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.”