Saturday, August 27, 2011

Suzanne Rivecca's DEATH IS NOT AN OPTION: 2011 Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist

As soon as I started reading the opening title story of Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option, I wrinkled my nose in clichéd old man fashion and laid the book aside. It was the same way I felt when I made the mistake of rereading Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. When I was a teenager, Holden Caulfield’s smart-ass behavior and language was exactly what I aspired to. Now that I am an old guy, I have so firmly put away childish things I have a hard time finding them; hell, I have a hard time finding my car keys.

But since I have promised to read all six of the shortlisted books for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize and comment on them, I picked it back up and forged ahead in this first-person rant of a Catholic high school senior, Emma, who has been accepted at Brandeis, but is not telling anyone, because her smartness and smart-aleckness has always made her an outcast. She scorns everyone and everything, describing one teacher as an “overgrown and demented Chucky doll,” one classmate as a “sadistic psycho bitch,” and practically everyone as “Mental Giants.

She refers to the uterus as an “impregnable fortress” and “chuckled happily at her ironic wordplay.” And she confesses, but only to the reader, “I have an absurd and disgusting fixation with my own crotch…a secretion-obsessed fetish.” When she tries to use a tampon for the first time, she feels like she is “trying to perform surgery with a Tinkertoy.” At the end of the story, during a touchy-feeling round-robin during which everyone is to tell what they will miss most about Sacred Heart high school, the sadistic psycho bitch talks about how much she will miss Emma, and then, I’ll be damned, the smart, tough, sassy, pain-in-the-ass Emma begins to cry, thinking about what lies in store for her, admitting that she does not know who she is unless she is fighting, that she cannot survive except in a hostile environment. And yes, that is supposed to redeem Emma from her Holden-like sense of the futility and hypocrisy of the whole lousy world, if you really want to know.

This smart-talking female figure, now age 21 and named Katrina, has matured somewhat by the second story, “Yours Will Do Nicely.” “Big words were my province,” she says, and often speaks in a tone of deadpan mock-gravity. After a one-night pickup with a guy who writes her an appreciative letter, she opens up to him in a long, frank and seemingly honest response that she fantasizes will change his life. She imagines him “marveling at how smart and insightful I was, my clever turns of phrase, the forthrightness of my disclosures.” Later when she does not hear from him, she cringes at what she has written, seeing her revelations as “self-important, performative, my metaphors strained, the crude obviousness of my need and self-ennobling loneliness.”

But as I read this second story about an outwardly brittle but inwardly vulnerable young woman with a snarky mouth, I realized two things: First, although I did not like this character, I did like Rivecca’s prose. It is the hard-earned, polished nature of her writing that kept me going. It was this sentence at the end of “Yours Will Do Nicely” that got me:

“And even though I knew these things weren’t the exact truth, they were a variation of it, and they felt true as I wrote them down. And they still felt like the truth—as if on some deeper, irreproachable level, those incidents hatched me like a newborn chick and I’d crawled from the wreckage of them with a bright new face. They had to have happened, because if they hadn’t, how could I explain the unhappy accident of myself.”

Language, carefully chosen and arranged in practically perfect sentences redeems other stories in the book that, on the surface, seem typically “ripped from the headlines” fodder for made-for-TV Opra movies. The longest story, the two part “Very Special Victims,” is about a young woman molested by her uncle as a child; “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing is about a young woman being stalked by an erstwhile landlord. But in neither of these two stories is the emphasis on social issues, but rather on the complex involvement of the central character in what seems to be a made-for-TV case of sociopathic behavior, “ripped from the headlines.” And what makes this involvement so complex and engaging for the reader is the careful structuring of Rivecca’s prose.

I am tempted simply to complete this discussion by quoting sentences from these two stories, for it is not plot, but prose that makes them so impressive. Both are told in the third person, so it is the voice of Suzanne Rivecca that we get, not the smart-alecky tones of a young female character. And it is a very fine voice indeed. For example, when the young girl tells about being abused by her uncle, we get this sentence:

“In the weeks after she told, something in her overturned, like lifting a rock and finding the ground underneath spongy with grubs, and she stayed up for hours bending God’s ear, fetisihizing prayer, clinging to His coattails and wrapping her arms around the pillars of his legs, stroking Him like a rabbit’s foot rubbed to a bald knuckle.”

The story is complicated by the girl’s feeling that she is not completely innocent in the abuse, but this is not a simple made-for-TV-movie presentation of female guilt about leading men on. This following sentence very profoundly tries to capture it:

“Kath thought telling would stop everything. Not just the uncle’s nocturnal groping, but her own weak love for the role she played with him, the novelty persona of cosseted scamp: how she had craved and courted the attention of the uncle before his hugging and cuddling and teasing snowballed into strange, fast-breathing caresses, that she could not return, that blanked her out of the scenario completely even though she was the centerpiece of it, there but not there, like the eye of a hurricane.”

She tells three men about the abuse. The first stops sleeping with her right away. The second asks a lot of questions, treating her “like the burial site of an ancient civilization; he dug for clues with a sweaty-palmed reverence and did not stop until he held it triumphantly aloft, that sordid tidbit like a saber tooth.” The third tells her it is not her fault and wants her to go to the policeThe story ends with a meeting with the uncle who wants to apologize, reassuring her that none of it was her fault; however, much to his puzzlement, she tells him she would feel better if it did have something to do with her. The ending of the story seems rigged to me, but once again, Rivecca’s prose redeems. She imagines herself lying on the pavement with police looming over her:

How grateful she would be as she waited for them to deliver their most merciful line, that rote benediction bestowed on every single person in trouble: the insane and the reasonable, homeless and naked, innocent ad guilty, uncle and nieces. You have the right to remain silent.

In “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” the young woman, Isabel, is an associate professor of English looking for an apartment. After being turned down for a house she loves, the man renting a small house, begins writing her letters, at first romantic and then abusive, until she gets a court hearing to issue an injunction against him contacting her. The story line is simple enough, but the prose that describes the character as a child is striking and hard to resist: “She was an ideal vessel: dedicated, saturnine of aspect, with a mournful face and an eerie, shell-shocked poise… She was an eccentric, lonely child, given to soulful gazing and cryptic pronouncements.” Isabel has written a memoir in which she confesses that as a child she lied about seeing the Virgin; as a result, she is almost denied her request for the injunction. And like the women in these stories, the man, who has presented himself as obnoxious, is chastened and reveals his vulnerable self. The story ends with Isabel blocked in trying to write her second book, putting her editor off with promises and excuses. She replays the trial over and over in her mind in this well sculpted concluding sentence:

“How she opened her mouth and things came out, elegant and lucid things, and she was like the nightingale in the fairy tale placed in front of the king, watching respect and recognition dawn on the judge’s face—this doll-like girl, she speaks so well!--…and surrounded by the blank walls of her new apartment, she held the scotch in one hand and knew it was useless, knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.”

In his book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, Stanley Fish begins with an anecdote by Annie Dillard from her book The Writing Life, about a colleague being asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “Well,” the writer said, ‘do you like sentences’?” Fish quotes Dillard on the importance of carefully structured sentences: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” Fish says that in a letter once, Gustave Flaubert described himself as being in a semi-diseased state, “itching with sentences.”

Suzanne Rivecca’s writing has already received a Pushcart Prize, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, and currently a Resident of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I hope she remains in that Flaubert semi-diseased state, “itching with sentences.” I wish her luck in her competition for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize.

In a few days, I will talk a bit about the fourth book on the Frank O’Connor Award shortlist, Colm Toibin’s collection of stories, The Empty Family.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Edna O'Brien's SAINTS AND SINNERS: Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist

Unlike most recent reviews of Edna O’Brien’s new collection Saints and Sinners, the following discussion does not mention how old she is, how prolific she is, or what a scandal she caused in her younger days.

Although best known for her Country Girls Trilogy and other novels, Edna O'Brien is the author of six previous short story collections: The Love Object (1968), A Scandalous Woman (1974), Mrs. Reinhardt and Other Stories (1978), Returning (1982), A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories (1985), and Lantern Slides, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction in 1990. Her most recent collection, Saints and Sinners, is shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, to be awarded in Cork on September 18.

An early story by O'Brien, "Irish Revel," from her first collection The Love Object (1968), and "Lantern Slides," from the book of the same name published in 1990, both of which are anthology favorites, are good examples of her typical themes and her stylistic range.

"Irish Revel" centers on Mary, a seventeen-year-old village girl who has been invited to her first party in town. However, when she arrives in her best clothes, she discovers she has actually been invited to be a serving maid. Her head filled with romantic fantasies about sophisticated city, she is surprised that so many people there are coarse and vulgar. When the men get drunk and start quarrels and one clumsily makes advances to her, Mary loses all illusions about town life. Slipping out of the hotel before dawn, she goes home, but she has not given up her romantic hope for a handsome young man. The story ends with lines that echo the famous lyrical ending of Joyce's "The Dead": "Frost was general all over Ireland...frost on the stony fields, and on all the slime and ugliness of the world."

"Lantern Slides” is also a tribute to "The Dead," for it recounts a contemporary Dublin party in which a number of characters tell their own stories of love and disappointment. Just as in Joyce's story, the focus here is on the ghostly nature of the past in which all have experienced the loss of romantic fantasies. However, the power of desire has such a hold on the characters that chivalric romance seems an attainable, yet not quite reachable, grail-like goal. When the estranged husband of one of the women arrives, everyone hopes it is the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope. "You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it--a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds...It was like a spell...It was as if life were just beginning."

The reviewers’ favorite story in O’Brien’s new collection, Saints and Sinners, is “Shovel Kings,” for it is the longest (and thus, according to reviewers, the most novelistic) and gives them an opportunity to generalize about the historical/social issues of all those Irish men who had to leave Ireland to do manual labor in England. The story is told by a narrator who encounters the central character, a man named Rafferty, who came with his father to England to work when he was only fifteen. Later, when his father leaves, the boy makes it on his own with other Irish men like himself. In fact, Rafferty comes to be a representative of all those Irish men who emigrated to England to find work; the story ends with a “litany” of all the so-called Irish “shovel kings” who have now have gone to dust. It is an affecting story about a man “on whom a permanent frost had settled,” an exiled man who does not belong in England but no longer belongs in Ireland either, a man whose heart has been “immeasurably broken.”

My own favorites are three shorter stories that echo some of O’Brien’s earlier work, focusing on women—both young and older—who dare to dream or else have had their dreams dashed: “Sinners,” “Green Georgette,” and “Send My Roots Rain.” Such stories as “My Two Mothers” and “Old Wounds,” focusing on mother/daughter tension and family conflicts, are also reminiscent of O’Brien at her stylistic and culturally sensitive best. I do not care so much, however, for “Black Flower” (about an IRA man released from prison), “Plunder” (a fable about cultural clash and rape), or “Manhattan Medley” (a sort of stream of consciousness mental letter recounting a New York affair).

Although there is some reference to cultural change in Ireland in the three stories I like best, the references are only background—not the focus of the stories. In “Send my Roots Rain” (the line is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins), an aging librarian known in the small town as the “Spinster,” takes the bus to Dublin for a rendezvous with a famous Irish poet. The poet is not identified, but may be modeled after Seamus Heaney (He is called “our Laureate” by the porter in the hotel), or Brendan Kennelly, who taught at Trinity and is a popular Dublin poet, or he may be a composite of both. He is certainly not, as one reviewer says, “unmistakably Patrick Kavanagh,” for Kavanagh died in 1967, and this story takes place in the twenty-first century.

Although the name of hotel where the arranged rendezvous is to take place is not mentioned, it is obviously the Shelbourne, which the porter calls “the most distinguished address in Dublin.” The porter says he was been working in the hotel for thirty-three odd years, “barring the two years when the establishment was closed for the massive revamp,” which we know took place between 2005 and 2007. None of this really matters; I just wanted my readers to know that regardless of my objections to focusing unduly on information and background in short stories, I am not unaware of such things. And on a personal note, one of my happiest days in Dublin took place three years ago when I shepherded a group of California students to Dublin to study Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses, I took my daughter (who was part of the class) to afternoon tea in the Shelbourne.

Many reviewers are fond of pointing out O’Brien’s negative attitude toward the so-called “Celtic Tiger” image of Ireland and the damage that has been done to the Irish economy by the economic errors of that period; and indeed, in “Send My Roots Rain,” the disruptions which that economic rise and fall have wrought in Ireland are mentioned as the librarian Miss Gilhooley thinks about what she and the poet will talk about when he arrives: “the changes that had occurred in their country, changes that were not for the better, bulldozers everywhere and the craze for money. Money, money, money. The rich going to lunch in their helicopters chopping the air and shredding the white mist….” But the story is not about social change; it is about the mystery of poetry, the inexplicable nature of love, and the “mysterious certitude of marriage,” which Miss Gilhooley has never managed to reach—all of which she thinks about while waiting for the poet to arrive. Having been in love many times, but always failing to make it to marriage, she has “turned to poets as she would to God.” Hopkins is her favorite, and she often repeats the line, “O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”

She remembers her loves and waits for the poet. But of course he never arrives. The porter makes excuses for him, saying that the poet often comes to the hotel bar, that he would have every intention of meeting her, getting dressed and probably came as close as the corner by the statue of Wolfe Tone, but then “balking it.” When she asks why the poet would baulk it, the porter says, “shyness, the shyest man I ever came across. I’ll bet you he’s walking the street now, or maybe on a bench by the canal, reproaching himself for himself for his blasted boorishness…his defection.” The porter shows her to the door and watches her go down the street. “She held herself well, but there was a hurt look to her back.”

On the bus ride home, she presses her face to the window and says the name of the man she had so loved, “a name that had not passed her lips in almost twenty years, and all of a sudden she was crying.” She thinks of the poet, a lonely, clumsy man walking the streets of Dublin, staring into the greenish water of the canal. “She knew then, and with a cold conviction, the love, the desolation, that goes into the making of a poem.” It’s a nice, tight little story that reaffirms Frank O’Connor’s famous notion of how loneliness is a characteristic of the short story.

“The Sinners” also focuses on an aging woman, this time a widow named Delia who runs a B&B. In her loneliness, she has “lost that most heartfelt rapport that she once had with God.” When a handsome English couple rent a room with their adolescent daughter, she envies them their youth and family closeness. However, in the evening, she hears the daughter’s going to her parents’ room on tiptoe. She listens and “her whole body stiffens in revulsion… something appalling was transpiring in there, whispers and tittering and giggles… she pictured them, their hands, their mouths, their limbs, all seeking one another out.” She imagines in vivid detail the naked girl, the man fondling both her and his wife, “and before long she knew that it would reach the vileness of an orgy.” She thinks that the girl could not be a daughter, that they have picked up a young girl, perhaps a hitchhiker or someone they solicited in an advertisement in their local paper, the wife agreeing to it all as being the surest way she could hold on to a husband.

Taking a sleeping pill, she has “a glut of dreams.” In one she is with a group of women about to be photographed by two men. They are ordered to undress, but she refuses. In another she is alone in a church in which the priest sings lustily as if in a beer garden, and a little altar boy drinks wine from the chalice. At breakfast “she took her revenge.” She tells the guests that she is only charging them for one room since only one room was fully occupied. Realizing that she has heard them, they insist on paying for two rooms, but she throws the money back at them. When the car drives away, she cries “from the pit of her being.” She thinks it was not because of them and the “unsavourines of the night,” but rather it has to do with herself. “Her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give-and-take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.” The “little pleasures” have nothing to do with what the family do in the woman’s rented bedroom, but what she overhears reminds her of the secret lives of others and the loneliness of her arid existence.

“Green Georgette” is told from the point of view of a young girl who has been invited with her mother to a Sunday evening tea with the Coughlans, an upper-class family new to the town. The girl is very aware of the social differences between her family when she sees a piano being moved into their home, but it is her romantic, poetic side that is emphasized in the story, not social difference; when the piano is put down, it emits “a little sound of its own, a ghostly broken tune.”

Drew Coughlan, the woman of the house, is “the cynosure of all…like a queen.” All the women in the town are intrigued by her finery, her proud carriage, and her glacial smile. However, as seems fitting for her poetic perception, in church, the girl turns around to look at the woman, to take note of her little habits, and how often she swallows. “She blinks with such languor.”

The title comes from the crepe-like fabric dress that Mrs. Coughlan wears on the day of the visit. As the mother and the woman talk, the girl’s response is typically romantic and poetic: “It was like a room in a story, what with the fire, the fire screen, the fenders and the fire irons gleaming, and the picture above the black marble mantelpiece of a knight on horseback breaching a storm.” The conversation between the two women primarily suggests two secrets: that the mother wishes to ingratiate herself with Ms. Coughlan, and that Ms. Coughlan’s relationship with her husband is bland and unexciting.

The tea is disrupted suddenly when Ms. Coughlan asks her sister, who lives with them, to look at her rash and check her lips for swelling. Although the mother does not think there is any thing wrong, she tries to be accommodating by suggesting they call the doctor. But, Ms. Coughlan insists that they drive to the doctor’s office instead, which makes the mother think there was “something fishy, decidedly fishy” about it all, especially since she knows the doctor has a reputation as something of a lady’s man who has kissed the nurses on the hospital grounds.

The girl’s romantic imagination once again takes over, as she imagines Mrs. Coughlan lying on the doctor’s couch, and “how both, as in a drama, had a sudden urge to kiss each other, but did not dare to.” When Mrs. Coughlan and her sister return, the girl thinks she looks different, “as if something thrilling had happened to her.” As the mother and daughter leave, Drew says she is glad they came, “but it was like telling us we were dull and lusterless...” Walking home, the mother is scornful about the “grand Mrs. Coughlan,” but the girl has an “insatiable longing for tinned peaches.” She concludes by saying that mixed with her longing is a mounting rage. “Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic thing to occur—for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr. Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself.” Like the woman in “Sinning,” the young girl laments the lack of romantic engagement in her life—a sense of loss that in Edna O’Brien’s stories often manifests itself in brute and perverse imagining.

Edna O’Brien’s stories are not terribly complex, but they perceptively investigate the secret desires of their characters and the mysteries that lie behind the seemingly controlled surfaces of life. They are not as challenging as the stories of her Canadian colleague Alice Munro (who has always been a great O’Brien admirer), but they are delicately written and sensitively explored.

I’ll end on a final personal note. I have met Edna O’Brien briefly twice—once when I was in Dublin and attended a reading she gave at Trinity College; she was kind enough to have a brief chat with me and sign a copy of her most recent novel that I had just purchased for my wife. Three years ago, I was in Cork for an International Short Story Conference, at which she was a featured reader. I was very sick at the time, coughing so much that I had to leave the auditorium and listen to her finish the story from the public address system in the hallway. As one of the featured speakers, I was invited to sit at Ms. O’Brien’s table for the banquet dinner that night, but because I was coughing so much, I knew I would be a disruption and had to decline. Instead I went back to my hotel, the Imperial, where Michael Collins spent his last night, and spent my night coughing-- miserable that I had missed the opportunity for what I imagined would have been a delightful evening, drinking wine and making sophisticated chat with the grand Edna O’Brien. For a romantic like me, it was a crushing blow.

I send my very best wishes to Ms. O’Brien in her competition for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. In a few days, I will discuss the third book on the shortlist: Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alexander MacLeod's LIGHT LIFTING: Short Listed for 2011 Frank O'Connor Award

Sometimes all it takes is to make the shortlist of a literary contest, especially when you are not expecting it. Alexander MacLeod (age 40) lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with his wife and three young children, teaching English at St. Mary’s University. His father is the wonderful writer, Alistair MacLeod, now retired, one of the best, least appreciated, short- story writers devoted to the form. But the father’s brilliance does not seem relevant to the son’s highly praised short story collection Light Lifting. In fact, MacLeod told an interviewer last year that although he and his father talked about lots of things when he was growing up, they never talked about stories and literature.

Alexander MacLeod has been writing stories for the past seventeen years, never really having time while getting his degrees and raising a family to create a book out of them. It seems it took his friend, Dan Wells, publisher of a small Ontario press, Biblioasis, to work with him to get Light Lifting together. MacLeod has said it was a shoestring operation, with he and Wells promoting the book by “driving around in a Volkswagen, selling books out of the trunk.” Then in early October, 2010, he got word that his book was long listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Bingo! The rush of agents, publishers, reviewers, reporters all began, much to his surprise and bemusement. Then, lo and behold! the book made the shortlist of the top five for the Giller. This is not small stuff. The Giller, renamed the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is the largest annual literary prize in Canada, awarding $50,000 to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists. It has been won by Alice Munro (twice), Mordecai Richler, Austin Clarke, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Atwood, and the shortlists include just about every major Canadian writer.

Here is the 2010 Giller citation for Light Lifting:

“Rarely does fiction inhabit the body – the moving, athletic body – as fully as in Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection. Whether describing what it is to run track, to swim against a current, to build cars or to haul bricks, MacLeod brings into vivid concrete language the physical experiences that mark us as profoundly as any thought. His stories are a careful marriage of the lyric and the narrative: each unfolds around a resonant, ineffable moment, replete with history and emotion, a Gordian knot comprised of all the strands that lead up to and away from it. Sensitive and subtle, MacLeod is a writer through whose deliberately partial and quotidian pieces shimmers life’s unspoken complexity.”

MacLeod did not win the Giller; Joanna Skibsrud did for her novel The Sentimentalists. But his success with his debut book of stories is not over yet. He has also made the shortlist for the lucrative Frank O’Connor Prize, to be awarded in Cork in September 2011. Again, no small thing. The prize is worth 35,000 Euros, which, currently equates to 50,510 American dollars or 49,512 Canadian dollars. Yiyun Li, who is nominated this year, won it once before, as have Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, and Ron Rash.

So, what is it about this collection of seven stories that has put it on the short list of two of the best-paying literary awards in the world? It has not been widely reviewed in the U.S., and not paid much attention to in Canada until it made the Giller longlist/shortlist. The reviewers largely attribute the book’s appeal to its focus on ordinary working class people. Of course, the popularity of such writers as Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, and Richard Ford back in the sixties was also attributed to their focus on the so-called “blue collar.” But there is nothing minimalistically hyperrealistic (whatever that means) about MacLeod’s stories. In fact, they go on at great lengths about the details of work and the obsession of workers to do the job right. From a young drugstore delivery boy who overcomes his revulsion to save the life of a threatening old man to a young track star obsessed with shaving two seconds off his run, the stories seems to focus more on the surface of experience than on the depths.

However, Macleod believes that his stories are not just about the attention and dedication to the physical action necessary to succeed at what one does. At his first reading, when asked what makes physical action significant and meaningful, he said, “that somebody cares about it.” For MacLeod, the specific physical action of his stories has “general meaning.”

I will discuss only one story in the collection—“Miracle Mile,” although two others-“Light Lifting,” and “Adult Beginner I”—also seem illustrative of what constitutes the appeal of this collection and perhaps account for why it has been shortlisted for two major literary prizes. “Wonder About Parents” and “Good Kids” are family stories and not particularly compelling; “The Number Three,” about a man who tries to deal with guilt for the death of his wife and son in an auto accident, seems somewhat “rigged” and conventional. “The Loop” is a rather ordinary coming-of age-story about a young boy who delivers drugstore meds to the down and out elderly, often injured by a lifetime of work.

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe, short stories have often focused on obsession, because a psychological obsession most often leads to an aesthetic obsession with the unity of the story. Moreover, short stories often focus on characters, as one Hemingway story suggests, who inhabit “Another Country,” living outside the ordinary controls of everyday society, made to earn their identity rather than deriving it from social definitions. As the narrator of “Miracle Mile” says, “It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood.” Well aware of the need for obsessive focus, he adds, “If you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else.”

Short story collections that focus on a culture previously unexplored—a country, a region, a profession, a cult, a subculture—often grab the attention of reviewers and judges. It is the “new,” the “unknown,” the “mysterious that makes readers say, “wow, that’s really something, I’ve never heard of that before.” For a profession, like running, (MacLeod, who was a runner himself and seems to know what he is talking about), the reader is apt to be fascinated by what makes runners do what they do with such rabid devotion.

“It’s hard to tell anybody what it’s really like,” the narrator says, but tries by describing guys who are willing to spend two years of training to shave s single second off their personal best, tells about popping anti-inflammatories like they were candy love hearts, recounts with some pride getting more cortisone injections in the feet in five months than you are supposed to have in your whole life, marvels at long distance female runners who are anorexic, iron deficient, and have not had a regular period in years, but who can run a hundred ad twenty miles in a week, who can slow down their hearts so far you have to wait between the beats.

All this is engrossing, “wow” information that contributes to the appeal of MacLeod’s stories. But mere information does not a story make, so MacLeod adds an insert action story about when he and his friend, whose nickname is “Burner” were in high school and used to race trains in the underground tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Canada—foolish, “I’m invincible” type behavior that makes readers shake their heads in disbelief and hold their breath in anticipation as Burner gets out of the tunnel ahead of the train: “He had this long line of spit hanging out of his mouth like a dog and the look on his face wasn’t fear but something more like rage.”

To give the story some historical context, MacLeod situates his story his story on that day in 1997 when Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear, which the narrator and his friend see played over and over again on television. He takes his title from the famous 1954 race when Roger Bannister beat John Landy as both broke the four-minute “miracle mile,” in Vancouver. What the two incidents share is what the narrator calls “pure craziness”; as one announcer of the Tyson fight said, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” MacLeod provides some detailed description of the bite and the race, but he does not have to rely on memory for these, since both events are available for viewing over and over again on YouTube.

In addition to the racing information about obsession and two historical events of head-shaking craziness, the story must, of course have a plot—the story of the race. And who can resist a race story—horse races, swim races, running races—for of all athletic events, a race seems the most audience-involving, as we try to “pick a winner” and watch in real time people or animals simply moving their bodies competitively through space-- but doing so at a speed that can only fill us with wonder.

The narrator describes the race as only a participant can describe it, and, as usual in races, the winner wins because of an ability somehow to exceed what ordinary human beings can do—like Roger Bannister in that final sprint around Landy. But the story also requires that the narrator elevate a mere race, which is the essence of action and suspense, into something more generally significant. The narrator ruminates:

“I know that when you give yourself over completely to just one thing, you can lose perspective on the rest of the world…. We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation… We can only value what we yearn for and it really does not mater what others think… We are what we want most and there are no miracles without desire.”

But stories cannot just be descriptions of interesting details, accounts of historical contexts, or even suspenseful, action-packed plots or thematic essays. They also have to have meaningful endings. And since MacLeod’s stories are less plot-based stories than explorations of physical actions, his endings sometimes seem generated by the convention of the necessity of a short story ending rather than by the necessity of the story at hand. “Miracle Mile” ends with a “crazy” example of the basic madness of what underlies the obsessed competitor. There’s something ultimately out of control about the absolute control required to be a winner. So when a group of four or five children, ages 7 to 9, speed by the narrator and Burner as they are jogging to cool off, the kids jeer, “I’m faster than you are…. you can’t catch me.” Burner “loses it” and charges after the children, who, of course have no idea that they are jeering at a professional runner. The story ends with Burner catching up with one female child riding her My Little Pony bike away as fast as she can, a strange, high-pitched wheezing sound coming from her. “But there was nothing she could do. Burner had already closed the gap and his hand was already there, reaching out for the thin strands of her hair. It all disintegrated after that. He must have been a foot taller than the oldest one.”

Finally, and never to be forgotten, there is style. Since MacLeod’s focus is on physical activity, it would not do for him to call attention to the writing itself; and indeed, the style here is relatively transparent. Even when the story is told in first person, the emphasis is less on the personality of the teller than it is on the action being described. This quotation from which the book takes its title is typical. The narrator is describing carrying brick on a job site:

"Anyone who’s ever done this kind of work can tell you that the bending over is the worst pat of it. Bending over and getting up, and then bending over and getting up again—it’s like you’re folding and unfolding your body all day. You get creaky. And just that little bit of weight—just the weight that’s in a couple bricks—that’s enough to grind you down. Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage.”

Typical of MacLeod’s ruminative style is the following passage from “Adult Beginning I,” in which a third person narrator describes how a young woman feels when learning to swim:

"That’s when it happened. An understanding, a new realization came into her head and triggered a transformation that was almost total. Maybe this was how all learning worked in the end. The right kind of concentration deployed in the right way at the right time. If you paid attention and sorted carefully, put things in the right place at the right time, it was possible to think yourself away from yourself, away from the things you could not do."

To his credit, in an interview last year, MacLeod said:

“I’m a fan of the short story. I don’t see it as a warm-up for the great novel-writing career. People say that you have to escape the limitations of the short story to move on to the broader canvas of the novel, but there are possibilities in short stories that are not there in the novel. I wanted these stories to have a lot of tension, which is harder to sustain in a novel.”

I congratulate Alexander MacLeod on making the shortlist of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize and wish him luck. I will discuss Edna O’Brien’s nominated collection, Saints and Sinners in a few days.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Guy de Maupassant and the Psychological Mystery Story

In the decade between 1880 and 1890 Guy de Maupassant published over three hundred short stories in a variety of modes, including the supernatural legend, the surprise-ending tale, and the realistic story. Although he is best-known for such surprise-ending tales as La Parue (1884; "The Necklace," 1909) and most-respected for such affecting realistic stories such as Boule de Suif (1880; "Ball of Fat," 1909), Maupassant also contributed to the sophistication of the horror story by pushing it even further than Edgar Allan Poe into the modern mode of psychological obsession and madness.

The predominant mode of Maupassant’s psychological stories is not the manifestation of the ghostly supernatural in the traditional sense; rather the stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality that exists beyond what the human senses can perceive. But even as this realm of reality is justified rationally, the reader is never quite sure whether the realm truly exists "out there" in the world of the story or whether it is a product of the obsessive mind of the narrator. The style of several of these tales is similar to some of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, particularly the stories of the perverse which combine narrative story line with the narrator's quasi-philosophic considerations of madness, murder, and the mysterious realm beyond the pale of ordinary understanding.

The most explicit story to focus on this realm, parts of which are used later in the more famous La Horla, is "Letter from a Madman." As told by the narrator to a doctor, the story unfolds a theory that the human mind receives only sparse and uncertain information about the external world because the limitations of the five senses restrict what humans can perceive. The narrator argues, for example, that if we had additional senses we could perceive a reality that is closed to our present senses. From this assumption he tries to infer, rather than directly perceive, the mysterious impenetrable world that lies around us. As a result he feels in the presence of non-corporeal beings, although he does not actually have the sense organ that would make it possible for him to "see" them. While sitting in front of a mirror he cannot see himself, for the invisible thing stands between him and the mirror and blocks his reflection. Since that time he has spent hours before his mirror, going mad waiting for "It" to return, knowing that he will wait until death.

The story "He" is similar to "Letter from a Madman" in its focus on some unseen but felt presence; however, it differs thematically in that it emphasizes the appearances of the apparition as a result of the narrator's loneliness, and it differs stylistically in that it features a more developed narrative with less discursive meditation. "He" is very similar to Poe stories which focus on the fear of fear itself and which emphasize the power of hallucination. The narrator acknowledges that he suffers from a disease of fear, an incomprehensible terror that causes him to fear the very madness or confusion of mind that constitutes the fear itself. He describes entering his room after a walk and seeing a man sitting in his chair before the fire. When he reaches out to touch him, there is nothing there. Although convinced that the figure was obviously an hallucination, he cannot shake the fear that it will appear again. Even though he knows that it does not exist except in his own apprehension, he cannot escape that apprehension. In both of these stories, it is the narrators' own intense self-consciousness which constitute their insanity; they push what they consider to be reasonable assumptions to such ultimate conclusions that the inevitable result is madness--that is, the perception of a state of being that exists outside of the normal everyday limits of human experience, perception, and thought.

In "Am I Insane?" and "The Madman," Maupassant's focus is on how an obsession becomes so powerful that it is translated into murderous action. In "Am I Insane?" the simpler of the two, the narrator loves a certain woman to madness. However, he also hates her passionately, for he knows that she is impure and without a soul; he intensely desires both to possess her and to kill her. When she tires of him, he becomes insanely jealous, determines that her horse (which she rides enraptured) is his rival, and executes it with a bullet to the brain before also killing his mistress. The madness here is similar to the meaningful madness in many Poe stories; there is some basis for the narrator's jealous obsession, both figuratively in the powerful male symbolism of the horse and literally in the narcissism and autoeroticism that the woman’s daily rides suggest.

In "A Madman," Maupassant carries to even further extremes the theme of madness resulting from carrying a line of reasoning to ultimate conclusions. The story consists of diary entries of a dead judge who always seemed to know the secret hearts of criminals. Over and over again in the diary he questions what pleasure there must be in killing. He justifies his obsession in long discursive passages in which he wonders why it is a crime to kill when killing is indeed the law of nature; inevitably he puts his theories into action. Equating his desire to kill with the power of sexual passion, he describes in graphic detail reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade his murder of a young boy by strangulation and his killing of a fisherman by splitting his head open with a spade. Even after he sentences the fisherman's nephew to death for the murder that he committed, he describes watching the boy's head being chopped off and wishing he could have bathed in his blood. Although the ostensible theme of the story is that many such madmen exist secretly in society, the more predominate motif is the notion philosophically examined by Nietzsche and fictionally explored by Dostoevsky that killing is the nearest thing to creation.

However, of all the Maupassant tales that focus on madness, hallucination, obsession, and the mystery of a dimension beyond the senses, the most sustained and deservedly the most famous is "The Horla." Although many critics point to the autobiographical elements in this story (for during its writing Maupassant was possessed by the increasing madness caused by syphilis), still others suggest that the work stands on its own merits as a masterpiece of psychological horror. Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.

The story begins with many of the same themes that Maupassant had earlier developed in "Letter from a Madman," even at times using much of the same language as that story. The narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive all that is out there in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the world around human life. The second predominant Maupassant theme here is that of apprehension, a sense of some imminent danger, a presentiment of something yet to come. This apprehension, which the narrator calls a disease, is accompanied by nightmares, a sense of some external force suffocating him while he sleeps, and the conviction that there is something following him; yet when he turns around there is nothing there.

This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary senses is pushed even further when the narrator begins to believe that there are actual creatures who exist in this invisible dimension. This conviction is then developed into an idea that when the mind is asleep an alien being takes control of the body and makes it obey. All of these ideas then lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism; for under hypnosis it seems as if an alien being has control of our actions which, when we awake, we have no awareness of. Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also feels he is in complete possession of all his faculties, and he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things that his own mind does not direct him to do. Thus he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures who have always existed and who have haunted mankind even though they cannot be seen.

The final event to convince him of the external, as opposed to the psychological, existence of the creatures, is a newspaper article about an epidemic of madness in Brazil in which people seem possessed by vampire-like creatures who feed on them during sleep. He remembers a Brazilian ship that sailed past his window and believes that one of the creatures has jumped ship to possess him. Now he knows that the reign of man on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla which man has always feared--forces called spirits, genii, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps--will enslave man.

Finally, in a scene that was used earlier in "A Letter from a Madman," he "sees" the creature in the mirror when its presence blurs his own image by coming between him and the mirror. He decides to destroy the creature by locking it in his room and burning his house to the ground. As he watches the house burn and realizes that his servants are burning too, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like man, be prematurely destroyed. His final thought is since the Horla is not dead he shall have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.

What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being something external to himself. This universalizes the story, for human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence named gods, devils, spirits, etc. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is the very basis of hallucination.

Because of his ability to transform the short mystery tale from a primitive oral form based on legend into a sophisticated modern form in which mystery originates within the complex mind of man, Maupassant is an important figure in marking the transition between the nineteenth-century tale of the supernatural and the twentieth-century short story of psychological obsession. Maupassant is one of those writers whose contribution to literature is often overshadowed by the tragic facts of his life and whose real experimentation is often ignored in favor of his more popular innovations. Too often it is his promiscuity and profligate Parisian life style that receives the most attention from the casual reader. As if to provide evidence for the payment Maupassant had to make for such a lifestyle, these readers then point to the supposed madness-inspired story La Horla--a fit ending for one who not only wrote about prostitutes but paid for their dangerous favors as well with his life. In the last few years of his life, due to syphilis, his eyesight weakened, his memory failed, his thinking became erratic, and he suffered from delusions. After undergoing several unsuccessful treatments for his disease and even attempting suicide, Maupassant was incarcerated in a sanatorium in Passy, where he died on July 6, 1893.

However, Maupassant's real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry. Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks. Maupassant falls somewhere in between. On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in his story “Guy de Maupassant” by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.

Maupassant had as much to do with the development of the short-story genre in the late nineteenth century Chekhov did in somewhat different ways. However, because such stories as "The Necklace" seem so deceptively simple and trivial, his experiment with the form has often been ignored. Not until the short story itself receives the recognition it deserves as a respectable literary genre will Guy de Maupassant receive the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the perfection of the form.

Thanks to Caroline for asking for my opinion of Maupassant--a query I obviously cannot resist.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Short Story Genius of Ambrose Bierce

The Library of America has just announced a new author in their series of editions of great writers: Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. The book includes Bierce’s greatest collection, In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians), as well as Can Such Things Be? The Devil’s Dictionary, and Bits of Autobiography, and Selected Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, who has edited several other books on Bierce, it is due out in bookstores on September 1, 2011.

I have always been a great admirer of Bierce’s stories, for in face of the increasing demand for realistic novels in the late nineteenth century, he remained faithful to the short story as a form. In my opinion, Bierce, like Poe, is a brilliant short-story writer who has been snubbed by many academic literary critics who scorn the short story as being artificial and trivial. Thus, it should not surprise you that my favorite definition from Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is:

Novel--A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes -- some of which have a large sale.

My favorite Bierce stories, included in this new collection, are:

The Man and the Snake
The Eyes of the Panther
The Death of Halpin Frayser
A Horseman in the Sky
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A Son of the Gods
One of the Missing
Killed at Resaca
The Affair at Coulter’s Notch
The Coup de Grâce
Parker Adderson, Philosopher
The Mocking-Bird

Critics who have accused Ambrose Bierce of artificiality and lack of depth usually make such claims based on expectations derived from the realistic novel. By insisting on a faithful adherence to the external world, advocates of realism allow content, often ragged and random, to dictate form. As a result, the novel, which can expand to better create an illusion of everyday reality, is the favored form of the realists, while the short story, which requires more artifice and patterning, assumes a secondary role. Those writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century who were committed to the short story instead of the novel were well aware of this fact. When Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument raging between the romantics and the realists, he attacked the William Dean Howells school of realistic fiction by arguing that to them, "nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man's most commonplace experience. It is not known to them that all men and women sometimes, many men and women frequently, and some men and women habitually, act from impenetrable motives and in a way that is consonant with nothing in their lives, characters and conditions.”

Bierce says that the capable writer does not give probability a moment's attention, except to make the fiction seem probable or true in the reading process. Nothing is as improbable as what is true, says Bierce; the unexpected does occur, "but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely--one might almost say the impossible.” Bierce's characters, like those of Flannery O'Connor's, have an inner coherence rather than a coherence to their social framework. As O'Connor says, "Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, towards mystery and the unexpected.”

Bierce's most obsessive concern in the short story is not simple macabre horror, but rather the central paradox that underlies the most basic human desire and fear--the desire for a sense of unity and significance and the fear that the realization of such a desire means death. In terms of story telling, Bierce knew that the desire manifested itself as the compulsion to present life as if it were a fictional construct, that is, as if it had significance and meaning, beauty and order.

Bierce's characteristic short story dynamic is to distance his characters from the ordinary world of everyday reality--by presenting them in a static formal posture or picture, by putting them in a dream-like autistic state, by putting them on a formal stage. When this formal picture or frozen sense of reality is broken, the result is often the shock of entering another country, another realm of reality; the result is disillusion, despair, or death.

The simplest and most straightforward example of this technique of presenting a frozen reality and then ironically undercutting it is "Killed Resaca," in which Lieutenant Herman Brayle, the archetypal good soldier, sits his horse like an equestrian statue even in a storm of bullets. In a foolishly heroic and fatal gesture, he rides into battle, "a picture" described as "intensely dramatic, but in no degree theatrical." However, when the narrator returns a letter to the Lieutenant's lady friend, a letter that romantically states she could bear to hear of her lover's death but not of his cowardice, the heroic picture or statue of the Lieutenant is undermined when she, disgusted at the blood on the letter, flings it into the fire.

Bierce’s story “Chickamauga" is a particularly rich example of this theme of unreality being presented as reality until the spell is broken and the illusion of heroic order shattered. The story focuses on the two basic worlds: child and adult, fantasy and reality, innocence and experience. This is a story in which nobody listens. We say to child, "do you hear me?" We say to adults in war, "Why don't you listen?" When he reaches home, it is as if he has gone a long way to stay where he was; the plantation "seemed to turn as if on a pivot." The story ends with son's loss of mother, just as the war has to do with mothers' loss of sons. "The child was a deaf mute" completes the pattern of the adult observer. The story is another example of Bierce presenting stories in which language is inadequate and in which heroic pictures are startled into terrible life and in which illusory reality is startled into the reality of our deepest fears.

Of course, Bierce's most famous narrative play with the frozen moment of time and the power of imaginative reality is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death. However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction making which the reader initially takes to be actuality.

The story is made up of three sections that correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action. But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves. The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff. At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make: "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside." The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another. It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.

The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I--purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event--of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament. The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind. It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality. At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense: "Peyton Farquhar was dead." At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story. Postponing the end until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse.

Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.

If you have not read Bierce, I recommend his stories to you as brilliant examples of the short story as a genre.