Thursday, March 30, 2006

Doing the Math, Revisited

After yesterday's post about the first lines of Karl Iagnemma's story, "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction," I went back and reread the whole thing. It had been a couple of years, and I had forgotten how good it is.

Structurally, the story is fascinating. Iagnemma weaves two primary story lines around a third minor thread. The first primary line is the narrator's story of his love for Alexandra, the promiscuous daughter of the narrator's ex-advisor. The second primary line concerns the history of Slaney, the town in which the story is set; in particular, it is the story of The Swede, who founded the town in 1906. The minor thread is about the narrator's ex-advisor, and his doomed love for an undergraduate. I've titled this "Doing the Math, Revisited" because the narrator is a mathematician who tries to understand love with formulae and Venn diagrams.

Usually, multi-threaded stories segregate the threads with clear section breaks. Iagnemma starts off that way: the first section (four pages) is almost entirely related to the first thread. The next section is, at first, about The Swede, but then he brings in the ex-advisor thread and returns to the narrator's thread. But then Iagnemma jumps back to The Swede for a paragraph, with no transition, no section break, and no explanation, then back to the narrator. This pattern repeats for a while, paragraph by paragraph, and then, at the end of the third section, we get a paragraph that cuts from The Swede's thread to the narrator's thread in mid-paragraph, again with no transition whatsoever. This intermingling of stories intensifies. For example, we have this paragraph:
They found ore in the hills around Slaney in 1926--not the glittery hematite they were seeing in Ishpeming, but a muddy blue sludge that assayed at sixty percent iron. Overnight, Slaney was reborn: the front glass of Dan Gunn's saloon was replaced and the floor replanked, Hugh Grogan's place on Thomas Street was scrubbed down and reopened. The Swede awoke from a month-long bender, his handwriting looser and less optimistic. Strange to see trains unloading again. Excitement even at the meat market; ore, they say, is everywhere. No chicken for nine months. My ex-adviser, one chilly April Sunday in the TechInfo office, explained that his ex-wife had taken out a restraining order, and if he called her one more time, he would be arrested. It took me two months to realize that chicken was the Swede's code word for intercourse.
What's that sentence about the ex-adviser doing in there? And that's the way it continues, more and more overlapping, until the final pages when all three threads are resolved. The amazing thing is that it works, and never, for me at least, becomes confusing.

The other amazing thing about this story's structure is that it is told almost entirely in summary; in 24 pages, the only certifiable scene is at the end, three pages long. I didn't bother to chart this one. That it works is testament to Iagnemma's skill. But it also underscores the difference between summary and abstraction. Scene is, by definition, concrete. Summary can be concrete or abstract. Some writers, reciting the old "show don't tell" rule, think that anything in a scene is showing and anything in summary is telling. Not true. Showing is accomplished with concrete details, perceptible to the senses, whether in summary or scene. Telling is committed when the writer falls back on abstraction.

I Read About Dead People

It's not often that a story fills me with envy and leaves me with a warm glow, but "Naturally," by Daniel Handler, fills the bill. It appears in the current issue of Zoetrope All-Story. You may also know Handler as Lemony Snicket.

It begins:
It was the sort of day when people walk in the park and solve problems. "We'll simply call the taxi company, David, and request a large one, like one of those vans" is the sort of thing you would overhear if you were overhearing in the park. Hank was. He heard that one, and "Let's tell them six and then they'll show up at six-thirty" and "America just needs to get the hell out of there and not look back." Hank lay on an obscure corner of the grass, eyes closed, not moving, getting cold even in the nice day, and he overheard "Maybe we shouldn't move in together at all" and "If taxi companies don't take requests the company will rent you a car probably" and "The guests can gather out on the porch and then come in when dinner's ready" and "Oh my fucking Christ! Don't look, honey, don't look! The man is dead, honey, that's a dead man, oh God somebody call the police."
As you may suspect, although it isn't crystal clear for a few more paragraphs, the dead man is Hank. He wanders around New York for a while, invisible to everyone except a cat named Mr. Mittens, worrying that he is screwing up the afterlife. But eventually he encounters a woman (Eddie) who can see him. They date. One day, while Eddie is sleeping, Hank finds a letter she wrote to her dead husband:
The window rattles without you, you bastard. The trees are the cause, rattling in the wind, you jerk, the wind scraping those leaves and twigs against my window. They'll keep doing this, you terrible husband, and slowly wear away our entire apartment building. I know all these facts about you and there is no longer any use for them. What will I do with your license plate number, and where you hid the key outside so we'd never get locked out of this shaky building? What good does it do me, your pants size and the blue cheese preference for dressing? Who opens the door in the morning now, and takes the newspaper out of the plastic bag when it rains? I'll never get back all the hours I was nice to your parents. I nudge my cherry tomatoes to the side of the plate, bastard, but no one is waiting there with a fork to eat them. I miss you and love you, bastard bastard bastard, come and clean the onion skins out of the crisper and trim back the tree so I can sleep at night.

I'll never get back all the hours I was nice to your parents. I nudge my cherry tomatoes to the side of the plate, bastard, but no one is waiting there with a fork to eat them. What deft contrast in those two lines. The pathos is set up by the humor; it heightens the effect brilliantly.

It's a story about ghosts, real and metaphorical, which I suppose is what ghosts always are. A great read, simultaneously moving and laugh-out-loud funny.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The All Important Lead

I stopped at the library today to pick up John McNally's collection Troublemakers (2000, Univ. of Iowa Press). There's an interview with McNally at Virginia Quarterly Review, which gave me the idea (and another one here at Emerging Writers Network); I haven't read his fiction before. While I was there, I also grabbed On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction (2003, The Dial Press), by Karl Iagnemma (EWN interview here), and Quick (2004, Univ. of Michigan Press), by T.M. McNally. I'd never heard of Quick, but it was tucked in snuggly against Troublemakers and it seemed a shame to break them up.

Oddly, the first story in each collection is about student life. Here are the leads from each.

From Iagnemma's "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction":
When students here can't stand another minute, they get drunk and hurl themselves off the top floor of the Gehring building, the shortest building on campus. The windows were tamper-proofed in August, so the last student forced open the roof access door and screamed Fuck! and dove spread-eagled into the night sky.
From John McNally's "The Vomitorium":
Ralph ran a hand up and over his head, flattening his hair before some freak combination of wind and static electricity blew it straight up and into a real-life fright wig.
From T.M. McNally's "Muscle (And the Possibility of Grace)":
The need for strength is something we understand even then, during our first semester, when life is not yet a matter of avoiding death--the gray wash of despair; a fluke car accident on a long, coastal highway. For us the future is that in which we believe. We are the hopeful, however uninspired. We are Freshmen.
Everybody knows the lead is critical. It should be intrinsically interesting; ideally, it should begin to orient the reader in time, place and character; it should suggest dramatic potential, no matter how meager. The best leads also make a promise: if you keep reading, here is the kind of story you will get. If the promise is enticing, and if the story keeps the promise, that's a pretty good measure of success.

The Iagnemma story promises a story that is both dismal and comic, while providing a touch of setting: an urban university, probably, since the campus comprises numerous buildings, the shortest of which is tall enough to (apparently) encourage suicide attempts, a detail that suggests a greater than ordinary desperation. (Iagnemma works at MIT.) But note how the setting is sneaked in; the focus of these sentences is the image of the student diving "spread-eagled into the night sky." And listen to that odd note of mystery: If the students want to kill themselves, why do they jump from the shortest building? Finally, note how Iagnemma lets us know that we are dealing with a first-person narrator when he says "When students here...." This is a story most readers would continue with. This is a lead that does a lot of work, without ever feeling crowded.

The John McNally story also provides an intriguing image: Ralph and his fright wig. The story takes place on Halloween, fitting with the image, and the name Ralph promises a certain comic, if familiar, tone. This lead doesn't hold up against the Iagnemma lead, however; the threat implied by the image of the hair standing on end is undefined. We can't say that we have a feel for what the story is about. On the other hand, we have a character, this Ralph with his fright-wig hair, something that Iagnemma fails to provide (unless we count the diving student). This is enough to keep me reading.

Finally, we come to the T.M. McNally lead. What does this promise? A lecture? A long-winded narrator who likes to wax poetic about "the gray wash of despair"? We know that the story is about freshmen... and nothing else. No dramatic potential. No image to draw me into the story world. No characters. No setting. Just a narrator making a speech. If I keep reading, it will be from a sense of duty, and little else.

Aristotle said, "Well begun is half done." Never truer than in the short story.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Not That Kind of Angel, Either

Continuing this week's angel theme is "Chasing Angela," by Terry DeHart, appearing in The Barcelona Review. However, the Angela in the title is certainly no angel, guardian or otherwise; the irony of this name choice reminds me of Arnold Friend, the name of the villain in Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?".

And, like the classic Oates story, DeHart's story is built on suspense. The story opens with Mother and Big Jimmy (Angela's parents) driving through the night to their daughter's aid. We don't know why Angela needs help, but we know we're not going to a bake sale:
Mother knitted while Big Jimmy drove, her skinny arms knotted hard as axe handles, her sharp needles clicking and going too deep, ham-fisted, into the shroud she was making.
Yes, she's knitting a shroud.

After driving all night and all the following day, they arrive:
They stopped in front of their daughter’s house, the Cadillac clicking and popping as it cooled. Big Jimmy pried himself out of the car and opened the passenger door for Mother. They went together up the short concrete walk. Big Jimmy rang the bell, a buzzer that sounded like a jolt of electricity let loose in the air. At first they waited without any sign of emotion, as if they were just stopping by for no reason at all, really. Just stopping by to say hello.

No one answered. They listened for footsteps, creaking floors, opening doors. Mother looked at Big Jimmy. That was all it took, only a flash of worry from her dark eyes, and Big Jimmy opened the screen door and pounded on the hollow-cored door behind it. They waited again, their faces impassive, their eyes stinging. They waited like cops who had just pulled a graveyard shift and then been called to a domestic dispute. They waited like cops and it was ironic because for many years, all their lives really, they had been on the other side of the law.

Mother tried the door herself, turning the knob to see if it was unlocked and then knocking with her sharp knuckles. Nothing happened. A dog barked from behind a fence. A Cessna chugged low across the sky. Mother moved away from the door and Big Jimmy put his right hand against it, arm straight out as if taking a measurement. He ran his other hand through his gray hair, as if to make himself presentable, and then he kicked the door off its hinges.
That's how to build suspense, and how to pay it off, with that great last sentence.

I won't play the spoiler on this one. Definitely worth the read.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Summary or Scene?

A few more words about "A Better Angel," by Chris Adrian. I've run this story through my little structure analyzer, and here's the chart:

(Click on the chart for a better look.)

Note, once again, the predominance of scene (red bars) over summary (green bars). The interesting thing about this story is that even in the summary sections, Adrian has consistently integrated elements of scene; I could have justifiably tagged even more of the story as scene and less as summary. For example, here's a section I marked as summary:
Some nights as a resident, I would withdraw into the bathroom and leave the intern to flounder and drown, later claiming that I’d never got the frantic pages when in fact I had turned off my pager and was sitting on the toilet with my face in my hands or taking little hits of whatever I was really into that month. There was a bathroom near the elevator on my father’s floor of the hospital, a nice one-person arrangement with a lock on the door.

The angel was there in just a few moments—I never know what delays her, when she can travel at the speed of guilt and sometimes seems to be everywhere at once. She berated me while I hid my face, her voice making the little room seem very full, all the “What do you think you’re doing?”s and “You get back there”s seeming to bounce off the white walls in discrete packages of sound. I am not this sort of doctor, I said to my hands. I am not any sort of doctor and I don’t know what to do about what’s back there in that room. And she said that even if you are the sort of doctor who doesn’t know anything about medicine, and even if you passed your certifying exams only because you paid a certain Dr. Gupta to bypass the pathetic security measures taken against cheats and impostors by the American Board of Pediatrics, you can still recognize a patient at the extremes of abandonment and grief, and even you can do the smallest human thing to improve his lot.
Overall, this is summary, but it's concrete summary. The reader can see the narrator with his head in his hands, talking to the angel. This is summary, but it includes little abstraction.

The point is this: we lose readers when we become abstract. Some summary is necessary, but find ways to enliven it with concrete details and you'll keep readers interested longer.

Not that kind of angel

This week's New Yorker fiction is "A Better Angel," by Chris Adrian. Adrian is the author of Gob's Grief, referred to everywhere as "a masterpiece of restrospective mythology." As of 2001, when the novel was published, he was also a medical student.

This story is about a drug-addicted young doctor (the narrator) who has his own personal angel. The angel first appears when the narrator is a boy, just before he is attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets, and then again in the hospital, where he is getting his first in a long line of fixes, a Benadryl IV.
But when we were alone, and she stood silently at the foot of my bed, looking strange not just on account of the wings but because she was dressed as a doctor, with a white coat and a stethoscope and her hair done up in a smart bun, I asked her why she hadn’t warned me about the wasps. “I’m not that kind of angel,” she said.
So what kind of angel is she? One who constantly tells him he is destined for greatness and just as constantly berates him for his mistakes. Sounds a lot like a mother; the narrator's mother, coincidentally, is never mentioned in the story. The narrator's sisters are mentioned, however; I'm not sure if they're based on the Gorgons or the Harpies, but there definitely seem to be a few references to Greek myth thrown around.
My sisters were all much older and hated to have me underfoot, so they’d draw fake maps, age them by beating them in the sand with a baseball bat and burning them around the edges, then send me off on quests. I fell for this sort of thing for years.
The story is about one more such quest: their father is hospitalized, and the three daughters, all of whom are pregnant, insist that the narrator go take care of the father. He goes, takes his father home to die, shares his father's morphine, and so on.

Are we readers asked to accept the angel literally? Adrian gives us room to view the angel as the narrator's fantasy, or perhaps a drug-induced delusion.
I spent a lot of time amusing myself that way, making up games, inventing friends to play with, since I really had none of my own....

[The angel] was sitting in a tree, gently tapping an orange that hung near her face, making it swing. My imaginary friends were not the kind you could see. I figured her for a smart-aleck picker’s daughter, since it was nearing the end of the season and the groves were full of Guatemalans. She wore a sleeveless yellow dress with a furry kitten face on the front—I remember that very clearly, and remember wondering later how, if she didn’t exist, I could have made that up.
Doesn't that sound like the tactic of a practiced liar? That introduction of a specific detail as evidence that "I couldn't have made it up!" The angel doesn't appear until the day he experiences the "beautiful thick sleep" of the Benadryl drip, and when the narrator does drugs as an adult physician hiding in the bathroom to escape his duties, the angel morphs from angry to mellow, as if it were the angel having a toot. Does that make sense unless the angel exists only in the narrator's imagination?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Doing the Math

I've been seeing a television promo this weekend in which some detective looks at the camera and blurts out, "You do the math!" That phrase has definitely run its course; however, Donavan Hall, in his short story "A Survey of the Works of Ernesto Veto," at StoryGlossia this month, does an admirable job of marrying a little math with literature.

Written in essay format, the story recounts the life of Ernesto Veto, a fictional writer whose compositions were guided by transcendental numbers. (These are numbers with an infinite and unrepeating number of digits to the right of the decimal place, such as pi.) Veto uses these number sequences to dictate the number of letters in each succeeding word in his fiction:
For example, the first few digits of the number π are 3.14159. The opening of the novel π is "Say, I need a thick ridgepole..." Three letters in the first word. One letter for the second word. Four letters for the third word, and so on.
The story ends with a reference to Veto's suicide, caused, possibly, by his numerical obsessions.

The story is amusing and well done as a sort of faux document, but I'm worried that I'm missing something. This tale can't be complete unless it contains its own mathematical riddle. Surely Hall has based the paragraph lengths on the golden ratio. Or perhaps if all the letters in the story are converted to numbers, a Fibonacci sequence will appear, perhaps if read backwards, or divided by Hall's social security number... or something. It's devious, whatever it is, but I intend to find it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Sour Grapes for Breakfast

"I Hold You Harmless," a short story by August Tarrier, is the first place winner in the 2005 All-Story Short Fiction Contest. It's a story told from the pov of a female stalker. It's told almost 80% in summary. Here's the chart (green = summary, red = scene):

If you can't tell, I'm not very impressed. The narrator stalks and she obsesses. We stay in her head for the entire ride. She reads a field guide about birds and keeps some notes in a log. In the big 577-word scene, she enters the building where her ex-lover works and is at last face-to-face with him, but a bird flies into the room and prevents them from having any meaningful interaction. Then the stalker returns to stalking.

Even though I didn't enter the contest, it distresses me that the judge (I think it was Robert Olen Butler) couldn't find something better among the thousands of submissions. But I can taste the sour grapes on the back of my tongue. You be your own judge.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Analyzing Structure

I'm becoming more and more intrigued by the ways short stories are structured. "Structure" can mean different things, but I'm talking about how a story is broken into integral units, primarily scenes and blocks of summary. How many scenes does a story contain? How long are they? Which scenes are longest, and which are shortest? What's the balance between scene and summary, and in what pattern are they presented?

I've been working on a computer program that analyzes stories along these lines. Now don't get too excited; the program doesn't parse a story and decide on its own what is scene and what is summary. The user has to tag the story sections, in code similar to html.

I'm going to write more about this later, but here's a teaser I can't resist posting. The chart above is a structural analysis of Lorrie Moore's story "Debarking," from The New Yorker. The red bars are scenes; the green bars are summary. Ms. Moore is a genius at dialogue, and her stories are very scene-oriented. Note the predominance of red bars. Note the predominance of short scenes, and how the longer sections are spread throughout the story.

More about this story, and this device, later.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

... and then nothing happened.

This week's New Yorker fiction isn't available on-line, so I thought I would turn to "Good Luck," a story by Kate Walbert which I received in the mail yesterday from One Story. (If you aren't familiar with it, One Story publishes one story per issue in a chapbook format. For $21 you receive 18 stories, about one every three weeks. According to the website, two stories from 2005 were chosen to appear in the 2006 issue of Best American Short Stories, and five others received notable mention. Pretty impressive.)

"Good Luck" is the kind of story that critics of literary fiction love to hate, a story that showcases the author's pathological plot phobia. In this story almost nothing happens: a husband and wife are on a small cruise ship in Patagonia. Before the story begins the wife has announced that she is divorcing the husband. The passengers on the ship take turns presenting lectures on various topics, and the wife decides to lecture on Florence Nightingale. She delivers the lecture, and the story ends with husband and wife staring at some glaciers.

In this story there is no tension. This story is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. If it is driven by anything, it is "information driven." The story ends with a husband and wife staring at an "unbudgeable" glacier, which represents their marriage, especially when the glacier sheds a chunk of ice, which represents their impending divorce. Thank god for the glacier; at least it does something.

However, having said all that, if you can force yourself to read past the first thousand words, the story is well written enough and crammed with enough interesting tidbits to be enjoyable. Perhaps this is the reader's equivalent of the runner's high: after the first ten miles of suffering you become euphoric. But oh, those first ten miles.

One thing I'll say for Walbert: you can't say she doesn't give fair warning. Here's the first paragraph:
And wasn't it Browning who said, "All's right with the world; God's in his heaven--" etcetera etcetera?
Hoo boy, there's a grabber. Who can read that and not know that the story promises 27 pages of pedantry?

To be fair, the first person narrator recognizes his pedantry, although he insists that he is not boring. In his attempts to prove this assertion, he resorts to trivia and anecdote. He gives us lines from Browning, a recounting of his (the narrator's) hellish days as a prisoner of some Japanese fishermen during WWII, penguins, the story of how he met his wife after she'd been hit by a bus, T.S. Eliot, Clydesdales, Louise Trumbull, etcetera, etcetera. Yet in the end the narrator is very boring. He is the quintessentially lifeless protagonist who suffers and suffers but never takes action in any revealing or meaningful way, with a single exception: when he sees his future wife run down by the bus, he pretends to be her uncle so that he can accompany her to the hospital. And later he proposes marriage. But his wife (after making him wait overnight for her handwritten acceptance) spends their honeymoon sleeping on the couch and he never responds to this rejection. And now, in the foreground of the story, she is rejecting him again, and he does nothing to stop her, although it is clear that he wants her to stay.
I had imagined standing before a crowd, or at least ten interested persons, with simply a few notes and my heart. I would tell the story of Browning. I would tell the story of his love for Elizabeth, a tale so well-known it is too rarely recounted. I would look directly at Evelyn. I would tell them all of our meeting. I would refrain from mentioning the rats, or Good Luck, or the smoke that sometimes blinded the pilot, the greasy smoke of Tokyo. I would think of something new for her; something wholly beautiful, with white teeth and fresh eyes and a walk that could easily shift to a trot, a full-scale gallop. An athlete, I'd give her; a hero of the mind. The dazzle would be so brilliant, so blinding, so nurse-like and efficient: a clean slate, a tabula rasa. A world without history, I'd give her. A world without end.

But, of course, he does none of that, because that might constitute plot and completely wreck the obligatory unhappy ending.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Fargo, Revisited

What is it about Fargo that inspires crime stories? Maybe it only seems that way. Perhaps there are only two, the Coen brothers' movie (Fargo, 1996) and this week's New Yorker story, "Gleason," by Louise Erdrich.

If you're like me, you might need your memory of the movie refreshed. In the film, a man hires a couple of low-lifes to kidnap his wife so that he can swindle his father-in-law out of a sizeable ransom. His wife is supposed to be released unharmed after the ransom is paid. Things go wrong. A woodchipper famously comes into play.

"Gleason," however, is completely different. Yes, there is a man who arranges to have his wife kidnapped so that he can run a little scam, after which his wife is to be released unharmed. Things go wrong. But there are absolutely no woodchippers in this story. And although the wife's father is a wealthy businessman, he is not ripped off. Not directly.

Anyway, the similarities are amusing but probably not important. "Gleason" is the story of a married man, John Stregg, who falls in love with a younger woman (Jade) and gets her pregnant. The story begins with a nice, direct dose of menace, that time-honored attention getter:
John Stregg opened his front door wide and there was Gleason, his girlfriend Jade’s little brother. The boy stood, frail and skinny, in the snow with a sad look on his face and a gun in his hand.
Gleason has come to blackmail Stregg, but his motives are pure; he wants the money for his sister. He asks for $100,000, an amount which Stregg feels is "wretched." Stregg, a banker, suggests $600,000; he wants desperately to do right by Jade. He tells Gleason that he would leave his wife for Jade except that his wife (Carmen) owns a controlling interest in the bank; leaving his wife would cost him his job, and then he wouldn't be able to support Jade and the baby. However, he then comes up with the kidnapping scheme (he'd probably seen the movie, come to think of it). Gleason is to kidnap Carmen and Stregg will pay the ransom out of his retirement account. Gleason will return Carmen unharmed, Jade will be taken care of, and no one will be the wiser.

So what goes wrong? At first, nothing. The caper goes smoothly, except that Carmen is more disturbed by the kidnapping than Stregg anticipated. Erdrich conveniently ignores the little complications that would arise in real life, such as Why aren't the police more inquisitive about Stregg's willingness to leave $600,000 in cash by a billboard without asking for help from police? Or how does Stregg's mistress pay cash for a new house without raising suspicions?

Eventually, Carmen remembers that she has seen her kidnapper (Gleason) before, in a local high school play. Warned, Gleason joins the army to get out of the area. Jade, who has no other family, blames Stregg for this turn of events and threatens to turn him in for the kidnapping. In an attempt to placate her, Stregg leaves Carmen and moves in with Jade, but Jade grows even more distant.

Eventually, Stregg confesses everything to Carmen, who calls the police. He is sent to prison.
In the years afterward, Stregg was sometimes asked by the friends he made behind bars what had caused him to confess what he’d done, and then take all the blame. Sometimes he couldn’t think of a good reason. Other times, he said he had guessed that it would never end; he’d seen that he’d be kicked from one woman to the other until the end of time. But, after he gave his answer, he always came back to that moment when he’d first opened the door to Gleason, and thought of how, when he saw the boy standing in the glowing porch light, in the snow, with that dull gun and that sad face, he hadn’t flinched.
From his perspective, Stregg is behind bars precisely because he always faced up to his responsibilities. He didn't flinch when Gleason showed up with a gun; he didn't flinch when it became necessary to have his wife kidnapped, nor when it became necessary to leave her, nor when it became necessary to return and confess his crime. He did the right thing, time after time, and prison is his reward.

The most interesting scene in this story might be when Stregg goes to visit his wife's father, who is "'in his nineties and in a nursing home, but perfectly lucid.'" After an uneventful visit in which they chat briefly about Stregg's wife but Stregg's thoughts drift to Jade, it is time for Stregg to leave:
When he left the old man, Stregg usually patted his arm or made some other vague gesture of apology. This time, still thinking of his visit with Jade, he bent dreamily over Carmen’s father. He kissed the dry forehead, stroked back the old man’s hair, and thoughtlessly smiled. The old man jerked away suddenly and eyed Stregg like a mad hawk.

“You bastard!” he cried.
From this absent-minded kiss on the head, Stregg has revealed his secret. Erdrich doesn't waste a word explaining this scene (it ends with that line), and she doesn't need to. We know it's time to warm up the woodchipper for poor old Mr. Stregg.

It's also interesting to take a look at how Erdrich describes the kidnapping itself. She describes the scene in which Gleason comes to the door with a gun, forces Stregg to tie up his wife, ties up Stregg, and then leaves with the wife. Then Stregg thinks about how he will drop the money, how Gleason will release Carmen in some remote area and she will have to walk home, what the police will think, and so forth. The scene ends, and the next section begins, like this:
The amount wasn’t excessive. It would use up most of their retirement account, but Carmen still had the bank. It would all blow over.

A blizzard came up and Carmen got lost and might have frozen to death had a farmer not pulled her from a ditch.
Erdrich completely skips the period in which Carmen is held hostage, opting instead for the neat little segue between "It would all blow over" and "A blizzard came up...." We get some details later about the time Carmen spent with Gleason, but not much. It's a bold jump-cut, and a good one. What would the story gain if Erdrich had shown us Carmen in Gleason's clutches, bound and gagged in a dark room? Yet how many of us would have had the sense to just leave it out altogether?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

It Takes Two Sticks

Something that's good to remember when developing a short story idea is that if you're lost in the woods, it takes two sticks to make a fire. You can't rub one stick against itself.

Okay, if you have a Zippo or a dry matchbook from your favorite bar maybe one stick will do. Or you could break one stick in half, if it's long enough. So maybe it's not a great analogy. The point is, a short story usually needs more than one thing going on in order to be surprising and hold our interest. This week's New Yorker story, "The Trench," may be the rule-proving exception, but "The Trench" has that built-in arc to carry us forward. If you don't have such an arc, you need something else.

Let's say you want to write a story about a farm wife who recently lost her 18-year-old son to encephalitis. She's struggling to deal with both the emotional burden and the practical burden of doing the farm work that the boy used to do. Dealing with the loss of a child is a common theme; the farm gives the story a setting, but alone it doesn't add much in the way of dramatic interest. What would you do? Have the woman reflect ad nauseum on her son? Spend pages showing how raising crops is like raising children? Inject a long heartfelt scene between the woman and husband, brimming with a lot of indirect "Hills Like White Elephants" dialogue, in which they discuss everything but the dead son, but the reader is supposed to know that they are really talking about the dead son? Aren't you bored already, just thinking about writing another one of those stories?

You could write that kind of story; there have been many such stories written, most still taking up room in a file cabinet somewhere. For me, reading such a story is like taking that single stick and jabbing it in my good eye.

Or you could take Tim Gautreaux's approach in "Returnings" (from his collection Same Place, Same Things) and find a second stick. The setup is as outlined above, and the farm wife is in the fields, trying to start a balky tractor.
Wiping her hands, she heard at the periphery of her attention the steady chop of a helicopter in the distance, a common sound in this part of the parish because of an air-training facility across the line in Mississippi. She mounted the tractor, pulled out the choke, and, with a finger in the starter ring, paused to look toward a helicopter that was passing closer than usual. A gunship, armed and camouflaged, skirted the edge of her field. It hovered a moment, approached with a whopping roar, and finally settled down in a circular dust storm seventy yards from her.
Now why didn't you think of that? Just land a helicopter in your story. The chopper is being flown by a Vietnamese trainee (the story is set in the early '60s); he is lost, and he has to find his way back to base in an hour or face being sent back to Vietnam and fighting in the infantry.

The woman gets in the helicopter and they take off over the parish. She eventually helps him get directions back to the base, and he returns her to the farm and the balky tractor. Her husband comes out in his truck, having missed the entire helicopter adventure. He helps her start the tractor, and the conversation turns, very briefly, to the dead son.
He [the husband] thought a bit. "One morning I tried and tried to start this thing. I ran down a battery before Joe--he was about nine then--came out to the shed and turned on the gas for me. He said, 'Daddy, what you ever do without me?' "

She walked over and stood next to him, the skin on her arms prickling. The empty quiet of the field was oppressive, and she pulled the starter ring. The tractor chuckled alive, but as soon as it did, he reached over and pushed the kill switch, the quiet settling on them like a memory. "We've got to get away for a while," he said, his voice so shaky it scared her. "Leave the tractor here. Let's get cleaned up and drive into town." He glanced up into the sky. "Let's drive two towns over and get a fancy meal. You need it. You never get off this place."
A nice ironic touch.

There are other elements that tie the helicopter ride to the main theme, mainly that the pilot is about the same age as the son. His life is indirectly in danger (he believes that if he doesn't make it back on time, he'll die with a rifle on his back), and she has a chance to protect him, something she was unable to do for her own son. But it's the helicopter ride that makes the story work, not because of any belabored metaphor, but just because it's surprising and interesting. It's the second stick, and Gautreaux uses it to build a pretty good flame.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More Pancakes, Tub?

One of my favorite short stories is Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow." This story begins as a realistic tale of three friends out for a day of deer hunting. It begins with a nice dollop of menace:
Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow. He paced the sidewalk to keep warm and stuck his head out over the curb whenever he saw lights approaching. One driver stopped for him but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub's back and hit the gas. The tires spun on the ice. The fall of snow thickened. Tub stood below the overhang of a building. Across the road the clouds whitened just above the rooftops, and the street lights went out. He shifted the rifle strap to his other shoulder. The whiteness seeped up the sky.

A truck slid around the corner, horn blaring, rear end sashaying. Tub moved to the sidewalk and held up his hand. The truck jumped the curb and kept coming, half on the street and half on the sidewalk. It wasn't slowing down at all. Tub stood for a moment, still holding up his hand, then jumped back. His rifle slipped off his shoulder and clattered on the ice, a sandwich fell out of his pocket. He ran for the steps of the building. Another sandwich and a package of cookies tumbled onto the new snow. He made the steps and looked back.

Tub is the fat friend; Kenny and Frank abuse him mercilessly about his weight, and about the diet he is supposedly on.
"You ought to see yourself," [Kenny] said. "He looks just like a beach ball with a hat on, doesn't he? Doesn't he, Frank?"

The man beside him smiled and looked off.

"You almost ran me down," Tub said. "You could've killed me."

"Come on, Tub," said the man beside the driver. "Be mellow. Kenny was just messing around."
Yes, Kenny was just messing around.

They hunt; it's cold. They stop for lunch, and Kenny says
"You ask me how I want to die today," Kenny said. "I'll tell you burn me at the stake."
Kenny also reveals that Frank is having a tryst with a babysitter. They see no deer, but finally they notice some deer sign, and tracks disappearing into some posted property. They drive to the farmhouse of the man who owns the property; Kenny goes inside and gets his permission to hunt the deer. An old dog barks at them and then retreats.

They follow the deer but eventually lose the tracks. They head back, frustrated. Frank and Kenny exchange words and things get weird.
"Drop dead," Frank said [to Kenny], and turned away.

Kenny and Tub followed him back across the fields. When they were coming up to the barn Kenny stopped and pointed. "I hate that post," he said. He raised his rifle and fired. It sounded like a dry branch cracking. The post splintered along its right side, up toward the top. "There," Kenny said. "It's dead."

"Knock it off," Frank said, walking ahead.

Kenny looked at Tub. He smiled. "I hate that tree," he said, and fired again. Tub hurried to catch up with Frank. He started to speak but just then the dog ran out of the barn and barked at them. "Easy, boy," Frank said.

"I hate that dog." Kenny was behind them.

"That's enough," Frank said. "You put that gun down."

Kenny fired. The bullet went in between the dog's eyes. He sank right down into the snow, his legs splayed out on each side, his yellow eyes open and staring. Except for the blood he looked like a small bearskin rug. The blood ran down the dog's muzzle into the snow.

They all looked at the dog lying there.

"What did he ever do to you?" Tub asked. "He was just barking."

Kenny turned to Tub. "I hate you."

Tub shot from the waist. Kenny jerked backward against the fence and buckled to his knees. He folded his hands across his stomach. "Look," he said. His hands were covered with blood. In the dusk his blood was more blue than red. It seemed to below to the shadows. It didn't seem out of place. Kenny eased himself onto his back. He sighed several times, deeply. "You shot me," he said.
This tone shift is reminiscent of another Tobias Wolff classic, "Bullet in the Brain," in which Anders, the protagonist, is shot in the head halfway through the story. Until this point in "Hunters in the Snow," the men have been taunting one another, joking in the "good-natured" but cruel way that men joke. But now Kenny is lying in the snow, gutshot.

How do Tub and Frank react? After determining that the bullet missed Kenny's appendix, they return to the farmhouse to call an ambulance, only to find that it will take too long. While Frank is on the phone, the farmer tells Tub that he had asked Kenny to shoot the dog, which was infirm and needed to be put down.

Tub and Frank get directions to the hospital and try to load Kenny into the back of the pickup.
[Frank] rolled Kenny onto the boards. Kenny screamed and kicked his legs in the air. When he quieted down Frank and Tub lifted the boards and carried him down the drive. Tub had the back end, and with the snow blowing in his face he had trouble with his footing. Also he was tired and the man inside had forgotten to turn the porch light on. Just past the house Tub slipped and threw out his hands to catch himself. The boards fell and Kenny tumbled out and rolled to the bottom of the drive, yelling all the way. He came to rest against the right front wheel of the truck."

"You fat moron," Frank said. "You aren't good for diddly."

Tub grabbed Frank by the collar and back him hard up against the fence. Frank tried to pull his hands away but Tub shook him and snapped his head back and forth and finally Frank gave up.

"What do you know about fat," Tub said. "What do you know about glands." As he spoke he kept shaking Frank. "What do you know about me."

"All right," Frank said.

"No more," Tub said.

"All right."
As the story continues, Tub and Frank become more interested in patching up their differences and less concerned with Kenny, to an extent that becomes surreal. On the way to the hospital, Tub and Frank decide to stop for coffee to warm up. They leave Kenny in the back of the truck. Inside, Frank confesses that he is having an affair. Tub asks him who with.
Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. "Roxanne Brewer."

"Cliff Brewer's kid? The babysitter?"

"You can't just put people into categories like that, Tub. That's why the whole system is wrong. And that's why this country is going to hell in a rowboat."

"But she can't be more than--"Tub shook his head.

"Fifteen. She'll be sixteen in May." Frank smiled. "May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she'd have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen."

"Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn't even have breasts. She doesn't even wear a top to her bathing suit. She's still collecting frogs."

When they come out of the bar,
Kenny had tried to get out of the truck but he hadn't made it. He was jackknifed over the tailgate, his head hanging above the bumper. They lifted him back into the bed, and covered him again. He was sweating and his teeth chattered. "It hurts, Frank."

"It wouldn't hurt so much if you just stayed put. Now we're going to the hospital. Go that? Say it--I'm going to the hospital."

"I'm going to the hospital."
They drive for a while and decide to stop at a roadhouse, again leaving Kenny in the back of the truck. Now it is Tub's turn to confess a secret: he admits that he eats secretly, gorging himself on candy at every opportunity. The "glandular problem" he used as an excuse was entirely fabricated.

Frank responds by buying Tub four orders of pancakes and waiting while he eats every bite and then licks the plates clean. They return to the truck and set out again. Tub tells Frank that the farmer had asked Kenny to shoot the dog.
"You're kidding!" Frank leaded forward considering. "That Kenny. What a card." He laughed and so did Tub. Tub smiled out the back window. Kenny lay with his arms folded over his stomach, moving his lips at the stars. Right overhead was the Big Dipper, and behind, hanging between Kenny's toes in the direction of the hospital, was the North Star, Pole Star, Help to Sailors. As the truck twisted through the gentle hills the star went back and forth between Kenny's boots, staying always in his sight. "I'm going to the hospital," Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.
In the last two lines, Wolff's omniscient narrator reveals himself in all his godliness.

Make what you will of the "coldness" of the men, of the casual cruelty initially shown Tub by Kenny and Frank, and how, after the pivotal shooting scene, Tub and Frank open their hearts to one another while Kenny lies in the back of the truck, almost, but never quite, dying.

I can't think of another Tobias Wolff story that ends on such a surreal note. We can easily imagine this threesome driving the backroads of this farmland for all eternity, Tub and Frank stopping now and then for more pancakes, Kenny writhing in his truckbed purgatory. For once, Wolff abandons realism, and the result is unforgettable.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Life is a Trench, My Friends

This week's New Yorker story, "The Trench," by Erri DeLuca, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, stands in crisp contrast to last week's entry, "The Bone Game," by Charles D'Ambrosio. "The Trench" is as simple as D'Ambrosio's story was complex. It is the first-person tale of a man digging a tunnel. That's it. There is no backstory; there is no parallel thread. Not a single character is given a name, other than the narrator's nickname (Italy).

This story works because it has what I have referred to in past blog entries as a "Built-in Narrative Arc." Contrary to what one commenter claimed, this is not the same as plot, although in a story that has such an arc, the plot will grow around it like a vine. A Built-in Narrative Arc is a primary story element that suggests a certain timeline, the end of which is known as soon as the element is introduced. This foreknowledge can be integral to the element, e.g., pregnancy (see "The Best Year of My Life," by Paul Theroux). Ignoring abortion and miscarriage, we know that pregnancy in humans lasts about nine months, and it suggests a certain sequence of events. The reader knows, in this general sense, where the story is going, and reads to reach that target.

A built-in arc can also be established by the introduction of a clearly defined, concrete, objective goal, such as in this story, "The Trench." The narrator's objective is to dig a tunnel, or trench, from a house in Paris to the sewer pipe that runs beneath the street, so that the house's plumbing can be connected.

Will he reach the pipe? The boss has refused to take time to reinforce the trench walls. Will they collapse on the narrator? Will he go mad from digging, alone in the darkness, day after day? We read on to find out.

It's easy to read this allegorically, or as a metaphor for Life: a struggle in isolation, within the narrow tunnel of our own lives... a struggle in which we ignore the constancy of death in order to pursue our meager hopes (in this narrator's case, he is hoping for the smell of raw sewage, and when he finally smells it, it is like the "perfume of victory" to him).

Having said all that, it's probably good that this story is very short: 2,243 words. A suitable length. Even though the story is compelling, I'm not sure how much longer I would have lasted underground.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Fiction Machine

I read a couple of stories today by Tim Gautreaux, a Louisiana writer whose "Welding with Children" appeared in the Best American Short Stories 1998 anthology.

Gautreaux writes about Louisiana with a fine ear and eye, as well as a sense of humor that never escapes his control. But these two stories that I read today, "The Piano Tuner" and "Same Place, Same Things," remind me of something called The Fiction Machine. I first heard of this from Justin Cronin; I don't know if the term originated with him.

The Fiction Machine is a game, of sorts, for generating new story ideas. Something to play with when you're dry. It works like this. On one set of index cards, write two- or three-word descriptions of potential characters, e.g., The First Baseman, The Minister's Daughter, The Taxi Driver. On another set of index cards, write a brief predicate. Something concrete, something visual, nothing too complicated. One of Cronin's favorites is "let down her hair." Other examples might be "called the dog" or "turned to the sports page" or "tried to remember the name of his first wife" or even something more static, like "was excited" or "was confused." Then shuffle your cards and draw a card randomly from each stack and use the result as your first sentence. With any luck you might get "The first baseman tried to remember the name of his first wife" or "The minister's daughter turned to the sports page." Or maybe "The taxi driver let down his hair."

The Gautreaux stories open as follows:

"The phone rang Monday morning while the piano tuner was shaving, and he nicked himself." --"The Piano Tuner

"The pump repairman was cautious." --"Same Place, Same Things"

Obviously, once you have your Fiction Machine sentence, you may embellish it. "The piano tuner nicked himself shaving" becomes Gautreaux's great first sentence above. This is a great first sentence. First, it starts with the old-but-never-tiresome trick of starting with a phone call. This always works, in the same way that the arrival of a mysterious letter or package always works: we readers are like Pavlovian dogs, responding with eager anticipation. Who is it? What's in the package? The sentence then introduces the protagonist, always a good idea, and as "the piano tuner," an interesting occupation, made more interesting because we see him not in the act of tuning a piano, but in another, more mundane act: shaving (it's the combination that works). Finally, he nicks himself. This is another little trick that works time and again: inflict some minor injury on the protagonist in the first paragraph to win the reader's sympathy.

Don't scorn the Fiction Machine just because you think it's a trick or leads to formulaic stories. It can be a great way to get launched, and besides, it only gives you the first sentence.

I leave you with a line from "The Piano Tuner," part of a description of a messy kitchen, that was not produced by the Fiction Machine:

"The cabinets looked as though someone had thrown the pots into them from across the room."

So there you go. Combine one from column A with one from column B, mix in a line like that, and you've got a story.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Saint Flannery Says...

Recently I reread, for the nth time, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor, or Saint Flannery, as she is known to some. I've been browsing through Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of her essays. In addition to an opening essay on peacocks (which she bred), she makes a few remarks on writing fiction. These may be well known, but they are worth quoting again and again, until we see them tattooed on our foreheads in the morning mirror, above our shaving creamed cheeks and our bleary eyes:
A story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience.

The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched.... The fiction writer has to realize that he can't create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought.

A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should its action be less complete.... All the action has to be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of motivation, and there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order.

Meaning is what keeps the short story from being short.

When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.

The average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen. But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning.... Now of course this is never stated. The fiction write states as little as possible [ed.: about meaning]. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown.

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.

The fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions.

Fiction is so very much an incarnational art.

Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.
Read it again and again. Concreteness. Perception. No ideas but in things. That's what fiction is all about, the rendering of a real world from which meaning arises, not a statement of opinion, painted on a signboard and toted on stage by a weary protagonist in a tattered purple robe. Things that can be tasted and smelled and fondled and heard in the dead of night and seen. Yes, even Saint Flannery will allow the occasional thought. Just don't overdo it.