Monday, February 27, 2006

The Bone Game, cont. -- Menace

Steven McDermott, whose StoryGlossia is an excellent blog, likes to talk about the role of menace in the short story; i.e., how it is used to create and sustain tension.

The opening of Charles D'Ambrosio's "The Bone Game" provides a great example. Kype and D'Angelo are lost, cruising through downtown Seattle:
[D'Angelo] looked out the Cadillac’s tinted window and saw, through a haze of watery green, a few Chinese men in loose slacks, old coolie stock, it seemed to him, struggling up the steep hill, stooped over as if shouldering the weight of a maul. “Look at those Chinks,” he said. “I bet they laid some track in their day.” Kype finally found the street he wanted and steered the car north through Pioneer Square. An Indian sat on the curb with his head in his hands, tying back two slick wings of crow-black hair with a faded blue bandanna. A pair of broken-heeled cowboy boots lay in the gutter while he aired his bare feet. D’Angelo rolled down his window, waved a gun in the air, took a bead, and dry-fired. The hammer struck three times against empty chambers, but in his mind D’Angelo had dropped the Indian, right there on the sidewalk. He raised the barrel to his lips and blew away an imaginary wisp of smoke.

“What if that had been loaded?” Kype said.

D’Angelo grinned, and fired the gun at Kype’s face. “It isn’t, is it?”
Is that menacing enough? Quite a start, I'd say. (On a different subject, seeing men through a "haze of watery green" foreshadows one of the recurring themes of the story: Kype as fish-man.)

Also, check out McDermott's blog about Her Real Name, a D'Ambrosio story with certain parallels to "The Bone Game". In this entry, McDermott focuses on the character McKillop, who McDermott labels "off the grid." In some ways McKillop performs a function similar to that of D'Angelo. Each is so out of control that the protagonist is relieved, in a sense, from having to sustain the narrative by himself. Each also provides a great foil for the protagonist to push against (although McKillop is ultimately helpful, unlike D'Angelo).

As a final note, how many times have you seen stories about spreading some dead guy's (or gal's) ashes? Billions. And yet D'Ambrosio makes it fresh in the hands of these characters. Quite a feat in itself.

D'Ambrosio Redux -- The Bone Game

By coincidence, this week's New Yorker fiction is a new Charles D'Ambrosio story, "The Bone Game".

All I can say is wow. This one's going to take a while to digest.

On the surface, it's the story of Kype, a young man who has inherited his grandfather's fortune and taken it upon himself to dispose of the old man's ashes in northern Washington State. When the story opens, Kype has already picked up a hitchhiker, D'Angelo, a reckless Brooklynite who "always had that dream, to hitchhike out West." But no summary can do D'Angelo justice; he is a dark angel and a jester,
wearing a red Western shirt with pearlish plastic snaps and a turquoise bolo tie... he was chubby and short and he still wore the baggy pin-striped slacks and red high-top sneakers he’d left Brooklyn in, six months earlier. To Kype he looked like one of those midget clowns that rode Shetland ponies at rodeo intermissions.

Soon they pick up Nell Ides, an Indian girl with, let's say, loose morals, who lives with her great-grandmother on a boat "embosked" in blackberry brambles and swarming with bees. Eventually Kype, D'Angelo and Nell wind up by a river cooking salmon over a campfire. This turns into a wild, mystical scene that I won't try to summarize. You just have to read it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ambrosia for Thought

I've been reading "Blessing," a story by Charles D'Ambrosio in the Winter 2005 issue of Zoetrope All-Story. D'Ambrosio writes densely textured stories, overlaid with images and odd descriptions and seemingly out-of-place elements that create a swirl of associations and beg to be analyzed. I don't know that D'Ambrosio constructs these elaborate patterns in a conscious manner; most writers deny such control when asked. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop us, as readers, from drawing our own conclusions about what the story is about.

I'm going to pull some sentences and facts from "Blessing" without doing an overview of the story.

The first sentence refers to Mount Vernon, the second to Washington.

The protagonist and his wife have a neighbor named Mr. George.

The family's new house sits at the intersection of "Two flat strips of blacktop [stretching] away from it in all directions, falling off toward infinity"; also referred to as a crossroads.

"Perhaps we'd lived as nomads in New York for too many years, and maybe the twin luxuries of space and ownership made us dizzy...."

"That it wouldn't be taken away seemed a miracle."

"... a few high clouds scudded overhead..."

"I could hear Mr. George pounding away, the racket echoing above the river like rifle shots..."

The couple is visited by the wife's brother Jimmy, fresh out of the army; he's looking for money. With him are his Filipino wife Naga and infant son Joey. Also visiting is the wife's dad, who asks if Naga is short for Nagasaki.

"'We had to get out of New York,' I said. 'New York was depressing.'"

"I tried to chase my mood down, rummaging through thoughts and memories of New York, of the life we'd lived there, of the work we'd done and what we'd abandoned, of the people we'd left behind. I found nothing, nothing worth saving, and finally told myself it was atmospheric, negative ions from the squall."

Granted, these references are lifted out of context and from various parts of the story.

Nowhere in the story does D'Ambrosio refer to 9/11, terrorists, or anything directly related to 9/11. Does he need to? Can any American read a sentence containing both "New York" and "twin" and not immediately flash to the image of the Twin Towers imploding?

The surface story is about a couple who has moved from New York to Mount Vernon, Washington and bought an old house, too large for their needs, half renovated and half falling apart. As noted above, the wife's family comes to visit for a weekend, in part to celebrate the brother's birthday, but primarily for the family to "bless" the new house. The father is a crusty, hard-drinking, bitter old man. The mother is locked away in an asylum somewhere. Over the weekend, the wife's family copes with itself as best it can, with limited success, the narrator feeling that he remains on the outside looking in. Beneath the surface, the story is about America's struggle to face a post-9/11 world. The story ends with a wish. Not to be confused with a hope.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

My Father's Tears - John Updike

The New Yorker has graced us this week with "My Father's Tears," a new John Updike story.

After reading this story once, my first reaction is to note how different this story is from most of the stories we see, in which the scaffolds of craft are fairly apparent. This story is (and I've been blistered for using this word before, but here goes) a tapestry of detail, as are many of Updike's stories, and it is the richness of detail and the quality of prose that carries the story along. In telling the narrator's life story, more or less, it reads like a memoir.

I intend to come back to this. All I'll note for now is the story's frame. It begins:
Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once.
Such a disarmingly conversational tone. This friendly rib-nudging can become tiresome, but of course Updike doesn't over do it; he uses it only to invite the reader in.

The one time the narrator saw his father cry was when the narrator said goodbye before returning to college.

The frame is closed at the end of the story, when the narrator has been called home from a European vacation to find that his father has died. The narrator finds that he can't cry for his father.
She put her arms around me in the bed and told me, “Cry.” Though I saw the opportunity, and the rightness of it, I don’t believe I did. My father’s tears had used up mine.
I'm not sure why that would be the case, but Updike has tidily returned to the opening. A small bit of craft, after all.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Obligatory Downer

Last night I read "Treasure," a story by Susan Perabo in the Winter 2005 edition of the Missouri Review. This is the story of a girl, Katie, who almost witnesses the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down on 9/11 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. She "almost" witnesses it because she was supposed to be on the field with her marching band, over which the doomed airplane passed as it fell; but she was inside dealing with an equipment malfunction (no, a split reed, not that other thing). Anyway, she spends much of the rest of the story pretending that she did, in fact, witness the crash.

This story line is twined around a fairly generic, yet engaging, story of unrequited teenage love. Katie worships the boy next door (Dean), her best friend when they were younger, but now a little too cool for her. Katie babysits Dean's younger brother in order to be as near the older boy as possible. In the story's big scene, the younger boy (Toby, who is 10) disappears while Katie naps. Dean and Katie go in pursuit; Katie correctly intuits that he is hunting in a wooded area where "treasure" is rumored to be. The "treasure" is supposed to be jewelry from the plane crash: rings, watches, etc., that the search parties missed. Of course, the idea is ludicrous. Toby and his friends find a bobby pin, and are happy to have it.

The story moves well, is written in flawless prose, has adequate measures of humor and pathos and honesty. But then, in the big scene, where Katy is finally alone with her beloved Dean, in the woods, in the dark, everything falls apart. Dean kisses Katie, but he has been drinking; he's rough, the taste of beer in his mouth makes her gag, etc. Her illusions are destroyed.

There's really no reason for this to happen. I may be an old romantic, but this ruined the story for me. It is a classic example of The Obligatory Downer, the writer's refusal to permit a happy, or at least not depressing, ending because, I say, the author fears being ridiculed as a romantic. She must stick to "reality", which means that no one ever gets what they want; our dreams are never fulfilled, etc. Sure, that's usually true, but so what? Not to be too harsh, because Perabo is a fine writer, but this, to me, signals a timidity, a reluctance to write boldly, and also a certain finger-wagging attitude toward one's characters, not rising to the level of scorn, but certainly to parental disappointment. You should know better, the writer says, than to get your hopes up; now give me your hand for slapping.

But the real problem with this turn of events, from a craft perspective, is that it was so predictable. Perabo established the question: Will Katie get Dean? As with any such question at the heart of a story, there are four answers: Yes, No, Maybe, and Something Else. Yes and No almost ALWAYS result in boring, predictable resolutions; the reader always anticipates those two choices. They may root for one or the other, but what they really want is to be happily surprised, or left in an ambiguous state (the Maybe of the four answers). You can argue that the answer is here is both Yes and No; she gets him but finds out she doesn't want him after all. Sometimes that works--see my discussion of John Cheever's "Swimmers"; and maybe it works here for many readers. But it left me feeling slightly annoyed. Ultimately, the answer to 'Will Katie get Dean?' is still No.

That fourth thing, that Something Else, make a story great. I can't define what the Something Else should have been here, of course, but I wish Susan Perabo had.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Carrying Ashes to Newcastle

A writer friend asked what I thought of "Ashes", a story by Cristina Henríquez (posted July 4, 2005 at The New Yorker).

This is the story of Mireya, a young Panamanian woman. The story begins with news of her mother's death. Although she refuses to cry in front of the surviving family members, Mireya is distraught over her loss. During the course of the story Mireya also loses her job and her boyfriend and squabbles with her brother over who will assume the care of their father, always a womanizing drunk and now apparently senile. The story ends after the mother's funeral and Mireya's appropriation of her mother's ashes with Mireya sitting with the urn, gazing out to sea.

There's much exploration of familial relationships: how, despite our protestations, children have a favorite parent and parents have a favorite child; how a daughter can love her father and seek his attention and approval even though he has been a distant, never present drunk for her whole life; how a woman can be unhappy with her husband for decades, but never leave him.

There are also many opportunities for melodrama. In addition to the phone call about the death, the funeral, the getting fired from the Casa de la Carne, and the gazing out to sea, there is a knock-down-drag-out fight in the street between Mireya and her (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend.

Yet, the story succeeds, I think. As Charles Baxter says in his book Burning Down the House, melodrama is one of those things that everyone despises but no one can define. But what I mean by melodrama (to risk a definition) is the staging of canned, predictable, and often unearned emotion. Every story worth reading has fodder for melodrama, because good stories all have emotional content, and the more the merrier (or moroser, as the case may be). Emotional moments mishandled wind up being melodramatic. It can be so tricky that most writers, including very good ones, choose to dodge the bullet by leaving the most emotional scenes off-camera, or quickly summarized and dismissed. They write instead about aftermath, and backstory, and repercussions. We all do that.

So how does Henríquez handle this? With humor, for one thing. The story begins with a phone call (a time-honored device in itself):
[I]t’s my older brother, Jano, telling me I might want to sit down because he has upsetting news.

“Tell me,” I say.

“Do you have a chair?”

“Just tell me.”

What I have is a hollow feeling in my stomach the size of a coconut.

“Mamá’s gone,” he says.

“What?” My heart seizes.

“Señora López found her today.”

“Found her? Where was Papi?”

“Are you sitting down?” he asks again.

“Stop asking me that. Why can’t you just answer my questions?”

“It’s a little bit complicated, O.K.?”
Here we have the protective brother, indulging in his own melodrama by reciting the traditional lines ("Are you sitting down?"), and Mireya, refusing to play along. She is saying "Don't be such a drama queen!" Much as Tobias Wolff does when he has a character critique his own trite behavior, Henríquez has Mireya rebuff her brother's attempt at sentimentality.

Later, when Mireya confronts her boyfriend, who she has caught with another woman in broad daylight, she releases her pent-up emotion by attacking him bodily. After she has thoroughly pummeled him, and also after it is clear that they are finished as a couple, she flings a final dagger:
“My mother was the only one in my family who liked you,” I finally say. It’s a petty impulse—wanting to hurt him because he hurt me—but I don’t care.

He looks like I just slapped him. “Your mother?”

I grab my bag from the ground and start walking away.

I hear his shoes shuffle behind me for a second and then stop.

“What about you?” he yells. “Didn’t you like me?”

It’s such a heartbreaker. Because here’s the answer: “Yes, I did. Who knows why, but I did.” But right then I can’t do it. I just walk away.
This line, "Didn't you like me?" is quite comic on its own, but also heartbreaking, as Mireya says. But the craft is seen in the next line, when she acknowledges what the melodramatic response would be, and then walks away without saying it. Henríquez eats her cake, yet still has it, right there in the little pasteboard box with the plastic window.

And so the emotion is modulated throughout, without dodging the big scenes. It's actually quite impressive.

The final scene, of Mireya looking out at the water, urn at her side, echoes an earlier flashback in which Mireya, as a girl, slipped on some beach rocks and hit her head, leading to a tender moment with her mother (in turn defused when her mother pinches her). I do think this final shot is melodramatic, but by then, it's well earned. And after all the deflected melodrama earlier in the story, it's almost a relief to finally sit and have a good cry.*

There is one thing in this story that clanks for me, and that is the father's "big line" at the funeral:
“How are you?” I ask. I feel none of the anger I usually do around him.

“I tried to save her,” he whispers, leaning sideways.

“I know, Papi,” I say.

“Human beings can’t save each other from anything, though.”
After being portrayed as addled throughout the story, barely aware of his surroundings, Papi comes up with "Human beings can't save each other from anything, though." Sorry, Cristina, you have turned Papi into your puppet with this line. The "I tried to save her" I could buy, maybe, but that's it.

Incidentally, the title of this post means nothing. Go figure.
*(Figuratively speaking, of course.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Details, Details

I've been reading Where You Dream From, by Robert Olen Butler (edited by Janet Burroway). This is, in essence, a "how-to-write" book, but it's a cut above the ordinary. Among other things, Butler obsesses about the use of concrete detail, avoiding abstraction and summary. He stresses the need to write from a dream state, in which you see a story in detail and write what you see, not what you think. This is one of my favorite topics, and something in which I believe strongly: concrete, specific detail.

I ran across a great example of this today in a story by Ron Currie, Jr., who is on the verge of becoming a very well known short story writer. My prediction: he will be in The New Yorker within two years. The story I refer to is "Three Stories From My Father's Life Which Have Nothing To Do With Me", published in In Posse.

The fourth paragraph of the story (the second, not counting the frame) reads:
The sun rose, and soon my father began to sweat under the rough rumpled cotton of his fatigues. Sitting in the bow of the PBR, he scribbled a letter to his mother with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook, the pages of which were smeared and crinkled from getting wet and drying out and getting wet again and drying out again. The index finger on his right hand bore a deep gash where the blade of his pocketknife had closed on it the day before, and he winced from time to time as he wrote. He was thinking about the motorcycle he would buy when he got back to America. He was thinking about the Pacific Coast Highway, and Big Sur.
The description of the water-warped pages, the cut on his finger, his wince as he wrote in his notebook. Is any of that strictly necessary? No, but God, it's good. The narrator's seeing his father in that boat; more than that, he's in the boat with him, and so are we.

A less talented writer might have written "The pages in the notebook were wrinkled. He'd cut his finger, and it hurt when he wrote." It sounds concrete, but it isn't. A page can be wrinkled in many ways; but when paper gets wet and dries, it takes on a particular feel and shape that we all recognize. "Cut" is not the same as "the blade of his pocketknife had closed on [his index finger]." "Hurt" is an abstraction; instead, we see the man wince.
That's what it's all about.

Now here's the great difficulty. It's not enough to describe something in detail, even if you see it vividly in your mind. As Chekhov said, don't waste words describing the commonplace; spend your effort instead on details that create the particular, something that identifies the specific place, person or thing you are describing. Raise it from the generic.

Far easier said than done.


This week's New Yorker posting brings us another story by a favored author, Haruki Murakami. Entitled "A Shinagawa Monkey," this is written in classic fable form.

According to (with further attribution to the Columbia University Press), a fable is a:
brief allegorical narrative, in verse or prose, illustrating a moral thesis or satirizing human beings. The characters of a fable are usually animals who talk and act like people while retaining their animal traits....
I might add that a fable is not meant to be taken literally, even as fantasy, and that the language is intentionally pedantic, as if the author were addressing a child, explaining the obvious with wide-eyed sincerity.

This story relates the tale of a woman who has begun to forget her own name. She doesn't forget anything else, and she only forgets her name when asked for it unexpectedly. However, the problem prompts her to buy a bracelet with her name engraved so that she can know who she is when asked; she also seeks counseling in a neighborhood clinic.

Through the counselor's somewhat mystical powers, it is eventually discovered that the woman's name (represented by a college nametag) has been stolen by... ta da... a talking monkey (the eponymous Shinagawa Monkey).

The monkey's captors intend to kill it, but the monkey negotiates its release in exchange for the return of the woman's name and a promise to go into the jungle and steal no more. (Animals who strike bargains is also a standard element of fable, of course.) Also, the monkey must reveal to the woman what was taken from her when she lost her name: to wit, the knowledge that her family never loved her, and that she does not love her husband. The moral is, oh, let's say: Your pain is part of who you are. If you ignore your heartache, you will lose yourself. It doesn't matter. The problem with the fable form is that it invites this type of summary; but as Flannery O'Connor and others have said, if a story can be reduced to one sentence, why write the whole story?

On a technical note, I thought Murakami's handling of dialogue was interesting.
When Mizuki opened the door to her dorm room, Yuko Matsunaka was standing there, dressed in a tight turtleneck sweater and jeans. “Do you have a minute to talk to me?” Yuko asked. “Sure,” Mizuki said, surprised. “I’m not doing anything special right now.” Although she knew Yuko, Mizuki had never had a private conversation with her, and it had never occurred to her that Yuko might ask her advice about anything personal. Mizuki motioned for her to sit down while she made some tea with the hot water in her thermos.

“Mizuki, have you ever felt jealous?” Yuko said all of a sudden.

Mizuki was surprised by the question, but she gave it some serious thought.

“No, I guess I never have,” she replied.

“Not even once?”

Note how in the first paragraph, both girls speak, with no paragraph break. That breaks the rules of dialogue formatting! But Murakami does this to transition into the more important part of the dialogue, in which he breaks in a very conventional manner, even adding a break before "'No, I guess I never have,' she replied." Not strictly necessary, but it adds emphasis.

Later, after the monkey has restored the woman's painful memories, we get this passage of banal back-and-forth:
“Did what I told you hurt you?”

“It did,” Mizuki said. “It hurt a lot.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“It’s all right. Deep down, I knew it already. It’s something I had to confront someday.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” the monkey said.

“Goodbye,” Mizuki said. “I don’t imagine we’ll meet again.”

“Take care,” the monkey said. “And thank you for saving my poor life.”
See what I mean about writing for children? But it's a fable, and so this is arguably appropriate.

Also, there's an interesting transition, mid-story, from an anecdote being related to the counselor directly into a flashback of the story being related. This latter device is seen all the time in film, but not so much in short stories (Mizuki is the protagonist):
“Anyway, this happened in October. Before dinner one night, I was in my room, doing my homework, when a junior named Yuko Matsunaka came to see me.... ”

When Mizuki opened the door to her dorm room, Yuko Matsunaka was standing there, dressed in a tight turtleneck sweater and jeans.
The narrative literally jumps from a recounting of an anecdote into the anecdote itself. This is indicated visually by an extra space (jump-cut) and an oversized cap at the beginning of the second paragraph; otherwise it would be jarring, to say the least. It seems odd to extract meaning from typography, but there it is. No less defensible than italics, I guess, which have their place as well.