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.

1 comment:

  1. An update. I've come to think more fondly about this story as time has passed. The opening pages were that strong, and the setting--Stiltsville--is good. So I jumped at the chance to read the author's account of her harrowing decade of work on the novel. The piece was interesting, and it was published by Slate, here.

    I liked this: "Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it's not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing."

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