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.
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.
Li, Yiyun. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
“The woman’s circumstances were hard indeed, but she was a mother, and a mother should never be defeated by circumstances.”
~ Yiyun Le, “The Proprietress” from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (139)
Yiyun Li’s short stories are remarkable. They satisfy by meeting strange, interesting needs – needs that I, as both reader and writer, didn’t know I needed and didn’t expect to find in short stories. Writers often tend to home in on things that bind humans to each other, and those connective tissues of experience are what give powerful stories their power. Li is onto something in the same vein, but the tissues she’s after, the strings that she plucks, are somewhat defamiliar. Each of her stories in this collection dances around family, and while there are elements of drama, the drama is not the focus. The focus is the tensile strength of relationships, which, while that is common in contemporary short stories, Li’s character relationships are unexpected in their authenticity and difference. It might be cultural. Li grew up in Beijing, China, and her stories involve Chinese people mostly living in China. If the difference lies in culture, and Li’s character/relationship development is accurate, then this collections is a clear window into invaluable insight. She brings the Western reader into a different (and often misunderstood) culture with unparalleled grace and clarity. And, she does it by breaking some traditional Western storytelling rules. Rather than focus on Li’s excellent language and crafting control, this annotation will investigate the content and choices of her stories.
I’d like to examine her use of relationships first. Each story grounds in some kind of family structure. In none of the stories, though, is the family structure the point or the impetus for the stories’ relationships. More, the family is a foundation for character depth. Li’s implied families make it possible for new, different familial tissues to grow in her stories. In one, a widower who lives with his ailing mother becomes obsessed with the relationship between strangers (a vindictive daughter responding publicly to her father’s affair). In another, a man and his wife lose their daughter and decide to hire a surrogate for a new child, and the story evolves into the relationship (maternal?) between the wife and the surrogate – a girl the age of the wife’s dead daughter. In another, a widow “adopts” women and children of men who have been incarcerated in a prison across the street from her house. Every story speaks to the familial tissues that develop between both biological relatives and others, and it is this window into Chinese culture that exposes the universal truth of otherness within human culture. It transcends simple cultural differences and gives readers the opportunity to consider their own unexpected emotions.
This was the price they paid for being mothers, Yilan thought, that the love of one’s own child made everyone else in the world a potential enemy (130, “Prison”).
When the waitress came, Teacher Fei asked for a bottle of rice liquor and a plate of assorted cold cuts. He was not a drinker, nor had he ever touched marinated pig liver or tongue, but he imagined that a friendship between two men should start over harsh liquor and variety meats (95, “A Man Like Him”).
One of the other culturally binding elements present in Li’s stories is loss. What is interesting about her use of loss is that she tends to focus on the shared loneliness and expectations of those who experience loss rather than on the loss itself. In the communal, continued existence, her characters find new threads of life, both in the interior (self) and in the exterior (others). The craft balance Li exhibits here sets her apart from other writers who tend toward loss as a story-driver. While some other writers have figured out that the interesting part of loss to readers is the recovery of those left behind, Li has taken it to the next level in her ability to grow characters through experience and surprise.
The fact that they were in love still, despite twenty years of marriage, the death of their only child, and a future with little to look forward to, was almost unbearable in itself; sometimes Yilan wondered whether it would be a comfort if they could mourn in solitude, their backs turned to each other (102, “Prison”).
Mrs. Jin studied the group, young and old; all their sufferings came from the men they had been wrongly assigned by heaven. She herself could have been one of them if fate had not been lenient and given her an easier life: a father who, though born into a peasant’s family, had risen to the right position through revolution; a husband who had never made a stupid mistake; and a good son who would not leave her to die in the hands of unsympathetic nurses in the old people’s home.
The reporter looked through the camera and asked Mrs. Jin to join the group. She walked over and stood straight, an arm’s length away from the rest. The light from the setting sun blinded her, but she did not squint. She imagined, in twenty years, the twins, Susu, and all the other women who were not in the picture but who had or would come to this house at one time or another – she imagined them looking at the picture in an old magazine and telling each other how Mrs. Jin had changed their lives. She would be happily watching over them then from the otherworld, where Granny would finally recognize her as the most loyal soul in the world (150, “The Proprietress”).
Regarding the rules I mentioned: Li breaks (in a way) one of the major ones. Writers are told and in turn tell others that the story should always begin as close to the end as possible. Yet, Li’s stories don’t. In fact, her stories seem to be background stories for the bigger implied stories. While this would normally create boredom in a reader, Li hones her characters and their circumstances in a way that the set-up to the bigger climax becomes not only more interesting than the climax, but it also becomes more necessary. The stories in these pages move slowly through the spans of time that precede what most readers would expect to be the story of focus – the new baby, the confrontation between daughter and father or daughter and obsessed internet lurker, the investigation of a man’s wife cheating with his father. Yet, none of these climaxes happen. The stories that exist in Li’s collection are short pre-stories that stand on their own and yet still rely on what’s not written, what would be a bigger, longer, more dramatic story. But I must emphatically declare: she makes it work better this way! Her success in this is enough for me, as a writer, to consider two things: 1) is it possible for me to pull the same thing off, and 2) is it possible for me to dig into my characters in such a way that the climax of the implied story never even needs to be written? If I could do either or both of these things, would I be breaking the rules, too, or would I be getting to the heart of the reason for the rule – get your characters into crisis quickly because that is where you discover their truths. Li has discovered her characters’ truths between crises. That alone is enough to demonstrate her brilliance as a storyteller.
I’m thankful that Yiyun Li is a young author. It affirms that stories shared don’t need to be only those of writers who have been trying to break into the market for fifty years. It also means that we have much more of her work to look forward to. Writers of all ages and cultures should be paying attention to the content and craft with which Li saturates her stories. We should be studying her development of characters through their defamiliar relationships, we should be examining the truth of loss in our own writing, and we should focus on what actually makes characters outside of crisis as well as within.
Budnitz, Judy. Flying Leap: Stories. New York: Picador, 1998. Print.
“My little sister went off to college and caught leprosy.”
~ Judy Budnitz, “Skin Care” from Flying Leap (177)
Surrealism is, perhaps for my taste, something that feels better as an idea. Judy Budnitz takes her stories to terrific surrealist heights, and performs, generally, as a writer should. The content, however, didn’t agree with me. Or, maybe I with it. Either way, while there were a couple of really effective stories in the collection, as a whole, it didn’t do much for me as a reader. As a writer I found tremendous worth in Flying Leap. Budnitz takes risks; something I respect and have to talk myself into all the time. She uses language to create interesting – and usually strange – story tissue and emotions, she develops discomfort the same way a slow cooker imbues meat with juices, she manages to keep a reader reading if for no other reason than to find out what she’ll do next. There’s some fun to be had, even if it doesn’t ultimately satisfy.
I wondered, by the time I’d gotten into the fourth story, if Budnitz speaks the way she writes. Her protagonists change with each story – gender, age, perspective, etc – but the narrative voice varies little. If I were to list the opening lines or paragraphs from nearly every story in this collection, it would be impossible to differentiate the voices. And that’s interesting to me, because it could mean one of two things: either she’s a young writer and hasn’t figured out how to achieve unique, individual voices (that differ from her voice), or she doesn’t care and keeps from letting the craft get in the way of the story. There might be a lesson here, and yes, it might be contrived, but it’s worth considering. Because, even though every narrator sounds more or less the same, the stories still affect thanks to Budnitz’s language choices and instinct for bizarre story decisions. In one story, a homeless man who dresses in a dog suit becomes the point of attention for a family living in a nameless suburb during some kind of war/apocalypse. In another, a boy watches his parents divorce following the birth of his baby sister (and the possible (is it a metaphor, or is it surreal?) birth of an imaginary one hundred pound baby that hides in his house). In another story, a troupe of cheerleaders takes school spirit to the extreme by lighting themselves on fire to create a phoenix (their mascot) and the narrator is disappointed because she was injured and unable to get into the pyre fast enough. Maybe if Budnitz spent more time developing a narrative voice unique to each story, the story decisions and language choices wouldn’t have been as honed (or even present). So, if a reader can fight the distraction of a singular voice throughout unrelated/unconnected stories, the experience is there.
You see in the paper how the composer died today.
He was a young man still. He had the dark haunted eyes, the requisite long tangle hair. He looked like a regular maestro. But with him it was slovenliness, not affectation.
They say he was born with six fingers on his left hand. Don’t believe a word of it (115, “Composer”).
My sister didn’t know how she caught leprosy. It was a strange version of the disease and the doctors knew little about it. She told no one and continued to attend classes. She wore white gloves constantly so that she would not contaminate the things she touched. She did not want to pass the disease on to anyone. The white gloves gave her a genteel, aristocratic look; many young men noticed her who had not before. No one noticed the way her jeans had begun to sag around the hips, or the pale papery cast to her face, the crumbs of skin flaking at the corners of her lips. It was the gloves that caught their eye (178, “Skin Care”).
Some of her stories reminded me of the lobster (or frog, if you’re so inclined) placed into cold water then left on the stove to boil – by the time the water’s roiling, the lobster’s dead and didn’t even know it was dying. Some of Budnitz’s stories do that – establish for the reader a sense of calm, of normalcy, only to slowly bring the story to a boil. This isn’t just a model for surrealism – this is a model for great story writing. While it’s necessary to keep taking things further and further, or, in better writer speak, making things worse and then worse again in surrealism (because, at some point, to qualify as surreal, the story, which should be grounded in reality, must change in a way that the reader accepts as real without the canning of fantasy), it might be argued that it’s necessary to do this is any form or creative writing. The ongoing conversation writers have about stakes and crisis and escalation is what Budnitz, in her surrealism, addresses. While in other forms escalation should remain viable, it’s more important to make the point that the escalation needs to be real, tangible, identifiable, and focused. As evidenced by her slow- (and sometimes pressure-) cooker stories, Budnitz gets the absolute necessity of escalation to (and past) the breaking point of the story’s characters.
Pat says, “I heard in Korea people eat dogs.”
No one says anything. I can see the room get darker.
Then my dad stands up.
“What are you doing?” my mother says. He doesn’t answer.
“Where are you going? Howard – don’t – don’t –”
My dad is reaching for his gun. My brothers stand up.
“What are you doing? How can you even think of –”
They are walking slowly to the door.
“He’s a man, Howard! A man! You can’t –” my mother screams.
“He’s a dog,” says my dad. “He’s an animal.”
And then I see the door swing open, see Prince lift his head expectantly. I see my dad lift the gun and aim. I’m trying to get over there; I can’t get there fast enough – the air is too thick. They’re framed in the doorway, my dad and my brothers, and beyond them I see Prince pause, showing the whites of his eyes, wind ruffling the fur on his head. Then he’s running, galloping on all fours across the yard, his tongue hanging out like a pink streamer. A shot rings out, echoing in the silence, but it misses him. He keep s running, and then he’s up, up on his hind legs, lurching away tow-footedly, front legs pawing the air, and then another shot rings out, shaking the world, and he’s down, down, splayed out on our front lawn, nose in the dirt, tail in the air, wind whipping his fur around, his legs quivering, then still.
I try to go to him, but it’s too late. My dad and Eliott and Pat beat me to him.
They run across the lawn, the pack of them, and fall up on him snarling (12-13, “Dog Days”).
The above example, while illustrating my previous point, also shows what I mean by offering a reward to readers for staying with a story. Maybe Budnitz’s most potent skill is her story beginnings and endings. Though many of her stories drag, or even lack substance in the middle, they all begin with interest and end as hinted. The above example is the end of “Dog Days.” Here is the beginning:
The man in the dog suit whines outside the door.
“Again?” sighs my mother.
“Where’s my gun?” says my dad.
“We’ll take care of it this time,” my older brothers say.
They go outside. We hear shouts and the scuffle, and whimpers as he crawls away up the street.
My brothers come back in. “That takes care of that,” they say, rubbing their hands together.
“Damn nutcase,” my dad growls.
But the next day he is back. His dog suit is shabby. The zipper’s gone; the front’s held together with safety pins. He looks like a mutt. His tongue is flat and pink like a slice of bologna. He pants at me (1, “Dog Days”).
It’s interesting, it’s not totally unconceivable, and it gives the reader a reason to keep reading. Is that what all stories should do? Now, arguably (and in my opinion) this story is the best in the collection. It’s also the first, so it made me notice Budnitz’s beginnings and endings. The interior of this story is terrific – Budnitz slowly reveals that the family is living in a war zone of some kind, that people are leaving their homes, that homeless people are showing up, that the air is growing smokier each day, that starvation becomes a real problem. And in it, Budnitz begins to show people in a state of survivalism, backwards evolution, rationalizing themselves into everything. It’s a metaphor, to be sure, and a sociological jab, but it’s doing what surrealism, satire, and many other story forms need to do. That need is hard to meet, and when Budnitz isn’t nailing it like she does in this story, she is at least keeping her stories moving forward, giving her readers reasons to keep reading and then rewarding them with the ending that she’s been promising.
Even though I can’t say I loved this collection or that I would recommend it to anyone other than those I know who love surrealism, I can say that Budnitz is a writer worthy of study. I think she’s brave, I think she’s creative, and even if she didn’t choose to break the rules, she pulled off some remarkable craft performances by doing so. As a writer, I can put her book back on my shelf with a note that says “Promise/Deliver/Pressure-Cooker.”
Cross, Eugene. Fires of Our Choosing: Stories. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, 2012. Print.
“For those few minutes every day it looked like the lake was on fire, a giant all-consuming blaze far out on the horizon. Erie’s sunsets were world-class. Something about the pollution.”
~ Eugene Cross, “The Brother” from Fires of Our Choosing (60)
This annotation has been removed for re-writing following a gracious note from a reader regarding the tone. Apologies to readers and to the book’s author.
Tower, Wells. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print.
“He considered for a moment the many miles that lay between him and his own wife, and what it would take to cinch that distance up again.”
~ Wells Tower, “The Brown Coast” from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (17)
His real name is Wells Tower of Power. Like the funk group, there’s very little subtlety in his sound. Tower has enviable ability to deliver a reader from this world into his imagined one. The voices of his narrators are individual, well-rendered, real. The content and delivery of his stories – whether sentimental, blackly comic, or savage – leaves me taking notes and contriving ideas, all while having a hell of a good time reading. And maybe that’s what struck me with Tower’s book – the fun of it. He’s a remarkable writer, an instinctual storyteller, and a craftsman worthy of study, but the most important thing to me in finishing his collection was that it was something I enjoyed and lamented ending. It seems rarer and rarer that happens, especially with the growing darkness of contemporary literary fiction. It’s not to say Tower’s collection isn’t imbued with darkness – it’s thick with anger, loss, violence, and fatalism. But, again like Tower of Power, it brought me up, got some good funk brewing in my brain. So it was easy to identify the elements of his stories that did it for me: the sentiments and perspectives of characters struggling but (in ways) winning, his vocabulary of description and imagery, and dark (in most cases, black) humor.
When I’m reading, I’m always on the lookout for characters I can admire. While I might admire the character for who he/she is, what I admire most when I find one is the way the author has given life to someone pretend. It’s easy to come up with caricatures or stereotypes or tropes, but it shows real craftsmanship on the writer’s part when a character is something familiar enough I can plug in but de-familiar enough that I can’t stop thinking about him/her. Tower, despite sometimes overwriting or explaining his metaphors, loves (and loves to challenge) his characters. Their lives, their mind machinations, their experiences, fights, arguments, emotions richly fill the pages to the point where the stories themselves don’t matter as much as how the reader comes to know Tower’s people by the end of a story. I’m glad not all short story collections are like this, but if some end up this way, Tower is the guy to do it. Here are some examples of character reality:
Already, I was regretting doing Jane this favor. My mind was wandering. You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up. her belly slumping against the small of you back on a cold morning. The slippery marvel of her soaped up in the shower. A night long ago when you moved on each other so sincerely that you sheared off two quarter-inch lag bolts that held your bed together. But start playing back all the old footage, and pretty soon Mendocino Barry steals into the frame, his bare dark-brindled haunches in your bed, candles and an incense stencher fuming on the nightstand. You can see him tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her bikini underpants and shucking them down slow, maybe with a word or two about lotus blossoms. You don’t want to picture how she lifts her hips off the bed, the openmouthed anticipatory shivers, or Barry rearing up in a sun salute between her splayed knees, his tongue lolling like a tiki god in ugly throes (97-98, “Down Through the Valley”).
If you say no to your stepfather when he asks you to drop everything to do some chore, this is known as “lip.” “I’m sick of your lip,” he says, or “I’ve had it with your fucking lip.” He is a thin, delicate man with wire-frame glasses, but neither his slightness nor his way of talking like a corny Hollywood thug makes you any less afraid of him. He has slapped you a few times. Not long ago, you father stopped by to pick you up and your stepfather argued with him. He pushed your father down, and then he picked up a stone the size of a football and made like he was going to throw it at your father’s head. But he just tossed it away and laughed. For many years to come, whenever you think of your father, the image of him cowering on the lawn, his hands clutching his skull in forlorn defense against the crushing stone, will be part of the picture. You are counting the days until you turn sixteen, which you’ve arbitrarily chosen as the age at which you’ll be able to take you stepfather in a fight (117, “Leopard”).
In the above examples, the characters come to life, but there are other ways Tower paints pictures. As a reader, I get his images in my head and they won’t leave. As a writer, I value that ability above most others. The work a writer does with language to let readers see what the writer values as needing to be seen is one of the great challenges of the craft, and it’s easily one of the most necessary. Our imaginations rely on memory, and our memories tend to rely on our imaginations, and the emotive responses the writer is counting on from the reader can only become fully realized when the writer does his or her job of empowering the reader to see it, remember it, and extrapolate its meaning by unearthing the roots of the meaning in memory. So, the writer has at his or her disposal words, countless words and combinations that charge the imagination. Blend them well, and we’ve got imagery that brings a story into experience-mode.
Bold as an athlete, she shrugged off her top and pushed her skirt down. Across her breasts and oval hips, her skin looked soft and new and pale as paraffin (17, “The Brown Coast”).
The men stepped back to give Djarf room to work. He placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod’s spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he’d made an incision about a foot long. He paused to wipe sweat from his brow, and made a parallel cut on the other side of the backbone. Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings (229, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).
I spotted my stepmother by the dry fountain, where she was watching some young people make a film. I left my cistern at my father’s feet and jogged to her. Since I’d seen her last, Lucy had reached a new status of tiredness and age. Looking at her, “lady” is what I thought, a word that summed up her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks, her many clattering bracelets and her lipstick, an alarming coral shade leaking into fresh hairline rills around her mouth. Her right eye was bloodshot and brimming with brine. We embraced. All she wore against the chill was a lame’ shawl over a flimsy black top, so thin I could feel the gooseflesh on her hard arms (73, “Executors of Important Energies”).
While Tower’s work is full of other solid linguistic displays and craft examples, I’d rather spend a little bit of time addressing his use of humor, specifically dark humor. The stories in the collection are all tragic – death, grief, adultery, violence, grunge and grit and hate. And, I love that stuff, but it also tends to get so heavy in short story collections that the stories end up depressing the reader rather than giving the reader perspective for his or her own life/writing. Tower’s stories don’t drag the reader down, even though the fatalism he employs is some of the best contemporary fatalism I can think of. It’s the humor, subtle (and often not subtle) that does it – the funny moments or lines or even the delivery of an entire train of thought bring a twisted levity to the stories and they satisfy.
Derrick came back from the kitchen, talking into a cordless phone, his voice loud with expertise. “Say what? Did you take a look? Can you see the head? Uh-huh. Red or whitish? Yeah, that’s natural. Sounds like she’s getting ready to domino. I’ll be over.”
Derrick came back into the living room. “Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy.”
“What kind of thing?” Bob asked.
“A baby horse, I hope” (11, “The Brown Coast”).
My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear (133, “Door in Your Eye”).
“Hoo,” he said, shaking water from his hair. He jogged in place for a minute, shivered, and then straightened up. “Mercy, that was a spree. Not so much loot to speak of, but a hell of a god-damn spree.” He massaged his thighs and spat a few times. Then he said, “So, you do much killing?”
“Nah,” I said. “Haakon killed that little what’s-his-name lying over there, but no, we’ve just been sort of taking it easy.”
“Hm. What about in there?” he asked, indicated Bruce’s cottage. “Who lives there? You kill them?”
“No, we didn’t,” Orl said. “They helped put Haakon back together and everything. Seem like good folks.”
“Nobody’s killing them,” Gnut said.
“So everybody’s back at the monastery, then?” I asked.
“Well, most of them. Those young men had a disagreement over some damn thing and fell to cutting each other. Gonna make for a tough row out of here. Pray for wind I guess.”
Brown smoke was heavy in the sky, and I could hear dim sounds of people screaming (234-235, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).
As far as contemporary (and young) short story writers go, Tower is a strong talent, and I think his work will only get better. I hope as he continues to write and publish that he doesn’t lose the fun he’s written into these stories. And, while I don’t like to cut any slack for overwriting or explaining or ruining metaphors with explicitness, I had to in this book for the sheer enjoyment of believable characters, strong imagery, and humor that won’t let the reader forget that life is really one big, dark joke.
Bowles, Paul. The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. 1972. New York: Harper Perennial – HarperCollins, 2006. Print.
“She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit.”
~ Paul Bowles, “At Paso Rojo” from The Delicate Prey (24)
Every once in a while, someone suggests I read a book or an author of whom I’ve never heard and I discover a quiet literary genius. Paul Bowles is one of those. How had I never read him before? How I had I never even heard of him? On the back of the book, Norman Mailer is quoted as saying “…Bowless has opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square…the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” Knowing these stories were published first in the late 40s and early 50s, I can see how that was the case. His prose doesn’t have the same lyric quality as some of his peers, but his content was ahead of the literary curve. In fact, it’s raw even by today’s standard because it comprises truer human elements than many of today’s shock stories. One of the defining qualities of great work, in my opinion, is how it stands the test of time. Bowles’s craft is timeless, both in its readability and in its example to other short story writers. Rather than spend a third of my dissection on something he does that I didn’t care for, I’ll state it here and then spend the rest of the annotation digging into things from which I culled lessons for my own writing. Getting it out of the way: Bowles has a tendency in some of his stories to explain things past the point of needing explanations. It’s a crutch, likely one he uses for himself, but it communicated to me that he didn’t trust me as the reader to follow him. Had the stories been more complicated, then maybe I would have appreciated the tips, but they were straightforward enough (even the twist ones) that the explanations (or parenthetical asides as they often showed up) were unnecessary and a little bit insulting. But, that’s nitpicking on my part. Bowles is an artist, and there’s too much to learn from him to gripe about something minor. Onward. For examination: Bowles’s character development both through exposition and dialogue, his reliance on the strength (and cultural value) of myth, and his darkness (twists, violence, humor, promise of danger).
I noticed two things immediately that set Bowles apart from the majority of authors, and that was the language he includes when giving characters depth. Whether its his exposition or the characters speaking/moving, there is something unique in his presentation. It’s not just economy, though, he is a stylistic genius in that way. I’ll include two clear examples here – one of description and one of action. These kinds of sentences I consider worth remembering and calling upon later when I’m trying to give my own characters transparent and beautiful spaces on their pages. In so few words, Bowles not only brings the characters to full life, but he creates the sense of other stories, of histories within the language.
She looked around the primitive dining room with its dry decorations and palm leaves and branches. “He loves it here because everything is his,” she thought, “and some of the things could never have been his if he had not purposely changed to fit them.” That was not a completely acceptable thought. She knew the ranch had made him happy and tolerant and wise; to her it seemed sad that she could not have been those things without losing his civilized luster. And that he certainly had lost. He had the skin of a peasant – brown and lined everywhere. He had the slowness of speech of men who have lived for long period of time in the open. And the inflections of his voice suggested the patience that can come from talking to animals rather than to human beings (4, “At Paso Rojo”).
She was sitting on her bunk, looking through the open porthole. The shrill crashes of thunder echoed from one side of the bay to the other as they steamed toward the open sea. He lay doubled up on his bunk opposite, reading.
She jumped to the floor and went to the washstand.
“Where are those two quarts of White Horse we got yesterday?
He gestured. “In the rack on your side. Are you going to drink?”
“I’m going to have a drink, yes.”
“In this heat? Why don’t you wait until it clears, and have it on deck?
“I want it now. When it clears, I won’t need it” (63-64, “Call at Corazon”).
Nearly every story in the collection starts with some kind of sweeping/passing description of the nature of the characters and their circumstances. I thought at first that the sound reminded me of fairy tales but realized quickly that it was more of a mythological quality, local legend or village lore, as if I were sitting to dinner or around a campfire with locals who wanted to share of a mystery they believed to be true and important to their cultural identity. Consider Bowles was an American ex-patriot, it would have been interesting to ask him 1) why he wrote his stories this way and 2) how he became so comfortable writing them that they feel natural in their promise of authenticity. It’s not the way I’d start every story I write (and, I’m not saying he does either – more that I noticed the power of these stories having greater sway and developing faster momentum than the others), but seeing it done well inspired me to consider pulling the opening of some stories away from “now” energy/action and opening with more of a mythological feel – an historical establishment with implied promises of importance and stake.
Inland from the sea on the dry coastal plain lay the town, open, spread out under the huge high sky. People who lived outside in the country, and even some of the more educated town-dwellers, called the town “the Inferno” because nowhere in the region was the heat so intense. No other place was quite so shadowless and so dusty; it seemed that the clouds above shrank upwards to their farthest possible positions (78, “Under the sky”).
The abandoned monastery stood on a slight eminence of land in the middle of a vast clearing. On all sides the ground sloped gently downward toward the tangled, hairy jungle that filled the circular valley, ringed about by sheer, black cliffs (122, “The Circular Valley”).
An old woman lived in a cave which her sons had hollowed out of a clay cliff near a spring before they went away to the town where many people live. She was neither happy nor unhappy to be there, because she knew that the end of life was near and that her sons would not be likely to return no matter what the season (157, “The Scorpion”).
Our civilization is doomed to a short life: its component parts are too heterogeneous (175, “Pages from Cold Point”).
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Bowles’s stories was his darkness and the artful ways he imbued everything with it. He loves twists, and most of the stories will start with a hint of menace without giving away what is actually menacing. Even the stories that make clear claims of impending danger or doom end up twisting away from what’s expected. As long as the reader understands that Bowles promises (and delivers) darkness, it’s a delightful reading experience. Examples of these are hard to show in text without pasting the entire story. A great example is that of the titular story, wherein the three main characters set off on a journey across a desert knowing that the region is inhabited by violent gangs. They don’t meet any gangs, but they are overtaken and murdered by a man masquerading as a holy person. The violence of the piece creates a twist of its own – at first manifesting as sounds and fear and eventually as direct, graphic, and raw. While the violence, fear, danger and doom are the primary components of Bowles’s darkness, he flicks little bits of dark humor into the stories as well.
“What is happening?” he asked himself. “Am I going to die?” He would not be afraid of that; still, he would like to know it a few moments in advance, if possible (240, “A Thousand Days for Mokhtar”).
In discovering Bowles’s work late, while I feel that I’ve missed out on something fun and instructive, I realize that I’ve got a lot of reading to which I can look forward and approach for affirmation, inspiration, and example in character craft, cultural magnetism, and dark turns. I love making discoveries like this. Thanks to insightful writer/mentor Alistair McCartney for pointing me in Bowles’s direction!
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Print.
“Enoch was not very fond of children, but children always seemed to like to look at him.”
~ Flanner O’Connor, “Enoch and the Gorilla” from The Complete Stories (60)
Among the great mysteries of my life to date is how I’ve managed more than thirty years (27 of which I’ve been reading) without having read even one Flannery O’Connor story. Strangely, this was neither for lack of knowledge of her existence nor for lack of knowing how important she was/is to the American literary canon. I’ve read half of the stories in her complete collection, and not a single one has disappointed me in any way. Rather than finish the collection now, I’m going to annotate what I’ve read and save the other stories for the future. Knowing that there won’t be any new O’Connor short stories is depressing, so I’d like to savor what I’ve left. First, I’ll list a selection of the stories I’ve read so far. This is not a comprehensive list of the stories I’ve read, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to address in this annotation because of the way they exemplify O’Connor’s writing. After each story listed, the theme(s) central to the story’s plot/tension/character development are listed. I may even take a stab at what I would label what O’Connor might call the “gesture” or central gesture that makes the story what it is. Then I’ll address the things that stood out to me as important in what O’Connor has done in her short story writing. If there is an excerpt from the text, I’ve included it below the story listed.
First, though, I’d like to share, in O’Connor’s words, what she means by a story’s “gesture.” These remarks are from an address she gave at Hollins College in Virginia on October 14, 1963:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery (http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/lewiss/Oconnor.htm).
A sampling of the stories I read are listed below. While many readers/writers tend to home in on the “grotesquery” present in O’Connor’s stories, I’m going to avoid it and look at some of the other things she does.
“The Barber” Theme(s): Emotion, Race, Arrogance/Ignorance. The gesture? The young black boy’s coming to the front of barber shop at the end and telling the progressive man that he’d vote for the racist candidate. O’Connor stays in a close third to the protagonist in this story – a man with whom the reader is expected to sympathize. He thinks himself enlightened, smarter than the barber and the other men in the barber shop. And, he might be, but that’s not important. What’s important is that the reader experience this man’s struggle, his anger, his distaste for the barber’s opinions, his wanting to win an argument with the barber over who is the better political candidate: the progressive man or the traditional man. O’Connor ends up creating not just empathy, but sympathy, possibly even pity in the reader for this character. And when the black boy, the one the man has been working so hard to speak to while he defends civil equality in the candidates, agrees (again, it doesn’t matter if he does or not, his action speaks) with the racist barber and his buddies, it sends everything home for the protagonist.
“Enoch and the Gorilla” Theme(s): Strangeness, Jealousy, Masks. The gesture in this one might be Enoch’s donning the gorilla costume. Enoch is a weirdo. O’Connor uses that to draft some of the most fun, and most interesting sentences in the collection (examples below). She cultivates an alarming acceptance of strange, of illusion in this piece – the idea that people will pay money to see a gorilla, a gorilla that is just a man in a suit. The story is full of metaphors – the easily fooled public, the jealousy we feel for success, the desire to hide or to be anonymous, wanting to wow people. It goes on. The reason all of these things work in this story is O’Connor’s consistency. To pull a story like this off without it sounding pithy or contrived or judgmental, she had to commit to a certain sound and a certain character.
Enoch was usually thinking of something else at the moment that Fate began drawing back her leg to kick him. When he was four years old, his father had brought him home a tin box from the penitentiary. It was orange and had a picture of some peanut brittle on the outside of it and green letters that said, “A NUTTY SURPRISE!” When Enoch had opened it, a coiled piece of steel had sprung out at him and broken off the ends of his two front teeth. His life was full of so many happenings like that that it would seem he should have been more sensitive to his times of danger. He stood there and read the poster twice through carefully. To his mind, an opportunity to insult a successful ape came from the hand of Providence (109).
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” Theme(s): Violence, Hypocrisy, Imagery, Brutality. The gesture? Tough call. The easy pick would be the Misfit’s shooting of the Grandmother. It might be the cat being loosed in the car. Really, though, if I had to bet, it would be the Grandmother reaching to touch the Misfit right before he shoots her. In this story, there’s the devastation of murder, or senseless violence, or children being killed. O’Connor has a keen sense here: shooting the children “off page” was a stronger loss than had the reader had to “watch it.” That’s a major decision to note. As writers, we tend to focus on what is said so we can focus on what is unsaid. But our imaginations are so involved, we don’t talk as much about what is unseen and how powerful that can be (especially when sound is incorporated – like a scream or a gunshot). She also, as in the next story example, demonstrates a remarkable talent for dialogue. It’s challenging to write some things that need dialogue without relying on the voice for everything in the scene. O’Connor lets the characters speak, naturally, and also shows so much in their physical presentations: “….the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers” (119), “His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt” (121).
“Maybe they put you in by mistake,” the old lady said vaguely.
“Nome,” he said. “It wasn’t no mistake. They had the papers on me.”
“You must have stolen something,” she said.
“The Misfit sneered slightly. “Nobody had nothing I wanted,” he said. “It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself.”
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no help,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself” (130).
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” Theme(s): Race, Grace, Getting What You Deserve. The gesture in this one is only half seen. The story’s protagonist closes his eyes when his mother is slapped by the pocket book of an angry black mother after the protag’s mother tries to give the little black boy a penny. But, the reader doesn’t see the slap. And, maybe that’s the gesture – not so much the slapping as it is the protagonist closing his eyes. The reader spends the story inside his head as he judges his mother and her racism. He fights with her, both in language and in action, thinking he’ll teach her a lesson about race. But, in the end, his base character is one of unwillingness – a metaphor for blindness or, maybe, a metaphor for not wanting to see the consequences? The dialogue in this story, like most of the others, and especially like in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” is so strong, so central to the development of the characters and their contentions. Given the length of the annotation, I’ll forego the text excerpt.
While each of O’Connor’s stories has a central theme, central character, and central gesture, each also has supporting or sub themes, gestures, and characters. Maybe the race theme is present throughout because of the time in which she penned the stories. Same with the paranoia, violence, jealousy, and strangeness. Yet, these elements make the stories timeless, in a way, too, and for that example, I can only think of few American writers. Thankfully, I now understand WHY O’Connor needs to be on this list.
Wolff, Tobias. The Night in Question. 1996. New York: Vintage – Random House, 1997. Print.
“Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ then snorted helpless through his fingers and said, ‘Capiche – oh, God, capiche,’ and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.”
~ Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” from The Night in Question (203)
If one were to use a single word to describe Tobias Wolff’s short stories, it would be likely that “unexpected” would be the winning candidate. In The Night in Question, Wolff shares fifteen stories told in a variety of times and places, all from distinctly different voices and yet all catching the reader off-guard routinely. Wolff’s keen sense of detail and direct use and control of language give his short stories power to surprise readers, evoke strong emotions, and take charge of the imagination.
Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. New York: HarperPerennial – HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
“I turned away because my throat was closing up. Suddenly I had an erection.
I knew men got that way about men, but I didn’t know I did. His chest was like Christ’s.
That’s probably who he was.”
~ Denis Johnson, Dirty Wedding (97)
Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is reckless. The stories crash, the characters crash, the language crashes. It all seems so careless, so destitute, so…intense. Each piece seems a reconciliation of loneliness and hope, of the lucidity that comes with addiction and recovery (or, at minimum, desire).