Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recounting the Lottery

When it was first published (by The New Yorker back in 1948), Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” received a lot of attention. The full text is available online, here, where it tops off the site’s list of “Twenty Great American Short Stories.” I read it in an anthology (Norton Anthology of Short Fiction). All of this speaks highly of the story’s enduring acclaim. However, I don’t think it’s aged well. (Please read the story before going on, because I’ll spoil the ending, on whose mystery the entire tale is propped up.)

“The Lottery” creeps up on you: it starts as a seemingly bucolic celebration in a small town. You see people walking up to a wooden box and drawing slips of paper to see who’ll win the lottery. The person who wins gets stoned to death. It turns out to be a fertility rite.

Both the way to pick people and the way to kill them sound very biblical. They are. There’s a strong sense hovering about that adulterers get stoned in the Bible. Well, yes and no. In Christ’s famous defense of the adulterous woman, the Pharisees challenged him by saying that the Mosaic law “commanded us to stone such [adulterous] women” (John 8:5; NIV). However, the Pentateuch merely says that adulterous people will be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22); no stones are mentioned, although one could presume they were meant to be used. There is, however, a scene in the Bible that combines selection by casting lots with stoning in a way that looks like a blueprint for “The Lottery.” I mean Achan’s execution in Joshua 7:16-26. In that scene, people are chosen by tribes, then the selection is narrowed down until only one culprit is left standing. It is Achan; “Then all Israel stoned him” (Joshua 7:25; NIV). (One major difference, though: Achan was guilty as charged; the stoned person in “The Lottery” was guilty by mere chance.)

Coming back to Jackson’s story, my problem with it is that it’s just too obvious. Take the way it builds up to the ending. As soon as Mrs. Hutchinson comes on stage, you know something bad is coming her way: “Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd.” Too much attention is paid to her. The narrator is evidently lavishing words on her for a reason. It would’ve been great if some totally unknown individual had been chosen, after Mrs. Hutchinson had been under the spotlight all story long. Our capacity for surprise is let down, however, when we see it happen just as we expected: the noisy and disarrayed Mrs. Hutchinson is picked.

The other apparent surprise is the real nature of the lottery. A bit past the middle of the story, we hear this sinister proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” Now you know what’s coming: of course, a fertility ritual. The person chosen will be sacrificed so that the lands will be replenished and the crops will grow handsomely. We read the rest of the story just waiting to see who’s chosen (of course, Mrs. Hutchinson), and what it is exactly they’ll do to that person. Then it’s over, and you’re left with a tale that has a half-hearted surprise ending, and that doesn’t really glitter with its language or its characters. (Okay, here’s one thing I liked: how it shows people accepting the logic of rituals without questioning them, even if those rituals are hideous, as long as they seem fair and socially useful and deep-rooted.)

I couldn’t help but compare “The Lottery” with Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” which I’ve praised lavishly. The comparison left “The Lottery” in a bad spot. Barthelme is evocative. You can keep reading “The School,” and enjoy how it’s built, and how you can’t really pin it down, no matter how much you try. The more you read, the more provocative it becomes, and the more sinister, too. It’s brilliant. Of course, decades separate one story from the other, but, as I said earlier, I don’t think “The Lottery” has aged well.

By the way, it would’ve been nice if Kevin González’s “Lotería” had made a coy reference to Shirley Jackson’s story of the same name. If there was one, I must have missed it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Llamadas perdidas

El celular de Elsa no paraba de vibrar. El bolso entero se sacudía contra el espaldar del asiento. Ella descolgó el bolso del espaldar y lo tiró al piso, pero cayó contra una de las patas de la mesa. Así que en intervalos de cuatro segundos los vasos de agua sobre la mesa se arrugaban en anillos concéntricos. El gerente no se dio cuenta, aunque unos cinco subgerentes miraron a Elsa sin paciencia. Ella se agachó, fracasando en el intento de ser discreta. Los vasos no dejaban de tiritar. Elsa pellizcó el bolso, lo arrastró sobre sus piernas, lo plantó sobre su regazo. Se arrepintió de haber comprado una cartera con un cierre tan grande. ¿Quién diablos se la había recomendado como lo último entre “jóvenes ejecutivas”? Lo abrió por poquitos, haciendo que sus movimientos coincidieran con las palabras que el gerente decía al fondo de la sala. De todos modos se oía cada gruñido del cierre; también el celular, que seguía vibrando. Elsa deslizó la mano dentro del bolso. Sintió las llaves y el pintalabios y la agenda, todos temblando al ritmo de las vibraciones. No encontraba el bendito teléfono. Desde el otro lado de la mesa la subgerente de Telecomunicaciones le dirigió una mirada apocalíptica. Elsa sonrió. Siguió en la cacería. Finalmente sus uñas chocaron con la pantalla, que empezó a vibrar. Elsa tomó el celular de inmediato, fuerte, como para asfixiarlo. El teléfono se defendió vibrando. Elsa lo sacó de la cartera y la dejó caer calladamente sobre el piso, sin cerrarla. Tenía el teléfono sujeto en la mano y lo quería triturar, desaparecer, con todo el odio que reemplaza el amor que uno ya ni entiende ni soporta. Otra vez vibró. Elsa pensó en apagarlo, pero el celular hacía un ruido estúpido y escandaloso al apagarse, mucho peor que el de la vibración. En Movistar nadie le dijo que ese modelo vibraba así. El aire acondicionado se prendió con un golpe que agitó las ventanas de la sala de juntas y Elsa por poco suelta el teléfono. La pantalla del celular se alumbró de nuevo y vibró. Elsa la revisó con disimulo. Alcanzó a ver el nombre de su esposo, junto a un total de 19 llamadas perdidas. Otra vez las vibraciones, y Elsa supo que era inútil sofocar el sonido entre sus manos. Ni modo de esconder el celular en un bolsillo porque tenía puesta una falda. Ahora los subgerentes de Recursos humanos y de Planeación institucional, sentados a su derecha y a su izquierda, la miraron. Con desprecio. Elsa puso el teléfono entre sus piernas, entre los pliegues negros de la falda, y apretó los muslos como en la máquina para ejercitar los abductores en el gimnasio. Empezaba a tranquilizarse cuando vio ese escapulario que el subgerente de Planeación institucional vestía a toda hora. De repente a Elsa le pareció que su manera de esconder el celular era infinitamente morbosa. Rescató el teléfono, se inclinó en un nuevo intento fallido de ser discreta, puso el celular sobre el forro de cuero de la silla y se sentó en él. Sentía las vibraciones contra sus nalgas, como en el jacuzzi del club, pero por fin ya nadie lo podía escuchar. O casi nadie: el subgerente de Recursos humanos se quedó mirándola. Luego la miró la subgerente de Telecomunicaciones y después todos la miraban, cada uno de ellos la observaba en la penumbra de la sala de juntas. ¿Elsa?, preguntó el gerente. ¿Perdón?, respondió ella, sudando. La cabeza entera le vibraba. El teléfono vibraba también. ¿El reporte?, dijo él. Ah, dijo ella. Claro. Perdón. El cliente promedio actual, edades 31 a 40. Pues, brevemente, nuestros estudios indican que es un cliente que se siente traicionado. Siente que escogió una vida que sus padres le vendieron como el ideal y que ahora descubre que es una decepción. El teléfono vibra. Se siente insatisfecho. Depositó sus afectos en personas y en cosas que ya no lo satisfacen. Esas personas o cosas cambiaron, o bien fue él, el cliente, quien cambió. Vibra. Cree, más que nada, que la promesa de estabilidad fue un engaño. Su pareja se tornó insaciable, insoportable. Hasta enfermo. No hay manera de convertir en felicidad el atropello de discursos que se pelean por su atención todos los días. Los discursos del éxito material, de la felicidad desprendida, del amor cristiano, de la autosuficiencia. Bastó una mirada del subgerente de Contabilidad para que Elsa cayera en cuenta de su propio llanto. Con la mano se secó rápidamente una lágrima que llegó hasta su quijada, arrastrando los colores de todo su maquillaje. La penumbra la protegió. El teléfono vibró. El gerente comentó que el equipo de mercadeo debía ser conciente del perfil de esos clientes para poder dirigirles a ellos la próxima campaña. Apuntó hacia la franja roja de un diagrama proyectado sobre la pared y siguió hablando. El celular vibró. Elsa se agachó por el bolso y sacó un Kleenex. Se lo pasó por la cara. Frente a ella, en la mesa, su bolígrafo reposaba sobre un reporte financiero y unas hojas en blanco. Debajo de Elsa el teléfono produjo un ruido de alerta. Sus vecinos la miraron. Elsa reconoció el sonido: se estaba quedando sin batería.

Monday, September 28, 2009

An Iffy Post: DFW on Grammar

“Most dictionaries’ usage notes for if are long and involved; it might be English’s hardest conjunction. From experience born of repeated personal humiliation, I can tell you that there are two main ways to mess up with if and make your writing look weak. The first is to use if for whether. They are not synonyms—if is used to express a conditional, whether to introduce alternative possibilities. True, abstract grammatical distinctions are hard to remember in the heat of composition, but in this case there’s a great simple test: If you can coherently insert an ‘or not’ after either the conjunction or the clause it introduces, you need whether. Examples: He didn’t know whether [or not] it would rain; She asked me straight out whether I was a fetishist [or not]; We told him to call if [or not? no] he needed a ride [or not? no]. The second kind of snafu involves a basic rule for using commas with subordinating conjunctions (which are what if is one of). A subordinating conjunction signals the reader that the clause it’s part of is dependent; common subordinating conjunctions include before, after, while, unless, if, as, and because. For most kinds of sentences, the relevant rule is easy and worth remembering: Use a comma after the subordinating conjunction’s clause only if that clause comes before the independent clause that completes the thought; if the subordinating conjunction’s clause comes after the independent clause, there's no comma. Example: If I were you, I’d put down that hatchet vs. I’d put down that hatchet if I were you.”

(David Foster Wallace, in the entry for the word “if”, in
(The rest of Wallace’s word notes for that dictionary have been
scanned into a PDF file —with distortions, take note— here)

And since we’re on the subject of dictionaries, here is Wallace on the Oxford English Dictionary:

Only the OED has both definitions and in-context samples for just about every significant word in the language. Actually, why not screw appearances and just state the obvious: No really serious writer should be without an OED, whether 20 volumes, a CD-ROM, or online. Nothing else comes close.

(from the “hairy” entry)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pequeñas resistencias

“Las novelas —aunque no todas— venden más; los cuentos —aunque con excepciones— venden menos. ¿Son acaso por eso mejores las novelas? ¿Es justo seguir presentando como argumento literario lo que es una simple jerarquía comercial? Muchos de los abajo firmantes no sólo no nos oponemos a las novelas, sino que además las hemos escrito y publicado. Y a pesar de eso, o quizá por eso mismo, quisiéramos expresar nuestra perplejidad ante ese arraigado fenómeno que podría denominarse la oficialización de la —supuesta— inferioridad del cuento. Una cosa es que todos estemos más o menos sujetos a las leyes del mercado, y otra bien distinta es confundir el valor con las ventas, los méritos con los numeritos, el cuento con el cuánto”.
(De: “Manifiesto: La Rebeldía Breve”,
incluido al inicio de Pequeñas resistencias)

Hace poco conseguí los volúmenes que integran la serie de antologías llamadas Pequeñas resistencias, que recorren el mundo hispanoamericano, empezando en España y terminando en Puerto Rico. Los criterios empleados para la antología fueron un acierto: los autores deben ser residentes en el lugar del cual se hace la antología (sin importar su país de origen), deben haber nacido después de 1960 y deben haber publicado por lo menos un libro de cuentos; además, por lo menos uno de los cuentos seleccionados para la antología debe haber sido previamente publicado.

El resultado es una serie de obras verdaderamente ambiciosas, publicadas entre 2002 y 2005. La editorial fue Páginas de Espuma, que reforzó así su compromiso con el género.

Lo que reproduje al inicio fue parte del manifiesto que encabezó la primera de las antologías (este primer volumen tuvo la particularidad de incluir múltiples cuentos de algunos autores, y una poética de cada uno). El manifiesto lo firmaron varios escritores, entre ellos Fernando Iwasaki, a quien me referí hace unos días. Ofrece una defensa enérgica del formato del cuento. Tiene sentido. No obstante, el afán de resistencia muchas veces se traduce en un deleite con el virtuosismo que tiene en mente a otros literatos, y no al “lector común [con su] carencia de sensibilidad literaria, fruto sin duda de una defectuosa formación” (las palabras no muy delicadas son de José María Merino en el prólogo de Pequeñas resistencias). Así se puede ir generando una separación aún mayor entre lectores y cuentistas, lo que puede provocar un nuevo afán de resistencia… y así sucesivamente.

En todo caso, para los que disfrutamos el cuento, estos volúmenes son un excelente recurso. Debo destacar también la precocidad del editor, Andrés Neuman, hoy ganador del Premio Alfaguara de Novela 2009 pero en ese entonces —al iniciar el proyecto— un cuentista y poeta de 23 años. Participó en los cuatro volúmenes, en ocasiones aportando textos, en ocasiones seleccionando los cuentos, en ocasiones escribiendo el prólogo.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dos sobre la escritura / Two on writing

“el elemento que más ha coadyuvado a establecer ese espíritu de cuerpo entre los neopoliciacos iberoamericanos ha sido una común postura estética que de algún modo los define y los caracteriza a todos: la de saberse contadores de historias, creadores de fábulas sobre la sociedad contemporánea y la de trabajar con la intención de romper los elitistas códigos de la literatura escrita para otros literatos, que tanto abunda y aburre en nuestros panoramas editoriales. Empeñados en sostener que la aventura es la sustancia de la mejor novelística de todos los tiempos —desde el Quijote a nuestros días—, estos autores han establecido una doble comunicación con el mundo que los rodea: primero al tomar de ese universo las historias de que se nutren y luego al devolverlas ya escritas al ámbito real en que viven esos seres necesarios —a veces olvidados por muchos escritores— que son los lectores” (p. 21).

Leonardo Padura Fuentes, “Miedo y violencia: la literatura policial en Iberoamérica”. Variaciones en negro. Relatos policiales iberoamericanos. Ed. Lucía López Coll. San Juan: Editorial Plaza Mayor (2003).
(El cuento de Santiago Gamboa en esa antología está disponible aquí)


“[Such are] the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests” (p. xix)
“How many writers have put on other faces, or had other faces thrust upon them, and then been unable to get them off?” (p. 139)

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Anchor Books (2002).

Dos breves repiques del boom

Una amiga, muy buena lectora, me dijo que le había pasado algo curioso con Cortázar: todo lo de Cortázar que leyó en su adolescencia le encantó; todo lo que ha releído ahora, unos años después, la ha desencantado.

Había pasado un tiempo desde que leí a Cortázar, así que me propuse probar esto conmigo mismo. Me senté con un puñado de sus cuentos. Indudablemente, los textos son de un gran dominio técnico. Cortázar genera universos paralelos, que se intersecan real o imaginariamente, con gran facilidad. Produce momentos de humor (con instrucciones propias de un manual descabellado, como en “Conducta en los velorios”) y nos lanza detalles sugerentes con desenfado. ¿Qué tal la despreocupada desintegración del matrimonio de Marini en “La isla a mediodía”, o sus planes para apoderarse de la isla? El universo de “Autopista del sur” es acertadamente minucioso. Lo más instructivo fue devolverme a encontrar el punto exacto en el que las historias se desdoblaban, el momento en que los textos nos engañaban para creer que había un continuo que llevaba a lo imaginario. (Por ejemplo, la elisión lenta del condicional “treparía […] entraría […] pescaría […]” en “La isla a mediodía”; en cambio, la natural familiaridad con lo urbano al inicio de “La noche boca arriba” me pareció un recurso desleal).

Sin embargo, en este pequeño experimento no me dejó tan entusiasmado la prosa de Cortázar. Lo repetiré con más calma, y sobre una muestra más grande. Pero por ahora sí debo decir que entendí algo del desencanto del que hablaba mi amiga.

Después de Cortázar, tomé a alguien más del boom. Quería saber si tal vez ya ese tipo de literatura había demostrado ser tan influyente, se había vuelto tan imitada, que tal vez me estaba pareciendo irreparablemente gastada. (Hablando de eso, ¿qué tal el registro cortazariano del cuento “Trato hecho”, ganador del Juan Rulfo en 2007? Como dije en otro momento, no estoy yendo en contra de “los clásicos” en general, ni mucho menos).

Para poner a prueba esta impresión sobre los cuentos del boom, leí un puñado de cuentos de García Márquez. Sí, había destellos de buen lenguaje (y otras descripciones de mucho menor destello, como la frase “Parecía un pajarito ensopado”, en “Sólo vine a hablar por teléfono”). Pero no podía declararme impactado. Hasta que llegué a “El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve”, que me dejó fascinado. Es un cuento sobre dos jóvenes de la élite de Cartagena (Billy Sánchez, Nena Daconte) que se casan y viajan a Europa para su luna de miel.

Es verdaderamente brillante la manera en la que el cuento te seduce, te mantiene a ciegas, te divierte, hasta soltarte la noticia del final, con un impacto que no es mitigado sino reforzado por la brevedad fatalista con la que nos la comunican. La espera ominosa es muy bien manejada. La idea que la da al cuento su nombre es fuerte y sugestiva: Nena Daconte saca por la ventana una mano que gotea sangre y dice: “Si alguien nos quiere encontrar será muy fácil […] Sólo tendrá que seguir el rastro de mi sangre en la nieve. […] Imagínate […]: un rastro de sangre en la nieve desde Madrid hasta París. ¿No te parece bello para una canción?”. Por otra parte, en el encuentro entre el bárbaro rico provincial que es Billy Sánchez y el melifluo orden milenario de París surgen contrastes que darían para un buen ensayo sobre la “bárbara” América y la “civilizada” Europa.

Desde luego que no pretendía hacer aquí un ensayo sobre estos dos grandes de la literatura contemporánea. Sólo quería ensayar en carne propia la decepción de la que me había hablado mi amiga. El texto de García Márquez es, sin duda, una de los cuentos del boom que no produce esa impresión.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In what furnace

Dinner went well. She half-expected it wouldn’t. And that was so her: half-expecting, quarter-knowing, sixth-sure. That statistical training of hers was a dangerous match to her pessimism.

Admittedly, though, there were good reasons to expect a total failure that night. These men, these upper management types who used MBA programs as nude camping sites, they always had a way of hitting on her that she found, at the very least, tiring. Perhaps it was her youth, perhaps the confidence she showed in class, perhaps the tight black pants. But there were always two or three who asked her out when her classes were over. Some were subtle about it, some were not. Some at least faked an interest in the challenge of leadership in horizontal and interconnected organizations, some did not. For years she shooed them away because of Mark, and later because she was hurt beyond her means by all those horrid things Mark did. And taping her, too, Lord, taping her. She was somewhat recovered when this man, Lee, asked her to join him for dinner. He was suave about it, par for the course with such men. And he was gorgeous, also par for the course. She said yes.

Dinner was served in a room with glass walls at the end of a pier in Lee’s lake house. She had expected other people: a dinner party. But it was just her and Lee. They smalltalked through a first bottle of wine, and spoke of business over the second bottle. He protested against theory, which she defended halfheartedly by putting data before anecdotes. She said first-hand knowledge was too iffy, and he showed a real obsession with instinct.

She felt on familiar territory with this subject, but at the same time nauseous and light-headed. The wine, the food, the rippling lake, sure, but his looks kept growing increasingly possessive, staking her out. Was it all in her head? Was this bossy attitude of his all in her head? True leadership persuades, she told herself. This talk of horizontal organizations may have been driving her a bit over the edge after all.

She had an urge to run, but it was kept in check because she knew she’d fall off the pier after a few yards. She looked for water and drank the whole glass to the point of dripping it down the sides of her mouth. Lee filled her glass, and then did the same with her wine glass. Again.

“Well, the dinner went well,” she said, and got up. A faux pas, she knew.

Lee took a sip of wine, put the glass down, placed his cloth napkin on the table, got up. He gazed down at her. “It did go well,” he said, unmoved.

She started toward the door, and waited for him on the pier. He caught up sullenly.

“Before you go,” Lee said, “let me show you something.”

He led her up the pier, into the house, and out a side door that produced a big patio. The light was dim, but she sensed motion around them. Her sight adjusted, and she found the distinctive wet glimmer of eyes, which she quickly recognized as animal eyes, moving at a distance, circling her. Then she made out thin bars that added up to Plexiglas cages embedded in foliage. A zoo? She felt confused enough to ask this aloud.

“Sort of,” Lee answered. “But that’s not what I wanted to show you. Come.”

They walked a few yards toward the lake. Lee held her hand. Was that a jaguar? They marched on, then stopped, and Lee stretched out his left hand toward the last cage. She approached, and covered her mouth with a gasp.

“Dear Lord!” she said.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lee asked. “It’s my latest acquisition. Finding it was difficult enough, and then all the paperwork. A nightmare. But it’s here now.”

“He looks…”

“It,” Lee corrected her. “It looks.”

“Oh. Well, he does have that… huge penis down there.”

Lee belched a single peal of laughter. “It certainly looks a like a human penis,” he said. “But you’re missing the point. It’s a male of its species.”

“It is…” she said absently. “I’m sorry, he looks so…”

“Majestic?”

“Human. So human.”

“Well, those great apes do look a whole lot like us. Or well,” chuckling, “it is us who look like them. They’re a window to our past.”

“But the expression on his face,” she insisted. Lee glared at her, annoyed. “Is he a tribesman from somewhere? He knows we’re watching. He knows this isn’t just that his universe, well, shrunk. No. He knows this is a spectacle. And, oh my God, hear that. He is saying something.”

“Laura,” Lee said as he wedged his body between hers and the cage, “it is not saying things. It is just grunting. It’s got vocal capacity, like other great apes.”

“I hadn’t seen any ape like him, Lee.”

“I know. It’s a terribly underreported species. This is actually part of a rescue effort. I may be getting a female of the species soon.”

She tried to snatch another look, but Lee’s body covered everything.

“Come,” he said, clearly disappointed, “it is getting late.”

They marched out of the patio, and made their way to the front door. Lee walked her to her car. She thanked him for dinner, and he said his doors were open anytime. She realized the phrase was mere politeness. Lee shook her hand, and pecked her lips goodbye. Then he climbed the steps into the house. She sat a full minute with her windows rolled up, staring blankly at the night. Had she left something behind? Then she noticed the red sparkle of a security camera, aimed at her. She started the car at once, and the engine roared.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Microterror

Por una serie de recomendaciones indirectas llegué hace poco a Ajuar funerario, del peruano Fernando Iwasaki (Madrid: Páginas de Espuma [2004], 126 pp.). (El texto completo, en un formato distinto al publicado, está aquí). Ajuar funerario es un libro de micronarrativa: en 109 páginas de texto se acomodan 89 microrrelatos, ninguno de ellos de una extensión superior a las dos páginas, algunos de unas pocas líneas. Esto, en principio, me genera desconfianza; los microcuentos caen fácilmente en el género de los chistes o los forwards. Este fue el caso de por lo menos uno de los textos del libro; el resto logró un equilibrio cuando menos interesante con la economía verbal que el autor se autoimpuso.

Además de ser un libro de micronarrativa, Ajuar funerario es una obra de literatura de terror. O al menos ese es el propósito declarado (la contraportada dixit). Todos, o casi todos, los textos gravitan en esa dirección. Sin embargo, el registro que logran no siempre es el terror. Los temas son variados. Algunos microrrelatos son sobre la muerte (como “La casa de reposo” y “Vamos al colegio”). Algunos son principalmente crueles u obsesivos, involucren o no la muerte (como “Peter Pan” y “Los yernos”). Uno de ellos (“La silla eléctrica”), que compara la silla eléctrica con la del dentista, pretende ser un chiste; creo que debió haber sido extirpado de la colección. Muchos (la mayoría) involucran elementos sobrenaturales: hay cantidades de fantasmas (por ejemplo, “Papillas”), hay hombres lobo (“Última escena”), hay monjas caníbales (“Dulces de convento”) —y en general hay monjas malvadas por doquier—, hay vampiros (“Monsieur Le Revenant”).

Algunos textos entran en diálogos literarios: está “Del Diccionario Infernal del Padre Plancy”, que evoca el Devil’s Dictionary de Ambrose Bierce. Y está “El libro prohibido”, que se asocia de manera consciente con el libro infinito de “El libro de arena” de Borges, y que de hecho ejecuta algo que el narrador de Borges rechaza (“Pensé en el fuego, pero temí que la combustión de un libro infinito fuera parejamente infinita y sofocara de humo al planeta”, había escrito Borges).

Una nota sobre los títulos. Algunos simplemente reiteran elementos de los microrrelatos: por ejemplo, “La mujer de blanco”, en un cuento en el que hay una mujer que se viste de blanco. Otros títulos dan información ausente en el relato, que los complementa: por ejemplo, “Halloween” nos ubica rápidamente en el tipo de celebración que el texto describe. Este es un uso eficiente de los títulos, importante ante la escasez de palabras; me recuerda el famoso poema de Pound (“In a Station of the Metro”). Otros títulos son más simbólicos: “Longino”, por ejemplo, en un texto que no menciona al autor del famoso tratado literario, pero que sí se refiere a la supresión del dolor.

Ahora, el lenguaje no siempre me pareció convincente. Me gustó esta idea: “Sobrevivir supone un mínimo de ilusión” (87); sin embargo, en general las narraciones no incluyen ese tipo de frases. Me gustó la descripción “luz asmática” (42); la enfermedad otra vez se asocia con la luz más adelante: “tuberculosa luz” (68). Otras comparaciones son menos afortunadas: “apesta como una muela podrida” (113) me pareció débil, tanto a nivel descriptivo como temático. Aquí está una frase que empezó bien pero que luego se perdió en un afán artificioso por decir algo sobre la vida: “Me entusiasmaba en cambio imaginar que, aún después de la muerte, mi corazón podía seguir latiendo, mis ojos gozando de la belleza y mis riñones esculpiendo filosos cálculos dentro de anónimos cómplices en ese juego irracional y materialista de aferrarse a la vida” (21). Lo de los riñones que esculpen cálculos me pareció ingenioso, pero no me llevé la misma impresión de lo que viene después, con la invocación innecesaria de un juego irracional y materialista.

En términos de la narración, a pesar de la brevedad de los relatos muchas veces me pareció que algunos elementos sobraban. Por ejemplo, la astuta combinación del mundo y la metáfora en “Father and Son” (64-65) se pierde con el último párrafo, que desperdicia la sensación de incertidumbre que se había generado. La última frase de “Violencia doméstica” (25) pareció dejarse tentar por un juego de palabras (con la palabra condenado), pero pudo haber terminado mucho mejor. En “Dulces de convento” (33-34), los últimos dos párrafos le dan un aire fallido de saga a un texto que hasta ese punto era acertadamente oscuro y ansioso. “El cuarto oscuro” (59) busca un efecto semejante al de un cuento de Vonnegut que describí hace poco, pero esto se vuelve demasiado obvio y a la vez se pierde con la admisión de que el narrador estaba describiendo una pesadilla.

A pesar de todo, es un libro entretenido, que te mantiene a la espera del próximo experimento, del próximo instante de terror, de la próxima voz narrativa. Me dejaron una mejor impresión “Del apócrifo Evangelio de san Pedro (IV, 1-3)”, “Última escena”, “Los yernos” y la secuencia de “La chica del auto stop” (tres textos en cadena). Tal vez el más completo podría ser “Última escena”, sobre una criatura que ha estado atacando una aldea. La última escena cuenta con un giro interesante (un doble giro, de hecho), y las escenas de destrucción son bien logradas. En todo caso, es alentador que la editorial Páginas de Espuma, una aliada del cuento desde hace años, ya pudiera reportar tres impresiones de este libro al año de haberlo publicado.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Samplers Left Behind

Just a quick note to complete unfinished business: when I posted some comments on McSweeney’s 31, I mentioned it came with a “summertime sampler.” I said I’d probably talk about this sampler later. So here’s later.

The sampler is 16 tabloid-sized pages long, and it includes samples from three novels published by McSweeney’s: Bill Cotter’s Fever Chart, Jessica Anthony’s The Convalescent, and James Hannaham’s God Says No. You can read shorter samples of the first two of those novels here and here.

I guess a sampler is meant to entice you, so that you can’t wait to get your hands on the full-length novel. With that in mind, the only sample that made me want to read ahead was that of Cotter’s Fever Chart. It’s about a man who recently left the Boll, a psychiatric center. All sorts of foul things happen to him on the outside, from a house without a heater in winter to the same house, whose heater doesn’t switch off now and is thus out to spew mattresses in balls of fire. Another patient, Martha, becomes important in the narrator’s life, and interest builds up around her apparent death as the sample ends.

The Convalescent starts off by parading information only an omniscient narrator would know, and then it falls back on a first-person narrative starring Rovar Pfliegman. Pfliegman is filled with information, and quirky longings, like his desire to feel like a full-blooded Hungarian. He is very short and very hairy, and things just don’t ever work out for the Pfliegmans, the last of whom is Rovar. He sells meat off a bus that lost its mobility after an accident.

Finally, the sample from God Says No shows a man who drifts away from his religiousness, in part motivated by his attraction to men (even as his marriage to a woman called Annie draws near). The narrator is pained by his own desires. There are a couple of good lines, like so: “if Jesus is answering your prayers, you must be asking for the wrong shit.” The blows delivered to religion are cheap, and rather disingenuous. The bildungsroman part of the story was more interesting.

In general, though, I must say these novels, at least in the bits presented in the sampler, seem to try really hard to impress. They’re in-your-face funny, and in-your-face wild (especially the first two). So wild, in fact, that you can no longer be surprised by anything that happens. For instance, I had enough of Pfliegman with the pages I read; I can’t imagine a whole novel along the same lines. Yes, it still made me laugh all the way to the end of the sample, but it sometimes read like watching a brainy sitcom in fast-forward. Something similar could also be said about Fever Chart. If the sampler works, and I do turn to any of the novels, I’ll post something about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On This Summer's Zoetrope

Last week I got a copy of the Summer 2009 edition of Zoetrope: All-Story. Sure, I had read stories from Zoetrope before (here’s one I commented on a couple of weeks ago), but I had never held the print edition in my hands. It has a striking cover, and the pages are filled with photography. This abundance of images makes the slender volume quite tiny: there are six short stories in all, one of them two pages long. (About the artwork, well, it’s contemporary; some of the blobs of paint dripping on pages 27-28 were interesting. The guest designer was Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons.)

After I read the first story, I thought I’d be disappointed by this edition. Boy was I wrong. The following four stories were all superb.

The first story was “At the Airport,” by Ryu Murakami. A woman is waiting at the airport for a customer who’s grown into her lover and with whom she is now planning to elope. She is divorced, one of the details about her life that we learn as she fills her time with scattered thoughts. The story itself didn’t strike me as anything special. It seemed like something plucked straight out of a writing exercise for a workshop, sliding into flashbacks and then being tugged back into empty, present-tense waiting. It’s like a connect-the-dots image in which you can still see the numbered points and the color code. Having said that, I liked the ending. It was to be expected, and yet it was soothingly unexpected at the same time.

Next came Kurt Vonnegut, with a short story called “The Nice Little People” that is sold individually by Random House as an e-book, and that will be collected in a volume of unpublished short fiction (Look at the Birdie). I thought Vonnegut was done with writing short stories, or so he said in Timequake. I’m glad he wasn’t. “The Nice Little People” is fantastic. Reading it was strange, though: I enjoyed the story as I scuttled from one paragraph to the next, but when I got to the end, two thoughts came up, one after another. First: That was it? I feel cheated! Second: Oh my God, this is brilliant.

It’s a story about a man who finds an object, and through that object “[w]hole new worlds […] opened up” (32). If you haven’t read the story, please skip to the following paragraph. The object is a knife-shaped spaceship peopled with tiny creatures. The man who finds them, Lowell, is an amicable man accustomed to servile decency. He feeds these little people and nurtures them. Then his wife arrives, and he finds out she’s having an affair with her boss and is going to leave Lowell for him. Lowell says he’s perfectly all right with it. He’s friendly and understanding. However, the tiny creatures fly the spaceship out of Lowell’s hand and ram into his wife’s heart. He calls the police and then he “told his story calmly, from the finding of the spaceship to the end.” The story cuts off. But here’s the ingenuity: what we get is that extremely colorful story that was told by a man accused of cold-blooded murder. If we had heard Lowell telling this tale to the police, we would’ve thought him mad. Since we get the story as a story, we are nudged into believing it, into accepting it as truth. And at the end we are forced to confront it with the grimy world of criminal confessions, where Lowell’s story will be deemed completely bogus. Ah, Vonnegut.

Then there’s “Monsters,” by Pasha Malla. It’s the tiny one of the bunch, less than two pages long. Still, it was very good. The idea of monsters comes up again and again, with variations, as if we were watching it in a kaleidoscope. The monster is a disease, it’s a man masturbating on the beach, it’s a strange sea creature. The story manages to cram into two pages a tale of a marriage that is collapsing, childhood memories, and a gathering of friends at a Chinese restaurant. It opens with an ominous sentence that seemed out of place at first (“Before the end we find a mole on your shoulder that might be a monster” [38]), but it’s not like that at all once you’ve read through to the end. And the rhythm is riveting: “And then the experiment was over and Laura went back to her seat across the room and then the class was over and then high school was over and then university was over and I got a job and Laura got cancer” (39).

The following story is called “An English Professor,” by Ha Jin. It’s completely different from the previous ones: sterile, bleak. And yet it’s very good. It’s about a Chinese man (Rusheng Tang) who works as an assistant professor in the English Department at a school that is “basically a teaching college.” He is submitting all the paperwork for a tenure evaluation. He’s not a very inspired teacher, but he lucked out by getting a manuscript admitted by the SUNY Press. All the departmental conspiracies are at work in the tenure process, which tow along insecurities, alliances, suspicions. Rusheng finds himself in crisis when he realizes he’s made a spelling mistake in the application: he wrote “Respectly yours,” instead of “Respectfully yours.” He scurries around every dictionary to find it as an alternate spelling, but it’s just not there. (The OED doesn’t have it, either.) He is profoundly ashamed. Not only should he know better as an English professor, but he writes a grammar column for a Chinese newspaper: “People wouldn’t treat it as a mere typo or slip. It was a glaring solecism that indicated his incompetence in English” (45). He starts thinking about turning to other professions: sales would be good, for instance, so he goes to an interview. (This seemed like a perceptive remark: “He told himself a salesman could make a good living, and that this is America, where there’s no high or low among professions as long as you can draw a fat paycheck” [49].) The end has a surprising element that may seem out of character, but I liked it anyway.

The fifth story is “Felix Starro,” by Lysley Tenorio. It’s about a Filipino healer who comes to the States to cure sick Filipino Americans and charge them enough money to save up and live off it in the Philippines for years. It would seem like a prime candidate for the kind of problems I’ve described in a wide array of recent (and popular) “ethnic” stories (e.g., Le and Quade). However, it’s quite good. It’s an immigrant’s tale, made more complex by its particular form of healing (which is assumed in a strictly businesslike manner), and alloyed with anxieties and disappointments that don’t turn it into a victory tale for the illegal immigrant, nor into an exaltation of the “strangeness” of the foreign. The narrator constantly struggles with his desire to settle in the States, with his disgust for the type of healing practiced by his grandfather (the title character). The story seemed to be headed clearly toward a given ending, but its inner convulsions along the way make the ending rather poignant. It’s well done.

The final story is “Tetro,” written by Francis Ford Coppola (the founding editor of Zoetrope) as the basis for his movie Tetro. It started off okay, but there are twitches as it moves along that don’t fit in well with a story. (Coppola says he’s been writing screenplays for years.) The lines in Spanish are clumsy. With more space, and the vividness of characters and cameras, it could grow into an interesting tale. I haven’t seen the movie, though.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cuentas


[Este cuento se retiró temporalmente del blog].

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pamuk’s Distant Relations

“Quaint” was probably not what Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was aiming for with the story “Distant Relations,” published in a recent edition of The New Yorker. (The story is available here.) But “quaint” was the sense I got after reading it.

It’s not a bad story. In fact, it kept my interest from start to finish (it’s seven pages long). I wanted to find out the nature and impact of a life-changing event mentioned in the opening sentence. The story is narrated by Kemal, a Westernized Turkish man, who remembers events that happened in Istanbul in the seventies. He’s about to get married to Sibel, a woman who “studied at the Sorbonne” (meaning that she studied in Paris). Kemal is the son of a wealthy and seemingly emotionally detached entrepreneur; Sibel is the daughter of a former ambassador. They have premarital sex, which makes them feel wild and liberal—while also making sure that, when she indeed “gave herself” to the narrator, wedding plans were on the way.

What seems quaint to me is the kind of society portrayed, and the narrative structure used. It reminded me a lot of Guy de Maupassant, in fact. There’s the language used to describe women, for instance, both in terms of their characterizations and of their effects on men (upon seeing the beautiful Füsun—with her “beautiful lips” and “beautiful arms”—, the narrator says this: “my ghost had left my body and was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Füsun and kissing her”). Or there’s the language of almost preordained social classes, which figures so largely (perhaps most notably here: “Sibel was the daughter of a retired ambassador who had long since sold off his pasha grandfather’s land and was now penniless; technically, this made her the daughter of a civil servant, and this status sometimes caused her to feel uneasy and insecure”). There are also several descriptions that seemed inevitably worn out (take this trite metaphor: “Fearful of the sexual beast now threatening to rear its head, I took my hand from her hair”). Along the same lines, was there really nothing better than the almost hollow references to Füsun’s “beautiful lips” and “beautiful arms”?

There’s a lot of that in “Distant Relations.” What makes it contemporary, and not entirely in the grip of Maupassant, is the fact that the story snaps off the ending toward which it was building up. In Maupassant, and authors of a similar persuasion, the narrative in “Distant Relations” would lead us all the way to the end, which would probably come as a tepid surprise after a trail of clues. (There are exceptions to this in Maupassant, of course.) In “Distant Relations” we only get the clues. That was clever enough. One of the first clues, and by far the most telling, comes up near the beginning: the narrator made a “clumsy gesture that, later, Füsum often mimicked.” And so we know that a causal encounter with a distant relative will probably blossom into an affair, which may even derail the narrator’s marriage. The scene is set for the affair toward the end, and we don’t know if the narrator will pull through with the marriage. Probably not: his dinners with his mother, who had encouraged him to marry his fiancée, turn sour as time passes, “her eyes filled half with sadness, half with reproach.” Such glimpses of the future dot the entire story.

Thematically, it’s interesting to see how Füsun’s body helps the narrator grow obsessed with his own body: “her body, with its long limbs, fine bones, and fragile shoulders, reminded me of my own. Had I been a girl, had I been twelve years younger, this was what my body would have been like.” He also refers passionately to her as “my sweet, inconsolable, grief-stricken, beautiful sister.” There are two ghosts in the story, too, once when the narrator says, “my ghost had left my body” (I had quoted this already), and another when “Füsun’s reflection appeared ghostlike in the smoky glass.” Is there a Pygmalionesque theme here? Maybe an urge to carry on through his own distant relations? These images would probably reward a closer look.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Short Story Month: What Just Happened

So it’s over. This self-proclaimed short story month, I mean. I went through with it in probably one of my busiest months this year (there were duties everywhere), but I wanted to keep my word, and thus step in on day one and step out 31 posts later. The posts differed: some referred to a single story, some to a couple, some to a whole anthology or a full issue of a literary magazine. I did my best to keep them interesting, at least, and I hope it worked. The aim was to honor the short story, a post a day. I’ll have to take a couple of days now to, you know, breathe and all, after which I’ll post something like a short retrospective.

For now, here were the subjects of posts in English (missing numbers are found in the next list, below):

1. Toni Cade Bambara’s “Raymond’s Run”

2. Daniel Alarcón’s “A Circus at the Center of the World”

3. Joshua Ferris’s “The Valetudinarian”

4. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

5. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008

7. Aaron Gwyn’s “The Gray”

8. Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin”

9. Lorrie Moore

10. Joe Meno’s “Children are the Only Ones who Blush”

11. John Barth’s “Click” and “Toga Party”

12. Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story”

13. Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” and “Boys and Girls”

14. Samuel Beckett’s “The End”

15. Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightblooming”

16. Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

17. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 31

18. Dave Eggers’s “Max at Sea”

19. Donald Barthelme’s “The School”

20. Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel” and “Pearls”

22. Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “Five Wounds”

23. Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief”

26. Short short fiction from Quick Fiction

27. Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and “War Dances”

28. David Mitchell’s “The Massive Rat”

29. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”

30. Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”

31(b). Kevin A. González’s “Lotería”


Y estos fueron los temas de las entradas en español:

6. El nuevo cuento latinoamericano

21. Gustavo Nielsen, “El café de los micros”

24. Guy de Maupassant

25. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Los amantes de Todos los Santos

31(a). José Luis González, “La carta”