Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Information, Please

Here's your assignment. Write a story based on the following facts: a young woman marries an older man and they have three children. One night, after an argument, the woman walks out and spends the night at a neighbor's house. When she returns the next day, the husband has murdered the children.

Too melodramatic? Too gruesome? Too plot-driven? In the hands of many writers, yes; in the hands of a master like Alice Munro, not at all, as we see in this week's New Yorker fiction, "Dimension."

How would you write such a story? What questions would it need to answer?

Some obvious questions:

  • Why did the husband kill the children?

  • How did the husband kill the children? (Admit it, you're curious)

  • Who was this husband? Who was this wife?

  • What was their argument about?

  • What is the aftermath of this event?


  • Munro answers the first four of these questions in fairly predictable ways. The husband is extremely paranoid and controlling; when his wife leaves, he smothers two of the children and chokes the third "to save them the misery... of knowing that their mother had walked out on them." Munro gives us an unsurprising, yet satisfying, backstory: the wife was sixteen when she met her husband, who was a hospital orderly tending to the wife's dying mother. He was an authority figure, an angel of mercy, and this vulnerable young girl was taken in. Thereafter, he mentally abuses her, controlling every aspect of her life. He forbids her to wear makeup. She may only laugh at something if he laughs first. She rationalizes his abusive behavior and hides it from others, telling herself that this behavior is simply his way, yet knowing how outrageous it would seem to an outsider.

    The heart of the story is in the aftermath, as Munro explores how the wife attempts to deal with her grief and her guilt. Of course she feels guilt, irrational as it may be; if she hadn't walked out, the children would be alive. Munro wraps her remorse in an image: early in the story, we are told that "she had cut her hair short and bleached and spiked it...." Later, just before the story's climactic scene, when she is on the verge of forgiving her husband for what he has done and accepting that her only purpose in life is to be with him, she thinks
    Aren’t I just as cut off by what happened as he is? Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of.

    Disguise wasn’t possible, not really. That crown of yellow spikes was pathetic.
    A neat return to the spiky hair, her crown of thorns, her attempt to bear the burden of her husband's sin.

    From a craft perspective this story could be analyzed in several ways, but the point of my title ("Information, Please") is to draw attention to the way Munro builds and sustains tension by parceling out the facts. How and when to reveal information is always critical, and Munro knows how to string us along better than anyone. In "Dimension," the story begins at a time well after the crime has been committed, but Munro gives us not information, but a succession of clues. In the first paragraph, we see that the wife is making a laborious bus trip to a "facility." In the second paragraph, we learn that she likes her job as a motel maid because it means she doesn't have to talk to people. In the third paragraph, we are told
    None of the people she worked with knew what had happened.
    Come on, Alice, we shout, what happened? But no, no; oh, no. We have to earn that information.

    These and other clues lead us to suspect, eventually, that the husband has murdered the children, but our suspicions aren't confirmed until the halfway point, when we are given the scene in which the wife returns home and finds the children dead.

    That Munro gives us this scene almost exactly at the halfway point is significant. It gives the story the shape of a pyramid, with the most significant event placed at the peak. If the story had been written in a strictly chronological form, the murder of the children would have occurred much earlier, perhaps a quarter of the way through the narrative. Munro begins the story with a scene from the aftermath, and then weaves more aftermath scenes with backstory to enhance the tension, but also to delay the murder scene. Once we see our fears realized (i.e., that the father murdered the children), the rest of the story, all aftermath, is a downhill ride.

    Monday, May 22, 2006

    A Rothful God

    The New Yorker this week delivers unto us a little Roth. No, not that Roth, the other one, Henry Roth, the one who died in 1995 at the age of 89. The one who, according to the note at the end of the story ("God the Novelist"), left behind a 2,000-page unedited manuscript from which this story was "adapted".

    The story begins:
    The Home Relief investigator called on Thursday: a dark-complexioned, middle-aged woman, Jewish, wearing glasses. As soon as she entered my room, having climbed three flights of stairs to get there, she made for a chair and, panting, ensconced herself.
    The narrator is an aspiring writer of short stories, currently on welfare and sharing a wretched room with a colony of bedbugs. He tells the Home Relief investigator that he needs a better place to write in, and she promises to help. The rest of the story meanders from one comic scene to the next, without ever approaching any sort of resolution. He chats with an Irish friend about his problem. He goes to see his agent, Virginia, and shows her a story he has written for The New Yorker:
    But Virginia was dissatisfied. I internalized too much. My feelings were like a lead coffin, she said.

    “Well, how are you going to tell what the character feels if you’re not inside him,” I demurred.

    “Oh, no” was her riposte. “God the Novelist knows, the narrator knows.”
    At this point, the pov switches from first-person to third, with the narrator referring to himself as God the Novelist:
    So, today, God the Novelist thought He’d better go over to the Home Relief Bureau and get His new identification card, which His investigator had failed to give Him.
    God the Novelist spends the rest of the story trying, unsuccessfully, to find the Home Relief office, at which he can get a new identification card, and, we hope, a room better suited to a supreme being.

    No summary will do the story justice; it's too funny, line-by-line, and filled with jokes for writers. It can still be read for craft, though. The story is very dialogue heavy--it's little more than a series of conversations--but Roth is always careful to give us interesting things to look at. He mixes little baubles of action into all the talk--from "herding" tobacco behind a character's upper lip to spreading jelly on toast to almost being run down by a car--simply to modulate the experience (i.e., to keep the story from being all dialogue) and to put all the talk in a physical context. It's a small but important thing, too often ignored.

    Thursday, May 18, 2006

    Exploding the Moving Action

    I read two short stories today that, by pure coincidence, are based upon nearly identical events. These stories could have been the product of a class exercise; yet, the finished products are almost completely different. With any luck, a comparison of the two, and an examination of how one story succeeds and the other fails (or doesn't succeed as well) should be instructive.

    Before I get into the stories, I want to talk about a straightforward technique for analyzing, or building, any traditional story. I'm going to call this technique Exploding the Moving Action.

    The first step is to isolate the story's most important "moving action" (aka dynamic action). What's a moving action? There are three kinds of action in a short story (this is not my idea; I learned it from Justin Cronin): received action, which is anything that happens to a character; fixed action, which is anything a character does more or less automatically or habitually, from eating when hungry to performing his job to getting drunk (if the character is an alcoholic); and moving action, significant action taken by a character as the result of a choice. The choice may be a moral choice or a choice between two things a character wants, but it should have a cost. Choosing between a hot dog and a hamburger is not, ordinarily, a moving action. Choosing to commit murder, unless one is a hit man, is a moving action. Choosing to pat a murderer on the cheek because you suddenly recognize that he is like your own child (see "A Good Man is Hard to Find") might be a moving action.

    Choosing not to stop and render aid after striking a child or dog with an automobile would be a moving action (even though the action consists, arguably, of inaction).

    Once you have identified a story's most important moving action (and in many stories there will be only one), begin asking questions. Who is the character who acted? Who were the characters acted upon? Where and when did the action occur? And most importantly, why did the action occur? Any or all of the answers to these questions might lead to more questions. Pursue them all until you hit the point of diminishing returns, write up the answers, present them in a pleasing order and written in an interesting prose style, and voila, you have A Story.

    By sheer coincidence, the two stories I read today both involve drivers who strike another living being with their automobiles (in one case a child, in another case a dog) and fail to stop and render aid. The first story, by William Trevor, and included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006, is "The Dressmaker's Child." This is a successful story. The second story, "One Last Good Time," by Michael P. Kardos, and appearing in the Summer/Fall 2006 issue of Gulf Coast, is less successful. This shouldn't be seen as a putdown of Kardos's story; not many writers can keep pace with William Trevor, after all. Also, it's good to keep in mind that these are not the only hit-and-run stories ever written, and they won't be the last.

    So, having identified the moving action, what questions naturally arise in these two stories (ignoring the when and where, which add interest and texture, but aren't crucial to the structure of the stories)?

  • Who is the driver? (i.e., what is his character, and what are the circumstances that makes this action especially meaningful to him?)

  • Who is the victim?

  • What caused the accident?

  • Why didn't the driver stop and render aid or take responsibility for the accident, if appropriate?

  • What are the ramifications of the accident and/or the failure to stop? (This might include the question, Did the victim die?)


  • There may be other questions, and the answers to these questions might obviate or raise other questions. But this is a good starting list.

    The Trevor story proceeds in a linear fashion, and devotes a little more than half the story to the ramifications: the aftermath. The driver is a young Irish mechanic, a Catholic, named Cahal. The victim is the eponymous (love that word) Dressmaker's Child (a girl). The cause of the accident is complex, the blame shared between the girl (who seems to be disturbed, and has a habit of running at moving cars) and Cahal, who is distracted by his passengers (newlyweds who are necking in the backseat) and a soccer match on television that he is currently missing. Cahal doesn't stop because, he tells himself at the time, he isn't sure if he hit anyone, and, obviously, if he did, he will be in huge trouble, and also lose his fifty Euro fare (although to his credit he doesn't think about the fare overtly). The girl has rushed cars before and hit them with stones; perhaps the thud he heard was only a rock, and not the child's body. Yet, he doesn't stop to find out, and he is haunted by this decision for the rest of the story. Later, the girl's mother lets him know that she knows he hit the girl, but didn't turn him in. His guilt, and his multi-leveled obligation to the mother, constitute the aftermath. The story is logical, complete, and there are no extraneous pieces.

    The Kardos story is written in a non-linear mode, and the focus is on explaining why the character failed to stop, although we don't know that this is the focus until the story is nearly over. Confusing? It should be. There is little aftermath, although the primary ramification, the death of the driver, is revealed in the first line.

    Gradually we learn that the driver was a school bus driver, and that he hijacked a busload of children before he died. The hit-and-run isn't revealed until much later, after a prolonged section in which we learn that the bus driver was having an affair with his pregnant wife's sister. The sister had threatened to reveal their relationship to the wife; the husband, stressed and sleepless because of this threat, hits a dog while driving the kids home from school.

    So here's the big question: why doesn't he stop? It's just a dog, and the dog ran in front of the bus. All he faces is embarrassment and inconvenience. This is not the same as striking a child, after all. Yet, he bolts. Okay, he's tired. He isn't thinking clearly. But then he compounds this stupidity by driving off with the kids instead of just dropping them at their regular stops. This makes no sense whatsoever! Kardos tries to cover this up by saying "Maybe Vinnie had gone a little crazy today," but that just doesn't cut it. There's also an intimation that he wanted to get in major trouble, even get thrown in jail, so that he could escape the untenable situation with his wife and mistress. But again, I'm not buying it. It takes a damn big rubber band to stretch that far.

    So there you have it. Two stories answering the same questions about nearly identical events, with dramatically different results. I won't get into the thematic differences, and how Trevor takes his story to a spiritual and cultural level that Kardos's story never sniffs (or aspires to).

    Mules

    "In 1919, there were 26.5 million mules and horses in this country. By 1945, less than a tenth of that number remained. They simply disappeared from the landscape."

    That's how Lydia Peelle begins her note about her story, "Mule Killers," originally appearing in Epoch and anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006. The story is beautifully told, and what's most amazing is that it's Peelle's first published piece. Well, she's only 28.

    The story begins:
    My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father's farm. He tells me that all across the state that year, big trucks loaded up with mules rumbled steadily to the slaughterhouses. They drove over the roads that mules themselves had cut, the gravel and macadam that mules themselves had laid. Once or twice a day, he says, you would hear a high-pitched bray come from one of the trucks, a rattling as it went by, then silence, and you would look up from your work for a moment to listen to that silence. The mules when they were trucked away were sleek and fat on oats, work-shod and in their prime. The best color is fat, my grandfather used to say, when asked. But that year, my father tells me, that one heartbreaking year, the best color was dead. Pride and Jake and Willy Boy, Champ and Pete were dead, Kate and Sue and Orphan Lad; Orphan Lad was dead.
    That last sentence, with its melancholy rhythm and the surprising repetition of "Orphan Lad," sets a tone of heartache that does not relent throughout the story.

    This is one dead animal story that transcends the cliche. It's quite a debut.

    Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    Klam Bake

    I'm way, way behind the curve on this, since the book was published in 2000, but I wanted to put in one more plug for Matthew Klam's Sam the Cat and other stories.

    I wrote earlier that Klam wrote like a dark, male Lorrie Moore. Let me amend that to say that he writes like the evil love child of Lorrie Moore and Steve Almond. But that's not meant to imply that his stories are derivative. No, Klam has staked out his own territory. He is the king of the love-hate relationship.

    Most of the stories in Sam the Cat, as well as "Adina, Astrid, Chipewee, Jasmine," his recent story in The New Yorker, are about men oscillating between adoration of their partners and a desire to see them dead at the bottom of a river. This contrast can be almost schizophrenic, but it works to keep the reader off balance and surprised (and laughing). Klam executes the surprises at the sentence level, over and over, giving the stories a very organic feel.

    The title story, "Sam the Cat" (generously made available, in its entirety, at Klam's website), stands apart from the other stories, however. It's the tale of a guy who sees a sexy girl from across the room and approaches her, only to realize, after working himself into a state of arousal, that the sexy girl is just a long-haired guy. Every guy has had a similar experience, and it's more than slightly disorienting and weird. What happens afterwards to Klam's narrator is the one of the funniest things I've read in a long time.

    Monday, May 15, 2006

    Glass Screens, Glass Slippers

    The New Yorker's short story this week is "Cinderella School," by Lara Vapnyar. This is the story of a young Russian woman, Genya, who has immigrated to New York with her husband. She has been looking for a job for a year, and she finally finds one, teaching English at the Cinderella School, a bizarre establishment that plans to add English classes to its offerings of witchcraft, laxative tea, and holistic medicine. So far as we are told, the holistic medicine consists entirely of the application of positive thinking to the problem of erectile disfunction.

    It's an entertaining story and an easy read. As the title suggests, this story is based on fantasies, on the fairy tales we tell ourselves, ranging from the self-delusion of Genya's white lie when she modifies her college diploma to indicate that she is qualified to teach English, to her use of movies to teach English (in particular "Pretty Woman," Hollywood's version of Cinderella), to the hopeful and doomed fantasy of all immigrants: that their lives will be magically made better by relocation to a new land.

    Also interesting are references to "Red" and "Blue," films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and the echoes of those films within the narrative. In "Red," the unbreachable separation between a young woman and an older judge is symbolized by a car window (a sheet of glass); in this story, Genya tells the proprietor of the Cinderella School, an older man to whom she feels some attraction, that she feels shut off from Manhattan by a glass screen. In "Blue," a woman whose husband and daughter are killed in an accident sells her estate, gives up everything she owns, and moves, only to find that she can't escape her grief, no matter where she goes... just as the immigrants in this story learn that even though they have moved to the United States, they cannot escape being who they are.

    Thursday, May 11, 2006

    A New God

    The first story in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 is "Old Boys, Old Girls," by Edward P. Jones. This story was also included in BASS 2005. Stories that win both honors are not as common as you might think; it's worth paying attention when this happens.

    "Old Boys, Old Girls" is the story of Caesar Matthews, a two-time murderer who is sentenced to seven years in Lorton Prison. The sentence is for the second crime; in the first murder, Caesar was never identified as the killer. "It was almost as if, at least on the books the law kept, Caesar had got away with a free killing."

    The story begins with this description of his capricious interaction with the court system. This pattern, of a man in a world dominated by institutions and chance-- enormous forces that he cannot understand or control--repeats again and again throughout the story. Caesar is not a victim, however; we are told immediately that "[t]he world had done things to Caesar... but he had done far more to himself."

    Nine of the story's twenty-three pages describe Caesar's time in prison. The events of prison life are familiar; they are the stuff of movies and HBO series. Turf wars, homosexuality, homemade tattoos that go bad, prisoners who will kill (literally) for a cigarette, and so on. But the rich metaphorical texture goes farther. Religious imagery and references dominate prison life, the most obvious being the name of one of the most powerful prisoners: Tony Cathedral. Like Charles D'Ambrosio, Jones does not shy from using character and place names as large, visible signposts. This might be most obvious in this sentence:
    In another time, Cathedral and Caesar would have had enough of everything—from muscle to influence—to demand that someone give up the killers, but the prison was filling up with younger men who did not care what those two had been once upon a time.
    Reading "Cathedral and Caesar" as "church and state" is unavoidable, and apt. The intimation in that quote that the old order is collapsing is later echoed when Caesar visits Cathedral in his cell:
    Cathedral looked over at him with a devastatingly serious gaze and said, “What we need is a new God. Somebody who knows what the fuck he’s doing.”
    Eventually, Caesar is released from prison and finds work as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. He also takes a room in a squalid apartment building,
    a building that, in the days when white people lived there, had had two apartments of eight rooms or so on each floor. Now the first-floor apartments were uninhabitable and had been padlocked for years. On the two other floors, each large apartment had been divided into five rented rooms, which went for twenty to thirty dollars a week, depending on the size and the view. Caesar’s was small, twenty dollars, and had half the space of his cell at Lorton. The word that came to him for the butchered, once luxurious apartments was “warren.”
    Yet another example of a once-grand structure that has been destroyed, broken apart, "butchered."

    Also living in the building is Yvonne Miller, the only woman Caesar ever loved. Another resident, Simon the money lender, tells Caesar
    "Now, our sweet Yvonny, she ain't nothin but an old girl." Old girls were whores, young or old, who had been battered so much by the world that they had only the faintest wisp of life left; not many of them had hearts of gold.
    Caesar is eventually found by his estranged brother (a corporate lawyer) and sister (who lives "in an area of well-to-do black people some called the Gold Coast"). He has not seen them in years. Caesar resists his brother's invitation to a family dinner, but is eventually persuaded to attend. The reunion seems to be going well; his nephew and niece sit in his lap, eager for his attention. The wine flows. As Caesar is leaving, his brother says:
    Even if you go away not wanting to see us again, know that Daddy loves you. It is the one giant truth in the world. He’s a different man, Caesar. I think he loves you more than us because he never knew what happened to you. That may be why he never remarried.
    Caesar feels that the evening has gone well until his sister misinterprets his affectionate, and innocent, gesture toward his young niece:
    He said to his niece, “Good night, young lady,” and she said no, that she was not a lady but a little girl. Again, he reached unsuccessfully for her feet. When he turned back, his sister had a look of such horror and disgust that he felt he had been stabbed. He knew right away what she was thinking, that he was out to cop a feel on a child.
    Once again, Caesar is betrayed by an institution: the institution of family.

    When he returns to his apartment buildng, he finds Yvonne dead, apparently of alcohol poisoning or choked by aspirated vomit. In a tender and ritualistic scene, he cleans her body and her apartment, rending his own clothes for cleaning rags. He dresses her, brushes her hair, pins a cameo on her dress, and arranges her body atop the bed for whoever will find her the next day.

    He leaves the apartment building, knowing only that "he was not a young man anymore" and "that he did not want to wash dishes and bus tables anymore." He wants only to find some honest way to pay for Yvonne's funeral. He has in his hand a quarter.
    It was a rather old one, 1967, but shiny enough. Life had been kind to it. He went carefully down the steps in front of the building and stood on the sidewalk. The world was going about its business, and it came to him, as it might to a man who had been momentarily knocked senseless after a punch to the face, that he was of that world. To the left was Ninth Street and all the rest of N Street, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at Eighth, the bank at the corner of Seventh. He flipped the coin. To his right was Tenth Street, and down Tenth were stores and the house where Abraham Lincoln had died and all the white people’s precious monuments. Up Tenth and a block to Eleventh and Q Streets was once a High’s store where, when Caesar was a boy, a pint of cherry-vanilla ice cream cost twenty-five cents, and farther down Tenth was French Street, with a two-story house with his mother’s doilies and a foot-long porcelain black puppy just inside the front door. A puppy his mother had bought for his father in the third year of their marriage. A puppy that for thirty-five years had been patiently waiting each working day for Caesar’s father to return from work. The one giant truth . . . Just one minute more. He caught the quarter and slapped it on the back of his hand. He had already decided that George Washington’s profile would mean going toward Tenth Street, and that was what he did once he uncovered the coin.
    He stops at the intersection of Tenth and N streets. One way lies "Lincoln's death house"; the other way leads to Caesar's father. He sees a little girl, putting playing cards in the spokes of her bike's wheel. She watches him. He flips the coin but is dissatisfied with the result and flips it again. The story ends:
    Caesar flipped the quarter. The girl's heart paused. The man's heart paused. The coin reached its apex and then it fell.
    He is in a landscape dominated by a church, a bank, "white people's precious monuments," but it's also a landscape in which lies his father's house. And, as the little girl with her deck of cards looks on, he lets a coin toss decide his path.

    It's a powerful story, and a fitting opener for this year's O. Henry.

    Wednesday, May 10, 2006

    At the mailbox

    Today was a good day at the mailbox. First, I found Matthew Klam's Sam the Cat and other stories, which I had ordered from Amazon, on my doorstep (UPS); then in the actual mailbox I found a surprise complimentary copy of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006, one of the two top annual short story anthologies. Plenty of fodder for blogging for a while.

    Because the O. Henry anthology and the Best American Short Stories anthology are released at different times, they can be slightly out of synch. For example, this O. Henry includes "Old Boys, Old Girls," by Edward P. Jones, which was in BASS 2005.

    Other stories in the O. Henry:
    "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay," Jackie Kay, Granta
    "Mule Killers," Lydia Peelle, Epoch
    "The Broad Estates of Death," Paula Fox, Harper's Magazine
    "The Pelvis Series," Neela Vaswani, Epoch
    "Conceived," David Lawrence Morse, One Story
    "The Dressmaker's Child," William Trevor, The New Yorker
    "Disquisition on Tears," Stephanie Reents, Epoch
    "Sault Ste. Marie," David Means, Harper's Magazine
    "Unction," Karen Brown, The Georgia Review
    "'80s Lilies," Terese Svoboda, Indiana Review
    "Passion," Alice Munro, The New Yorker
    "The Center of the World," George Makana Clark, The Georgia Review
    "Wolves," Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Prairie Schooner
    "Girls I Know," Douglas Trevor, Epoch
    "The Plague of Doves," Louise Erdrich, The New Yorker
    "Famine," Xu Xi, Ploughshares
    "Puffed Rice and Meatballs," Lara Vapnyar, Zoetrope All-Story
    "Letters in the snow--for kind strangers and unborn children--for the ones lost and most beloved," Melanie Rae Thon, One Story
    "Window," Deborah Eisenberg, Tin House

    I can't wait to review them all.

    Monday, May 08, 2006

    Becoming Dad

    Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with all the things I haven't read, all the brilliant young writers with whom I am unfamiliar. Even limiting myself to short story writers and their collections, it seems impossible to ever catch up. Well, throw another shrimp on the barbie. This week's New Yorker fiction, "Adina, Astrid, Chipewee, Jasmine," by Matthew Klam, had me mesmerized from start to finish.

    Klam writes like a dark, male, Lorrie Moore. And I don't think it's just the similarity to Moore's great story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (both stories involve hospitals and endangered children); Klam is funny, hysterically funny, in much the same off-handed, cynical, but ultimately affectionate way that Moore is funny.

    Quickly summarized, this is the story of Julia and Kevin. Kevin is out of town at a journalism conference when Julia, seven months pregnant, accidentally breaks her own water while using her vibrator. Hey, Brad Pitt was on TV, what are you gonna do? The story alternates between Julia, who eventually goes to the hospital, and Kevin, who wanders around incommunicado, avoiding going home because, frankly, he's sick to death of Julia and this whole pregnancy thing. Ultimately, he is located in time to be at Julia's side in the delivery room.

    This story is just more proof of the old maxim: Execution is Everything. The bones of the story, the basic plot line, is as commonplace as anything you'll find: a woman goes into labor, there are problems, will the baby be okay? It's another story with a built-in narrative arc, something I've dwelled on in the past. A built-in narrative arc provides an event that the reader can see coming early on, an event that is essential to the story's completion, and that will happen on a predictable timeline (usually). Or, as a teacher of mine might say, this story's clock is running from the get-go. We know almost immediately that the endpoint of this story will be the delivery of the baby. This drives us as readers; it gives us a sense of purpose. There's no better way to achieve profluence.

    Klam also keeps the story moving with a series of reversals. Throughout the middle, and despite the looming delivery, he keeps us guessing about where the story is going. More on this later. For now, go read it.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    That Triumphant Egg

    Yesterday I reread a classic: Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg," first published in 1920 and originally titled "The Triumph of the Egg." This story is probably Anderson's best known piece, outside of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, and there are things to be learned from it, especially if you yearn to write funny.

    In "The Egg," the first-person narrator tells the story of his father, a farmhand who is quite content in life until, at the age of thirty-five, he takes a wife. As in many Anderson stories, marriage initiates the father's downfall. For the first time in his life, he experiences a "notion of trying to rise in the world," a notion which leads him to become first a chicken farmer and then a restauranteur, both with unhappy results.

    The agent of his ultimate defeat is, ta da, an egg.

    The first thing to notice about this story is the contrast between subject matter, which is ludicrous from start to finish, and diction. In much of his writing, Anderson was not above writing in a sort of ham-fisted countrified drawl, but in "The Egg" he is careful to write in his most dignified drawing-room voice:
    One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken. It is born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your father's brow, gets diseases called pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies. A few hens and now and then a rooster, intended to serve God's mysterious ends, struggle through to maturity. The hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens and the dreadful cycle is thus made complete. It is all unbelievably complex. Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned. Small chickens, just setting out on the journey of life, look so bright and alert and they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people they mix one up in one's judgments of life. If disease does not kill them they wait until your expectations are thoroughly aroused and then walk under the wheels of a wagon--to go squashed and dead back to their maker.
    So proper, so Victorian, right up until the moment of squashing.

    The second small touch of craft that I notice in this story is the way Anderson achieves profluence by playing with the order of events. It's a simple but effective trick. For the first half of the story, the narrative is pulled along by the comic voice and by a general sense that a comic scene is coming, although we don't know quite what to expect. The main scene takes place late one night in the family's restaurant, when the father, who has resolved to boost the business by becoming more of an entertainer, tries to perform a couple of egg tricks for a disinterested patron. Eventually the egg breaks and the father is humiliated, and the story ends soon thereafter. What's interesting is the way the sequence begins:
    Late one night I was awakened by a roar of anger coming from father's throat. Both mother and I sat upright in our beds. With trembling hands she lighted a lamp that stood on a table by her head. Downstairs the front door of our restaurant went shut with a bang and in a few minutes father tramped up the stairs. He held an egg in his hand and his hand trembled as though he were having a chill. There was a half insane light in his eyes. As he stood glaring at us I was sure he intended throwing the egg at either mother or me. Then he laid it gently on the table beside the lamp and dropped on his knees beside mother's bed. He began to cry like a boy and I, carried away by his grief, cried with him.
    Now the hook is set for us to observe the actual scene (in a flashback) in which the father tries to impress his customer by first trying to stand an egg on its end and then trying to put the egg, its shell softened by vinegar, inside a glass bottle.

    The final thing I'll note is the way Anderson handles the POV issues in the flashback. The story is told faithfully in the first-person pov of the son. The son was upstairs, asleep, when the critical scene unfolded. But rather than have the scene related by the father (who would have had little perspective on the event), Anderson prefaces the telling with this:
    I have forgotten what mother said to him and how she induced him to tell her of what had happened downstairs. His explanation also has gone out of my mind. I remember only my own grief and fright and the shiny path over father's head glowing in the lamplight as he knelt by the bed.

    As to what happened downstairs. For some unexplainable reason I know the story as well as though I had been a witness to my father's discomfiture. One in time gets to know many unexplainable things.
    So, the narrator is saying, I don't know how I know all these things, but I do, so get over it. Hasn't every writer been in the middle of a first-person narrative and, suddenly running up against its limitations, wished for a free pass to omniscience? This part of the story serves as a reminder: you can do whatever you want, so long as you tip your hat to the rule you choose to ignore.

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Let me tell you something

    "Once in a Lifetime," by Jhumpa Lahiri, is this week's fiction at The New Yorker. Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies is one of my favorite short story collections, and I was excited to see her name this morning. This story, however, fails to engage me in the way her other work has. Maybe it needs another reading. Maybe I need more coffee.

    This story is interesting, however, because the point of view is something I'm going to label "first-person addressive," in which the first-person narrator speaks directly to "you," although "you" is not the reader but another character. The story begins:
    I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine.
    The feel of the story is similar to that of an epistolary (a story told in letters), a story form almost never seen in modern realistic fiction, probably because of the demise of formal correspondence.

    The effect in this story is also faintly accusatory, however; reading it, I feel backed into a corner, as though charges are being read against me to which I cannot respond. I think that has a lot to do with why I can't connect with the narrative; but also, and at least as important, the story simply lacks profluence. The narrator recounts a period in her childhood in which another family stayed with her family while they were looking for a home. The "you" of the story is the son of the visiting family.

    But nothing progresses. The families predictably grate against one another, but the stakes of the conflict are low. We are simply waiting for the visiting family to find its own home. The narrator has a crush on the boy to whom the story is addressed, but there's an age gap that snuffs any real sexual tension before it can develop. So the story plods along until near the end, when Lahiri reveals a hidden bit of information that does, in fact, raise the stakes... but only if the reader is still awake to enjoy it.