Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jeffrey Eugenides, "Extreme Solitude"

Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Extreme Solitude” (TNY, June 7, 2010) deserves a chance, and it’ll reward it luxuriantly. I say this because the first sentence is terrible: “It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him.” That first adjective seems to have been picked by Eugenides’s secret enemy. And the “whether or not” construction is bland and superfluous. I hated it. But get over the sour taste and you’ll find a savory piece that’s told fantastically well.

The story is about, yes, how Leonard and Madeleine met and—maybe—fell in love. Their romance takes place during the eighties and is mediated by Semiotics 211, a course they take at Brown and in which they are pariahs because everyone else dresses in black and compulsively questions things like the significance of his own name. They meet in Semiotics 211, they have sex frequently during the semester, and, at the end, there is a declaration of love and subsequent dashing of hopes through quotes from a Roland Barthes book they read in class. That’s where the title of the piece comes from.

The story is very funny, without traces of having worked too hard at it. The characterizations are masterful. The take on deconstruction, with a concomitant celebration of literature freed from the lit-crit grip, is terrific. For instance, we hear that “Madeleine had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” And, after plodding through Derrida in Semiotics 211, Madeleine read novels again, and here’s her reaction: “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.” If you’ve suffered Derrida before, you’ll probably indulge in a secret thrill with these sentences.

The language is magnificent throughout the piece. There are rich descriptions like this one: “One morning in early April, Madeleine was horrified to see a calligraphic smear of blood that had leaked from her way back in March, a stain she’d attacked with a kitchen sponge while Leonard was sleeping.” (Calligraphic is just perfect.) There are trenchant comments, like so: “Listening to Leonard, Madeleine felt impoverished by her happy childhood.” Only occasionally (after the dreadful opener) are there problems with the composition of the piece. Here’s one sentence that went overboard by listing three comparisons when the first one (or any one of the three, really) was good enough: “Tim had the long-lashed eyes and pretty features of an expensive Bavarian doll, a little prince or yodelling shepherd boy.”

Something about the structure does bother me. Unlike, say, Franzen’s story, everything about the characters’ background is relevant here because it’s a story of how they may have fallen in love. It’s part of the central storyline. But, as a story, the central storyline of “Extreme Solitude” seems hastily contrived: the dreary opening sentence serves as vise under whose clasp everything else can be bound together. That problem likely stems from the fact that the story is an excerpt from a novel Eugenides is working on (as he says in a New Yorker interview). The prose is wonderful, but he needed a tourniquet at the beginning and the end (the ending is hasty too) in order to present it as a short story. Still, it’s a very good piece of fiction. It’s very enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, "Agreeable"

Jonathan Franzen’s “Agreeable” (TNY, May 31, 2010) has several things going for it. There are some good lines (“Paradise for Joyce [a Democrat] was an open space where poor children could go and do Arts at state expense”). There is plenty of humor in both descriptions and dialogue. For instance, when Patty feels ogled by her father’s junior partner, he is accused of “ocular pawing.” We also find Patty’s grandfather chasing down three-year-olds to force-feed them the amateur wine that adults “emptied into grass or bushes.” Furthermore, the subject of the story is forceful: Patty, a high school athlete, is raped at a party. The problem is that the rapist is the scion of a prominent family, the Posts. They contribute a lot of money to the Democrats, the party Patty’s mother works for. That, coupled with the circumstances (a condom was used, Patty didn’t scream), makes prosecution very difficult.

Despite its pluses, I find two main objections to the story (and an add-on). The first objection is the narrator, which often behaves more like the storyteller of a yarn than the narrators we are used to seeing in contemporary fiction. The voice is flippant, opinionated, and intrusive. The story could’ve survived without it. For instance, we hear of the virtues that would’ve attended Patty had she been half an inch taller; the thought experiment ends with this: “probably not, but it was interesting to think about.” Later, Patty thought that telling her coach about her rape would end uneventfully: “But, oh, how wrong she was.” Again, the story could live without those comments.

Here’s the add-on: the language is textured well, but sometimes it develops sores. A few adjectives feel out of place, even if they try to be true to some unidentified character. For instance: “It was from these wonderful coaches that Patty learned discipline.” Wonderful? Then there are the adverbs, which Jessica Page Morrell says “should be the last words hauled out of your writing toolbox” (Thanks, but…, p. 138)—there’s a good reason for that. The story uses some adverbs cleverly: Patty’s Jewish mother, who disliked being Jewish, married an “exceedingly Gentile” man. Exceedingly there is crafty. But take this example: “the girl crumpled up and screamed at the apparently horrible pain of being lightly touched by a glove.” Apparently could’ve been cut without asking any questions. And lightly touched could’ve been rewritten without the adverb or replaced by a verb that expresses a light touch without using an adverb, like tap or graze. (There’s the good reason so many adverbs can be scrapped.)

Finally, my second objection: the story carries excess baggage. It really starts when it says, “As far as actual sex goes.” That means two pages (2,293 words) are used setting the story up. That’s a short story in itself. Sure, we would miss great lines (judges and attorneys talked “[a]s if misery and disfigurement and jail time were all just a lower-class sideshow designed to perk up their otherwise boring day”). But the point here is to start focused and stay focused. Scattershot approaches tend to show a story out of control. “Agreeable” would’ve been a strong, well-told story if it had stuck to its strengths. It had several.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Roddy Doyle, "Ash"

Roddy Doyle’s “Ash” (TNY, May 24, 2010) is one of those stories that make you wonder how they got to The New Yorker. It’s tiny, mostly dialogue. Kevin has two daughters with Ciara, and Ciara is leaving him. She leaves him once, comes back and “rides” Kevin, and then leaves again. Kevin is worried, and is constantly counseled by his brother Micky. Ciara returns once more, and there is no riding this time. The television shows that the volcano eruption in Iceland has paralyzed airports. Perhaps this was why Ciara didn’t leave for good. One of the girls asks a provocative question: “What’s ash?” Kevin gropes for an answer. Then he says the ash will drift away or fall and things will get back to normal. The girl asks if the falling ash will hurt. Ciara answers: “No, said Ciara. It won’t.”

The ending is the best part of the story. Even though “Ash” is brief, I think it could be reduced to the ending itself, starting when someone says “Amazing.” Add a hint of backstory, and you have the most poignant part of the tale compressed into a few paragraphs. It would make a convincing short short story.

Aside from that, it’s tough to speak up for “Ash.” The last line could spark some discussion. I read it as Ciara’s way to tell the girls that her departure wouldn’t hurt them. Of course it would, but Ciara is trying to convince herself that it won’t, in order to spare herself the guilt. Finally, a matter of punctuation is noteworthy: I enjoyed seeing the em dashes used for dialogue, the Joycean way.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nathan Englander, "Free Fruit for Young Widows"

When I came across Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (TNY, May 17, 2010), I said, great, a war story. Now something momentous will happen. And it did. But most of what happened was the author getting in the way of the best part of the story. Around that powerful central storyline, the author tacked on side stories apparently to add consequence to the overall tale. The result was an unkempt series of anecdotes, a tiny coming-of-age story, and an interpretive apparatus that pretends to guide our understanding of the main story.

Allow me to explain. Central story: a boy called Tendler escapes from a Nazi concentration camp and returns alone to his old family home. He finds it has been occupied by former neighbors, who were great friends of Tendler’s family before the war. They welcome him enthusiastically, but Tendler overhears their plans to kill him. He reacts, but I cannot say how without spoiling the end.

Anecdotes: in 1956, a soldier called Shimmy Gezer watches how Tendler kills four distracted Egyptian soldiers at close range. He challenges Tendler for committing murder, and Tendler beats him down into the ground (literally).

Tiny coming of age story: Gezer tells both these stories to his son Etgar, who helps his father run a fruit-and-vegetable stand at a traditional Jerusalem market. Etgar is told the Suez story in greater detail as he grows up. When Etgar turns 13, his father tells him Tendler’s WWII story. Etgar had always wanted to know why Tendler got a widow’s treatment at the stand, that is, why his father gave Tendler free fruit and vegetables. The story ends with a moral discussion between Shimmy and Etgar about what happened, who was right and who was wrong. We are told Etgar grows up to become a philosopher without a philosophy degree.

My point is this: Tendler’s story is great. Powerful. Stirring. By itself, it would have questioned any comfortable notion of black-and-white morality, pushing us into the “gray space that was called real life” (the story says this about where Israelis live). The Etgar sections simply guide our interpretation. I would say clip them off. And snap off the part about the Suez Canal too, in order to leave Tendler’s story to stand on its own. It would have been a good story.

As the narrative fabric is entangled, so is the language. The beginning is wasteful, with a couple of adjectives (vital, agitated) that a good friend should’ve told the author were unnecessary. The narrator crashes the story all the time, like so: “He was using the same word about the same people in the same desert that had been used thousands of years before. The main difference, if the old stories are to be believed, was that God no longer raised His own fist in the fight.” Let it be, why don’t you? Some sentences become hefty and convoluted, like this circuitous one: “And maybe his other family—the nurse at whose breast he had become strong (before weakened), her husband who had farmed his father’s field, and their son (his age), and another (two years younger), boys with whom he had played like a brother—maybe this family was still there waiting.” More clutter (asides, clever-clever plays on chronology) begged to be removed.

This sentence is worth singling out, both for its insight and for the way it’s expressed: “you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite” (Shimmy says it to Etgar about Tendler).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dagoberto Gilb, "Uncle Rock"

Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock” (TNY, May 10, 2010) goes nowhere. Yes, you can fish out tiny specks that, stringed together, show that the main character is changing. But the story’s three short pages require much more patience than they should.

It’s a story about the morose 11-year-old son of a young, beautiful Mexican immigrant who keeps losing her jobs while she’s wooed by countless men. She is clearly looking for stability, and reaches for those men who seem to offer her that. A man called Roque pursues her dutifully and tenderly, but she appears to look for other, perhaps richer men instead. Erick, the boy, is initially not that much into Roque, and even tells his full-familied neighbor that Roque is his uncle; hence the title of the story. At one point, Erick goes to a baseball game with his mother and Roque, and Erick catches a home-run ball. A busload of players sign it, and we find out why: one of them wants Erick to pass a note on to his mother. He doesn’t.

And that’s it. The beginning is dull, merely a way to show how his mother’s suitors intrude on the boy’s life. The longish run on how Erick imagined Mexico (“They didn’t have toilets” and so on) betrays the author’s interest in Mexico, rather than making for a dynamic description crafted for a reader of fiction. Those seven sentences or so could have been clipped down to a few revealing brushstrokes, thus sparing us from recounting stereotypes we already know. Much of the rest of the story is spent on a character sketch of the pitiable boy towed through life by his mother. Some parts do evoke pity. But that’s far too little that is positive to say about a story published in The New Yorker.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Allegra Goodman, "La Vita Nuova"

Back to The New Yorker after eloping with One Story for a while. Once I’ve posted a note on Jeffrey Eugenides’s story (from June 7, 2010), I’ll resort to the minimalism I announced a couple posts ago: I’ll write comments only on especially strong stories. Afterward, there’ll be a small series of posts on books about craft.

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” (TNY, May 3, 2010) fits snugly into a mold I’ve mentioned before: quotidian stories that hint at deep psychological struggles in a blasé, offhand, and symbolic manner. In this case, an art teacher called Amanda is dumped by her fiancé after the invitations for the wedding had already been sent out (ouch, I know). Her parents try to be supportive, the school doesn’t rehire her because her personal life interferes with her work, and she spends the summer babysitting one of her former students. Her life doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The story ends with a high-decibel scene in which Amanda says goodbye to the boy and announces she is moving back to New York.

The story mixes up snippets of Amanda’s fiancé, her babysitting, her parents. The imprint of the literary workshop is visible in this, but still there are good lines and there is something hypnotic about Amanda’s lethargy and something unsettling about the art she produces. The second paragraph expresses her pessimism in two ways, one of them over the top (she “sat in her half-empty closet”) and the other subtler and more effective (the “wedding dress hung in clear asphyxiating plastic”: the adjective is doubly powerful because her fiancé called her “suffocating”). “La Vita Nuova” reminds me of Claire Keegan’s “Foster,” minus the tenderness.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Smith Henderson, "Number Stations"

A drunk driver runs over and kills a girl, and, although no one finds out he did it, he is tormented by guilt. That’s the gist of Smith Henderson’s “Number Stations” (One Story 136, May 30, 2010).

But it’s a gist you have to shake free from an avalanche of minor and major characters, subplots, near-miss affairs, ostriches, and cryptic radio transmissions. Here’s a sampler. The drunk driver’s name is Goldsmith. His mother takes pictures of Goldsmith’s daughter (Charity) perched on an ostrich led by a parolee (Bill) whom Goldsmith hired to work at his restaurant. The ostrich escapes, and makes it to the house of a young waitress (Emily), who also works at Goldsmith’s restaurant and whose virtuous and athletic boyfriend (Van) helps look for the runaway ostrich. It so happens that Emily is recovering from a party thrown by Goldsmith, and despite her blatant attempts at having sex with him, they end up talking until Goldsmith confesses that he killed the girl years before. While Goldsmith is at the party, his mother listens to a baby monitor and chances upon a frequency in which nothing is transmitted but numbers and code (this gives the story its title). At the end, Bill has an accident with boiling water when Emily walks into the restaurant to talk to Goldsmith, and parts of Bill’s skin peel right off while he talks about forgiveness.

There’s more: a prison riot, Van’s job tracking the size of a glacier, Charity’s sour experience at a sleepover, details about hot tub dynamics at a party, details about the restaurant. This is a lot to cover in 29 pages. And the story does sag under the weight of all the flotsam. It loses direction. It’s weird.

Well, the story’s first sentence is arresting precisely because it is weird. A grandmother is taking her own pictures of an ostrich? Huh? You keep reading, and, as you can tell, you’ll get all the weirdness the opening sentence promised. As you flip pages, you wonder “what outlandish or tawdry thing would happen” (28).

This has its payoffs. For one, it’s funny. The dialogues are a big part of the humor. Also, the episodic quality is intriguing. The story feels like a philatelist’s rendering of a novel: a huge canvas reduced to the size of a stamp, without the nonchalance to let go of the details and focus on the essentials.

Furthermore, the language is truly succulent. Often, you just sit back and enjoy the verbal pirouettes that tend to land on the right foot. At its best, it makes me think of McEwan’s prose used to describe the most hectic scenes from Pynchon’s V. (The One Story interview compares the story’s language with McCarthy’s.) Henderson has a talent for describing nature in a way that is full-blooded and fresh, even if at times wordy.

The hazards of using such virtuoso language take their toll. Some parts are heavy-handed with adjectives and adverbs (“Bill […] ran on his stiff new boots in the direction of the sharp, astonished barks” [3]; “Then he sat with his split hands dangling over his bent knees exhausted” [5]). Some descriptions press words and images to the point of springing a muscle, and the result is ungainly (“There were at least fifty-seven essences in his sideburns that, could she decoct and bottle them, would heal any wound on her body, would disinfect a gut shot, would recapitate her” [13]; “The audible prolapse of the world’s ice uncoupling” [21]).

Even with the bloated sentences, I can see why the story was chosen for publication. I mentioned the humor, the verbal feasts. There are undeniable signs of craft throughout, such as the interconnectedness of the disparate episodes, both in characters (Emily stands at the apex of the different plotlines) and language (the ostrich’s neck, for instance; in fact, Henderson called the ostrich a macguffin). There’s also a well-placed hint of what will happen to Goldsmith after the story ends. In spite of all that, the plotline needs work. You can see Henderson’s talents applied to a more focused plot with great results. This wasn’t the case with “Number Stations,” but when the descriptions and dialogues meet a less rambling plot, there’ll be a great story indeed.

The One Story interview for “Number Stations” has the longest questions I’ve seen in a One Story interview. Henderson says this during the interview: “my duty is to be interested in what I’m writing in the hope that my enthusiasms will become the readers’ enthusiasms.” Well said.

With this story, I end a fifteen-story trip to One Story, in which I followed a capricious path through older stories and then marched up to the present. Tomorrow I’ll post a list of those stories. As you can tell if you read these posts, I didn’t like all of the stories I wrote comments on. I adopted a maximalist approach to One Story, and perhaps I should settle for a minimalist approach from now on, commenting only on those stories I truly like. Still, I have a few notes ready on New Yorker stories. After posting those, minimalism it is.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Grant Munroe, "Corporate Park"

Grant Munroe’s “Corporate Park” (One Story 135, May 10, 2010) is built on a clever premise: a cougar has walked into an office building, and it’s mauling the employees. As the grumpy and anal corporate lawyer who narrates the story tells us, the mountain lion produces a “massive reduction in personnel” (12). Blood is spattered everywhere, limbs and moustaches are strewn across the office. This doesn’t spark a frenzy, in part because of the bureaucratic narrator, in part because the company’s executives implement gag policies, boost employee morale, focus on the numbers. The threat of death thus gets its fangs severed and turns into the unfeline threat of downsizing.

The plot has a twist: apparently, many employees use the opportunity to fake their own deaths and thus get a handsome life insurance with which to retire. Halloway, the narrator, a crusader for the corporation’s interests, is unaware of this scheme, and is shocked when he discovers it. Former employees are remaking their lives in more carefree, enjoyable ways. Halloway’s former boss confronts him and asks whether he ever saw the cougar. Halloway shakes his head and shuffles back to the office.

When he does, we think that’s it. But it’s not. Halloway is the only person left in the office—aside from the mountain lion, that is. It turns out there is one, and it lunges for Halloway, who manages to escape into an office and wait. He tries to beckon others to help, but no one notices him. Days pass, food runs out, and he is marooned in the office. The cougar is stalking the door. The story ends.

As I said, a clever premise. The twists are also welcome. However, there was a certain apathy to the narrative—true to the narrator’s character, but still—that made my progress through it duller than it should have been. And, when we get to the ending, it struck me more as a dead end than a clever closure.

The setting of the story deserves a comment. It becomes a sort of fairyland in which everyone pops in and out at the unbelievably right time and place. Halloway’s meeting with Westman, his former boss, is an example. (The names of the company’s executives also seem mythical: Eastman and Westman.) Yes, we could argue in defense of this: it’s about corporations in general, and life in general, and it’s an expressionist take on the corporate jungle (“everyone just assumed there would have been a much sharper distinction between our workplace and the surrounding wilderness” [1]). Still, it bled some of the interest out of the narrative.

The story had some punch, some humor, some ingenuity, and some flair. It could’ve had more of each through further revisions. The interview reveals that the germ of the story actually came from Cortázar’s story “Bestiario.” I should’ve seen that coming. It also shows that “Corporate Park” was typed up quickly, without a clue as to the way it would end.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Susanna Daniel, "Stiltsville"

It’s good when stories make you question, wonder, and prod. But the main question I was left with after reading Susanna Daniel’s “Stiltsville” (One Story 134, April 10, 2010) was whyAnd, even though the story has merits, I mean a bad kind of why.

I didn’t expect to end with such an impression when I started reading. The first few pages were strong. The descriptions of the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Andrew in Miami are powerful. We find a “deck sagged with split planks,” “a swimming pool churned with foliage,” “the canal at the back of the house teemed with window shutters” (1). When “a marine cruiser made its way through the canal,” it sent “the floating rubble into fits” (3). These descriptions remained unmatched throughout the story.

The way characters interact is interesting. The story is narrated by Frances, who’s married to the sprightly but increasingly ill Dennis. They have a daughter, Margo, who got married to Stuart right before the action of the story starts. Stuart was practically unknown in the family before Margo shared the good news, and for the parents this “takes […] time to digest” (5). The dialogues are brisk and entertaining, especially at the beginning. Frances is quirky and moody, and tortured by hot flashes from menopause; all of this propels the narrative forward. When the narrative settles around the post-hurricane reconstruction, the quirks and moods remain unexploited. The story proceeds at a stately, sometimes sluggish pace, and it “often teetered on the edge of my awareness like a slowing top” (18), like Frances says at one point about something else.

I’ve hinted at the plot in the previous paragraphs. “Stiltsville” is about a family hit by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Their home is safe, but they have to live around the debris, in the silence of not having electricity, for some time. A second home of theirs, a stilt house filled with fond memories of Margo’s childhood and built by Dennis’s father, is wrecked. The family recovers, while also learning to live with their new son-in-law, Stuart.

In terms of the plot, what I liked best was an ominous side story that is neither fully explained nor brought to its conclusion: Dennis’s sickness. We get a first glimpse of it on page 8, when Dennis sits quickly and the narrator stops to reconsider that memory and wonder if he sat or fell. Nothing else is said then. With just that, it would have been a powerful element within the story. It made me think of the colored dots clouding the narrator’s vision in Delillo’s White Noise. Dennis continues to falter, and has to be taken to the hospital later on. Does he die soon after the story ends? It’s not said in so many words (the One Story interviewer asked about it and got no answer). But it seems that, when Frances probed her memories in search of hints of what was happening to Dennis, she was writing as a widow trying to piece together her husband’s death.

This brings me to my first why. The story is evidently told by someone rummaging through the events, sifting them. She even tells us about it: “I find that the lens of memory focuses on him, regardless of what held my attention at the time, the heat or hot flashes or miscellany” (24). She is probably motivated by an attempt to rescue Dennis’s memory from oblivion, and she may have had this in mind when she said that “history must be collected while the subject exists” (26). So I’m forced to ask why we are being told all this. When a narrator intrudes, and reveals the picking, choosing, and judging that goes on behind the scenes, I am inevitably forced to ask why the narrator is narrating in the first place. Who’s the intended audience? Why is the narrator here? Why are we here? The standard frame of stories, in which we don’t need to know why the story is being told but simply enjoy it and suspend our disbelief, breaks with such narrators. This doesn’t mean this framework is doomed. The story just needs to justify itself to its readers, even slyly. Take “Azul,” in which the narrative is clearly an attempt to understand the mess caused by Azul’s hosts. There just needs to be a compelling reason for the narrative to get to our hands. I didn’t find any such reason in “Stiltsville.”

My second big why was why the narrative was churned and scattered as it was. You get an event from right after the hurricane, then rewind to a time before that, then fast-forward to something that came later, then jump a year ahead, then lazily perch on the night of the hurricane. You could say it’s mimetic: there’s the hurricane throwing everything into disarray, including the order of events. Even if that’s so, it’s not persuasive. The story doesn’t seem calculated to unfold like that while finding its own rhythm and connections under the surface. Instead, it seems to achieve its order erratically, almost indifferently.

These two things—the reason for the story to exist and the jumbled order of events—helped take the wind out of the first pages, which sailed so well. The reason this was allowed to happen may be that the story is not a story. It’s an excerpt. The reasons for its pace, its chronology, and its motivation may be explained elsewhere in the novel from which “Stiltsville” was extracted. The One Story interview goes into some detail about the novel (also called Stiltsville) and its relationship with the excerpt.

Publishing excerpts is something often done by The New Yorker, as I’ve mentioned before and others have discussed elsewhere. Some excerpts can work fine as standalones. But it’s tricky to snip at the right places, and not find that important pieces have been left out. It’s not easy to trim excerpts into the “great short stories” One Story promises to publish every three weeks. “Stiltsville” is not a bad story. It may even be an important part of a great novel. But, as it stands, it’s not among my favorites.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cheston Knapp, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love”

Cheston Knapp’s “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” (One Story 133, March 30, 2010) and I never bonded.

It’s strange. The right sorts of elements were there. Characterization done by accretion and by showing, not by full disclosure and by telling (good example: how the narrator’s anger management issues creep up on us). There are scenes in which the narrator’s inner world vined around the events in the outside world (take the description of Charlotte on pages 2-3). We find inventive uses of metaphors (note the metaphors-turned-real of windows on page 7 and walls on page 9). Whiffs of poetry (notice the alliteration in a sentence like “Behold the whole body of my mental torture” [3; my italics]).

But despite all those valid and varied techniques, the story never interested me. My main problem was the narrator, who was drearily uptight to the point of producing stilted language and boring descriptions. You get stuff like a towel that “is heavy with the saltwater weight of exertion, the dividend of pressure and performance” (18) or a “series of impressions charged with so much emotion as to be tolerable only in their profusion” (29). Sentences like these don’t seem credible for a 19-year-old narrating in real time (present tense), with no inkling of a background that would make this language believable. Besides, they’re convoluted.

The diction level also free-falls. Metaphors such as “warm alluvial plain” (3) to describe a woman’s vagina alternate with delicate phrases like “she can be as impossible as that space between your ass and balls” (4). There’s a barrage of qualifiers and intensifiers. The narrator kept dropping like and really, which may have been true to character but blunted the prose. Some adjectives could’ve been asked to leave (the balls in the new can “hiss like deceptive snakes” [15]). There were comparisons that chose contortions over effective expression (“his hairline’s receding like a disarranged flock of geese” [20]).

The first paragraph is illustrative of the story’s maladies. A matter of fact account of a tennis match (sentence one). Afterward, a ball turns into “a yellow blur of physics equations” (sentence two). This started to bother me. A yellow blur of physics variables, perhaps? A blur that sped past physics equations? That sped past (or even into) the grids of physics equations? The reference to physics was good, but it could’ve been handled better.

Then comes a colorful description of the return (sentence three), followed by a general statement on Sampras’s serve (sentence four): it’s “one of History’s best and he gets free points for all the time, especially on grass.” Capital-h history, for real? And was the assessment of Sampras’s serve even necessary? After that, sentence five: “There’s an awkward pause in the match’s momentum as we all watch the ball finish its arching flight.” There’s an awkward pause when we begin that sentence because, with no warning, it shunts from a general appreciation of Sampras’s serve back to the specific return we had read about earlier. And the alliteration (match, watch) tips the scale unfavorably when you get to the muffled echo of arching. Two more sentences left. That’s the first paragraph.

The final pages galumph to the end with weighty paragraphs of reflection, explanation, and transcendence. We are hit over the head several times with the idea that this was not just a tennis game, but also a quest for things like “immanence and grace” (35), which exists beyond language (an idea used just too many times), which is ultimately a struggle with our own bodily failings and our own mortality (32). Where was the delete key during these long stretches?

I haven’t even mentioned the plot. The narrator, William Able, leads a team of ballboys at Wimbledon. Sampras and Federer are playing a big match. During the match, Able, who has problems with his temper, is going crazy over the budding affair between his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, and his former protégé, Freddy. Able clearly identifies himself with Sampras, who loses at the end. This is also Able’s fate with Charlotte.

If you’re a tennis fan, the story will be much easier to follow. Then again, you’ll realize how much more dynamic and entertaining it is to watch an actual game. The story wasn’t a bad idea: transferring a personal conflict to another stage, while having the conflict infuse the language, is an effective device. But the story should’ve been much, much shorter. This is the longest story I’ve read on One Story (35 pages). It should’ve also struck a better balance between the love story and the tennis match. A ten-page piece that concentrated on the game and featured a quick scene involving Charlotte, while allowing the description to reveal the narrator’s turmoil, would have been much stronger.

The One Story interview shows why the story grew such a thick hide of explanation. The author was reading a lot of Heidegger when he came up with the story, and Heidegger’s ideas made it to the narrative (and catastrophically into the interview, too). Surely, therein also lies the explanation for the uppercased History that appears twice in the story. The story was bogged down by something many authors criticize: if you start with themes, and not people, stories become lifeless. Start with Heidegger, and you’ll have a philosophical reading of a tennis match, little character development, and not much that is compelling as fiction.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Molly Antopol, "The Quietest Man"

Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” (One Story 132, March 10, 2010) is a good story, with piquant insights and interesting situations. It’s a story about Tomás Novak, a man from the Czech Republic who came to the States as a political émigré. He was offered a teaching job in a small college in a small town as a way to escape persecution in Prague. By persecution, I mean that he and his wife (Katka) wrote articles for an underground newspaper. When Tomás was discovered, he kept quiet during interrogation, earning him the nickname “The Quietest Man.” Despite Tomás’s apparent poise, Katka was a far fiercer and more engaged intellectual than he was.

When they were shunted to the States, they had a two-year-old daughter (Daniela), and Katka was forced to work as a janitor cleaning up the very rooms Tomás lectured in. (This contrast was over the top: too literalized a metaphorical way to illustrate the different paths immigrant lives follow.) Katka’s discontent puts incredibly pressure on the marriage, and they get a divorce: Katka moves away to New York, and Tomás stays behind. He is denied tenure when communism falls. The next interesting subject for academics has become Serbia, and tenure is given to a female Serbian professor who was also brought as a guest.

Here begins Tomás’s pathetic quest for a stable teaching post, which he aptly describes thus: “my thirties and forties would be about mastering the delicate, tricky dance of pleading for adjunct work through the east coast” (9). Tomás is also shown struggling with the fact of having to care for a child. He received Daniela over the summers, and was completely inept and frustrated in taking care of her. After the last of those visits, when Daniela was twelve, Katka confronts him: “‘I’ve always known you saw her as a burden, but you had to let her know that?’” (23). This is all told through flashbacks (some of them quite obviously workshopped into the narrative).

In the narrative present, Tomás is incredibly concerned because Daniela—who’s only 23—has sold a play in New York, and he knows—because Katka told him—it’s about the family. The play brings back worries associated with the communist interrogations. For instance, Tomás worries that he’ll be presented disgracefully on stage, his story controlled by what Katka had told Daniela about him: “Katka’s version of the story would become the official one. My entire legacy as The Quietest Man would be erased” (17).

Daniela agrees to fly over and visit Tomás for a weekend, before the play is staged, and he uses to opportunity to grind her for information, betraying Katka’s secrets in order to make Daniela talk. After a short interrogation, she breaks down and talks (“Part of me was saddened that my daughter was the kind of person who would crack so quickly” [27]). The play turns out to be in fact about Tomás’s years in Prague, when he became known as The Quietest Man. He lies to her about how he cared for her as a baby in Prague, in order to present himself as a better father than he ever was. The story ends with a fake, fleeting, gossamer connection between father and daughter.

The story has room for improvement here and there, but it’s one of the best I’ve discussed on this One Story series. The interview reveals that Antopol is working on a collection of short stories, one of which is “The Quietest Man.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Naomi J. Williams, "Snow Men"

Naomi J. Williams’s “Snow Men” (One Story 131, January 30, 2010) is a good character sketch and an interesting immersion in a different time and a different culture. That doesn’t mean it’s a great story, though. Narrated by a young Native American woman in 1786, “Snow Men” describes how a group of Native Americans encountered European explorers.

I can’t complain about the language. Unlike other stories narrated by a person from a different time (e.g.), anachronistic word choice is not an issue here because the story is translated into contemporary English. The metaphors are neither dry nor dazzling. The curiosity of the villagers about the natural world and about the European travelers is depicted convincingly. The story takes no noteworthy risks with the concatenation of events or the arrangement of ideas on paper. It starts, it finishes. No elations or gnashing of teeth along the way.

The real problem is that the story reveled in the historical background so much that almost nothing of interest happened in the foreground. Yes, the narrator was set to marry her cousin, but he died, and now she’s meant to marry her younger cousin. Yes, the narrator wanders off and finds the Snow Men (i.e., the Europeans), with two of whom she has a brief encounter. But plotting is mostly overlooked. The story thus reads like a lyricized ethnography. (Williams says in the interview that she retold an ethnographer’s account when writing the story.)

The One Story interview also helps us understand why the plot was so thin. “Snow Men” is part of a collection of interconnected stories that Williams is writing and edaciously researching. She probably felt she could afford not to have an arresting plotline here because she was working with a canvas larger than that occupied by this single story. For readers of the single story, though, something was missing.

The bit of advice Williams shares came to her from Yiyun Li. It’s worth repeating and remembering: “Your character’s problems should never be the story’s problems.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Terese Svoboda, "Bomb Jockey"

Terese Svoboda’s “Bomb Jockey” (One Story 130, Dec. 31, 2009) was off to a sensational start, even more appealing than “The Tornado Bandit,” which I singled out for its great opening.

During World War II, in what seems to be the Dakotas (14), two people meet. One, an irreverent young woman entering college age. She is smart and beautiful, the daughter of a wealthy politician. Her name appears to be Margaret (22), but it’s only mentioned once in the story. The second person is Hump, a young man in possession of athletic and attractive looks and the sole support of a crippled mother. Trait number one makes people wonder why he wasn’t drafted; trait number two explains why. His work is to dispose of faulty bombs, called turkeys. Hump is, classwise, no suitable match for Margaret, but a fling keeps adding up until it’s an affair on the verge of marriage. Margaret’s father is by no means happy with this. At the end, Hump has proposed, and Margaret has to decide if she says yes. There is a nasty incident involving a shell that explodes by accident. Limbs and flesh splatter football players and onlookers. That tilts Margaret’s decision away from what she intended to say.

The first section of the story is brilliant. Four pages in which every word matters, and each is comical, significant, or both. It set the tone for a brusque and brave system of punctuation for dialogues with no identifying marks, a choice that boosted the rhythm without producing confusion. Often, the story rambled and prodded like a good scene from a Pynchon novel (more legible, surely), set in the margins and the marginalia of war.

However, the vivacissimo performance of the beginning turned lentissimo toward the end. There were several dull stretches. In fact, each time we left Margaret’s side, and particularly the combination of Hump and her, the story lost force. It continued to flaunt its devices and flex its muscles, but it merely puttered. As the narrative wound on, I was looking at the time, counting pages.

This was my impression: Svoboda’s background research for the story she wanted to tell unearthed all sorts of interesting facts, and she couldn’t help but accommodating them at the expense of what should’ve been the focus of the piece. The One Story interview presents the story’s origins differently: Svoboda was motivated by a real-life environmental disaster, and sought a tale to work as “back story.” The effect is the same, though: the narrative is bloated with facts and is forced to grope its way to the end. No wonder Svoboda said “[h]aving too much information” was the most challenging part of writing the story. If she had simply followed Margaret and Hump, and allowed the background details to leak in, this would have been a fantastic story. As it stands, it shows the author’s craft, tempo, humor, and capable characterizations, but it needs to be debrided.

Two things in closing. First, the interview reveals that the lengthy story (at 32 pages, it’s the second longest One Story piece I’ve read) makes up a fifth of an unpublished novel. Second, the author claims that the ending is supposed to imply what happened to Hump at the end. I don’t agree. It’s too murky to tell by looking only at the story.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anne Corbitt, "The Tornado Bandit"

Some of the stories I’ve discussed recently sin at the beginning: they start slowly and pick up the pace, so that compressing or curtailing the opening pages would make the story stronger. The opposite happens with Anne Corbitt’s “The Tornado Bandit” (One Story 129, Dec. 10, 2009). It starts out forcefully, only to turn its march into a meander that circles around for a nap at the end.

It’s a story about a family, the elderly Mitty and Carl Milton, who return home from a trip to find their house trashed and a beaten, grizzled corpse lying in the bathroom. We find out three homes were affected by the killer the newspapers call the Tornado Bandit. The lives of these families are shaken. Leah Finkelstein starts watching violent movies, zoning out, arguing fiercely with butchers, and carrying around a bat. Mitty and Carl take risks: they speed around in fancy cars taken from the lot where Carl works as a salesman, they gamble, they have sex outside in the yard. Carl, uxorious for forty years, acts as tough as he thinks the Tornado Bandit would. The families get an invitation to Oprah, and they haggle over how best to run the talk-show circuit. Then a government agent comes in and offers a hundred grand in exchange for their silence. The Miltons take it, thinking they’ll travel and lead a life of excitement. They seem to settle into the money, prudence advising against the spendthrift travels they had foreseen. At least for now. The final sentence is both quiet and ambiguous.

We are led masterfully into the story. Details are splashed into the action without the need to make detours for description. For instance, notice how cleverly we are let into the tension between the Miltons and their daughter with regard to their moving into a retirement home. Note how distinct personalities are captured so neatly through dialogue and clothes. There is also plenty of humor. When the three families were negotiating who would get what show, someone says that the arrangement won’t “be fair to the person who goes on Montel” (14). There are more funny lines, which on a few occasions escalate to something unpalatable, like this polysyllabic caricature of a singer: “her voice [was] one pack of menthol cigarettes away from a warbling, emphysemic parrot” (15). Surely we can do better than warbling, emphysemic parrot.

The story starts to lose its breath when we are shown several snippets of how the families, and especially the Miltons, were transformed by the Tornado Bandit. Then came the Oprah discussions, which, despite their humor and how revealing they were of the pop culture of crime, led nowhere. Then the government’s offer, and the predictable close when the Miltons returned to their predictable lives. It was a difficult plot to end on a high note, but I was expecting something else, something surprising and compelling, after such a clever setup.

Fix that, and it’s a wonderful story. Still, a few things needed tweaking. There’s a transcribed and italicized thought early on (5) that it would’ve been better to omit. Also, the cops in the story were walking clichés. They speak something like the detectives in those Seinfeld episodes set in L.A. One gives this order: “Rookie. Got a possible GDQ sample here. Bag it” (2). Later on, the government agent puts pressure on the Miltons by saying that he recommends “not disappointing the most powerful government in the world” (18). How many times have we heard that line? The One Story interview helps explain why this happened: Corbitt was inspired to write the story by spy and secret agent movies. She probably drew the officers’ language from these sources, perhaps with some sarcasm, perhaps not.

The piece of writing advice Corbitt shares in the interview comes from Barry Hannah: “The world doesn’t need any more pretty sentences. The world needs a good story.” Something to keep very much in mind. Giving the world what it needed was what gave “The Tornado Bandit” its strength.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tamas Dobozy, "The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kálmán Once Lived"

Tamas Dobozy’s  “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kálmán Once Lived” (One Story 128, November 30, 2009) seemed like the kind of a tale someone will write after, say, reading a gripping history book on how WWII was fought in Budapest (reading the author’s One Story interview, this was in fact the case). It was lifeless. There is a captivating array of details, yes, but the main character, László, just plods along seeking forgiveness (and making things worse and worse for a big number of people he rats out to the Soviet authorities).

The previous sentence makes the story sound more interesting than it was. László escapes from Nazi hands and falls into Soviet medals. He lives a tortured, sell-out life in the villa of the one man whom he never met but whom he escaped from the army to meet. I could provide a few more details. There are a couple of interesting phrases: “betrayal had become László’s vocation” (5); “the woman [had] the tired look of someone who has outlasted her interest in life and can’t understand why she’s being provoked by those who insist on living” (5). 

Two things about the interview. First, I had never seen any writer interviewed by One Story display such indifference toward editing his or her writing. I’ve seen many writers say that this is where the real work, the real mastery, begins. But here’s Dobozy: “I’m not someone who’s particularly interested in reworking a piece. Most of the time I just wish the editors would do it for me, take over, do what they want to the material.” Second, the writing advice Dobozy chose to share was a funny pick: a generic rejection letter. His comment: “Those words have done more to help me with improving my work than anything else.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sheila Schwartz, "Finding Peace"

Sheila Schwartz’s “Finding Peace” (One Story 127, October 10, 2009) worked after page 21 (of 29). Before that, it ran into all sorts of trouble.

Details were clumsily slipped in (something I’ve already mentioned with two previous stories in this One Story streak). It was obvious that we were being served the backstory in conspicuously planted morsels. Also, the opening was awful: “Why I am doing this? Sally asks herself.” Note the trite question, the italics, the useless attribution. There were dozens of ways to start the story; the one Schwartz chose is among the worst.

The story plays with capital letters and punctuation (e.g., “As if Mr. Peanut is climbing with them. M-R. P-E-A-N-U-T: A tall, monocled representative for Planter’s Peanuts…a much kinder leader than Ellikka” (12). Sometimes it works: there’s a funny bit on page 13, for instance. Often it just makes the page look weird, especially with the capital-letter-cum-dash device. And there are moments that are punctuationally naïve, such as starting episodes with an ellipsis. As readers, we would understand that the section is beginning on edge; no need for the ellipsis.

At times, the language goes haywire. Simple phrases are repeated to the point of making them meaningless and bland. Some comparisons work (the ropes and ladders become “mere scribbles in all that wind” [3]). But some are stuck, like hiccups, to weird effects: on a couple pages (19-21), we get a rush of similes involving dogs, horses, and geese.

Several of these faults, especially those concerning language, could be justified by pointing to the plot, which I haven’t mentioned. Could be, but not really. The plot: Sally, a woman who survived cancer, agrees to climb Mount Everest as a way to show people that major obstacles can be beat. She is part of a group of cancer survivors who are led by an annoyingly cheerful and optimistic leader called Ellikka. As she suffers the climb, Sally remembers her sister, her chemo, her husband Lenny (who left her when she decided to tackle Mount Everest), her friends. Her exhaustion and the harsh conditions at 28,000 feet make her thoughts drift away, mostly dissociated from reality.

The story, as I said, gets good on page 21. At that point, there is a tragic accident, and Sally’s jagged thoughts and blurry sense of reality spin out of control. Did the accident really happen? By the end, I was almost persuaded it didn’t. People blink in and out of Sally’s mind, time collapses. Start just a little before page 21, compressing the first twenty into a few paragraphs of descriptions intertwined with action, and we would have an arresting piece.

I’ve tried to evaluate the story as a story. But it’s tough to leave the author’s bio entirely out the picture: Sheila Schwartz died in 2008, after years of battling cancer. This story vibrates with her own experiences and her struggles, and I don’t mean to belittle those when criticizing “Finding Peace.” Here’s something I was amazed to learn when reading the One Story interview (her husband was interviewed): Schwartz never climbed Mount Everest. The story is so well researched that you get a crisp and brutal sense of the mountain. Something else of interest: when the story ends, you really don’t know what happened to Sally. But the story forms part of a forthcoming collection, In the Infusion Room, where we are going to be told the outcome.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Robert McCarthy, “Stag”

Robert McCarthy’s “Stag” (One Story 126, Sept. 10, 2009) has a brisk and vivid scene, but overall it wades through a thick brew of symbolism and description. It’s a story of a father, Sean, who leaves his alcoholic wife, Gina, when their daughter Sienna is born. He was a heavy drinker himself, but he becomes more responsible now that a child is involved. Gina feels no such need to change. Sean buys a rickety house near a river and a dump, and plans to raise Sienna there on his own. On their first night at the house, a stag breaks through a set of glass doors, and Sean has to pin it down and strangle it in order to protect Sienna. After that, he gets a call to go pick up Gina from a bar.

The story plods through these events. McCarthy is passionate about lists, so that we get a list of things that may harm Sienna at the new house (1), of animals that could be seen through the glass doors (4), and so on. Furthermore, Sean’s friend Doug produces unnecessarily elaborate advice, portentously called the Law of Wrong Numbers (3, 21). As I said about Haigh’s “Desiderata,” many details are clumsily inserted, and they appear contrived. We suffer through runaway images like this one: Sean had “stopped his own driking, [but] Gina had ramped up hers to cover the shortfall. As if when they’d married, the two of them had signed some contract with the God of Liquor, and now she was the only one holding up her end of the deal. Except that’s what they’d agreed Sienna would be—a new deal—all others null and void” (6). Give me a break.

Even what I described as a brisk and vivid scene, the fight with the stag that rams into Sean’s home, would have benefitted from further revision. Notice how the verbs tear and pitch recur on those few pages; out of respect for word territory, and to make the description crisper, substitutes were in order. And the twin ideas of moon and moonlight are overused throughout the story. Word-search could say just how many times they are used, but it seems that, every time the author wants to heighten the emotional pitch of a description, the moon lends a hand.

Above all, I take issue with the story’s desperate attempt at symbolism. Sometimes, when less directed by the author, the symbolism is clever. Sean is vain about his thick beard, and thinks it resembles a knight’s. He dwells long on this idea (11), and it becomes over the top when the thought is revisited near the end (20). This idle comparison turns into a revealing caricature when Sean is forced to wrestle the buck that fell on its side, mounts it, and struggles while it gallops on the air spraying urine and tearing the room apart. The knight’s glory is further mocked when his stately beard becomes home to a flock of fleas that leaped from the deer (18).

See, that is just about all and well. But then there’s the anxiousness around the deep meaning at work when Sean hit the END key in his cellphone and hung up on Gina (3). Or the true sense that flickered around Sean after battling the stag (“An idea, some need for… but it left him” [17]). Or the darkness from an abandoned tent that “rushed inside” Sienna and made Sean aware of the mortality that would torment his daughter (19). Near the end, a “deeper tickle now rippled inside him but still no nearer to understanding” (22). As the story closes, Sean realizes that “[m]aybe the little house was actually nearer to the river than the dump” (23).

As you can tell, the story is overconscious of its own need for transcendence. And that, along with the specific ailments in the story’s language, makes it drag along. A couple of revisions would’ve boosted the story’s strengths, which really aren’t that hard to find among the thistles.