Monday, October 4, 2010

Andrew Porter, The Theory of Light and Matter

In the short stories collected in The Theory of Light and Matter (Vintage, 2008; 178 pp.), Andrew Porter takes the past tense we are used to reading in fiction and transforms it into a weapon. His narrators are characters who look back at certain moments in their lives. A lesser writer would’ve established a narrative present, and worked the backstory in through flashbacks. Not Porter.

Most of his stories are very conscious recollections mulled on by a narrator trying to piece together what happened and get a sense of the consequences. The voice is serene, sedate but not always composed, and it turns remembering into a hybrid of protestation and introspection. Reflections like these are recurrent: “in retrospect [I] did not spend much time considering what I was doing” (65). What I have said sounds verbose, but the stories are not.

They tend to be staid, that’s true. In fact, sometimes the language is more formal than I would consider advisable. Some characters inquire at least as often as they ask, for instance. And take this sentence: “though I have asked him about it on more than one occasion, he will not show it to me” (26). First: no contractions. Second: “on more than one occasion” galumphs where something like “often” would scuttle. Hence: “though I’ve asked him about it often, he won’t show it to me.” But this proposed solution might not be true to character. In Porter’s narrators, the formal diction is credible, and it helps set the pace.

So is and does the soft side these narrators have for adjectives and adverbs (e.g., “He smiled weakly, and suddenly in the dim light of his tiny apartment he no longer seemed like the confident lecturer he had been in seminar. […] [W]e kissed quietly on his couch while his roommate slept soundly down the hall” [59, 60]). Normally, I would suggest decimating the modifiers; here, halving or trimming would do. Some are indeed superfluous, either because of the meaning of the accompanying words or because of the arrangement of the scene, like both quietly and to himself here: “He is going over his poem, mouthing the words quietly to himself” (129). Still, most modifiers find a believable niche in the voices of the narrators.

The same is true, despite the overall formality of the narrative, of the frequent use of who where most grammarians would suggest whom. And it’s true, finally, of the clutter coming from phrases such as “As it turned out” (60, 73). They may be unnecessary, but they nestle naturally in the voice that utters them.

The plot of Porter’s stories tends to develop slowly, but it’s difficult not to become involved in them. When Alex’s father in “Coyotes” asks his son to leave with him or gets into a fight, when Azul’s lover in “Azul” shows up at the party, when Heather in “The Theory of Light and Matter” bumps into her boyfriend while holding hands with another man—those are all moments in which the characters’ anxieties ripple through us. Porter manages to create a connection. We care, and even if we see how foolishly these characters have worked toward their own tragedies, we suffer when the carelessness of the quotidian detonates into a mess.

The characters themselves deserve a special note. Some of them, both major and minor, are grippingly robust. A few pencilstrokes put together the Amish character Rachel, and it’s difficult not to feel impatient to know what happened to her. So with the ditheringly romantic Lynn in “Merkin,” a story that almost begged to spill out of its allotted space. The stiff and unapologetic Tom, in “Storms,” attracts dramatic scenes in such a way that the story doesn’t need to develop them past snippets. The names are handpicked with such care that you can’t imagine something more resonant, like the professor of Old English in “Azul” called Graydon Lear, or the wealthy and suave boyfriend in “Coyotes” named David Stone.

You’ll get a good sense of Porter’s voice and pace by comparing two stories on a similar subject: the rape of a teenager at a party. One story is Jonathan Franzen’s “Agreeable,” and the other is Porter’s “River Dog.” Franzen’s piece is funny, fast-paced, third-personed, critical. Porter’s is serious, slower, confessional, laced with guilt and with craved but elusive forgiveness. The events in “River Dog” are muddied by faulty memories, and a voice in the story even says, “The reader deserves to know what really happened” (87). The problem is that the narrator in “River Dog” also wishes he knew what really happened. Besides, the effects are difficult to come to terms with, and speaking of what happened is in itself a struggle. Porter swoons around the events his narrators wish to tell; Franzen’s narrator in “Agreeable” prattles about them even more than we wish he would.

One thing I love about the stories in this collection is how so many of their different elements come together—subtly—for a unified effect. Take “Coyotes.” It’s a story told by Alex, who’s remembering how his father used to walk into and out of his life when Alex was a child. Alex’s father was a burnout documentary filmmaker who starts an array of projects and leaves them unfinished. Although the narrator’s parents were officially separated, his father returns home every few months to edit film footage and gather strength for the next project. At the end, we discover that Alex’s father was clinically depressive, and he only got as a far as a motel in town whenever he said he left to work far away on his projects. His mother dated other men, but kept her former husband afloat by lending him money and talking to him on the phone. She remained in love with him for years. At the end, Alex’s father assaults her ex-wife’s steadiest beau, and ends up walled up in a hospital for years.

That’s the story, and here come the different elements. Note how “Coyotes” is haunted by the theme of transition. Alex’s father made one celebrated documentary, and it was on “the spiritual beliefs of the Shoshone Indians, the way they believe that the physical world and the spiritual world are closely connected” (26). Years later, he says he’s working on a documentary about immigration on the Mexican-American border. We all know that key and sinister figures in that trade are called coyotes; they—these psychopomps, if you will—don’t come up in the story, but the animals that howl do, and they give the story its title. Alex’s best friend is a kid who grew up in Vietnam, and relocated to the US with a ton of made-up stories, like his sexual exploits with teenage prostitutes. Alex’s mother is dating a man called David, an air force pilot turned lawyer who flew some combat missions in Vietnam; David says he didn’t kill anyone there, but he would’ve done so if he’d needed to. There’s a poignant scene in which Alex’s father asks if Alex wants to go away with him; Alex’s only response is this: “I have swim team” (18).

There’s more, but that’s enough to show the repertoire of examples of transition: a landlubber on a swim team, life and death, adolescent sexuality, immigration, coyotes, the connection between the physical and the spiritual worlds (which offers an elegant way to describe how, in the case of a depressive like Alex’s father, the brain can affect a person’s spiritual wellbeing). All of these parts accentuate the theme of transition that circles around the story. (Since I’ve said “haunted” and “spiritual” in the last couple of paragraphs, I should mention yet another element: Alex always respected his father because a newspaper article said he was a “young genius”; in ancient Rome, a genius was a spirit that accompanied a person or a place.) “Coyotes” doesn’t stand alone in having all its different parts march around a theme. “Departures,” for instance, does it around the theme of belonging (or acceptance).

I had discussed a story by Porter before, “Azul,” and it was through “Azul” that I reached The Theory of Light and Matter. Ever since I first read “Azul,” it struck me as a very strong story. That built up high expectations, which were not disappointed by this anthology. In fact, these subtle, iridescent tales help remind us how varied and rich our experience with literature can be.

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