Thursday, March 28, 2013

Junot Diaz's Story "Miss Lora"--"This is Some Real Shit?"

When I read that Junot Diaz had won the Sunday Times Short Story Award for his story “Miss Lora,” I swore I was not going to say a frickin word about it on this blog. I did not have access to the other stories on the short list--
 "The Gun" by Mark Haddon
"Evie" by Sarah Hall
"The Dig" by Cynan Jones
"Call It 'The Bug' Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title" by Toby Litt
"The Beholder" by Ali Smith

So who in the hell am I to second guess the decision of the judges—Joanna Trollope, Andrew O’Hagan, Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, and Andrew Holgate?  (At this point, you may be nodding your head sagely or wryly in agreement).

But then I read that O’Hagan called “Miss Lora” a “contemporary classic” and that Holgate said: "If the test of an outstanding short story is that it deepens with every reading, then Junot Diaz's 'Miss Lora' passes that test with flying colours. It is a rich, precise and challenging story whose emotional pull becomes more and more apparent with each revisit.” 

I had already read the story three times—once when it appeared in The New Yorker and twice when it appeared in This is How You Lose Her. (I comment on that book in an earlier blog).  But Holgate's suggestion that the story deepened with every reading, which made it an outstanding story, challenged me, so I read it a fourth time.  You see, I agree that an “outstanding story” deepens with every reading. Maybe I missed something.

After a fourth reading, I find I need help here.  I have been reading and studying and writing about short stories for forty years; I have read thousands of stories multiple times.  Surely, by this time I should know what makes an “outstanding short story” and what does not.  Maybe I deceive myself.  But with all due respects to the honorable judges of the Sunday Times Short Story Award, I just do not see that “Miss Lora” is an outstanding short story.  I wish someone would help me understand how I could be so wrong about a story that has been judged “best” to the tune of some $45,000 American dollars.  Lord, Lord, Lord, that’s a lot of money where I come from!

The piece about Diaz’s win in The Guardian quoted Diaz as saying "Miss Lora" was a "challenging" story to write, noting, "We tend, as a culture, to think of boys having underage sex quite differently to how we think of girls. I find that quite disturbing, and wanted to question the logic of that," he said. "If a boy has sex with his teacher, people under their breath are kind of high-fiving the kid. If a 16- or 15-year-old girl has sex with an older teacher – forget about it. No one's celebrating. That seemed really strange."
Díaz said he grew up "with so many young men who had experiences when they were teenagers with older women, and was interested in writing about the issue. "The silence around it is pretty enormous," he said. "I think it is a conversation we need to continue to have."
Since this all sounds like pretty damned serious stuff for a story about a kid whose girlfriend won’t let him screw her, so he turns to an older woman who will, Diaz repeated This apologia for the story on an interview on the BookTrust blog:
"So many of the young men I grew up with had, during their adolescences, these difficult-to-categorize sexual relationships with older women. What's unnerving is that because we think of adolescent boys - especially teenagers of colour - as already hypersexualised, we tend not to consider these kinds of relationships as criminal and abusive as we do similar relationships that involve teenage girls. I wanted to jump right into the middle of the awful ambivalence. And I also wanted to do justice to that mid-1980s atmosphere of apocalyptic dread that I grew up in. So many of my students and younger nephews have no idea how fearsomely apocalyptic that period was, how the shadow of nuclear annihilation was over all of us. I guess this is one of those sex and the apocalypse stories, my very own, New Jersey, Mon Amour."

I am sure Diaz will forgive me as he laughs all the way to the bank if I say, “Bullshit!” I cannot see that Diaz is exploring an “issue” in this story.  Granted, our culture is more willing to “forgive,” “understand,” even approve of, sex between a young boy and an adult woman than sex between an adult man and an underage girl. Diaz may find that “very strange,” but this story does not deal with that social issue in any way.  I don’t think a story has to deal with an “issue” at all, but I think it is pretentious for Diaz to suggest that his story does contribute to a “conversation” about this one.
Diaz told Sam Anderson in The New York Times that “Miss Lora” was the easiest story in the book to write; he said he tried to write the first page several time in the last decade but never wrestled with it too much.   “And then one day it just hit, beginning to end.”  And that’s how it reads—like a riff in which various bits are stitched together whether they are related or not—apocalypse fear, a dead brother, an older woman, a girlfriend who won’t give in—all connected by the horniness of a sixteen-year-old Dominican boy.
Well, I read it again last night before I went to bed—a fifth reading—and this morning I am reading it slowly, taking notes, the way I would if I were teaching the story—a sixth reading.  Is that enough? Please God, say yes, that’s enough.   In this, my final, I swear, reading, I have translated all the Spanish (what some critics like to praise as “Spanglish”), and I went back and read all the reviews of This is How You Lose Her.  No reviewer singled out “Miss Lora” for special consideration, but everybody praised Diaz’s combination of street talk and big words.  According to the reviewers, it takes a special kind of prose brilliance to be able to say “You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker” in one breath and talk about “atavistic impulses” and “fulgurating sadness” in another.
Yunior/Diaz says he is at the age when you could “fall in love” with a girl over a gesture.  He says that’s what happened when his girlfriend Paloma stooped to pick up her purse, and his “heart flew out” of him.  Oh, Romeo, was it really Juliet’s sweet ass that won your heart? As Yunior so romantically puts it, “Only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.”  So after one night when he is allowed to “touch Paloma’s clit” with the tip of his tongue and she holds his head back with “the force of her whole life,” he “gives up, demoralized.”  I mean, can you blame the kid for turning to Miss Lora—a woman who happily pops his rabo in her mouth while he holds her “tresses like reins…urging her head to keep its wonderful rhythm,” adding generously, “You really do have an excellent body, you say after you blow your load.” How can he resist a woman who lets him “bone her straight in the ass”? "Fucking amazing, you keep saying for all four seconds it takes you to come.  You have to pull my hair while you do it, she confides.  That makes me shoot like a rocket.”  Didn’t I see that in a porno movie once?
Even though Diaz says he is trying to deal with the apocalyptic fears of the 1980s in the story, what he really talks about here are the movies he saw—The Late Great Planet Earth, The Day After, Threads, Red Dawn, WarGames, Gamma World.  Yep, this kid is really suffering from fear of the end of the world as we know it. And this is why he gets involved with an older woman. Sure.  Guys used to use that “end of the world” line back in the fifties and sixties when the Russians were coming too.
I am not a prude.  I have defended sexually explicit writing in print and in court.  However, I do not see that “Miss Lora” is “about anything” except a sixteen-year-old wanting sex.  I suspect that many sixteen-year-old boys do.  And I have no objection to someone using male adolescent sexual desire as the basis of a story.  However, I think a story should be “about something” more than just having sex.  There is no thematic relationship in “Miss Lora” between sex with an older woman and fear of the end of the world.  The only thematic relationship between sex with an older woman and the death of Yunior’s older brother in the story is simply that, as the second paragraph proudly states, he would “fuck anything.” Now, Yunior will “fuck anything” also.  So that’s what this story is about?  A sixteen-year-old-boy who would “fuck anything.”  As Diaz/Yunior would say, “That’s some real shit.”
To repeat what one of the judges of The Sunday times Short Story Award said after giving Juno Diaz $45,000: "If the test of an outstanding short story is that it deepens with every reading, then Junot Diaz's 'Miss Lora' passes that test with flying colours. It is a rich, precise and challenging story whose emotional pull becomes more and more apparent with each revisit.” (No pull pun intended, I am sure).  Well, I have revisited “Miss Lora” as many times as I can bear.  If someone would tell me what makes this an “outstanding story,” I would much appreciate it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

George Saunders’ Perceptive Understanding of the Short Story as a Narrative Form

When George Saunders' first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned."  Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty.  If that were not encouragement enough, three of the stories in Pastoralia (his second collection) won O. Henry Awards prizes: "The Falls" in 1997 (which won second prize), "Winky" in 1998, and "Sea Oak" in 1999. After the publication of his third collections, In Persuasion Nation, reviewers called Saunders "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Comparing him to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. C. Boyle, critics praised his demented black comic view of modern American culture. 

A primary way Saunders creates this cultural view is to zero in on our pop entertainments.  The focus of the title story of Saunders' first collection is a virtual reality theme park that simulates America during the Civil War era, and the locale of the title story of Pastoralia is a museum in which two people pretend to be a cave man and woman for the entertainment and edification of the public. When asked in an interview why theme parks are often featured in his stories, Saunders said that they create a sort of cartoon-like mood that keeps him from becoming too earnest and serious, reminding him that he is not writing realist fiction and giving him permission to "goof off."  However, Saunders is not just "fooling around" stories like “Pastoralia”; as usual, he has a target, in this case the world of modern work in which bosses are distant anonymous entities with whom workers communicate by fax machines and who insist that we perform in accordance with their view of artificial reality. The couple in Saunders' story, controlled by sophisticated technology, must make their living by pretending to be dumb and inarticulate--a metaphor, Saunders suggests, of how most Americans consider the role they play in the world of work.

The popular interest in Saunders’ satiric stories often overshadows his more universal theme of the male "loser" who cannot succeed in the real world and must create a fantasy compensatory reality.  In many ways, the most perfect example of the short story as a form in Pastoralia is "The End of FIRPO in the World," in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.  During a bike ride, Cody imagines that his ultimate revenge will occur when he is famous for his splendid ideas, such as plugging up the water hose.  The story ends with irony and pathos when he is hit by a car and the only person who has ever told him that he is "beautiful and loved" is the man who has hit him

 Although Saunders has always had a devoted following for his satiric stories, it is only with his fourth collection, Tenth of December that he has been discovered by a wider audience. Part of the reason for this may be what Jon McGregor in The Times of London calls his “dialing back on the satire, relaxing into realism, letting the clear voice of suffering sing through.”  Saunders told one interviewer that he thinks his fiction is “bigger-hearted” in this new book.  I don’t intend to analyze individual stories in Tenth of December in this blog entry.  I have no doubt that if you read them, you will see the excellent way they embody the virtues of the short story as a narrative form.  Instead, I want to highlight Saunders’ perceptive understanding of the short story.

As of this writing, Tenth of December has been on several bestseller lists for two months and Saunders has been interviewed by everybody from Charlie Rose to George Stephanopoulos.  The most common (and I do mean common) question of most of the interviewers with George Saunders in the past few months has been, “Why do you write short stories,” as if that were some sort of neurotic notion in which no one in his right mind could possibly engage. Saunders always says something about the short story being his form “neurologically--that he is wired for it.  He believes that when writing you have to have a feeling for beauty and says that he knows it at eight pages, not eighty pages. “I think it is the limit that makes [the short story] magical,” says Saunders.  “Give me eight pages and I’ll do something.”

Indeed, he does “do something”—something that is particularly characteristic of the short story form at its best. And it is not always his popular satiric short stories that are his best.  I like what Saunders does with the short story, and I like the way he talks about writing in general and the short story in particular in his interviews and essays (See The Braindead Megaphone, 2007).

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Saunders says he used to think that the artist had an idea he or she wanted to get and then sort of dump it on the reader.  Now, he knows that really doesn’t produce anything; it is condescending. When you study writing, Saunders says, there’s this intentional fallacy that the writer has a set of ideas and the story is just a vehicle for delivering those ideas. He says his experience has been totally the opposite. “You go in trying not to have any idea of what you are trying to accomplish, praying that you will accomplish something and respecting the energy of the piece and following it very closely.” 

In his PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, he says his approach is to go into a story not being really sure what he wants to say.  He finds a little seed crystal and tries to divest himself of any ideas about it.  He calls writing the short story an elaborate exercise of being comfortable with mystery. (I have talked about this aspect of the short story in many places in print and on this blog.  It is the most prevalent understanding of the short story by many writers who excel in the form.)

Saunders has talked most about essential short story characteristics of mystery, ambiguity, the process of discovery, and human sympathy in the title essay to his collection The Braindead Megaphone:

“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.  If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”

In his essay, “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Saunders says that before he read Vonnegut, he always thought the function of art was to be descriptive, a kind of scale model of life to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think what the writer did.  Then he began to understand art as a kind of “black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’—he can put whatever he wants in there.  What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.”  He says that for Vonnegut the change that takes place in the reader is that his or her heart is softened, our capacity for pity and sorrow encouraged.

Saunders told George Stephanopoulos, that he believes  fiction is not a great propaganda tool, that overt political fiction doesn’t work, explaining this way:

“There’s something about the intimacy of the exchange demands openness on both sides.  On the writer’s part, openness means ‘I really don’t know.’  “The way to get to those ideas is through the language, paying close attention to phrases and sentences, and if you do that in kind of an open state, not only will the ideas show up, but they will be the highest form of your ideas; they won’t be propagandistic; they won’t be superficial, but they will deep and sort of ambiguous.”

Telling interviewers that the litmus test for him is always the language, Saunders talks about the importance of looking very closely at the prose and seeing if it has any energy or not and then trying to get that feeling in the prose and to follow where it leads, even if it is not going where you want it to.  In his essay, “Thank You, Esther Forbes," he talks about his discovery of the importance of the sentence when a teacher gave him Forbes’ historical novel Johnny Tremain when he was a child.  He was most impressed with the sentences, which seemed to have more life in them than normal sentences:

“They were not merely sentences but compressed moments that burst when you read them…. “A sentence was more than just a fact-conveyor; it also made a certain sound, and could have a thrilling quality of being over-full, saying more than its length should permit it to say.  A sequence of such sentences exploding in the brain made the invented world almost unbearably real, each sentence serving as a kind of proof… By honing the sentences you used to described the world, you changed the inflection of your mind, which changed your perceptions.”

Saunders says you “start off with a kind of condescending relationship to your characters almost by definition, and as you work with sentences you find that the bad sentences are equal to simplicity or condescension, and as you work with language you move yourself toward complexity and often to a state of confusion where you really don’t know what you think about the person… You’re sending out a bundle of energy, you know, concentrated energy that you’ve made with your own sweat, really, and your heart, and it goes out and it jangles somebody. Now, there’s another level where you do hope to make people more alive in the world, maybe more aware of the fact that we have more in common with others than we think we do.”

It is not incidental that George Saunders often mentions Anton Chekhov’s short story “Grief” as an example of the importance of language in the short story to human understanding.  "”Grief" is a lament (as the title is sometimes translated)--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details in carefully constructed sentences.  It therefore indicates in a basic way one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the short story; that is, the use of the form as the expression of a complex inner state by means of the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parabolic form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality; but the problem is how to create the illusion of inner reality by focusing on externals only.  The answer for the modern short story is to find a story that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details in carefully constructed sentences will embody the complexity of the inner state.  T. S. Eliot will later term such a technique "objective correlative," and James Joyce will master it fully in The Dubliners. Saunders calls “Grief” a great political story.  If you want to explore a political idea, says Saunders, you embody it in a person, a human connection.

Like his colleagues, Steven Millhauser, David Means, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Edith Pearlman, Joy Williams, and others, George Saunders is a master of the short story.  We can only hope that his recent and well-deserved popularity will stimulate new interest in the form. In his PBS interview, he told Jeffrey Brown: “I love the idea that more people will read short fiction. It’s such a humanizing form. It softens the boundaries between people.” “If I can do even a little bit of work to get the short story out there, I’m thrilled.”

And so are we, Mr. Saunders.  Thank you for your keen understanding of the short story as a form, for sharing that understanding with us both in fiction and analysis.  Congratulations on your success with Tenth of December.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Claire Vaye Watkins' BATTLEBORN: My Favorite for The Story Prize--2013

I must admit, the first notices I saw of Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut collection of stories, Battleborn, made me drop my shoulders in a sigh—stories by a young woman just out of graduate school whose father, Paul Watkins, was a member of the Charles Manson “family.”  “Helter Skelter” sensationalism, I suspected--before reading her stories.  Only the first one, entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys,” refers to that notorious madness that resulted in the meaningless deaths of several innocent people, including director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and that one Watkins wrote primarily just to “get it out of the way.”

Actually, only the reviewers and bloggers seem interested in Claire Watkins’ parentage; it is not something she has encouraged to sell her book. If you are interested, you can find lots of background many places on the Internet, including a televised interview with Paul Watkins the year before he died of cancer, when his daughter was only six. (By the way, he was not involved in the killings and actually testified against Manson in court).  The only aspect of Claire Watkins’ background relevant to her stories is the fact that she grew up in desert communities in Nevada and California. The title of the collection is a tribute to those origins, for Nevada came into the U.S. union during the Civil War—thus was “battleborn.”

Although she has been compared to Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Wallace Stegner, and Cormac McCarthy, the comparison is only surface-sand-deep; indeed, she has said that she never read those writers.  Her stories are mostly set in the Reno/Las Vegas/ Pahrump areas of Nevada, but it is her characters (prospectors, prostitutes, and lost young women) and her carefully controlled use of language that make the stories irresistible--not the landscape.

In an interview, Watkins has said that many of her characters try hard to make room inside themselves for someone else, but are haunted by some toxic legacy from their past.  Although her characters often hope for love as an antidote to that toxicity, she says, they feel the toxicity is so much a part of themselves that to have it dislodged is to risk self-annihilation.  As a result, they often hug the hurt caused by the past poison as part of their identify.  Watkins says, “They fear the self-severing that is a part of loving someone.”

The story perhaps most illustrative of the self-destructiveness that such an attitude creates is “The Archivist,” in which a woman with “a good man at home” runs off with an abusive addict.  Why? Because her mother was similarly self destructive, and the central character fears that if she gets married and has a baby, the child’s first thoughts, even in the womb, will be those of loss, fear, and anger, for, she adds, this is probably what happened to her.

Chris Offutt, a writer whose work I much admire and who knows a great sentence when he is seduced by one, has said in a Publishers Weekly review that Watkins’ sentences are as surprising as the events, dialogue, and descriptions in her stories.  “For lack of a better term,” says Offutt, “there is a purity to the prose that is a constant pleasure to read.” I agree.

The opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” has six different beginnings.  But this is not as much of a gimmick as it sounds.  Trying to come to terms with where her own story all began is a legitimate gambit. And Watkins feels, quite rightly that she has to deal with her father’s connection to the Manson nightmare right away. This story actually begins with the birth of a baby at the Spahn ranch who Manson himself delivered with a razor blade when the mother refused to push.  Now called “Razor Blade Baby,” she moves in upstairs from the narrator, (named Claire Watkins).  After Watkins takes her with her on a date with a movie producer looking for a story and then takes her to a movie, Razor Blade Baby tells Claire they could be sisters—something Watkins has already accepted as part of the legacy of her father’s past.

“The Last Thing We Need” is an epistolary story, in which a man who has found some detritus in the desert, including the picture of a 1966 Chevy Chevelle and prescription bottles, begins writing to the man whose address he finds on the bottles. The reader gradually determines that the letters are a kind of plea for forgiveness for having killed a man who tried to rob the gas station where he worked.

“Rondine Al Nido” (“Swallows Nest”) is the story a woman tells a man she is sleeping with about when she was a sixteen-year old girl (referred to only as “Our Girl”) who takes her friend Lena to Las Vegas to find “boys who came to Las Vegas looking for girls willing to do the things she and Lena think they are willing to do.” Although her friend is afraid and wants to back out, “Our Girl” insists, telling her “she had to get it over with.”  Although there is a self-destructive selfishness about the central character’s determination to “be bad,” there is also something inevitable and completely understandable about her action.

“The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” focuses on a young Italian tourist whose friend has gone missing in the desert while they vacation in Nevada.  When he ends up at a brothel near Las Vegas, he becomes the object of desire and potential conflict for more than one of the occupants of the house as he tries to cope with the loss of his friend. The characters in the story are never probed very deeply, but as they cluster around the young man, they come alive because of their individual needs.

“Wish You Were Here” is about a young woman who has “irresponsible habits”—a woman who can spend the whole day “inflaming the listlessness inside her with erotic fantasies of men who, for the most part, had been unkind to her.”  But “The Archivist” is arguably the best story about a young woman with irresponsible habits who, although she has a relationship with a young man who cares for her, is irresistibly drawn to a man who mistreats and then leaves her, spending much of her time creating an imaginary Museum of Love Lost in which she creates mementos of her relationship with the bad guy who left her.

Harris, the central character of “Man-O-War,” is a rock hound who lives alone in the desert after his wife deserted him years before, scavenging fireworks left by partying teenagers. After he finds a wounded pregnant teenager in the desert, he takes her home and cares for her. Feeling like both a father and an erstwhile lover, he tries to impress her by setting off a valuable cache of fireworks in the desert night.  Although she does not want to leave, when her father shows up, creating a tense confrontation between him and Harris, she allows herself to be taken home, leaving Harris alone as before. The story’s success derives from the rhythm of the language that creates Harris’ loneliness, confusion, and efforts to survive.

I like these stories because they engage me in the life of characters who don’t always make the right choices (or at least choices of which I don’t approve), but whose choices I somehow understand.  I particularly like the stories because Claire Watkins understands the mystery of her characters’ motivations.  I like these stories because they are so carefully and lovingly written. The rhythm of the sentences and their narrative flow seem so exactly correspondent with the rhythm of life and thought of the characters. 

In my opinion, if The Story Prize truly exists, as its website declares, to “honor short story collections, which other major book awards for fiction often overlook,” then Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn should be chosen over Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake.  Not just because Diaz and Chaon have received award attention in the past, but because whereas their collections are certainly competent “jobs of work,” drawing on their previously well-developed subjects and playing with established generic conventions, Claire Vaye Watkins’ stories are finely honed explorations of complex human personality and genuine feeling.  While Diaz’s and Chaon’s stories are “fun” to read, Watkins’ stories challenge me to identify and understand.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Story Prize 2013: Junot Diaz and Dan Chaon

The Story Prize, established in 2004 to honor short story collections, especially worthy collections that are often ignored by other Prizes, will have its annual award ceremony on March 13, 2013. The winner will receive  $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.  The three finalists for the award are:

Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake
Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn

I posted my opinion of Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her last October; you can find it, if you are of a mind to, by searching my archive. I swear to God, I read the book three times before writing that blog entry; I absolutely refuse to read it a fourth time for this entry.  I stand by my previous opinion that the main reasons reviewers rhapsodize over Diaz are: his still trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues; his coarse street-smart patois combined with smooth university-wise lingo; and his “I-can’t-commit-but I-am-fuckincool-about-it” persona Yunior, who, after three book’s worth, I am pretty tired of listening to; really now, aren’t you? Yunior/Diaz is just too nerdy-adolescent-horny-pottymouth-self-indulgent-simplistic for my view of what makes good short stories.

I read Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn a few weeks ago, one after the other, and my first-read reaction was that I liked the Watkins book better than the Chaon.  This was not what I expected.  Please allow me to explain my lukewarm response to Chaon in this blog essay and my more enthusiastic response to Wakins in one next week.
Chaon’s first collection, Fitting Ends, which I read and enjoyed, came out in 1996, although it had a bit too much of the “young-man-just-out-of-creative-writing-workshop” feel about it (even if some of the workshops were chaired by Tobias Wolfe).  And I did not agree with the reviews (mostly in the Cleveland Plain Dealer) that, just because Chaon was from Ohio, claimed his work “resonated” (horrid overused word!) with that of Ohio’s most famous literary son Sherwood Anderson.). Chaon’s second collection, Among The Missing, which I also read with some pleasure, was released to considerable more ballyhoo in 2001 and made the shortlist of the National Book Award that year.

After the publication of Fitting Ends, Chaon posted a little essay on the Random House website in which he described his first book in terms that sounded very much like his most recent collection Stay Awake:

“I think of this collection as a series of ghost stories set in the real, non-supernatural world, and I wanted the stories to evoke the mixed emotions that such ‘ghostly’ glimpses can elicit—dread and uneasy courage, sadness and nervous laughter.”

In this little publicity essay, Chaon calls the short story a “solitary and lonely creature” that resists being corralled into a pack with its fellows.” Stories are meant to be experienced singly, he said (echoing a sentiment expressed by William Dean Howells last century) “with a long, silent pause between each one.”  And indeed, in a Los Angeles Times review of Among the Missing, Michael Harris said that the only real drawback to the stories in the book is there is a “sameness to them, in tone and theme, that wouldn’t be so noticeable if we read them as there were written, one at a time.”

This “ tone and theme” may also be one of the problems of Stay Awake.  Patrick McGrath says in his New York Times review that one of the curious aspects of this new collection is Chaon’s recurring use of a few distinctive motifs, the sense of which is of “a narrow cluster of related ideas being urgently worked out.” McGrath concludes,  “These stories feel as though they had been written fast, one after another, expressing with some urgency, a closely related set of various on a given theme.”

As I read these stories a second time, I was torn between whether this sense of “sameness,” “recurrence,” and “urgency” comes from some inner authorial obsession relevant to universal human experience (which would be a good thing) or whether the feeling springs from Chaon’s rapid-writing exploration of a familiar literary genre (which would not be so good except as a “good read” (horrid phrase for easy pop stuff).

In an interview in Publishers’ Weekly on November 28, 2012 Chaon says the idea for Stay Awake came after writing a requested genre story for a 2003 anthology with the “good read” title, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales.  Chaon’s response to that request was the first story in Stay Awake, entitled “The Bees.” While writing the story, Chaon says he started toying with the idea of writing a book of ghost stories, calling his new collection the (his words, my emphasis) “product of playing with the ghost story and with horror forms.”

In his review of Stay Awake, in The Washington Post (2/17/12), Jeff Turrentine notes that ghost stories have long played an important role in literature: as terrifiers, fuddy-duddy moralizers, stand-ins for repressed sexual desire, inducers of guilt, etc.  “But writers of literary fiction usually feel compelled to tread lightly in the graveyard.  For all their spookiness, ghosts can be something of a cheap fix: spectral shorthand for the idea that a character is ‘haunted’ by some weighty matter left unresolved.”  Indeed, there may be something that smacks of the self-conscious “fix” about the stories in Stay Awake, cheap or no.

In his New York Times review, Patrick McGrath says that many of the characters in Stay Awake seem to be hovering on the brink of insanity.  Folks used to say that of Poe’s characters too, but madness in Poe was more complicated that that.  McGrath says the best of Chaon’s stories embody the “great guilt pleasure of good horror fiction: the sickening moment when the monstrosity at the heart of the story’s darkness suggests itself to the eager imagination, while still withholding its true shape.”  The problem, of course, is whether Chaon’s stories are ghostly because of the complex human mystery they explore, or whether their spookiness just springs from crazy guys who go bump in the night.

For me, the best definition of a truly spooky story—the kind of story that Poe pioneered so many years ago—is actually provided by Chaon’s narrator/protagonist in “Fitting Ends,” the title story of his first book, that is: one in which all the details add up so that you know the end even before the last sentence.

One of the characters in Donald Barthelme’s story “See the Moon” says, “Fragments are the only forms I trust. Donald Barthelme himself once said, ''The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century.” Like Barthelme, Chaon says he is a “very collage-oriented thinker,” adding that “fragments are really important to me as a writer.”  He adds in the Publishers Weekly interview that he realizes there is a degree to which in several stories in Stay Awake he is subconsciously commenting on his own writing process, concluding that he is interested in the way collage can create certain moods better than a linear narrative.

“Fitting Ends” is about a man trying to fit all the loose ends of his life together into a coherent story. It does not have a chronological plot structure, but revolves around various stories the narrator Stewart recalls from his childhood.  The first such story, about his brother De, recounts three different appearances of a ghostly figure walking on the railroad tracks near the nearly deserted village of Pyramid, Nebraska and then falling on his knees in front of a train.  A few years after these supposed sightings began, Del, who was seventeen at the time, is killed by a train while walking along the tracks. 

Chaon has said that “Fitting Ends” owes a debt to the self-reflexive story, “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson. Like that more complex story--about a boy who sees a mysterious scene in the woods and tries to understand the meaning of it--Chaon’s self-conscious concern here is with how “storytelling” tries to come to terms with the ambiguous relationship between truth and lies by pulling disparate events together into a significant whole. The theme is announced in the first paragraph of “Fitting Ends” when the narrator tells how his brother’s death has been transformed into the stuff of story in a book called More Tales of the Weird and Supernatural, a book whose author says is based on “true facts.”  The event the author describes is concerned with one of the basic aspects of fiction—the presentation of events that anticipate events yet to occur.  The author’s fascination with the story of the sightings of a ghost on the train track results from the fact that the ghost of Del appears two years before he died.  As Stewart says, it is the nature of story that the reader can “imagine the ending.” This anticipates the ending of “Fitting Ends” when Stewart notes that at certain moments all the loose ends of his life fit together as easily as a writer can write a ghost story in which all the details add up so you know the end even before the last sentence.

The basic technique of the story reflects its theme, for Stewart recounts various anecdotes about his childhood in an effort to make them “come together” into a coherent story.  In his contributor’s notes to the 1996 Best American Short Stories, in which “Fitting Ends” appeared, Chaon says that writing a story for him is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which he writes hundreds of pages of fragments and puts them in a folder hoping they will “mate.” He says he had a folder three inches thick full of jottings about the brothers Del and Stewart.  He says when it came to putting these fragments together, he found it helpful to read the works of others who inspired him, such as Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods” and Alice Munro’s stories about time and loss.

All the characters in the twelve stories in Stay Awake are haunted in one way or another. For example, in “To Psychic Underword,” a man named Critter begins to see upsetting messages in the world around him after the death of his wife, “as if he were a long-dormant radio that had begun to receive signals.” In “I Wake Up,” a boy goes to live with a foster family after his mother is sent to prison, sleeping in the bed of their dead son.  In “St Dismas,” a man rescues his meth-addict ex-girlfriend’s daughter, only to desert her because he cannot handle the responsibility.   In “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” a man feels guilt and responsibility for not attending his baby’s funeral. Other stories in the collection deal with characters who are brain damaged, who lose their fingers in an accident, who commit suicide, and who murder others.  Arguably the three most representative stories are “The Bees,” “Patrick Lane Flabbergasted,” and “Stay Awake.”

“The Bees” centers on a man--who admits he was once a drunk and a monster—being haunted by his past. “Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.” Although he is remarried and has a young boy who is tormented by nightmares, he has been dreaming of his first son, DJ, who he once took on a carnival ride and then made fun of him for being afraid.  He beat his first wife and child until they ran away, and he has not seen them since.  When he dreams that DJ comes back to him as a ghost and threatens him, he awakes to a room full of smoke.  The story ends with this gruesome image: “He sees, off to the side, the long black plastic sleeping bag, with a strand of Karen’s blond hair hanging out from the top.  He sees the blackened, shriveled body of a child curled into a fetal position.”  Yes, it is a spooky, grisly tale of being haunted by your past sins, but it exists solely, it seems to me, to frighten the reader, not to explore the complexities of guilt.

The central character in “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” focuses on a young man living in the home of his dead parents, for whom, “There were simply fewer and fewer things he felt like doing, indifferently aware “that things had probably deteriorated.”  As he cuts himself off in the house, his actual living quarters shrink more and more.  He finds an old Scrabble game in the basement and throws it across the floor when some cockroaches come out, feeling that the tiles had spelled some eerie message to him.  He begins to see markings on his arms in his own handwriting. His feet start to develop a fungus. He feels that video games, the television, and computer images create a small force field around him.  A bagger in a grocery store, he thinks more and more that his days in the store are like being in a zombie movie.  When his sister tells him that he just has to get himself together, he imagines there was a way in which all the pieces of his life can come together—the zombie movie, the Scrabble game, the note his parents left him when they killed themselves—but the story ends with the power shutting down, covering him in darkness. This treatment of the conventional image of a dysfunctional young man haunted by who knows what demons, seems primarily a compilation of clichés—zombie movies, scrabble games, technology media--for disengagement and isolation.

“Stay Awake, the title story, is the most grotesque piece in the book. A man and his wife have twins conjoined at the head, in which the parasitic one fails to develop a body.  The man falls asleep dreaming while driving and has an accident that puts him in the hospital.  He becomes obsessed with the child, doing research on the phenomenon of conjoined twins.  He discovers the concept of Astral Projection, which posits that the self exists outside the body and is connected to the physical self while sleeping by a silver thread.  He imagines that his child, who survives after surgery to remove the parasite head, may have felt the other brain drifting up like astral projection when it is removed.  He thinks that one day she may wake up and remember the way someone else’s thoughts felt, hearing a voice say, “I’m still awake.” 

Perhaps the story began with Chaon’s own research into the phenomenon of conjoined twins (The protagonist discovers on the Internet the story of The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal born in 1783, who lived four years with a separate head before dying of a cobra bite). Perhaps then Chaon saw the possibility of exploring the theme of universal human isolation--never being able to share the mind of another and know how someone else thinks or feels.  However, since the central image is never really bound up with the human isolation theme, the story is interesting only because of the grotesque image of a child with two heads. (You can look up the Two-Headed Bengal Boy on the Internet and see pictures of his dual skull, that is, if you really want to).

Ever since Poe, the short story has been a favored form for the presentation of the obsessive, the supernatural, the otherworldly.  However, the best of such stories are characterized by a tight stylistic control and an exploration of the mystery of the human personality.  The best of such stories are not just about characters who are schizophrenic or psychotic, and thus whose motivations and actions are outside the realm of human understanding.  In the best of such stories, one can usually arrive at a fearful answer to the question, “what made him or her do that?” by examining one’s own inner self.  When the answer to the question is simply “He was crazy,” the story is not among the best of them, just among the most horrifying.  There is just too much of horror for entertainment’s sake in these stories, it seems to me--simple horror that competent writing by a known “literary” writer cannot conceal.

The Publisher’s Weekly interview mentioned earlier ends with Chaon admitting that the stories in Stay Awake were the result of “playing with the ghost story and with horror forms,” but then adding that as he was finishing up the book, he “realized that there was something about the mood of the stories, a mood of loss and dread of what comes next, a sense of things not working out the way we thought they were going to, that really spoke to the current moment in an immediate way.”

An interesting afterthought apologia, but not convincing enough to redeem these stories out of the realm of the simply horrifying into the literary short story world of the complexly meaningful.

Next week:  Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn