31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 21: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller, revisited

May 21, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Every critic,” writes Philip Marchand in the opening chapter of his 1998 book Ripostes, ” … must feel, at one time or another, a bit of a fake. Every critic must sometimes suspect, upon feeling baffled by a book, that there are other, more acute readers, who have understood the author’s intentions – understood them, and relished the results. They are not baffled. But meanwhile, intelligence has failed you, the critic. In a few cases, it may have failed so badly that your remarks will serve to amuse posterity.” These comments occur in a chapter not incidentally entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” and they are comments that have long struck a chord with me.

Any critic tries – or, at least, should try – not to get it wrong. A critic’s first responsibility, after all, is not to posterity, or to the aggrandizement of ego or reputation, but to the work under consideration. Honesty is important, yes, but so is intelligence, and a willingness to see things that might be difficult or outside the realm of one’s own experience. One might call this latter quality, for want of a better word, empathy.

Of course, being human, there are times that critics will get it wrong. They will be working too fast, or dealing with pressing matters in their personal lives – a sick relative, the pressures of a job (most literary critics in this country not being able to make a living off their writing alone), insomnia, a recalcitrant landlord – that may make them less attentive than they should be. There is the ringing telephone, background noise from the café or (on those few days the weather will allow) the park where one has taken refuge to read, or any number of other distractions.

Elsewhere in his essay, Marchand comments on the anxiety that accompanies the “feeling that if I read a given paragraph with less than maximum attention I might miss the key to the whole book.” He applies this principle to novels; it works equally powerfully with short stories.

One week ago in this space, I chose to focus on K.D. Miller’s story “Magnificat,” from her 2014 collection All Saints. This was not my first encounter with Miller’s story: I had reviewed the collection for the National Post when it first came out, and returned to it again at the end of the year, when I included it on my selection of standout books for Quill & Quire. “Magnificat” was, to my mind, one of the strongest stories in the collection, and as I was putting together the list of stories I wished to focus on for this year’s 31 Days of Stories, it bubbled to the top. I reread it and crafted a post explicating my experience of the story.

My interpretation of the characters and events in the piece involved a reading of the older character, Julia, as a spinster who was innocent of sex and sexual encounters, and used the church as a substitute for such carnal matters. From my first encounter with the story, there was something about the final sequence that bothered me, but it was nothing I could put my finger on precisely. It was just a feeling that something was off, that I was missing something. This feeling did nothing to diminish my admiration for the story, or for Miller’s writing, which is among the finest and most subtle I have encountered in some time.

These, of course, are the very qualities that should have given me pause.

Yesterday, I was pleased to read a post at the blog Matilda Magtree. In addition to saying nice things about this site and its annual focus on short fiction, the blog’s author, Carin Makuz, offered an alternate take on the events of the story from my own:

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

Makuz references the scene in the story in which Julia is in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary, a scene I also pointed to in my own post to illustrate a different reading of the story and the character. That scene, I believe, should best be read straight, with the character longing for a kind of immaculate conception, a kind of idealized relationship in the realm of sex.

However, that reading in no way negates Makuz’s idea that Julia, far from being virginal herself, has suffered abuse in her past. As she follows Cathy and Gabe into the park, the words “be not afraid” go through her head, and Miller writes, “Strange. Those words haven’t gone through her mind for – well, not since she was a girl.” There is nothing explicit here, only a hint that something wrong, something far beyond the simple shock of following a young couple into a park and witnessing them having sex.

The key passage occurs on the second-last page of the story, after Julia has dragged herself away from the scene of the couple and collapsed onto a stone bench in the park:

Out of habit, she looks at her watch. She can barely see the hands, and in any case cannot remember what time it was the last time she looked. No way of knowing how long she had been in the park, then. How long it took. The thing that happened. The thing that was done to her.

Yes. Something was done. And it was done to her. She begins to cry. And she was terribly frightened by it. She has suffered something dreadful, she whimpers to herself. Something that ought not to have been done.

To what does this passage refer? What is the something that has been done to Julia – something that Miller insists was done to her, emphasizing this through the use of italics on the page? My own reading had this as a kind of transference: the it referring to Julia’s somatic reaction to the sex between Cathy and Gabe; the “thing that was done to [Julia]” being her recognition of a burning desire for the same kind of carnal knowledge, something that has passed her by in her life.

Yet does one not have to work hard to read the passage this way? Is it not simpler, more obvious, to read it as Makuz does, as indicating that Julia has been the victim of abuse (“Something was done. And it was done to her“)? She tells herself not to be afraid upon entering the park, not because she is trailing the couple and fears being caught, or is fearful of what she might witness them doing, but because the park was the scene of her long-ago violation. “She has suffered something dreadful … Something that ought not to have been done.” How much more explicit does Miller need to be?

Makuz is extraordinarily generous in suggesting that my own reading of the story is not wrong, merely a different interpretation of the events on the page. Perhaps. Though returning to the story now, having digested Makuz’s reading, the passage above appears to stand out as though in neon. Perhaps this is another instance of transference. Or, perhaps more likely, my earlier post must go down as one of those failures of intelligence that Marchand warned of.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 20: “The Invisible Collection” by Stefan Zweig; Anthea Bell, trans.

May 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Invisible Collection: Tales of Obsession and Desire

The_Invisible_Collection_Stefan_Zweig“No one will know how we lived,” mourns Stephen Henighan in his essay “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel.” Henighan was bemoaning the rising tide of globalization that resulted in a raft of 1990s CanLit novels that failed to engage with the country’s experience in any meaningful way; the decade’s most lauded, bestselling books evinced, in Henighan’s view, an “inability to pull our own society into focus.” One reason for this, Henighan suggests, was Canada’s position in the world at the time, having emerged from under the colonial thumb of Britain only to succumb to economic and cultural colonization by the U.S. However, Henighan suggests, “[a] country that no longer exists in spirit may still exist in literature: this is one of the lessons of German-language literatures.”

One of the writers Henighan points to is Stefan Zweig, the Vienna-born author of the early twentieth century, whose signature theme, like Henry James before him, was the disintegration of an old world, with its particular manners and ways of life, and its replacement with a new, in many ways degraded and dissolute, society. Henighan views Zweig as an Austro-Hungarian novelist practicing long after Austro-Hungary had disappeared: an argument could be made. It is true, also, that Zweig was capable of capturing the tenor of the time in which he lived with the kind of perspicacity and insight that allow his fiction to retain resonance for a modern reader.

“The Invisible Collection” is set during the period of German “hyperinflation” following the end of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles was in many ways a manifestation of Europe’s anger at Germany, forcing upon the Weimar Republic crippling reparation payments that had the effect of eroding a once-prosperous economy and sentencing the German population to poverty and strife. By 1923, so-called hyperinflation had set in, rendering the country’s paper money essentially valueless. “At its height,” states an article in The Economist, “prices were rising so fast that waiters had to climb on tables to call out new menu prices in restaurants every half hour. Banknotes became sufficiently useless that workers had to bring wheelbarrows with them to work to collect their daily pay, and bundles were given to children to play with, being cheaper than actual toys.”

This is the backdrop against which Zweig’s story is set. “The Invisible Collection” is framed as an encounter between an anonymous narrator and a prestigious art dealer. The two meet on a train outside Dresden, and the dealer relates a tale of an extraordinary interaction he has just had with a collector. The dealer had hoped to track down this man in an attempt to uncover some paintings he might auction; with the value of the currency so depleted, many of the country’s “nouveau riche” had discovered a taste for fine art, and the supply of original work had dwindled precipitously. The dealer tracks down the collector in what is admittedly a mercenary endeavour; upon locating him, the dealer discovers that the collector is blind and that his wife and daughter have sold his collection in an attempt to feed the family and keep a roof over their heads. The aged man’s beloved “collection,” which is kept in portfolios that he rifles obsessively, consists of nothing more than stained sheets of blank paper.

On one level, “The Invisible Collection” operates as a satirical allegory of the depredations that befell the German populace in the interwar period. “[Y]ou know what these times are like,” the daughter tells the art dealer as she explains how she and her mother have sold of her father’s collection in an attempt to keep the family afloat. Given the pitiful state of the economy, even the wholesale depletion of what should have been a highly valuable collection of paintings leaves them with barely enough to get by:

It was a very valuable item that we sold, a Rembrandt etching. The dealer offered us many, many thousand marks for it, and we hoped that would provide for us for years. But you know how money melts away these days … we had deposited most of it in the bank, but two months later it was all gone. So we had to sell another work, and then another, and the dealer was always so late sending the money that it was already devalued when it arrived. Then we tried auctions, but there too we were cheated, although the prices were in the millions … by the time the millions reached us they were nothing but worthless paper.

The connection here between the worthless paper of the national currency and the worthless paper that has replaced the paintings the mother and daughter have sold is clear; this is also where the story escapes its specific historical setting and takes on a more universal tenor.

That the old man is blind is resonant in the story on both a metaphorical and a literal level. His vision had been “disturbed” before the outbreak of war, but it was the global conflagration that prompted his complete loss of sight. “You see,” the daughter says, “even though he was seventy-six at the time he wanted to go to France with the army, and when the army didn’t advance at once, as it had in 1870, he was dreadfully upset, and his sight went downhill at terrifying speed.” The man’s blindness is symbolically linked to the war and its effects on Germany: pain and suffering that had been gradual prior to 1914 suddenly erupted in widespread, unchecked misery.

But his blindness also literally prevents him from seeing the paintings that make up his collection; likewise, he is unable to recognize when those paintings are replaced with blank pieces of paper. However, his memory remains intact, and he is able to take the dealer step by step through a detailed description of the great works of art that he believes still reside between the leaves of his portfolios. His appreciation of these artworks, unlike those “philistines” who snap up paintings for piles of valueless currency, but with no solid knowledge or recognition of their artistic merit, provides him solace and elevates him from the faceless masses who eke out miserable lives in a depleted country.

The old man, then, is representative of the transcendent power of art: the fact that he cannot see the work does not limit his enjoyment of or devotion to it. Indeed, he exacts a promise from the dealer that when he dies, the dealer will sell his collection at auction: “Just promise me to draw up a handsome catalogue,” the old man insists. “[I]t will be my tombstone, and I couldn’t ask for a better memorial.” In this way, Zweig’s story likewise transcends its historical moment and provides a modern reader with a note of universal insight.

By bringing his society into clear focus at a particular moment in time, as Henighan suggests literature can – and should – do, Zweig has provided his reader with not only a document of German life between the two world wars, but a memorable and expansive meditation on an enduring theme.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 19: “Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash

May 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Burning Bright

Burning_Bright_Ron_RashOne aspect of short fiction that makes many readers wary is its frequent resistance to closure. Stories focus on moments in time, but often exclude what happened before or after those moments. The resolution stories offer is frequently implied, or takes place with the reader rather than on the page. In her introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, Joyce Carol Oates has this to say:

[T]he short story is a prose piece that is not a mere concatenation of events, as in a news account or an anecdote, but an intensification of meaning by way of events. Its “plot” may be wholly interior, seemingly static, a matter of the progression of a character’s thought. Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement, as in many of Hawthorne’s more didactic tales … but it signals a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness; a deepening of insight. … Because the meaning of a story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.

Stories – and in particular, contemporary stories – traffic in ambiguity, a condition that makes a lot of readers nervous. Our culture has educated us to prefer the easy pleasures of final resolution and a discernible moral, but stories, by their nature, frequently withhold these things. They do not take us by the hand and instruct us on what to think or how to feel; rather, they require the kind of active engagement that is increasingly avoided in a culture that takes its cues from Harry Potter and comic books.

Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which won its author an O. Henry Prize and was included in the 2010 edition of the anthology Best American Short Stories, is exactly the kind of work that is liable to frighten off readers who demand to know, like anxious children, what happened. The story’s final scene leaves its protagonist, a man in his sixties named Jesse, alone in the Appalachain woods, being hunted by the law. Jesse is not a typical criminal – his transgressions spring from the act of harvesting a crop of ginseng that should by rights belong to him – and his contingent fate is open to interpretation.

Jesse has lived his entire life in the area; the land on which the crop he attempts to harvest sits once belonged to his father and aunts. They sold the property to the government in 1959 for sixty dollars an acre; half a century later, there are signs prohibiting trespassing and the land is being taken over by real estate developers who plan to set up gated communities for wealthy home buyers.

Now entering the twilight of his life, Jesse determines he needs money: “His house and twenty acres were paid for, as was his truck. The tobacco allotment earned less each year but still enough for a widower with grown children. Enough as long as he didn’t have to go to the hospital or his truck throw a rod. He needed some extra money put away for that. Not a million, but some.” His solution is to return to the ginseng crop his father abandoned more than fifty years ago and harvest it (ginseng being worth more than marijuana on the open market).

While he is in the process of harvesting the crop – as the story’s title suggests, this involves a descent into the gorge behind the family’s old homestead: significantly, a trip downward – he is accosted by a park ranger who wants to arrest him for poaching on public land, a crime that comes with jail time. Jesse panics and pushes the ranger down an abandoned well (a further descent), then flees, after having heard the sickening crunch of breaking bones as the ranger falls.

There is much that Rash does not tell us here. We never discover the exact nature or extent of the ranger’s injuries, though the consequence is clear: Jesse becomes a fugitive, hunted through the woods by lawmen and sniffer dogs. Though we discover the ranger’s name – Barry Wilson – when Jesse reads it on the man’s uniform, he remains a cipher as a character, as do the other officers of the law. They are institutional forces arrayed to prevent Jesse from taking what he feels is rightfully his, but like so many such instruments of bureaucracy, they are anonymous and unindividuated.

And, significantly, we never find out what ultimately befalls Jesse. Does he die in the woods? The final image of the story has the aging man alone in the night, waiting “for what would or would not come” – this could easily mean death, or it could mean capture and arrest.

What is significant here is the connection the author draws between the story’s conclusion and its opening, a description of Jesse’s great aunt who lived on the same patch of land and suffered from Alzheimer’s in her old age. After her memory abandoned her, the one thing that remained was her instinct to hoe the field behind her farmhouse, “breaking ground for a crop she never sowed, but the rows were always straight, right-depthed.” Though her mind has broken down, Rash writes, “her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.” Importantly, her empty body is tied in the story to the land on which she has lived her entire life; so central is this connection that it is believed her ghost continues to haunt the property decades after her death.

When Jesse’s great aunt tilled her fields, Rash tells us, “the woods had been communal, No Trespassing signs an affront, but after her death neighbors soon found places other than the gorge to hunt and fish, gather blackberries and galax.” The notion of ownership – of private property versus communal land – is at the heart of Jesse’s run-in with the park ranger, which echoes and recapitulates the treatment of American aboriginals at the hands of European colonials (though one hesitates to stretch that association too far). And it is clear that in encroaching upon government land and pulling up crops – whatever their original provenance might be – Jesse is breaking at least the letter of the law.

In the final stages of the story, Jesse recalls the people who found his great aunt’s corpse in the woods: she had apparently died of exposure after stripping off all her clothes, an act that Jesse considers “a final abdication of everything she had once been.” At the end of the story, Jesse himself removes his boots in an attempt to avoid leaving tracks the police could match to him later; this act implicitly associates him with his great aunt and her final determination to die on the land where she had lived.

Whether Jesse similarly perishes is not clear; neither is it the point. The point of Rash’s brief story involves how we define our lives, what belongs to us, and what can be taken away before we are no longer able to call our lives our own.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 18: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

May 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara

Africa_39Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine Prize – colloquially known as “the African Booker” – for “Jambula Tree,” a lesbian love story. The simple act of writing the story was not without risk for the author; homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since the time of British colonial rule and in 2007 a conviction carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A 2014 law strengthening anti-gay sanctions in the country was struck down on a technicality, but president Yoweri Museveni’s government is apparently determined to pass a revised version of the law.

All of which is to say that Arac de Nyeko is unafraid to deal with fraught political material in her stories, which are devoted to shedding light on social injustices in her native country.

“The Banana Eater” is not about homosexuality, but it does focus on systemic oppression, in this case of women. The story is narrated by a girl, Amito, who lives with her mother in Kampala’s low-income housing estates. According to Richard Campbell Mayer of MIT’s department of urban study and planning, “The majority of government and private developers who build new housing are only providing units affordable to Kampala’s minority of wealthy and well-connected elites. The majority of Kampala’s residents are low-income earners who currently live in unplanned slum neighborhoods that consist of mostly informal rental housing.” In 2011, the government evicted more than 1,700 tenants from the Naguru-Nakawa housing estate where Arac de Nyeko grew up.

This is the backdrop against which Amito and her mother, a labourer at a printing press, attempt to eke out an existence. Ma’s sole capitulation to a creative impulse is her backyard garden, which is the most attractive and welcoming in the housing development. So welcoming is Ma’s garden that the men who work as market vendors have taken to squatting there, using the family backyard as their own personal resting ground where they engage in loud talk and thoughtlessly dump their detritus.

The dramatic arc of the story involves the confrontation that develops between Amito, her friend Naalu, and the vendors. Amito will not leave the matter to her mother, whom she fears is ineffectual in opposing the men. When Ma tells the vendors to leave, saying that the backyard garden is on her property, they react with indignation and undisguised hatred: “They told her that no one came into the estates with any piece of land on their heads. They called my mother a whore. They said she was a husbandless slut, a fanatic Christian, a sex-starved bitch who should migrate back to the north of the country where people were uncivilized and lacked manners.” The gendered nature of the vendors’ attack is key here: they assert their supposed right to Ma’s land on the principle of some unstated patriarchal fiat, while belittling the woman by calling her a slut and a whore.

Ma has been carrying on an affair with a man named Patrick Aculu, who is the subject of much mockery on the part of the vendors. Aculu is known locally as “Red Devil” on account of eyes “the colour of red devil peppers”; his presence in the family home upsets Amito, who secretly wishes he would appear to confront the vendors so that they might attack him and put him in hospital. Amito resents Red Devil for taking the place of her absent father, and worries that his “brain was not wired properly,” a condition she fears is being passed on to her mother.

In the face of her mother’s inability to roust the vendors – she alters her routine so that she returns from work late, but they merely wait her out and confront her after dark instead – Amito decides to enlist Naalu in a retaliatory campaign: “The bastards must pay. It is war. It is war!” Amito and Naalu’s series of attacks, which culminate in dumping a bucket of rancid fish water on the vendors’ heads, provokes the intervention of Naalu’s father, a local chairman who is successful in evicting the vendors, but also separates the girls by sending Naalu off to a Catholic boarding school.

There are a series of ironies at work here. Naalu’s father and Amito’s mother dislike each other because they come from different backgrounds. The former is a Catholic and, like the majority of the vendors, a Muganda. According to Amito’s mother, the Baganda ethnic group “were thieving traitors who’d been selling the country to the highest bidder right from the time of the British.” For his part, Naalu’s father believes that northerners like Ma “were to blame for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in the country – the coups d’état, the bad roads, the hospitals without medicine, the high price of sugar, his addiction to nicotine, and the fact that the country was landlocked.”

Ethnicity, class, and gender all become entangled in the story’s finale, which reasserts the dominance of the male figure – this time Naalu’s father – who solves Ma’s problem but also banishes Naalu from what he feels is a bad influence on her. The institutional forces in the country continue to dictate how women must exist (Red Devil also disappears following the chairman’s intervention), and the only recourse for Ma is to accept what appears to be the lesser of two evils. Arac de Nyeko illustrates the impossibility of Ugandan women – especially those confined by straitened economic circumstances (which means the majority of them) – to make decisions about their own lives or to live without interference. The situation Ma and Amito are caught up in is summed up nicely in the girl’s repeated epithet: “Such nonsense.”

NOTE: The version of “The Banana Eater” referred to here is the one contained in the Hay Festival and Rainbow Foundation Project anthology Africa 39. A slightly different version appears online at the website of the literary journal AGNI. The online version is not substantially different, although it contains material that is deleted from the print version, much of it providing context and nuance to the story’s characters and their situations. The online version makes connections within the story more explicit – the vendors, for example, are pictured dropping banana skins in Ma’s backyard, which connects them definitively with Naalu’s father; this detail is left out of the print version. It is unclear whether these changes were made due to space considerations or at the request of the author; for the fullest version of this story, a reader is advised to consult the text online.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 17: “The Old Tavern Sign” by Regina Ullmann; Kurt Beals, trans.

May 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Country Road

The_Country_Road_Regina_UllmannThe stories of Swiss-born author and poet Regina Ullmann do not appear immediately familiar to a twenty-first century reader. Her settings are rural, her language abstruse, her characters frequently grotesque, and her poetic sensibility more characteristic of symbolism than straightforward naturalism. Of Jewish heritage but a convert to Catholicism, Ullmann also includes a streak of religious imagery running through her stories: in “The Hunchback,” there is a mirror in a door in which an observer “could glimpse a Christ child under a glass dome,” and the collection’s title story ends, “For what is God’s will, but that we should be reconciled to ourselves.”

Reconciliation with oneself is the theme that gets taken up in the following story, “The Old Tavern Sign,” which translator Kurt Beals suggests is “perhaps the masterpiece of this collection.” It is also, Beals asserts, the story that prompted Rainer Maria Rilke to comment, “[T]his was what I had been waiting for, this final emergence of the power of her artistic will.”

First published in 1921 – and, remarkably, never before translated into English – The Old Country Road precedes by one year the modernist breakthroughs of The Waste Land and Ulysses, though Ullmann’s work unsurprisingly shares more in common with fellow German-language writers Rilke, Mann, and Hesse than it does with Eliot or Joyce. In the place of modern urban decay and anomie, “The Old Tavern Sign” hearkens back to fables and fairy tales, right from its opening lines: “Some years ago, in a hidden corner of Styria, there stood an old tavern. There it stood, where no one would ever have hoped to find it.”

The story focuses on a young farmhand who falls in love with a “feeble-minded” girl. The young man is troubled by the strength of his feelings for this addled lady, whom he has known since childhood; in an attempt to divest himself of his lust, he rides off to a neighbouring village to search for an alternate marriage prospect. Unable to slough off his love for the young woman in back home, he sets off to return, but encounters a stag on the road and is trampled to death.

A simple synopsis of the events in Ullmann’s story conveys the strangeness of the piece, but not the extraordinary care with which the author unifies the various elements in the narrative. Central to the work is the young woman’s condition, which is not specified. “In the city,” we are told, “her affliction might have been accounted a mental illness. But here in the country she was feeble-minded, simply feeble-minded.” As the child of a wealthy farmer (that she is illegitimate is heavily implied), she is treated with respect by the villagers and not forced into hard labour, which has the effect of maintaining her innocence: “[S]he was not pressed into service, not forced to acquire a consciousness she didn’t have: that consciousness that so terribly transforms young beasts of burden, and makes them into something quite unlike animals – something truly low.”

That consciousness is seen as separating humans from animals – with the former being “truly low” – is significant; equally significant is the extent to which Ullmann goes to insist upon the correspondence between the young woman and the natural world. Nature is a pervasive presence in Ullmann’s stories; it is here, more often than not, that a condition resembling Godliness is located. In the case of the girl, she is explicitly pictured in communion with the natural world, though her condition renders her oblivious to its presence:

To be sure, it was soon clear that she didn’t actually look at anyone, she didn’t even look at the animals as they passed by with their billowing manes. And she could not have missed them, if she’d had a soul at all. But the animals knew her and loved her. First one, then another enjoyed the company of this senseless, idle nothingness. When the child drank from the artesian well, animals liked to come too, to quench their thirst alongside her. And often the girl lay between two horses as they joyfully rolled in the flowers. Other times one of them would come from behind and press its head against her back, as if to push her up the mountain, and yet another time one of them thoughtfully touched its mouth to the girl’s head as she sat with her hair undone, staring blankly forward.

For Ullmann, this connection to nature is akin to a knowledge of the divine; the girl is pictured as not having “a soul at all,” yet she remains capable of communing with the world around her, and the animals respond to her purity and innocence with affection. Writing in The Quarterly Conversation, Rosie Clarke posits that Ullmann’s “devotion to nature gives her writing a pantheistic undercurrent, and a sense of awe of nature’s ambivalent beauty in the face of human sorrow.” This seems to be the dynamic at work here, especially when it is counterpointed by the young farmhand’s violent encounter with nature at the story’s end.

The meeting with the stag on the road back to town is depicted in dreamlike, hallucinatory language: the stag is pictured leaping over the farmhand “as if engaging the man in a wicked joust.” Later, he imagines (or perhaps not) that other stags materialize to join in the attack: “He felt their hooves, light but hard on his jacket. He could almost count them. They seemed to be releasing all their rutting fury upon him.”

The explicitly sexual imagery here is redolent of the young man’s agony at the thought of his lustful feelings for the feeble-minded young woman; there are implications that these feelings arise out of an impurity that sets the man apart from nature and from the object of his affection. In the scene on the road, the young man thinks of the stag, “It must have known that he was a man, and not a beast. Didn’t it know who he was, that this was him? He was the hunter. He might have a gun, or a scythe. Why wasn’t it afraid of those things?”

Yet Ullmann’s story contains multiple instances of nature remaining unafraid or unharmed in the face of human intervention. The story’s title refers to a sign that hangs outside the village tavern, depicting a stag fleeing from a hunter’s gaze. The stag in the image is “magnificent,” while the hunter is described as being “small and insignificant.” The scene, we are told, is “meant to depict the power and grandeur of the animal,” while the hunter is rendered impotent: “He aimed and aimed, as if it had only belatedly occurred to him, when the stag had long since leapt away.”

The echoes with the farmhand and the girl are obvious (and in case we missed them, Ullmann returns to the tavern sign in the final lines of the story). Here the theme and action of the tale come together and are given meaning. Which is not to say that the story is explicable, even after a second or third reading. Yet as with the best short fiction, it leaves its reader with a sense of something ineffable, as if the reader, too, is adrift in the dark woods, liable to fall prey to whatever forest denizens might pass by.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 16: “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle

May 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes

Penguin_Complete_Sherlock_HolmesAs Ruth Rendell points out in the foreword to the single-volume edition of The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories did not constitute the first works of detective fiction – Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Godwin all predate them. But Rendell also notes that in Holmes, Conan Doyle had created “the first detective to be presented as personality, hero, and star.” Without Holmes, there would be no Poirot, no Father Brown, no Rebus, no Inspector Banks.

Nor would there be the ongoing cottage industry of movies, television shows, spinoffs, book clubs, and fan groups that continue to capitalize on Holmes’s legacy. From the Baker Street Irregulars to Basil Rathbone, from Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes continues to retain a strong hold on the popular imagination. In the genre of detective fiction, Conan Doyle is akin to Shakespeare.

The enduring popularity of his fictional detective was something that bothered the author during his own lifetime. Written as straightforward entertainments, the Sherlock Holmes stories were less substantial in the author’s eyes than his other writing, and the fanatical attention paid to the detective left the balance of Conan Doyle’s output languishing in relative obscurity. As Rendell writes:

[F]or Doyle the success of Sherlock Holmes obscured his more serious work and he called his stories a “lower stratum of literary achievement.” It was the old story of the popular entertainer who dreams of playing Hamlet. For Doyle’s literary historical novels were never very readable and are now largely forgotten, while the Holmes stories, which their author categorized as potboilers, are recognized as original works of genius.

Such recognition notwithstanding, Conan Doyle was quite right: the Sherlock Holmes stories are potboilers, replete with outrageous plots and sensational subject matter. It is also true that much of Conan Doyle’s other writing – Rendell rightly excepts his science fiction novel The Lost World – is virtually unreadable. In any event, popular fiction is popular for a reason: it allows its readers escape and adventure without placing serious intellectual or ideological demands on them.

Regardless, by 1894, Conan Doyle had had enough. That year, the author published Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which he clearly intended to be the terminal volume of fiction featuring his celebrated detective. The last story in that collection, “The Final Problem,” is among the author’s most famous – or, perhaps more accurately, infamous – for it is the story in which Conan Doyle apparently kills off Sherlock Holmes.

“The Final Problem” is equally famous for introducing Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, whose reputation as a Holmes antagonist far outstrips his actual importance in the Conan Doyle canon. The character is mentioned in only a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories, and has a driving role in only two: “The Final Problem” and the 1914 novel The Valley of Fear. Despite the relatively scanty number of pages Conan Doyle devoted to the professor, his status in Holmes mythology is assured, likely as a result of being the instrument of the detective’s putative demise.

Before Moriarty even appears in “The Final Problem,” Holmes has built him up to such a degree that the man seems almost superhuman. Holmes calls him “the Napoleon of crime” and says that he is “on a pinnacle in the records” of criminal malfeasance. Holmes suggests that in addition to being a towering intellect “endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” Moriarty is also a crime kingpin in London, directing from the shadows a vast army of underlings who do his bidding.

He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. If there is a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed – the word is passed to the professor, the matter is organized and carried out.

There is a strain of hyperbole in all this that is frankly comical, but it is important for Holmes to recognize Moriarty’s ability and heightened intellect; anyone less capable would not be a match for the great detective. Conan Doyle realized that if someone were going to cause Holmes’s death, that someone would have to be at least his equal, both mentally and physically. Indeed, Moriarty is a kind of shrouded mirror image of Holmes – equally brilliant, but devious where Holmes is upright, and as devoted to committing crime as Holmes is to uncovering it.

It is also significant to note that the reader never actually encounters Moriarty directly. Everything we know about him is based on what Holmes tells his collaborator, Dr. Watson, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator. Watson claims to know “the absolute truth of the matter,” but this is not based on his own scientific observation, rather on a complete belief in the story as Holmes relates it to him. We have no reason to doubt this account – there is no reasonable way in which either Holmes or Watson could be considered an unreliable narrator – but the several levels of removal from the action make for an interesting narrative approach.

Also a canny one. Having Watson encounter the events of the story, as it were, at second-hand allows Conan Doyle an out with regard to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, which famously takes place at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Watson is not present at the final moments during which Holmes and Moriarty apparently tumble to their deaths; he surmises what happened based on evidence he finds at the scene and a short note left by Holmes.

Perhaps Conan Doyle realized his audience would not allow him to dispatch his famous investigator so easily. Indeed, like the Jason Voorhees of classical detective fiction, Holmes arose from the dead several years later, in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” That story would become the first entry in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a volume that was likely as inevitable as it was incredible.

“The Final Problem” remains sui generis in the Holmes catalogue. It is not a story of ratiocination, but more closely resembles a chase narrative, with Holmes and Watson fleeing London for the continent to escape the clutches of the maniacal professor. There are outrageous moments – Holmes disguises himself as an aged Italian cleric to escape detection on a train – that lend credence to Conan Doyle’s assertion that these stories are little more than potboilers. Yet for being the one story in which Holmes and his bête noir go toe to toe (albeit offstage in the story itself), “The Final Problem” retains a central place in the history of Conan Doyle’s writing specifically, and detective fiction in general.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 15: “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System” by Phil Klay

May 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Redeployment

Redeployment_Phil_Klay“Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be.” So begins Phil Klay’s story “Money as a Weapons System,” an acidic satire about the various ways the American government and its agents mishandled reconstruction following the abbreviated Iraq war.

On May 1, 2003, a mere forty-three days after the U.S. and its so-called “coalition of the willing” invaded a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11, then President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq,” Bush asserted, “the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” These statements were made while the president stood at a podium that was placed in front of a large sign declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Of course, history has shown that the triumphalism of Bush’s speech was severely misplaced. An unforeseen insurgency, sectarian violence, the rise of ISIS – all these and more made “securing and reconstructing” Iraq a dicey proposition. In his speech, Bush invoked the military victories at Normandy and Iwo Jima as precursors to the Iraq adventure, but Klay’s story goes on to point out that such resemblances are inapplicable. In Iraq, Klay writes, “[t]here was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues, but that was years ago.” Instead, U.S. forces that remained in country confronted suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, to say nothing of the bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate greed that forestalled any real progress in putting a broken country back together again.

Klay is a U.S. Marine who participated in the so-called “surge” of 2007; he is also a skilled fiction writer whose military background and experience in Iraq lends the stories in Redeployment (which won the 2014 National Book Award) an authenticity that other stories coming out of the Iraq war don’t possess. His book has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War collection The Things We Carried; it also recalls Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The stories in the collection run the gamut, from tales of front-line combat to pieces about veterans struggling to reintegrate themselves into normal life upon returning home. “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System,” two of the volume’s best pieces, illustrate two sides of the U.S. experience in Iraq in the years following Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. The former is told from the perspective of a grunt named Paul, whose convoy is blown up by an IED and who takes credit for the subsequent killing of an Iraqi teenager at the request of fellow soldier Timhead, the actual shooter. “Money as a Weapons System” is a Helleresque satire about bureaucratic malfeasance and ineptitude in attempts to rebuild what the U.S. has so effectively destroyed, all while satisfying interested parties backed by political or corporate influence.

The two stories are, necessarily, very different in tone. “After Action Report” is sober and violent, and unsparing in its depiction of the psychological toll the soldiers’ deployment takes on them. “Money as a Weapons System,” by contrast, is sardonic and infused with mordant comedy.

What they share in common is a tenor of incipient threat, the feeling that violence – either directed or accidental – could erupt at any moment. “Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror,” Paul muses at one point. “They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time.” The sentiment is echoed in “Money as a Weapons System,” about a Foreign Service Officer who is dropped into an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) tasked with restoring infrastructure in the rural area of Taji. “Nobody’s been that way in a long time,” one soldier tells him in advance of a road trip. “There’s probably IEDs there from ’04. We have no idea what we might hit.”

The convoy is headed for an outpost the Americans have named “Istalquaal.” The narrator asks his translator, a former professor, what the word means. “‘Istiqlal means independence,’ he said. ‘Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.'” This is typical of the level of understanding the ranking ePRT members display about the country they are charged with rebuilding. A Jordanian company has been contracted to build a water pipeline across a highway, but they used the wrong equipment, so that if the water is turned on, pressure in the pipes will cause all the toilets in the area to explode. Meanwhile, government agents stymie attempts to bolster a women’s clinic in favour of implementing job initiatives such as turning widows into beekeepers, and a U.S. businessman advocates “sports diplomacy” by sending useless baseball uniforms to be distributed to Iraqi children.

The clumsiness and incompetence of the various groups charged with reconstruction, Klay implies, is a betrayal of the very people the U.S. forces were supposed to be liberating. What “After Action Report” makes clear is that it is also a betrayal of the U.S. forces themselves, who are putting their lives on the line for ideals that have proven to be chimerical at best. Soldiers thrown into combat in a country their leaders don’t understand, and for reasons that are not at all clear or defensible, nevertheless face constant peril in the course of trying to serve their country to the best of their abilities, while receiving little in the way of support or assistance.

Following the incident on the road and the subsequent debriefing, and against his better judgment, Paul consults his platoon’s chaplain for spiritual counsel. The chaplain advises him to pray, but Paul balks at this notion: “Every time I hear an explosion, I’m like, That could be one of my friends. And when I’m on a convoy, every time I see a pile of trash or rocks or dirt, I’m like, That could be me. I don’t want to go out anymore. But it’s all there is. And I’m supposed to pray?”

Still, the soldiers remain more clear-eyed and grounded about their mission than the speechifiers and propagandists back home. Paul relates a joke told among the Marines about a “liberal pussy journalist” who is “trying to get the touchy-feely side of war” by asking a sniper what it is like to kill someone. “What do you feel when you pull the trigger?” The Marine’s reply: “Recoil.” Elsewhere, Paul’s staff sergeant puts into perspective the soldier’s reaction to a little girl who witnessed the killing of what is assumed to be a family member:

“This kid’s Iraqi, right?”

“Sure.”

“Then this might not even be the most fucked-up thing she’s seen.”

“Okay.”

“How long we been here?”

“Two and a half months.”

“Right. And how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s bee here for years.”

Klay’s unsentimental portraits of the damage exacted in the fallout from the 2003 invasion are infuriating, but also undeniably valuable for the light they shed on the American experience, both overseas and back home. Paul and Timhead’s final consensus is that their efforts putting their lives on the line are ultimately inconsequential: they don’t matter to the Iraqis or, indeed, to their superiors or the government that sent them into harm’s way in the first place. This recognition lends the finale of “Money as a Weapons System,” several dozen pages later in the collection, an added sting. Circling back to the story’s opening, the ending is contingent and infused with dripping irony. After finally outfitting a clutch of Iraqi kids in the businessman’s baseball uniforms, the narrator manages to snap a photo to send back to the mandarins stateside. The Iraqi translator’s sarcastic assessment is summed up in the story’s corrosive final word: “Success.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 14: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller

May 14, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Writing is the way I pray,” K.D. Miller told fellow CanLit author Lori McNulty in the National Post. “I frequently have doubts about my relationship with my religion and my church. But writing? Never.” Miller’s substitution of an artistic impulse for the act of religious devotion is appropriate for an age in which believers and non-believers seem increasingly polarized. Mainstream or moderate adherents to any organized religion are often treated with suspicion from both sides – atheists on the one hand and fanatics on the other. Religious leaders are frequently exposed as hypocrites and charlatans, and science has provided convincing solutions for many of the existential mysteries that humans once turned to the church to explain. Doubt in sacred matters seems practically inevitable, as does the desire to find something capable of filling the spiritual void left by institutional religion’s demotion in our postmodern world.

Literature, of course, has always maintained a relationship to the divine: from the Medieval mystery plays and Dante to Bunyon and Blake, Flannery O’Connor and William Peter Blatty. The Western canon is replete with writers honouring and grappling with notions of salvation, sin, and institutionalized faith. In All Saints, her collection of linked stories circling around the titular Anglican church, Miller simultaneously extends this tradition and subverts it, writing not out of a position of blind adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from a deeply humanist perspective that attempts to examine and comprehend human nature’s essential conflicts and drives.

There are two women at the centre of “Magnificat” – one old, one younger – each of whom is grasping for something ineffable in her life. Julia is an aging spinster who has reached the twilight of her years with only the church as a steady companion. Cathy has had no shortage of male suitors, though many of them resemble Owen, the gormless poet who lives in her apartment building and whom she expends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid. At the outset, these two women appear separately, in alternating sections, but their paths intersect as the story progresses, leading to a climactic scene in a park that lays bare the malaise at the core of each character.

Thematically, Miller’s story addresses the nexus of the sacred and the profane. Julia is a devout believer, who attends All Saints regularly – as a balm, we come to understand, for the lack of companionship and emptiness she suffers in the rest of her life. She is afflicted by “an old melancholy” born of a realization that youth and experience have passed her by. “I did not take unto me a husband” is the motto she adopts for herself: “She liked to think the phrase take unto me gave her an ironic edge, and did not made her solitary state look like a choice.”

There are strong indications that Julia has remained a virgin; she is certainly censorious when it comes to matters of the flesh, and has been “disturbed by mention of sex and the Internet creeping into church services.” She is a staunch traditionalist, who prefers the evensong service “largely because modern liturgists have yet to tamper with it.” For Julia, religion should be “distant and monumental,” so as not to risk sullying itself in carnality and thereby reminding her of all that she has missed out on in her life. The church is a means of dealing with her loneliness, but only so long as it remains above and beyond the messy physical realm of human congress.

Of course, this is precisely the realm Julia is forced to confront by the end of the story. The instrument of this confrontation is Cathy, who is every bit as devoted to matters of the flesh as Julia is to matters of faith. Cathy is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with Gabe, a drifter who fills her need for a dominant sexual partner while neglecting her in every other aspect of their relationship.

Cathy, we learn, is a masochist who first noticed her proclivities as a schoolgirl, when she experienced a sexual response to being administered the strap as punishment for a transgression. In Gabe she discovers someone who will fulfill her need for abjection without hesitation or pity; his pick-up line on first encountering her – “Time you got what’s coming to you” – provokes a reaction by its resemblance to that long-ago school punishment.

Gabe is aware of Cathy’s sexual kink because she has confessed it – along with its origins – to him. Gabe “knows everything” about Cathy, while she remains ignorant about the details of his life and history. As a “professional house-sitter,” he has no fixed address; she doesn’t even know where to locate him on a consistent basis. This unequal power dynamic puts Gabe entirely in control, while Cathy worries constantly that he won’t call, or that he will:

He never says hello when she snatches up the phone, or even It’s Gabe – just dictates his latest address and hangs up. And that makes her afraid all over again – that she’ll find out the address doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but Gabe isn’t there. Or that he is there, but won’t fuck her, even when she begs. Or that he’ll have another woman with him. Or another man. Or that he’ll want to do more and more things that hurt. And that she’ll let him. Because it’s time she got what was coming to her.

Cathy’s neediness is a carnal mirror of Julia’s loneliness; the older woman follows the couple into a local park without being able to explain her motivation, finally stumbling upon them having sex in the dirt.

Here the symbolism in the story is actualized: Cathy’s earthiness is given a literal manifestation as the grass chafes at her knees and her “fingers dig into the dirt.” Julia, who is pictured crouching and (not incidentally) “clutching at herself,” appears to Cathy “in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s.” The association here is with the Virgin Mary, a figure Julia has been explicitly linked with in the previous scene.

This association is extended by the Magnificat hymn that Julia sings to herself having witnessed the act of copulation. The hymn is one of humility before God, taken from a passage in Luke’s Gospel following the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to carry the Christ child in her womb. She visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with a child who will grow into John the Baptist), where she declaims the words of the hymn. Here, Miller combines imagery of motherhood and devotion, while also engaging in comic debasement by having Julia appear barefoot, with her shoes over her hands.

Julia has removed her shoes because of a blister that has broken on her foot; the wound is a physical representation of her inner pain, as Cathy’s abjection is actualized by her tearing at the ground, though the younger woman also pictures herself “surrounded by angels.” In this moment, the sacred and the profane – which otherwise remain poles apart in Miller’s story – are united, and there is at least an implied transference between the two women. Each possesses aspects of character coveted by the other; their encounter brings them together in a fleeting, if ultimately unacknowledged, reconciliation.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 13: “Three-Ten to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard

May 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Complete_Western_Stories_Elmore_LeonardElmore Leonard, who died in 2013, is remembered best as the author of gritty crime thrillers like Glitz, Bandits, and Rum Punch. But the author got his start penning westerns for pulp magazines in the 1950s while working full-time as an ad copywriter. Leonard would write in the morning, between five and seven o’clock, and, as he explains to Greg Sutter in the interview that opens The Complete Western Stories, would surreptitiously write at the office, hiding his manuscript in a desk drawer that he would casually shut whenever someone came by.

Writing for the pulps in their 1950s heyday was relatively lucrative: the magazines paid two cents a word, which meant that a 5,000-word story could net its author $100 – a fairly sizable payday in 1953, and also half the amount Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin, is offered for the dangerous job of transporting outlaw Ben Wade to the train that will carry him to Yuma Territorial Prison in Delmore Dave’s 1957 film adaptation of “Three-Ten to Yuma.”

Leonard had a complicated relationship with Hollywood. He drafted numerous screenplays – including adaptations of his own novels Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up – but he viewed the film business cynically, and seemed to feel that it was peopled with figures not much less venal than the crooks and shysters he habitually wrote about. The 1990 novel Get Shorty is a Hollywood satire premised on the notion that a loan shark could move to Hollywood and seamlessly transition into producing motion pictures. When “Three-Ten to Yuma” was sold for adaptation, Leonard says he “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.”

First published in the March 1953 issue of Dime Western Magazine, “Three-Ten to Yuma” is indeed simple: a deputy marshal named Paul Scallen arrives in the town of Contention with the outlaw Jim Kidd in tow. The two hole up in the local hotel where they wait for the 3:10 train that will transport Kidd to the prison at Yuma. Kidd is a bandit and murderer, and various posses loyal to him are roaming towns in the Apache territory waiting to spring him. Scallen knows this, and his knowledge is what infuses “Three-Ten to Yuma” with much of its tension.

The majority of Leonard’s brief story takes place in the hotel room, and features Scallen and Kidd engaged in a kind of psychological warfare to determine who will gain the upper hand. Neither character is provided anything in the way of back story or motivation, other than the obvious notion that the lawman is determined to ferry his charge to prison while the outlaw is equally determined to escape.

A simple two-hander on a single set would not sit well with Hollywood execs, whose first demand would be to “open” the story to include more exteriors and a larger cast of characters. Which is exactly what the filmmakers did in 1957, and again in 2007, when the film was remade with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. In both films, the deputy marshal is turned into a rancher, and the relationship between captive and captor is complicated by having the bad guy – Crowe in the remake; Glenn Ford in the original – assist the good guy in the climactic stages, a move Leonard studiously avoids.

One thing the films don’t capture, of course, is Leonard’s laconic style, which he honed over the course of his career, but which was already present in the early westerns. As a university English major, Leonard tells Sutter, he taught himself how to write by reading. “I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading for style.”

The style in “Three-Ten to Yuma” is spare and replete with the kind of macho dialogue that could fairly easily be transposed onto the mean streets of Detroit:

“How much do you make, Marshal?” Kidd asked the question abruptly.

“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“What difference does it make?”

Scallen hesitated. “A hundred and fifty a month,” he said, finally, “some expenses, and a dollar bounty for every arrest against a Bisbee ordinance in the town limits.”

Kidd shook his head sympathetically. “And you got a wife and three kids.”

“Well, it’s more than a cowhand makes.”

“But you’re not a cowhand.”

“I’ve worked my share of beef.”

“Forty a month and keep, huh?” Kidd laughed.

“That’s right, forty a month,” Scallen said. He felt awkward. “How much do you make?”

Kidd grinned. When he smiled he looked very young, hardly out of his teens. “Name a month,” he said. “It varies.”

“But you’ve made a lot of money.”

“Enough. I can buy what I want.”

“What are you going to be wanting the next five years?”

“You’re pretty sure we’re going to Yuma.”

“And you’re pretty sure we’re not,” Scallen said. “Well, I’ve got two train passes and a shotgun that says we are. What’ve you got?”

Kidd smiled. “You’ll see.”

This kind of dialogue is ready-made for film, and indeed when screenwriters adapt Leonard, they have a habit of lifting whole chunks from the fiction and dumping them verbatim into their scripts. What they tend to get wrong – and what likely drove Leonard crazy – is that they miss how essential the spareness is, how everything in a Leonard story is stripped down to its barest essentials.

There is nothing extraneous in “Three-Ten to Yuma,” nor does the story deviate from standard genre tropes or situations. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and a shoot-out at the end. The movies – in particular James Mangold’s 2007 remake – attempt to add psychological depth and nuance, but what they gain in background they lose in immediacy and claustrophobic suspense. Leonard effectively builds an atmosphere of threat over the course of a very brief story – the whole thing runs fewer than fifteen pages, but is a masterpiece of efficiency.

When asked how he writes such riveting fiction, Leonard famously remarked that he leaves out the boring parts. His early westerns, now largely overshadowed by his crime fiction, provide glimpses of the style he would develop into. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is an example of his fascination with the interaction between officers of the law and criminals, and the often shifting ground between the two. His later novels would replace the good guy/bad guy dichotomy with bad guys and even badder guys, but his nascent concerns were nevertheless present in his pulp work. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is effective because of its spareness and style: it leaves out the boring parts. Hollywood take note.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 12: “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

May 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything_That_Rises_O'ConnorOn April 22 of this year, Stephen Colbert took to the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at New York City’s Symphony Space. The celebrated cable television satirist was not there in character as his bigoted, ignorant right-wing alter-ego; he was there as himself, and he was there to read a story. The event was part of the thirtieth anniversary season of Selected Shorts, a combination podcast and reading program that pairs short fiction with celebrity readers.

This was not the first time Colbert had participated in the literary programming at Symphony Space, but according to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Katherine Minton, who runs the program, thought he would be a natural fit with O’Connor. Like the writer, Colbert is a Catholic from the South, and the two share an affinity for irony and biting humour. Italie quotes Minton as saying, “I asked him and he said yes right away, and told me that he’d like to read ‘The Enduring Chill.'”

It is not difficult to understand what Colbert appreciates about O’Connor’s story. One of the author’s later works (the collection in which it appears was published posthumously, following O’Connor’s death from lupus), the piece contains the cascading ironies for which the writer is justly celebrated, but also evinces a control over its tone and its subject that is absent from her earlier works. Particularly significant, perhaps, the central theme of the story is one Colbert made much of in his career as a mock pundit: hypocrisy.

Asbury Porter Fox, a twenty-five-year-old native of a backwater Southern town with the delightful name Timberboro, has been away at university in New York. He returns home suffering from a fever and chills and convinced he is dying. This scenario – which, in O’Connor’s hands, turns out to be the set-up for an elaborate, religiously suffused shaggy dog story – provides an opportunity for the author to corrosively deconstruct the familial relationship between Asbury, his overbearing mother, and his schoolteacher sister, Mary George.

At first Asbury appears to belong to the class of O’Connor’s patented intellectuals – a group the author had little but disdain for. He attends university in the big city – a location that never bodes well in an O’Connor story – where he is a failed writer, having penned “two lifeless novels,” a “half-dozen stationary plays,” a group of “prosy poems” and “sketchy short stories.” The only writing of his he has not burned consists of a long letter to his mother – which takes up the entirety of two notebooks – meant to explain himself and his life. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” we are told.

Here is O’Connor at her most blisteringly ironic. Asbury is not an intellectual; at best, he is a pseudo-intellectual, someone who strives for credibility but continually falls short. His university friend Goetz, upon learning of Asbury’s illness, counsels that the young man consider it an illusion, like all of life, but Asbury is unable to comprehend what this might mean. Goetz has been to Japan, where he became a Buddhist; he buys Asbury a ticket to a lecture on the Hindu philosophy Vedanta (Asbury is bored to tears by the talk), following which members of the audience retreat to Goetz’s apartment. Among them is a Jesuit priest with the outrageous name Ignatius Vogle, who speaks airily about the “real probability of the New Man.”

Asbury feels an affinity for Vogel’s affectations (perhaps unconsciously recognizing in the Jesuit a fellow poseur), which seem to stand in opposition to his mother, whom the young man considers little more than a rube incapable of comprehending his artistic aspirations. “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here,” his mother says in an attempt to be encouraging. “We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” She advises her son to include the Civil War in whatever he writes. “That always makes a long book.”

Asbury’s mother – for whom the epitome of literary achievement is Gone With the Wind – has nothing in the way of artistic or intellectual ability, but the story treats her more sympathetically than her son because she is genuine where Asbury is artificial. Like her creator, she has remained close to the small community in which she has always lived and looks with suspicion on the teeming masses in New York. She insists that Asbury consult the local physician – tellingly named Dr. Block – who, despite his back-country ways and colourful dialect, is the person who eventually diagnoses Asbury.

At the risk of ruining the joke, it turns out that the young man is not dying. In this, Mary George hits close to home: “Asbury can’t write so he gets sick,” she tells their mother. “He’s going to be an invalid instead of an artist.” This is fairly close to the truth as Asbury has determined it. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, he has convinced himself he is dying and that his death will substitute for the production of a great work of art as his life’s magnificent act. “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death. He had seen this from the first with a kind of mystical clarity.”

Reading these sentences in an O’Connor story should set off instant alarm bells, and should clearly indicate that Asbury is ripe for comeuppance. (The relevant Bible text here is Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”) Nor should it be surprising that the instrument of this comeuppance is a priest – not a devotee of “the New Man,” like Ignatius Vogel, but a true fire-and-brimstone Jesuit who strips Asbury of the hypocritical mantle he has donned and leaves him naked before his God (in O’Connor, the deity always merits a capital letter).

There is irony here, too. Asbury initially asks his mother to summon Father Finn because he assumes the priest will resemble Ignatius Vogel. (His first question is about whether Father Finn has read Joyce; the other man doesn’t even know whom Asbury is referring to.) Instead of indulging Asbury’s inclinations toward intellectual pretension, Father Finn berates him for neglecting his eternal soul by not doing enough to serve God in this life.

Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not a Roman.”

“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.

Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.

“But you’re not dead yet!”

Father Finn’s retort is brutal in its directness (it’s one of the only moments in the story in which the irony is dropped and O’Connor speaks directly) and its ability to cut to the heart of the real sickness afflicting Asbury.

Asbury’s solipsism and self-involvement have conspired to convince him that he is too grand for the town of Timberboro and even for his own family. But his carefully constructed persona is easily rent by someone who recognizes the insincerity and deceit underpinning it. Asbury likens the letter he writes for his mother to the work of Kafka, but misquotes Yeats and burns his own fiction, which he considers substandard and ineffective. His climactic confrontation with Father Finn represents the moment O’Connor insisted on in her work: the dramatic instant in which grace is offered. This is often, in O’Connor, a moment of violence; here the violence is rhetorical rather than physical, but no less scalding for all of that.

The story’s final image finds O’Connor in full symbolist mode: a water stain on Asbury’s bedroom wall, which appears as a bird with an icicle in its beak, is seen to be descending toward the young man. This water stain is likened to the Holy Ghost “emblazoned in ice instead of fire,” and making its “implacable” way toward the figure prone on the bed. In this final moment, the chill of Asbury’s illness, which has proved not to be so mortal as he imagined (“People just don’t die like they used to,” his mother tells him), is replaced by a different kind of enduring chill, this one more spiritually potent and transforming. The veil of hypocrisy has been torn away and the egotistical hypocrite has been forced to confront his essential self. No wonder Colbert likes the piece.

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