Monday, November 28, 2005

Alice Munro Gets Jiggy in "Wenlock Edge"

This week's New Yorker has a story from Alice Munro, "Wenlock Edge," that I won't be surprised to see in next year's BASS. Not that I like the story that much (I'm not a huge Munro fan), but she almost always gets one selected for BASS, and this one's funky enough to get more than the usual attention.

I've only read it once, and it deserves a more careful read. On the surface, it's the story of a college girl, something of a bookworm, who is forced to room with a young woman (Nina) who, at the age of twenty-two, has already lived a fairly riotous life. She has had three children (one died, the other two live with their grandmother) and is kept by a wealthy old man. She wears a kimono, and only audits college classes, playing the part of a student while the old man's matronly spy keeps an eye on her.

In the story's central scene, the narrator agrees to fill in for an ailing Nina and have dinner alone with Nina's elderly benefactor. When the narrator arrives for dinner, she is required to strip naked, which she does to prove that she is not "just a bookworm". Then she eats dinner with the old man (who is fully clothed) and later reads to him the A.E. Housman poem, "Wenlock Edge," in which the narrator muses about the impermanent but recurring nature of life and its troubles (to reduce the poem to a bland abstraction).

Ultimately, Nina runs away with the narrator's older male cousin for a week before apparently returning to the sugar daddy. At the end, the narrator reveals that she anonymously informed the old man of Nina's whereabouts.

I'll come back to this after another reading. But from a craft perspective, my first impression is that this is a useful example of counterpointing: using two characters who are opposites (at least on the surface) to highlight the characterization of one or both. Also, in contrast to some other stories I've discussed recently, there is no built-in narrative arc. It takes quite a while and quite a bit of patience to determine where Munro is headed, how long the story will last, and what is the purpose in reading it. This is typical of Munro, and probably why I don't tend to enjoy her work. However, I enjoyed this story, even if I had to force myself to read past the first thousand words.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Aleksandar Hemon's "Love and Obstacles"

"Love and Obstacles," in this week's New Yorker, is another story with a built-in narrative arc: a boy is sent on a mission to a distant city to buy a freezer for his family. When the freezer is acquired, the story is complete, except for the requisite denouement. Once we know his mission, we read on to see it achieved. Profluence is created by this simple task.

The freezer is obtained with minimal problems. It is not the freezer that is important; the boy is not confronted with seemingly insurmountable problems in buying the freezer; he need not prove his mettle or overcome great odds, except that he has to tell a white lie to explain a slight shortage in payment. The story lies in the boy's journey, his confrontations (or interactions) with a drunk, someone who is either a pimp or a policeman, a tourist couple, and Franc, the "cantankerous" clerk at the Hotel Evropa. The boy is seeking love, to be euphemistic, but he seeks in vain. The universal tale of unrequited teen lust.

The themes are familiar, but comfortable as old shoes. How many meaningful themes are there, anyway?

Hemon begins the story by presenting us with a vulnerable character in a threatening situation. The protagonist is seventeen; he is on a train to a strange city; he is carrying a large amount of cash (enough to buy a freezer); and he shares the train with two criminals who discuss their past lives in prison. They harass him, but just enough to make him (and the reader) uneasy and, well, threatened. But eventually they leave him alone and disappear from the story. What purpose do they serve? Oh, one asks an unanswered riddle which is echoed later in the story, but the echo is obligatory, inserted to check off the square that says nothing can appear in a story only once. Their real purpose is simply to win our sympathy for the protagonist, to make us fear for him. He need not outsmart the criminals or beat them into submission or anything else comic-bookish. They have served their purpose, and now they can go.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Novel Pacing - Richard Ford

I recently read Richard Ford's short story collection, "Rock Springs," and am now embarking on The Sportswriter, his novel that precedes Independence Day, for which he won the Pulitzer.

Moving from short stories to a novel, I'm struck by the (necessary) change in pacing. I don't know if I'll ever be able to write a novel, because the pacing is so fundamentally different from the pacing of a short story.

Taking a look at the first chapter in Ford's novel:

It's 21 pages of fairly dense text; I'm estimating 8,000-10,000 words. Longer than a long short story. This edition (Vintage, paperback, 1995) is 375 pages long. In this chapter, the first-person narrator (Frank Bascombe) introduces himself, giving us bits and pieces of his life story, telling us that he had a son who died at the age of nine and that Bascombe and his wife are divorced, although they have two other children. In the course of the chapter, Bascombe and his wife meet, pre-dawn, at their son's grave and chat, as is their custom on the anniversary of the boy's death. That's really all that happens in the primary thread. They meet and chat. Which is fine, for a novel, I don't intend to be critical. But how does he get nearly 10,000 words out of this?

He simply tells the fairly unexciting story of his life: his parents were unexceptional but acceptable people; his father died when Frank was 14, and Frank was sent to a military school, which he didn't mind; he met X (his ex-wife) and married her and they had children. He wrote a book of short stories (oh my god, he wrote a book about a writer) and then an unpublished novel and then became a sportswriter. We get varying levels of detail about each stage of his life, mingled with the scene at the cemetery and some gentle rambling about the current state of his life.

It's just details, good, telling details, backstory that makes Frank Bascombe seem real, concrete, authoritative about his own existence. Although he wouldn't describe himself that way; he refers to his own tendency to be dreamy, not in the sense of physically attractive, but of being distracted, lost in fantasy.

It's thick.

Haruki Murakami's "The Year of Spaghetti"

"The Year of Spaghetti," by Haruki Murakami, appears in the 11/21/05 issue of The New Yorker. It is a puzzling little story; puzzling because one wonders why The New Yorker would publish it, other than the name recognition of the author.

I'm going to try to find something redeeming in this piece. The story begins with the first-person narrator telling us that in 1971 he cooked a lot of spaghetti, daily it seems, in a pot "big enough to bathe a German shepherd in." The narrator lives in a tiny apartment, alone and lonely: "Steam rising from the pot was my pride and joy, tomato sauce bubbling up in the saucepan my one great hope in life."

The narrator eats spaghetti every day, imagining at each meal that someone is coming to visit: different people, ranging from an old girlfriend, to the narrator himself from a different era, to William Holden. No one actually visits.

Murakami next explains the deep meaning of the cooking of spaghetti: "I cooked and cooked, as if cooking spaghetti were an act of revenge. Like a lonely, jilted girl throwing old love letters into the fireplace, I tossed one handful of spaghetti after another into the pot.

"I’d gather up the trampled-down shadows of time, knead them into the shape of a German shepherd, toss them into the roiling water, and sprinkle them with salt."

So, you see, it isn't just spaghetti he's obsessing over; it's past regrets, mistakes, the detritus of an unhappy life.

The first actual plot point occurs when, one day, the phone rings. After several paragraphs of listening to the phone ring, the narrator answers. The caller is a girl looking for her ex-boyfriend, a friend of the narrator.

The narrator refuses to tell the girl where to find the boy. They argue briefly. The narrator says he's too busy cooking spaghetti to help her. Ah, but he's not cooking spaghetti, not really, so he pretends too, pantomiming the act. Eventually, the girl gives up and the narrator lies down on the floor.

The narrator reflects on his unwillingness to help the girl. Maybe it was wrong, but he didn't want to get involved.

And finally, the heartstopping final paragraph:

"Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?"

Sorry, I can't find anything redeeming in this. It's like a parody of modern fiction. Or really bad college fiction. Or both. Someone suggested that it's intended to be funny, and maybe so, but I don't think it's fair for a writer to publish something laughably bad and then say, "Oh, I meant for it to be bad. Isn't that funny?" Harumph.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Swimmer

I just read John Cheever's "The Swimmer," a classic short story that I had somehow never gotten around to reading. It's the tale, often referenced, of a man (Neddy) who swims across his suburban New York county, one swimming pool at a time, in an attempt to get home.

The story begins in a festive spirit, with Neddy viewing his swim as an adventure worthy of Lewis & Clark. Neddy always plunges into pools, Cheever tells us, never using a ladder, and this is how he begins his journey, with hardly a moment's hesitation. At each pool along the way, he pauses to talk with the owners and have a drink. Everyone is happy to see him. Life is good. We are, perhaps, a little concerned about his constant drinking, and the effect it might have on his ability to swim. And there is some tinge of mystery about his four daughters, whom he expects to find at home when he arrives. But we happily tag along.

Only as Neddy nears his home do we learn that everything is not as it seems. He has a talent for suppressing the unpleasant, and it turns out that he has lost his home, his money, and possibly his daughters. He is, in the end, as delusional as one might expect such a swimmer to be.

I love the structure of this story because, as with "The Best Year of My Life" or "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," the cross-county swim gives us a clearcut destination, a well defined arc that we will readily trace, knowing (roughly) where we are headed and how long it will take us to get there. (In TBYOML, the arc was the course of a pregnancy; in TSOHCF, it was a baseball game.) Of course, it's also important that the outcome of the arc be uncertain: will he make it all the way? The answer turns out to be yes and no; he physically arrives at his home, but only to find it abandoned, empty, dilapidated. It is not the home he remembered.

I wonder how Cheever developed this story. Did he begin with the fanciful idea of swimming across the neighborhood, one pool at a time, and then figure out why a man would do this, and what the outcome would be?

There are almost always three obvious answers to a dramatic question: yes, no, and maybe. And then there's the fourth best thing, which avoids or restates the question, but is (we hope) satisfying nonetheless. To simply have Neddy arrive at home and see his daughters and reflect on his great swim would have been pointless. To have him fail to get home would have been cheating the reader; after all his jumping in and out of pools, we are waiting to see him get home, and we sense that the payoff will come when he gets there. The answer is yes; the answer is no; it is, perhaps, the fourth best thing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Writing v. Invention

Every writer of fiction faces a bifurcated challenge: there is obviously the writing, i.e., the construction of sentences and paragraphs, the choice of words, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc., but more importantly, and less talked about, is the challenge of invention, the imagining of a story that is worth reading. The writer must succeed on both levels in order to produce quality fiction.

I have a bookcase full of books on writing fiction, and they are all about the writing. They drone on and on about techniques for getting the imagined story on paper. But I don't think I own a single text that addresses the process of imagining the story in the first place.

How does one imagine a story? And what makes a story well imagined or poorly imagined?

I don't have an answer for this, but I often feel, when reading superior fiction, that the story has been, for lack of a better phrase, "deeply imagined." The writer seems to see and hear the scenes portrayed with such clarity that it becomes difficult to believe that they only existed in his mind. The deeply imagined story provides us with unfamiliar details, details not borrowed from a television show or common knowledge, details that lift the people and situations described from the generic to the specific, to a new and shimmering specific unlike any we have seen or read about before.

In great writing, this freshness appears at every level. At the level of descriptive detail, but also in the acts of the characters (and thus the plot or story line), in the dialogue, in the phrasing and word choices. It is, once again, the antithesis of the commonplace.

How does the writer achieve this state of fictional grace? Imagine everything obvious, everything easy, everything familiar, write it if necessary, and then throw it all away. Then the real work begins.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Theroux - The Best Year of My Life

I just read Paul Theroux's story, "The Best Year of My Life," in The New Yorker. Some off the cuff observations:

This is another example of a story that achieves basic profluence by incorporating a plot element with a built-in arc: in this case, pregnancy. A young college student receives a telephone call from a girl in which she informs him that she is pregnant. They are not in love, but the boy runs away with the girl to help her hide her condition from her parents, first to New York and then to Puerto Rico. Eventually they return to Boston, where the girl gives birth to a boy at a home for unwed mothers, and the baby is given up for adoption.

The pregnancy is introduced in the lead, and the story ends shortly after the baby is born. The nine-month arc of the pregnancy provides a structure for the story that is easy to follow and naturally compelling. We read, if for no other reason, to see how it turns out. Will the baby be born? What will happen to it, and to the young couple? The answers to these questions is not at all surprising or novel... and they don't need to be. So much bad fiction attempts to rely on a surprise, or overly dramatic, ending. There is no need if the narrative has carried the reader along in a satisfying way. And yet, having a reason to read, having a sense of our destination, is critical. Few things are more annoying for a reader than to pause a few pages into a story and wonder, "Where is this going?" Most readers don't have much patience. If the writer doesn't provide at least a pretty strong clue, the story won't work.

So the basic structure of the story, and the central problem, is established early on. Thereafter, the story is told on a traditional arc of escalating problems, culminating in the arrival of a letter from the girl's mother. They are busted, and must return to face the consequences. The story concludes with the narrator's reflection and realization that this year, that seemed so terrible as it occurred, was, as the title says, the best year of his life. That it had prepared him for anything that might happen to him in the future. That it gave him a frame of reference against which to judge the petty misdeeds and mistakes of the rest of his life. So it ends with an old-fashioned epiphany.

Besides the profluence, what makes the story succeed? The characterization of the narrator. (We barely see the girl or any of the other characters; this is all about the boy.) He never complains. He never dodges responsibility. He never indulges in false sentiment, never pretends to love the girl, never beats himself up over his mistake. He just deals with the problem as best he can. He is also bright, giving ample evidence of being well read and multi-lingual. Yet, he is not above manual labor, working as a field hand harvesting asparagus to pay for a room for himself and the girl.

Consider this story in light of the previous post regarding sentimentality. There are certainly elements here which carry predefined emotional content. Pregnancy out of wedlock. Giving a child up for adoption. Yet, the story never approaches sentimentality. For one thing, the narrator does not dwell on his own emotional reaction to these things. We know how he feels, because we empathize with him. We don't need to have our noses rubbed in it. The girl is allowed to weep over her lost child, but we see this only as it is observed by the narrator, and he treats her with kindness, holding her at night (fully clothed) as she cries.

So it isn't that potentially sentimental elements can't be included in a story. If that were true it would be almost impossible to write anything. But the writer must, as always, avoid belaboring the obvious. Dead puppies are like nuclear warheads, and must be handled with great restraint and a gentle touch.

Sentimentality and Originality

I've been pondering what makes writing sentimental; i.e., where does the pursuit of sentiment (emotion) slip across the line and become maudlin, cloying, and sappy? At what point do readers go from wiping their eyes to rolling them?

The key component of sentimental writing is the use of stock, emotionally laden elements. Justin Cronin calls such an element a "dead puppy": an iconic symbol that can be counted on to get an automatic reaction without working for it. Dead puppies are sad; it matters not what has gone before in the story, or what follows. One would have to work pretty hard to write a story about dead puppies that elicited some other response, and which did not sink to the level of dead baby jokes. (Remember them? How do you unload a truckload of dead babies? With a pitchfork.) I cringe to think about the dead puppies in my own writing. Not to mention dead babies. Yeesh.

We normally think of sentimental writing as sad, or treacly sweet (awww-inspiring). But it's really anything that relies on such overused, predefined imagery. And it really is a hallmark of bad amateur writing. Any editor will recognize the plethora of miscarriages, abortions, dead [puppies, mothers, children, boyfriends, etc.], cancer victims, wife-beaters, self-mutilators, and sexual deviants in bad amateur fiction submitted for publication. The authors of these pieces think they are writing "serious" fiction because the subject matter is "serious", i.e., somber. (I know this to be true because I have wallowed in this mudhole, both as writer and editor, at length.)

Serious fiction need not be somber, but it must be fresh, composed of elements not seen before, or at least capable of carrying original meaning, meaning created by the story. And by "meaning," what I really am talking about is emotion. True sentiment, dug out of the dirt of originality, letter by letter, word by word, detail by stinking detail.