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Another in a series of posts from other authors on the work of Merrill Joan Gerber--an author you should seriously track down and read. Today we have Rachel Swearingen writing about two story collections that Gerber published 20 years apart from each other.
One of the pleasures of reading Merrill Joan Gerber’s short story collections, Stop Here, My Friend (1963) and Honeymoon (1983), is tracing the development of the writer and her recurring characters. Gerber is masterful in turning the reader into confidante. In Stop Here, My Friend, written when the author was still in her twenties, she writes about women of various ages in New York City, Arizona, and Florida—mothers and daughters in the snare of family duty. She has been compared to Bellow, Roth, and Updike, but Gerber’s characters are unlikely to ever abandon their obligations for other adventures, and this simple fact is at the crux of many of these stories. Instead, Gerber’s women grow older and take care of children, husbands, siblings, and aging parents, all the while silently storing their own hard-earned wisdoms and their families’ complicated histories.
These tensions persist in Honeymoon, though social mores and expectations have relaxed somewhat, and California replaces New York as a prominent setting. The submerged dramas rarely erupt, but in this later collection, they boil and grow more complex, and the language loosens and in places turns richly, if briefly, lyrical.
Gerber, now in her seventies, has written over thirty books, sixteen of which have been released as eBooks by Dzanc Books as part of their rEprint Series. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Sewanee Review, Redbook, and Atlantic Monthly. She studied with William Stegner at Stanford and has a style reminiscent of Grace Paley, Ray Carver, and Ann Beattie.
In the title story of Stop Here, My Friend, Kate fixates on a mother and daughter sharing an intimate lunch in a Chinese restaurant, telling us “she had always supposed there were mothers and daughters like this pair.” Kate is thirty-one and living with her parents, injecting insulin in her mother’s thigh every night with “a silver syringe,” and coming home each evening to a “neat glass of tomato juice arranged on a saucer between two Ritz crackers.” She wants her own apartment, but her parents are entirely dependent on her. She resists in small ways, throwing out the sandwiches her mother makes her and instead spending her money in restaurants—and daring to view a closet-sized walkup that is for rent. In a moment of boldness, Kate decides to take the apartment, but a few sentences later she reaches into her purse and discovers the fortune cookie from her lunch, “and grimly, grimly, she cracked it open.” The fortune is never revealed, and the “grimly, grimly” makes it implicit that Kate will return to her parents.
This grimness marks most of these early stories. Kate, like other young women in the book, grew up changing out of school dresses into “dungarees,” taking piano lessons, and being expected to marry good, “barmitzvahed” boys. This is a middle-class, post WWII, pre-Steinem world, where references to the “colored maid” appear, where women wear gloves, and there are just two kinds of girls, “good” and “fast.”
My favorite stories features smart, adolescent girls that ferret out discrepancies in adult stories and performances. In “Miss Mosh,” Marilyn, who hates playing the piano, has to endure endless lessons taught by incompetent neighborhood teachers. Marilyn meets her match in Miss Moss, a charlatan of a teacher who wears “some sort of terrible-smelling pomade on her wiry red hair, so that now she looked like a well-groomed porcupine.”
When her teacher’s behaviors grow too strange and cruel, Marilyn revolts and locks herself in the bathroom where she opens her teacher’s hidden suitcase and discovers a pink nightgown. “The feather stuffing in the garment was not distributed equally. In the front, or bosom of the slip, were two large shapeless mounds of feathers sticking out, giving the empty piece of underclothing a strange, living air. In the back, over the hips, was the same kind of stuffed feather mound, making the slip thrust out as if it had a bustle.”
Misfit, most likely transgendered, Miss Mosh veers dangerously close to the stereotypical eccentric, unmarried piano teacher, but Gerber reveals her in all her vulnerability and humanity. This turn appears in many of the early stories, and more subtly in later pieces that deal realistically with such difficult subjects as mental illness and domestic violence.
One of Gerber’s gifts is her dialogue. In Honeymoon, especially, she captures rich rhythms, pathos and wit. Take Janet’s Aunt Gertie, for example, bemoaning Janet’s widowed mother’s refusal to re-engage with the world: “But when I told her the program is going to be a paramedic teaching the methods of how do you call it, cardio-heart-massage, which is such a valuable thing to know at our age, what did your mother say? … she said ‘What do I need it for? To do it to myself, alone, someday in my apartment, when I have my heart attack?’”
Gerber explores several unreliable narrators and incorporates vibrant, barbed argument between family members and even neighbors. In “Straight from the Deathbed,” we revisit Edna, Martha’s mother-in-law from Stop Here, My Friend. Edna’s late-husband has made her promise to apologize to Martha for their initial terrible treatment of her. Edna can’t bring herself to grant this dying wish, though she is fond of Martha now and grateful for the grandchildren. She would “give her eyes” to see her husband spoil the children’s appetite with candy, a habit that used to annoy her. Instead she argues with and badgers her son until he threatens to take the family and leave. The anger mounts to near cataclysm, everyone sits down to eat, and overcome with guilt and anxiety, Edna breaks out her husband’s gumdrops, warning the children not eat too many.
In both books, Gerber’s characters give generously and often reluctantly. They sneak gefilte fish into nursing homes for their mothers. They feed entire packages of hotdogs to barking, distressed dogs they earlier fantasized about poisoning. They hide instructions for their burials in their pianos, so as not to burden their daughters. They spill bits of tragic family legend, while hiding crucial information.
Gerber's structures are linear and deceptively simple, but this combined withholding and generosity creates an undertow. Strikingly, her characters rarely succumb to despair. They love fiercely and faithfully, even when the people they care for are failing or incapable of change. I read these books quickly, and weeks later the characters linger. It's entirely plausible that somewhere, in Brooklyn or Los Angeles perhaps, Martha, Janet, and all the rest are still trying like the rest of us to live the best they can.
Throughout June we'll be posting about the career of Merrill Joan Gerber. I've asked some writers to take a look at her work from the 60's through last year and will most likely write a post or three myself during the month.
Merrill Joan Gerber is exactly the type of author we had in mind when we created the Dzanc Books rEprint Series. One of our goals with the series is to bring back great works of literature in eBook format and find a new readership and discussion for these works and authors. Merrill Joan Gerber's outstanding body of work deserves the attention that the eBook format will offer her.
Gerber has published over a dozen critically acclaimed books. She's frequently had her writing compared to greats such as Bellow and Roth. She's had stories selected for both the Best American Short Story series and the O.Henry Prize anthology series. She's had a novel win a Pushcart Editors' Book Award and had another receive the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for the "best English-language book on a Jewish theme." The L.A. Times listed her Anna in the Afterlife as a Best Novel of 2002. Cynthia Ozick has called Gerber "one of the masters."
Today, Anne Valente writes about Gerber's story collection, Anna in Chains.
Across the eleven stories featured in Anna in Chains, Merrill Joan Gerber offers readers varying glimpses into elderly life and the world of a nursing home. A linked collection, Anna in Chains invites the reader into the perspective of cantankerous and spunky Anna Goldman, a former piano player and widow who progresses from the independence of her mid-70s into the decreased mobility and nursing-home confinement of her late-80s. What is truly remarkable about the collection is that it manages to make the reader feel confined along with Anna, and also ruminate on the lack of elderly protagonists in American fiction and what it means to grow old in our society.
Early in the collection, Anna is mobile: she still visits her two daughters and their children, she still complains about her Armenian neighbors, and she still notices with shock the bared midriffs and open sexuality of those around her in the changing world of Los Angeles, a world still turning away from the mass fear of AIDS in 1998 when the collection was originally published. As the collection progresses, the wide-open and liberal landscape of Los Angeles serves as a counterpoint to the realm of the nursing home. Anna falls; she loses the independence of her own home. She loses the ability to freely visit her family, to walk Santa Monica Boulevard, to notice the diversity of the city around her, to be part of the live-studio audience of The Phil Donahue Show with her sister. Her world instead becomes one of “Wheel of Fortune, Meals on Wheels, poker, little tiny portions of milk frozen in margarine containers to last the week.”
As Anna’s world narrows her mind expands, growing more and more active within the nursing home. She finds herself underestimated, assumed to be shell of her once-self. She also finds herself frustrated, confined not only by her surroundings but by her own body too, in decline while her mind remains active and alert. This disconnect is hauntingly expressed: “The skin of her face was an accordion of the days of her life, folded one upon the other. This was what was left of her. What counted was inside, invisible.” Anna recognizes her own dismissal by nurses, orderlies, and even by her own children. Gerber captures masterfully the ways in which the elderly are neglected and ignored, and how both the body and the hospital become cages for a woman who knows her own character as unbound by age. Anna resists her evolution into obscurity, a backward march of time: “She was becoming an infant without teeth, a baby who peed in bed, who couldn’t walk, who couldn’t turn over herself, a baby who was going backward into the sea of time till soon she’d sink under, her head disappearing, and be gone.”
Upon finishing Anna in Chains, the reader may view his or her surroundings in a new light. He or she may also reflect with surprise on how little the end of life features in American fiction. The nursing home is a rarely addressed reality of old age, a landscape most readers and writers would rather ignore. Merrill Joan Gerber evokes this landscape with pain and precision, and through Anna’s compelling voice. Anna in Chains is a brave collection, one not easily set aside when finished. Gerber pulls back the veil on what it means to age, and what it means to be immobile and at the mercy of being forgotten.
Yesterday the postman was VERY nice, leaving a package from Graywolf Press that held an advanced reading copy of Eula Biss' forthcoming On Immunity: An Inoculation. This one comes out in late September. I loved her essay collection, Notes from No Man's Land and have been looking forward to this since hearing about it a month or so ago.
While it IS Short Story Month, the last two visits to the bookstore found me purchasing non-story collections. A little over a week ago I walked in and was specifically looking for a "mystery" title but was hit with the front table stack of books with a picture of Affirmed and Alydar on the cover. As a 12 year old that watched any horse racing that was on television, seeing two three year olds go 1-2 in all three Triple Crown races and end up a total of less than 3 lengths apart was ingrained in my memory. The book was a no brainer to pick up. Then passing the biography section I see Richard Nixon along with his with Pat on the cover of a book. Even less brains needed. And then I found the book I was there to pick up in the first place, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (sue me, I'm an unabashed Veronica Mars fan). So far two of these have been finished and were very much enjoyed. Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Gretaest Rivalry was a well done history of the two horses, their jockeys, their trainers and the farms that they came up with. Lots of great little details and the race scenes written in a manner to induce excitement in the reader (even one that knew how each race was going to end). And if you were a fan of the television series, or the recent Kickstarter aided movie, you'll like the Veronica Mars based novel.
My most recent visit to a bookstore had me as one of those patrons I've never been fond of--not buying any books, but instead flashcards for my daughter's forthcoming AP History test.
Wayne State University Press publishes a series titled Made in Michigan that has published many quite enjoyable story and poetry collections. This month sees the publishing of Strange Love, a collection by Lisa Lenzo (her second, the first won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award (University of Iowa Press).
I've had the pleasure of reading the first two stories and realizing that they're linked--a divorced, single mother, Annie, raising her daughter, Marly, (8 in story one, 12 in story two) in what seems to be in the SW Michigan area. So far both stories have delved into the idea of looking for love--the first, "Still Life," with Annie considering following up on personal ads to find somebody to date, while "Aliens" has Annie come to the realization that Marly has added sexual activity to her lifestyle.
Both are great stories--they're subtle, they sneak humor in when you're not expecting it, they don't have a BIG moment smacking the reader about the head three or four times--they don't need to.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing where Annie and Marly head in the other seven stories.
A short little story collection, Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) from Graywolf Press is full of short gems. Stories that might seem like they'll be cute or simply slide toward the dark or weird.
"The Duckling" begins:
Alongside the big farm, dad ran a duck farm, and because he was a clever man he earned a lot of money from it.
A story called "The Duckling" starting off that way--how dark can it get? Well at some point the dad gives the daughter who narrates the story a duckling born somewhat unhealthy, giving her a chance to raise it. Her thought is to put it in a bowl lined with a towel and put it in the oven to keep it warm. Perhaps not so surprisingly it dies. In a nice upswing however, they have a nice father/daughter moment burying the duckling together.
Another story, "Female Killers" has a married man staying up after his wife has gone to bed and he starts wandering the internet. He ends up looking up various female killers and maybe the only thing stranger than the facts that start to pop up about the killers is the thoughts that pop into the man's head about the female killers--they're odd, they're scary--they're inspired writing. He worries for the son (given up at birth) of the serial killer that will one day find out her name and find there are over 200,000 hits for her on Google; he thinks of chimps killing bush babies with spears they've made when put in the position of being hungry.
Nors' stories are short, but not quite what I'd consider minimalist. They have big ideas and just get to them quickly. It's a very entertaining collection and one you'll read in a day.
The first book from the folks at A Strange Object, Kelly Luce's short story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a wonderful little object.
It is filled with ten stories, all of which had been previously published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Crazy Horse, and others.
Luce brings a great sense of imagination to her stories but doesn't stop there with the great and interesting ideas--she then follows up with observations on how people live and might react to such ideas and perhaps it's the combination of having lived both in the United States and in Japan for some time that gives her a slightly unique perspective.
The story "Reunion" begins:
Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook our place in the shadowy Tatsuka-cho. Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains; carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile. The air smelled like rancid walnuts.
It's an opening that has me pushing forward for sure--we know somebody has died, and the odd scenario of so many beetles taking over that they're crunching under the narrator's feet as she (we find out) walks in her apartment.
The protagonist moved into a room that her next-door neighbor offers her--her own husband having recently passed away himself. He had been a vacuum-cleaner designer and there were parts strewn throughout the small apartment she offered to the protagonist. One in fact almost looked like a person the way it's puffed up bag stood, like the torso of a human, sitting atop an odd assortment of feet.
The reader finds out that Jun had just given the protagonist the news that he was finally divorcing his wife--that soon they'd be able to be seen in public together, that their relationship would become more real. She reminisces a bit about their first time out together, a fair and losing at the three shell game over and over--the evening that they first kissed. The next door neighbor leaves her to her new place alone and after an interaction with the human looking vacuum-cleaner, the protagonist apparently falls into a dream beginning with:
...and a barker called out, his voice like a hook:
One night only, for sale at cost, everything you've ever lost!
And at this point she notices a stuffed animal on the table--one that she lost when she was a very young girl, it had fallen off the back of her mother's bike and even though she'd made her mother re-trace their steps close to a dozen times, it was never found. She places money on the table and takes the stuffed animal. She then sees other things she's lost over the years--socks, hair ties, a boot--and buys them all back. It's a strange scenario and seemingly adds a little more to the imaginiative side of Luce's writing. However she ends it in a powerful manner:
The last table held just one thing, a fist-sized, crimson lmp that shivered and thrashed like a fish out of water. I stared until it became a red blur. No price tag. My wallet was empty anyway. I turned away, my arms full and an empty feeling in my chest, a feeling like three shells and a realization--no ball, there never was a ball--and listened for a voice, any voice, to bring me back.
Having read the bulk of this small collection I'm happy to say that Luce continues doing this--finding new and interesting scenarios to dig her way into being able to write about every day ongoings. Not only having something to say, but doing so in an interesting way that maybe hasn't been done before. She definitely had me more than willing to start each new story just as soon as I finished the prior one.
And because a) I skimped out on Poetry month in April and b) I'm always happy to find a way to link to Hobart, here is a Chicago Cub Sestina written by Ms. Luce.
To date I believe this story has only seen the light of day in a limited edition (500 copies, 450 of which were signed, numbered and made available for sale) hardcover single story edition. Hair O' The Chine was published by Bruccoli Clark in 1979. The subtitle for this story is "A Documentary Film Script" and as Robert Coover has been known to do, it's a close and interesting look at a fairy tale, in this case that of The Three Little Pigs.
As Coover has also been known to do, this story takes a look at this particular fairy tale through lenses such as religion as well as sexuality. Slightly similar to his often anthologized story "The Babysitter," this story is told in fragments--though it differs, in my opinion, from "The Babysitter" in that Hair O' The Chine's fragments appear to be in chronological order.
It's been some time since I've read anything about, or including The Three Little Pigs itself, much of what Coover brings about was still familiar to me. However, the sections involving the pig and the wolf (told in documentary style to be explained shortly) were interspersed with sections about a man and a maid--two individuals that very may well have been in the original fairy tale--but even if they weren't, they fit in very well in Coover's story.
The documentary film style fragments specific to the pig and the wolf include scene descriptions (fade, pan, zoom in, etc.) and voiceovers for what is being "seen" by the reader. Much of the voiceover work is describing what how scholars and theologians have described what they've seen and determined the work to mean.
Cut to the pig in the window, as before. Silence, except for a faint distant whimpering and the soft tinkle of the children's song, heard before. The camera occupies itself with a slow scan of the entire tableau. The song and the whimpering gradually fade away. After a pause, the Voice clears its throat and, in something of a monotone at first, resumes:
Many have related this Temptation Sequence...
Quick pan back to the pig in the window, Voice continuing uninterrupted:
...to that of Christ in the Wilderness, while still other paraphrasts, grabbing at that infamous...ah...apple, argue again for the Adamic thing. Titus, whom we have mentioned, while not entirely throwing in with the theologians, has certainly furthered their cause with his exploitation of the well-known etymological relationship--indeed, identity--between "hog" and "lamb" in his book, Christ and the Brick, though his primary purpose is to demonstrate that Christ founded his church on a brick, not a rock. Now, may I have--?
Zoom back to reveal entire tableau once more with the text below. Voice:
Yes. Now, insofar as the red apple is a timeless image, of course, the one-track Adamists do not seem entirely astray, but their thesis that the abundant corn is a symbol of Eden, and the butterchurn one of labor in exile, shows how truly remote these boys are from this or any other world. All right, then, the actual temptations, so-called, are three: the pig is invited to a cornfield...
Zoom in to the cornfield at the extreme right of the tableau.
Pan left to the apple tree
...and a fair, to receive ears of corn...
Back to the cornfield.
Again to the apple tree.
...and a "bargain," which turns out to be...
Pan left to the butterchurn.
...yes, a butterchurn. On each occasion, the pig feels obliged somehow to accept the invitation, and on each occasion, the pig's danger is augmented. We seem to discover here, do we not, something approximating a series of trysts, of boy-girl dates, with the wolf making greater and greater advances. Though the pig escapes easily the first time, he--or she--must send the wolf chasing "an apple" the second time, and finally must wallop him with this the...uh...oh, oh...
Children's music distantly again, played on bells, as before. Close-up of the butterchurn in the clearing, as seen earlier. A slender hand reaches out from off-camera and touches it with the tip of one finger. The finger trails softly down the length of the churnstaff.
I've tried, with this selection from just beyond the middle of this story, to dip at least a little into each of the things Coover's got going on throughout this story. There's not so much of the man and maid here (though that is the maid's finger trailing softly down the length of the churnstaff in what one can only assume at this point, especially with the Voiced "uh...oh, oh..." above, to be just as sexual as one would believe from a Robert Coover story.
As always, Coover gives his readers much to think about, much to simply enjoy, and many fantastic, winding, meandering, thrilling sentences.
The story "Church" is in the Spring 2013 issue of Ploughshares and per her contributor notes, is Kimblery Swayze's first story published (along with some previously published poetry). Let's hope as readers that it's not the last one she publishes.
Because he could not afford to bury her, Wilson was still living with his mother.
That's how Swayze opens the story--seriously, how in the hell do you not read the second sentence after that beginning? Which is:
On the whole, though, his luck was holding.
What? He's living with the dead body of his mother--how well can his luck be holding? I'm definitely in at this point and over the course of the next 11 or 12 pages, Swayze doesn't give me any reason to let myself wander to another writer in this journal--the writing is gritty, it's full of surprises, for example:
He did not want her touching him. She drew closer, pusher her face against his shoulder. He could feel the warmth of her body. He edged away, as far as he could go. Darlene slid closer, trapping him against the door. She put her hand on his thigh. She began to stroke, using her palm, her fingernails.
Obviously we all know where this is headed...
Wilson's stomach roiled, his mouth filled with brine. he knew what would happen next. Wilson clenched his jaws together, choking as his mouth filled up. He made a desperate attempt to shove her away in time but he wasn't fast enough. She shrieked, leapt aside, snatcher her purse away from the stream of vomit. Her jacket, her furry boots, were splattered.
Not quite what I was expecting. Swayze's writing is exciting--again, gritty (as seen above), and takes on a pretty dark subject and goes maybe even farther than is comfortable--which is exactly how I prefer the writers I read deliver their works. I'll be watching for more work from Kimberly Swayze for sure.
A fantastic collection, Ralph Lombreglia's debut. I first read the title story in BASS 1987 in a class. I enjoyed it enough to keep the name on my radar and purchased his full collection once I found it.
Much as I enjoyed the title story, I think I actually liked "Inn Essence" a little bit more--the story of a slightly crazed, perfectionist, dessert chef as well as the others that worked in the restaurant that he did had some intrigue, a lot of humor, great sentences, and reminded me a little of T.C. Boyle's "Sorry Fugu," only maybe a little bit better--which at that time was close to reading opinion sacrilege where I was concerned.
Other great include "Museum of Love," the story of a house turned museum as it showed off the development and breakdown of a love affair--with the dumped male residing in the museum; "Jazzers," a bit of a mid-life crisis story about guys that used to be in a band trying to re-live those glory days a bit (that's a poor description though--much more going on); and again the title story, good enough to be included in BASS that year.
Lombreglia is a great story writer--one that comes up with really cool ideas and then delivers by writing his butt off infusing the stories with humor, with great descriptions, wonderful characters, and again, the humor. It's not beat you over the head "I'm trying to make you laugh" humor, but that fantastically subtle humor that gets you to smile, to chuckle aloud a bit and realize you're in the hands of one that observes his fellow man very well.
Men Under Water is now available in eBook form as part of the Dzanc Books rEprint Series. You can find it here. Something I am thrilled to be able to say.
Otherwise known as my favorite month of the year when it comes to reading. I have a stack of collections and journals that I'll be posting about this month. Stay tuned.
We are only five days away!
It's been way too long and there have been too many great books published, read and not written about since that last post.
Coming soon will be some reviews of Merrill Joan Gerber's backlist.
"Juggernaut" by Rick Bass starts off:
When I was seventeen, Kirby and I had a teacher who was crazy. This happened in the last year before Houston got big and unlivable.
Big Ed, we caled him: Eddie Odom. Mr. Odom. He taught geometry as an afterthought; his stories were what he got excited about. Class began at nine o'clock. By 9:20, he would be winded, tired of sines and cosines, and he would turn to the clock in a way that almost arounsed sympathy--so tired!--ten minutes before going into his stories. The thrill that Kirby and I felt when he lurched into these stories following a halfhearted geometry lecture--there would be no warning whatsoever, we would suddenly be listening to something as fantastically wild and free as geometry was boring, and we wouldn't have done anything to earn it, we'd find ourselves just pulled into it, in the middle of it, and enjoying.
And that's exactly where Bass has his reader at this point--in the middle of it and enjoying. And he continues doing that, while seemingly jumping from story to story across Houston with Kirby and the narrator (and Big Ed again, later on). And it goes on and on until ending with:
Anything is possible.
Which also fits well with Bass' writing in this story--anything does seem possible in his hands. Had I read this back in '87, I definitely would have looked for more writing by Rick Bass
At first I thought the title of Pamela Schirmeister's "Greving" was a typo (which seemed more than odd for this particular journal), but realized shortly into it that it was correct and that greves were a type of African birds the main characters were watching.
Okay, my stupidity out of the way, I kept noticing the introductory sentence to each paragraph as I read the story:
"For six days and nights now ithas been raining, a small August rain, bouncing on the roof of the tent."
"Perhaps Brand is vanishing, but at least there is very little to disturb us here."
"I do not think I would mind the rains were it not for the greves, which are very difficult to look for in the rain."
"Perhaps that makes little difference, either, since Brand speaks hardly at all these days and often takes to the tent."
"It must be admitted that there was a time when we thought of nothing but the greves."
"On the way, the rain let up quite suddenly, with a big wind coming to blow us around, and then the sky deepened, as if to leave us room."
These sentences almost tell the story on their own, but there is also something, well, "off" seems to be too strong a word, but to me, Schirmeister has a way with words all her own. It isn't passive, but it rarely takes on the subject--verb structure. Not in a way that distracts, but more in a way that kept my interest.
A guest post!
Flashes of Insight in a
Short Story: Wendell Berry and Shann Ray
In his 1963 essay “The Lonely Voice” Frank
O’Connor argues that the short story is closer to its nimble older sister lyric
poetry than to its hefty brother the novel. In my teaching I’ve settled on a
shorthand distinction between the two prose genres that claims for the short
story a flash of insight, a revelation, and for the novel extended development,
exploration of facets.
opening short story in Wendell Berry’s 2012 collection A Place in Time furnishes a perfect example of the kind of flash of
insight by which many stories earn the lyric moment that makes the events
worthwhile. The story is set in Berry’s own Yoknapatawpha, Port William,
Kentucky during the later days of the Civil War. Occupying Port William are bands
of soldiers from both armies, joined by a third category: dangerous makeshift
guerrilla outfits using the war as an excuse to settle scores completely
unrelated to the war. The town shuts itself to all of these groups “like a
terrapin closing its shell” because the
intruders are likely to “requisition” horses, take already scarce food and
weapons, prosecute suspected enemies on hazy grounds, and recruit young men.
story brings Rebecca Dawe, 16, into focus as someone who has left her river
bottom home to help her aunt in town with that aunt’s children. Already scarred
by the war—her brother was shot by a neighbor as he left to join the
Confederate Army—she fears and so hates all of the intruding men in the area.
Her uncle Thomas, formerly the town’s blacksmith, was arrested by Union troops
and placed in a federal prison in Louisville for helping the wrong person shoe
get the lyric moment that makes it a story, the necessary flash of insight,
near the end when Rebecca watches a line of riders pass by out a window. These
riders are described as follows: “They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the
fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody
to pursue. The last of the riders sees Rebecca in the window, makes eye contact
with her, stops his horse, and stays for a time looking up at her. Rebecca
faces him, unflinching. Master that he
is, Berry lets this moment of tension extend for over half a page before the
young man, who under different circumstances might have been described as
handsome, says, “Get your ugly face out of the window.” In response, even
though she is “a young woman of principled modesty” immediately after the
encounter Rebecca allows herself a glance in the mirror and thinks to herself,
“articulating the words deliberately as if saying them aloud: ‘That is not an
this story seems a good one to furnish an illustration of how flashes of
insight into characters work in stories because here we have a literal glance
into a mirror demonstrating for us the ways in which this moment illuminates
Rebecca Dawe’s character. It shows us how she refuses to let a passing invader,
this interloper, have any power in incorrectly defining her. Even though the
story reminds us that a literal shooting in this tense moment is entirely
possible, instead of a literal shot the man’s volley carried the potential of
making a dangerous, insidious incursion into Rebecca’s identity. Her response
after glimpsing herself in the mirror, reveals that her identity is too strong,
too well fortified against the invaders, to allow the moment any traumatic
influence. Her character is fortified to withstand the moment; her courageous
gaze back at the man has won the day, somehow. The riders words were more about
himself than her; Rebecca’s unflinching gaze became a mirror for him. The story
resonates with Berry’s steadfast message about being true to one’s place, one’s
own local, inherent beauty in the face of rootless, marauding forces that would
unmoor you, convince you otherwise.
can find parallels between flashes of revelation like this one in short stories,
and the small turns by which poems earn their poemhood. Some readers of William
Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” have argued that the poem earns its
status as poem in the small turn at the final lines from one sensual register
to another— from taste to feeling, “so sweet” to “so cold.”
you can locate them in a story, these revelations are like the ruby in the
bucket of dimes. They glimmer with the presence of more of the valuable stuff
of insight than the other lines. They are the molten lava core in the game of
hot and cold the reader plays in a story, though they depend upon every other
moment in the story to supply them with their heat.
some cases short stories bring their readers to a well-wrought figure, a
paragraph or series of lines that at first seems strange and unconnected to
what has come before but which points to where the heart of the story lies. The
story proceeds into the new paragraph faithful that readers will use their
natural and honed instincts for narrative to help them bridge the gap. The
opening story to Shann Ray’s 2012 collection American
Masculine, “This is How We Fall” ends with just such a powerful figure.
We’ve been introduced to a couple, Benjamin Killsnight and Sadie, who we see in
love (for his part, at any rate) and in the throes of their drinking together. When
she is unfaithful to him, he throws the other man into the snow and beats him
up. He sobers up and asks her to do the same. Instead, she leaves him and
experiences several years of a rambling, panhandling life, moving from place to
place and man to man. She comes back into Benjamin’s life just before the end
of the story. They have a brief scene together, in which we see her wish to
come back to him, his initial reluctance in the face of his abiding feeling for
her. The scene ends with the suggestion
that they will try to be together again. Then without making any explicit
connections but trusting that readers will make their own, the story moves on to
end with the following lines, a memory located in Ben’s interior of a time he
witnessed two golden eagles locking talons:
recognized the birds and set the glasses on them and saw distinctly their
upward arc far above the ridgeline. He followed them as they reached an
impossibly high apex where they turned and drew near each other and with a
quick strike locked talons and fell. The mystery, he thought, simple as that,
the bright majesty of all things. They gripped one another, and whirled
downward, cumbersome and powerful and elegant. He followed them all the way
down, and at last the ground came near and they broke and seemed suddenly to
open themselves and catch the wind again and lift: Their wings cleaved the air
as they climbed steadily until at last they opened wide and caught the warm
thermals that sent them with great speed arcing above the mountain. There they
dipped for a moment, then rose again on vigorous wingbeats all the way up to
the top of the sky where they met one another and held each other fiercely and
started all over, falling and falling.”
any judgment, but with some subtle suggestions about the story’s aims, the
paragraph builds its figure and asks the reader to make connections. The
effectiveness of this passage lies in its ambiguity in relation to the rest of
the story, the mystery of this image from the natural world that is first of
all only itself in all of its dramatic glory—two raptors with locked talons soaring
then falling. But the passage also begs for interpretation in relation to the
preceding story. How are we to make sense of the extended figure considered
beside the characters we’ve left on the brink of deciding to try to be together
again despite how badly things went the first time? The ambiguity renews the
old, tired figure of “falling in love” by supplying it with a fresh, specific,
living and breathing image appropriate to the story’s setting, like most of the
others in this collection, in Montana. It reminds us of the fierce talons of Eros,
and makes us wonder whether this time Benjamin and Sadie may find a way to make
it work, or whether it will once again be a life-ruining mistake. The eagles
soar when they are alone. Does this mean that our two characters would be
better off alone and that on some level Benjamin knows this? The eagles’
falling is dangerous and cumbersome, but it’s also majestic and gives meaning
to the soaring. Does this mean it’s better to risk the falling? How are we
meant to map the characters’ trajectory alongside Benjamin’s free floating
memory of the birds? We’ve been thrown
into a consideration of the possibilities for meaning and in the bargain
brought into a consideration of nothing less than the nature of love, its risks
and demands, its burning necessity, its burdens and majesty.
the power in literary short stories seems to reside in their ability to carefully
orchestrate a flash of insight, their ability to bring us, suddenly, through
some move—a gesture, an image, a figure, a line of dialogue, a thought-- and
sometimes following what had seemed a set of unpromising narrative details,
close to a lyric moment, into zones redolent with mystery, rich fields of
possible meaning in which our minds can engage in the serious kind of play that
might change us or make us change our lives.
Scott Elliott's latest novel, Temple Grove, came out earlier this month. You can read about it here.
A guest post!
As our celebration of the short story nears its end, don’t
we think of the beginning? Don’t we look
back over this artform, as if over a playroom littered with miniature monsters
and beauties? Yes, consider the commodity, this “strange object covered with
fur which breaks your heart,” as one of Donald Barthelme’s characters put it.
Or there’s Poe’s definition, less carnivalesque: a piece that
can be “read at one sitting.” He wrote that in 1846, which provides as good a
DOB as any for the short story as we know it. The literary product that fills
our anthologies found its genesis in the cutting-edge media of the early 19th
Century, namely, newspapers and magazines. In those years print technology
became easy enough, and a leisured readership widespread enough, to support serial
publication that demanded all sorts of content — including the nightmares of a port-swilling
Baltimore depressive, poor Edgar, forever scuffling after cash.
“The Cask of Amontillado,” in other words, was something
besides a luscious, lingering taste of amorality. For Poe, it was a paycheck. Consider
the commodity, I’m saying. Guy de Maupassant left a long shelf of stories,
studded with perfect specimens, but each one was paycheck (and de Maupassant, like
Poe, could never hold a straight job). This bread-and-butter purpose held true
for a century and a half; writers sought to titillate as many bourgeois as
possible, in the process perhaps illuminating their lives as well. Collette’s
short stories made her the Madonna of her time. Fitzgerald didn’t live off Gatsby, which flatlined quick, but off
stories like “The Camel’s Back.” And if a John O’Hara should discover he had a
knack for what the market wanted, well, why fight it? The New Yorker kept O’Hara in whiskey and cigars well into the 1970s.
But the media have moved on, as has the invisible hand of
the market. The cash cow has lost its ecosystem. Nevertheless —miracle! — short fiction flourishes now more than ever.
Thousand of pieces see print every year, in hundreds of venues.
It’s a rare pub that’ll pay for so much as a coffee date, but
is that necessarily bad for the form? Couldn’t we, instead, be supplying fresh
nutrients to the human storytelling instinct, via the proliferation of creative
writing programs and DIY technology? If the product “short story,” developed
for earlier economic conditions, has adapted so handily to new ones, shouldn’t
that spur a new appreciation?
The difference I notice is that,
nowadays, good readers and writers recognize an alternative guiding principle,
for the short story. Aficionados know that, even as O’Hara was hacking away
efficiently (and, give him credit, turning out the occasional gem), Jorge Luis
Borges handled the form in a different way altogether. Reaching back to the
pre-Socratics, or to the Thousand Nights
and a Night, Borges sought to forge a fresh sense of wonder in just a few
pages. So too, even as Hemingway poeticized the pain of his tough guys, Kafka
turned them to beasts and bugs, giving fresh bite to parables out of the
Testaments. His nightmares proved worse than Poe’s, in that they came true for
the whole Judenkultur of Europe.
The short story is dead, I’m
saying, long live the short story. In such impossibility, the form has found
its new home. Storytellers these days acknowledge their more terrifying and
honorable former function, as seekers of meaning around the tribal fire — which
isn’t to say there’s no place any more for a terrific realist like (to choose a
Dzanc cohort) Laura Van den Berg. Rather, I’m arguing that now a writer like
Van den Berg works with an awareness that her short fiction may have larger
stakes than sketching a contemporary heartache. She too now knows the approaches
from out of left field, and can try on an alternative sensibility. The best
short-story writers these days, like Brian Evenson, treat the empirical
universe and its hard knocks as something that can be tuned according to the
demands of the fiction. In one piece, we’re in dumb old Mormon Utah, in
another, in the howling wilderness of the prophets.
My hope would be these few weeks on
Emerging Writers, hunkered down with the form, have helped inform its fresh
array of choices, for both readers and writers. Myself, I’m happy for this
opportunity to stroke the strange object’s fur, while watching for whatever
strange move it might make next.
A guest post!
Brian Evenson’s “Windeye” By Richard Thomas
Brian Evenson may be the king of genre bending, slipstream
fiction. For years now he has taken the best of genre fiction—the tension and
terror or horror, the illusion and mystery of noir—and paired it with the
elevated language and insightful focus of literary fiction, to write some of
the most compelling stories out there. With his story “Windeye” (collected in Windeye, and originally published in Pen America) he creates one of the most
unsettling, disorienting, and touching stories I’ve read in a long time.
Evenson does several things really well in this story—in his
fiction in general. The first is to set the stage, to pencil in an outline of
the setting, so we can place ourselves “en media res,” Latin for “into the
middle of things.” From the first words we get a sense of the house, the land,
“They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an
old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the
back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light
brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had
weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle,
thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up
behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers
were thicker, so he could not.”
Not only does he hint at what’s to come, with the inclusion
of the words “dirty bone” implying death or disease, but also with the idea of
thin, brittle shingles, hinting at a vulnerability, and then immediately
assigning that to the protagonist’s little sister.
Another aspect of his stories that adds to impact is his air
of authenticity. When he talks about the “windeye” he brings up an old story,
told to the boy by his grandmother, about windows, and how sometimes a window
can be a “windeye.” These games they play as children, the boy and the girl,
they often have a sinister edge to them. They played a game with the shingles,
his sister working her fingers under them, watching to see if they would crack:
“His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to
knuckles, and say, ‘I feel something. What am I feeling?’ And then he would ask
questions. Is it smooth? he might
ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it
cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are
in or out? Can you feel its eye move? He would keep on, watching the
expression on her face change as she tried to make words into a living,
breathing thing, until it started to feel too real for her and, half giggling,
half screaming, she whipped her hand free.”
Later, when they encounter a window that can only be seen
from the outside, and not from the inside of their house, “how the wind looked
into the house…not a window at all,” we are given a hint of what is to come. But
in reality, we have no idea what is about to happen, not all of it, not the
scope an—the lengths that Evenson will go to in order to tell the full story.
“The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside
than on the inside.” And indeed, that is part of the problem.
The final trait of an Evenson story that really resonates is
his ability to take the story in a direction that is unexpected, and to keep
going with it. He not only takes a step into the darkness, but goes deeper and
farther than you knew the story could go. In this case, it is the “windeye” of
course, the sister the one that is egged on, pushed to look closer, to touch
it. When she dissolves into smoke, are we really surprised? Not entirely. But
it is when the boy goes to his mother, terrified by what he has seen,
explaining what has happened as best he can, talking too fast, trembling and
upset, that we get the full weight of what has happened. It is the response of
the mother that twists your gut in knots, that makes you break out in a sheen
of sweat, when she says, “You don’t have a sister. You never had one. Stop
pretending. What’s this really about?”
Perhaps it is because I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, or reading the “real”
Grimm Fairy Tales—with all of their baby snatching, devils and wolves, girls
without hands—that I always expect the worst, that I even lean into the
stories, waiting for that moment, that epiphany and engulfing dreadful
knowledge. Maybe I seek out cautionary tales so that I can avoid these horrors
in the real world—urban legends, myths and folklore, worst-case scenarios come
true. But whatever draws me to the darkness, Brian Evenson is one of the master
storytellers, an author who has the lyricism, intellect, and courage to tell
unique stories that hold nothing back, that take chances, and wander off into
forests that might better be left unexplored.
I’m going to go turn a few lights on now, check the locks on
all the doors, maybe even cross myself. But I know one thing I won’t be doing—and
that's counting the windows on the outside of my house.
Richard Thomas writes and writes and writes (my bio of him, not his), and oten about other writers. He's published a few books that are readily available and blogs here.
Last week Dzanc Books sent out an email and announced at their website that they had received an anonymous matching donation up to $6,000 for any donations received before December 31, 2012.
Any size donations are helpful--a dollar means two dollars, five means ten and so on.
Truly, ANY amount helps--that five that turns into ten helps us get two to three review copies of our books our to reviewers; money goes to our publishing, our promotion of literature, as well as our programs like the Dzanc Writer in Residence Program with a writer visiting/teaching the same class of children once per week in the schoolroom about the power of words--to write and read creatively.
www.dzancbooks.org/support/ is the place to visit and donate. ALL donations, no matter the amount, will see the wonderful person donating to Dzanc put into a drawing to potentially receive a copy of every title we published in the year 2012.
A little over a month ago, I saw Norene Cashen read and really loved one of her new poems. She's been kind enough to allow me to post the poem here at the EWN:
By Norene Cashen
I’ve never seen peace.
I’ve seen a foxhole, combat boots, a drill sergeant
and a gun. I’ve heard the gun rattle
and talk and talk and talk
in its fast language, the clink of brass casings
spit out after each syllable.
I’ve seen girls in dog tags and dust
crawling under the barbed wire of the world
as if their mothers waited for them
on the other side, but there is no other side.
That’s what you learn.
There’s only more war.
There’s war outside and inside
war speeding on the highway
to get to work on time.
There’s war in our mouths, our hair,
our eyes. The best wars are in the movies
where we eat popcorn and tell ourselves
nobody dies. Then somewhere in the middle
of Afghanistan a boy from Wisconsin
is smeared inside a turret
just like the old poem says. It’s possible
we’re all walking cages
and it’s our job to keep ourselves closed
to keep the violence
from shaking out of our bones.
A guest post!
Virginia Pye, author, debut novel, River of Dust, Indie Next Pick for May,
In college, Black Tickets, with its hard-edged prose
about hard-edged people, hit me hard. I’d read Hemingway’s short stories in
high school. Fitzgerald and Chekov short stories, too. And Isaac Babble, and
Isaac Bashevis Singer, and that one about the yellow wallpaper that everyone had
to read. Unlike the novel, short stories seemed the place to start for a young
aspiring writer. They offered miniature worlds that most often tied up nicely
at the end. But when I tried to write them, mine tended to sprawl. My pages became
dense and overwritten as I said too much. Then I read Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets and saw that when you use
restraint you create meaning in a more powerful way. You could keep it minimal
and leave your reader aching for more.
sentences were as tough and clean as Carver’s, but she wrote about girls and
young women, people like me at my age. Her short story, Home, felt like one I’d been trying to write for years. It lacked sentimentality
and yet was full of nostalgia for childhood. It showed a struggle with growing
up and a recognizable tension between mother and daughter. She said so much by saying
so little. The short, declarative sentences left room for the reader to fill in
the blanks with emotion. As I read and reread them, their meanings only became
found any other writers who were so direct and seemed to speak to and for me so
well. In my second year of college, I carried Black Tickets with me everywhere. When I sat down to write a short
story for my first-ever writing class, I had it splayed open on my desk, as if
I could will her words—her way of thinking--over to my pages.
style, Carver’s style, Beattie’s style stuck with me for years.
realize you’re being influenced by your time until you finally get some
perspective and look back. I started writing in the 80s and my short stories
tend to be minimal and aspire to understatement. That’s harder to do in a
novel, because the urge to expand is so strong. As I’ve experimented with
length and styles of writing, I still carry Jayne Anne Phillips in my head as
an example of how to show the complexities of the human
heart while using a few crisp and well-chosen words. At least, that remains my goal, because she
did it so well for all of us who have followed.
Learn more about Virginia Pye and her debut novel here.
A guest post!
Castle” by Jean Stafford by Pamela Erens
does a writer convey to readers highly subjective states of mind? I’m
fascinated by this challenge. What interests me most, in my own writing, is not
so much what people do as how they feel--that is, whether their characteristic
way of being in the world is cheerful, melancholy, anxious, aggressive, or
something else, and how that shapes what they experience. As a result I’m
constantly waging an exhausting war against vagueness and abstraction. If a character
in a story hits another over the head with a rock, a reader can easily picture
and experience such an event. She can feel the weight of the rock in the
assailant’s hand, feel the sickening thud of stone against skull.
But if, by contrast, the point of a
scene is not external drama but internal weather--if one wants to portray not a
moment of violence but an ongoing state of anxiety or grief or rage, how do you
do it? How do you find a language for it and keep it interesting?
A story that helps me think about
such questions is Jean Stafford’s “The Interior Castle.” first published in
1946 and included in her Collected
Stories of 1970. Stafford set herself an extreme task: to convey the inner
anguish and terror experienced by a young woman, Pansy Vanneman, who has been
in a car accident and is lying nearly immobile day after day in a hospital
room. “The Interior Castle” is one of the most disturbing, dread-inducing
stories I have ever read. And yet it is almost devoid of incident. In the first
several pages, nurses come in and go out of Pansy’s room; the light changes;
she wakes and sleeps. She is emotionally withdrawn and apparently resigned to
the fact that her face has been shattered. She never complains and rarely
speaks, leading the nurses to both marvel over her and resent her. After six
weeks, she has recovered enough to have an operation to reconstruct her
“crushed and splintered” nose.
Pansy is terrified of the operation
because of a tormenting idea that the surgeon will get too close to her brain--will
“scratch” or “bruise” it. The fear is not based on any very accurate sense of
physiology or even the long-shot possibility of a botched surgery leading to
brain damage. It’s more otherworldly than that; it belongs to the realm of the
subconscious. Pansy imagines her brain as something “lying in a shell-pink
satin case,” completely self-sufficient and remote from the rest of her body.
Of course in real life the brain is not a
sealed-off organ; it is fed by and feeds a huge network of blood vessels,
nerves, tissues, and so on. But Stafford isn’t interested in what’s “real.”
She’s interested in what Pansy imagines, thinks, and feels, on the meaning of “brain” to Pansy.
The account of the nurses prepping
Pansy for surgery (it involves the excruciating “packing” of her broken nose
with cocaine-soaked gauze) and the surgery itself, which at times proceeds in
unanesthetized areas, is harrowing. A strong but less masterful story would
simply make us feel this pain, a difficult enough accomplishment, as pain is so
subjective. But Stafford goes further and makes us understand that, for Pansy,
physical pain is nothing compared to her existential fear of being maimed or
violated, of being annihilated in some not-quite-defined way.
How does Stafford do it?
Stafford’s language has been called
mandarin, and her style definitely sets itself in opposition to that of many
prominent writers of her day. Saul Bellow’s breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March, with its
mix of high and low diction, was
published within a few years of “The Interior Castle,” and it wouldn’t be all
that much longer until the wildly colloquial Portnoy’s Complaint hit the scene. But Stafford was loyal to a more
traditional, cool, and patient type of prose. “The Interior Castle” opens in
Vanneman, injured in an automobile accident, often woke up before dawn when the
night noises of the hospital still came, in hushed hurry, though her half-open
door. By day, when the nurses talked audibly with the internes [sic], laughed
without inhibition, and took no pains to soften their footsteps on the
resounding composition floors, the routine of the hospital seemed as bland and
commonplace as that of a bank or a factory. But in the dark hours, the
whispering and the quickly stilled clatter of glasses and basins, the moans of
patients whose morphine was wearing off, the soft squeak of a stretcher as in
rolled past on its way from the emergency ward--these suggested agony and
These are the first three sentences
of the story, and we’re already at agony and death. But note how concrete the
sentences are, though focused on only one sense, that of sound: nurses’
laughter, clinking glasses, pain-racked voices, squeaking stretchers. In a
moment sight will come in as well: a light, a priest administering last rites,
bed quilts, nurses’ hands. Stafford takes care to root what will be a highly
internal story in the indisputably material world.
But even light and curtains and
night noises would get tiresome fairly quickly. So Stafford brings in the
landscape that Pansy can see through the window as she lies in bed. It is
winter, and through Stafford’s descriptions, we can intuit the despair and
bleakness Pansy is experiencing inside:
brick buildings nudged the low-lying sky which was pale and inert like a
punctured sac. . . . The trees could
neither die nor leaf out again.
Of course it is also Pansy who is
pale and inert and has been literally punctured. And she is neither dead nor
quite alive: breathing, but seemingly uninterested in recovering and returning
to her previous existence. Something in her has been deeply wounded; it’s
unclear whether spring is going to come again for her.
So, we have concrete details and we
have a mood established via the metaphorical use of Pansy’s environment. So
far, it’s fairly Fiction 101. Next, Stafford unexpectedly switches point of
view, and for a good stretch, we see Pansy completely through the eyes of her
nurses. Here’s a bit of that passage:
itself was never rumpled. . . . So perfect and stubborn was [Pansy’s]
immobility that it was as if the room and the landscape, mortified by the ice,
were extensions of herself. Her resolute quiescence and her disinclination to
talk, the one seeming somehow to proceed from the other, resembled, so the
nurses said, a final coma.
It is one thing to show a character
feeling passive, another to have another character or characters witness that
passivity and even see the rebellion in it. (“Among themselves, they [the
nurses] scolded her for what they thought a moral weakness: an automobile
accident, no matter how serious, was not reason enough for anyone to give up
the will to live or to be happy.”) Pansy feels real, not merely like a loosely
tied bundle of sensation, because we get to see her as others do--as a fact as
material as bed quilts and medicine bottles.
By the time Stafford gets to the
heart of her story--Pansy’s sensations and thoughts as the surgeon is wielding
his probing and cutting tools inside of her--she has prepared us through this
deep immersion in the external world She’s now ready to flirt with what is more
evanescent. Even here, Stafford makes sure to keep us rooted in the external details of the surgery--the doctor’s
small talk, the clipping of a scissors--and when she does, like the doctor, “go
inside,” she renders pain and fear by means of vividly sensual metaphors:
There was a
rush of plunging pain as he [the doctor] drove the sodden gobbet of gauze high
up into her nose and something bitter burned in her throat so that she retched.
The doctor paused a moment and the surgical nurse wiped Pansy’s mouth. He
returned to her with another pack, pushing it with his bodkin doggedly until it
lodged against the first. Stop! Stop! cried all her nerves, wailing along the surface
of her skin. The coats that covered them were torn off and they shuddered like
naked people screaming.
Once the anesthesia kicks in,
Stafford manages to make even non-feeling concrete:
All the cloth
was frosty; everything was white or silver and as cold as snow. Dr. Nicholas, a
tall snowman with silver eyes and silver fingernails, came into the room
soundlessly, for he walked on layers and layers of snow that deadened his
footsteps. . . . His laugh was like a cry on a bitter still night. `I will show
you now,’ he called across the expanse of snow, `that you can feel nothing.’
The pincers bit at nothing, snapped at the air and cracked a nerveless icicle.
Pansy called back and heard her own voice echo: “I feel nothing.”
Finally, Pansy’s sense of her threatened
brain is also rendered concretely. She sees it
now as a
jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy
vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing
infinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and
As passive as Pansy is, as immobile,
her imagination is always tactile and spatial, and often enough active (those
screaming nerves!)-- so that the fatigue that can overtake one when reading
about someone else’s thoughts and ideas never sets in. Of course, Stafford has
a mastery of language that keeps us alert and admiring, and her wicked sense of
humor (aimed mainly at the narcissistic figure of Dr. Nicholas) doesn’t hurt
either. She has also built a complex network of associations that has to do
with the sixteenth-century work by St. Teresa of Avila from which this story
takes its title. St. Teresa envisioned communion with God as a journey through
a series of increasingly intimate and interior “mansions” or spaces--an image
echoed in Stafford’s “an envelope containing other envelopes.” Stafford also
uses the saint’s understanding of the pain, self-surrender, and ecstasy that
are part of the inward journey to inform Pansy’s experience.
It’s not necessary to notice or
understand these parallels to fall under the spell of “The Interior Castle.”
Nor does it explain that much if you know that Stafford was in a car accident
(Robert Lowell, her husband, was the driver) that led to the disfigurement of
her face and painful surgeries. The real-life incident gave her her situation
and some of its details, but her story is not about the tragedies that can
befall us in life, nor what it’s like to undergo terrible physical pain. It’s
about the psyche of someone who is not sure she can go back to the ordinary
world, who feels that her true self is folded up deep within, and who struggles
to have a language for that self. It’s a masterpiece of interiority, and I go
to it for lessons in how to accomplish the nearly impossible.
Pamela Erens next novel, The Virgins, hits this August. Learn more about her here.
A guest post!
Story Month: Dawn Raffel, “Our Heaven”
hard to pick just one story from Dawn Raffel’s amazing
collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe,
because they play with and inform each other so well, but “Our Heaven” is one
of my favorites. What seems like a loose, list-like collection of memories of
the narrator’s family and childhood home in Illinois is actually a multilayered
painting puzzle that uses repetition, symbolism, juxtaposition, and word choice
to great effect.
begins with a funeral, in the present tense, of a neighbor’s child, a boy with
whom the narrator and her sister used to play. “This is the way we learned
about heaven,” Raffel explains in the opening page, as themes of life and
death, of timelessness and time’s passage, are subsequently woven throughout.
narrator remembers that she and her sister used to play war with the neighbor’s
boys in the neighborhood bushes. The “gunner on the corner,” who recurs in
brief shots throughout the story, functions not only as a symbol of war—both
the of narrator’s playtime and their father’s service in World War II, as well
as memories of the holocaust—but as a reaper of shorts, a remember of time’s
precariousness and inevitability, whether one dies from old age, from mass
extermination, or “a fluke infection—in the lungs.”
Heaven” is divided in 15 sections—some as long as a few paragraphs, others as
short as a sentence—and scenes of past and present alternate between them—the
narrator’s phone conversation with her mother, who wants to tell her where her
car is being serviced in case anything happens to her, memories of their
father, who served in the Air Force during the war, a bachelor uncle who was a
hoarder of sorts, particularly of news of the holocaust, and a visit back to old
house when the narrator is an adult. Events are repeated among the sections,
opening up new meanings, reinforcing others. For instance, in a section in the
middle of the story, we find that when the narrator father’s died, “no one knew
where the car was parked,” which explains her mother’s insistence on passing
along the mechanic’s address, and also that her grandfather would drive well
into his nineties and “enter people’s driveways, thinking they were streets to
fitting sentence, because “Our Heaven” is full of streets to someplace else. From
one street, “We were taught to spray the telephone for reasons of hygiene,” we
can turn onto another: “[My mother] also, I can hear it on the phone, has a
cough” and another “[S]he would give us a bandage for anything cut.” From “there
was a name on the sidewalk, written in cement” to “they were buried alive.”
is a sense of T.S. Eliot’s precision and confessional tone of “The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock” in these sentences, which makes sense, given that Raffel’s
self-described editing process is cutting and more cutting. The bones that
remain reveal an intimacy we have not earned but that is there, bursting, full
of life. And yet, when one reads the sentences I have listed above, they so
sound random, so ordinary. The magic occurs when they are read together, read
aloud, and one can feel the weave of Raffel’s crazy quilt against one’s skin. Our
heaven, indeed.—Jen Michalski
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections, From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.
A guest post for Short Story Month:
Lorrie Moore Breaks Rules
I’ve waited for this opportunity! (Please note the exclamation points.)
In the throes of my own book anxiety/promo, I have earnestly
hoped that someone (anyone) would ask me to talk about Lorrie Moore’s influence
on my writing. I’ve longed. I’ve prayed. I’ve thrown her name around. I’ve
hinted, without any subtlety whatsoever, that there are legitimate
similarities. While no one has laughed in my face, no one has exactly
I don’t know what the problem is. I mean, we’re two peas in
a pod. (Just please don’t tell Lorrie I said that. I’m afraid she’ll sue me. Or
just hate me.)
Lorrie Moore taught me everything I know about the
exclamation point and more. First, I’ll discuss the exclamation point. Then, I’ll
discuss the more (the Moore!).
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but apparently some
poor shlub who was overly zealous in the grammar and mechanics
department—someone not too unlike me, except it was probably a guy—said out
loud, and over and over, No exclamation
points! Stop with the exclamation points!
Except it was probably more like this: No exclamation points. Stop with the exclamation points.
Despite the quietude, I guess everyone heard him. Except for
May I quote the entirety of the opening paragraph to “People
Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” which can
be found in Moore’s Birds of America
(1998)? I’m going to make a hard admission here. This was the first thing I
ever read by her, and so it’s pretty obvious: I was late to the game. Everyone
already knew about her. I had just started my MFA program. I was reading whatever
people told me to read, and I was doing it voraciously.
I came upon this story, this opening paragraph:
“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole
thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain.
A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s diaper. What is the story? Who put this here?
It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend,
the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks
fine—so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse
heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is
something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter,
something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby
reasons stowed away here. (Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?) In her
mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone
else’s. There. Doesn’t that make more sense?”
I was—as clichéd as it is to say—hypnotized by this prose. Then,
I sucked it in, absorbed it, and copied it. Copied it, okay? I. Copied. It.
The style, I mean.
You might not want to do that, but you might want to note
some lessons here. Lessons à la Lorrie. (Incidentally, I just
wrote in the second person point of view, which is something else unorthodox
Lorrie does quite well.) Exclamation points—much like the f-word, I might
add—serve a great purpose when used sparingly and carefully. In the above
passage, an exclamation point is used pretty much to exploit the mood: denial. Elsewhere, Moore uses them to
express humor, irony, and absurdity—rarely for the expression of exclamation.
The point doesn’t add to the clamor. Rather, it is often a coping mechanism, a
way for the protagonist to deal with a tragedy. Tragedy! What tragedy? Lesson
Then, there’s that amazing image that still makes me
shudder: The blood clot in the baby’s diaper is compared to a “tiny mouse heart
packed in snow.” Lorrie, I’d give you
large sums of money if I had large sums of money for that simile alone. You
rock. This is the more/Moore
part. (If you’re unfamiliar with Moore’s work, she’s infamous for her stellar
wordplay.) I read this and fell over, because it’s gross and it’s beautiful.
It’s so gross, it’s beautiful. I’m constantly bringing up the tiny mouse heart
in creative writing classes and, if my students don’t love it, I fail them. This
is writing that works; it works hard.
Am I losing you with the clever talk? One of my students once said something
apt about a Moore story we read in class. She didn’t like it very much. I was
in the process of getting out my red pen to give her the Big “F,” when she said
that she felt like she was being pelted with ping-pong balls when she was
reading Lorrie. The pelting: an assault. No one was going to die or anything,
but it was pretty uncomfortable.
I guess I love that. Maybe I’m into sadomasochism. Not sure,
but I doubt it. I also love Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, so I don’t know how
those guys would fit into the equation. What I do know is that Lorrie’s stories
consistently—pretty much, always—blend
comedy with tragedy, just like that unlikely blending of the gross with the
beautiful. Using that word menstrual
is gross. Thinking about demented baby
reasons is funny. You read this, and you’re going through all kind of
emotions at once.
Do you know what this story is about? A baby’s cancer scare.
The mom’s experience of spending time in the pediatric oncology ward. If you’re
a mom, and you’ve ever spent time in a pediatric hospital, you know it’s hell
on earth. It sucks like nothing else sucks. Would you believe that Moore
captures the fear, the terror, the hell-on-earthness of it, while making you
laugh the whole time? I think Moore knows the truth about the tiny mouse heart
packed in snow. It’s disgusting. It’s startling. It’s dramatic. It makes you
wince and maybe your cheeks flare red because it’s funny too. A mouse heart!
But it’s a blood clot in a baby’s diaper. And that just doesn’t make sense.
But Moore’s stories make sense. She is masterful. She knows
funny. She knows sorrow. I admire the depth of the humanity explored in her
work. I flatter myself every time I drop her name, but I continue to do so
lavishly. If I say it enough, maybe it’ll be true. When I first read Lorrie
Moore, I staggered from her unorthodox punctuation, her bravery in imagery. Who
will admit to the beauty of the mouse heart?
And, just so you know, “How To Become A Writer” is also a
gem, and I wouldn’t mind if someone had that inscribed on my grave. Or urn,
since I want to be cremated. Wait. I don’t want
an urn, either. Scatter my
ashes. Someone just e-mail that story to my loved ones.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc
Books 2012) and LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books 2012). Additionally, she
blogs at "Bosco's Going Down," and she's half of Snotty Literati. Visit
her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.
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Stop Here, My Friend was originally published in 1963 and is a wonderful short story collection that I have had the pleasure of reading to proof read the eBook that Dzanc Books is putting out in our rEprint collection--this title should be available this forthcoming week.
Reading one of the later stories again very early this morning, I hit the line:
"The wound of my Aunt Beth's grave isnot yet healed, and beside it a new one is open."
This thought by the protagonist, Janet, at the funeral of her Uncle Ben. Her
Aunt Beth had been dead less than a year; there was still not even a tombstone at the site of her grave.
For whatever reason that image jumped into my head and I realized just how many times Merrill Joan Gerber had done that in this collection--taken a pretty common moment and created a unique image or thought about that moment. With maybe the most amazing thing about that to me is that this collection is being re-released 50 years afterit first appeared and yet the stories and writing are still extremely relevant. In the early 60's, Merrill Joan Gerber was writing things in a way that I'm still not seeing today on a regular basis.
The above line comes from the story "We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy," which was published by The New Yorker as was one other. Other stories inthe collection were published by Mademoiselle, Redbook and The Sewanee Review.
The more I read from Gerber's work the more excited I get to have found a writer with a shelf plus full of books to fall into whenever I want, not having to wait 2 or 3 years for her next book to come out (side note--not SSM related, but Gerber related--her newest work, the novel The Hysterectomy Waltz, has just printed and will be available online and in stores extremely soon!). Pick up one of her eBooks now and see if you don't get hooked too. (one other side note--Gerber also does water paintings and the artwork from the cover is from her as well).