Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cunningham’s Minutes

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 20.

Michael Cunningham could spend the rest of his life publishing bland, dreary novels, and I would still admire him for having written The Hours. It’s a great book. After The Hours, I thought of him primarily as a writer of novels, until earlier this year I chanced upon one of his short stories. It’s called “White Angel.” Today I read another story by him: “Pearls,” published in The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love… (I’ll stop there, to make a long title short. You can find the rest here.) I’ll spend a few minutes on both of these stories today.

First off, “White Angel” is available online, here (scanned from the Contemporary Fiction edition). It’s a good story. It didn’t really grab me for some reason, even though the plot was good, the way in which it was pieced together was good, and the language and descriptions were very good. The plot is simple: the narrator (Robert Morrow) has an older brother, Carlton, who leads a charming yet delinquent life. Carlton is a heavy drug consumer, and brings his 9-year-old brother into his same habits. Carlton is brimming with enthusiastic ideas about moving to Woodstock nation and starting a new life. The story builds suspense through shock therapy: near the beginning, quite casually, the narrator announces a tragedy to come, and so we spend the rest of the story waiting for that tragedy to happen. How? When? The delay is handled well: at one point, I started to think the early and off-handed warning to the reader had been a mistake, or evidence of an unreliable narrator. The narrator’s grief becomes immense, but he keeps it together, all the way to the end.

The language is succulent; the story is generally bleak, but some descriptions are really sensuous and accomplished. For instance, Carlton’s boots, covered in mud, are said to be “voluptuously muddy.” There are also keen observations dappling the story; take this one: “If he [Robert’s father] senses he’s being avoided he can fall into fits of apology more terrifying than our mother’s rages.” Robert’s mother, Isabel, is a great and forceful character.

The “white angel” from the title comes from a stone sculpture in a graveyard that borders the narrator’s home in Cleveland; it is mentioned again at the end, hovering over a grave. Angels fly, of course, and the story is dotted with mostly tragic allusions to flying: a single-engine plane had fallen on a family watching television; Carlton and Robert (on acid) think they can fly; their mother’s first husband had died in a plane crash; toward the end, after a mournful description, the narrator comments that “[a]bove us, airplanes and satellites sparkle.”

“Pearls” is today’s second story; I couldn’t find it online. It was first published in The Paris Review back in 1982. I enjoyed the tempo of this story much more than I did that of “White Angel.” It may be because it’s a tale of yearning, rather than of mourning, and thus it bursts forth wistfully.

The story is penned by an art professor who teaches in Oklahoma; he addresses a lover who has left him to study art at Yale. She was one of his former students, Angela Feinstein. They made a promise to each other (a test, it was called), not to communicate during the months in which she was away. The story we read is itself a breach of that promise. The narrator feels oppressed by superior artists, and this includes Angela. She is stronger than him, and also much more talented. He craves her, and is desperate to talk to her again. He becomes tyrannical with his students, wanting to transform them into her. He complains about their “rigid, unfeeling lines.” He comes close to having an affair with one of them (“The seduction I staged was a masterpiece of self-mortification”). While we hear a lot from the narrator, Angela never speaks in the story.

“Pearls” makes fine use of words, but objects are more important. The story opens with one of them: Angela’s diaphragm (with “[y]our scent, melony, yet sharp and immaculate as yogurt”). She left it behind as a “token of fidelity.” The main objects, though, are pearls: Angela didn’t leave a note when she left, but instead she hid dozens of imitation pearls everywhere in the house, in places and in things the narrator didn’t even know existed. They keep popping up everywhere (in shoes, in ice cubes, burrowed in curtains), making the story come together in a way that is both funny and provocative. At one point, the narrator piles them up and sleeps next to them. He feels watched by those that remain hidden.

This is a good story. It’s a dialogue in which the silent partner speaks even louder than the jittery, anxious voice we hear chattering away. Angela’s voice is that of “basic symbolic communication,” as the narrator says at one point.

1 comment:

  1. Eric Henwood-GreerJanuary 26, 2011 at 3:57 AM

    I've been trying to find a copy of Pearls online, and this review came up. I'm a big Cunningham fan, and have been trying to find it for a while, with no luck--I guess I'll have to keep my eyes open for the Paris Review (or see if it's worth buying the issue for 40 bucks through their website, a luxury I can't afford right now), but it's great to read your piece on it.

    Cunningham, as you probably know, has disowned his first novel which was published around the time of Pearls, Golden States (I have a used copy coming to me soon--I've heard from many fans that it's very good and doesn't deserve its forgotten status). It'm not sure if thre's any connection, but...

    (And forgive me if you know this). White Angel is an early segment of the first novel Cunningham now considers his, 1990's A Home at the End of the World. It was published early on (I think 1988) in the New Yorker as Cunningham later published a second segment of World the following year in the same magazine, titled Ghost Night (with the character Reuben Glover becoming in the novel Jonathan Glover, the way Robert "Frisco" in White Angel is simply Bobby Morrow in the finished novel). I think the piece works MUCH better in that brilliant novel, than read on its own.

    In 1998 Cunningham similarly published an early draft of some of The Hours' Mrs Brown section, as A Room Atthe Normandy in the New Yorker and it's interesting to see the small changes made for the book. But unlike, it seems, Pearls, these were always intended as excerpts from the upcoming nove,s even in embryonic form.

    Anyway, apologies if this has been pointed out already, I know this is an old blog post, but I thought the context should be pointed out.

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