Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Peripatetic Coffin




Every year, Dzanc publishes an interesting book called Best of the Web. In it, they gather fiction, poems, and non-fiction that have been published in exclusively online literary journals. One of the regular quarries is a journal called American Short Fiction, which has published people like Joyce Carol Oates. Well, one of the stories published in American Short Fiction was recently picked to be a part of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Short Stories 2009. Now that’s huge for the story itself, for ASF, and for the world of online journals in general. It means that a short story published in an exclusively online journal joined the nearly centenary and highly selective ranks of the Best American Short Stories series.

Okay, about the short story itself. It’s Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin,” which you can read in a sober PDF document here. The narrator fights for the Confederate States at the time of the American Civil War, and he’s part of a crew that pilots a rough-and-ready submarine that looks like it could tilt the balance of the war. The “peripatetic coffin” of the title is, of course, that submarine.

I’ll start by nagging about words. The story’s historical setting makes a reader, at least this reader, very self-conscious about the language used in the story. I keep asking myself if the word choice is historically accurate. (For instance, it’s confusing to see the adjective “shell-shocked” surface on page 89, when the notion of shell-shock itself was devised during WWI; the OED shows the first recorded use in 1915. It’s different when dialogues in historical pieces are rendered into another language, as in Naomi Williams’s “Snow Men.”) There’s another problem with word choice, one I’ve criticized before, and it’s that a specific narrator has to use not just any word in the dictionary, but believable language. I can’t easily imagine the ragged soldier narrating the story turning at that time to a word like “insouciance” (p. 89) or to phrases like “their response has so far outstripped the ethereal bonds of brotherhood that we blanch at our capacity for self-regard” (p. 102). This is a constant problem throughout the story. A final note on this subject: I think “bow augured into the mud” (p. 93) must have confused “augur” with another verb. As it stands, it doesn’t make much sense.

Moving on to the narrative, the opening line is too ethereal to be gripping and it moves with an ease entirely at odds with the content. Furthermore, the way in which the narrator introduces himself in the second paragraph is too, I don’t know, obviously literary. Finally, the ending wasn’t satisfying, with its Aeneid brand of already-fulfilled prophecy, nor were the final musings on valor and immolation.

This will seem like a mostly negative report on “The Peripatetic Coffin,” but I think it’s worth reading, anyway. Most of the story plods on fine, and you can share the soldiers’ feeling of despondent expectation. It’s also a good chance to revisit a very interesting period of history.

2 comments:

  1. Although "shell shocked" may officially have originated as a WWI term, it is possible that the term got some use as far back as the Civil War or before. It is not a tremendously technical term. It has the feel of slang.

    The other language problems could, arguably, be justified as language used by a very educated person in the South at the time of the Civil War.

    I find the suspicious language that you speak of more intriguing than poorly crafted by the artist, but I do think your viewpoint could be more accutare than mine.

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  2. Anon: Thanks for your comment. Language is something that's always tricky when writing untranslated historical fiction. (What I mean by this is fiction that aims to present the same flow of words that existed in a different historical period. Two examples of "translated" historical fiction would be Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers and that short story I mentioned in the post: "Snow Men.") This hunt for authenticity can drive you mad, like it has some followers of the TV show Mad Men (evidence of that here).

    Making the case for a Civil War use of "shell-shocked" is difficult. For one, there's the OED's 1915 citation. Antedating that will be tricky because the concept arose when psychologists started to treat WWI victims. Maybe the condition of being shell-shocked existed as an intuition, but apparently not as a concept. For a brief take on how shell shock came to be, Tom Burns's Psychiatry: A Very Short Introduction is useful (pp. 11, 25).

    I've thought about this story a lot after it was published in BASS 2009. I still think it had problems with language that demanded greater care. If you feel comfortable with the language in the story, though, let's remember it is a story written for readers in our time, so your perspective is as accurate as any. It was created for us. I'm glad you liked it. And thanks again for your comment.

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