James Salter, author of A Sport and a Pastime, dies at age 90

June 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A-Sport-and-a-Pastime-James-Salter“Must fame be a part of greatness?” That question is posed by Nedra Berland, one of the characters in James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years. If the answer is yes – and there is much evidence to suggest Salter himself believed this to be the case – then greatness eluded the American writer, who died on Friday in Sag Harbor, New York, at the age of ninety. To the small coterie of devotees who devoured Salter’s limited, but pristine output, however, his greatness was a given, regardless of how many copies of his books he sold.

Nedra’s question is quoted by Nick Paumgarten in a long profile of Salter that appeared in The New Yorker in April 2013, on the occasion of the publication of All That Is, the author’s first novel in thirty-four years. It would be his last.

Salter did not publish prodigiously, taking his time to hone his works to diamond-like precision. Paumgarten quotes the author Richard Ford as saying, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” That devotion to his craft resulted in a small output of books that rank among the finest in postwar American literature.

Salter’s two most famous works are Light Years and his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. In his introduction to the FSG Classics edition of that novel, Reynolds Price writes, “[T]he book I find between the covers of A Sport and a Pastime is as nearly perfect a narrative as I’ve encountered in English-language letters, a more brilliant and heartbreaking portrayal of young sexual intoxication than I’ve found elsewhere, and an unbroken exercise of prose that leaves me proud of my native language and of a fearless man who labored to lay it out with such useful opulence.”

The word “fearless” is not idly chosen: The New York Times states that Salter’s original publisher, Harper, shied away from the book, saying it contained “more than the normal amount of sex.” George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review, liked the manuscript, however, and interceded to have it placed with Doubleday. The resulting publication paved the way for writers like Philip Roth and John Updike, who felt freer to engage in more explicit examinations of sexual relationships and situations in their fiction.

Salter was like Roth in another way: he plumbed his personal life and experiences for material to use in his fiction. Paumgarten tells of Salter leaving his publisher’s office having just picked up a copy of Light Years, a novel about infidelity and the dissolution of a marriage, and running into a longtime friend, to whom he gave the book. Upon reading it, the friend realized that the couple in the book were modelled on her and her husband. A Sport and a Pastime finds its genesis in notebooks Salter kept while travelling in France. Says Paumgarten, “The novel is an Alhambra of narcissism and self-erasure.”

Though he may not have achieved the kind of renown he desired in his life, his few novels and collections of stories are likely to live on, thanks to a small but dedicated group of readers for whom he marked a pinnacle of style and technique in twentieth century American letters.

In life you need friends and a good place to live. He had friends, both in and out of publishing. He knew people and was known by them. Malcolm Pearson, his former roommate, came to the city with his wife, Anthea, and often their daughter to go to the museums or visit a gallery whose owner he knew. Malcolm had become older. He disapproved of things, he walked with a cane. Am I becoming old, Bowman wondered? It was something he rarely thought about. He had never been particularly young, or to put it another way, he had been young for a long time and now was at his true age, old enough for civilized comforts and not too old for the primal ones. – All That Is

The more clearly one sees this world, the more one is obliged to pretend it does not exist. – A Sport and a Pastime

Kate Cayley beats out heavy hitters to win the Trillium Book Award

June 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

How-You-Were-Born-Kate-CayleyThe $20,000 Trillium Book Award, given annually to the best book in any genre by an Ontario author, is one of my favourite Canadian awards, because it is always so defiantly individual. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2009 jury that awarded the prize to Pasha Malla’s first story collection, The Withdrawal Method.) Whereas other awards often risk appearing formulaic, the Trillium seems focused entirely on merit and damn the torpedoes: recent winners have included Phil Hall (a poet) and Hannah Moskovitch (a playwright).

This year, Kate Cayley beat out established authors Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King to take the award for her debut, the story collection How You Were Born. The fact the prize went to a work of short fiction makes me happy for reasons that go without saying. (Also for the record: I was a fan of Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress.)

Beyond that, Cayley’s book is published by the small literary house Pedlar Press. (Pedlar is based in St. John’s, but Cayley is a resident of Toronto.) There is a myth that large multinationals are responsible for publishing only tired, mainstream, run-of-the-mill books, whereas small houses produce nothing but brilliant work that withers due to lack of attention and readers. While neither is true in all cases, the last part of that – the lack of attention for books from smaller houses – is an unfortunate reality, so it is nice to see an independent regional publisher receive some consideration.

Whether such consideration is merited in this case is something I (shamefacedly) can’t attest to, not having read Cayley’s book (see above re: lack of attention to work from smaller presses, even on the part of people who should know better). That I now plan to search it out probably also flies in the face of my frequent criticisms of award culture; it would appear that awards really do help to sell books, for better or for worse.

The jury that awarded Cayley the prize was comprised of poet Helen Guri, novelist Cordelia Strube, and novelist James Grainger.

Other winners:

The Trillium also awarded its poetry prize last night, to Brecken Hancock’s well-received debut Broom Broom, a suite of unflinchingly dark poems published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. The $10,000 poetry prize is awarded annually (it alternates between English- and French-language titles) for a first, second, or third book of poetry.

Michel Dallaire won the French-language prize for his novel Violoncelle pour lune d’automne, and Micheline Marchand won the French-language children’s award for her book Mauvaise Mine. Both books were published by Les Éditions L’Interligne.

Paul Bacon, legendary book cover designer, dies at 91

June 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Catch_22_Paul_BaconYou may not be immediately familiar with the name Paul Bacon, but you will be immediately familiar with his work. The New York born graphic designer was responsible for some of the most iconic book covers of the twentieth century, including covers for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, James Clavell’s Shogun, and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

Bacon died of a stroke on Monday in New York. He was ninety-one.

Before coming to books, Bacon had already made a name for himself designing sleeves for jazz albums, a musical genre he was much enamoured with. He designed covers for the Blue Note and Riverside labels, according to The New York Times, which also claims he played “in a New Orleans-style jazz band called Stanley’s Washboard Kings, which for many years had a regular gig at the Cajun, a restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.”

Compulsion_Paul_BaconWhen he turned his attention to books, he became known for what has commonly been called the “Big Book Look”: a generally minimalist cover design featuring mostly typography along with what Print Magazine’s Steven Heller calls “a small conceptual image.” His first big hit was his design for Meyer Levin’s novel Compulsion, a fictionalized account of the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case.

Heller writes:

Bacon estimates he designed about 6,500 jackets from the late 1940s through the early 2000s for all the major houses – but most consistently for Simon & Schuster for over 40 years. The Bacon-esque approach became pervasive throughout the trade book world, yet his signature style was not always instantly recognizable because Bacon characteristically subordinateJaws_Paul_Bacond ego to function. He explains, “I’d always tell myself, ‘You’re not the star of the show. The author took three-and-a-half years to write the goddamn thing, and the publisher is spending a fortune on it, so just back off.’” Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Simon & Schuster during the 1950s, and later editorial director at Knopf for 21 years, notes, “He has a bestseller look but he came up with other looks as well, some of which helped books become bestsellers.”

The NYT quotes noted designer Chip Kidd as saying that Bacon was a key influence because he demonstrated “just how much you can entice the reader on the content by using minimal form.” The same article quotes Peter Mendulsund, author of What We See When We Read, who has recently designed reprints of novels by Kafka an Calvino that, looked at slant, can be seen as having a Baconesque influence: “He directs your eye and shows you where to look. He shows you what’s important.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 31: “Curvaceous Dolls” by Li Ang; Howard Goldblatt, trans.

May 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Gates of Paradise: The Anthology of Erotic Short Fiction

Gates_of_Paradise_AnthologyTaiwanese writer Li Ang is most famous for her 1983 novella The Butcher’s Wife; her novels and stories address issues of gender politics in China, casting a critical light on a society that represses and curtails women’s desires and renders women subservient to the dominant patriarchal dictates. The 1987 story “Curvaceous Dolls” is a strange, dreamlike tale about a woman’s psychosexual struggles in the face of sanctioned attitudes toward female sexuality that are utterly incapable of fulfilling her in any meaningful way.

From the opening sentence of the story it is clearly implied that the woman has homosexual impulses: “She had yearned for a doll – a curvaceous doll – ever since she was a little girl.” The word “doll” is of course a slang term for a woman, and if there were any question as to what “curvaceous” might refer to, the story clarifies this in short order.

The woman is obsessed with female breasts. This obsession has its origins in childhood; when she was a girl, her mother died, and she has since developed an association between the motherly act of breastfeeding and a sense of security and sanctuary. This idea is largely repressed in her during the early stages of her adulthood: she marries her husband and is attracted by the “solace and warmth” she finds when leaning into his chest. Her epiphany occurs on a bus ride to a doctor her husband has convinced her to see because of troubling dreams the woman has been having. On the crowded bus, someone brushes up against the woman:

Glancing up, she saw a pair of full breasts, whose drooping outline she could make out under the woman’s blouse. Her interest aroused, she began to paint a series of mental pictures, imagining the breasts as having nipples like overripe strawberries oozing liquid, as though waiting for the greedy mouth of a child. Suddenly, she felt a powerful urge to lean up against those full breasts, which were sure to be warm and comforting, and could offer her the sanctuary she needed.

The “sanctuary she needed” is, importantly, something her husband cannot provide any longer. The woman has become estranged from her husband as a result of his derisive response to her story about a makeshift doll she fashioned for herself as a child – an early and failed attempt to supply herself with the “curvaceous doll” she desires. There is a certain irony in the fact that her husband is the instrument by which the woman begins to explore her own innate desires: it is his disparaging laughter that prompts her disturbed sleep, and it is his insistence that she visit a doctor that results in her revelation on the public transit bus.

As her reveries deepen, she remembers two other dolls – one of clay and one of wood – with ever more realistic carved breasts; she recalls suckling the artificial female forms as an early means of acting out her innermost impulses. In the early part of the story, the woman remains conflicted about her desires and will not commit to leaving her husband. Instead, she fantasizes about the possibility of him growing breasts that she can nuzzle in the way she did her mother’s as a child, and those of the dolls as she developed sexually.

The story is broken into two parts; in the second part, the woman abandons her fantasy about her husband growing breasts in favour of a determination to have a baby, which she can suckle herself. Her idea is that the feel of a child’s fondling hands and voracious mouth on her nipples will take the place of her own desire to do likewise to someone else. Significantly, the reverie about her husband developing breasts and the impulse to bear a child both buy into the patriarchal social structure: both require the husband as the central agent of their fulfillment.

This unconscious realization perhaps lies behind the dreams the woman starts having about a sort of demonic figure with fangs and pale green eyes – easily the story’s most puzzling aspect. Though it is likely that the pale green eyes – “filled with cruelty and the destructive lust of a wild animal” and that leave her feeling “defiled” – are representative of the repressive societal structures that refuse to allow her the freedom to indulge her desires in her own way and according to her own rules.

By the end of the story, she has decided to return to her childhood home, against her husband’s wishes, to pursue whatever it is she is in need of. Having made her decision, the story provides yet another bizarre fantasy, but in this one there are objects resembling “two dead breasts” that rub up against her and a meandering stream of clammy white liquid that approaches her mouth but that she refuses to swallow. Earlier scenes in the story have focused on the symbolic importance of mother’s milk to the woman; here the fact that she imagines dead breasts and refuses to swallow the liquid might perhaps indicate that she has abandoned her subconscious torment and is willing to pursue her desires in the light of day. The clammy white liquid could also be associated symbolically with semen; her refusal to ingest it a repudiation of her husband and all the things he stands for.

Li Ang’s story is Freudian and somewhat surreal in its approach: the dreamlike aspects remain oblique and resistant to easy explication. What is clear is that by the end of the story the woman has found a way out of the stifling societal strictures she has been suffering under. “Work hard at it, no matter how long it takes and someday it will happen to you,” her husband tells her. “Maybe,” she thinks in response, “but not if I go about it your way. I have to do it my own way.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 30: “Gentrification” by Russell Smith

May 30, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Confidence

Confidence_Russell_SmithAnyone searching for evidence that Russell Smith is one of the strongest stylists working the CanLit trenches today need look no farther than the opening sentence of “Gentrification,” from the author’s new collection: “It was, if anything, getting worse, the intersection.” Any less brazen writer – which, these days, seems to be most of them – would place the subject at the beginning of that sentence: “The intersection was, if anything, getting worse.” This formulation is at once more obvious and less interesting, less musical, less teasingly cheeky. (In fairness, most editors, themselves lacking a certain brazenness, would automatically rewrite Smith’s sentence if confronted with his more idiosyncratic rendering.)

But from the outset, Smith has never been adverse to taking risks with his fiction. And “Gentrification” is nothing if not risky. Like most of Smith’s oeuvre, it falls in the broad category of satire, which is not a genre most readers find amenable these days. Especially the kind of satire Smith practices, which owes more to the harsh nastiness of Juvenal than the gentle wit of Horace. Then there is the story’s subject matter, which addresses the loaded issues of class, race, and gender politics in contemporary multicultural Toronto.

The focus of the story is Tracy, who lives with his wife, Morgan, in a roiling neighbourhood bounded by factories and rooming houses, and home to a cornucopia of races and ethnicities, including a community of Eastern European immigrants who “were taping up posters in their fantastic language, with lots of k’s and i’s, a language for warfare, and all the posters had the word ROMA at the bottom, sometimes with an exclamation mark, like a soccer chant.” There is also Francis Doyle, the aging Irish relic who still blithely refers to black women as “coloured girls” and Asians as “Orientals.”

And there are Deiondre and Teelah, the black women in question, who rent a basement apartment from Tracy and Morgan. Teelah is the more feminine of the two – she “actually dressed like a girl,” in Tracy’s assessment, which makes it easier for him to ogle her “puffy brown belly” and her “enormous round butt” with its “twist of thong rising above the hip.” Deiondre, by contrast, “look[s] like a boy” in black jeans and a hoodie, her hair done up in “wild and spiky” dreadlocks. The two women have a baby Tracy has never seen, though both he and Morgan have been privy to the child’s wails during the many violent arguments their tenants engage in.

The whole neighbourhood has been privy to the battles waged by Deiondre and Teelah, which involve screaming and cursing and slamming of doors and walls, and in one case fisticuffs and hair-pulling that spills out onto the street for all to witness. Tracy tries to intervene on several occasions, but is forestalled by Deiondre’s obstinacy and the indifference of the police.

Then there is Tracy’s own reticence to get involved – even in the face of prodding from his wife, who calls the situation “intolerable” – a reticence that springs, we can infer, from a nervousness around the perception of a university-educated white male making incursions into the lives of a black lesbian couple on welfare. Tracy knows they are on welfare because he sees the cheques that arrive in their shared mailbox; he becomes indignant when he sees Deiondre getting into a cab, which he feels – with vast reserves of self-righteousness and judgment – is an unconscionable extravagance for someone in her circumstances. (Significantly, the middle-class white man sniffs that taking a cab is something he “would never have done.”)

No doubt Tracy feels a misplaced sense of superiority regarding Deiondre and Teelah; the two women, nevertheless, fully comprehend the power in the way their situation might be perceived by an outsider, and exploit this to their advantage, playing music so loud it resounds throughout Tracy and Morgan’s own living space, then suggesting that Tracy is attempting to prohibit them from their own form of cultural expression when he goes to complain: “We have a right to enjoy ourselves just like you,” Deiondre tells him. “Even right here in Canada.”

Tracy’s conflicted attitude regarding Deiondre and Teelah has much to do with his desire to break away from the constraints of his social class and lifestyle and rub shoulders with what he considers to be a rougher, more exotic milieu. Whether he is allowed to indulge his base desires or forced to repress them depends on the situation and the availability of willing enablers. Morgan staunchly refuses to continue posing for nude photos that Tracy uploads to a softcore porn site as a means of securing a little extra cash, and one of the local Roma women rebuffs him when he tries to approach her with similar intentions. Yet Teelah flirts with him and a bartender talks him into ordering doubles when he goes slumming in a local dive bar.

And the idea of slumming is key here: Tracy flirts with danger and exoticism, but shies away as soon as the otherness gets too close or begins to frighten him. He can flirt with the overtly feminine Teelah, but does not know how to handle Deiondre’s aggressive assertiveness. He finds the Roma girls exciting – “their hair was so flowing and shiny,” and they “made themselves look hot with their pudgy little bellies and supermarket clothes” – but is wary of crossing a line that might put himself in any kind of personal peril: “it would be dangerous to get involved with a gypsy girl, in any way, as the men were quite possessive and violent.” Note also the gendered nature of Tracy’s courage: he is fine approaching women he considers “hot,” but steers clear of men he assumes are violent and the butch Deiondre. (In this regard, one might also note Tracy’s own feminine name – to say nothing of his wife’s more masculine one – something he himself remarks on in the story.)

Here the story tilts in the direction of one of Smith’s abiding themes: authenticity, and the lengths people will go to construct artificial identities to fool both outside observers and, crucially, themselves. Tracy may delight in the coming gentrification of his neighbourhood because it will raise the property value of his house, but he fears the concomitant flattening out of the social stratification that surrounds him, which will deny him easy access to the kind of faux grittiness he is attracted to. On the surface, he plays the role of the upwardly mobile urbanite, cooking vegetarian meals for his university friends and assiduously checking in on his wife’s temperature and the viscosity of her mucous as they attempt to get pregnant, but underneath it all exists a piercing need for a different, more apparently dangerous and exciting lifestyle.

This is why his final epiphany – that the internet offers him a whole range of opportunities to revivify his amateur photography business, “something Morgan wouldn’t be interested in … no matter how lucrative it was” – makes him so happy. He can rent a mailbox from a location “just across the tracks” and set up a photo studio in his basement (which he will paint “clean white”) now that his two abrasive tenants have finally decamped. The ultimate irony in the story is that Tracy pretends to desire an escape from what he perceives as the boredom of his proscribed existence, yet pulls back at the first sign of any real danger. The thing he most fears about gentrification is that it will make his surroundings more closely resemble himself.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 29: “Classical Scenes of Farewell” by Jim Shepard

May 29, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From You Think That’s Bad

You_Think_That's_Bad_Jim_Shepard“One of my great subjects over the years,” says Jim Shepard, “great in terms of just volume, has been complicity with power and complicity with evil. … I don’t think I ever will write something from the point of view of Hitler, or Himmler, or something like that. But the guy who enables Himmler …”

Writing about history’s monsters is something that captures a part of the author’s imagination, but doing so in a straightforward way seems unsatisfying, in part because it lets the reader off the hook. “If I write about Himmler,” Shepard says, “I leave the reader in a very comfortable position, because the reader says, wow, what an evil guy. If I write about somebody who helps Himmler, I hope that I’m leaving the reader in a position of going, well, actually, that enabling is something that sounds familiar to me as well, because I happen to know of some things that happened that I didn’t do anything to try to stop.”

This is at once a statement of artistic intent, and an explanation of one of the key strategies Shepard employs in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” an excoriating story featuring Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century soldier in the French army who fought with Joan of Arc and was later executed as a child murderer. Crucially, the story is not centred on de Rais, but on one of his manservants, Etienne Corillaut, who goes by Poitou (the nickname is a region in France, but also refers more specifically to a kind of donkey bred there). By filtering the narrative through Poitou’s first-person perspective, Shepard paradoxically humanizes it, thereby rendering the events in the story all the more horrifying.

To tell the story of de Rais’ exploits would be monstrous, but his career as a murderer – think the Marquis de Sade crossed with Clifford Olson – was so outrageous, so extraordinary, that it readily affords the reader a safe distance: there is no way any sane person could possibly identify with de Rais as a character or find any empathy for his actions. However, by using a young man from a poor family – someone much easier for a reader to understand and empathize with – as a kind of tour guide through hell, Shepard forces a pang of recognition on the reader; the manifest discomfort in the story comes from a realization of just how apparently normal Poitou appears. If he is capable of abetting de Rais’ crimes, then by extension, and given the right circumstances, so might anyone be.

The story is structured as a confession, written by Poitou on the eve before he is to be executed along with Henriet, another of de Rais’ accomplices. “I am now twenty-two years of age,” Poitou writes, “and here acknowledge to the best of my abilities the reasons for those acts that have made this name along with my master’s the object of hatred throughout the region.” But, Poitou doesn’t stop there:

I here also address the questions that my kinsmen hear from every stable hand, every innkeeper, every farmer in his field: What transpired in his mind that allowed a young person to have acted in such a manner and then to have lived apparently untroubled among his fellows? What enabled him to have stepped forward into the sunlight and Nature’s bounty for six years of such iniquity?

In other words, Poitou – and by extension Shepard – wants his readers to understand him, to comprehend the reasons behind his active participation in absolutely horrific activities. Shepard does not spare the reader the horror: the scenes depicting de Rais’ crimes are explicit and highly disturbing, but they are not in any way gratuitous or pornographic; the violence in the story – some of it sexual violence – is unacceptable and frankly difficult to handle, but this is surely the point. What Shepard is interested in is a confrontation with evil, and a reckoning with the forces in the world that allow it not only to exist, but to flourish.

The opening scene depicts Poitou’s childhood on his family’s “tumbledown farm,” a place his mother believed to be “serried and tumid with devils.” These are the supernatural devils of early Christendom; when Poitou encounters an actual, flesh-and-blood devil in the person of de Rais, we note the disconnection between the Church’s notion of evil and evil as it actually exists in the world. Shepard ironically portrays de Rais as a highly devout man; he tells the Inquisitor who condemns him to death that before his sentence is carried out he wants to be reincorporated into the Church from which he has been excommunicated.

The backdrop to the story is of course France in the 1600s – a period in which the country had been ravaged by war and strife, and the gap between the wealthy, titled nobility and the dirt poor was astounding. “Each of [de Rais’] castles,” Poitou states, “was thronged about by children made homeless by a hundred years of war and brigandage, begging where they could and stealing where they couldn’t.” The rampant social inequality and class-based misery provides a waiting flock of forgotten children from which de Rais may choose his victims. De Rais is a manifestation of pure evil, but the story at least strongly implies that it was the social conditions in France – conditions that in some ways closely mirror our own in the second decade of the 21st century – that allowed him to continue killing unchecked.

Shepard is fond of quoting Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that the fiction writer’s focus is the action grace in the territory of the devil. There is no grace to be found in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” though Pitou’s final words are an imprecation to God that the fires that burn him and Henriet alive may serve to cleanse them of their sins: “And God will come to know our secrets. At our immolation He’ll appear to us and pour His gold out at our feet. And His grace that we kicked away will become like a tower on which we might stand. And His grace will raise us to such a height that we might glimpse the men we aspired to be. And His grace like the heat of the sun will burn away the men we have become.”

The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa claimed that being an artist means never averting your eyes. In telling the story of Gilles de Rais’ deluded manservant, Shepard resolutely refuses to avert his eyes. “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is a bold attempt to reckon with the nature of evil in history and, by extension, the evil that exists all around us in the present. That we as readers so easily recognize our own society – to say nothing of ourselves – in the pages of the story is perhaps its most disturbing and agonizing aspect.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 28: Jim Shepard on history, ambition, and unconventional beach reading

May 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Jim Shepard (photo by Barry Goldstein)

Jim Shepard (photo by Barry Goldstein)

“My wife has said about me that I’m the only person she knows who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach.”

American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard’s choice of beach reading says quite a bit about the kind of author he is. It also testifies to the twin poles that animate his fiction.

Shepard is possessed of a voracious, roving imagination that seems equally at home on the killing fields of the French Revolution or the Second World War and onstage with The Who. So capacious is his imaginative empathy that he is capable of projecting himself inside the Hindenburg and offering a cogent explanation for what caused the famous disaster, all while telling a tender love story featuring two homosexual engineers and transforming the whole thing into a metaphor for the twentieth century’s failed aspirations in the areas of national and technological mastery.

But the fact that Shepard would read about the guillotine on the beach is equally significant. He feels comfortable writing about the heaviest of themes – the Holocaust, the Columbine school massacre – one moment, but the next will find him telling a story about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. From the point of view of the creature. Or doing a story about mental illness, filtered through the eyes of a narrator who, as a boy in the 1960s, was obsessed with collecting Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards.

“You’ve probably put your finger on how my own personal aesthetic works,” says Shepard about the short story “Mars Attacks.” “I don’t sit down at my desk and say, it’s time to tackle mental illness. What I’m doing is going, you know what would be great? To write about those cards. And that’s my way of talking myself into dealing with difficult emotional issues.”

If there is a unifying theme to Shepard’s diverse output, it can probably be found in the realm of “difficult emotional issues,” particularly those that manifest in extreme situations.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, locates itself at the centre of one of the most extreme places in history: the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. It takes up the story of Janusz Korczak, the Jewish doctor and educational reformer who set up an orphanage inside the walls of the Jewish ghetto. Importantly for Shepard, however, Korczak is not the novel’s protagonist, but rather a secondary figure. The protagonist is the eponymous Aron, a child who learns to live by his wits – smuggling, colluding, and doing pretty much anything he has to in order to survive – before winding up in the care of the saintly Korczak.

“I was dealing with the kind of figure that normally doesn’t get narrated,” Shepard says of his approach to the novel. “One of the insidious things about a lot of Holocaust narratives is the way they choose figures that are quite extraordinary.”

Book_of_Aron_Jim_ShepardShepard cites Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank as books that fall into this category, and offers a tacit rebuke to critics such as Geraldine Brooks, whose recent New York Times review of The Book of Aron questioned why the story wasn’t narrated from Korczak’s perspective. Reading Frank’s diary, Shepard posits, it’s impossible not to be astounded by the intelligence and empathic rumination that infuses the writing of such a young girl. “And it’s one short step from that to, you know, the Holocaust was a terrible thing because it killed Anne Frank,” Shepard says. “I thought, what about those people nobody valued, what about those people who got swept away. And, you know, all those people in the background of all the newsreels. I very much like that worm’s eye view, that sense that nobody cares about my protagonist but me.”

Brooks also points out that in order for Shepard to inhabit Aron’s consciousness, he must forgo numerous writerly flourishes, such as lush vocabulary and metaphor. She suggests this is a risky proposition for an author, but it is in fact simply another characteristic of Shepard’s writing. For all its diversity in terms of subject, Shepard’s fiction – be it novels or stories – is notable for its concision, its ruthless paring away of anything extraneous. “I’m really attracted to leanness,” Shepard says, while at the same time acknowledging, “I don’t think that’s a mainstream, readerly pleasure.”

Shepard suggests that Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See, offers an example of a book that resides at the other end of the spectrum from The Book of Aron. “Tony’s book is 500, 600 pages, and it reads pretty quickly, and readers feel like, I got my money’s worth there. [Whereas] mine is a shuttered, streamlined little thing.”

While Shepard’s attachment to sparseness is apparently engrained in his makeup, he is cognizant of the mainstream limitations inherent in this approach. “I recognize that in fact it’s not what I would call a good business decision,” he says. “I think the big canvas not only attracts more readers, but it feels self-consciously more important. It’s big in both senses of the word.”

And though it would be difficult to deny the evident ambition in Shepard’s range of output and his ability to inhabit an apparently endless variety of different characters convincingly, this is not the kind of ambition that calls attention to itself and wins prizes. “I’d be miserable if I didn’t think my work was ambitious,” Shepard says. “I think my work is extraordinarily ambitious, but I think you have to be a certain kind of reader to understand that. When you get a 700-page novel that is explicitly talking about the rights of man, even falling down the stairs you would think this is an ambitious book. So, it’s much more signposted.”

Those signposts don’t exist in the realm of short fiction, which is a genre Shepard continues returning to, in part because of his affinity for leanness, and in part because he enjoys “the guerilla aspect” of the form. “There’s a lot of what I call furniture moving in novel writing that I get quite impatient with. I love the idea that you hit the ground running.”

Of course, the very fact the writer hits the ground running, covers a brief distance, then stops is precisely one of the aspects of the short form that turns readers off. Shepard readily acknowledges that readers feel they don’t have time with a short story to make the kind of emotional investment that a novel affords, which is one reason stories are paradoxically unpopular in an age of constant distraction and short attention spans.

“One of the other things that’s operating that I think publishers forget,” Shepard continues, “is short stories seem very close in the reader’s mind to medicine. It’s very close to poetry. Or Literature with a capital ‘L.’ [Readers] think, this is going to be a little bit more oblique, this is going to be a little bit more difficult, a little bit more modernist, and I’m going to feel a little stupid, maybe, and who needs it?”

Like_You'd_Understand_Anyway_Jim_ShepardThat said, one other signature facet of Shepard’s writing – the novels and, especially, the stories – is a staunch refusal to dumb itself down, a tactic that seems almost counterintuitive in our current anti-intellectual climate. “I always trust my readers to infer way more than other writers do,” Shepard says.

That is a large investment of trust, given the relative difficulty of Shepard’s fiction. It feels in some ways as though the title of the author’s National Book Award–nominated 2007 story collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a rebuke to the culture at large. “One of my students told her mother that I had a new collection out,” Shepard recalls. “And her mother said, ‘Oh, what’s it called? Maybe I’ll get it.’ And the student said, ‘Like You’d Understand, Anyway.‘ And the mother said, ‘Well, I might!'”

Yet for all its intellectual rigour, for all the evident research and erudition that goes into the work, it is the emotional connection that sparks Shepard’s fiction. Absent that emotional trigger, the author says he would not be able to find a way into the work. Returning to Shepard’s preferred beach reading, it is not the history of the French Terror itself, horrendously compelling though it may be, that provokes a story. It is always something much more specific, and more resonant.

In the case of “Sans Farine,” which is included in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, it was a detail about a hereditary executioner – “That already interests me: how do you get that job? How did a family end up with that?” – who complained to one of the French monarchs that his clothes were wearing out too quickly on account of all the blood they were becoming saturated with. “And I thought, what kind of a person complains about that? And in what way? The idea that you would be so good at self-pity that even as a mass murderer, you would think that you were the one beset … That I felt like I could relate to emotionally.”

The kind of miniaturism contained in this attitude is not to suggest that even Shepard is immune to feeling intimidated by the scope of his ongoing project. “The hubris involved with what I’m doing a lot of the time is fairly staggering,” Shepard says. “To me, anyway.” One of the reasons the author gives for defaulting to the first person in the majority of his work is that it is one way of tackling the hubris head on. “I was trying to write years ago about Aeschylus and I was trying to do so in a detached third person and it was a miserable failure. And finally I got so upset with myself that I thought, you know what, just head on: if you can’t finish a sentence that begins, ‘I am Aeschylus,’ then you should just stop doing it.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 27: “The Angle of Horror” by Cristina Fernandez Cubas; Emily Davis, trans.

May 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction

A_Thousand_Forests_in_One_Acorn“Cristina Fernández Cubas is part of the lineage of female writers with a special gift for the short story,” writes Valerie Miles, editor of the anthology A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. “Far from more popular forms,” Miles continues, “Fernández Cubas stuck, from the beginning, to the genre of the short story to show her vision of the world: an estranged look in the face of the thing that reality, so alien and changeable, presents on a daily basis.”

In her own introduction to the selections reproduced in the anthology, Fernández Cubas writes, “For a long time, the short story wasn’t highly respected in Spain. Or, wrongly, it was considered an apprenticeship, a stepping-stone to the novel.” One might add that this phenomenon is not unique to Spain; Canadian publishers, looking at the dismal sales figures for short-story collections, frequently sign debuts on the understanding that the follow-up will be a novel, and their hearts tend to sink when an established veteran (at least one whose surname isn’t Munro) turns in a short-fiction manuscript as their next book.

Fernández Cubas elaborates on the relatively depressed state of the short story as a fictional genre, and the possible reasons for this:

If I were to reread the interviews I did in 1980, when I published my first book, I imagine I would be surprised by two things: the insistence on asking me when I was going to write a novel, and my stubbornness (of which I’m more than proud) in defending the short story and making it clear that it is a genre in and of itself. … And I’ll mention something that lots of people overlook and that might clarify the reason the short story still isn’t as popular and as widespread as the novel. The reader. The marvelous reader of stories. An accomplice. Because it’s a very special reader who appreciates intensity more than length, who isn’t lazy, and above all – contrary to what people believe – who isn’t hurried. A reader who doesn’t mind going back to the beginning if something isn’t entirely clear, who doesn’t mind meditating a while upon reaching the end. In sum, an active reader.

Fernández Cubas concludes that “there are more and more readers like that” and “there are more and more writers cultivating the genre. Now there are a lot of us. And that suggests that the short story is in excellent health.” The second part of her assertion – that writers continue to focus on short fiction – is true enough, though the success of the genre at the cash register, at least in North America, would argue against the genre’s health, at least relative to the novel or other robust genres, such as memoir or cookbooks.

And part of the reason for this has to be, as Fernández Cubas posits, the difficulty stories present for the reader. It is frequently assumed that because stories are short, they are therefore easy to consume, but precisely the opposite is true in the vast majority of cases. Stories are more closely related to poetry than to the novel, and they make many of the same demands on a reader. The concentration of language, far from allowing a casual perusal, means that a reader must remain attentive to every word, because every word is working toward what Poe referred to as the single effect the story is attempting to create. And stories are often more mysterious than novels: their meanings are more difficult to tease out, and their tactics – what is left out is frequently as important as, if not more important than, what gets put in – make demands that readers are not always comfortable with.

Certainly Fernández Cubas herself is a demanding writer. “The Angle of Horror” borrows tropes from genre fiction, but is more closely aligned with a kind of metaphysical writing, a philosophical interrogation of the nature of existence, and a meditation on death as a part of the human condition. “I like to move in everyday scenarios,” the author says, “where, suddenly, a disruptive element barges in. I don’t know if it can be considered a ‘fantastic’ technique, or if, on the contrary, it constitutes something just as real as life itself.”

The disruptive element in “The Angle of Horror” follows on the return of Carlos to his family home after an extended stay in Brighton. Carlos returns on September 2 (Fernández Cubas is very specific about the date), and he appears a “little skinnier, quite a bit taller, and much paler.” He immediately locks himself in his room and refuses to emerge except for meals. His mother thinks that he has fallen in love and is feeling pangs of separation, but his sister, Julia, thinks there must be more to his strange condition.

Fernández Cubas calls “The Angle of Horror” one of her coldest stories, but says that “it’s also the best reflection of my poetics, of the importance I give to something so inseparable from the genre as perspective. In ‘The Angle of Horror’ everything is perspective.” She means this quite literally. When Julia finally gets Carlos to confide in her, he confesses that when he returned, he was struck by something uncanny to do with the family home; because of “some strange gift or curse” he is able to see the home “from an unusual angle,” which he characterizes as “a strange angle that horrifies [him] but doesn’t stop being real.”

Two elements of perspective are at work here: on the level of the story, there is the literal element of the “angle” that Carlos sees, a tilt or fracture that appears frightening but completely real and inexplicable. But there is also the technical matter of perspective in the story’s narration. Significantly, the story is not told from the perspective of Carlos, but at one remove, from Julia’s point of view. This provides a kind of psychic distance, and allows the reader a stand-in, someone who experiences Carlos’s existential terror from the outside. Julia acts as the reader’s surrogate, which allows Fernández Cubas to pull a bait-and-switch in the final stages of the story, implicating the reader in the story’s philosophical implications.

“The Angle of Horror” is an example of the difficulty stories can pose, but it is also an example of how much a talented writer can cram into a brief space. The story may appear on the surface to be a simple tale of existential dread – the author cites Poe and Kafka as influences – but there is much more going on at the level of implication, which is ultimately what makes the story so unsettling. It is not what happens to Carlos that disturbs us when we’ve finished reading. It is what has happened to us.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 26: “Canadian Experience” by Austin Clarke

May 26, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke

Choosing_His_Coffin_Austin_ClarkeMulticulturalism is a myth we console ourselves with. We pat ourselves on the back and bandy about bromides concerning tolerance, acceptance, and diversity, while continuing to engage in practices such as racial profiling by police and the preservation of institutional prejudices that prohibit certain groups equal opportunity for advancement. Not for nothing is the protagonist in Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach denied a restaurant promotion from busboy to waiter because “Tu es un peu trop cuit pour ça (you are a little too well done for that).” In other words, while the white diners will accept a dark-skinned busboy, they are more reluctant to do likewise for someone actually serving them food (notwithstanding the fact that the dark skinned man would still be the one doing the serving, not the eating).

This is the reality that many immigrants to Canada’s most populous city experience daily. The May 2015 issue of Toronto Life magazine featured a cover article by Desmond Cole focusing on the extraordinary number of times he has been stopped by cops in the city, not because he is a criminal, but because as a black man, his skin tone makes him an automatic focus of suspicion. Far from a refuge of tolerant acceptance, this is the quotidian reality many ethnic minorities face in Toronto the Good.

Austin Clarke has been writing about this aspect of the Canadian experience for more than six decades. Now in his eighties, Clarke is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.: he marched with Malcolm X and participated in rallies with Stokely Carmichael. Donna Bailey Nurse points out, in a profile for Quill & Quire, that in his rebellious heyday in the 1970s, the Toronto Star dubbed Clarke “the angriest black man in Canada.”

That anger is on display in his fiction, particularly in stories such as “Canadian Experience,” complete with its blisteringly ironic title. The story is about George, who, like his creator, is an immigrant to Toronto from Barbados. George has come to the city searching for the good life but has been rejected at every turn. Now in his thirties, George spent his first five years in Canada among the ranks of the marginally employed, bouncing around a series of menial jobs (the only kind someone like him could land). Having now wound up squarely in the category of the unemployed, he spends his time in the reference library reading room, scouring the newspapers’ job ads.

It is important to note that Clarke does not stack the deck in George’s favour. George lacks formal education (though “he still consider[s] himself well-read”), and was once fired from a job delivering flyers because, out of boredom, he simply dumped the advertisements in the trash. His supervisor, we are told, “did not trust immigrants” and “carried out a telephone check behind his back.” The implication here is that the supervisor is racist, which may or may not be true; what is clear is that George’s firing was for legitimate cause.

It is also clear that when George applies for a junior executive job at a Bay Street bank, it is a position for which he is manifestly unqualified. “The successful candidate,” the ad reads, “must have a university degree in business or finance, or the equivalent in business experience.” Given that George’s own “business experience” consists of neglecting to hand out the flyers that he then dumped in the trash, securing an executive finance job seems at best a stretch.

To score an interview at the bank, George fudges his education on his resumé, which he considers “a satisfactory and imaginative rendering of the facts.” He decides that, at his age, his “desperate circumstances” dictate he cannot be picky about the job he takes, notwithstanding that it is a “junior” position, where he feels he would be more satisfied with a senior job. There is egotism here, no doubt, and what an unsympathetic reader might consider self-deception. George’s illusions come crashing down when he actually visits the bank to attend his scheduled interview: he finds himself unable even to exit the elevator at the appropriate floor.

The scene in the elevator is telling. It is crowded with people who have been granted access to the corridors of power due to their earning potential and – not incidentally – the colour of their skin. As he ascends, he notes a man in expensive alligator shoes and a woman carrying a bag from a tony fashion store. (Earlier, George wishes his own pink shirt was cleaner for his interview at the bank.) When the doors of the elevator open on his floor, he is confronted with “glass and chrome and fresh flowers and Persian rugs and women dressed expensively and stylishly in black, with necklaces of pearls.” Frozen, he allows the doors to close and the elevator to continue its ascent to the building’s top floor.

Significantly, George feels much more comfortable – “braver,” in the words of the story – going back down. He recalls the end of his work day as a janitor at a building not unlike the one he is currently in: “He remembers the new vigour he used to feel at the end of three hours working with wax and mops and vacuum cleaners with Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese, going down the elevator. He will ride it to the bottom.” George is explicitly aligned here with subservient, manual labour, and his place in the social echelon is defined as residing at the bottom of the heap.

This is something that has been determined for him, and there is nothing he can do to change it. His lack of formal education is a MacGuffin; in Toronto’s social hierarchy any access to the mechanisms by which he might better himself are closed to him. He is no more able to gain an office job in a Bay Street tower than the protagonist of Dorothy West’s story “The Typewriter,” who dreams of a corner office but ekes out a living as a janitor. If he displays a sense of entitlement in his idea that he should be allowed to simply walk into the bank and be given a junior executive position, it is only because others – with white skin and the resources to access private school education – are able to do exactly that.

Even Pat, the unemployed actress who lives in the same rooming house as George, manages to better herself, albeit in a more modest way. She applies for and gets a job as a waitress in a local restaurant “where a lot of television and radio types eat” – that is, she is granted the foot in the door that George is prevented from achieving.

It is significant to note that neither George nor Pat is named until late in the story; they remain anonymous for the bulk of the narrative, like the anonymous denizens of the city’s underclass. Pat is white, with ugly red cold sores on her back; George Elliott Clarke has suggested the red and white pallor of her skin makes her a stand-in for the ugliness that is Canada in Clarke’s story. This may be so, but the story also insists on a resemblance between the two characters: it is difficult for either a black man or a white woman to succeed, though the white woman has a marginally easier time of it due to the accident of her heritage.

The story’s final scene features yet another descent, this time into the subway, where George will take his life by throwing himself in front of a train. As he does so, he notes the “happy eyes” of the driver, who is gainfully employed and on his way home after the last run of his shift. In the final moments of the story, the engine’s headlights are compared to the sores on Pat’s back: if George Elliott Clarke is correct in his assessment, this final metaphorical moment sees Canada – in all its multicultural glory – ultimately flattening one of its hopeful immigrants for good.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 25: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

May 25, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Stories of John Cheever

The_Stories_of_John_CheeverPhilip Roth called John Cheever “an enchanted realist,” which is an inspired way of thinking about one of the twentieth century’s great chroniclers of the American suburbs. Cheever’s stories seem at first glance to be models of verisimilitude, though scratch a bit deeper and an abundant strangeness starts to appear. The allusive final line in “A Country Husband” – an otherwise straightforward work of naturalism – hints floridly at the world of Hannibal and his army: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” An earlier story, “The Enormous Radio,” contains uncanny aspects that align it almost with Poe’s tales of the unnatural.

It is these elements of Cheever’s work that appeal to the Irish writer Anne Enright. Speaking on The New Yorker’s fiction podcast series, Enright talks about the way Cheever and his contemporaries were able to write in a naturalistic manner, but what happened on the page was not required to be tethered to our understanding of reality. “It is the dreamlike, metaphorical nature of the story that really calls to me. Because it’s a terrible thing to ask a writer to limit their words to life itself.”

The story to which Enright is referring is “The Swimmer,” from Cheever’s mid-career. It was first published in The New Yorker in 1964, and released as a feature film four years later, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. One of Cheever’s most famous – and most frequently anthologized – stories, “The Swimmer” starts off plainly enough, with Neddy Merrill attending a midsummer party at the house of Donald and Helen Westerhazy. At some point during the afternoon, Ned realizes that the swimming pools in the suburban backyards form a “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”; by using these pools, and taking “a dogleg to the southwest,” he could actually swim home.

This he sets out to do, and it is here that the story abandons much of its realism for something more frankly dreamlike (to use Enright’s preferred term).

In its early stages, “The Swimmer” focuses insistently on Ned’s youthful virility. While being “far from young,” Ned nevertheless retains “the especial slenderness of youth” and is still prone to exuberances such as sliding down the banister in his house. At the story’s opening, he has been swimming in the Westerhazy’s pool, and is pictured “breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure,” which all “seemed to flow into his chest.” Ned’s potency and athleticism are inextricable features of his self-worth: “He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.”

It is equally significant that Cheever insists on the time of year as being midsummer at the story’s start; as the tale progresses, and Ned proceeds further on in his swim home, the time of year shifts forward inexplicably, with midsummer giving way to autumn. “Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind,” we are told at a later point in the story. “Who would be burning wood at this time of year?” Still later, Ned smells chrysanthemums or marigolds, “some stubborn autumnal fragrance,” and notices the constellations that appear in the sky have shifted to those visible in the fall.

Coincident with this perceptible but inexplicable shift in the season is a rapid depletion of Ned’s own strength and stamina. The more pools he visits, the weaker he becomes, until he is finally unable to hoist himself out of the water and onto the ground by his arms and is forced to use the pool ladder instead. “The swim was too much for his strength,” he thinks at one point, “but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazy’s sun?”

How, indeed? And how is a reader to respond to these uncanny happenings, to say nothing of the fact that events seem to have occurred around Ned without his being aware of them, including the sale of his house and a friend’s abdominal operation. “Was he losing his memory,” Cheever writes, “had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, that his friend had been ill?” The eerie discomfort in the story is a result of there being no incontestable explanation for what transpires to Ned, though it would seem that his journey home by water takes him forward not just in space but also in time, stripping him of all the benchmarks by which he has located his identity: his physical prowess, his family, his home.

Also – and, this being a Cheever story, significantly – his social status. Ned is, at the story’s outset, a vain man, and his vanity is manifested in a blithe contempt for those he considers to inhabit a lower social echelon than he does. As he proceeds in his journey, he is startled to attend a party at the home of a putatively less-well-heeled couple where he is treated rudely, first by the hostess, next (horrors!) by the bartender. He then attends the home of an ex-mistress, with whom he assumes he retains the upper hand; she also treats him with disdain.

“The wonderful thing about the sting in the tail of this story,” says Enright, ” … is that you don’t quite know what it is. It stings, but you don’t know what bit you.” Cheever himself compared this story to the myth of Narcissus, who famously drowned (in a different kind of pool) while gazing at his own reflection. In the final scene of Cheever’s tale, with Ned beating futilely on the door of his empty and abandoned house, we feel a kind of death, in that our hero has lost everything that he has held dear; his own vanity has somehow caused his downfall. But how, precisely, this occurs is left tantalizingly unclear. The anti-realist aspects of the story were sufficient to turn off numerous readers in Cheever’s own day; more than half a century later, the story has lost none of its power to puzzle and provoke.

Next Page »