin down a word to describe Lahiri’s short stories, I’d likely settle on “human.” She has imbued these pages with humanity, and she crafts around it beautifully. I’ll touch on a few elements that recur in every piece that inform humanity: cultural diversity (understanding and acceptance or lack), relationships, and language. The first two inform the content and the third informs both the content and the craft. I’ll address each element using broader generalizations about Lahiri’s writing and examples from specific stories.
Lahiri, an Indian American (Bengali), born in England, raised in the United States, writes to the merging of worlds. The blending of cultures is present in each story, and, in some cases, becomes the catalyst for the story’s plot lines or characters’ motivations. The reason it is so important in these particular stories (and, one reason I believe the collection contended for the Pulitzer) is that the characters are not American, but they come up against “traditional” American culture. Their interactions are informed, but from the lens of the other side, reading the stories as an American is enlightening. The way Lahiri reveals not only culture but the way in which culture understands and reacts to different culture is so engaging it changes the way I think about my own characters and forces me to ask big questions about understanding, ignorance, and motivation. Below is an example (a long one, but its entirety is necessary):
It made no sense to me. Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr. Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after a meal as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea. Nevertheless my father insisted that I understand the difference, and he led me to a map of the world taped to the wall over his desk. He seemed concerned that Mr. Pirzada might take offense if I accidentally referred to him as an Indian, though I could not really imagine Mr. Pirzada being offended by much of anything. “Mr. Pirzada is Bengali, but he is a Muslim,” my father informed me. “Therefore he lives in East Pakistan, not India.” His finger trailed across the Atlantic, through Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and finally to the sprawling orange diamond that my mother once told me resembled a woman wearing a sari with her left arm extended. Various cities had been circled with lines drawn between them to indicate my parents’ travels, and the place of their birth. Calcutta was signified by a small silver star. I had been there only once and had no memory of the trip. “As you see, Lilia, it is a different country, a different color,” my father said. Pakistan was yellow, not orange. I noticed that there were two distinct parts to it, one much larger than the other, separated by an expanse of Indian territory; it was as if California and Connecticut constituted a nation apart from the U.S.
My father rapped his knuckles on top of my head. “You are, of course, aware of the current situation? Aware of East Pakistan’s fight for sovereignty?”
I nodded, unaware of the situation.
We returned to the kitchen, where my mother was draining a pot of boiled rice into a colander. My father opened up the can on the counter and eyed me sharply over the frames of his glasses as he ate some more cashews. “What exactly to they teach you at school? Do you study history? Geography?”
“Lilia has plenty to learn at school,” my mother said. “We live here now, she was born here.” She seemed genuinely proud of the fact, as if it were a reflection of my character. In her estimation, I knew, I was assured a safe life, and easy life, a fine education, every opportunity. I would never have to eat rationed food, or obey curfews, or watch riots from my rooftop, or hide neighbors in water tanks to prevent them from being shot, as she and my father had (25-27, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”).
Lahiri’s stories, as is evident in the way she writes to culture, revolve around relationships. She doesn’t shy away from difficult situations: she goes after the grit and the strength, the strains of romantic, familial, filial, and friendship ties. I’ll address her prose in a moment, as it informs the reading experience, but first I want to talk content. The reading experience roots in the desire to relate. At the same time, readers want new experiences. It’s a challenge to the writer – write characters to whom the reader can relate while at the same time giving the reader something new to feel. The balance is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and Lahiri nails it. In craft terms, it shows her commitment to the development of characters and to the consistency of their presentation as well as the attention she pays to important details.
But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba (his wife) had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as muich time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude (4-5, “A Temporary Matter”).
…but when I learned of her death I was stricken, so much so that when Mala looked up from her knitting she found me staring at the wall, the newspaper neglected in my lap, unable to speak. Mrs. Croft’s was the first death that I mourned in America, for hers was the first life I had admired; she had left this world at last, ancient and alone, never to return (196, “The Third and Final Continent”).
I’d be remiss to not spend any time discussing Lahiri’s beautiful language. Not only is her vocabulary impressive and varied, but she also manages to commingle lyricism and directness with subtle flair. Reading between the lines, I can see she loves language and has a sense of humor about it as well. She plays with it without eroding the quality of her stories, characters, or intentions. Also notable is her ability to paint images with her words without copping to the traditional western writing scene descriptive tools. Below are two very interesting examples. One is her use of cliché for the sake of language play and character development (humor), and the other is an example of interesting word selection, order, and labeling.
While Dev was at the airport, Miranda went to Filene’s Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have. She found a pair of black high heels with buckles smaller than a baby’s teeth. She found a stain slip with scalloped edges and a knee-length silk robe. Instead of the pantyhose she normally wore to work, she found sheer stockings with a seam. She searched through piles and wandered through racks, pressing back hanger after hanger, until she found a cocktail dress made of slinky silvery material that matched her eyes, with little chains for straps. As she shopped, she thought about Dev, and about what he’d told her in the Mapparium. It was the first time a man had called her sexy, and when she closed her eyes she could still feel his whisper drifting through her body, under her skin. In the fitting room, which was just one big room with mirrors on the walls, she found a spot next to an older woman with a siny face and coarse frosted hair. The woman stood barefoot in her underwear, pulling the black net of a body stocking taut between her fingers.
“Always check for snags,” the woman advised (92, “Sexy”).
And then one afternoon, without word or warning, it happened again. On the banks of the fish pond, Bib fell to the footpath. She shook. She shuddered. She chewed her lips. A group encircled the convulsing girl at once, eager to assist in whatever way possible. The opener of soda bottles pinned down her thrashing limbs. The vendor of sliced cucumbers attempted to unclasp her fingers. One of us doused her with water from the pond. Another wiped her mouth with a perfumed handkerchief. The seller of jackfruits was holding Bibi’s head, which struggled to toss from side to side. And the man who cranked the sugarcane press gripped the palm fan that he ordinarily used to chase away flies, agitating the air from every conceivable angle (167-168, “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”).
In many ways, Lahiri’s work is a lesson in craft envy. Sometimes when I read something I really like, I think, “Hey, this isn’t so hard – I can write this well.” While reading this collection, I thought, “This is something I think can learn how to do – but she did it when she was my age!” It’s hard in times like this to think I’ll ever get there. But the stories, their clarity and strength, inspire me in a way only stories of this quality can. Lahiri’s craft is a model I’ll return to for encouragement and humility as I continue trying to craft humanity with similar agility.