31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 31: “The Dead” by James Joyce

May 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Dubliners

Dubliners_James_JoyceThe year 2014 marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners, though the original manuscript was completed nine years earlier. In 1905, Joyce, only twenty-five years old, placed an early version of his story collection with an English publisher who subsequently withdrew his support for the book over fears that its frank depiction of sexuality could run afoul of obscenity laws. A few years later, an Irish publisher got as far as setting the plates for the book before pulling the plug, this time on the basis that Joyce’s use of real names for some of his characters might open the publisher up to libel suits. It was only in 1914 that the original English publisher, Grant Richards, decided to take a chance and release the book into the world. It has not been out of print since.

Terence Brown of Dublin’s Trinity College recounts this history in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dubliners. Brown goes on to identify the qualities that set Dubliners apart from English fiction that came before it, qualities that render it more of an experimental, groundbreaking work than might at first be apparent, particularly from a 21st-century perspective:

The publication of so complex and strategic a work as Dubliners in 1914 with its ostensible realism and complicated symbolist deployment of detail and structural pattern, whatever it may have done to aid the course of civilization in the author’s own country, most certainly marked a chapter in the history of modern prose fiction. For in Dubliners Joyce seized on certain late nineteenth-century developments in English prose fiction and made of them the instrument of an art that was both experimental and markedly enabling for his own development as a writer. And in so doing he demonstrated the literary significance of the short story as an artistic form of remarkable economy and charged implication.

The description of Dubliners as a work of “ostensible realism” is inspired: these are stories that traffic in the kind of rigorous specificity of names, locales, classes, and social habits that would appear, eight years later, fully exploded in Ulysses, though the stories in Joyce’s collection do not evince the surface chaos and unconventionality of that great novel. They are, however, charged with language that is heavily laden with symbolic intent and resonance.

The first character we are introduced to in “The Dead,” for example, is named Lily. She is, on the level of story, the daughter of the caretaker in the house of Miss Kate and Miss Julia, two upper-crust women who throw an annual party around New Year’s for select members of Dublin society. In a story called “The Dead,” however – a story that is all about rites of passage, mourning, and the grief and anguish of loss – the name Lily cannot help but call to mind the flowers traditionally arrayed at a funeral.

As Brown points out in his notes to the story, lilies are also associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who in the Bible is the angel who appears before Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to be the virgin mother to the child Jesus. Is it little wonder, then, that the protagonist of “The Dead,” also named Gabriel, should work as a professor and a journalist, both professions that transform their practitioners into messengers of a sort?

Gabriel is also charged with acting as a messenger at Miss Kate and Miss Julia’s party: he has been instructed to deliver an address during dinner, something he frets over because he worries about speaking in elevated tones or making references his audience will not be sophisticated enough to understand: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.”

Gabriel’s intellectual snobbery, which has been fostered and encouraged, we are told, by his time spent travelling in Europe, is mirrored by the other guests, who engage in a dismissive discussion of the opera, during which one participant, Mr. Browne, proclaims that the great operas are no longer performed because there is no one of sufficient ability left to sing them. (Except, the company decides, for Caruso; they ironically name the most popular tenor of the time, someone even the hoi polloi would have heard of.)

This discussion is extended in Gabriel’s speech at the table, which connects the idea of a more recondite, bygone era to the notion of death and dying:

Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.

This valediction takes on ironic overtones late in the story, when it becomes clear that Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, is pining for an old flame, “a boy in the gasworks” by the name of Michael Furey. (Unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s rival for Gretta’s affection also has the name of an Archangel, in this case the one who in Catholic theology is considered the warrior.) If Gabriel is willing to remember the “great ones” of history – the stalwarts of literature, art, and music – whose memory “the world will not willingly let die,” this prospect becomes much more difficult when the deceased is his wife’s former lover, a labourer at that. Gabriel mentions Shakespeare as a simple reference his dinner audience might understand; it is no accident that the play he conjures up in his mind at one point in the story is Romeo and Juliet – that is, the quintessential story of doomed lovers.

The famous final lines of “The Dead” find Gabriel contemplating the falling snow, which is gently covering the land, including the cemetery where Michael Furey lies buried. “It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Here we come full circle to the notions of death implied in the story’s opening, only now the subject is entirely explicit, and laden with heavy melancholy. Without the reader even realizing it, Joyce has navigated his apparently plotless story through the kind of emotional manoeuvres that anticipate Modernism’s more fully realized stream-of-consciousness approach. In so doing, by straddling the old world and the new, Joyce is in fact enacting the very themes his story addresses. It is a virtuoso performance that remains, one hundred years later, one of the greatest short stories in the English language.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 29: “The Tooth” by Shirley Jackson

May 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Lottery and Other Stories

The_Lottery_Shirley_JacksonShirley Jackson is best known as the author of the novel The Haunting of Hill House and the short story “The Lottery,” both of which have become canonical works of American fiction. But limiting her reputation to these two titles, strong though they may be, unfairly curtails the perspective on an author who wrote more, and in a much wider range, than this circumscribed view suggests. Jackson is usually thought of as a writer of macabre fiction – Stephen King, among many others, has cited her as an influence. However, in her introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The Lottery and Other Stories, contemporary American writer A.M. Homes highlights divergent aspects of Jackson’s writing that place her in an entirely different light:

When reading Jackson, I can’t help but think of the stories of Raymond Carver, who had a similar ability to create a sort of melancholy emotional mist that floats over his stories. But Jackson also had the ability to be savagely funny: at one point in her career, Desi Arnaz reportedly inquired about her interest in writing a screenplay for Lucille Ball.

Homes goes on to compare Jackson to Angela Carter, “who was also not bound by genre, who had no interest in distinguishing or separating horror, science fiction, et cetera, from ‘literature.'”

Originally published by The Hudson Review in 1949, “The Tooth” does indeed have uncanny elements, but it is also an ambiguous tale about duty and escape, and the possible price to be paid for the latter. It starts off straightforwardly enough, but becomes eerier and more enigmatic the longer it goes on.

The basic plot of the story is simple. Clara Spencer, a housewife, boards a bus for New York, where she will see her dentist about a toothache. She bids her husband goodbye and boards the bus, in possession of a one-way ticket and a bottle of codeine for her pain. At a rest stop, she is accosted by a stranger named Jim, a tall man in a blue suit who talks to her of his travels in exotic lands that are “farther than Samarkand” and where “flutes play all night” and “the stars are as big as the moon and the moon is as big as the lake.” After leaving her codeine on a table at a second rest stop, Clara makes it to the New York dentist, who sends her to a surgeon to have the rotten tooth extracted. Without the burden of her aching tooth, Clara leaves the surgeon’s office tower and once again encounters Jim on the city sidewalk. The story’s final image involves Jim leading Clara “barefoot through hot sand.”

A précis indicates the way in which the story transforms itself as it unfolds, becoming less clear and, in its final stages, almost surreal. How to read the story is open to interpretation, but a clear indicator must have to do with the character of Jim. The tall stranger in the blue suit, who reappears on the bus and takes a seat beside Clara, is repeatedly referred to as “the strange man,” and his talk is about distant utopias where there is “[n]othing to do all day but lie under the trees.”

The first time Clara encounters Jim, at the rest stop, he rouses her out of the sleep she has succumbed to (the bus to New York travels through the night, arriving at its destination at 5:15 a.m.). When the stranger shakes her awake, she turns to him “foggily.” She remarks on his blue suit and evident height, but “could not focus her eyes to see any more.” Is this a function of her tiredness, or of the codeine? (She will take another pill at the second rest stop, where she neglects the pill bottle on the table in her haste to make it back to the bus.)

Under these circumstances, what are we to make of Jim? Is he simply what he appears to be, a helpful stranger, or is he more nefarious? Given Clara’s brain-fogged state, is it possible that Jim is not even real, but merely a hallucination of her overtired, drug-addled brain?

One possible hint is contained in the original subtitle of the collection: The Adventures of James Harris. An epilogue to the collection includes partial lyrics from a ballad called “James Harris, The Daemon Lover,” in which the eponymous character, who is understood to be the Devil, accosts a woman on a sailing ship and informs her that he will lead her to “the mountain of hell.” James Harris is name-checked in Jackson’s story “The Daemon Lover,” which is an obvious reference to the ballad. But the original subtitle seems to insist on the importance of the ballad character across the collection: are we, then, to read the mysterious “Jim” as a demonic character, leading poor Clara to hell? (The bus is a possible stand-in for the ship in the song.)

This is certainly one potential reading. But how does this reading change if we assume, as Clara does at one point in the story, that the tooth the dental surgeon extracts is symbolic of her identity as a woman? “Her tooth,” Jackson writes, “which had brought her here unerringly, seemed now the only part of her to have any identity.” Once the tooth is extracted, Clara goes to the ladies’ room in the office tower, where she fails to recognize herself in the mirror, an extension of the idea that she has lost her identity. In the washroom, she abandons all of the possessions that are associated with her specific person, including a silver barrette engraved with the name “Clara,” a lapel pin in the shape of a capital “C,” and her stockings, which have developed a hole in the toe. Having made herself up rather garishly (“she was not very expert at it”), she goes out to the elevator that will take her to the street, and to Jim. “The elevator operator said, ‘Down?’ when he saw her and she stepped in and the elevator carried her silently downstairs.”

The elevator operator’s question is fairly obviously symbolic of a descent into a kind of hell, which chimes with the ballad at the end of Jackson’s collection. However, is this new woman who emerges from the building on a descent into madness and devilry, or is it a different kind of escape, a conscious break from the stultifying aspects of housewifery and marriage to a man who is incapable of tending to even basic matters of daily survival? “I called Mrs. Lang,” Clara assures her husband before boarding the bus for New York. “I left the grocery order on the kitchen table, you can have the cold tongue for lunch and in case I don’t get back Mrs. Lang will give you dinner. The cleaner ought to come about four o’clock, I won’t be back so give him your brown suit and it doesn’t matter if you forget but be sure to empty the pockets.”

How one reads the ending of the story likely depends upon how much one identifies Clara as a downtrodden woman eager for escape to a land that is more free and exciting that the one she has left. Whether her break from her quotidian life is the first step toward heaven or hell is largely left for the reader to determine.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 28: “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard

May 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Best_Stories_of_JG_BallardIf the job of science fiction writers is to take the measure of our present and gaze into the future with an eye to providing an imaginative assessment of where we might be headed, it is hard to cavil with the prescience of the late English author J.G. Ballard. Hard, and quite terrifying, since what Ballard wrote, by and large, was at the time considered dystopian fiction. Today, it might well be considered simple naturalism.

Take, for example, this passage from his story “Chronopolis,” describing the burnt-out husk of a dessicated urban downtown:

On either side buildings overtopped the motorway, the congestion mounting so that some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades.

In a few minutes they passed between the first of the apartment batteries, the thousands of identical living units with their slanting balconies shearing up into the sky, the glass in-falls of the aluminum curtain walling speckling in the sunlight. The smaller houses and shops of the outer suburbs had vanished. There was no room on the ground level. In the narrow intervals between the blocks were small concrete gardens, shopping complexes, ramps banking down into huge underground car parks.

Ballard’s story was published in 1960, but his vision of congested apartment complexes lining the side of the highway so tightly that “some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades” is a pitch-perfect description of the sight from the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto today. The vision of the city as “an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead center forty or fifty miles in diameter” is a fairly accurate description of post-white-flight Detroit. And the description of “plate-glass shopfronts” that have “slipped and smashed into the roadway, old neon signs, window frames and overhead wires [hanging] down from every cornice, trailing a ragged webwork of disintegrating metal across the pavements” could be a snapshot of an inner-city neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Los Angeles. (Or, for that matter, Hamilton or London in Ontario.)

If these portraits seem eerily familiar from a 2014 perspective, we would do well also to pay attention to Ballard’s more exaggerated conceit in this story, since it, too, offers a highly ironic comment on aspects of our post-industrial, 21st-century milieu.

“Chronopolis” focuses on a society that has outlawed any kind of timepiece – clocks and watches are banned, and anyone caught in possession of one of these contraband objects by the secretive and ubiquitous Time Police is subject to arrest and prosecution. The crackdown followed a revolt against the highly regimented technological and bureaucratic makeup of what has come to be known as Chronopolis, or the Time City. All the clocks in Chronopolis “were driven by a master clock,” and the clocks dictated every moment of people’s lives. The city’s population had ballooned out of all proportion, such that the infrastructure in place was unable to handle the pressure on it. Therefore, each segment of society – executives, secretaries, manual labourers, and so on – were provided schedules detailing the daily blocks of time during which they were allowed to eat, use the telephone, watch television.

“Think of the problems,” one of Ballard’s characters says:

Transporting fifteen million office workers to and from the center every day; routing in an endless stream of cars, buses, trains, helicopters; linking every office, almost every desk, with a videophone, every apartment with a television, radio, power, water; feeding and entertaining this enormous number of people; guarding them with ancillary services, police, fire squads, medical units – it all hinged on one factor … Time!

Once again, if this sounds uncannily like urban existence in 2014, we should take no comfort or pleasure in the recognition. “Don’t you think there’s a point beyond which human dignity is surrendered?” Ballard’s character, Stacey, asks regarding the concessions demanded of the citizens of Chronopolis.

Stacey is a teacher, who accompanies his student, Conrad, on a tour of the abandoned city center as a means of educating the young man in the ills of a technologically overdetermined society. Stacey has caught Conrad with a watch, and instead of turning him in to authorities, determines to embrace what would today be called a “teachable moment.”

Ballard employs a framing structure in his story, beginning and ending with Conrad, now known by his surname – Newman – in jail on a murder charge. The central portion of the story follows Conrad’s discovery of the phenomenon of clocks, watches, and regimented time, and his experience in the degraded downtown of Chronopolis. In prison, Newman has fashioned a rudimentary sundial for himself, which makes him invaluable to his warden, who becomes the most efficient member of the prison staff thanks to his prisoner keeping him on time for everything.

This is only the first of the several cascading ironies that flow throughout Ballard’s story. What is immediately noticeable is that while Ballard focuses on the community that has banished clocks and timepieces, he continues to return to the language of time and schedules. The English class that Stacey teaches runs exactly forty-five minutes; the teacher ensures he keeps to this by employing a rudimentary timer. Conrad appropriates the watch from a man who has a heart attack in a movie theatre; while movies in 1960 ran continuously, such that a viewer could come in at any time and stay for the next showing to catch what he or she had missed, as a medium, movies nevertheless unspool over a set running time. As the teacher and his student drive through the suburbs toward the heart of Chronopolis, they pass “a small factory still running although work was supposed to end at noon.” And later we are told that the pair drove on “[f]or half an hour.” The irony is sharp: even a society that has forsworn time and devoted itself to a kind of back-to-basics primitivism is unable to jettison its temporal existence altogether.

The ironies come to a head in the story’s final section, after Newman finds himself convicted for a crime he did not, in fact, commit. He is at first delighted to discover a working clock in the cell where he is to spend the next twenty years, but the final lines of the story tilt in the direction of the madness that can result from the presence of a clock when all one has in one’s life is time.

It is also interesting to note the changing way in which Ballard refers to his protagonist. In the central part of the story, told in the narrative past, the character is referred to as Conrad, conjuring notions of the writer who sent his own most famous protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness: Conrad’s trip to Chronopolis, we can infer, is symbolically doomed from the outset. In the framing sections, he is called Newman, inviting commingled readings of a reborn “new man,” and a man of (or from) the future. But does the future represent a disavowal of industrial, technological society, or is this very disavowal, as we see at the story’s close, simply another road to ruin?

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 27: “Man of All Work” by Richard Wright

May 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Eight Men

Eight_Men_Richard_WrightRichard Wright wrote from a staunchly masculine perspective, but a perspective informed by his background as a black man in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. As Paul Gilroy asserts in the introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of Eight Men, Wright’s later work was not met with positive critical reception, in large part because numerous critics felt that he had sold out the purity of his writing by picking up stakes and moving to Paris. In the view of many commentators of the time, Wright’s “immersion in Parisian intellectual and political life [was] regrettable because it led the world’s preeminent Negro writer far away from the vital roots of his creativity in the Southern Black Belt.”

However, as Gilroy points out, the stories in Eight Men all extend Wright’s examination of masculinity – in particular, black American masculinity – that is “marked by its author’s sensitivity to the interplay of distinctive psychological factors with economic, cultural, and historical forces.”

The story “Man of All Work” was actually written as a radio play, which accounts for the way it is presented – that is, entirely in dialogue. In this, it is not as successful as, say, William Gaddis’s National Book Award–winning novel JR, which is fearless in its presentation of unattributed dialogue. By contrast, “Man of All Work” strains against its constraints, constantly providing signposts to remind its reader who is speaking at any given point:

– Mama, does Lucy know about Little Red Riding Hood?

– Miss Lily, I know all about her.

– O.K., Lucy. Now, do you think you can rustle up some breakfast for us?

– I’ll try, ma’am. What would you-all want?

– What do you specialize in for breakfast, Lucy?

– Reckon you all would love some pancakes? I cook ’em light as a feather. You can digest ’em in your sleep.

– Just a moment, Lucy. Dave!

– Yeah, Anne.

– Lucy wants to try her hand at some pancakes. She says she’s good at ’em.

– Well, tell her to rustle some up. I haven’t had any good pancakes since Heck was a pup.

– You’ve got your orders, Lucy.

The constant repetition of names would be unnecessary in the context of a radio play, where different voices would designate the characters, but comes off as equally artificial in a written context, where the seams holding the story together begin to show a bit too clearly.

Despite this, “Man of All Work” is a worthy fiction, both for its rhythms of spoken prose, and for its thematic resonance.

As Gilroy states in his introduction, the story exemplifies the intersection of gender and race in Wright’s work: the two subjects are never far apart, but “Man of All Work” highlights the ways in which black men and white women both suffer oppression and subjugation under the rigidly segregationist and patriarchal society in place in America at the time.

“Man of All Work” is about a black man named Carl who is unemployed and in danger of losing his house. He has a wife and two young children to whom he is fiercely devoted: the story is insistent upon the harmonious family life that Carl enjoys, and careful to portray him as a diligent husband, who accepts responsibility for feeding the newborn baby in the middle of the night, and is torn up by the possibility that he might be shirking his duty as provider.

Carl is a chef who is unskilled at any trade; when he scours the want ads for work, the only jobs available to men are machinists and masons and bookkeepers. However, when he spies an ad for a cook and a housekeeper for a white family, an idea sparks in his mind: he will don his wife’s dress, assume her name, Lucy, and pass himself off as a woman in order to get the job (he has already grown his hair long in the fashion of the time).

This premise is, of course, inherently comic, recapitulated in such cinematic fare as Some Like It Hot, La Cage au Folles, Victor/VictoriaTootsie, and (especially) Mrs. Doubtfire. However, Wright adds the level of racial politics to his scenario, which provides an extra frisson to the situation. “Who looks close at us colored people anyhow?” Carl says to his wife when she objects to his scheme on the basis that he will be caught out as a fraud. “We all look alike to white people.”

Carl’s assessment proves to be true, at least where the adults are concerned. The couple who placed the ad, Dave and Anne Fairchild, are readily duped by the ruse; the only person who is not taken in is the young child, Lily. The girl remarks on the new maid’s big, hairy arms and deep voice, to which the housekeeper in drag can do little but respond, “You notice everything, don’t you, Lily?”

The child is not blinded by the same prejudices as her parents, but neither is she experienced enough to understand the implications behind her father wanting to “wrestle” with the new maid in the same way he did with the former maid, Bertha, who “left” her position abruptly, because, Lily explains, “Mama said it was not nice for a lady to wrestle with a man.”

When Dave comes home for lunch, gets tipsy on whiskey, and tries to “wrestle” with the new maid, things don’t work out as expected, first because the maid is stronger and less malleable than the patriarch expected, and then because the two are discovered mid-grapple by Anne, who shoots the housekeeper in a fit of pique over her husband’s persistent infidelity.

There are a number of things going on here. There are the obvious racist overtones in the way the couple treat “Lucy.” The maid “[k]nows her place,” Dave says of her after their first meeting. But more than this, there is the gender and power disparity between a black housekeeper and her white master, who forces himself on her (him) in a way that we are given to understand is habitual, Dave having ceased paying sexual attention to his wife. “Mrs. Fairchild is still in the bath and will eat later,” he tells his new servant at the breakfast table. “She’s on a strict diet and will only want a slice of toast and black coffee.” Dave has become dissatisfied with his wife’s appearance, something she has come to feel guilty about. “I’ve just got to watch my figure,” Anne tells the maid at one particularly vulnerable moment.

Anne shoots Carl/Lucy in a fit of jealousy, hating the fact that her husband is constantly chasing after the black help while ignoring her. The racial and gender politics in this scene are undeniably fraught, and become even more so when Dave discovers the truth about his housekeeper’s duplicity: “That’s our answer!” he exclaims, suggesting he will take the blame for the shooting. “I was protecting white womanhood from a nigger rapist impersonating a woman!” The white man’s persistent fear of the black male as a sexual predator stalking his vulnerable white mate is here made explicit, and is given a heightened irony by Dave’s attraction to ethnic women, the most recent of whom turns out to be not at all what she seems. (The homoerotic overtones here, especially in the notion of “wrestling,” are perhaps not unintentional, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far.)

The conceit of Wright’s story may be comic, but its substance and implications are deeply serious, and retain a piercing and troubling resonance today. In Gilroy’s words, the story “mainfest[s] the violence that is always latent within contact between blacks and whites,” and “enumerates some of the gender-specific forms that racism can assume.”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 26: “On the Strip” by Rachel Trezise

May 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

Noise_Sonic_YouthHold tight and fear a little bit.

– “On the Strip,” Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth’s music has been called many things: abrasive, nihilistic, confrontational, aggressive, anti-melodic. People magazine referred to 1986’s classic album EVOL as “the sonic equivalent of a toxic waste dump.” These various characterizations emphasize the energy in the music, but downplay its originality and complexity, something that Emily Maguire hints at in the brief introduction to her story in the Peter Wild–edited anthology Noise. “When I was fourteen I was in love with chaos,” Maguire writes, “and that’s what I thought I heard in Sonic Youth’s music. Manic, panicked and seemingly deliberately senseless, it was like the inside of my brain amplified. … Repeated listening, however, revealed structure and intention beneath the sound and fury.” Or, as Catherine O’Flynn puts it, rather more succinctly: “I think it’s good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot of a car.”

Rachel Trezise’s story takes its title and inspiration from a song on the band’s 1992 album Dirty. That record was produced by Bruce Vig and mixed by Andy Wallace, a duo who, the year previously, had collaborated on an album called Nevermind by the then little-known group Nirvana. Sonic Youth’s influence is all over Nevermind; likewise, the bristling guitars and song structures that Vig and Wallace played with on Nirvana’s breakout release are apparent on Dirty. In particular, “On the Strip” resembles a Nirvana song in its modulation of quiet, almost plaintive readings of the verse lyrics (by vocalist Kim Gordon) and a startling, intrusive, in-your-face mid-song fuzzy guitar break.

Trezise refers  to the track’s “two faces,” which she finds “indicative of something dirty and unknown, hiding beneath the palpable.” It is difficult to capture the spark of inspiration in a few words, but Trezise’s explanation maps cogently with the tale that follows, about a young woman adrift on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, working as a prostitute and jacking the car of an unsuspecting john to score money to support her drug habit. Trezise adopts the central conceit of the song – a young runaway trying to survive in a harsh, degraded Hollywood that is nothing like the movies, but the story reverses the song’s polarities. The “raw and grubby guitar breakdown” becomes the tonal focus, and the plaintive aspects involve flashing back to a younger version of the main character, newly arrived on the Strip. Predominantly, however, Trezise’s story is violent, graphic, and angry, painting a picture of Hollywood that is as grimy and debauched as anything out of a James Ellroy novel.

Those who come to Los Angeles with visions of being movie stars based on the glamour and glitz of celebrity fashion magazines and television quickly come to understand the illusion that the city is based on. Trezise’s protagonist, Melissa, is the epitome of a tough, street-smart survivor, who steals leopard-print nylons from a Pasedena thrift shop and convinces clerks at the local liquor store to sell her Grey Goose vodka even though she is underage and has no ID. (Or, at least, she has a fake ID, but is just too lazy to fish it out.)

Not, we are led to understand, that she has always been so savvy. By Melissa’s own admission, when she first hit the Strip at age fourteen, she “was about as sharp as a fucken coconut, still blinded by the sunshine and the fucken palm trees” and clinging to romantic notions that a wealthy john might fall for her and sweep her off her feet into some better life. In other words, Trezise writes, “she was fucken whack.”

But she learns the ropes quickly, such that she is able to dupe a gullible john into handing over his cash before stabbing him in the leg and making off with his car. She assaults him while he is searching for a condom: “Protection. Ironic, actually.” Trezise plays with the notions of protection and its antithesis; the ill-fated john asks Melissa what the damage is – meaning “How much?” – which prompts her to muse, “Damage. He got that right.” Damage is pervasive in Trezise’s story – and for her protagonist, who ran away from home to escape a sexually abusive uncle only to find herself beaten almost to death by a violent john.

Trizise’s portrait of Tinseltown’s seedy underbelly is potent and ugly, a stinging corrective to the myth perpetrated by the motion picture machine:

That’s all Hollywood is about: death. Charlie Manson drawing cartoon pigs on the wall with the blood of a movie director’s wife; Marilyn Monroe lying naked and self-pitying, a bottle of sedatives the only sympathy she ever got; Fitzgerald’s heart packing in while he bought a packet of cigarettes in Schwab’s; Peg Entwhistle throwing herself from the top of the big H; an AIDS epidemic in Porno Valley. River fucken Phoenix. Phil fucken Spector. It ain’t about bright lights, this. It’s about bright lights burning out.

In her description, and her scenario that cuts straight to the bone, Trizise has managed to tap into the vein of anger and brute physicality that makes Sonic Youth’s music such a gut-wrenching listening experience. There’s bravado here, but also, underneath it, a baleful pain that gnaws.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 22: “Beer Trip to Llandudno” by Kevin Barry

May 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Dark Lies the Island

Dark_Lies_the_IslandAt Toronto’s International Festival of Authors last fall, Irish writer Kevin Barry spoke about the literature of his native country, which he feels is polarized into two camps. The members of each camp, Barry argues, march under the respective flags of one or another representative figurehead. The first camp follows the example of James Joyce: this is the Catholic camp, home to the expansive, put-everything-into-the-story brand of writer. The second, by contrast, follows Samuel Beckett. This is the Protestant, austere, take-everything-out-of-the-story camp. Barry’s ideal involves the Irish equivalent of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, a mode of writing that pays homage to both camps, while pledging fidelity to neither. His short stories are shining examples of his ethos: linguistically alive and full of the music and cadence of vernacular speech, while also being rigorously concentrated, careful to avoid anything extraneous or ornate.

The results can be surprising. “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” which won the Sunday Times Short Story Award, is one of those stories that sneaks up on you – appearing at first to be a trifle, a bagatelle, something tossed off and insignificant, and only gradually revealing its depths and gravitas.

In broad strokes, “Beer Trip to Llandudno” is about exactly what its title suggests: six members of the Real Ale Club embark on a rail trip from Liverpool to Llandudno, in Wales, for the purpose of sampling some of the regions best brews. This is a trip similar to innumerable trips in the past, and the members of the Real Ale Club have their routine down to a science. Rail schedules are planned out to the minute (their train from Liverpool is “two minutes and fifty seconds late taking off,” one of them observes drily), locations are scouted in advance, and the club members know the characteristics of the local beers backwards and forwards, from tasting notes to alcohol by volume.

“There was a Whitstable Silver Star,” we are told of a draught at a pub called “the Mangy Otter,” “6.2 per cent to volume, a regular stingo to settle our nerves.” Asked about the best beer he’s ever had, one club member recalls “the Swain’s Anthem I downed a November Tuesday in Stockton-on-Tees: 19 and 87. 4.2 per cent to volume. I was still in haulage at that time.”

The members of the Real Ale Club are as snobbish as connoisseurs of any specialized product can be: they turn up their noses at the lagers consumed by the masses (German beer is “gassy pop” as far as one member is concerned), and believe that their palates are far more refined and discriminating than even the accredited experts in their field. They take umbrage with the National Beer Scoring System, which they feel is not sufficiently nuanced:

The NBSS, by long tradition, ranked a beer from nought to five. Nought was take-backable, a crime against the name of ale. One was barely drinkable, two so-so, three an eyebrow raised in mild appreciation. A four was an ale on top form, a good beer in proud nick. A five was angel’s tears but a seasoned drinker would rarely dish out a five, would over the course of a lifetime’s quaffing call no more than a handful of fives. Such was the NBSS, as was. However, Real Ale Club, Merseyside branch, had for some time felt the system lacked subtlety. And one famous night, down Rigby’s, we came up with our own system – we marked from nought to ten. Finer gradations of purity were thus allowed for. The nuances of a beer were more properly considered.

One member of the club suggests going even further, awarding half-points to ensure the most precise quality measurement possible. But, it is determined, “we had to draw the line somewhere.”

In their single-minded obsessiveness, the members of the Real Ale Club are no different from hardcore Trekkies or Deadheads: they know everything there is to know about their chosen field, which is prescribed and defined and popular among the hoi polloi, although to the club members, anyone not willing to go to the mat for a half-point on a particular ale is nothing more than a dilettante.

The men of the Real Ale Club have forged a bond based on their shared obsession, but like all obsessions, theirs has the effect of cutting them off from the rest of the world. When outside life does intrude on their insular camaraderie, they are unprepared to deal with it.

This becomes clear when one of the club members, Mo, encounters an ex-girlfriend tending bar at the Prom View Hotel in Llandudno. The idea of Mo romantically linked to a woman (who calls him “Maurice,” no less) seems inconceivable to the rest of the group: “Could be they’re only family friends,” one of the others tries on naively. “Or relations?”

When the group moves on, Mo returns to the Prom View to try to reconnect with his ex, apparently oblivious (or immune) to the antipathy with which the woman’s husband, the hotel’s landlord, greets the realization that his wife and the drinker in his bar had once been romantically linked. When Mo catches up with his mates, he has vicious scratch marks down his face (the story does not reveal how the wounds came about, though one can easily surmise potential awkward scenarios that might lead to such a result), and his friends are at a loss as to how to react. “A Slattern will set you right kid,” is all one can muster, naming a beer that has a particularly unfortunate connotation in the context.

The men of the Real Ale Club are as devoted to one another as they possibly can be, although as Mo’s ex – and any other person who tries to enter their lives in any meaningful way – has long since discovered, their overwhelming obsession with the pursuit of the perfect pint will always take precedence. In the spring prior to their Welsh jaunt, Mo underwent surgery to remove a cancerous testicle. The members of the club diligently call on the hospital on the night of the operation to offer their support, stopping at a local pub on the way, because they “needed the fortification” and the pub has “a handsome bitter from Clitheroe on guest tap.”

What a reader comes to understand is that the men’s shared passion for hops and barley has crossed over from a pastime into the realm of addiction. “There are those who’d call us a bunch of sots,” says the narrator early on in the story, “but we don’t see ourselves like that. We see ourselves as hobbyists.” This statement is highly ironic, however, as we come to realize when the narrator, who acts as the compiler of the club newsletter, confesses, “My grimmest duty as publications officer was the obits page of the newsletter. Too many had passed away at forty-four, at forty-six.”

The staunch inability, or unwillingness, to make the connection between the number of club members who died so young and the evident reason they died is telling, and underscores the subtle movement in Barry’s story. What begins as a gleeful train trip among six friends in search of the perfect pint becomes a poignant and melancholy examination of the price of obsession and the lies we tell ourselves to keep the pain of the world at bay.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 21: “Baby Blue” by A.L. Kennedy

May 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From All the Rage

All_the_Rage_KennedyI first encountered the fiction of Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy as a result of a recommendation from Canadian novelist and story writer Bill Gaston, and it’s not difficult to see what attracts Gaston to Kennedy’s work. The two writers share an affinity for stories that mix humour and pathos, though Kennedy’s fiction has a greater tendency toward darkness and cynicism than does Gaston’s.

“Baby Blue” is a story that flirts with darkness, though a reader is liable to miss this on a first pass, since Kennedy employs a canny construction that withholds the story’s true subject until the final pages.

The dominant central section of the story finds the anonymous first-person narrator in a kind of daze, wandering the aisles of a Canadian sex shop. This sequence is replete with comedy that verges on absurdity without quite tipping over. The narrator is befuddled by the array of devices on offer in the store: “Devices engineered – there was a lot of engineering – to mimic the effects of sex. Only devices … not costumes, or DVDs, or magazines, or books, or most of the things I’d expect to be in a sex shop, in as far as I’d never had expectations in that field and couldn’t be sure, but must have surmised at some point.”

Not included among these assumptions and expectations are row upon row of fake vaginas, which prompt the narrator’s mind to launch into a frenzy of (quite reasonable) questions:

I’d halted in front of a bank of what were probably – definitely, now that I looked – fake vaginas and I couldn’t answer – who would? – that, no, I intended to buy such a thing for someone else. Who? For whom? A female friend to whom I would suggest that their own was unhelpful? Or would I give one to a straight man as if he’d no chance of access to a real one? I’m sorry his girlfriend left him, never mind and here’s this, which boils down to her essentials?

That “here’s this” is quintessential Kennedy: perfectly timed to elicit a surprised howl of laughter. It should perhaps not be remarkable to note that Kennedy also performs stand-up comedy; “Baby Blue” is written in a highly conversational style that in places mimics the rhythms and cadences of a stage comedian. In the store, for instance, the narrator is badgered by an overzealous shop assistant: “The assistant wore a name badge which called her Mandy, although I couldn’t accept that as likely.” And there is a glorious riff on the absurdity of flavoured condoms:

Chocolate-flavoured condoms. They had chocolate-flavoured condoms.

You like penises, you like chocolate, why not both?

There were many whys for not both. For many reasons, my opinion was in favour of not both.

Ultimately, where chocolate-flavoured condoms are concerned, the narrator concludes: “I don’t feel my experience of oral sex is intended to be primarily culinary.”

While much of what transpires in the sex shop is played for laughs, it is significant to note the circumstances surrounding the narrator’s arrival there: these play into the story’s overall schema, which is more serious and sober than it at first appears. The narrator wanders into the store without really being cognizant of where she is, or where she is going. “It must have been cold in the street,” she thinks. “So I can assume that I dodged indoors quite blindly to borrow a touch of warmth.” Although the memory of the cold burning her hands is “inflexible,” much of the rest is vague to the point of obscurity. “I no longer concentrate as I once did,” is all she says by way of explanation.

Kennedy’s story is broken up into roughly three parts. The introductory section is deliberately contingent and contradictory; the first sentence in the story reads, “What happened was that I got lost.” The notion of being “lost” is key here, both in terms of geography and the narrator’s psyche. As “Baby Blue” progresses, the narrator tracks back to earlier statements and contradicts or modifies them, telling us that specific details are untrue or irrelevant. The effect of this is disorienting, leaving the reader feeling similarly lost, without stable footing.

The final section of the story dispenses with the “palaver” of the sex shop, which, we are told, “didn’t matter, was unimportant.” Why, then, spend so much time on it? Why immerse us as readers in a scene and a tone only to tell us that neither is germane?

In the final pages of the story, Kennedy reveals that the narrator’s mental state is the result of having left her partner just prior to undergoing a medical procedure that is not identified explicitly. “I’m paying,” the narrator says, and later, “I’d rather not have the sedative and so get discomfort instead, not pain precisely – severe to moderate discomfort.” She muses about no longer being “a complete woman, not comfortable and me, not as far as I can tell, since they’ve taken what they had to away.” Is the procedure an abortion? “More may be removed on future occasions,” the narrator says; what are we to make of this comment? (Certainly the details, and the story’s title, tilt heavily in the direction of an abortion.)

The story is silent on the specific nature of the operation the narrator undergoes. Indeed, there is only one thing that is clear: the narrator’s partner has disappeared. “The story’s position is unequivocal on that: your absence.” It is also clear that the narrator was the person who precipitated the split, not the other way around. “I have gone to trouble for you,” she thinks, “so you don’t have to.”

The early stages of the story, then, operate in much the same way as the conversation about booze at the beginning of Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants.” (This association also implies the nature of the narrator’s operation as an abortion, though there is nothing in the story to suggest that the comparison is intentional on the part of the author.) The narrator’s focus is scattered and unclear, but her mind clings to anything other than the thing that is most important to her, the thing that has brought her to the place, and the fragile state, in which she currently finds herself. We laugh at her experiences in the sex shop, but in retrospect the laughter is fraught with angst and pain.

“We’re an odd species,” the narrator thinks early on in the story, “embracing ruined water, a gradually sifting possibility of disappearance. Some of us don’t, I realise: those trying for more specific ends and getting trapped away from them – making hospital trips, for example, contending with rural environments – residents of places held habitually under various things like winter, the effect of winter.” These seem at first like disconnected ramblings, though the tossed off reference to a hospital visit resonates retroactively, as does “the effect of winter,” which is, after all, to kill certain living things. “Baby Blue” is a story that resembles Kierkegaard‘s understanding of life: it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.

UPDATE: One thing that keeps the critic awake at night is the potential for egregious misreading. That is, the possibility that haste, or inattention, or distraction might lead to missing the key that unlocks a story. In other words, the critic lives in fear of getting it wrong.

An earlier version of this post contained the suggestion that the operation the narrator undergoes is not an abortion, but a vaginal hysterectomy, which is very occasionally performed without anesthetic. Further deliberation over the story – and in particular its final two pages – suggests that this may be the correct reading. The narrator’s comment about “the bad bodily changes” she underwent could as easily refer to cancer as to an unwanted pregnancy, and cancer would also explain the comment about having to remove “more on future occasions.”

None of this changes the analysis presented above regarding the way the story is constructed, but it does offer a differently nuanced rationale for the woman’s grief in the wake of her operation. Further thought and rumination convinces me that this latter interpretation is the more persuasive one.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 20: “The Seals” by Lydia Davis

May 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

From Can’t and Won’t

Can't_and_Won't_Lydia_DavisAt twenty-five pages, “The Seals” is one of the longest stories in Can’t and Won’t, the latest collection by the great Lydia Davis. Best known as an almost anti-narrative author, a typical Davis story is more likely to run only a few lines and not to offer much in the way of context, plot, or character development. Here, for example, in its entirety, is the concluding story from Can’t and Won’t, entitled “Ph.D.”:

All these years I thought I had a Ph.D.

But I do not have a Ph.D.

There are those who would argue that this is not a story at all: it doesn’t do what a story is supposed to do (whatever that might be); it doesn’t adhere to a conventional three-act structure; it doesn’t follow Freytag’s pyramid of rising action, climax, and falling action; it doesn’t have any discernible characters. The final statement, at least, is demonstrably false. The character in the story is the first-person narrator, the “I” who thought “all these years” that (s)he had a Ph.D. There is also movement in the story, although it is a psychological progression rather than a physical one. The story climaxes in a realization (or an epiphany – one of the most conventional story moments around) rather than an action, and it does not place the character in any kind of context, so the implications of acknowledging the lack of a Ph.D. are ultimately withheld from us.

For all this, I would argue that “Ph.D.” is a story – even a story with certain recognizable elements. One simply has to expand one’s perception as to what constitutes a story, of what a story can be, or do.

But even those who find themselves put off by Davis’s more expressionistic forays into the outer reaches of the short-fiction form should feel comfortable with “The Seals.” The story unfolds in a linear fashion, features a first-person narration, and deals with identifiable characters and situations in sufficient context to ground a reader. While it also avoids a traditional structure – there is no closure to speak of – “The Seals” nevertheless offers its reader an emotionally cathartic experience that is immediate and relatable.

The story’s narrative trajectory (it doesn’t really have a plot) is quite simple: a woman is taking a train to work over Christmas, and on her trip she ponders the memory of her father and older sister, both of whom died in close succession over the course of a single summer. Although it is fiction, “The Seals” takes the form of memoir or personal reminiscence; it has a free-flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness aspect that belies the care with which it has been put together.

The sections describing the view from the train’s windows provide an anchor for the story, preventing the pieces from shooting off untethered in different directions. They also provide a corollary to the narrator’s emotional musings, as when she comments on the trompe l’oeil of stationary objects beyond the glass, which “flash by so fast” they occasionally seem to be moving forward, even as they speed backward past the window:

Actually, even though things in the far distance seem to be staying still, or even moving forward a little, they are moving back very slowly. Those treetops on a hill in the far distance were even with us for a while, but when I looked again, they were behind us, though not far behind.

Likewise, the narrator’s sister and father are in her past, “though not far behind”: still in memory, especially on holidays. “The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal,” the narrator thinks. “[We] were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a year that they would never experience.” The casting of blame here is a psychological defence mechanism, obviously, but it also foregrounds the “confusion” the narrator admits to feeling, much like the ocular confusion created by the scenery flashing past the train window. “Suddenly the choice wasn’t so simple: either alive or not alive. It was as though not being alive did not have to mean she was dead, as though there were some third possibility.”

The feeling of betrayal and confusion surrounding the fate of the narrator’s sister after death – “Where was she going now? I sensed very strongly that she was going somewhere or had gone somewhere, not that she had simply stopped existing” – is an offshoot of similar feelings in the days and weeks prior to the older sibling’s final moments, when the narrator is consumed with questions about what is happening on a psychological, physiological, and spiritual level. The sister’s reflexes degrade to the point that she can no longer move away from a pinch or a prick; instead she moves into them. “I thought that meant her body wanted the pain, that she wanted to feel something. I thought it meant she wanted to stay alive.”

After her sister dies, the narrator struggles with the question of whether it is kinder to tell her ailing father, or to let him remain ignorant. “Should his last days be filled with this distress and grief?” she wonders, reasonably. “But the alternative seemed wrong, too – that he should end his life not knowing this important thing, that his daughter had died.” She also wonders whether her father, a lifelong loner, who would banish his helpful family members from the kitchen when they tried to assist with the after-dinner dishes, really wanted someone with him round the clock at his deathbed.

These are all perfectly natural questions, and in presenting them honestly and unadorned by sentimentality or mawkishness, Davis creates a map of one woman’s grief. Its contours are a painful admixture of anger and confusion that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has lost a close family member or friend. “The Seals” is a story that has the power to move its reader immensely and put the lie to the notion that Davis is a purely intellectual writer devoid of empathy or pathos.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 19: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (Andrew Hurley, trans.); “The Region of Unlikeliness” by Rivka Galchen

May 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Fictions; American Innovations

Collected_Fictions_Jorge_Luis_BorgesThe flap copy on Rivka Galchen’s debut collection of stories indicates that the individual pieces in Galchen’s book “are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” It is unclear whether this is meant simply as marketing bumf: American Innovations contains no author’s note explaining Galchen’s intentions in this regard, and the connections between her stories and their putative inspirations are often loose and baggy (the title story, for instance, which apparently references Gogol’s “The Nose,” has at least as much resonance with Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.)

It is certainly not necessary (nor even desirable) to know that Galchen’s story “The Region of Unlikeliness” is “a smoky and playful mirror” of Borges’s classic story “The Aleph,” but since the comparison has been drawn for us, it might be worthwhile to consider the two stories in tandem.

One of Borges’s most famous stories, “The Aleph” is told in the first person by a narrator also named “Borges,” whose beloved Beatriz Viterbo dies in Buenos Aires “after an imperious confrontation with her illness.” Each year on the anniversary of her death, Borges makes it a habit – “an irreproachable, perhaps essential act of courtesy” – to call on her father and her first cousin to pay his respects.

The cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, “holds some sort of subordinate position in an illegible library in the outskirts toward the south of the city.” He is also a particularly atrocious poet. Through a series of circumstances, Daneri invites Borges to attend the home of his parents, in the basement of which there exists an Aleph – “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.”

The first thing to recognize about Borges’s story is its genre. In an afterword to the 1949 collection The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges indicates that the story belongs “to the genre of fantasy.” That is, Borges acknowledges the fantastical nature of the eponymous phenomenon, the “point at which all points converge”; his narrator even admits to “hopelessness” in trying to describe the Aleph: “the central problem – the enumeration, even partial enumeration, of infinity – is irresolvable.” The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and has particular meaning in the Kabbalah, where, Borges points out, the letter “signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead.”American_Innovations_Galchen

Galchen retains the fantastical aspect, but dispenses with Jewish mythology in favour of quantum physics. In her version of the story, the protagonist, a female graduate student in civil engineering, encounters two men, Jacob and Ilan, in a New York coffee shop, and the three strike up a conversation. When Ilan disappears, Jacob approaches the narrator with a proposition: he wants her to kill him in order to test the viability of what in science fiction is known as “the grandfather paradox”:

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible – and much physics suggests that it is – then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore you won’t murder your grandfather, so therefore you will be born, and will be able to murder him, et cetera, ad paradox.

The fantastical element in Galchen’s story involves Ilan, whom Jacob insists is his son from the future, as yet unborn. The paradox, if you will, is that quantum theory has made this science-fiction premise, if not likely, at the least theoretically possible. “The general theory of relativity is compatible with the existence of space-times in which travel to the past or remote future is possible,” Galchen writes. “[We] are told by those who would know that the logician Kurt Gödel proved this in the late 1940s.”

The invocation of the 20th-century Austrian mathematician is significant. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems suggest that pure mathematics is limited, that is, that theoretical mathematics will never solve all of the riddles of the universe. This is incompatible with what some quantum physicists posit as a theory of everything (ToE) – a theory that might explain every physical phenomenon, including tunneling, wormholes, and, presumably, time travel. The ToE is a theoretical catch-all, a place where all physical phenomenon, observed and unobserved, coexist. In other words, a Borgesian Aleph.

It is thus possible to note nodes of commonality between Galchen’s story and Borges’s (the central meetings between characters – Borges and Daneri in the latter; the narrator and Jacob in the former – even share the fact that they represent the only time the characters in question call the respective narrators on the telephone). However, it is equally interesting to note what doesn’t survive Galchen’s transliteration: Borges’s tone.

Simply put, “The Aleph” is one of Borges’s funniest stories. Daneri’s abominable poetry, and the poet’s own outrageously overinflated estimation of his abilities, is fodder for much comedy: at one point, Borges says that Daneri has “written a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos” (which, in addition to being a humorous assessment on its face, also alludes to Milton, whose idea of chaos shares resonance with Borges’s Aleph). The fact that Daneri comes in second for an Argentinian national literary prize, and that this “goes without saying,” is a bit of sarcastic literary criticism worthy of Mencken. And Borges’s belated recognition of the potential peril he has opened himself up to by allowing Daneri to display the Aleph for him – “Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison” – is similarly inspired.

Galchen, by contrast, treats her material with a po-faced earnestness that renders it somehow flatter, less vibrant than Borges’s gleeful literary trickery. This is only apparent when the two stories are read together; it is probable that, on its own, the relative lack of humour in “The Region of Unlikeliness” would go entirely unremarked. One is left to wonder, then, whether it is advantageous to draw attention to the way Galchen’s story is “secretly in conversation” with Borges’s, or whether that tidbit might more profitably have remained a secret.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 17: “The Moving Finger” by Stephen King

May 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nightmares & Dreamscapes

Nightmares_and_Dreamscapes_Stephen_KingIn the introduction to his 1985 story collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen King compares the novel to “a long and satisfying affair,” while the short story is like “a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” The critic Kathleen Margaret Lant has penned some interesting commentary on the sexualized nature of King’s posture as literary seducer here, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far – after all, what author of fiction does not attempt to seduce his (or her) readers in one way or another? What is more interesting about King’s comment is its emphasis on danger and surprise: stories do not contain the same built-in safety mechanisms as novels, which, no matter how difficult or esoteric, cannot help but become familiar over the course of several hundred pages. In their brevity and tight focus, stories have the power to blindside a reader.

Sometimes, a reader is blindsided by a story’s lack of resolution or explication; the close focus on a particular incident or thought or instant in time precludes the kind of panoramic field of vision that might supply tidy context or meaning. The writer Rebecca Rosenblum has suggested that short stories provide a glimpse of what happened in a given moment, but don’t offer the before or after, and, significantly, withhold the why. Or, as King writes in a note at the end of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, “My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen.”

“The Moving Finger” is such a story. The central phenomenon – a human finger inexplicably extruding from the drain in the protagonist’s bathroom sink – is never explained in any rational way. The story’s central character, Howard Mitla, hears a strange scratching emanating from his bathroom one evening while he is watching Jeopardy and, upon investigating, discovers the rogue digit poking out of the basin drain:

For a moment it froze, as if aware it had been discovered. Then it began to move again, feeling its wormlike way around the pink porcelain. It reached the white rubber plug, felt its way over it, then descended to the porcelain again. The scratching noise hadn’t been made by the tiny claws of a mouse after all. It was the nail on the end of that finger, tapping the porcelain as it circled and circled.

Howard, “one of New York’s lesser known certified public accountants,” is an intelligent man – at least to the extent that he is able to best all the contestants on Jeopardy – but he is unable to comprehend the appearance of the malevolent finger in his bathroom, and is alternately comforted and aggravated by the fact that his wife does not also see the intruder. Howard initially believes he is hallucinating as a result of undiagnosed epilepsy or a brain tumour, but becomes increasingly unhinged as the finger from the drain appears to grow in size, poking over the rim of the basin and adding joints each time it manifests itself.

The accountant’s attempts to deal with the problem likewise become more and more outrageous, beginning with him refusing to enter the bathroom (he urinates in the alleyway outside his apartment and in his kitchen sink), and continuing through a frenzied trip to the local hardware store, where he purchases a bottle of industrial strength drain cleaner and a pair of electric garden shears.

King’s premise is patently absurd, but it is this very absurdity that paradoxically lends the story its energy. The bizarre situation builds in intensity until the climactic showdown between Howard and the finger, now grown to gargantuan proportions; this confrontation scene is presented as gleeful Grand Guignol, complete with flesh burnt by corrosive drain cleaner, vomit-covered hair, and fountains of blood.

In his notes at the back of the collection, King attempts to position this story as a kind of existential fable about horrible things happening to essentially decent people, though this may be gilding the lily; at its core the story is a brisk, sick, twisted vignette about an ordinary man attempting to deal with a patently ridiculous situation. (Freudians will have a field day with the phallic nature of the villain in this piece.) But it is this very ridiculousness that allows King to get away with his extravagances and exaggerations here. One of the pervasive elements in “The Moving Finger” is humour: something that crops up in a lot of King’s work, but is often not commented upon, except in a highly dismissive and perfunctory manner. The absurdity of the situation is precisely the point here: the reader accepts the premise as a given in the context of the story, even as Howard is literally driven insane by the unwanted presence in his pissoir.

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