Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Passion of the Personal: Dagoberto Gilb’s “please, thank you”

As I continue to work on a sort of “how-to” book about strategies for reading the short story, I have, of course, been thinking about my 40 years experience teaching the form at the university level. In those four decades, I taught introductory general education short story classes for students in various majors who mainly took the course because they had to have a humanities class to earn a degree. Thinking that poetry was too hard and novels too long, they often chose the short story; after all, they knew what a story was and “short” sounded pretty damned good. I also taught upper division American Short Story classes for English majors to provide some knowledge of the history of the development of the form. Finally, I taught graduate level courses in short story theory, which I developed as special studies elective courses (since no graduate program thought short stories were important enough for advanced study).

My pedagogical goals in these three levels differed somewhat, but my primary passion in all three levels was to fully engage students in the human experience and knowledge captured and created by the short story as a literary form. I was always convinced that the short story captured experience and created knowledge differently than the novel did. Although I felt it necessary to focus more on theoretical issues and literary criticism in the upper division and graduate level courses, I did not believe in “dumbing down” to the undergraduates. I felt I could not teach nonmajors how to read stories at all unless I made them aware of the tactics professional critics used to read short narrative.

So I ask myself: Is there a difference between teaching folks how to read short stories for occasional enjoyment and teaching folks how to read short stories critically? I have always been suspicious of the schism in the university between the high-flown language of theory taught on the graduate level and the “appreciation” language used on the lower division level. It seems to me that if so-called “theory” is of any value, it should be of value to our understanding of literature on all levels, not just on the level of professors who often seem to speak only to a small, select group of their peers.

I always thought that the most important role I could play in the literature classroom—regardless of whether the class was made up of graduate students in literature or freshman students in every field from business to engineering—was that of the passionate human being irresistibly engaged in the complexity of how a short story explores what it means to be human. However, since literature is not life, but rather a language-structured examination of life, I always felt sure that to understand the complexity of what is human in a story one should understand how an author uses language to create what is human in a story.

I was thinking about this relationship between my personal involvement in the human complexity of a story and my critical knowledge of how language works in short stories to explore a universal theme recently when I was reading Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection of stories, Before the End, After the Beginning. I admit up front that I have never been an admirer of Gilb’s stories; I have never been able to identify with his persona: what might be described--to use the appellation in the new story “The Last Time I Saw Junior”--as “one scary Mexican” or at least, one “swaggering” Mexican,” as reviewer Carolyn Kellogg described Gilb at a writing program conference in 2008

Gilb’s first collection of stories, The Magic of Blood (1994) focused on young Mexican immigrants who are, as one reviewer described them, “one paycheck away from disaster.” Most reviewers emphasized that Gilb was himself a construction worker, making the most of the news value of a laboring man writing stories. Jean Thompson reviewed his second collection Woodcuts of Women (2001) for The New York Times, and Carolyn See reviewed it for The Washington Post—Thompson calling it occasionally overwritten and uneven and See taking multiple swipes at how the stories oversimplify the role of women as being “vessels of sin, put on Earth to drive men to perdition.”

I guess what has always put me off Gilb’s stories is their emphasis on what constitutes “manliness” and the difficulty of maintaining one’s manliness when one is dirt poor. It is even more difficult to assert a traditional image of manliness when one has been partially paralyzed by a stroke, which Gilb suffered in 2009. Now, Gilb admits, as the persona of the opening story in Before the End, After the Beginning, “please, thank you,” says, “I am not wanting to scream and fight as much…punish the keyboard the way I used to.” Still, Gilb seems to continue to define his persona by qualities of physical manliness, wryly telling an interviewer recently, “Now I’m not convinced that an 8-year-old couldn’t take me out.”

This notion of manliness as being able to “take someone out” or “stand one’s ground,” as some Florida lawmakers have infamously defined it recently, has always seemed to me bullying--acting tough, especially as if such behavior were somehow a justifiable result of being poor. I grew up in a series of shacks in Eastern Kentucky, son of a truck-driver and a farmer’s daughter with an 8th grade education. I could smoke and curse with the best of them, but I was just a soft kid who liked to read rather than play football, as my father wanted. Guys that pushed and punched me on the playground were, according to the values of that time and place, being “manly,” and if I walked away, I was being a “sissy.”

Now that Dagoberto Gilb has been sadly stricken by a stroke, I am more than a little conflicted to find that I like his new stories in Before the End, After the Beginning more than I did his earlier tough-guy stories in Magic Blood and Woodcuts for Women. Does this mean I am glad to see the swaggering machismo male brought low? I don’t think so. I think it means that I find the new stories more reflective of the universal vulnerability of being a human being rather than the socially imposed posturing of being a macho male.

If I were teaching the first story in the collection, “please, thank you,” which seems to be a rather straightforward account of a man who has had a stroke and struggles to communicate, I would begin by talking to my students about my own personal knowledge of that deadening paralysis. I would tell them about my childhood involvement with my grandfather--a tough hardworking man of 85, who on the day he had a stroke got up at 5 in the morning as usual and spent half a day hoeing corn down on his riverbank fields. Paralyzed on his left side and confined to bed for several years, he was dependent on my mother and me for his every need. I sat with him day after day, reading stories and drinking Pepsi, slept by him in a rollaway bed, held the bedpan under his groin so he could pee, fed him poached eggs and wiped the yoke from his chin. And damn, damn, damn, unmanned by his helplessness, he hated it. Every day was a struggle, while lying flat on his back, to try to maintain some sense of dignity--to recover the man that he once was.

Last June, I received an early morning call from the wife of my next-door neighbor, who said simply, “Joe had a stroke last night.” Joe has lived next door to me for over twenty years. He is Polish, spent his childhood in a camp during World War II, immigrated to Chicago with his family after the war, joined the US Navy, studied engineering and worked as an engineer until slide rules gave way to computers, which he refused to accept. He is a strong, but extremely gentle man. He tells coarse Pollack jokes, and puts out peanuts for the squirrels and seed for the birds in his backyard. He is fiercely unsentimental, yet an incurable softie when it comes to helping others. He and I have worked together on numerous remodeling projects over the years, and when I had heart surgery, he walked our dog every day until I was back on my feet. Now he is in what we used to call a “nursing home,” occupied mainly by slack-jawed, empty-eyed old men and women. At 74, his left arm and leg useless, he spends most of his time in bed and has to have his diaper changed periodically. When I visited him yesterday, he whispered to me, “When you going to spring me from this place?”

If I were teaching Dagoberto Gilb’s story “please, thank you,” I would first try to get my students to identify with the man in the story who has been forced to face his own vulnerability and mortality and thus to redefine what he had earlier thought “manliness” to be. Only after they are able to identify with the experience of the persona/narrator of the story will they be qualified to make a judgment on the means by which Gilb creates that experience. Sympathy and identification precedes analysis and judgment; that was always my guiding principle in the classroom. Before you call Bartleby either shiftless or mad, you must understand what he sees when he stares at that wall outside the Wall Street office window where he works.

Whereas other writers have tried to create a similitude of a stroke victim’s experience by describing his struggles, Gilb creates a story from within as the persona works to try to recover from the effects of the stroke. For example, the story’s lack of capital letters, quotation marks, apostrophes, etc. is not a stylistic trick, but rather a reflection of Gilb’s difficulty using the shift key while typing with one hand.

“I used to be strong,” the narrator Mr. Sanchez says in the story. “just the other day! just the other day, a couple of weeks ago, now, now these people come into my room, my room is more my bed, a modern bed that moves up and down with a control.”

Gilb’s story helps me understand the meaning of a “stroke,” as if, indeed, by a sudden mysterious assault one is stricken. I try to participate in that sense of helplessness—as Sanchez says, “I can’t believe I cant pull my stupid leg up.” My friend Joe fell out of his wheelchair the other day trying to get himself back in bed alone. He could not understand why he could not do it. He thinks that if they will let him use the parallel bars, he can learn to walk, although he simply cannot lift his left leg. The theme of Gilb’s story is the mystery of paralysis, for it means helplessness--the loss of what once was or what might have been.

In the opening story of James Joyce’s collection Dubliners, the young narrator looks up at the window where his stroke-stricken priest/teacher lies paralyzed: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Simony in the Catechism.” And indeed, paralysis is the theme that Joyce says dominates Dubliners. He once famously wrote, “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me to be the centre of paralysis

In a bit of literary coincidence that I cannot resist, I recently got an email from the James Joyce Centre in Dublin announcing that the Dublin City Library’s “One City One Book” campaign this year was to encourage everyone to “read, discuss, and celebrate” Joyce’s Dubliners during the month of April, 2012.

To play my own small part in this celebration, I intend to write four blog posts during April, exploring the notion of paralysis in the stories in Dubliners, examining to the best of my ability what makes them the powerfully influential short stories they are, and discussing my personal engagement with the stories as a group of American students and I walked the streets of Dublin a few years ago, trying to understand how Joyce transformed ordinary people and place into extraordinary prose.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Irish Short Story: 2012--Oxford and Granta

Although it may seem a day late and a dollar short to be posting my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog on the Irish short story after the grand day has passed, I have an excuse: My wife and I have been out of town for over a week, delighting in a family reunion with three children and their spouses and three grandchildren in Santa Fe, New Mexico—which just happens to be fairly equidistant from their homes in Colorado, Arizona, and California. Being happily surrounded by grandchildren, I had no time nor desire to bury my head in a laptop.

I did, of course, have some time for reading—always time for some reading—and have been enjoying the wonderful collection, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010), edited by the very fine Irish writer, Anne Enright. My favorite general collection of Irish short stories has always been The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (1989), edited by the brilliant Irish writer William Trevor. Now I have two favorites. Trevor includes stories by Irish writers from Maria Edgeworth and William Carleton in the early nineteenth century up through such contemporary writers as John McGahern and Edna O’Brien. Anne Enright restricts her choices to writers born in the twentieth century (although she happily fudges by including a story by Elizabeth Bowen, who was born in 1899). There is some overlap of authors, but Enright does not include any stories chosen by Trevor. I used the Oxford collection several years ago when I was teaching a graduate level seminar on the Irish short story at Cal State, Long Beach; were I to teach that course today, I would also include the Granta collection.

Trevor includes the mysteriously ambiguous gothic story “Green Tea,” by Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as the George Moore story “Albert Nobbs,” basis for the current film starring Glenn Close. Also included is the wonderful story by Seumas O’Kelly, “The Weaver’s Grave,” which is not so well known by American readers, but should be, for its lyric mastery and its expert mutation into the modern/postmodern. Trevor also includes Joyce’s “The Dead,” that magnificently subtle story that manages to convert the ordinary into transcendence, as well as two stories each by Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faolain, and Frank O’Connor, three of the most influential of Irish twentieth-century short story writers, including O’Connor’s famous story “Guests of the Nation.”

Among my favorites from the Trevor collection are Bowen’s “Her Table Spread,” Mary Lavin’s “Sarah,” Trevor’s own “Jerusalem Delivered,” Edna O’Brien’s “Irish Revel,” and John McGahern’s “The Beginning of an Idea,” a reverential tribute to the great master of the short story, Anton Chekhov.

I also recommend Trevor’s Introduction to the collection, in which he defines the modern short story as “the distillation of an essence.” Trevor amiably talks about what might be called the storytelling urge in Ireland, beginning with the tradition of the seanchai, the old storyteller sitting by the hearth holding his clustered small audience spellbound. Trevor, always the maker of stories himself, enlivens the Introduction with stories of his own—both from experience and from literature, arguing that it is against the background of a “pervasive, deeply rooted oral tradition that the modern short story in Ireland must inevitably be considered.”

Trevor also revisits the generally accepted notion that the Irish have always trumped the British in creating great short stories, even as the British have had no rival in the creation of great novels. As Trevor says, “when the novel reared its head, Ireland wasn’t ready for it.” As others have noted, the British Victorian novel was “fed by the architecture of a rich, stratified society in which complacency and hypocrisy, accompanied by the ill-treatment of the unfortunate and the poor, provided both fictional material and grounds for protest.” The civilized society that formed the basis of novels was lacking in Ireland, which was for the most part a peasant society.

In her insightful Introduction to the Granta collection, Anne Enright also refers to this England/Ireland schism, suggesting that much of what is written about the short story is anxiety about the “unknowability of the novel…, perhaps much of what is written about Irish writing is, in fact, anxiety about England,” Enright says, concluding, “Sometimes, indeed, the terms ‘England’ and ‘the novel’ seem almost interchangeable.”

Enright likes to make metaphoric comparisons between the short story and the novel, noting that short stories seldom creak the way novels sometimes creak. Short stories, she says, “are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.” Cautioning those who make too much of the importance of the oral tradition in Irish short fiction, Enright says that those who think the short story us somehow harmless for being close to a folk tradition have not read John McGahern, “whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.”

Enright refers to the importance of the short story volume for Irish schools, Exploring English I, edited by Augustine (Gus) Martin, in 1967, which she says shaped the sensibilities of her generation. Here is a description of the book, available on Amazon. I don't know who wrote it:

Difficult as it may be in understand today, the Exploring English anthology of short stories was revolutionary when first published in 1967. For the first time the short story was to be taught as part of the English syllabus for the Intermediate Certificate. For the first time students of English were introduced to the work of Irish writers such as Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Connor, Sean O Faolain, Mary Lavin, Brian Friel and Benedict Kiely. Exploring English has resonated with countless thousands of Irish students. For many it provided a gateway to a life time of reading and enjoyment of literature.

I can’t resist a personal note here:

In the fall of 1996, when I went to teach the American short story as a Fulbright Senior Fellow at University College, Dublin, I was assigned the office of Augustine Martin, who had died the year before in Oct. 1995. After his death, his family came in, of course, and claimed the possessions—mainly books—that belonged to “Gus.” Then members of the English Department at University College were permitted to claim some of the books that were left. When I came into the office, there were still many of Professor Martin’s books on the shelves. Jim Mays, the Chair of the Department, said I was free to take what remaining books that I might find useful. And indeed, there were still many books on Irish literature, since that was Prof. Martin’s specialty, that I found most helpful in my research on the Irish short story. I am happy to say that they now have an honored place on the shelves of my own library in California.

Among the thirty-one stories Enright includes in the Granta collection—all of which should solidly verify the common argument that the Irish are expert in this demanding form—are many stories with which American readers are perhaps unfamiliar. While she includes a familiar Sean O’Faolain story, “The Trout,” (a delicate little metafictional fairy tale), she chooses a relatively unfamiliar Frank O’Connor story—“The Mad Lomasneys,”—which almost casually, but very calculatedly, follows the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Whereas Neil Jordan’s sexual initiation story, “Night in Tunisia” and Edna O’Brien’s “Sister Imelda” may be familiar to many American readers, Eugene McCabe’s “Music at Annahuillion” and Maeve Brennan’s “An Attack of Hunger” may be less so. Roddy Doyle’s relatively simple but engaging “The Pram,” from The Deportees, and William Trevor’s deceptively simple, but actually quite complex, “The Dressmaker’s Child,” from Cheating at Canasta are perfectly representative of each of those writer’s craft and art.

And if you have not yet read Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, or Colum McCann, then the stories Enright chooses by those very fine new writers—Keegan’s “Men and Women,” Barry’s “See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown,” and McCann’s “Everything in this Country Must”—are very fine works with which to begin. Enright also includes stories by—and how could she not?—John Banville, Clare Boylan, Mary Lavin, John McGahern, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Patrick Boyle, and Bernard MacLaverty.

I am not quite finished reading all the wonderful stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. I am in no hurry, after all. However, I did not want to wait any longer to recommend it to you. So, while the smell of the corn beef and the taste of the Guinness still perhaps linger from St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, get yourself a copy and settle down to enjoy the genius of Irish short story writers. No Leprechauns, just lovely prose.