Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carried Away by the Lower River

Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” (published by The New Yorker last month) is a great story. Its full text is available here. Okay, so it’s a bit uneven. It seemed to miss a step when it started, but then it catches on and it keeps you hooked until the very end—when it offers no easy solutions, psychological or otherwise. More on this in a minute.

“The Lower River” is a story about an elderly American man, called Altman, who travels back to the tiny town of Malabo, in the south of Malawi. Altman had been a teacher there for four years when he was younger, and he remembers it fondly (“his Eden,” he calls it). People quickly remember him when he returns, they almost idolize him, and he glows with the warm reception: if only people back home could see him now, he thinks. He feels nothing has changed (“It was as it had been—[…] a world that was ancient in its simplicities”).

But things have changed. The village leader is a young and wily man called Manyenga, who greets Altman with uncertainty and respect at first, quickly asks for money, and then constantly cheats Altman and leads the town in a collective effort of keeping Altman in demeaning captivity—an effort masquerading as praise and obeisance. They call him “Father” and “chief,” even while they struggle to keep him from straying away. Manyenga tries to match Altman with his niece. Altman becomes intermittently sick, intermittently angry, utterly impotent. He tries to leave or get help, but fails every time. The villagers show him respect again when he runs out of money—and will thus need to make a run to town to get another cash withdrawal with his credit card. But we realize this respect is all for show. In the end, Altman plays out the rituals of salutation and propriety with the newly diffident Manyenga—“but this time without hope.”

All this sense of being trapped reminded me of powerful moments in Coetzee’s Disgrace. As I read, I kept begging Altman to shake himself free and run away. But this was asking too much from this sickly and entrapped man. There is a grippingly realistic existentialism at work (nonexistential existentialism, if you will). In the end, we’re not caught in a deranged person’s mind, or shunted into a different realm of existence. Such an existentialist nightmare is staged and run by this-worldly people. And, as a story, it works rather well.

I said “The Lower River” missed a step when it started. What I meant is that it takes a few paragraphs to really latch on to Altman’s consciousness. The story is narrated in the third person, but it follows Altman’s thoughts closely, using him as the narrative’s prism. For instance, when Manyenga makes a grunting sound early on, we are not told what the grunt “really” means; we get this: “Altman knew that the grunt meant money.” We are not told abstractly about the villager’s fear of snakes: “The villagers feared snakes, he knew.” This is a familiar form of focalizing narratives. But it’s done unevenly. At first, the narration explains things Altman wouldn’t need to recall. In the first paragraph, for example, Malabo is not just Malabo, but “a village called Malabo.” Why say this? Altman knows it’s a village, and as readers, we could figure it out painlessly. The second paragraph is a long description that seems plucked from a travel guide. Furthermore, the second section has this sentence, which seems to have wandered in there from some other text: “Like many other resort areas in Africa, [Malawi] was a country where local people starved and the few tourists ate well and were fussed over.” This is no longer intrusive when the story continues, as it focuses on Altman.

Some descriptions are luscious, made with just the right words. I liked how, after having lived a year in Malabo, Altman “had understood the inflections of the weather.” I liked the provocative way in which Altman, seeing the thin and probably famished girl Manyenga keeps thrusting on him, thinks “she had the starved angularity of high fashion.”

I enjoyed seeing a story like this in The New Yorker. Stories of the everyday have become quite common (one might even say the norm in many short story venues); I do enjoy tales that educe powerful descriptions from the quotidian, stories in which nothing out of the ordinary happens and yet we feel moved by the language and the insights and the characters. However, it’s great to be reminded of how the imagination can lead us to situations that drive people to extraordinary challenges, where, yes, even life itself hangs in the balance.

Friday, October 30, 2009


[Esta entrada ha sido temporalmente retirada del blog.]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Alarcón in BASS 2009

This year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories is off to a dour start. The series editor’s Foreword tells us that, “[a]t this time, all sorts of publishing seem destined to disappear, or at least exit from this challenging time enormously scathed. I have talked with editors who claim that literature is dead” (p. ix).

Then we get this edition’s editor, Alice Sebold, elaborating further in her Introduction: “We are living, as I write this, in the worst economic conditions almost any of us can remember. In the world of publishing, good people have lost their jobs, and more job losses are on the horizon. Whole divisions of venerable publishing houses are falling away. Historic names are disappearing overnight, there one day and gone the next. The individuals who have survived so far are not quite sure why, and spend hours every day doing a job—editing quality fiction—that the powers that be are beginning to deem no longer necessary” (p. xv). In such a milieu, she goes on to say, best ofs—along with other awards and prizes—are a good way to help talented writers stand out.

Well, in the face of such a dismal diagnosis, there we have it, BASS 2009. That’s always interesting news. I’ll comment on the volume as a whole later, but some things stand out. Four stories (out of twenty) came from The New Yorker, which is a huge number for a single magazine that publishes a story per issue. It’s also noteworthy that a single electronic journal, American Short Fiction, had two of its stories chosen for BASS 2009. I had discussed one already (Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin”), and I must admit I was somewhat surprised when I finally saw it here, in print; it’s not a bad story, sure, but is it one of the twenty best published in the US and Canada over a whole year? I don’t know.

The first story in the volume is Daniel Alarcón’s “The Idiot President,” which I missed when it was published last year in The New Yorker (here). This story was hatched as part of Alarcón’s new and unfinished novel, but it “took on a life of its own,” as the author says in a note at the end. I’ll spend the rest of the post briefly discussing that piece.

I had discussed a story by Alarcón a while back, and I was left with half-hearted appreciation: yes, it’s good, but it’s not something to go gaga over. The same goes for “The Idiot President.”

We’re back to a remote setting, this time high in the Andes, where everything always seems unbearably cold for the narrator, an urbanite called Nelson who’s always longing to move away to California. Nelson goes on a two-month tour of the countryside, with a politically motivated theatre company called Diciembre. They perform the play “The Idiot President,” in which a despotic president chooses random people from the population to serve him for a day. The idea for the play is good, and Alarcón says it was the “spark” that set off the entire story. The theater company visits far-off settings, and the story comes to a climax during a performance in a mining town: there is no electricity for the night performance, and the show takes place using the miners’ helmet lights. It’s a powerful image.

I liked that the story didn’t end there. It was bold of Alarcón to keep going. People probably advised him against it. The story continues. Nelson doesn’t move to California. He drifts hazily on with his life, working odd jobs and living on the verge of impecuniousness. He puts all his hopes on getting a small part as an informant in a soap opera. He feels he’s fated to get the part: the character’s name in the soap is Alejo, and that was also the name of the character Nelson played in “The Idiot President.” After a month, though, measured by the creep of forest fires in the inaccessible California, nobody had called.

There are some interesting asides on how acting bleeds into life (and viceversa: the whiter-skinned of the crew plays the president, while the darker-skinned plays the servant). There are some nice thoughts on the changes wreaked by the country’s prosperity, the sense that much has been lost, and that a dictatorial unanimity has crawled into power. That was all handled well, as are many of the tale’s details, placed carefully and teasingly throughout the story. But I must admit I did want to see a narrative that didn’t take place in far-off locales, with such a hearty presence of the exotic. Maybe next time. For now, though, “The Idiot President” is worth reading.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Apostasía del culto a los escritores

Hace un tiempo alguien me dijo que evitaba los eventos de escritores, porque prefería leer a los escritores y no tener que conocerlos. Quien me lo dijo es un escritor. Ayer precisamente tuve la oportunidad de comprobarlo.

Desde hace varios meses no asistía a eventos de escritores: tal vez el último fue la terrorífica conferencia en la que todos los miembros del público resultaron ser poetas hiperpublicados (y desconocidos); un poco antes, estuve en el Hay (que incluyó un recital de poesía algo desencantador). Y no es que hubiera perdido el interés en esos eventos (hace tan sólo unas semanas estaba consultando la programación del festival de The New Yorker). Ayer, en cambio, me llevé una impresión muy distinta, que confirmó lo que me había dicho ese escritor.

El evento de ayer reunió a dos autores conocidos. Los entrevistó una persona reputada en el campo del periodismo cultural. Del público no brotaron preguntas bochornosas, ni soliloquios de elogio propio, ni nada semejante. El evento marchó bien. Los escritores fueron elocuentes. Les hicieron preguntas sobre sus técnicas para escribir, sobre cómo creaban sus personajes, sobre formas de evitar reproducir en sus escritos las obras que leían. El conversatorio duró hora y media. Hubo aplausos al final, y la gente abandonó la biblioteca en filas muy organizadas. Sin embargo, al salir me sentí visceralmente comprometido con no volver (al menos no gustosamente) a ese tipo de eventos.

Lo que me disgustó, y mucho, fue el endiosamiento de los escritores. Ese es el común denominador de estos eventos. La gente rinde pleitesía, se develan misticismos poco camuflados, se genera un culto por la psiquis milagrosa de ese creador que se sienta desarmado de su lápiz frente al público. Se avivan ciertos sentimientos entre los asistentes, e incluso muchos escritores llegan a creerse la adoración que les profesan (algo que puede generar serias distorsiones en su personalidad). Creo que hay dos cosas que motivan ese tipo de eventos.

La primera es el culto romántico a la figura del artista. Vivimos aún bajo la sombra del romanticismo, que veneraba el genio artístico, la originalidad, la creación. (En cambio, ¿quién se imaginaría a Shakespeare, que ni firmó algunas de sus obras, que tomó prestadas casi todas sus tramas, que era un gran mercader de su escritura, hablar trepidante acerca de sus procesos creativos?) Esta veneración romántica se tornó incluso más marcada en los siglos XIX y XX, cuando el avance de la secularización hizo que los espacios de la religión se coparan con los espacios del arte. De esta forma, millones de personas, que antes adoraban los elementos sagrados de la religión, convirtieron a los artistas en los sacerdotes de la nueva religión del arte. Todo esto lo recuerda muy bien Margaret Atwood en Negotiating with the Dead (“Throughout the nineteenth century, the perception of the artist’s role shifted: by the end of it, he or she was to serve this mystic entity—Art with a capital A—by assisting in the creation of sacred space, as contained within the borders of the work of art itself”).

Lo segundo que motiva estos eventos es la comercialización. Estos actos son estupendas formas de mantener vigentes a los escritores ante los clientes potenciales, y de esa forma promover las ventas. En muchos casos se venden los libros directamente en el evento, con el valor agregado de que el escritor los firma. Hay autores que gastan más energías mercadeándose en estos actos que escribiendo libros que valgan la pena. Aclaro que, como estrategia comercial, no creo que esté mal; si yo manejara una editorial, probablemente organizaría cosas así. Lo que realmente me molesta es la explotación alegre de una desenfocada reverencia por los escritores.

Curiosamente, uno de los autores del evento tuvo una reacción muy apropiada ante esa reverencia. Cuando la conversación se dirigió hacia el tema de los escritores como vehículos de los dioses, y cosas semejantes, este escritor tomó el micrófono y llamó a la calma. Dijo que no, que él no se consideraba un agente de los dioses al escribir. Lo consideraba un talento, puesto al servicio de un oficio. Tal como en los deportes hay gente con grandes talentos, y se esfuerzan por aprovecharlos, así dijo que hacía él con su escritura.

Muy lúcido, me pareció. Claro, todos los top performers suscitan cierta admiración, desde el gran intérprete de la gaita hasta el experto podador de bonsáis. De esa admiración por todos los grandes exponentes de su arte u oficio se nutre el libro de Malcolm Gladwell que ha puesto el término outliers en boca de tantos. Volviendo al caso concreto de los escritores, claro, es fascinante leer entrevistas que nos enriquezcan la apreciación por la obra de cierto autor, o que nos den una mejor percepción del contexto en el que escribió. (Como las famosas entrevistas del Paris Review, o este muy interesante artículo sobre David Foster Wallace). Pero una cosa es admiración y otra es veneración. Los eventos literarios tienden a enfocarse en lo segundo. Y en ese sentido creo que es sano profesar algo de apostasía, y concentrarse en leer los escritos que nos gusten.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Appeal of Breathing

Lydia Peelle first published the story “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” in One Story back in 2007. The story was picked up by Pushcart Prize XXXII. It then became the title story in Peelle’s debut short story collection, published this year by HarperCollins; it’s gotten good reviews. Peelle was recently named one of the five writers under 35 by the National Book Award (a distinction celebrated by One Story). All of these seemed like good reasons to read the story. I couldn’t get it from One Story (it’s sold out), so I read it in her book.

The story is narrated by a hopeless woman whose life has turned rather messy. Her husband left her recently; we find out he had been cheating on her for years (looking for fun women, he said), and even then they still see each other on occasion and have meaningless sex. She has an office job, which dully consumes her days.

The story is kick-started by a chance encounter with a herpetologist in a crowded, cold bus. The herpetologist is a university professor, and he invites her to visit him at his office. She does, and her interest in reptiles blooms. She is drawn to them, to the heat, to the professor’s dark basement. She helps him feed all sorts of reptiles. He gives her a copy of his book (published thirty years back). She is intrigued by reptile adaptation, by the struggle for survival, by the way human beings are destroying reptile habitats. At one point, deep in her awe for these creatures, she tells the herpetologist she loves him; he says no, she doesn’t. We hear no more about the herpetologist after that, and so we don’t know if, say, he refused to see her anymore because of that incident.

Through her fascination with reptiles, the narrator starts to grasp transcendental matters. “I’ve witnessed,” she says, after a snake dies in her hands, “a slight parting of the curtain that hangs over the unknown” (110). A little later, she catches “a glimpse of the infinite. Then I am inside of it, for one suspended moment—tiny, inconsequential, and utterly free” (113).

That’s the story. The title is admittedly weird—and admittedly catchy. It comes from a chapter on evolution in the herpetologist’s book (105). The struggle to breathe bobs up thrice in the story: the narrator says she was “holding [her] breath” (99), she was seized by a “sudden desire to breathe” (107), and she manages to “catch [her] breath” when staring a dark pool filled with salamanders (112). And there’s something else: the narrator says that years ago she tried to commit suicide by drowning in a river.

The herpetologist gets some great lines. For instance: “Trust the body, not the mind […]. The body loves itself” (103). (Speech is italicized in the story, sans quotation marks.) And here’s one of the most revealing lines of the story, also said by the professor: “All these diverse adaptations, with one common goal […]. To live to see tomorrow” (101).

Peelle slaps biological facts thickly on some pages, without ruining the pace or smothering the story. In fact, all that information is justified (because the narrator is interacting with a herpetologist and she’s also reading his book). Besides, those tidbits are quite interesting. The story has no explicit literary allusions (none of that “make it literary” that the older Pynchon —in Slow Learner— criticized of the younger Pynchon). There may be at least one reference burrowed deep in the text. At some point, the herpetologist says this about a toad: “She knows no such word as ‘should.’ She knows only ‘can’ and ‘do’” (106). Okay, this might be a stretch, but that last sentence brought me directly to a line I love in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great I: “‘will’ and ‘shall’ best fitteth Tamburlaine” (3.3.41).

The text plays effectively with its layout. The story is divided into twenty-two titled sections, with names like “Shell,” “Navigation,” and “A Raft.” These sections move the story along well, but the very fact of having these divisions is significant; the narrator tells us that, in her bouts of insomnia, “I lie in bed and page through my list of dread and regret, starting with my childhood and ending with polar ice caps. Everything in between I file into something like schoolroom cubbies, marked with labels like disaster and desire” (96). And that is more or less what we get in the story, sections with labels like “Deficiency” and “Perpetuation.” In her One Story interview, Peelle says she was inspired by the categories of biology textbooks, and thus with the thrill of the “organization of chaos.” The playfulness also comes through when the narrator takes a field guide page about a frog and assembles it into a poem (109).

The language is rich and evocative. I liked, for instance, the “voices tinkling” at a party (104), and the array of sensuous descriptions of snow and the weather. (Was this why the book was shelved under Poetry at the bookstore where I hunted it down?) Then again, there are some glitches in the language that left me puzzled. For instance, the word “looms,” such a particular and descriptive word, looms twice in a same paragraph (97-98). And “the wind slicing through my clothes” (97), a description I liked the first time around, came back to my disappointment a couple pages later: “The cold air is slicing through my clothes” (100). A friendly reader could’ve suggested making such simple changes.

All in all, I liked the story. I wasn’t awestruck, but it was good. The narrator seemed like a somewhat muffled and dampened Lorrie Moore character (leave it to Moore to pull off glittering lines and so much humor from despairing characters such as Peelle’s). Also, Peelle’s story reminded me a lot of Claire Vaye Watkins’s story “Graceland,” published recently in Hobart 10 (its narrator is also keenly concerned with animal life and environmental disasters, and floats on feebly through the narrative). Of course, Peelle published her story first, which makes me think Watkins’s piece used Peelle’s as its inspiration. Even then, I still find Watkins’s story brilliant, all of it so elegantly woven together, its narrator’s inner conflicts masterfully projected on an entropic world.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Another of Those

It was going to be another of those arugula and balsamic dinners with a troop of overworked Fiji-drinking lawyers and CPAs who are into finance and travel to Caribbean islands and talk way too much about both those things. There would be evil eyes cast about to doom new couples put together from the remains of old couples: and so, say, Tricia would munch on her feta cheese while giving foul looks to Albert for dating Rick now instead of her, or at least her and Catharine by turns. So typical.

But there was nothing of the sort. I knock on the door, 1980 chardonnay in hand, bracing for the Tricias and Alberts of this world, and instead I’m greeted by a redhead with a Hindu dot on the forehead and a rangy man whose articles of clothing are all made of hemp. His name is Sundance Meeks, and hers is Autumn Glory. I know their names and the rate of hemp articles because they tell me this as they get my coat.

“This isn’t made of hemp, is it?” he asks as he feels the collar. Not unless marihuana plants grew wool. He knows this, I know this. But it’s his way of bringing up the subject so that he could tell me all about the miracles of hemp.

To be honest, the patchouli might have given them away.

So it was going to be one of those bonfire escapades with stranded horticulturists who grow all their body hair long, and talk about the system, man, and want to hug all the time even though they have this thing against deodorants. Such a predictable evening.

I finally find Joan, in the kitchen.

“You’ve grown fruity on me,” I tell her. “About bloody time, too,” I add, looking for a bottle opener.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well, this commune here. You know, the incense, the, I don’t know, saris.”

“Oh,” she says. “I’m not that sure. Look, Tricia is here. You remember Tricia.”

“I do,” I say, shaking hands with Tricia.

“These are all her friends from the gym,” Joan goes on to say.

“Okay, I get it,” I say, not getting it at all. Then Sean comes in, and for some reason I want to go for one of those effusive hellos. But he walks right past me, and shows Joan a phone number written on a formerly very well crumpled Post-It note.

“Oh, that,” she says, just as I manage to pop the cork. I take a swig right from the bottle, and no one notices. Everybody in the kitchen is staring at Joan, at Sean, back and forth. Me too. The whole sick crew is staring.

So it’s going to be one of those nights. The host and the hostess get into a big fight, he rips the knob right off the oven, which ruins the turkey completely, and she tosses the rest of the hors d’oeuvres under the fridge, and people keep staring at the bottom of their glass, and they both say nasty things about each other’s friends while the fight blows up into this hideous quarrel, the shame of which they’ll never recover from, at least not as that couple that always threw those great parties in Audubon Street. You can see it coming a mile away.

And suddenly Sundance gets on the scene, and takes the wrinkled note away from Sean’s hand, and hugs both of them at the same time, and makes them swear they’ll feed this to the ash-heap. Hey, I’m just quoting.

“Yes, let’s,” Joan says. “Please.”

“Okay, let’s, my bear,” Sean says.

And it’s all kiss and make up. Or hug the hemp guy minus deodorant and make up.


We go outside again. I’m confused, and I can’t remember if it’s because I’m on my third glass of wine, or if the wine is on its third glass because I’m confused. Or, well, whatever.

The point is some woman sits next to me on the beanbag chair. Next to me quickly turns into partly over me. It’s a beanbag.

“You must be Sean’s friend,” she says.

“Why would you say that?” I ask, and this frenzy of hiccups takes over me.

“Well, you’re wearing a yellow Café Brazil pin on a mauve long-sleeve with brown boots and a black belt. You have to be a Taurus to be so stubbornly wrong about your dress. And Joan wouldn’t take a Taurus in her life, not of her own free will.”

She’s unfazed by my hiccups. I try to wash them away with a mouthful of wine, but my next hiccup catches me off guard and I end up squirting some wine on the rug below. Red wine, mind you. I try to be discrete about it. The Taurus lady doesn’t seem to notice. And I could’ve sworn I was on the left side of the beanbag a minute ago.

“So that’s what mauve means?” I ask, finally able to talk.

“Oh, silly,” she says. “Mauve is my second favorite color. Magenta is my first, look.” And she strips. That’s wishful thinking for she lifts her shirt to reveal a color palette tattooed on her back. “Some people can’t tell them apart.”

“Shame on them, the boors,” I say. “Well, that tattoo of yours sure beats something in Mandarin.”

“You’re such a klutz,” she scolds me, laughing and snorting. “Mandarin is not a color. It’s a fruit.”

Okay, so it’ll be that kind of night. She’ll say something about love being in the cards for me, and we’ll turn to really hard liquor until we stumble onto a trolley, take it all the way downtown, get some daiquiris on the go and some beignets for here, consort uneasily with the trust-fund Goth kids from Nebraska or some such frozen state, go to her place and find she’s rooming with an overly curious guy from Nashville who never wears a shirt, and end up talking of fifth and sixth favorite colors over brunch at La Madeleine with huge bags under our eyes, all of it strictly Platonic. It’s so obvious.

But then, with a chummy tap on my thigh, she wrestles away from the beanbag and leaves. I couldn’t get a real good look so I’m not sure if she would’ve been worth the beignets.

I go back to the kitchen for more booze, and find it completely pillaged, except for Rick and Albert making out while Autumn puts together a new unglorious tray filled with what’s left of stuff to nibble on. A wheat cracker here, a grape leaf there.

“So it’s over?” I ask, but it comes out way, way louder than I intended.

Autumn looks at me with compassion. Rick and Albert don’t even look.

I turn my glass upside down to lap up the final drop, but I miss. When I walk out of the kitchen, it is over. Joan and Sean are busy cleaning the place up. A man on his way out offers me an organic cigarette, which is just too weird a concept to refuse. And that’s that. Glassy noises come out of the kitchen. A plate breaks somewhere.

So why was I supposed to care about this kind of night? Jeez, I would’ve left halfway if I knew how it was going to end.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


The New Yorker and Zoetrope are up there among the most prestigious venues for short stories, and actor and writer Sam Shepard published something on both, a few weeks apart. So why not comment on both stories at once?

I read “Land of the Living” first. The New Yorker has it on its website, here. It’s a simple enough story about a family (mother, father, two kids) from Minnesota that goes on vacation to Cancún. The tale looks pretty uneventful, stirred by funny dialogues and the typical stuff that goes awry on vacation, until, out of the blue, the wife asks her husband if he has a girlfriend. He denies it promptly, but he spends more time and energy remarking on how inappropriate it is to talk about this in front of the kids, and asking where she’s getting her ideas from. Your cell phone, she says when asked; a woman called. It could’ve been anyone, he protests. This is a first-person story, narrated by the husband, so we could’ve gotten a flat denial any time; we don’t. The story ends when the family gets back home, and the narrator’s phone is blinking in the middle of the bed. We are left guessing if there was indeed a girlfriend. Somewhat random conversations, and a man dying on the airplane, flesh out the rest of the story.

I thought it was good enough. Three things about it. First, some of the descriptions were good. The language was simple yet robust, and it manages to appeal to the senses and be thematically rich at the same time. Take this sentence: “The constant wind off the Caribbean is tearing at the palms, forcing them into a savage dance.” It’s simple, but the words are well chosen. An adjective more, and you’d have an overweight sentence.

That quote also ties in with the second thing I wanted to say about “Land of the Living.” Note the “savage dance.” There is a sense in the story of things shirking from being themselves, and also of the past impinging on your perception of things. This is especially significant when it comes to the narrator’s take on Mexico. While the American travelers were waiting in line at customs, some of them break into song, and here’s what the narrator says: “The Mexican officials in SWAT-team uniforms look on in stony silence, arms clasped behind their backs, black Mayan eyes unmoved by this Nordic display of bravado.” There are “Mayan ruins” in Cancún and images of “Mayan demons” in pottery, but there is also a “Mayan waiter” at the hotel. Another provocative reference to Mayans is this: “Huge billboards welcome us in English to the ‘Mayan Riviera,’ as though Mexico were embarrassed to be Mexican.” Look at what we have: the narrator sees Mayans everywhere in Mexico, but the people he sees have probably as much of Mayan in them as the people from St. Paul have of Nordic tribesmen. They see each other as contrasting, and thus they bring their knowledge of the past to bear in the relationships of the present. In fact, this is what the narrator says while looking around at his family and wishing they were just strangers: “How much happier we might be if we didn’t know each other at all. No history. No remorse.” No girlfriends from the past haunting them on this trip, either. And yet, I didn’t find the story really cashed in on those echoes and themes. They seemed to land casually on the page, instead of being pressed from different angles for all their worth. That would’ve made it much more interesting.

The third thing about the story is that not everything was quite there. Take this sentence: “Another passenger, who said he was a doctor, knelt beside the man and unbuttoned his shirt, then began pressing and releasing his chest with his hands laid one on top of the other.” I’ve added bold to three pronouns. The first one refers to the patient, the second to the patient, and the third to the doctor. Of course, context holds the key to understanding who’s who, but it’s still clumsy. Granted, it was a difficult description to write (neither the doctor nor the patient have names), but there were many ways around that.

There was also Shepard’s Zoetrope story. It has a long title: “Thor’s Day (Highway 81 North, Staunton, Virginia).” (Zoetrope only offers the first handful of lines for free, here.) One of the things I liked best about “Land of the Living” were the forceful descriptions, courtesy of the narrator. “Thor’s Day” has no narrator. In fact, it’s all dialogue.

There are always two voices. It seems they are the same two voices, all the way up to the end, when a waitress addresses one of those voices. At that point (because the waiter says “sir”), we figure out that at least one of the voices is a man. The voices are probably lovers (“We always sat side by side in Roswell so we could hold hands and touch each other’s thighs”). One of the voices is depressed (breaking into tears at the sight of blueberry pancakes, say); the other voice is exasperated by those outbursts. The exasperated voice storms out at the end, to wait in the car; the other voice begs him or her to stay, and even draws blood while trying to clutch that person’s wrist. That’s when the waitress comes in. She says she took a while because of the far-away corner where the person was sitting. The man tries to order blueberry pancakes.

My guess is that both voices belong to the same person. The person is having a dialogue with himself, displaying the split personality that gave schizophrenia its name. The dialogue is cut short by the waitress as the story ends. One can be sure it will resume.

Neither of the stories was wonderful. But they were both worth reading.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Deep Bite

I’m not exactly a fan of vampire literature. But, heck, so many people are these days that it’s up there as a major cultural phenomenon. The bookstore I visit most frequently has a whole flank that houses vampire books (of course, Stephanie Meyer has her own glimmering niche); people write down their name and number on pads, waiting to be called when the books they’re craving get in. Writers have been commenting on this in the papers (like so). Short blog posts have ignited involved discussions on vampire popularity, with some people saying it’s nothing new, and others claiming it is. On top of all this, someone in my family has joined the ranks of authors writing vampire novels—with enough success to prompt sequels.

So I wonder what’s behind the immense popularity of vampire literature. Industry reports must have very detailed answers, but I had a hazy, makeshift explanation of my own. My guess was that it had something to do with blood, and that it had something to do with materialism. There must be a cyclical fad element to it, too, but I’ll leave that aside for now.

First, there’s blood. Many cultures have turned blood into all sorts of lasting, profound symbols. Take the Bible, for instance. In the Bible, blood is deeply tied up with the very idea of life. When Cain killed Abel, it was Abel’s blood that cried out from the ground. Also, spilling human blood is understood as a sin so heinous that it cannot be compensated with money. Blood must be let out of dead animals in order to eat them the biblical way. And it’s not just in the Bible. Margaret Atwood, in chapter 6 of Negotiating with the Dead, musters quite a bit of evidence that points to blood as the quintessence of that which the dead seek, and thus finds in it a point of connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

So eating blood, particularly human blood, is an especially charged symbolic act. That is appealing in itself, but transgression, generally considered provocative, makes it more so.

Second, there’s materialism. Vampires are perfectly attuned to our deeply materialistic age. They live forever, they can stay beautiful, they can hoard riches and have passionate relationships. People can relate to that; they can even crave that and want to become that. One can see why someone would want to identify with Lestat, but, really, who would want to swap places with zombies or with Frankenstein? Vampire literature seems to resonate quite well with teen readers, and no wonder, in an age group anxiously concerned with looks and belonging and attaining. Imagine that, having youthful beauty forever—and all sorts of power (over your elders, say) and status symbols, too. It’s a way to beat death and stay fleshful—even if one person’s success is paid for with other people’s blood. It starts to sound like a warped and savage form of capitalism. Bottom line: sadly enough, we can relate.

That’s my half-baked theory. Maybe it holds water. Having said that, a couple of days ago I discovered a book that I’d have to read if I wanted to pursue this further. It’s called The Vampire Archive, edited by Otto Penzler, and it was published this year. It holds over a thousand pages of vampire stories, from classics like LeFanu and Stoker to modern masters of the genre like Stephen King. I was surprised to find some names in there I would’ve never associated with vampires, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, Ambrose Bierce, and John Keats. The anthology really deserves a closer look.

Plus, the opening pages (courtesy of Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman, and Otto Penzler) were revealing. For instance, Newman shows that, despite a millenarian history of blood-drinkers, our modern notions of vampires come from a single man: John Polidori. Polidori wrote up Lord Ruthven in his 1819 novel The Vampyre, and thus spawned the now familiar “coldhearted, sophisticated, aristocratic fashion plate who indulges in a style of melodramatic villainy.” (By the way, Polidori’s novel came out of the same bet that goaded Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein; Penzler calls that night “perhaps the most significant single moment in the history of supernatural literature.”) Of course, Bram Stoker, propped on LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” made Polidori's icon more long lasting through Dracula, which was not as wildly popular when it first came out as it became later. Newman traces how vampire literature strayed from horror literature in general and became its single most successful offspring. Few significant vampire novels were written in the mid-twentieth century, but vampire literature flared up again in the 70s, with Stephen King’s Salem Lot, Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. All of this is worth looking into. And The Vampire Archives seems like a great place to look first.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Joyland: Malla’s Internet and Meno’s Ghost

I just discovered Joyland, a short fiction magazine with an interesting partition: they’ve splintered the magazine into cities, and each city has its own editor and manages its own submissions (submissions must come from people who’ve lived in the city, but the stories don’t need to be set in the city). It’s an interesting concept.

Well, on my first promenade through Joyland, I chanced upon two authors I’ve commented on before: I had liked Pasha Malla’s story “Monsters,” on Zoetrope Summer 2009, and I had enjoyed Joe Meno’s One Story piece, “Children are the Only Ones who Blush.”

On Joyland, I first read the story by Pasha Malla called “The Other Internet.” I didn’t like this one nearly as much as “Monsters.” It’s an interesting thought about a free and communal Internet, spread thin through 16 paragraphs, without any characters or actions. (I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s not a story because it lacks such things.) It reminded me of Vonnegut’s brilliant description of a war movie shown backward, but Malla’s account lacked the wit and intense critique of Vonnegut’s pages. The next-to-last paragraph in Malla’s story becomes suddenly sexual, and it seemed like a way to create a facile high note for readers as they approached the end of the story (and thus their final impression of it). While the “chafing palms” detail seemed cleverly slipped in, the bit about the “the most rapturous, sheet-ripping orgasms anyone has ever had in their life, including the ferociously perverse” registers differently from the rest of the piece.

I also read Joe Meno’s “Frances the Ghost.” It’s a story about a mother (Janet) whose life is roiled by her husband’s (Mickey) departure to military duty in Iraq. Janet and Mickey have two children: Frances (about eight years old) and a baby. Janet is a nurse, and she keeps her day job by leaving her baby with her mother while she’s on duty; Frances stays at her grandmother’s house after school. Frances has a hearing problem, for which she doesn’t want to wear a hearing aid. She gets in trouble at school often, particularly for being violent to her peers. Frances and Janet fantasize about Mickey’s return. Janet writes him imaginary letters, for instance. She is growing desperate without him; she’s on the verge of cheating (there’s a 35-year old veteran she likes) and on the verge of giving up. Frances has coping problems of her own: she wears a blanket with openings for her eyes in order to hide from everyone at school (hence the title of the story). The story follows Frances and Janet through what seems like a normal day (perhaps being stung by bees isn’t that common for Frances, but taking pot breaks during work does seem normal for Janet).

The narrative is jumpy. The narrator sometimes follows Janet’s thoughts, sometimes Frances’s. The story even switches to a small section in the second person, addressed to a kid passing by Frances, while she’s sitting on her grandmother’s front porch. The action jumps from one setting to another and from one character to another, and it even skips ahead in time. There are descriptions that could’ve been fine-tuned. Take this sentence: “A hundred bumblebees, excited by the prospect of so many melting sweets, hang above the ice cream truck in a glittering cloud.” The “excited” clause in the middle seems out of place: was it really necessary to make the bumblebees’ intentions explicit, or would we have been better served by just saying they buzzed over the spilt ice cream (obviously excited)? I don’t think this story topped the previous piece by Meno I had described (I missed the humor, for one), but it was a good read anyway.

El perseguidor

Hace poco me referí a un experimento con un puñado de cuentos de Cortázar y de García Márquez. Hoy vuelvo a Cortázar. La razón es que, con ocasión de un cuento reciente, alguien me recomendó muy enfáticamente “El perseguidor”. Es difícil desatender las sugerencias hechas con tanto ímpetu, así que hoy aproveché para cazar y leer el cuento de Cortázar. Lo leí en esta antología; descubrí en Internet una versión desordenada (y quizás con errores), aquí.

Lo primero que salta a la vista es la extensión del cuento. Ocupa más de 50 páginas en la edición que leí, lo que lo pone en un limbo entre cuento largo y novela corta. Procede parsimonioso por esas 50 páginas, con algunos destellos que recompensan la lectura, sin llegar a generar gran suspenso o fuertes emociones. El cuento es un estudio de un artista soberbio, pero el estudio no se hace desde la tarima, durante sus presentaciones geniales, sino desde el andén, mientras el artista se droga y colapsa y desvaría. (Y desvaría mucho, a veces en direcciones interesantes).

El artista en este caso es Johnny Carter, un jazzista estadounidense que pasa un largo tiempo en Europa. El narrador se llama Bruno V.: es el biógrafo de Johnny, y un crítico de jazz. La historia se desarrolla principalmente en París. El lenguaje que hablan es francés, pero leemos un texto que se traduce automáticamente al español (de Argentina, además). La novia de turno de Johnny es Dédée, una acólita que siempre termina cediendo ante las presiones de su pareja. Otra mujer gravita alrededor de toda la acción: Tica —la marquesa—, que acompaña a Johnny con una generosidad libertina y una chequera que siempre lo saca de aprietos. Ante ese panorama, el final del cuento es bastante predecible.

Uno de los aspectos más interesantes del texto es la relación que plantea entre los críticos y los artistas. Bruno acompaña a Johnny y se preocupa por él, pero a la vez lo envidia y teme que Johnny vaya a echar a perder la biografía que se vende muy bien y que se traduce a más y más idiomas. Bruno dice sentirse como un evangelista. Se impone a sí mismo distancia (subraya esto al final, para evitar un arrebato de emoción). Su puritanismo —dice— lo aparta de la irresponsabilidad casi absoluta de Johnny. A lo largo del cuento presenciamos una lenta transformación de Johnny, el ser humano, en Johnny, el protagonista de la biografía. Hay ideas específicas e interesantes sobre críticos y creadores. Por ejemplo, Bruno ofrece “un buen resumen de la vida de un crítico”: “ese hombre que sólo puede vivir de prestado, de las novedades y las decisiones ajenas”. Pero, a la vez, “los creadores […] son incapaces de extraer las consecuencias dialécticas de su obra, postular los fundamentos y la trascendencia de lo que están escribiendo o improvisando”. Es una relación que pareciera ser parasítica pero necesaria, complementaria.

El cuento contiene unos elementos técnicamente interesantes. Por ejemplo, hay una sección de escritura en vivo durante un concierto (“esta taquigrafía garabateada sobre una rodilla en los intervalos”); a pesar de eso, el texto de esta sección no es muy diferente del resto. Hay una larga sección hacia el final (a partir de “Pasarán quince días vacíos”) narrada en un hipotético futuro; se termina fusionando con la descripción con la que el cuento concluye. Muchas de las conjugaciones en esta sección son en tiempo futuro, y, como este es Cortázar, no sabemos si en definitiva ese último tercio es pura fantasía del biógrafo (con todo y actos de infidelidad), que quiere ver a su propia biografía triunfando y opacando fatalmente a su sujeto.

Aunque hay secciones e ideas interesantes, el texto no me deslumbró. Por un lado, la textura es relativamente sucia. A veces ni reconocía la pluma de Cortázar, usualmente precisa y lúcida. Por ejemplo, hay repeticiones indelicadas e innecesarias (“ese chimpancé enloquecido que me pasa los dedos por la cara y me sonríe enloquecido”); en dos o tres páginas sucesivas, la idea de enormidad aparece tres veces, o como sustantivo o como adverbio. Por otro lado, el texto desvaría tanto como Johnny, y no logra compactar sus virtudes en una narración fluida y vívida. Es más, el último tercio, el que despega con un futuro hipotético, podría servir como una versión condensada y más fuerte del texto entero.

Para terminar, creo que la persona que me recomendó el cuento lo hizo principalmente porque tanto en “Malibú” como en “El perseguidor” el protagonista es un músico. Sin embargo, los tipos de narración que siguen a partir de ese elemento común son bastante diferentes. Creo que hay mayor afinidad con la ansiedad de Pestana, en “Un hombre célebre” de Machado de Assis. En todo caso, siempre es bueno tener una excusa para retomar a los grandes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Note on Plotting the Plot

Plot is one of those things readers of fiction are very familiar with. It’s probably what got us to read fiction in the first place. Besides, everyone with a sense of sequence will have a sense of plot, so it’s not just something habitual readers of fiction will feel close to home.

Here’s a fairly simple definition: according to the Norton Introduction to Fiction, the plot is “the arrangement of the action” (p. 71). There’s a nice take on this subject in chapter 6 of Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. He says that the “theory of narrative postulates the existence of a level of structure—what we generally call ‘plot’—independent of any particular language or representational medium. Unlike poetry, which gets lost in translation, plot can be preserved in translation from one language or one medium into another: a silent film or a comic strip can have the same plot as a short story” (p. 84). A plot is never wholly in the story. It is an abstraction, a summary of a piece of fiction’s main events. Two people will probably never describe it in exactly the same way.

I don’t want a make a grand statement on plot. I just want to share a quick way in which I put a story’s plot to the test. My test is straightforward: I tell the story’s plot to someone else. Of course, I’ll ruin the tale for that person, but I’ve found at least one receptive audience for that kind of thing. This usually tells me if the plot passes muster.

Take “The Nice Little People,” which I’ve described before. It’s a great story. When I described it to someone, that person didn’t stop talking about the story for a couple of days (based solely on a retelling, mind you). That’s how good it was. To put it more precisely: that’s how good its plot was.

Another example. I’ve been reading Hobart 10 lately, on and off; I’ll post something about it when I’m done. I’ve found at least two brilliant short stories in what I’ve read. There’s a third that has a brilliant scene. Well, I sat down with someone and related the plots from those three stories. Before I was done with each, judging by the person’s reactions, I already knew if the plot would get a positive or a negative reaction. Two of the three stories fizzled out. One of them proved captivating.

I want to be really finicky with what this means to me, though. This doesn’t mean that a story is bad because its plot doesn’t stand up to a retelling. In fact, I still think the two (or three) brilliant Hobart stories were brilliant, even after they flunked the plot test. There is just so much more to a story than plot. Many readers, many writers, and many commentators often put plot above all. I’ve often heard that a good plot makes a good story, or that a narrative text without a plot is just not a story. (Here’s Jonathan Culler, even, in the same book I just quoted from: “A mere sequence of events does not make a story” [p. 84].)

I see it differently, though. Perhaps one of the greatest distinctive traits of modern and contemporary literature, as it has drifted away from an oral culture and into mass-produced writing, is its decreased reliance on plot. Sometimes plot can be dispensed altogether (at least in a traditional or highly structured sense), and we can still have a great story. There are a zillion of fantastic stories whose strength is language or structure or playfulness, and whose plot is weak and ailing. Try them real-time before a live audience, and they’ll probably be a total failure. When you tell stories orally, plot is one of your best allies. It keeps people’s interest, it creates suspense. That’s why I think my simple test, administered orally, is a good measure of a story’s plot. I like reading stories that I can retell. But I also like stories that depend on other things, things that are best read on a page (or a screen).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Un desencuentro

Un escritor me contó hace poco que fue jurado en un concurso de libros de cuentos. Eran cinco jurados, y participaron más de 150 libros. Cada jurado recibió unos 30 libros, y en una semana tenía que escoger cinco. Y esta fue su confesión honesta: dado que eran 30 libros de más o menos 200 páginas cada uno, era imposible leerlos todos en una semana; por lo tanto, si había alguna frase desastrosa en la primera página de un libro, o algo particularmente débil, el libro quedaba inmediatamente descalificado. Puede parecer antirromántico o injusto, pero en las condiciones del concurso me pareció hasta sensato el método.

Decidí ponerlo a prueba con un libro de cuentos ya publicado. Lo seleccioné al azar en una librería: la colección de cuentos Desencuentros, del chileno Luis Sepúlveda (Barcelona: Tusquets [1997]). El primer cuento se llama “El último faquir”; está disponible aquí. No sé si se deba considerar una frase desastrosa, pero esta, la segunda frase del cuento, me quitó casi todas las ganas de seguir leyendo: “Nadie puede decir que usted tuvo otro amigo mejor que este que ahora le habla chupándose las lágrimas, y aunque fueron pocas las personas que nos conocieron, yo creo que todos se percataron de ese cariño inmenso que se dejaba notar así, despacio, como se expresa el verdadero cariño de los hombres” (p. 11). ¿Chupándose las lágrimas? No me gusta, pero no quiero universalizar ese disgusto: tal vez sea un chilenismo. El resto de la frase, bueno, me gusta aún menos.

El cuento es un monólogo de una persona que se despide de un amigo que fue compañero suyo en el circo y a quien ayudó a volver famoso convirtiéndolo en un intrépido faquir. Pero el amigo resultó demasiado “porfiado” (lo dicen varias veces), y muere en el intento de tragarse un sable. El amigo le está hablando al difunto, y declarándole su amistad. Ni en trama ni en lenguaje me impactó este texto.

Pero no había que ser tan apresurado. Dicen que las colecciones de cuentos guardan sus mejores textos para el principio y para el final, así que me dirigí al último cuento del libro: “Otra también puerta del cielo” (no lo encontré en Internet). El texto es una entrada de diario escrita en París, el 12 de febrero, y es además un homenaje a Cortázar, desde el epígrafe (una frase de Cortázar) hasta los personajes con los que termina (Polanco y Calac), pasando por la fecha del diario (Cortázar murió un 12 de febrero). La voz narrativa recuerda frases aisladas de distintos escritores (Onetti, Borges, Eco). El texto también se dirige directamente al lector (“Usted quiere que le hable en lenguaje de escritor de cuentos” [p. 235]). Este tipo de metaficción se mezcla con referencias y personajes literarios que colonizan los espacios imaginativos del texto. Al final, el narrador les regala a escondidas algunos francos a Polanco y Calac, pero cuando sale a buscarlos ellos han desaparecido: “Ni rastro de los dos hombres, tragados quizá por quién sabe qué otra secreta también puerta del cielo”.

No me entusiasmó este segundo cuento, y, si fuera jurado, aplicando el método que me contó el escritor que mencioné, hubiera pasado al próximo libro. ¿Terriblemente injusto?