Monday, January 30, 2006

The Deposition

When I went to the New Yorker's web site this morning, I found a treat: a new short story by Tobias Wolff, titled "The Deposition."

I've read this story twice, but I'm not sure what I think of it just yet. It seems to be a fairly straightforward story about a lawyer who is conducting a difficult deposition. He believes that the witness is holding back, telling less than he knows about a medical malpractice claim in which the lawyer represents the plaintiff.

The parties take a break from the deposition and the lawyer goes for a walk. The setting reminds him of the town where he grew up, and of a girl whose house he had frequented in high school "to glory in her boldness for a mad hour before her mother got home from work." He begins to wax poetic about the days of his youth, and stops:
But what crap!—wallowing in nostalgia for a place he’d come to despise, and dreamed of escaping.
In this case, Wolff is not having the character apologize for a burst of sentimentality; rather, he is drawing attention to the distortion and coloration of memory.

The lawyer continues his walk through a dilapidated business district, becoming more and more disheartened about the state of decay in the town and in the country. He sees two women as he walks, an old woman in a coat and a "bespectacled" woman at a Chinese restaurant. He pays them no mind.

But then a girl gets off a bus, far enough ahead that she doesn't notice him, but close enough that he can observe her in detail. She is long limbed and limber; he takes in the curve of her neck, her hair, her walk, a spot on her calf that may be either a mole or a speck of mud. His observations are so detailed you can feel his nostrils dilating. Suddenly he catches up to her, surprises her. She sees him, and is frightened by something in his face. She runs.
He continued on his way, deliberately keeping himself to a dignified pace, even stopping for a moment to put on his suit jacket—shoot the cuffs, shrug into the shoulders, give a tug at the lapels. He did not allow himself to look back. As the tightness in his throat eased, he found himself hungry for air, almost panting, and realized that he had hardly taken a breath while walking behind the girl. How frightened she had been! What was that all about, anyway? He put this question to himself with a bravado that he did not feel. He knew; he knew what had been in his face.

He continues walking until a police car pulls alongside. The girl and an older woman are in the car, and the lawyer is accused of stalking the girl.

Of course, he has done nothing criminal. The policeman questions him, and he calmly tells the truth, leaving out, of course, how fascinated he had been by the girl. The policeman lets him go, but the older woman shocks him with a fierce slap to the face and calls him a liar. And he knows that she is right. Just as he is right about the witness in the deposition.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Protagonist as Self-Editor

Rereading The Night in Question, I found my attention drawn to several instances in which Wolff's narrators became self-conscious about how they felt or expressed themselves. More like a writer than a real person.

In "Casualty," the protagonist tries to tell his girlfriend about his war experiences:
He wanted to be truthful with her. What a surprise, then, to have it all come out sounding like a lie. He couldn't get it right, couldn't put across what he had felt. He used the wrong words, words that somehow rang false, in sentimental cadences. The details sounded artful. His voice was halting and grave, self-aware, phony.
In "The Chain," the protagonist is recounting the story of an attack on his daughter by a dog:
'The whole thing took maybe sixty seconds,' Gold said. 'Maybe less. But it went on forever.' He'd told the story many times now, and always mentioned this. He knew it was trite to marvel at the way time could stretch and stall, but he was unable not to.
In "Smorgasbord," the young narrator describes the reaction of an older woman to his tales of sexual exploit:
... the more I told her the more wolfishly she smiled and the more her eyes laughed at me.

Laughing eyes--now there's a cliche my English master would have eaten me alive for. 'How exactly did these eyes laugh?' he would have asked, looking up from my paper while my classmates snorted around me. 'Did they titter, or did they merely chortle? Did they give a great guffaw? Did they, perhaps, scream with laughter?'

I am here to tell you that eyes can scream with laughter.
None of these little apologies are all that significant; they don't derail the stories at all. They reveal Wolff struggling with the problem of writing characters who are trite or sentimental. He disavows responsibility by having the characters apologize for their behavior, even though real people might never consider their own triteness. It is undeniably a form of authorial intrusion, but one which we, as kindhearted readers, must forgive and forget. Yes, I know that's trite. I can't help myself.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oh What Fools We Mortals Be

The opening story in The Night in Question is "Mortals," the story of a young newspaperman (the narrator) who loses his job after running an unverified, and premature, obituary of a man named Mr. Givens. Someone phoned in the obit and the narrator typed it up without question--in violation of the newspaper's policies but in accordance with standard practice.

It is Mr. Givens' wife who raises the ruckus that results in the narrator's termination; Mr. Givens seems all too willing to forgive and forget. Although the narrator doesn't catch on until fairly late in the story, the reader may intuit early on that Mr. Givens himself has called in his obituary, in an attempt to see how others might judge his life. He works for the IRS; you might say he has filed an early return.

The story is airily amusing, more anecdotal than many of Wolff's works; it's easy to imagine Wolff as the young protagonist and the story as autobiographical. But Wolff employs one noteworthy device, at the very end, that reminds me of many of his other, more serious pieces. After the narrator has wrung a confession from Mr. Givens with threats of violence, he is returning to the restaurant where the two of them ate lunch.
Just ahead of me a mime was following a young swell in a three-piece suit, catching to the life his leading-man's assurance, the supercilious tilt of his chin. A girl laughed raucously. The swell looked back and the mime froze. He was still holding his pose as I came by. I slipped him a quarter, hoping he'd let me pass.
What does this coda have to do with anything? Why is this extra bit tagged on? Obviously, to make a point: we all play the fool; the best we can hope for is a little kindness from those who catch us in the act. The device is the use of multiple stories within one story to achieve extra context or perhaps contrast. This tiny scene is a separate story, but one that sheds light neatly on the narrator's interpretation of the main thread; far better than a paragraph of heavy handed reflection.

Wolff loves the story within the story (usually seen in the form of frames). In one story which I intend to blog on later ("Our Story Begins"), Wolff uses a frame within a frame (a story in a story in a story).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tobias Wolff: "Bullet in the Brain"

Continuing with Mr. Wolff, and his collection, The Night in Question, we come to "Bullet in the Brain," a well known story about a book critic named Anders.

In direct contrast to "Powder," this story begins with a character who is difficult to like:
Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

Anders belittles everything. He hates everything. Even when a pair of bank robbers steps forth, brandishing guns, Anders can't corral his contempt.
"Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat. Got it?"

The tellers nodded.

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "Dead meat."

Anders is so annoying that you start wishing that the robbers would kill him just to shut him up. And eventually, one of them does. I've always wondered what real book critic Wolff had in mind when he wrote this. It must have been fun.

Of course, if the story ended with this imaginary revenge, it wouldn't be much of a story.

Instead, Wolff takes a cliched idea--that when you die, your life passes before your eyes--and uses it to turn the story on its head. As the bullet passes through Anders' brain, we are told, first, what he doesn't see: scenes from his life that show that he wasn't always such an ass, that he once was likeable and kind and worthy, as were we all.

Not only do you come to feel empathy for Anders, you begin to feel guilty as hell for wishing him dead.

The ending, a description of the single scene that Anders does relive in his dying moments, is possibly my favorite short story ending of all time. I won't set forth the whole thing, just the last line, which I hope I never forget (and which makes no sense out of context, so go read the story):
They is, they is, they is.

Tobias Wolff: "Powder"

Yesterday I received a copy of The Night in Question, a collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff. I've read this before, but decided I should own a copy, since Mr. Wolff is (blush) my favorite writer of short fiction. I admire, among other things, his ability to keep short fiction short. In this collection, "Powder," at four pages, and "Bullet in the Brain," at six, are among the best short-shorts I've ever read.

"Powder" is a straightforward story about an adolescent boy (the pov character) and his father on a ski trip. The parents are separated or divorced; the father has promised to have the boy back to his mother in time for Christmas Eve dinner. But the father tarries, deciding to get in a few more runs, and by the time they set off, the mountain road they must take is closed and guarded by a state trooper. Eventually the trooper leaves his post and the father decides to risk the snow-covered road.

In this story, everything seems to point to disaster. The narrator (an older version of the boy) consistently conveys a sense of worry, at first only that he will be late for Christmas Eve dinner (which has added importance because the father wants to win back the favor of his wife and is screwing this up), but later we fret about their physical well-being. The father sternly warns the boy against such foolhardy behavior. Disaster looms. Yet the boy, who is so tightly wired that he numbers his clothes hangers, is finally able to relax, to trust his father, to accept his fate and enjoy the journey. "If you haven't driven fresh powder," he says at the end, "you haven't driven."

As with many Wolff stories, signposts of "craft" are not so readily extracted from this piece. There are no tricks. Wolff follows a traditional path: he creates an empathetic protagonist (two, really); he gives the characters a clear goal; a problem arises from a character trait; the protagonists suffer a setback; they overcome the setback and the primary protagonist grows, or at least learns something. And all in four pages! What Wolff doesn't do is burden the story with flashbacks or a single word of backstory beyond what is required. He gets to the point quickly without ever making the reader feel rushed. There's even time left at the end for a little protagonistic reflection.

This story is really about the father, and that's the key. The story begins:
Just before Christmas my father took me skiing at Mount Baker. He'd had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonius Monk.

What a dad! Not only does he take his son skiing, he fights for the privilege, and this after sneaking the kid into a jazz club. Who wouldn't want this guy for a father? But we also recognize that he is a risk-taker, and we are concerned. The rest of the story echoes this first paragraph. It's all right there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Sun Never Sets... Huh?

This week's New Yorker delivers a more challenging selection: "Sundowners," by Monica Ali. As noted in the link, Ali is a British novelist, shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, and the daughter of English and Bangladeshi parents.

On its surface, this is simply the repulsive story of a writer (Stanton), sequestered in Portugal to finish a novel, and his conquest (?) of his poor, filthy neighbors, the Potts. Yes, repulsive; this story has dripping snot, a dead cow swarming with maggots, a vomit-flavored kiss, a sow who eats her litter, dogs pissing on the floor, and on and on, mostly provided by the Potts family, a flea-infested, self-mutilating, filthy, filthy, filthy bunch.

At first Stanton avoids involvement with the Potts family, but eventually he is drawn to them, fascinated with their lowness; first he befriends the young son; then he has sex with the mother (repeatedly) and then with the deaf teenage daughter. At the end, when Stanton has scorned his two lovers and finished his book, he visits the family, only to find that the mother and daughter have apparently spilled the beans. The father asks him, "What kind of man are you?... What kind of man are you?" Stanton goes back to his house, drunk and feeling as though his back is broken, but not so dispirited that he can't think
about how beautiful the place was and how much he would miss it. The rain had stopped in the night, and the sun played in the treetops, scattering diamonds here and there. It teased purples and scarlets from the plowed-up field and burnished the far-off hills a fine shade of nostalgia.

Huh? Nostalgia, after this catalogue of squalor? What's going on here?

The clues are in the title ("Sundowners") and the names and nationalities of the characters. This is a cynical look at the British Empire, upon which the sun was never supposed to set but for which the sun has indeed gone down. Stanton is the more-or-less proper British gentry, moneyed, on extended holiday to finish his "work" of writing a novel. The identity of the Potts family is suggested here:
“You’re English,” the boy said. Stanton had not noticed him there.

“Hello, compatriot,” he said.

The boy grew unsure. He beheaded flowers with his stick.

“We’re both English,” Stanton clarified.

The boy (Jay) doesn't acknowledge his nationality; rather, Stanton thrusts it upon him. He has colonized the boy, as he is soon to colonize his mother and sister. John Jay, of course, was an American, crucial in negotiating an end to the Revolutionary War as well as Jay's Treaty in 1794.

The mother's name is Chrissie (her arms are scarred and bleeding; can you say Stigmata? How about Crusades?); the deaf daughter's name is Ruby (she has a stud in her always exposed navel). Rubies are traditionally associated with India, and adorn the crown jewels. The father (whose given name is Michael), says, "Everyone calls me China." China? Well, that's a common name for a man; can't read anything into that.

The bar where much of the narrative takes place is peopled with German and Dutch characters, as well as the native Portuguese; the bartender's name is Vasco (the "da Gama" is understood); they discuss, among other things, the war in Iraq, a "terrible business," Vasco says, but it
"... has to be done. Everyone is saying to me, ‘Oh, they make the empire, these Americans.’ And I tell them, ‘Shut up, what do you know?’ Of course they make the empire. United States of America will not be threatened. We had a big empire, too.” Vasco turned purple and began to wheeze. It dawned on Stanton that he was laughing. “Five hundred years ago.”

I'm no authority on British history; those who are might laugh at this reading. But I believe that there's something here, because without some layered meaning, this story has no reason for existing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Beating a Dead Goat

I recently disparaged (lightly) the use of the dead animal trope in "Three Days," a short story by Samantha Hunt. Then I realized that I had earlier praised Alice Munro's "Runaway" without even noting her use of the device, although it is as blatant as any other. The difference is this: Munro integrates the dead goat into the story seamlessly, whereas most writers, including Hunt, tack on the dead animal however they can. Another way to say this is that "Runaway" is a single-threaded narrative, and uses the dead goat within that thread, whereas "Three Days" is essentially multi-threaded: there is the top-level story (Thanksgiving weekend) and there is the story of the mother pulling the plug on the father.

Also, of course, the only dead human in "Runaway" is the husband of the neighbor, but there's no parallel between him and the goat. But the lingering impression of the story is the implied threat, perhaps of death, against the young wife.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Millions (A Blog About Books): A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005

Found this great summary of all the 2005 New Yorker stories (with some kind links back to SSC): The Millions (A Blog About Books): A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Mysterious Skunk Ape

Tony Earley's "The Cryptozoologist," in the 01/09/06 issue of The New Yorker, is a funny, warm story set in the mountains of North Carolina, one of my favorite places on Earth.

This is primarily the story of Fieldin, an art professor turned unsuccessful artist, and Rose, his wife, former student, and junior by 25 years. Much of the story is presented as backstory about their relationship. A story that relies heavily on backstory requires a turbocharged sense of mystery up front to fuel the reader's interest, to keep him or her slogging along through the character histories. Earley knows this, and hits us with not one but two things to worry about in the first two paragraphs: first, Wayne Lee Cowan, an abortion clinic bomber, has disappeared into the local hills. The FBI is in pursuit; will they catch him? Will he strike again, kidnap Rose, commit some other dastardly crime? As Rose, already waiting by Fieldin's deathbed, stands on the back porch and contemplates these questions,
a figure separated itself from the shadow of one of the trees and strode quickly through the orchard toward the mountain. The figure was large and broad-shouldered, long-armed and stooped. It had some kind of silver stripe running the length of its back. Until it turned to look over its shoulder at her, Rose didn’t fully appreciate that the figure not only wasn’t Wayne Lee Cowan but wasn’t even human.

Wow. What the heck is that thang?

It's a Skunk Ape, apparently an Appalachian version of Bigfoot. Does it really exist? Will there be another encounter? After Fieldin dies in the third paragraph, will Rose hook up with the friendly FBI agent? Let me just say this, and I say it with gratitude: no skunk ape dies during this story. The dead animal trope is, for once, avoided. Although... if the animal is not real (and we don't know that for sure) does Earley get full credit for his restraint?

Beating a Dead Horse

This week's New Yorker features "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt. This story depends on one of my "favorite" tropes: the death of an animal used to parallel (and shed light upon, of course) the death of a human. Open any copy of Glimmer Train and you can barely swing a dead cat without hitting a story that uses this trick. I'm a little surprised to find it in The New Yorker, but that just goes to show how sturdy the old swayback is.

In "Three Days," a young woman, Beatrice, returns to the family farm for Thanksgiving with her mother and stoner brother. The father, who Beatrice loved, is dead. He had lung cancer, and the mother confesses that she had his plug pulled (or conspired with the doctor to practice a little euthanasia; that's unclear).

After dinner, Beatrice and her brother, high on wine and marijuana, decide to ride the family horse, named Humbletonian, to Wal-Mart. The father loved the horse, of course (Oh, Wilbur); he used to sit in the hayloft, smoking away his existential angst and singing "Breathless" to the critter. (Yes, "Breathless"; the father died of lung cancer, the horse later drowns; what else would he sing?)

At Wal-Mart, the kids (both adults) tie the horse to a shopping cart corral (ha) and go inside. When they return, the horse is gone. They find the horse on a frozen pond behind the store. When they call the horse, it walks toward them but breaks through the ice and, naturally, drowns while they look on, helpless.

Just in case the parallel isn't clear enough, earlier in the story Beatrice reflects on her mother's decision to "kill" the father:

“I wouldn’t have killed him,” Beatrice says out loud and waits until she hears a question from the far side of her brain, from her mother. “What would you have done? Just let him suffer? Let him go on breathing that bubbly wet breath that sounded like a damn water fountain?”

Ah, the bubbly wet breath.

There are other elements to this story, in particular an amusing bit about the mother's job reinterpeting myth and history in order to create advertising campaigns and amusement park characters. And none of the above makes this story a sucky story, not especially. It's just that if you've seen one dead horse, you've pretty much seen them all. An animal in a short story about a dead family member is like the new guy on an episode of Star Trek: doomed, doomed, doomed.