Robert Coover: “Matinee”

07/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 25, 2011.

CONCEPT: Memories are often triggered by the strength of an emotion or physical sensation that occurred at the moment of conception, and Coover’s latest experimental piece — a series of illusory yet real recollections — focuses on those strengthened by love and passion.

He remembers suddenly and vividly the room they shared in the little hotel, the yellow flowered wallpaper, the pink bedspread and matching curtains, the chipped amber ashtray sitting on a white crocheted doily stained at one edge with tea or coffee. Why does he recall all this? If asked, he could barely describe his bedroom at home.

STYLE: His bedroom is simply a functional place, a contrivance for sleeping. But the hotel room, and all its attendant colors (faded or gauche as they may be), meant far more than the sum of its parts, and so he remembers it. Or perhaps, hints the story, blurring together a series of movies, a series of characters, and a series of different lovestruck moments, he doesn’t remember any of the physical bits at all; perhaps he only registered the emotion and, over the years, has come to associate clips from films and objects from an otherwise ordinary life with this sensation. He has built a memory palace to protect those strong sensations, and Coover, in turn, chooses a recursive style, one that riffs off the all-too-familiar stories he relate to us. Each new paragraph follows a new player, and by the end, the characters appearing are the ones who were originally depicted as film characters. The thread isn’t meant to be followed, ultimately, merely the feeling; in that sense, it’s not all that stylistically different from Coover’s last piece, “Going For a Beer,” save that there’s a stronger theme this time around — you all but want to get lost and swept up in the story-within-story structure. (And structurally, this is very different from “Going For a Beer.”)

EFFECT: I always marvel at authors who can comfortably fit their concept into an appropriate form: “Love has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and a delight of the body,” writes Coover, and his story has no trajectory, it is a series of pure experiences. The bigger the idea, perhaps, the easier it is to “fit” it to a structure, though, for the sheer size and scope create a sort of roominess; in fact, that’s part of the experience. (Does love fill you, or does it make you acutely aware of an emptiness?) Coover’s making a point, but you feel that he might go anywhere with it — and he does. The light touches of comedy and the inventive synopses of the films (which change slightly depending on the sex of the narrator) increase the atmosphere of the story, and even the awkward sentences seem to justify themselves: “He and the woman will jostle each other, intentionally or accidentally or as if both compelled to so collide, it’s purposefully ambiguous, he also dons his coat–he knows how the movie turns out–and heads off for a drink at the neighborhood bar,” writes Coover, ambiguously. “Of whom, no shortage, he has only to choose or wait to be chosen,” he writes, in a in a bare-bones fragment.

I’ll close with my favorite part:

“Here are your real brief encounters,” he said with a crooked grin, making fun of her romantic ways. Encounters, yes, though more like collisions, really, and certainly brief, but without the maddening joy, the dissolving of the self into something more than the self, the anguished longing afterward. He doesn’t understand a thing.”

Writes Coover, dissolvingly.

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Paul Theroux: “Incident in the Oriente”

07/28/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, July 2011.

Here we are, following a private contractor’s employee from job to job, as he relates the anecdotal story about his boss, Max Moses. Theroux’s a good writer, but he seems to be channeling a little Ayn Rand here, from his metaphor about operating like a traveling circus (picking up and disposing of labor along the way, with a few specialists remaining on board) to his all-business personality. That is, he cleverly introduces Moses to us as a man with “terrifying vitality,” then dips back to suggest the man’s flaws (a “slight speech defect” that gives him a “babyish innocence”), only to turn these things around as underestimations, pieces that help Moses to catch people off-guard and to put them under his thrall: “His tenacity and godlike resourcefulness in getting people to obey him seemed to enlarge him.” Money is power, power is money, and Moses has both.

It’s a very short story — under three pages — and so Theroux can be forgiven for being so to-the-point, particularly since that’s fitting for his narrator and for making the larger points about the story. He’s notably stripped the pleasure from this piece, which makes the story coldly effective: disliking it, in a sense, means that you liked the message. Disapproving of the message, on the other hand, gives you the chance to wrestle with the story, struggling with Moses’s choices and the way in which he settles the work-interfering friendship between Tafel and Silsbee. But this is where the length and directness get in Theroux’s way: after our narrator discusses Moses’s situation with a co-worker, eliminating the most obvious of solutions and concluding that no matter what, “the problem wouldn’t go away,” Moses gives Tafel an order — to shoot Silsbee’s dog — and with that accomplished, the two are back to work. If it were that easy to get Tafel to murder his best friend’s pet, surely Moses could have found other ways to resolve the situation.

What does this story teach us, really? That we must define and carefully weigh out the value of our play (“talking, laughing, lollygagging”) with that of our work. The final image in the piece is that of our narrator consciously tuning out the joyful barking of a dog in the background, and smiling at Moses so as to convey how he, too, can focus: “I was not surprised when he didn’t smile back at me.” He has won something, money, perhaps, but he has also lost something, emotion, perhaps, and whether one appreciates this story or not depends on how active you prefer your morals to be. (The more demoralizing, the better?)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “Aphrodisiac”

07/27/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011.

PLOT: Kishen, an ugly young writer, returns from university (Cambridge) with the intention of writing about “the deepest layers of the Indian experience: caste-ridden villagers, urban slum dwellers, landless laborers, as well as the indecently rich of commerce and industry.” He moves in with his mother and elder brother, Shiv, as well as Shiv’s new wife, Naina, who is described as “very young, shy, scarcely educated” but is actually the opposite. Over the course of twenty years, he loses himself to Naina’s possibly supernatural temptations, unable to leave now that he has “Touched the Breast of Mother India,” caught up in this woman’s selfish sickness, the lethargic charm she casts around her.

EFFECT: Negligible. Jhabvala hardly seems to care about her characters, and is so intent in using Naina as some sort of metaphor for the condition some young men of India find themselves bewitched by that she fails to tell much of a story, and the result is far from compelling. The family’s melodramatic cook is so suspicious of Naina’s wizened nurse that he takes to sleeping in the kitchen, Kishen’s mother falls ill with an undiagnosable condition, and Shiv, a politician, is so decorously depicted that his arguments and long absences from his wife are conducted entirely in the background. It’s so bland, in fact, that Jhabvala’s use of Indian words (think Junot Diaz’s peppered Spanish) stands out like a hitchhiker’s thumb: she wants to take us somewhere, but we’ve no idea where.

CONCLUSION: One man’s aphrodisiac is another man’s repellent. Jhabvala spans such a long period of time that the opening of her story hardly resembles the end, which would be fine if we understood the ways in which these characters changed (beyond the superficial description of Naina’s increasing weight and inexplicable devilishness). Just as Kishen’s aspirations are swept under the table, so too is his character; if the point is that we lose ourselves to our appetites/desires, shriveling up if unfulfilled for too long, this was hardly the best way to make that point.

Julian Barnes: “Homage to Hemingway”

07/26/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 4, 2011.

The Maestro, a thin stand-in for the professorial musings of Barnes himself, surveys his writing class and thinks to himself how “They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.” He offers them loose opinions of their work, knowing that he may not be their best reader, and relies heavily upon “an anecdote, a dream, a memory, a shaggy-dog story. They were very polite, and had heard about the English sense of humor, so anything he said that was at all odd or incoherent was greeted with respectful laughter.” He cites, frequently, one of these anecdotes, about a trip to Greece in which he formed — as authors do — a quick impression of a “chunky fellow with white hair and a short-trimmed beard” who always drove around with a younger woman “with olive skin and black hair dyed an unconvincing blond,” a man who had “clearly been modelling himself on Hemingway.” The story ends, after much ado over the tripartite structure of Hemingway’s “Homage to Switzerland,” with the Maestro writing this very story — which consists of the Maestro’s experiences with three different classes, in three different settings — and results in a perfectly plausible but utterly dull story, one which uses its own structure to justify its own narrative (or lack thereof), and which must ultimately be said to have failed, by dint of its publication. After all, the final line’s slam against the authors of such tedious, so-called “mid-list” work, points out that, after the Maestro had written this very story, “But, still, nobody wanted to publish it.”

I suppose there are elements that work very nicely: the dialogue in the workshops has a crisp, Carver-like feel, and the professor’s interior thoughts could be cribbed from an Ian McEwan novel. And as I said earlier, the story is entirely realistic: writers are certain to appreciate the way it elucidates the fact that workshops are like snowflakes: no two are alike and yet all are fragile. But while Barnes does hint at the Maestro’s concealed life (“Angie had left him because he was a success, and then Lynn had left him because he was a failure”), he doesn’t allow this to drive the Maestro’s lessons or his interactions with students; each piece of this story seems dispassionate and disconnected from the others. It makes points, but it does not score them: imagine dart after dart hitting the bull’s-eye, only to fall out a moment later.

Unfortunately, the story comes down to what doesn’t work, which is Barnes’s insistence, ironically, on making those points. Rather than allowing us to draw conclusions, to relate to these characters, to feel the frustration, he simply teaches us the same lesson three times, in increasingly blatant ways. As I said, the Maestro is a thin-stand in for Barnes — not necessarily because Barnes feels these things himself, but because this character he’s constructed in order to explain the story and its structure is the only thing keeping this work from being an exercise in meta-fiction. It’s the rare short that succeeds at that, and the few that do, do not dare to lecture from on high: they get right down into the muck, as with David Foster Wallace’s apologetic “Octet.” Every time Barnes references Hemingway — and to be fair, the title tells us that it will — he weakens his story by insisting that it fit, without surprises, into this carefully sculpted mold.

Alice Munro: “Gravel”

07/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 27, 2011. (Available for free.)

SUMMARY: “I barely remember that life,” says the narrator, of the kindergarten days in which her mother, in the early days of her third pregnancy, left her husband for Neal, an actor, and his countryside trailer (by a gravel pit) and took up (and subsequently abandoned) a free-spirited livelihood. But certain scars are freshly remembered, particularly those regarding her sister, Caro (“Nothing that the strangely powerful older child does seems out of the ordinary”), and Caro’s rebellious, life-changing choice.

STYLE: First-person, close retrospective, in which an older narrator adapts the language and tone of their younger self. The narrator is so present (in the past), that no event is too overtly foreshadowed, though one could argue that “Gravel,” both in the title and its introduction, suggests too much. The short, clipped sentences and uncertain tone are necessary, too, for we’re talking about sharp memories, and Munro’s greatest success comes from the literal questions the narrator struggles with, asked by an unseen and intruding “professional”:

She told him that the baby was Neal’s.

Was she sure?

Absolutely. She had been keeping track.

What happened then?

My father gave up weeping. He had to get back to work.

CONS: The style can be disorienting, as the narrator’s remembrances are so familiar to her that she often forgets to catch the “reader” up until a later point. We often do this when we tell stories, but in a published work, certain sentences “ring badly out,” like so: “My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it: ‘We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,’ she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street–the husband–with the life she’d had before.” From which house did they move? In what are they living now? With whom?

Additionally, Neal comes across as a caricature, from his anti-Vietnam gun policy to his “poison Rice Krispies crap” spiels and his penchant for loafing about smoking pot. The mother’s behavior is at least tempered by the ways in which she has changed from her previous, tightly-wound self, to he way she regresses: “The deeper she got into her pregnancy the more she slipped back into behaving like an ordinary mother, at least when it was a matter of scarves we didn’t need or regular meals.” And the father’s absence is part of the story, reflected in Caro’s “tone of voice that suggested that it was none of our mother’s business.”

PROS: Everything else. This is a Munro story, and it’s hard to find a paragraph that’s not telling you something, though you may not realize it at first. Consider the opening description:

At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one, hollowed out by monster machinery, just a minor pit that a farmer must have made some money from years before. In fact, the pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it– foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further.

“At that time” gives us the narrative style, “just a minor pit” hints at the innocence of the object, and this whole bit about “some other intention” is a perfect parallel to the mother’s attempts to reinvent herself. There’s a small hole within her, and she’s attempted to make something out of it, but instead ends up stuck, never going any further. To say nothing, of course, of the foreshadowing that occurs when Caro is appalled by the way her dog, Blitzee, goes about hunting squirrels. (This is subtly paired with an encounter with a wolf, later.) She insists “I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her,” which could be a dig at either of her parents, and when Neal begins to talk about the inevitability of death, the mother’s deflection — she “didn’t think we were ready for that yet,” and she’s partially right, for our narrator misinterprets gossip as being about the “atomic bun” — seems naive.

There are also a lot of clever divergences between intent and result, beginning with the gravel pit, but extending to the divide between Neal and the mother’s interpretation of “acting”: he enjoys “the giving yourself over, blending with others,” while she wants nothing more than to stand out. He finds everything to be “a gift,” whereas she feels as if she must walk out on “her silver and her china and her decorating scheme and her flower garden and even on the books in her bookcase. She would live now, not read.” (In parentheses, a few pages later, we find out that “She had not given up reading for very long” and note that while “children get used to changes,” adults rarely do.)

The best example, of course, stems from the climax of the story, which sneaks up us thanks to the narrator’s struggles to remember things — especially tragic things:

After a while, I realized that I was being given instructions.

I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.

That the dog had fallen into the water.

The dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she’d be drowned.

Blitzee. Drownded.

But Blitzee wasn’t in the water.

She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her.

What does she remember? Not much. “In my mind I can see her picking up Blitzee,” goes one paragraph; “When I dream of this, I am always running” goes another. “What I really did,” however, what she knows, “because it’s a fact,” is that she “sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.” And though a professional person once convinced her — “for a time, she convinced me” — that she must have tried to warn her mother, must have found the door to the trailer locked because — shifting the blame here — the mother was having sex with Neal, she is haunted by the lack of details, the lack of action, the lack of knowledge. This is why the narrative must be from the point of view of a child: if she were older, wiser, this would’ve killed her.

Nor does Munro leave it there. In one more clever twist, our now grownup narrator, encounters Neal, and asks him — “the third person I’d asked” — why Caro had done what she’d done. And in an instant, an accidental drowning in a gravel pit changes into a deliberate cry for help (or a depressed person’s suicide): although the pit seemed shallow, echoes that opening paragraph, there was another intention for it all along, though it wound up never making it any further. “In my mind,” concludes the story, ending where it has begun, in the haunted past and tragic thoughts of the narrator, “Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”

Short-a-Day Project

07/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Every day, I attempt to dissect a modern (or award-winning) short-story, in the hopes that I will be able to beg, borrow, and steal the techniques that work, and to recognize and subsequently avoid the choices and styles that, for me, do not. Occasionally, I might talk, instead, about a novel that I’m reading, particularly if it introduces — successfully — a new literary device, as, for instance, Adam Levine’s The Instructions does.

I’ve attempted this project before, intermittently posting on my old site, That Sounds Cool, and you can find those old write-ups here. Also, I’ve been ranking stories based on my own personal tastes and preferences, so if you’re wondering if the pieces I’m identifying might be of any use to you, consider this top-ten list of stories from the previous year:

  1. Dagoberto Gilb’s “please, thank you” from Harper’s, June 2010.
  2. Daniel Alarcon’s “Second Lives,” from The New Yorker, August 16 & 23, 2010.
  3. David Bezmozgis’s “The Train of Their Departure,” from The New Yorker, August 9, 2010.
  4. T. C. Boyle’s “The Silence,” from The Atlantic Fiction Issue 2010.
  5. Steven King’s “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” from The Atlantic, May 2011.
  6. Jonathan Safran Foer’s, “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” from The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010.
  7. Steven Millhauser’s, “Getting Closer,” from The New Yorker, January 3, 2011.
  8. Robert Coover’s, “The War Between Sylvania and Freedonia,” from Harper’s, July 2010.
  9. E. L. Doctorow’s, “Assimilation,” from The New Yorker, November 22, 2010.
  10. Daniel Mason’s, “The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I,” from Harper’s, March 2011.

And the three highest ranked stories I read last year (though not from 2010-2011):

  1. Nam Le’s “Cartagena,” from A Public Space, No. 2, 2006.
  2. Preeta Samarasan’s, “Birch Memorial,” from A Public Space, No. 6, 2008.
  3. David Foster Wallace’s, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1999.

In addition, I’ll be adding links to other sites that read fiction, particularly the ones that are either uniquely insightful or extremely critical: it helps if they’ve got a lively discussion, as they do over at Mookse and the Gripes.

My goal is to post a new review every weekday, late in the evening when my brain has been lulled into a less combative and more contemplative state; I hope you’ll stick around.

Where Am I?

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