31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 20: “Collateral Damage” by Wayne Tefs

May 20, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

From Meteor Storm

The stories in Wayne Tefs’ collection are about the limits of masculinity. In “Meathooks for Hands,” a farmer who didn’t go to war because his occupation was deemed necessary to the war effort at home shoots geese with his nephew, but is unable to prevent his wife from staking a claim to her own independence when she takes up with another man. The nephew in that story, who is also the story’s narrator, is 16 years old and on the cusp of manhood. He witnesses his uncle in what appears to be an incipient act of homicidal violence, and finds the older man’s inability to actualize his aggression difficult to process:

I was thinking the book I’d been reading, Mandingo, was a lot like what was happening in the kitchen. The violence, the whole business about women and sex, and men fighting each other to the death. But I saw now it was not. The book was steamy and overblown with high emotions that thrilled me in a way, and yet what was happening in the kitchen was ordinary but more frightening.

The “whole business about women and sex, and men fighting each other to the death” is a romantic ideal to which the teenagers in “Collateral Damage” ascribe to one degree or another; they are also on the cusp of manhood and do not yet fully understand that atavistic notions of violence and superiority are “steamy and overblown,” whereas reality is “ordinary but more frightening.”

The two teens who form the central duo in “Collateral Damage,” Rick, the first-person narrator, and Gil, who owns a pickup truck and whose relationship with Rick is “based on him driving [them] around … and [Rick] paying for gas,” are enticed up to Gil’s older brother’s tent by the prospect of getting laid. Gil’s brother, Henri, is an ex-con who “never seemed to have trouble turning up women.” Rick is a college-bound kid who has no idea what to do with himself, and Gil is a wastrel who “failed at just about everything.” When Henri’s woman, Tina, comes on to the more sensitive Rick, Gil becomes angry and departs. Gil returns after a bout of drinking, and violence ensues.

The fact that the boys are both 17 is something of a gimme: teenage males are subject to hormonal storms and it is no wonder that Gil’s unformed masculine psyche is slighted by Tina’s refusal of his sexual advances. But Tefs is not so obvious as to create a Manichean separation between the virtuous Rick and the vicious Gil. Rick is presented as the more intellectual of the two, and he is also the one who is more wounded by his encounter with Tina:

I did not feel like a good guy, I felt like a bastard. I’d used Tina, who was after all just another person trying to get by, and now it felt to me as if I was chucking her away, like trash, and that’s no way to treat anyone.

Gil is driven to physical aggression by a combination of drink and the implicit repudiation of his masculinity, whereas Rick has sex with Tina and then feels bereft on account of the “emptiness” he sees inside her.

Rick is unable to divorce his physical experience from his ontological dilemma:

Reality does not match up with desire. Sometimes it does, but a lot of the time it doesn’t, and whether a life goes on and makes sense to a person or doesn’t depends on how many times it works out against how many times it doesn’t. Mostly you think things will always work out but growing up means realizing that it doesn’t and accepting that, or not accepting it and turning into someone you hadn’t set out to be, frustrated and angry, defeated by life. I wondered if Tina felt that way. There were signs of it in Gil, as if he felt tragic even to his own self.

Tina, it turns out, does feel the way Rick imagines her feeling; she confesses to having been raped by her father and tells Rick that she’s “collateral damage” of a kind of fractured masculinity. Tina is offered the chance to attend dance school but she turns it down, assuming that to do so would be to buy into the dreams and aspirations of the very adults who had hurt her:

She had talent, that much was clear. She had talent and she was throwing it away and that was very sad, as sad as Gil’s not having anything at all and wanting to, but there was strength in Tina, too, the courage to say no to what others wanted for her and the determination to see it out. I admired her, I thought that was a good way to live. Too many people based what they did on what others wanted them to do, or on what they thought others wanted them to do, and after a while they didn’t know who they were and what they wanted. Sometimes it was important to say no. Otherwise you were living someone else’s dream. “Parents,” I said finally. “Fuck them.”

Of course, Tina has a greater reason to say “fuck them” about her parents, but Tefs does not end his story with the damaged girl. Instead, he ends it with Rick returning to the hyper-masculine world of his teenaged male counterparts, a world that now seems to him “a grey and lonely place.” Rick knows that he will escape, that he will eventually realize his complete selfhood. In the meantime, he worries about the damage he might have inadvertently wreaked on Tina: “I hoped she was okay. I hoped her life turned out okay but I had my doubts. I sighed and tried not to think about that.” In Tefs’ conception, life renders every one of us collateral damage.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 19: “The Latehomecomer” by Mavis Gallant

May 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From From the Fifteenth District

“I know what you are thinking,” said my mother, who was standing behind me. “I know that you are judging me. If you could guess what my life has been – the whole story, not only the last few years – you wouldn’t be hard on me.”

Mavis Gallant has been accused of being hard on her characters: she has an austere yet merciless eye that is able to cut through hypocrisy and pretension with the ease of a scalpel through flesh. It is this tendency, perhaps, that has resulted in her being less read than she deserves to be; her near-contemporary, Alice Munro, is more beloved, largely because Munro is more compassionate in her writing. Gallant, by contrast, can be vicious and unsparing. But she is never less than completely honest, which may be another attribute that renders modern readers uncomfortable.

“The Latehomecomer” is about a German POW in France who returns home to Berlin in 1950 to discover that his mother has remarried. The young man, Thomas, endures an uncomfortable interview with Martin, his new stepfather, and Martin’s friend, Willy Wehler, all the while trying to recapture the idea of his mother that he held in his mind prior to his return home.

As with most of Gallant’s stories, the dominant tone of “The Latehomecomer” is one of acerbic irony. Thomas, who has spent five postwar years in Rennes as the result of a bureaucratic error, realizes that he represents something that his fellow country folk would rather not be reminded of: “my appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth; my chronic dysentery and anemia, my craving for sweets, my reticence with strangers, the cast-off rags I had worn on arrival, all said ‘war’ when everyone wanted peace, ‘captivity’ when the word was ‘freedom,’ and ‘dry bread’ when everyone was thinking ‘jam and butter.'” Everywhere, Germany’s inhabitants console themselves with wishful thinking about what occurred during the reign of the Nazi regime:

[Martin] had inherited two furnished apartments in a town close to an American military base. One of the two had been empty for years. The occupants had moved away, no one knew where – perhaps to Sweden. After their departure, which had taken place at five o’clock on a winter morning in 1943, the front door had been sealed with a government stamp depicting a swastika and an eagle. The vanished tenants must have died, perhaps in Sweden, and now no local person would live in the place, because a whole family of ghosts rattled about, opening and shutting drawers, banging on pipes, moving chairs and ladders.

There could be only one reason why the family would abandon their home at five o’clock on a winter morning, and while it’s undoubtedly more comfortable to think that they made it to Sweden – even that they died there – this is surely a consoling fiction. Like many of Gallant’s most corrosive ironies, she refuses to spell this out, instead allowing the reader to reach the awful conclusion for herself.

The spectre of the war haunts the story in other ways. Thomas’s father was stabbed to death while tearing down an election poster from the wall of a schoolhouse; his stepfather Martin is an older man who lost an arm while working as a tram conductor and so (presumably) sat out the war. He is prone to making jokes about wartime, claiming that a faded rectangle on the wall of his house represents the spot where the previous tenants removed Hitler’s picture when “they left in a hurry without paying the rent.” An ex-Waffen-S.S. soldier from Belgium haunts the neighbourhood, complaining that the local women won’t go out with him and that no one has thanked him for his contribution to the war effort. When Willy tells Martin that the Belgian fought on Germany’s side in the war, Martin’s response is, “He did? No wonder we lost.”

Here we see glimmers of Gallant’s mordant humour, a strain of which runs throughout “The Latehomecomer.” Most frequently, this humour attaches itself to Willy Wehler, who Thomas describes as “a stout man with three locks of slick grey hair across his skull.” He goes on to say, “All the fat men of comic stories and of literature were to be Willy Wehler to me, in the future.” When he visits, Willy is wearing a nylon shirt, which in the years following the war was considered a luxury item. “That Willy!” Martin says to Thomas, “Out of a black uniform and into the black market before you could say ‘democracy.'” About this observation, Thomas says that he “never knew whether it was a common Berlin joke or something Martin had made up or the truth about Willy.”

The entirety of Gallant’s story is about the residue that is left over after a war, and the changes that a catastrophic conflict can wreak on individuals and communities. The word “latehomecomer” refers to “a new category of persons” that Martin lumps together with the “shiftless and illiterate refugees from the Soviet zone, or bombed-out families still huddled in barracks” – categories of people who might cause him to lose his postwar inheritance should the state decide to increase taxes in order to house and feed them.  Thomas’s Uncle Gerhard has been “officially de-Nazified by a court of law” and now lives “in two rooms carved out of a ruin, raising rabbits for a living and hoping that no one would notice him.” For his part, Thomas, who was taken prisoner when he was only 16, returns home at 21 to find that his own mother fails to recognize him at the train station. Willy tells Thomas a story about a topaz brooch he bought from his neighbours during the war – a story his mother tells Thomas not to repeat because the Nazis had made it illegal to purchase anything from Jews.

No one in Gallant’s story is unaffected by the conflict, and Thomas does not return home to a cozy reunion with his mother and his absent brother. Rather, he finds his mother remarried and a strange surname engraved on the plaque attached to the house where she is living. Thomas has a recollection of his mother nursing a baby and another woman telling her, “Give some to Thomas.” While he suggests that the idea of him drinking from his mother’s breast “must have been a dream,” he is clearly desperate to return to a kind of childlike existence, something that is no longer possible. In the end, he is left wishing he “was a few hours younger” and still on the train that would deliver him back home, a point at which he still held “the one beloved face” of his prewar mother in his mind.

31 Days of Stories: A conundrum

May 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Smack in the middle of a month dedicated to short stories, The Afterword has posted the shortlist for the Danuta Gleed Award, which is presented “to the best first collection of short fiction.” The nominees are:

  • Overqualified by Joey Comeau
  • Wax Boats by Sarah Roberts
  • Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis

The award comes with a $10,000 purse, but the shortlist has left yr. humble correspondent somewhat confused. Comeau’s book, a collection of mock cover letters that Brian Bethune at Macleans praised as “One of the season’s most remarkable books,” was promoted as a novel. Of course, the folks at the Danuta Gleed Award are not the first people to grapple with the book’s essence. Fellow ECW Press author Corey Redekop wrote on his blog: “Overqualified is a hard novel to categorize; is it a memoir? An exercise in form and style? A joke? Probably all [of these], and then some.” And let’s face it: generic categories are often slipperier than they might at first appear. Lives of Girls and Women, anyone?

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 17: “Nine Outtakes from the Life of Mark T.” by Sharon English

May 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Zero Gravity

There is something expressionistic about the way Sharon English allows her narrative to unfold in “Nine Outtakes from the Life of Mark T.” Or rather, the narrative doesn’t so much unfold as it shades in, scene after scene, each “outtake” placing the surrounding pieces in different contexts, extending or obscuring meaning. The nine short scenes that make up the story are not arranged chronologically, nor do they entirely cohere stylistically. Instead, they aggregate to create an impressionistic portrait of a serial loser, a man chasing a dream he is likely never to achieve. In that sense, English’s story is a kind of tragedy.

Not that its central figure is likely to inspire much sympathy. An aspiring screenwriter and university drop-out, Mark T. takes his girlfriend’s three-year-old son with him on a drug deal, and summarily loses the child. When the cop on the scene asks why Mark waited three hours before calling 911, Mark vacillates and then offers the flimsiest of excuses: “Look, what good would it do to freak her out? I realize I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I just thought I’d be able to find her.” In fact, though we are told that images of Mark’s girlfriend, Eunice, often “obsess him,” he also acknowledges that once he has made the 911 call (“that surrendering of effort”) he feels as though “the connection’s gone slack.”

Perhaps because he knows how she will react to the news of her son’s disappearance: “At first, when she’d simply been hysterical, he’d sensed a role for himself and tried to be optimistic. Then when the police called and he said ‘Thank God,’ she hit him on the chest with her fist. Careless. You’re so fucking careless.” Eunice, an actress, had asked Mark to babysit at the last minute, which gives Mark pause:

Never has Eunice suggested that she’s looking for a potential father for her son, and he’s hardly a choice candidate. But then abruptly, today, she needs him to babysit. Last-minute audition, cousin busy – perhaps that’s all it is. Or maybe it’s just the beginning. First the illusion of low maintenance, and then …

To the commitment-phobic screenwriter, the idea that the veil of Eunice’s “low maintenance” character might drop is enough to cause him anxiety; he admits to himself that he loves her, but can’t decide whether he loves her enough. Certainly, Mark evinces a good deal of self-awareness when he suggests that “he’s hardly a choice candidate” as a father.

Mark has a history of petty crime: he defaulted on his student loans and fled the country, only to be lured back by his drug connection, who convinced him that he could operate here under an assumed name. Being a film freak, the names he chooses for a series of forged credit cards are all-too-obviously recognizable: “John T. Woo, Martin Brando, Serge Leone.” “Long ago,” we are told, Mark “realized that life, to be truly known, must be learned independently and rigorously , through testing and risk. Feel violence is wrong? Crime doesn’t pay? Try, then see.”

In addition to being a petty criminal, Mark is a self-involved slacker who is unreasonably convinced of his own “superior imagination.” In the end, the child’s disappearance is presented as little more than fodder for his screenplays; the imagined sequence of events during the period in which the boy was missing get noted in the same manner as the superficial character details Mark jots down about random strangers whose pictures he’s taken with his Polaroid camera. Mark is able to convince himself that the boy did not suffer any lasting damage as a result of his negligence: “Fade to black and roll credits. No animals were harmed during this production. As for persons, the doctor’s report stated there appeared to be only superficial harm.” As though the only harm from such a traumatic experience is the stuff that appears on the flesh as minor cuts or abrasions.

When Mark (who evinces many of the tendencies common to psychopaths) thinks back on the incident, the “composition keeps dissolving and reassembling,” very much like the structure of English’s story. Weird details jump out of the narrative, like the woman riding a horse near the Vancouver airport where Mark is headed to complete his narcotics transaction. Ultimately, he ends up in California, searching for “a time zone of his own making.” But he is haunted by a sensation he can’t explain, one that he surely wouldn’t recognize as shame or regret:

Occasionally, there’s a feeling – a wet, chilled, terribly uncomfortable feeling that surges up from the deep, and a sense of being peeled open to it, slowly filled up. Whenever the feeling comes Mark crosses his legs and hugs himself.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 14: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

May 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” – Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner

Although his assessment was a tad arch (as we saw earlier in the week, Faulkner himself abandoned the ornate, high modernist style on occasion), Hemingway certainly did not need big words to tackle big ideas. Nor did he need a voluminous numbers of pages. “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of Hemingway’s masterpieces of short fiction (and one of the best American short stories, period) runs to four pages, and yet manages to carry more impact than most novels.

Told mostly in dialogue, it’s the story of an American man and a girl who stop for a drink at a Spanish railway station. They are waiting for the train from Barcelona, heading to Madrid. While they wait, they drink beer and engage in what appears to be innocuous badinage:

“Oh cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink: That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

“Should we have another drink?”

“All right.”

The two talk about beer and anise, a drink the girl has never tasted. They bicker back and forth the way that couples do, but in the early stages of the story, their conversation sounds entirely unremarkable, even boring. The only slightly discordant note is the girl’s insistence that the hills in the distance look like white elephants. She appears to mean this literally, referring in the passage above to “the coloring of their skin through the trees.” However, with Papa Hemingway, things are never just as they appear on the surface, and the choice of white elephants in this context is absolutely deliberate.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “white elephant” as: “an item or property that is no longer useful or wanted, especially one that is difficult to maintain or dispose of.” At first, this seems like a strange association for the girl to be making on a symbolic level, but the metaphoric import becomes staggeringly clear a few lines later:

“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.

“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

With the mention of the operation, which the man goes on to say is “just to let the air in,” the entire tenor of the conversation changes. All of a sudden, what was light and quotidian becomes fraught with unspoken tension.

“Hills Like White Elephants” was published in 1927. At the time, Spain was a devoutly Catholic country and abortion was illegal. Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the text, it is clear from the ensuing dialogue that this is the nature of the operation the girl is travelling to Madrid to undergo. “I don’t care about me,” the girl insists, and later the man tells her, “I don’t want anybody but you.” Though they circle around the subject, they never address it head on; nevertheless, the import of their conversation is abundantly clear to the reader.

The dialogue is shot through with irony, especially in the argument the man uses to try to persuade the girl that having the abortion is the best thing for her:

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve know lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

One of the reasons Hemingway’s writing is so brilliant – and so difficult for students being exposed to it for the first time – is that he never directs his readers as to how they are meant to feel at any given time. A less confident writer would have written, “‘And afterward they were all so happy,’ she said sarcastically.” Hemingway leaves off the final dialogue tag, expecting his reader to figure out the tone in which the girl has spoken. Reading a Hemingway story involves a process of plumbing the depths, searching beneath the surface of what is being said for the buried meaning.

The opening line of the story reads, “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” People unfamiliar with Spain’s geography will not realize that the hills Hemingway is referring to, when viewed from afar, take on the shape of a pregnant woman reclining on her back. It is not necessary to know this to appreciate the story. However, it is yet another level of insinuation the author has built into his carefully constructed, wickedly executed text. It’s true that Hemingway did not need big words to convey his big ideas. In many cases, the big ideas exist in the interstices between the words, waiting for the reader to come along and excavate them.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 13: “Virtual” by Ali Smith

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Other Stories and Other Stories

How do we care for one another in a postmodern world? What constitutes human connection and how are these fragile bonds formed? In a world that is defined by its seemingly insatiable appetites – for food, for sex, for drugs, for technology – how do we know when we’ve had enough?

The collection that contains Ali Smith’s story “Virtual” was first published in 1999, just as the Internet was gaining real traction in mainstream society. Eleven years on, the story continues to resonate; its spare, almost minimalist technique seems perfectly suited to a society that has lost its ability to forge connections on a deep or meaningful level, and to a time when issues of self-image are defined by an increasingly artificial media and celebrity culture. Smith’s story addresses big issues – death, the nature of identity, loneliness, and isolation – but it eschews didacticism in favour of a quietly elliptical approach.

Practically no one is named in the story. There is a first-person narrator, whose aunt is in hospital for an unspecified operation involving “something unmentionable down there.” There is a girl in the bed opposite the aunt, with “dark hair and dark eyes and the paleness and seriousness of face of one of those painted Pre-Raphaelite heroines.” There are the girl’s mother, father, and younger brother and sister. Only Edith, a new patient in the aunt’s hospital room, is named. Edith never speaks in the story, and as a character she is insignificant; her only function is to listen to the aunt ramble on. (At one point we are told that Edith “was listening and nodding and adding her own commentary,” but this commentary is not provided for us.) What we have, then, is a series of nameless figures, differentiated only by generic identifiers.

Except for the “Pre-Raphaelite” girl in the next bed. When the narrator first spies her, she is struck by the beauty of the girl’s face, but when the covers are removed from the girl’s bed, the narrator is taken aback by what she sees: “Her arms were like the arms of a starving child. Her legs, swollen by the huge knuckles of their knees and ankles, were like the legs of one of those white bodies from the last war dead on the ground and bulldozed into a pit.” The girl is anorexic, and her condition has necessitated that she drop out of university. Or, as the aunt puts it, “There’s nothing actually wrong with her so to speak. She just won’t eat.”

The narrator becomes obsessed by this girl who “just won’t eat,” returning unnecessarily to the hospital on the pretext of visiting her aunt, but actually wanting to see the emaciated girl in the bed opposite. Her attempts to understand the girl are in vain, and she experiences a kind of transference, becoming psychologically absorbed by the hunger that she herself feels:

I was hungry too, even though I’d eaten all day. All afternoon and all that evening I had been eating things. It’s not that I ate more than I usually did, and it’s not that I eat any more than the average person. It’s just that today, for once, I had simply noticed the casual stream and variety of the things I put in my mouth. I had eaten an apple and a nectarine and some bread and coleslaw for lunch. I had chewed my fingers and the ends of several pens. I had eaten a chocolate bar and what was left of a packet of crisps and the whole of a packet of Polos. I ate a dinner of aubergine, mozzarella, tomato, garlic and pasta all mixed together, and after it I ate some lettuce and another apple.

This catalogue of foodis a minutely itemized tally of what most of us take for granted; if asked what we to had to eat over a given day, many of us would be unable to immediately recall. It takes the startling figure of an anorexic girl in a hospital bed to jar the narrator out of her complacency and make her aware of the patterns of behaviour that she previously engaged in almost unconsciously.

She also feeds her aunt’s fish, and feels compelled to keep giving them food, despite the fact that the aunt has warned her about the dangers of overfeeding. “I knew it wouldn’t be good for them,” the narrator says. “They still looked hungry.” A bit later the fish are explicitly connected the girl in the hospital – “I fed the fish more food. I thought of the thin girl.” But the narrator can’t apprehend the girl’s motivations any more than she can apprehend what drives the fish to eat, or to know when to stop.

The narrator’s lack of comprehension extends also to her aunt, who at one point refers to the narrator as her mother’s “bad daughter.”

I wondered what she could have meant, saying I was my mother’s bad daughter. My mother’s bad daughter. I couldn’t think which of the things about me it was, which of the things I might have done, and she might have heard about from someone else in that same hushed secret women’s tone, that constituted bad.

Self-awareness proves chimerical for the narrator, but this is understandable since the very nature of identity in Smith’s story is so malleable. It turns out, for example, that the aunt isn’t really related to the narrator at all, but was only a good friend of the narrator’s late mother.

On her final visit to the hospital, the thin girl engages the narrator in conversation and shows her the object she has been given by her family: a Japanese Tamagotchi, a “virtual pet” that has been proffered to her in the misguided notion that she will learn to take care of herself if she has something else to take care of. For her part, the girl finds the electronic noises the pet emits “really irritating.” “Well if you want it to shut up,” her brother suggests reasonably, “you could just take the battery out.”

Of course, humans operate differently from electronic gadgets; our needs can’t be satisfied nor can we be shut off simply by removing a battery. What will it take to satisfy us? What is required to isolate a stable identity in a world that seems diametrically opposed to such stability? The only epiphany the narrator arrives at is that she doesn’t know the answers to these questions. “I couldn’t imagine what to do next,” she says, “or how to be able to do it right.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 12: “Grace” by James Joyce

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Dubliners

In Catholic theology, grace is a supernatural gift bestowed on believers by a benevolent God. It is through the operation of divine grace that believers are able to obtain eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. In less lofty circles, a “grace period” is given to debtors to allow them time to raise money to pay off their debts. Both meanings are germane to James Joyce’s comic tale.

The central figure in the story, Tom Kernan, is a drunkard who is discovered face down in a bar, having fallen down the stairs after an heroic session of binge drinking. A friend of his, Mr. Power, rescues Kernan from the local constable, who would likely have thrown him in jail for public drunkenness, whereupon Mr. Power sees the other man home and promises Kernan’s wife that he will “make a new man out of him.” In modern terms, this involves what is known as an intervention. Power and several friends descend on Kernan’s bedroom, where he is recuperating from the mother of all hangovers, and convince him to accompany them to church, where they will “wash the pot” – that is, go to confession.

They don’t have an easy time of it. Initially, Kernan refuses even to admit that his delicate condition has anything to do with his massive drinking, let alone that he might need any kind of redemption:

– Pain? Not much, answered Mr Kernan. But it’s so sickening. I feel as if I wanted to retch off.

– That’s the boose, said Mr Cunningham firmly.

– No, said Mr Kernan. I think I caught a cold on the car. There’s something that keeps coming into my throat, phlegm or –

– Mucus, said Mr M’Coy.

– It keeps coming like from down in my throat; sickening thing.

– Yes, yes, said Mr M’Coy, that’s the thorax.

Moreover, although Kernan, who was raised Protestant, converted to Catholicism when he married, he has never been devout, preferring instead to give “side-thrusts at” the faith. For his wife’s part, she is no more devout than her husband, but thinks that any means of reforming him must be a good thing: “Her faith was bounded by the kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.”

It quickly becomes clear that the men who want to convert Kernan are not entirely knowledgeable about the theology they are espousing. Their dialogue is a combination of misinterpreted Catholic dogma and outright mistakes. Mr. Cunningham insists that “The General of the Jesuits stands next to the Pope” at mass, which is untrue, and later suggests that Pope Leo XIII was best known for the motto “Lux upon Lux,” a garbled admixture of Latin and English. He follows this with the even more absurd “Crux upon Crux,” which he claims to have been the motto of Leo XIII’s predecessor, Pope Pius IX. The men go on to elucidate a confused exegesis of the doctrine of papal infallibility, which is based on the 1870 Vatican Council declaration that the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from his chair). In the men’s tortured perception, this concept becomes a tautology:

– There they were at it, all the cardinals and bishops and archbishops from all the ends of the earth and these two fighting dog and devil until at last the Pope himself stood up and declared infallibility a dogma of the Church ex cathedra.

The irony here is that although the men evince scant understanding of the concepts they are discussing, their faith is sincere, as is their desire to help Kernan.

Aside from their questionable theology lessons, the men are able to convince Kernan to accompany them to “wash the pot” in part by telling him that the priest who will be officiating is Father Purdon, “a man of the world like ourselves.” The turn of phrase is telling, for it is here that the twin meanings of the story’s title begin to show themselves. On one level, it is obvious that the men performing the intervention want Kernan to experience the divine grace that comes with confessing his sins and promising to reform his wayward behaviour. On another level, however, Joyce is conflating ideas of religion and commerce in a way that lends the meaning of his story a pervasive ambiguity.

As it turns out, when Kernan fell down the pub stairs, he was in the company of Mr. Harford, a moneylender. When Harford’s name comes up in Kernan’s room, it sends a chill of disquiet throughout the group:

He had begun life as an obscure financier by lending small sums of money to workmen at usurious interest. Later on he had become the partner of a very fat short gentleman, Mr Goldberg, of the Liffey Loan Bank. Though he had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code his fellow-Catholics, whenever they had smarted in person or by proxy under his exactions, spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew and an illiterate and saw divine disapproval of usury made manifest through the person of his idiot son. At other times they remembered his good points.

The implication is that when Kernan met Harford in the bar, Kernan “remembered [Harford’s] good points”: he was there to borrow money. When he goes with Power, M’Coy, and Cunningham to the church, Kernan begins “to feel more at home” as he “recognise[s] familiar faces,” one of which belongs to Harford.

Then Father Purdon ascends the pulpit: “Father Purdon knelt down, turned towards the red speck of light and, covering his face with his hands, prayed.” Purdon is the name of the street in Dublin’s notorious red light district that once housed its brothels. By invoking this name and by having the priest kneel down facing “the red speck of light” that is suspended above the altar, Joyce is making an explicit connection between organized religion and prostitution (or – at the very least – commerce). That Purdon is “a man of the world” becomes clear in the Bible text he reads:

For the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Wherefore make unto yourselves friends out of the mammon of iniquity so that when you die they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

The text is from Luke 16, but Purdon alters it tellingly: the original translation reads, “… so that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.” The text is a part of the parable of the unjust steward, which famously ends “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Purdon’s alterations and elisions turn the Bible passage into something much more favourable toward commerce and the business of money than it actually is. As Hope Howell Hodgekins points out, “In Luke 16, Jesus’ irony verges upon cynicism.” In Purdon’s conception, however, “Jesus Christ was not a harsh taskmaster.” There is no conflict between worldliness and Godliness in Purdon’s eyes, and the priest concludes by aligning himself directly with mammon when he compares himself to an accountant.

Significantly, Joyce’s story ends before Kernan makes his confession. It is not certain whether his immortal soul has been saved, or whether he will return to the worldliness represented by Harford the moneylender. Of course, given Joyce’s critique of organized religion as epitomized in the person of Father Purdon, religion and mammon aren’t shown to be all that far removed in the first place.

31 Days of Stories, Day 11: “Dry September” by William Faulkner

May 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Stories of William Faulkner

“The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” – Flannery O’Connor

Faulkner is most often remembered for his rococo stream-of-consciousness modernist novels, such as The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. But Faulkner was capable of writing straightforwardly enough when he wanted to, and his story “Dry September” is a small masterpiece of controlled tension that carries all the force of that Dixie Limited train barrelling down the tracks.

“Dry September” is the story of a lynching. A black man named Will Mayes is rumoured to have raped a white woman named Minnie Cooper in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. There is no proof that Mayes did what he is being accused of, but for ex-soldier John McLendon, proof is unnecessary. Over the protests of the town barber, Hawkshaw, who believes Mayes to be innoncent, McLendon rounds up a posse and they head out to the ice plant where Mayes works as the night watchman. One member of the group has a pair of handcuffs, and McLendon is armed with an automatic pistol.

In addition to being one of Faulkner’s shortest stories, “Dry September” is remarkable for being a story in which the two key incidents are withheld from the reader. The townspeople rush to judgment about Mayes’s guilt in the absence of any hard evidence, and the assault on Minnie, if indeed it occurred, is not dramatized. Instead, we are presented with a heated argument in Hawkshaw’s barber shop about the reasonableness of exacting retribution without clear knowledge of whether a crime was even committed. When Hawkshaw comes to Mayes’s defence, he is shot down in the most anti-intellectual manner imaginable:

The barber said in his mild, stubborn tone: “I aint accusing nobody of nothing. I just know and you fellows know how a woman that never –”

“You damn niggerlover!” the youth said.

In the eyes of the white townspeople, there is no need for proof of Mayes’s guilt and they are appalled that Hawkshaw would take the side of a black man over that of a white woman.

Faulkner deliberately muddies the waters by making Minnie Cooper a homely spinster in her late thirties. There is every indication that she is a virgin, and even one of the white men in the barber shop admits that Minnie is prone to flights of fancy: “This aint the first man scare she ever had, like Hawkshaw says. Wasn’t there something about a man on the kitchen roof, watching her undress, about a year ago?” Of course, for McLendon, the question of Mayes’s guilt is not at issue; he even suggests that it doesn’t matter whether anything happened to Minnie: “Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?”

There is an undeniable strain of sexual excitement that accrues to Millie in the eyes of the other townspeople; when Millie’s friends take her out on a Saturday evening to try to distract her, they are almost ravenous in their desire to hear the salacious details of Millie’s story: “When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened. What he said and did; everything.” The titillation of Millie’s friends is reflected in McLendon’s fear of miscegenation; where the women feel a frisson of sexual energy at the thought of Mayes, the white men of Jefferson are infuriated by the notion that a black man might come along and befoul one of the town’s white women, and they intend to send a message that such activity will not go unpunished. If Will Mayes isn’t guilty, McLendon suggests, his fate will stand as a warning to other town blacks to keep away from Jefferson’s forbidden fruit.

The matter of Mayes’s precise fate is the second major incident in the story that is withheld from us. The lynch mob is seen from Hawkshaw’s perspective; when he decides that he can’t be a party to whatever they are planning to do with Mayes, he jumps out of McLendon’s moving vehicle and is last seen limping back into town. What the other men do to Mayes is unknown, although the story ends with McLendon returning home to his wife, a scene that includes a second mention of the soldier’s pistol: “He took the pistol from his hip and laid it on the table beside the bed, and sat on the bed and removed his shoes, and rose and slipped his trousers off.” There is a stark incongruity here between the quotidian matter of McLendon undressing for bed and the foreboding implications of the pistol lying on the bedside table. It is impossible to know whether McLendon used the pistol on Mayes; in any event, there are any number of ways the black man might have come to harm that don’t involve gunfire. But Faulkner refuses to provide the information about what exactly happened after Hawkshaw abandoned the lynch mob.

One thing that is abundantly clear is that McLendon is capable of great violence. A decorated soldier from the First World War, he lives in a house that is “fresh as a birdcage.” The notion that the house keeps its inhabitants caged inside it is underlined when McLendon returns to discover his wife waiting up for him:

“Haven’t I told you about sitting up like this, waiting to see when I come in?”

“John,” she said. She laid the magazine down. Poised on the balls of his feet, he glared at her with his hot eyes, his sweating face.

“Didn’t I tell you?” He went toward her. She looked up then. He caught her shoulder. She stood passive, looking at him.

“Don’t, John. I couldn’t sleep … The heat; something. Please, John. You’re hurting me.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” He released her and half struck, half flung her across the chair, and she lay there and watched him quietly as he left the room.

The wife’s protest about the heat is significant: the tempers in the town are on edge after a summer that consisted of “sixty-two rainless days” and the heat is a contributing factor in the incitement of violence. Like the sweltering Brooklynites in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the townspeople in Faulkner’s story suffer in a pressure cooker, and it is only a matter of time before it explodes. It is no accident that Mayes works at an ice plant, and ice is repeatedly used as a symbol of succor in the story. When Millie becomes hysterical, her friends provide “cracked ice for her temples” before calling the doctor.

The story’s final image is not one of heat, but of cold: the “cold moon and the lidless stars,” beneath which the “dark world seemed to lie stricken.” This is a progression from “the bloody September twilight” that opened the story – an image that carries within it an explicit recognition of incipient violence. By the story’s close, twilight has given way to full dark, and the experience of the town – whatever that experience may have been – has afflicted it irreparably.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 10: “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” by Richard Bruce Nugent

May 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Richard Bruce Nugent is one of the Harlem Renaissance’s lesser-known figures, but he was also one of the most groundbreaking. As Tom Wirth writes, Nugent “was a phenomenon that was not supposed to exist – an African-American artist influenced by Michelangelo, Beardsley, and Erte who devoured the novels of Firbank and Huysmans and wrote stream-of-consciousness prose – a black man trespassing in white Elysian Fields.” He was the roommate of Wallace Thurman, and later a resident of the notorious “Niggerati Manor” (“Niggerati” being Thurman’s name for the group of artists, writers, and bohemians who formed the Harlem intelligentsia of the time). He counted among his circle of friends the more recognizable Harlem Renaissance figures Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Countee Cullen. An actor and visual artist as well as a writer, Nugent suffered a kind of double marginalization: he was both African-American and gay.

It is because of the latter that “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” became such a cause célèbre, and is arguably one of the reasons why its author didn’t receive the same attention as his contemporaries from American publishers or scholars. Quite simply, Nugent was the first African-American writer to treat themes of homosexuality openly and explicitly in his work.

“Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is an impressionistic piece about Alex, a 19-year-old black man in New York who feels the artistic impulse tug so insistently that he eschews gainful employment to devote himself to the pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures, much to the chagrin of his mother:

he wondered why he couldn’t find work … a job … when he had first come to New York he had … and he had only been fourteen then was it because he was nineteen now that he felt so idle … and contented … or because he was an artist … but was he an artist … was one an artist until one became known … of course he was an artist … and strangely enough so were all his friends … he should be ashamed that he didn’t work … but … was it five years in New York … or the fact that he was an artist … when his mother said she couldn’t understand him … why did he vaguely pity her instead of being ashamed … he should be … his mother and his relatives all said so …

Indeed, his mother rebukes him harshly, calling him “lazy and shiftless,” saying that he “won’t do anything to make money,” and that he thinks he’s above having to earn a living “just because [he’s] tried to write one or two little poems and stories that no one understands.” All of which prompts Alex to wonder, “did Wilde’s parents or Shelley’s or Goya’s talk to them like that …”

Alex has a girlfriend named Melva, but while out walking one night, with the street “so long and narrow … and blue … in the distance it reached the stars,” he meets a stranger who “walked music” and “knew the beauty of the narrow blue.” Alex is attracted to the man and takes him home:

Alex turned in his doorway … up the stairs and the stranger waited for him to light the room … no need for words … they had always known each other ……… as they undressed by the blue dawn … Alex knew he had never seen a more perfect being … his body was all symmetry and music … and Alex called him Beauty … long they lay … blowing smoke and exchanging thoughts … and Alex swallowed with difficulty …  he felt a glow of tremor … and they talked and … slept …

The writing is sexually charged even by today’s permissive standards – there are worlds of meaning and innuendo in the spaces containing those ellipses marks – and it would certainly have proved shocking to a reader of Nugent’s time. The shock was, of course, calculated: Nugent cherished his mantle as the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, and did what he could to cultivate it.

Beyond the sexual nature of his material, it should be clear by now that Nugent wrote with a kind of unbridled romanticism, which is absolutely appropriate for the character he created; Alex aestheticizes every experience – be it the footsteps on a city sidewalk or Beauty, “all symmetry and music,” undressing in the blue dawn. Beauty himself has no such impulse, saying at one point, “I wonder why I like to look at such things […] things like smoke and cats … and you …” Alex, by contrast, knows precisely why he is attracted to symmetry and music and beauty, and is able to articulate these things in language that is shot through with lush imagery and sensuousness:

Alex’s pulse no longer hammered from … wrist to finger tip … wrist to finger tip … the rose dusk had become blue night … and soon … soon they would go out into the blue …….

Alex spends much of the story’s second half pining for Beauty (and pining for beauty) and wondering whether it is possible to love both the young man and his girlfriend simultaneously. (He concludes that this is entirely possible, although the last three words of the story – “… To Be Continued …” – suggest that he has not come to a final resolution about his situation or his desires.)

Nugent’s story explores themes of class and homosexuality, but it is not a didactic work. It does not seek to proselytize or to advance a political message. It is a work of aesthetics, not of propaganda. It is, in short, the kind of work that W.E.B. Du Bois felt African-American writers of his time had no business writing. In “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois wrote:

[A]ll art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.

Elsewhere Du Bois argued that embracing aesthetics over propaganda would “turn the Negro renaissance into decadence.” For his part, Nugent was perfectly happy to scandalize the ideological leadership of the Harlem Renaissance, but the lack of a didactic message in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” does not diminish it as a political piece. Published in 1926, at the height of Jazz Age America, it represented a technically ambitious, thematically challenging work from an African-American artist who refused to censor himself to please sensibilities on either side of the colour line. That, to me, seems like the very definition of a political writer.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 9: “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy

May 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

Count Tolstoy is rightly regarded as one of the great practitioners of the novel form. But beyond his undisputed masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also wrote a number of powerful shorter pieces, which are often forgotten in discussions of the man and his work. As John Bayley asserts:

Tolstoy’s stories are in some sense founded on a paradox. They are carefully and beautifully composed tales by a genius who did not give his whole allegiance to this formal method of composition. It is an exciting paradox, and like many such paradoxes in art it produced with some incidental defects powerful and unforgettable results.

Surely the best known and most critically hailed of Tolstoy’s shorter works is his 1886 novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” but among his lesser-known works, the story “Master and Man,” written in 1895 (relatively late in Tolstoy’s career), is a brilliantly crafted piece, a work of spiralling terror, the outcome of which is both inevitable and unexpected.

The premise of the story is simple: on the day after St. Nicholas’ Day, businessman Vasíli Andréevich Brekhunóv sets out with his manservant Nikíta to seal the purchase of a tract of land. Despite an encroaching blizzard, Vasíli insists that they go at once, because he is afraid that the piece of land will get snapped up by someone else if he hesitates. Accordingly, Nikíta hitches the family’s trusted horse, Mukhórty, to a sledge, and the two set off into the snow.

It is not difficult to predict what transpires. Mukhórty wanders off the road, the signposts for which have been buried under increasingly high snowdrifts, and the two men become hopelessly lost. They come across the home of a wealthy landowner who offers them drinks and a room for the night, but Vasíli, convinced he will lose the land he wants to purchase if he waits, insists on pressing forward, despite the driving snow and the fact the night is falling.

“Master and Man” is, among other things, one of the coldest stories ever written. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the blizzard and its attendant effects on the two wayward travellers are vivid and horrifying, as is the sense of dislocation and disorientation the two men succumb to:

“Now then, friend, stir yourself!” he shouted to the horse, but in spite of the shake of the reins Mukhórty moved only at a walk.

The snow in places was up to his knees, and the sledge moved by fits and starts with his every movement.

Nikíta took the whip that hung over the front of the sledge and struck him once. The good horse, unused to the whip, sprang forward and moved at a trot, but immediately fell back into an amble and then a walk. So they went on for five minutes. It was dark and the snow whirled from above and rose from below, so that sometimes the shaft-bow could not be seen. At times the sledge seemed to stand still and the field to run backwards. Suddenly the horse stopped abruptly, evidently aware of something close in front of him. Nikíta again sprang lightly out, throwing down the reins, and went ahead to see what had brought him to a standstill, but hardly had he made a step in front of the horse before his feet slipped and he went rolling down an incline.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said to himself as he fell, and he tried to stop his fall but could not, and only stopped when his feet plunged into a thick layer of snow that had drifted to the bottom of the hollow.

Mukhórty is more attuned to the realities of the landscape than either of his human companions, who under Vasíli’s direction drive the horse to ever more exhausting extremes, all the while succumbing to an increasing sense of panic at their worsening plight.

Of the two humans, Vasíli is the more desperate, and when it becomes apparent that the horse is physically incapable of pressing on through the storm, his thoughts turn to what he considers the injustice inherent in the possibility that he might die and lose all the material possessions he has spent his adult life accumulating:

He lay and thought: thought ever of the one thing that constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make, of how much other people he knew had made and possessed, and of how those others had made and were making it, and how he, like them, might still make much more.

Moreover, as a man of property, he values his life more dearly than he does that of his peasant manservant, whom he has been lax in paying what he owes in wages. (He rationalizes his parsimoniousness in the most craven manner, even trying to convince his servant that his stinginess is actually generosity: “What agreement did we draw up with you? … If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I’m not like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don’t neglect you.”) When it becomes apparent that the two will likely not survive the night, Vasíli takes the horse and makes off, convinced that his life is more important than Nikíta’s: “As for him … it’s all the same to him whether he lives of dies. What is his life worth? He won’t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.”

Tolstoy’s story is obviously an acerbic dissection of class pretensions, but it is also a Christian parable, in that Vasíli’s final act, although not entirely altruistic, involves at least a degree of self-sacrifice. There are layers to these two characters, and despite the predictable trajectory of the plot, the outcome of the story is not certain until the very final pages.

Nevertheless, “Master and Man” exemplifies Poe’s idea of the “single effect” as a driving force in a short story:

A skilful artist has constructed a tale. He has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents, he then combines such events, and discusses them in such tone as may best serve him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very first sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then in his very first step has he committed a blunder.

In its absolute inexorability, Tostoy’s story carries forward in precisely the manner Poe suggested. This idea would not sit well with the Count himself, who felt that such an approach represented a reduction of the ideal toward which art should strive. He decried art that made obvious the artist’s intentions at the outset: “From the first lines one sees the intention with which the book is written, the details all become superfluous, and one feels dull.” About “Master and Man,” Tolstoy was divided in his own mind: while he was composing it he wrote in his journal that “[i]t is rather good from an artistic point of view,” only to later conclude, “I have sinned, because I am ashamed to have wasted my time on such stuff.” In this final judgment, history has proven the genius wrong. “Master and Man” remains in print, and although it is not one of the titles immediately associated with Tolstoy’s name in the popular consciousness, it remains a potent and wrenching work of art.

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