Friday, December 30, 2011

“A New Year's Eve Adventure” by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Happy New Year to all my readers! I wish you all good fortune in the year ahead. I hope you continue reading my modest contributions, for I fully intend to continue writing them as long as body and mind allow. I thought I would end the year with a brief discussion of one of my favorite New Year’s Eve stories—a tale that reflects that romantic/modern convention so crucial to the development of the short story—the merging of so-called “reality” and the world of fantasy/art/imagination.

E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, "A New Year's Eve Adventure," first published in German in 1816 and translated into English in the late 19th-century, is partially Hoffmann's own romantic fantasy, but it is also a satire on the convention of the lost reflection or shadow familiar in other German fantasies of the early 19th century. It is typical of Hoffman in that its realm of reality seems to hover halfway between the real world and the world of fairytale; thus the split in the central character Erasmus Spikher, both between himself and his reflection, as well as between himself and the narrator, referred to as the Travelling Enthusiast, is reflective of the duality of the world as Hoffman sees it‑‑always half actual, half imaginative, always half comic half tragic.

The basic nature of such a split is announced in the editor's foreword to the story in which the Travelling Enthusiast is described as one who cannot separate the events of his inner life from those of the outside world. Suggesting that the reader is to enter a world where he cannot determine where inner world ends and outer world begins, the editor warns the reader that in this story he will be in a strange magical realm where figures of fantasy step right into his own life.

The story opens with a convention familiar in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (who was highly influenced by Hoffmann's fiction) of the Enthusiast's sense of inexplicable fear and madness, the source of which is the fact that every New Year's Eve the Devil keeps a special treat for him. He goes to a party given by the counselor of justice and there sees Julia, a beautiful woman from his former life of love and poetry, only to discover she is married to a spindle‑shanked little creature with eyes like a frog.

Retreating from the grand party to a beer cellar, the Enthusiast meets a tall, sad man who looks like a character from a Reubens painting and a short, dried‑up‑looking fellow who has a powerful antipathy to mirrors. This second stranger has two different faces‑‑one a pleasant young man's and the other that of a demonic old man. We discover that this little man is Erasmus Spikher who has lost his reflection and that the tall man is Peter Schlemihl, the man who lost his shadow, from Adalbert Chamisso's novel of that name published in 1814. When the narrator goes to a room that night, he looks into a mirror and sees from the background of his own reflection the image of Julia, which then changes into the image of the little man, Erasmus Spikher.

The duality of the narrator and Spikher is made clear when Spikher tells him that he has lost his reflection because he earlier gave it to Julia, or Giuletta, as he calls her. When the Enthusiast awakes the next morning after having strange dreams of Julia as a demonic figure out of the paintings of Brueghel, Callot, and Rembrandt, he thinks it all must be a dream until he finds a manuscript which is "The Story of the Lost Reflection"‑‑the story of Erasmus Spikher, which is now inserted into the text and becomes the greater part of "A New Year's Eve Adventure."

This insert story begins with Spikher travelling from the cold North to the beautiful warmth of Italy. Leaving his wife to fulfill this dream, he sets off for Florence where he meets Giuletta, who looks exactly as if she were a woman from Rembrandt walking about. He immediately falls in love with her, saying he has seen her in his dreams, that he has always been in love with her, that she is his life. It is at this point that Spikher also meets the strange figure of Doctor Dapertutto and, in a madness of jealousy, kills a young Italian suitor of Giuletta. When he realizes that he must now leave her to avoid prosecution, she begs him to leave her his reflection. Spikher travels back home to his wife and child and gradually forgets Giuletta, that is, until his son and wife discover that he has no reflection and reject him as a demon. Claiming that Giuletta must now have him body and soul, he calls up Dr. Dapertutto, who tries to make him poison his wife and child. When he refuses, Giuletta tries to convince him to sign over his wife and child to Dr. Dapertutto, but this too he refuses at the last moment.

Spikher's story ends with his wife telling him to go out into the world again to see if he can track down his reflection and get it away from the Devil. Spikher follows this advice, meets with Peter Schlemihl, and plans to travel with him. The story ends with a postscript by the Travelling Enthusiast, who once again takes over the narration to tell Hoffmann, that he is completely saturated with the manifestations of this New Year's Eve and that he now believes that Julia is a picture of a siren by Rembrandt or Callot.

This is of course a story within a story--sometimes published under the title "A New Year's Eve Adventure" and sometimes published only as Spikher's insert story and entitled "The Story of the Lost Reflection." It belongs within a romantic tradition in German 19th century romanticism--a tradition of the novelle that begins with Goethe and develops in more detail with the works of Ludwig Tieck, Adalbert Chamisso, and Hoffman himself. American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul.

"A New Year's Eve Adventure" also makes use of the convention, made most famous by Goethe, of the man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, sells his soul to the Devil, and is doomed to wander eternally in search of his lost self. In this story, Hoffman makes the convention a bit more complicated by using it and by making fun of it at the same time. Thus, we have a classic romantic story of the lost self, even as we have a story that burlesques the theme. This device of parodying a convention is one of the primary ways that the short story develops historically.

The fact that the story of the Travelling Enthusiast serves as a framework for the story of Erasmus Spikher suggests that Spikher functions as a double for the Travelling Enthusiast, even as within his story we meet a character out of the fiction of Hoffman's friend Adalbert von Chamisso. The fact that a fictional character like Peter Schlemihl enters into the frame story as if he were a real character is indicative of Hoffman's innovation of integrating the world of dream, fantasy, fairy tale and psychological projection into the world of "as if" reality.

The tone of the story is one of mock seriousness, for although it seems to take place in the real world and involve real people, the events are also described as if they were the events of the fairy tale. Throughout the story, there is a sense of mocking both the Travelling Enthusiast and Spikher, both for their obsession with Juila/Giuletta and for their taking themselves so seriously.

The story draws from the fairy tale convention of the reflection or shadow as that force that divides the ego into truth and dream. And indeed this split between what is physically actual and what is an imaginative projection is both the theme and the technique of Hoffmann's story, for the style of the story itself is calculated to keep the reader off balance, never being quite sure whether he is reading a fiction that follows the conventions of realism or one that follows the conventions of the fairy tale, never being sure whether he is in the world of physical reality or in the world of pure psychological projection.

The fact that Giuletta seems to be a character out of a painting by Rembrandt or Callot suggests further that the basis for the story we are reading is the realm of the artwork. Nothing comes from external reality here; everything comes from art itself. The stories of Hoffmann mark the beginning of the Romantic insistence that reality is of the imagination only. Moreover, Hoffmann's combination of psychological realism and fairytale conventions is a key factor in the development of the short story genre in America with the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.

As I have noted in a previous blog entry, the primary contemporary artist of this short story mixture of fantasy and reality innovated by Hoffmann is Steven Millhauser; both are artists of the short story as a form that affirms the “reality of artifice.”

Happy New Year to all readers and writers of the underestimated short story form.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End-of-the Year "Best" & "Notable" Books Lists: 2011

If the annual end-of-the-year lists of “notable” or “best” “books of the year” in the various media are any indication of the health of the short story in 2011, then the paucity of short-story recommendations this December suggests that…well, what else is new?—the short story remains in the shadow of the bigger, and therefore obviously better, novel.
The only real short story winner in the “best” lists this year is Don DeLillo’s The Lady Esmeralda: Nine Stories. The first collection of a writer who has been, arguably, claimed to be American’s premier novelist, was bound to get some press. I have not yet read these stories written, perhaps to while away the time between DeLillo’s more important work over the past 32 years. I will. I will. Sometime in the next few weeks. But I am in no hurry, having found myself more than once unable to get through one of DeLillo’s “baggy monsters.”
A friend and colleague sent me a review of The Lady Esmeralda by Joe Gross, written for the Cox newspaper syndicate, which he opened by saying that to read this book “is to think it’s past time, or perhaps the exact right time, for the short story to make the comeback it richly deserves.” Well, God bless Joe Gross. I hope he is right, but will reserve judgment of course until I read the book myself.
Gross suggests that we might be moving toward a period of modern literature in which our culture has no time for anything but a “concentrated blast of meaning.” He cites Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction as being a work in which any chapter could be removed and published on its own. (As a matter of fact, most of the chapters were published as short stories on their own). I agree, and am encouraged that Egan’s book has not only won the big awards, but has also remained on the paperback bestseller lists for months. I liked Goon Squad and will try to find some time to write about its short story qualities after the first of the year.
Gross ends his review by saying DeLillo’s collection has made him ready for “shorter fiction to become common coin, for stories to be discussed with the same gravity as the novel.” I hope he is right.
In addition to The Angel Esmeralda, the New York Times lists only the following two short story collections in their list of 100 Notable Books of 2011:
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, Charles Baxter
Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories. Barry Hannah

The Washington Post lists no short story collections.

Kirkus lists only Steven Millhauser’s We Others.

The Library Journal lists only Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family.

David Ulin, of The Los Angeles Times, lists two short story collections:

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, Edith Pearlman.

You Think That’s Bad: Stories, Jim Shepard

The most frequently listed works of fiction this year were, of course, novels:

Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

The one novel I was happy to see on several lists was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which has, as I suggested in a previous blog, many short fiction characteristics.

In my opinion, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision and Steven Millhauser’s We Others are the best books of fiction of the year. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

As a final note, a brief comment on an article by John Stazinski in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets and Writers: Stazinski, who teaches writing and literature at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA, and has published in several prime places, talks a bit about a fiction workshop conducted by Grub Street, an independent center for creative writing in Boston, that he thinks should be the wave of the future—a workshop that purports to teach fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories—a task that many MFA programs steer away from because of the novel’s forbidding length.

Stazinzki says the Grub Street experiment raises some “uncomfortable questions” for MFA programs across the country, arguing that although the short story may be a “great pedagogical device for teaching certain aspects of fiction writing,” “no one dreams of writing the Great American Short Story Collection” and every MFA candidate knows that when publishers want fiction, they want a novel.

The difference between a novel and a short story, says Stazinski, is like the difference between a symphony and a country song. The difference between constructing a short story and a novel is like the difference between “building a rowboat and building a yacht.” He quotes approvingly William Giraldi’s essay in Rumpus, who says the novel is as different from a collection of stories “as a truck is from a tricycle.” Lord, how I hate these glib comparisons which consider only at the external size of the work and not the difference between their narrative ways of exploring what we so casually take to be “reality!”

Stazinzki concludes that the Grub Street folks at Boson may have found a whole new way for novelists to workshop. If this is true, if MFA programs begin teaching fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories, there may indeed be important implications for the future of the short story. It is probably true that most of the writers devoting a great deal of time to the short story nowadays are MFA students, and it is often the case that their first books are collections of stories workshopped in MFA classes (books in which the writing was good enough for publishers to take a chance on if they promised that their second book would be a novel.) One of the basic differences between the novel and the short story is that the writing on the crucial sentence level is usually better in a short story than in the novel. What’s going to happen if MFA programs begin to focus more on the macrocosmic structure of the novel and ignore the microcosmic structure of the short story? More on this in the New Year.

I apologize for neglecting this blog in the past few weeks. I have been reading a great deal, but reading in the relaxed atmosphere of my family—in an easy chair in front of a fire rather than hunched over my computer in my cold study. I will return to my more regular posting in January—commenting on what I have been reading, replying to the comments I have received about my planned new book, and responding to the poll of readers about a possible name for that book.

Have a wonderful holiday, whatever you celebrate!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How-to-Read Books and New Book on Reading Short Stories

Today, Wednesday, November 16, 2011, is the third anniversary of this blog—“Reading the Short Story.” In that three-year period I have posted over 160 brief essays on various aspects of short story theory and criticism, and on many different short story writers, short story collections, and individual short stories. I hope to continue posting essays at least once a week. But now that I have completed editing work on the new Critical Insights: Alice Munro book, I am itching to begin a new publishing project. Although I am no believer in such things, a few days ago, a newspaper horoscope provided the following Aquarian encouragement:

“You’re not sure you have the energy to dive into a project, but dive you will. You have a feeling that your adrenaline reserves will kick in when you need them most—and you’re right!” Can the stars be wrong?

So, here’s what I have in mind. I have always believed that although the short story is a “natural” form, it is at the same time a form of high “artifice.” That is, although it probably began with the basic human urge to relate something some strange that happened or to illustrate some significant idea, it has a long tradition of developing certain literary conventions that make reading a short story a different experience than reading a novel. In my opinion, the form is not popular because often the general reader, not knowing its conventions of artifice, tries unsuccessfully to read it the same way he or she reads a novel. Furthermore, I have always believed that academic readers—students and teachers alike—have undervalued and largely ignored the form because in their focus on what they consider to be the more complex and comprehensive novel, they do not understand or appreciate how short stories uniquely capture ambiguous human reality.

So what I would like to write is a book that is accessible to the popular reader, acceptable to the professional reader, and meets the approval of the short story writer--a bridge between general readers and academic readers. Based on my forty years of reading, teaching, and writing about the short story, the book would offer suggestions I have found helpful for reading the short story with pleasure and understanding--in short, a “how to” book for readers that would stimulate their interest in the short story—a daunting task. Virginia Woolf opened her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” (Common Reader, Second Series) cautioning that the only advice one person can give another about reading is “to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” She says she aims to put forth a few suggestions about reading, confident that her readers will not allow such suggestions to “fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” However, “to enjoy freedom,” Woolf wisely adds in a final reminder, “we have of course to control ourselves.”

I hope the book I begin to write this week embodies just the right blend of freedom and control to encourage both general and professional readers to read the short story with appreciation and understanding. The first aspect of the book on which I seek the advice of my own readers is what to name it, since titles can either attract or affront. “How to Read a Short Story” seems a bit pretentious and somewhat condescending. “Reading the Short Story,” which is the title of this blog, makes an assumption that there is such a genre as “the” short story, rather than merely lots of stories that happen to be short. “Reading Short Stories” sounds too casual on the one hand or too much like a text anthology on the other. How Does a Short Story Mean?—after John Ciardi’s famous How Does a Poem Mean? sounds a bit too academic. And I sure don’t want to call it, How To Read a Short Story Like a Professor. I would like to create a book for the educated general reader as well as the student and professional reader, which can serve as “A Guide for People Who Love Short Stories and For Those Who Want to Write Them”—to echo Francine Prose subtitle for her Reading Like a Writer.

Over the next several months as I work on this book, I plan to post on this blog my progress and my problems; I sincerely solicit your advice at all stages of its composition. Initially, I ask you to choose on the sidebar poll what you think is the best name for the book.

As a first step in writing such a book, I did a fairly thorough search of other books that suggest “how to read.” Tom Lutz did a helpful survey of such books back in 2007; you can find it at:

Lutz points out that whereas the “how-to-read” genre has been around since Noah Porter published “Books and Reading, or What Books Shall I Read and How Should I Read Them?” in 1871, there is something odd, though, about the latest slough of anti-academic books offering to teach us “how to read, since they are primarily written by academics “But perhaps it is because most of these books are only masquerading as guides to reading. What each really offers is a series of explications of famous passages, much like, well, academic criticism.”

Below is my own list of “how to read” books, most of which you can find also in Lutz’s article. I would like to weave my way through this thicket, making use of the best of them and avoiding, of course, the worse. I am no famous author and thus cannot arouse interest by luxuriating in personal anecdotes and autobiography. I am no high-powered critic who writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times, or The Times Literary Supplement, who can wander with scholarly ease through a wide range of worldly reading. I would like to write a book that aspiring writers and aspiring teachers would find useful, but at the same time, I have no authority to write a “guide for writers” and no desire to put together a standard college textbook.

I do not plan to submit a formal proposal to publishers until I have the book outlined and at least one chapter completed I have no illusions about how difficult it will be to find a publisher who thinks a book on how to read short stories will sell well enough to justify its publication. After all, few publishers think the form generates enough interest to publish books of short stories, unless the author promises a novel. But I plan to write the book anyway. Wish me luck!

How-To-Read Books

Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, 1940. This is a classic book on reading in general. Clifton Fadiman, writing in The New Yorker, said it was the only “self-improvement book” he has ever read that did not make him “want to go out and start improving things by assassinating the author.” That, of course is often the problem with “how-to” books: People are put off by someone daring to suggest that they need to be taught something they already know.

I. A. Richards. How to Read a Page, 1942. Subtitled “a course in efficient reading with an introduction to 100 great works,” the word “efficient” certainly does not suggest speed reading, skimming, or summarizing, but rather what is often discredited now as “close reading” by the great British literary critic and semanticist.

Harold Bloom. How to Read and Why, 2000. One of Bloom’s major arguments about contemporary criticism is that ideology, “particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading.” Irony, says Bloom, “demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise…. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you to blaze forth as the scholar of one candle.”

Thomas C. Foster. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, 2003. Foster argues that the professor of literature has acquired over the years a “language of reading,” a “grammar of literature, a set of conventions, patterns, codes and rules” he or she uses when reading literature. He says that memory, symbol, pattern are the three items that separate the professional reader from the “rest of the crowd” and that what he hopes to do in the book is to “give readers a view of what goes on when professional students of literature do their thing, a broad introduction to the codes and patterns that inform our reading.” Foster is a little too chatty and informal for my tastes. I cringe when he says, “By now I’ve beaten you severely about the head and shoulders with the notion that literature grows out of other literature” or uses the word “natch” as short for naturally.

Caroline Gordon, How to Read a Novel, 1957. Gordon says that since the novel is “different from any other form of art, if we are to become good readers of fiction, we must learn to recognize and in our own minds define this essential difference.” Gordon says up front that her concern is with the “general reader” and that her book is an attempt to answer two questions: “What is a novel?” and “How Should It Be Read?” Gordon includes fairly conventional chapters on setting, point of view, etc.

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006. Sutherland complains about information overload, suggesting that there is so much out there that we cannot know what we should read. “How can we identify the 10 percent, or less, of fiction available that is not crap”? Sutherland spends a lot of time talking about modern market techniques and longing for the Victorian good old days. He is genial in a British scholar sort of way, but doesn’t really talk very cogently about what his title promises.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, 2005. Smiley says the most obvious hallmark of novels is length and that the form was invented to be long because “what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable.” The characters or the narrator’s voice or the author’s way of thinking becomes something the reader wants to continue to experience. “In a novel, length is always a promise, never a threat.” Smiley also says that the “most important essential characteristic of the novel that arises out of its structure, out of the combination of narrative ad length, is that it is inherently political.” By this, she means that since the reader knows it is highly implausible that a single human mind has no social context, inevitably the subject of any novel “comes to be the coexistence of the protagonist and his group.” Smiley includes chapters on the history of the novel, the psychology of the novel, a case history of her own novel Good Faith, and a brief synopsis and commentary of 100 novels. This is a big book—almost 600 pages—with lots of personal anecdotes.

Nancy C. Millett and Helen J. Throckmorton, How to Read a Short Story, 1969. This is a small textbook in which Millett and Throckmorton, two professors at Wichita State University discuss the basic elements of fiction—theme, character, plot, symbolism, and irony—including stories to illustrate them—Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Chekhov’s “The Wager,” Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Portable Phonograph,” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” For each “element” and each story, they point out what they call “clues” to discovering theme, character, plot, etc.

John Ciardi and Miller Williams, How Does a Poem Mean, 1975. This is a classic textbook anthology that includes a number of poems along with Ciardi’s commentary on them.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem, 1999. Hirsch makes generalizations about poetry, explicates specific poems, and quotes critiques and writers. He says an exemplary poem teaches you how to read it. However, he laments that so many people have become estranged from the devices and techniques of poetry and poetic thinking that reading poetry is an endangered activity, maybe, he says, because reading itself is endangered in our culture. The book includes a glossary and a list of suggested reading.

James Wood, How Fiction Works, 2008. By fiction, Wood primarily means the novel. However, he redeems himself in my mind by pointing out that two of his favorite twentieth-century critics are the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky and the French formalist-cum-structuralist Roland Barthes. Wood likes these critics because, being formalists, “they thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery.” However, Wood says, unlike Shklovsky and Barthes, he does not wish to present himself as a specialist writing for other specialists. Although he says he hopes to ask theoretical questions he wants to answer them practically.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, 2006. Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences. Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern; it is thus not surprising that she more often cites short stories rather than novels to illustrate stylistic excellence and to explain formal strategies.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steven Millhauser and The Reality of Artifice

I had just finished reading Steven Millhauser’s new book, We Others: New and Selected Stories, when I received my copy of Best American Short Stories, 2011, which reprinted his story “Phantoms,” from McSweeneys. And then, son-of-a-gun, in came the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker with his story “Miracle Polish.” As was said of the ubiquitous Mr. Browne in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Millhauser has of late been “laid on like the gas.” That’s all right by me. Steven Millhauser is always a welcome guest in my mind.

We Others includes fourteen stories from Millhauser’s previous four collections (In the Penny Arcade, 1986; The Barnum Museum, 1990; The Knife Thrower, 1998; and Dangerous Laughter, 2008. It also includes seven “new” stories: “The Slap,” “The White Glove,” “Getting Closer,” The Invasion from Outer Space,” “People of the Book,” “The Next Thing,” and the novella-length title story “We Others.”

The Millhauser story chosen for the 2011 Best American Short Stories, “Phantoms,” is also a ghost story, in which Millhauser explores one his favorite “romantic” concepts—that there is another dimension of reality surrounding us, a dimension of spirits of those who have died. “Phantoms” is made up of various “case studies” in which these spirits appear to people, interspersed with various hypotheses or explanations of what they are. For example, one explanation is that the phantoms are “the unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves.” Given Millhauser’s “romantic” view of reality, perhaps his favorite hypothesis is that we are all phantoms, that our bodies are artificial constructs of our brains and we are dream creations. “The world itself is a great seeming.”

Millhauser’s most recent story in the new issue of The New Yorker, “Miracle Polish,” is a “concept” stories that draws on nineteenth-century German romantic notions, which Millhauser has used before. For example, in his story “August Eschenburg,” he explores Heinrich von Kleist’s paradoxical notion that, from the perspective of art, the automaton is preferable to the human--a concept most fully developed in Kleist's dialogue, "On the Puppet Theatre," in which a famous dancer tells Kleist that puppets are better able to express grace and beauty in their motions than human beings because they have no choice but to obey mechanical principles; the more that the human element of the puppeteer can be removed, the more perfect the dance the puppets perform.

The purest form of grace exists, says the dancer, only in those who either have no consciousness or those who have infinite consciousness--either the puppet or God. When Kleist responds that this theory suggests that we must eat from the tree of knowledge once again and then fall back into a state of innocence, the dancer replies, "by all means...that is the last chapter in the history of the world." Critic Robert Langbaum has suggested that this is the central myth of romantic literature: the psychologized and secular version of the myth of the Fall, for the Fall to the romantics is indeed a fall into consciousness. For Kleist, says Langbaum, art becomes the back door to Eden, in that art delivers us from self-consciousness through ritual. And indeed it is ritual rather than self-consciousness that characterizes Kleist's fiction.

Nineteenth-century German Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” is a story within a story which is sometimes published only with the insert story and entitled "The Story of the Lost Reflection." Erasmus Spikher is a man who has lost his reflection; another character in the story, Peter Schlemihl, who lost his shadow, is from Adalbert Chamisso's novel of that name published in 1814. These stories belongs within a romantic tradition in German nineteenth-century Romanticism-- a tradition of the novelle that begins with Goethe and develops in more detail with the works of Ludwig Tieck, Adalbert Chamisso, and Hoffman himself.

American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure which is based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul. The stories of Hoffmann mark the beginning of the Romantic insistence that reality is of the imagination only. Moreover, Hoffmann's combination of psychological realism and fairytale conventions is a key factor in the development of the short story genre in America with the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Such a transition is part of that major shift in the nineteenth century that critic M. H. Abrams says characterizes the basic concepts and patterns of romantic philosophy and art, that is, as displaced and reconstituted theology or as a secularized form of devotional experience. The resulting basic tendency of the romantic revolution is to naturalize the supernatural and humanize the divine.

Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” begins in traditional folklore fashion: A stranger comes to the door with something for sale called “Miracle Polish.” When the protagonist buys a bottle of the polish and shines his mirror with it, he seems to see himself differently: “There was a freshness to my body, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before… What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, man who expected things of life.” This transformation becomes an obsession with him, and he polishes all the mirrors in his house and buys many more mirrors to polish and hang so that everywhere he turns he sees his transformed self. However, when he tries to involve the woman with whom he has a relationship in his mirror obsession, she accuses him of preferring the woman in the mirror to her actual physical self.

As in many other Millhauser stories, “Miracle Polish” is a metaphorical exploration of the Platonic notion that underlies all romanticism—the reality of artifice. The narrator’s sense of growing obsession is typical of the romantic short story that gave birth to the form in the early nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects. W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person. Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane. However, the repudiation of "reality" as being only everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on. Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire is true reality.

Millhauser is motivated by the same obsessions that drove William Blake--to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Best American Short Stories 2011

In her Introduction to The Best American Short Stories: 2011, Geraldine Brooks admits that when she read the 120 stories preselected and sent to her by series editor Heidi Pitlor, she was more than a little overwhelmed by her task of picking the top twenty, asking, “And who was I, anyway, to be making this call? I who had never written a short story.”

And readers who have followed this series faithfully for many years might well ask why the series has been picking writers who know little or nothing about short stories to be guest editor, for example, Richard Russo in 2010 and Alice Sebold in 2009.

It does not appear that such big-name novelists on the cover have done much to attract reviews for the series. I searched all the standard newspaper and periodical databases and could only find three or four, e.g. short notes in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews, and a notice in the Chicago Tribune, primarily because the book features a story by Rebecca Makkai, a Chicago native (her fourth straight appearance in the series!). I reckon the book is selling fairly decently though; it was recently listed at about #1,000 on Amazon. That’s not bad, considering that Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is running at around #3,000 on the Amazon list.

I do not intend to offer extended comments on the twenty stories this year, but will simply indicate why I liked some of the stories and did not like others. One of the things I like best about this series (and the PEN/O. Henry Award series also) is that they often introduce me to writers I might have otherwise missed, since I simply cannot subscribe to all the journals that originally published their stories. Seven of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS originally appeared in The New Yorker and one appeared in Harper’s, both to which I do subscribe. However, without the BASS, I might have missed Megan Mayhew Bergman’s story “Housewifely Arts,” which appeared in One Story and Ehud Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan,” which appeared in Triquarterly.

I was hooked by Bergman’s story when the narrator said she was driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach “so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring through the beak of a thirty-six-year old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.” Bergman is a witty writer who makes me laugh, but who sneaks up on me with a serious story about the complexity of a woman’s relationship to her mother, joking her way to a final admission of a discovered truth about “what maniacs we are—sick with love, all of us.”

Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan” is a perfect example of my conviction that short stories have to be read slowly and attentively or not at all. I started this story three times, determined to read it because it was based on my of my favorite stories of all times, Chekhov’s “Lady with a Pet Dog,” but it kept fading away from me. I am glad I did not give up, for it is a very delicate story about a man who has reached that age when he must painfully realize that he is not what he once thought he was. The central male character, Sokolov, is the one with the dog in this story, an old dog having a helluva time with his bowels. The Chekhov allusion is to the crucial moment in “Pet Dog” when, after seducing Anna, Gurov pauses to eat a slice of melon. It is a moment that Havazelet rightly points out that Chekov does so well---“a moment where nothing seems to happen but yet everything has changed.” Yes, indeed.

The 100 stories that Brooks did not pick from the 120 that Pitlor selected from approximately 4,000 she somehow managed to read are listed at the back of the book. So the twenty presumably “Best American Short Stories” we have in this year’s book have been “chosen” three times—once by the editor who originally published them, then by Pitlor, and finally by Brooks. Of course, the finally twenty reflect each editor’s notion of what “best” means.

Brooks admits up front that she looks “sideways at short stories, like a nervy horse at an unknown rider. I wasn’t quite sure how they worked.” Then she relates a little anecdote of being at a literary event at which a group of writers took turns telling jokes; the best jokester, she said, turned out to be Richard Bausch, a master of the short story—no coincidence Brooks suggests, since “The best short stories and the most successful jokes have a lot in common…in the joke and the short story, the beginning and end are precisely anchored tent poles, and what lies between must pull so taut it twangs.”

As a result if Brooks’ notion of the relationship between the joke and the short story—not a bad comparison actually, that is, for a certain kind of short story—results in this year’s volume focusing more than usual on, well, a certain kind of short story that Brooks likes: stories with clever, witty, funny writing, e.g. the stories by Bergman, Egan, Goodman, Horrocks, Lipsyte, Nuila, Saunders; and stories with snappy endings, like a punch line, e.g. Englander, Johnston, Row.

The result is that this is an entertaining, very accessible, readable collection, with only a few stories that are complexly and humanly challenging. You really don’t have to read these stories twice; they are funny, clever, witty, transparent, conceptual, satiric, etc. That’s all well and good and may be just the thing to get folks back to reading short stories. I hope so.

Writers in this collection whose work I know well include the following, some of which I enjoyed, some of which I found passing fair, some of which I thought ordinary, but passed the time of day.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Ceiling” failed to interest me much. Too much dependent on social change in Nigerian society, with a relatively weak “lost love” story stringing the social issues together.

Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body” is a chapter from her best-selling A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I have read and enjoyed, but this is not my favorite story from that collection of stories parading as a novel. I liked it better in the book because it provided a context for these characters that the stand-alone story does not provide.

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a fable/folkloric story about what is capable of in order to survive in brutal situations. Like the stories in Englander’s well-received collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges several years ago, this story is an effective combination of the rough-edged and the smoothed-out. I feel about this one the same way I did about Englander’s earlier tales: I liked them, but felt sheepishly as if I had allowed myself to be manipulated by a slick storyteller.

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” is another slick, smooth, “a-little-to-clever-for-my tastes” tale that seems to exist primarily as an opportunity for Goodman to just “fool around” a bit while not writing a novel.

I wrote about Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” when it appeared in The New Yorker. I like this story very much, not only because it makes me long to be back in Ireland, but because it captures so delicately and authentically the mystery of family secrets and childhood vulnerability.

I am a great fan of Steven Millhauser. I just recently read and reviewed his We Others: New and Selected Stories, and he has a new story in the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker. I will discuss the story in BASS, “Phantoms,” his new story, and some of the stories in WE Others in a separated blog entry next week.

As anyone who knows me at all knows, I am not a great fan of Joyce Carol Oates. I have written about why I am not a fan on this blog before. This story, “”ID,” inspired by her having to id her husband’s body, is too routinely “Joyce Carol Oates transforming every thing in her life into a story” for me. I read it when it came out in the New Yorker and have remarked on it in an earlier blog.

I like the stories of George Saunders and have read all of them, although the satiric short story is not my favorite type. In this story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” as usual, Saunders has an interesting intellectual/social concept in mind, and he certainly knows how to transform a concept into a story. He is always fun to read; I never miss an opportunity to read a new Saunders story.

I have only recently discovered the stories of Mark Souka and have commented him on this blog recently. In “The Hare’s Mask,” he creates a tight little story about a father’s childhood when he discovered violence and learned compassion. This is a classic, well-made story with a stinger in its tale—not a trick ending, but a discovery ending that creates a nice little surprise for the reader.

Similarly, Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Soldier of Fortune,” whose stories in his collection Corpus Christi I have read and liked, is a story with an ending that, while not totally unexpected, is satisfying because of the way Johnston paces the story so carefully to lead up to it.

The other stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories did not, for various reasons, capture my attention, compel me into thought, or otherwise make me want to read more of the same. I will probably soon forget Tom Bissell’s self-absorbed “A Bridge Under Water,” Caitlin Horrocks’s clever satire “The Sleep,” Sam Lipsyte’s boys-playing-games “The Dungeon Master,” Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property,” Ricardo Nuila’s “Dog Bites,” Richard Powers “To the Measures Fall,” and Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood.” As for Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” I think I will go back to the last three BASS collections and read her other stories before commenting on her work. To have four stories in a row in the series is, if not a record, at least worthy of note.

All in all, this year’s Best American Short Stories is a collection that I read with mostly “pop” pleasure. It introduced me to at least three writers that I intend to seek out and read again and it gave me an opportunity to return to several writers that I have enjoyed in the past. For the $10 to $15 price tag (depending on where you buy it), it is a real fiction-reading bargain. I always recommend it highly, even when I don’t agree with the choices of the guest editor.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" and the Importance of Genre

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, published in a whopping 128-page hardcover (with lots of white space) by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux two months ago, originally appeared, according to the book’s copyright page “in a slightly different form” in the Paris Review in 2002. The story only took up about 50 pages in the O. Henry Prize Stories: 2003 (where I first read it). It was chosen by O. Henry jurors Jennifer Egan and David Gutterson as their “favorite” of the 20 stories in the volume (Juror Diane Johnson chose A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest” as her favorite.”)

The Library Journal review said that Johnson “has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length” and Publishers’ Weekly praised Johnson’s “epic sensibilities rendered in miniature.” So, one might ask, what is a “miniature epic?” Aren’t those two terms contradictory? And why is Train Dreams a novella rather than a short story or a novel? Often these generic terms are a matter of marketing. For example, Jennifer Egan’s very successful book A Visit from the Goon Squad is marketed on its cover very prominently as a “novel.” However, I read it as a collection of short stories. Any time a writer puts together a collection of stories with some links--ala Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, e.g., a shared place or shared characters--publishers are eager to label it a novel and critics are eager to discuss it as a short story-cycle.

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have read my blog even occasionally over the past three years that I have little patience with attempts by the publishing industry to try to make the short story more appealing or the academic industry to make it more worthy of discussion by calling individual stories (like those of Alice Munro) “novelistic, or by calling a collection of stories a “composite novel.” As for what Henry James called the “blest nouvelle,” the kind of fictional narrative that lies in length somewhere in between the “world in a grain of sand” that is the short story and the “bulky monster” that is the novel, I think it is a closer relative to the short story than to the novel. I posted a blog on that form in January 2010, in which I tried to lay out the characteristics that distinguished it both from the short story and the novel.

Many readers and critic may very well argue that such generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah. Whereas publishers will probably say that terminology matters a great deal to how they market their books of fiction, I would argue that it matters a great deal in terms of what kind of experience readers are in for when they pick up a book called “short stories,” “a novella,” or “a novel.” On this point, I would quote again what I cited in my earlier blog on the novella: I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding, or misjudging, it entirely.

Genre is, for me, an important issue because knowing the “kind” of story we read establishes a certain “horizon of expectations” that guides our reading. Certainly, a great writer will not merely follow the conventions of a genre, for then we would call him or her a “genre” writer, the way, for example, Stephen King is a genre writer. Certainly, a great writer will often defeat our expectations, thus extending our previous understanding of what kind of story we are reading. On the other hand, a great writer will seldom completely ignore the tradition from which he or she draws.

Many reviewers have already noted the importance of the genre issue when reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. For example, in his comments on why he chose the story as his favorite in the O. Henry volume, David Gutterson reminds us that the short story does indeed have a tradition, from Poe and Gogol to Borges and George Saunders; he places “Train Dreams in a line of descent that includes tall tales, supernatural yarns, and magical realism—a homage to Bret Harte. He says he admires Johnson’s “skilful blending of forms and traditions.” “Is it a short story?” Gutterson asks. “That’s difficult to say. Perhaps there’s no longer such a category.” Gutterson admires Johnson’s attention to detail in the story, but says its greater power lies in “its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy.”

Jennifer Egan also calls attention to the “density of historical detail in the story,” but adds that the story’s “real power lies in its mystery, its reluctance to reveal itself. What is this about?” she says she kept asking herself as she read. David Ulin’s review in The Los Angeles Times also focuses on the key generic issue of the book, calling it a “stoic miniature,” a “portrait of containment, of compression and restraint.” Ulin says that although Johnson evokes the stuff of novels--“the slow passage of time from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul,” he thinks Johnson has something more “elusive in mind, something more fundamental and intense.” What the books evokes, says Ulin, is “the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can’t decipher what it means.” And this, as I have suggested many times in this blog, is the sense of the spiritual that has always been the special realm of the short story and the novella.

Anthony Doerr’s review in The New York Times isolates the generic source of the story’s power most incisively. Doerr says he read the story almost ten years ago when it first appeared in The Paris Review and has read it several times sense. Like Jennifer Egan and others, he has said that the story seems to haunt one long after it is read. He attributes this haunting power to the story’s brevity, citing Poe’s famous statement that, second only to poetry, the form most advantageous for the manifestation of the highest genius was the “short prose narrative” that one could read in one sitting. Novels, Poe felt were objectionable because they necessitated taking breaks in the reading, with “worldly interests” intervening that “modify, annul or counteract” the impressions of the work. Doerr emphasizes that short stories and novellas “offer a chance to affect readers more deeply” than novels because the reader “can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience,” giving them, in Poe’s words, “the immense force derivable from totality.”

James Wood’s reading of the story in The New Yorker is less incisive that those of Ulin and Doerr, but he also finds himself caught in two different realm of reality in “Train Dreams.” First there is what he calls a kind of “clean American simplicity in prose” reminiscent of Hemingway, but he complains that sometimes one longs to “bathe in impurities” of a more abundant style. In other words, he thinks “Train Dreams” is a bit too short, “as if the protagonist’s lack of inwardness were itself a literary virtue.” Doerr, on the other hand, while praising the story’s brevity, complains that occasionally “tufts of seemingly irrelevant material stick out here and there.” But Doerr suggests that the story’s “imperfections somehow make the experience better, more real, more absorbing.” James Wood is able to forgive the clipped style reflective of the protagonist’s unreflective view of the world by noting that his spiritual visions “seem fit compensation for the unreflective, bounded, wordless, and bookless solitude of his existence.”

So what makes Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” work and what makes recognizing its genre as a “blessed nouvelle” important for the reading experience? Just this blend of Poe-like spiritual visions and Chekhov-like precise detail and language. Just this combination of the realistic and the supernatural, the sacred and the profane. Just this seamless linking (and blurring of that line) of the stuff of everyday reality and the stuff of that mysterious world that always exists in our dreams. In short, just the permutation that the short story and its close generic relative, the novella, have always made their own. Go back and re-read Gogol and Turgenev, Poe and Borges. Reread what has been called the “nightmares at noonday” in the stories of Ernest Hemingway. Read Steven Millhauser and Alice Munro. Read Joy Williams, Edith Pearlman, William Trevor, and many more great short story writers. They will all remind you of the importance of the generic tradition of the “short prose narrative” and how Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” both confirms and expands that tradition.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: Critical Insights

As a result of her tenacious adherence to an unfamiliar narrative genre and an esoteric complex of theological themes, few twentieth-century fiction writers seem more in need of interpretation and analysis than Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor knew from the beginning of her career that both her method and her message would be bewildering to many readers. When editor John Selby, expecting a traditional novel, balked at the manuscript of Wise Blood, O’Connor, convinced that the quality of her fiction would derive precisely from the peculiarities to which he objected, cancelled her contract, declaring that she had no intention of writing a conventional novel.

Several years later, fully aware that she was often trying to communicate with many who did not share her religious beliefs, justified her shocking characters and their outrageous actions by insisting that to the hard of hearing, you had to shout and to the almost blind you had to drawn “large and startling figures.” She made no apologies that the subject of her fiction was always “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”

O’Connor always liked short stories. The author she cites as the earliest influence on her desire to write was the first theorist and self-conscious practitioner of the form in America, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter in 1955, she said that as a child she read a lot of slop, but following the “Slop Period,” was the Edgar Allan Poe period, which lasted for years. Later in her career, however, she recognized that her true precursor was Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1961, she told John Hawkes, “I think I would admit to writing what Hawthorne called ‘romances’…. Hawthorne interests me considerably. I feel more of a kinship with him than with any other American.” In her essays and talks, her many reviews, and her letters, O’Connor often affirmed her commitment to the short story and to the romance form out of which it developed and with which it has always been aligned.

She knew that the style and narrative technique demanded by the short story was quite different than that expected in the novel. She once said, “I believe that it takes a rather different type of disposition to write novels than to write short stories, granted that both require fundamentally fictional talents.” In a good short story, she argued, “certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action.” In response to the question, “What is a Short Story?” she insisted that it is not a joke, an anecdote, a lyrical rhapsody in prose, a case history, or a reported incident, for it has an “extra dimension” that occurs when the writer puts us in the middle of some “human action and shows it as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery.” In every story, O’Connor insisted, there is some “minor revelation which, no matter how funny the story may be, gives us a hint of the unknown, of death.”

Flannery O’Connor knew that there are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story in general, and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in particular, more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

As Flannery O’Connor knew well, the short story has always remained close to the folk tale, the ballad, the romance, and the mythic forms that constitute the very source of narrative. If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material world, then the short story creates a similitude of a different realm of reality, that reality of the sacred which Mircea Eliade says primitive man saw as true reality. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories attempt to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. The short story form is, as Flannery O’Connor knew throughout her short life, closer to the nature of "reality" as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of the everyday life, those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our ordinary categories of perception.

This volume is an effort to introduce O’Connor to a new generation of readers by including twelve previously published essays that clarify her religious ideas, her narrative technique, her use of humor, and the regional and social context of her fiction, and four original essays commissioned especially for this volume that make significant new contributions to the understanding and appreciation of her work.

In 2009, more than 10,000 people cast ballots for what they considered to be the best book of fiction among all the National Book Award winners in its history. Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories was the winner. Although such numbers do not speak louder than words, especially the words of Flannery O’Connor, they would surely make that wise and wonderful writer shake her head in wry amusement.

For further information about the volume, go to:

Critical Insights: Flannery O'Connor: Table of Contents

”About This Volume,” Charles E. May

Career, Life, and Influence
On Flannery O'Connor and the Short Story/Romance Tradition, Charles E. May
Biography of Flannery O'Connor, Charles E. May
The Paris Review Perspective, Paul Elie for The Paris Review

Critical Contexts
Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Story, Susan Srigley
The "Christ-Haunted" South: Contextualizing Flannery O'Connor, John Hayes
Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, and the Writer's "True Country," Avis Hewitt
Flannery O'Connor: Critical Reception, Irwin H. Streight

Critical Readings

"Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy," Arthur F. Kinney

"Flannery O'Connor's 'Spoiled Prophet'," T. W. Hendricks

"Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil," John Desmond

"'Wingless Chickens': "Good Country People" and the Seduction of Nihilism," Henry T. Edmondson III

"'Through Our Laughter We Are Involved': Bergsonian Humor in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," J. P. Steed

"Carnival in the `Temple': Flannery O'Connor's Dialogic Parable of Artistic Vocation," Denise T. Askin

"Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women," Peter A. Smith

"The Domestic Dynamics of Flannery O'Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge," Bryant N. Wyatt

"'The Artificial Nigger' and the Redemptive Quality of Suffering," Richard Giannone

"Wise Blood: O'Connor's Romance of Alienation," Ronald Emerick

"From Manners to Mystery: Flannery O'Connor's Titles," Marie Lienard

"Called to the Beautiful: The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," Christina Bieber

Chronology of Flannery O'Connor's Life
Works by Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

David Means' "El Morro"--Literary Quest for the Sacred

My thanks to Dex and Phillip for responding to my last post about entertainment stories vs. literary stories. Dex suggests that the literary story may be one of the last remnants of modernism. Lorrie Moore has, I think rightly, pointed out, that now “the commercial slick story has largely died out, the stories we are left with are almost always all serious art.” The fact that short stories do not sell well and thus that publishers are reluctant to take them on--unless they come with the promise of a novel--is due to the public shift to other media for narrative entertainment. And once the short story is no longer sought after for simple entertainment, it either dies out, or for better or worse, is relegated to the realms of art. Whether cause or effect, it seems clear, as John Updike has suggested, “Short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines.”

I appreciate Phillip’s Virginia Woolf citation about reading Chekhov’s stories and feeling “at first” as if the solid ground had been dislodged from under us, leaving us dangling in mid air with unanswered questions. One of America’s finest short story writers, Joy Williams, says that short story writers love the dark and are always fumbling around in it. “The writer,” says Williams, doesn’t want to “disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.” And the greatest short story writer of the twentieth century, Alice Munro, says, “I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations.” Amy Hempel agrees that she doesn’t like having anything spelled out, but insists, that mystery is not mere vagueness. “Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.” John Edgar Wideman adds: “Stories that don’t acknowledge the mystery at the center of things, don’t challenge the vision of reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day, are stories that disappear swiftly into the ever-present buzz of entertainment.”

The most common characteristic the literary short story shares with the lyric poem, Herbert Gold argues, is that they both tend to “control and formalize experience.” However, this very characteristic, according to British writer James Lasdun, is one of the reasons many readers don’t care for the short story. Lasdun suggests that short stories do not sell well because the genre demands an interest in form more than the novel does, and “people do not seem so interested in form these days.” The literary short story’s emphasis on language and form rather than on content is, of course, one of the primary characteristics of what we loosely call “modernism,” which, as that great short story writer Donald Barthelme reminds us, begins with Flaubert, who changed the emphasis from the what to the how—a shift that is not merely formalism and not at all superficial, insists Barthelme, but rather an “attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one at that.” As Flaubert himself so emphatically proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot. When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.” And no less emphatically, Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”

That the short story is a modernist genre embodying Flaubert’s ideal is a prevalent authorial conviction. Harold Brodkey recites the familiar modernistic mantra about the short story this way: “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “ I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Hempel’s fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg agrees, noting, in classic Flaubert fashion, that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.” And David Means--that brilliant short story writer who after four collections, still fends off his publisher’s demand for a novel—says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.” This deeply mysterious, yet tangible something—what Donald Barthelme calls “rigorous truth”—is related to the formal nature of the short story, which communicates by pattern rather than by explanation or by mimesis.

David Means’ most recent story, “El Morro,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 29, 20011, may be puzzling to many readers because it communicates, as most literary short stories do, more by thematic pattern than it does by character and plot. Consequently, if readers respond to the characters as if they were ordinary real people in the everyday world and to the action as if it merely pointed to actual events in that everyday world, then they may ask, as one blogger expressed it, “What the f**k is this story about?”

The first thing one notices in the story is the repetition of references to the sacred-- beginning with Lenny, the central character, talking about a goddess who lived in a lake, back when it was freshwater.” He says the natives make “pilgrimages” to what is now a muddy hole, dip leaves in the brine (for it has turned to salt water) and “lick them the way you lick a lollipop.” (Lenny will come back to this story of the salt lake later.) The girl, who is unnamed, determines four main things that form the “litany” of Lenny’s thinking.” 1. drugs, 2. native culture, 3. birds, 4. her story. He talks of the Zuni Pueblo tribe, altering history to make them “worshippers” of deep pits, navels. He talks about a “holy” seer named Don Juan, not the fake one who helped Carlos Castaneda, but a true “visionary.”

One of Lenny’s key obsessions is hawks and falcons, which can spot a prey ten miles up and dive for it. “You’d be hard pressed to know which side of the story to look at, because it all meets up right there when the bird hits the prey and the prey, which wasn’t anything, man, becomes something, for a second, at least, and then suddenly it’s nothing but a half-dead carcass being lifted into the sky.”

He has told her about his brother who was killed in the early days of the Iraq war by a wayward U.S. Air Force Missile. “At least for a split second, he knew what was going to hit him, man. You always know what’s going to hit you. Maybe for only a sliver of a second. But you still know. Every second, there’s a missile ready to strike you in the head.” This notion of a sudden assault by an invisible force reoccurs later in the story, becoming a repeated thematic pattern.

Lenny prefers the story he invents to the events lying out there to be reported. He makes up a story for the girl from the few details she had given him back in California. One of the stories she tells is about her friend Kimberly who, one day near the stables in Griffith Park, told her a story of being somewhere in Utah when a “dervish” appears and tells her a story. It is a fable about a guy walking in the desert who comes upon a horse and a dog talking. The dog says he does not want to hear about running free and eating wild grass, but is waiting to be told about hunting a rabbit and tearing meat from a bone. The horse says he is sick of blood and gore and wants to hear about wild clover. The man interrupts and says “Meat and grass. What’s the difference? The function of each is to give you life. Without that function, you’re just bones.” Both animals turn on the man, kills him, and then go back to their argument.

One of the best-known sources for this kind of Sufi teaching story is Indries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes. One has to probe beneath the surface to discover their meaning. After the young woman tells dervish stories in Griffith park, Means shifts the perspective to a group of Japanese tourists on a string of horses above the taking pictures of vistas of Hollywood, “and two homeless girls, pale and gaunt, huddled on a sheet of cardboard.” The image is a telling juxtaposition between the surface and the secret reality of Hollywood. The gap between the surface reality and what lies beneath it is another repeated theme in the story that Means will return to later.

Lenny constantly “riffs” on the girl’s story as they drive north from Tucson. “You spent a summer sleeping on the sidewalk or in cut-rate hotels with other kids who’d embraced a mute acquiescence in a common dream of freedom, a possible salvation in the form of a good time, hanging on an edge of chance that might at any moment give way to complete, abject reality, and it did, man, it did.” Lenny riffs more on the common dream of freedom giving way to freeways and faceless drivers and one more piece of roadside trash sauntering by the roadside, which is all she had left when he found her. “Everything else was gone, pushed away, because you’d come to realize, no, scratch that, you’d learned through trial and error that your only recourse was to forget your past.” The tension between forgetting the past and trying to leave a mark on it is another theme that the story will return to.

When they pass the biggest copper mine in North America with the monstrous trucks and bucket loaders, Lenny shifts back to the theme of fear of an invisible force waiting to destroy one. Each man has his own “unique fear” when he creeps up one of the roads, putting on earmuffs and praying to God he will not be able to hear, for if someone hits a “sensitive vein or digs too eagerly, the ground gives way and the road crumbles. Lenny compares the mine to a similar mine in South America, which is on “holy land” guaranteed to give payback in the form of some catastrophic event, most likely in a hundred-year-rainfall-slash flood-slash mudslide.

They encounter a girl with a stop sign and walkie-talkie, who has a scar on her face that is too deep to cover with makeup, which she got on her honeymoon in Tijuana where her husband showed her his true nature for the first time—another example of the theme of something hidden beneath the surface.

Lenny says he likes the new lady, saying she probably has Zuni blood, or at least something Indian, “a stoic ability to put her woes aside and center in on the moment at hand, to withstand the elements for the sake of some larger vision.” Then he begins to invent a story about her—that she has a little brother with cancer, another brother who works at the copper mine—that he did not think he would work there, but one day his father and brothers put in the application papers in for him to work at the mine. Lenny continues his story, “And this guy—let’s settle on the name Bobby—couldn’t say no. Bobby felt himself caught in the long history of his family. Past generations had opened up an obligation” So he said, what the hell, and worked there until he was too tired to think of reinventing his life.

By the time they cross into New Mexico, the first girl is sitting in the back seat trying to avoid listening to Lenny, and the second girl is in the front, listening attentively. Lenny talks with “delusional precision,” saying he guarantees she is going to meet his hawk, Jag, who has intense focus, who flies out of sight but always keeps Lenny in his vision, and, when he is ready, can dive out of the sky and land gently on his arm; he says he is flying above them now, out of sight, following them.

The second girl and Lenny now become like two souls united by a mutual need formed back during the two hours they had spent navigating the hairpin mountain turns. She tells him how to manage skids, telling him the “myth” is you turn into a skid but in the mountains you have to turn against it as hard as you can, that she has seen trucks turn into a skid and head over the ledge and become a wad of tinfoil. When Lenny tells the first girl to stay in the car while he and the new girl have some time alone, she blocks their voices by remembering the road straightening out like a “magic carpet” when they left the twisty mountain roads.

When they pass through a reservation, Lenny returns to the myth that opened the story, about how the people walk a hundred miles to pay their respects to Old Lady Salt who ran away from Black Rock Lake, taking most of the potable water with her. People come here once a year and place their prayer sticks in what’s left of the lake and draw up granules of salt and take bags of it home.

The second girl starts talking about her younger brother who is gorgeous and is going to be a star in Hollywood. He was driving a truck one day and the road just rolled away from him, and he said he had a “vision.” She shows Lenny a picture of brother who has remorse but also hope in his eyes. Lenny says he looks like Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and James Dean, but then says he is going to tell her what will happen to him. “He’s going to fall like the rest of them and end up holding a spoon over a flame.” Lenny says they will find his body up in the hills or, if he is not lucky, in front of the La Brea Tar Pits, for one does not want to die in front of a tourist from Wisconsin. “No one wants to shatter the congenial blandness they bring, the greenhorn belief in hopes and dreams that settles like the smog and makes it exhilaratingly hard to breathe. And let me tell you, there is nothing better in this world than struggling to breathe. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

When they reach the El Morro national monument, the first girl wakes and leaves the car and hears Lenny talking to the second girl about the men who came here. “They stumbled here astonished at the immensity of the stone formation…They stumbled here in wonderment. How could something like this rise out of so much flatness? It’s the work of the Devil, some said. The work of God, others said. He says they all felt compelled to make a mark on this thing, pointing to the petroglyphs. They all had to leave some indication that they had existed, leave their mark. Now they cannot. He said the last time he was here he marked his name with a pen and ended up in jail. He faces the monument with his arms out: “In a firm, hard voice, he spoke directly to the monument of his country’s urgent need for redemption.” He rhapsodizes about birds flying in formation, tribes moving from one “sacred site” to the next, cookhouses in Washington cranking out pure “sacramental salts.” Then he starts telling the first girl’s story again, about how she never dreamed of this place while on the streets of L.A., saying this is a fitting place to end this thing they have had.

The last part of the story shifts to Ranger Russell, a Zuni, who sees them on a video screen--the man like other white boys who came to vandalize the park who have no respect for the reality of the world. “An element of desecration was caught by these four cameras.” Once or twice a year a few nuns in habits, two monks from Vietnam, Fellow-Zuni. He watches the little drama play out and then goes to the girl who has been left, who is driving a piece of flagstone into the rock. “He saw in the delicacy of her action and in the lift of her toes a balletic movement, and he knew something about her that he wasn’t sure how to articulate…. When she turned, he saw the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak. She kept the mute silence of a soothsayer. He saw that right away. It wasn’t the willed silence of the guilty….. Most in the white world didn’t understand medicine people, he thought, seeing her…. In truth a medicine man never picked his vocation. It was a fate that was bestowed, forcing one to forsake certain pleasures in the world—he thought—in order to become someone who knew a little too much about reality.”

In the last section, Ranger Russell is at home that night, telling his wife about all this. He has a vision of the grandeur and hope of the place, which he cannot see so well while in the midst of it. He thinks he will leave the mark the girl made a secret. When the archeologists come from Santa Fe, he will try to persuade them it had been there for years. “It’s just a scratch, he’d say. A few years of wind and rain will blow it away with all the others.” He thinks it will go against his good judgment and the strictures of his job and the park itself to lie for her, but he feels he must do it, “and with that he fell asleep, carrying with him the monument, his tribal land, and the rest of the world.”

In order to read literary short stories with some meaningful pleasure, one must move in close to the story to identify the repetition of meaningful details and then move back away from the story to try to determine what thematic patterns these repeated details create. The overall pattern of the story is a journey to a sacred place, in which one character plays the role of a seer or medicine man, who creates stories about the precarious life that human beings lead, afraid that at any moment, some invisible force can make the seemingly solid ground fall away or some force from the seemingly harmless sky strike from above. What the seer does in the story is rescue wanderers or waifs and tell them stories that provide them with a context for their lost state—very much what modern analysts do for their patients. The sacred place to which the seekers journey is a promontory, or “el morro,” where wanderers have always tried to leave their mark, if, for no other reason than to signify, “I existed. I was here.” The irony, of course, in making a mark on a solid place, is that the mark signifies the universal human desire to transcend mere place—to assert that true reality does not lie in the stones on which we stub our toes, but rather in some hope for a dreamlike, projective reality that lies beyond mere stuff. All the references to sacred places, drugs, appearance/reality, carving signs of the self, searching for meaning, telling stories, Zuni medicine men, marking/erasing the past create a pattern of the universal human quest for transcendence and significance.

Literary short stories, with their emphasis on form and pattern, are often like Sufi stories, because they present mythic, defamiliarized invariants of universal human action, not temporal, familiar variants of social interaction. Such an attitude has dominated short fiction since Hoffmann, Tieck, and Novalis; it can be seen in Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, as well as in such modern descendants as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and others. Human beings need to hear stories the same way they need to experience religion, says Canadian writer Hugh Hood. "Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The scribe ought not to deviate from the prescribed form. That is because the myths at the core of story are always going on...Myth exists to give us this reassurance of the persistence of some of the fundamental forms of human action."

Stories, like liturgy or Sufi tales, do not teach by concept, says Indries Shah, but rather by some more intuitive method of communication, by rhythm, or as the structuralists would say, by a deep structure that lies beneath the conscious level of concept. We must go back to an early stage to prepare ourselves for story, says Shah, a stage in which we regard the story as "a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work." Such teaching stories depend on an ancient and irreplaceable method of "arranging and transmitting a knowledge which cannot be put in any other way." Carol Cassola, an Italian writer, describes the mental disposition of the modern in a way that is similar to the kind of mental disposition which Shah attributes to the serious writer: "He doesn't observe reality, he contemplates it. He is passively receptive in front of it. He is, if you wish, a mystic: someone who awaits the revelation of truth from the silent language of things. What drives him to write is not psychological curiosity or social interest but a metaphysical need."

Story, like liturgy, like mantra, insists on a rigid formalized rhythm repeated in structures that remain the same regardless of the content until they become coordinated with the rhythm of the unconscious life itself, with the deeper rhythms of human reality as it is sensed to be. In this the reader "becomes" the narrative; that is, during the process of reading, the story establishes a rhythm that corresponds to and structures a rhythm within the thinking or responding processes of the individual. Randal Jarrell claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable.” Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation, and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do. The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object.

However, as much as “El Morro” explores the basic human desire for transcendence, leaving a mark, and ritualistic, story-telling protections against those invisible forces that threaten annihilation, the story also seems to undermine the means by which modern human beings seek to fulfill these desires. If Lenny is a seer, he also seems a self-serving meth-head who exploits the loneliness of others. And if the two young women are seekers after salvation, they also seem misguided victims. Perhaps the only character in the story who seems redeemed by this role is the Ranger, who protects the monument from desecration, for he is the only one in the story who seems to value the “old way.” If primitive peoples seem noble in their affirmation of the sacred, then modern peoples seem merely seeking an easy drug-induced escape. Maybe this is inevitable. Every generation seems to seek its own means of spiritual affirmation, but these seekers always become either dangerous extremists or helpless escapists. “El Morro” is, I suggest, a serious literary exploration both of the human need for meaning and transcendence and the human despair of finding a means for fulfilling those needs.