31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 8: “The Comforts of Home” by Flannery O’Connor

May 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

In his critical study, Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction, Miles Orvell suggests that it would not be improper to identify – without irony – a group of O’Connor’s writings as falling under the rubric of “charity stories”:

These might include “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and even The Violent Bear It Away. All of these works deal in some way with a character whose sense of virtue is expressed through acts of charity – often involving a guest brought into the house: What do we do with the guest? Do we reform him? Let him be? Throw him out? Educate him? Give him gifts? These are the questions the stories seem to ask, and beneath them is the larger question – What is charity?

In “The Comforts of Home,” the interloper is a 19-year-old named Sarah Ham (note the surname), who has been incarcerated for passing bad cheques. The mother of a 35-year-old history writer named Thomas takes pity on Sarah (who refers to herself as Star Drake) and hires a lawyer who secures the girl’s parole. After the crotchety old woman who has agreed to give Sarah board kicks the girl out for drunkenness, Thomas’s mother takes her in over the objections of her son.

As with many of O’Connor’s best stories, “The Comforts of Home” employs an ironic mode; the irony here is vested in the character of Thomas, who is one in a long line of O’Connor intellectuals held up for scorn and ridicule. In this case, the irony involves Thomas’s repeated assertion that he will not abide Sarah’s presence in the house, because in his eyes she represents immorality and dissolution. “Thomas was not cynical,” we are told, “and so far from being opposed to virtue, he saw it as the principle of order and the only thing that makes life bearable.” Sarah, whom Thomas refers to as the “little slut,” represents, in his eyes, the antithesis of virtue and order. His mother, meanwhile, is possessed, in Thomas’s estimation, of “the best intentions,” yet is blinded by her charitable impulses; her tendency is “to make a mockery of virtue, to pursue it with such a mindless intensity that everyone involved was made a fool of and virtue itself became ridiculous.”

Thomas considers himself a model of virtue and purity, but for him, virtue must exist in moderation, because “a moderation of good produces likewise a moderation of evil,” something that Thomas feels his mother would understand “[h]ad she been in any degree intellectual.” The irony is that while Thomas proclaims himself virtuous, his propensity to withdraw from what he sees as an excess of charity on his mother’s part renders him practically ineffectual; he is paralyzed and unable to commit to any action, good or bad: “Thomas had inherited his father’s reason without his ruthlessness and his mother’s love of good without her tendency to pursue it. His plan for all practical action was to wait and see what developed.”

There is an additional level of irony at play regarding Thomas’s specific reaction to Sarah’s sexuality. Sarah is a flirtatious girl – a “nimpermaniac” according to Thomas’s mother, a “moral moron” according to Thomas himself. Rather than being disgusted by Sarah’s sexuality, however, Thomas is terrified of it. When his mother orders him to drive the girl back to the old lady’s house where she is boarding, Thomas is rendered literally mute when he finds himself alone in the girl’s presence: “At his desk, pen in hand, none was more articulate than Thomas. As soon as he found himself shut into the car with Sarah Ham, terror seized his tongue.” When Sarah appears in Thomas’s bedroom doorway at night, he repels her from his room by holding a chair out in front of him “like an animal trainer driving out a dangerous cat.”

Following the incident in his bedroom, Thomas issues an ultimatum to his mother: either the girl leaves or he does. This sequence is also shot through with irony, this time involving a blurring of the line between Thomas and Sarah:

“I keep thinking it might be you,” [Thomas’s mother] said, her hand still on her jaw. “If it were you, how do you think I’d feel if nobody took you in? What if you were a nimpermaniac and not a brilliant smart person and you did what you couldn’t help and …”

Thomas felt a deep unbearable loathing for himself as if he were turning slowly into the girl.

“What did she have on?” she asked abruptly, her eyes narrowing.

“Nothing!” he roared. “Now will you get her out of here!”

It does not take a committed Freudian to recognize Thomas’s self loathing, “as if he were turning slowly into the girl,” as resulting from a sublimated sexual desire for her. His violent reaction when questioned by his mother about Sarah’s state of undress – “Now will you get her out of here!” – is his attempt to repress what he considers to be his baser instincts in a (misguided) attempt to remain true to his idea of morality and uprightness. And yet the narrative will not allow him to escape from this sublimated desire. When he goes to plant a pistol in the girl’s purse so that the town’s corrupt sheriff (with whom Thomas is in collusion) will have an excuse to take her back to prison, the scene is presented in frankly sexualized language:

He grabbed the red pocketbook. It had a skin-like feel to his touch and as it opened, he caught an unmistakable odor of the girl. Wincing, he thrust in the gun and then drew back.

Sometimes, a gun is just a gun. Other times, it is a symbol for something else, something made abundantly clear by the description of the way Thomas “thrust” the object into the “skin-like” folds of the purse. After a triangulated scene featuring Thomas, his mother, and Sarah, in which Thomas accidentally shoots his mother, the sheriff bursts in to find Thomas and Sarah standing over the body as though “the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other’s arms.” Although the sheriff misreads the scene he has stumbled upon, there is no denying the extension of the sexually charged language that has been pervasive throughout the story, nor its implications for the characters of Thomas and Sarah (“the killer and the slut”).

While confessing that he finds the plot of “The Comforts of Home” “one of the least convincing O’Connor ever devised,” Frederick Asals concludes that the figures of Thomas and Sarah are meant to be taken – at least on one level – as doubles, obverse exemplifications of a single psychological impulse:

In Jung’s language, then, Sarah Ham is the “anima-projection” of which Thomas is the “persona”; psychoanalytically viewed, the two characters are complementary figures, obverse doubles, alter egos. The arrival of the girl thus inevitably exacerbates all those psychic tensions which have lain dormant beneath Thomas’s bland exterior.

There is an indication in the story that the mother understands this – “I keep thinking it might be you,” she tells her son – as, on some level, does Thomas. His self-loathing arises out of a sense that he is “slowly turning into the girl”; although he explicitly avows his goodness as against Sarah’s evil, the story actively resists this reading, implying instead that the two characters are psychological reflections of one another.

The psychic tensions in the story run deeper than any thumbnail exegesis of this kind could possibly do justice to, and in any event a psychoanalytic reading of the story is only one of a number of possible approaches one might take in discussing it. Regardless of whether Asals is correct in finding the plot overly contrived (I tend to disagree), the story is nevertheless a crystalline example of O’Connor in her high ironic mode, a bitterly funny dissection of a complex morality, and a mordant comment on the old adage that “charity begins at home.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 7: “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami

May 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

In 1903, Henry James published a story called “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man named John Marcher who is absorbed by an abiding belief that some insurmountable catastrophe will come to define his life. He obsesses over this undefined event relentlessly, never allowing anyone to get close to him for fear that they too will be tainted by the event’s repercussions. At the end of the story, he realizes what the true nature of his catastrophe is: in all the time he has been wracked by a sense of impending doom and foreboding, he has allowed his life to pass him by.

“The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is Haruki Murakami’s take on James’s parable. It is the story of Junpei, who as a teenager is given one piece of life advice by his usually taciturn father: “Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three that have real meaning for him. No more, no less.” Junpei spends his adulthood obsessing over his father’s proclamation, convinced that he has already met one of the three women, who eventually went on to marry someone else:

Whenever Junpei met a new woman after that he would ask himself, Is this a woman who has real meaning for me? and the question would call forth a dilemma. For even as he continued to hope (as who does not?) that he would meet someone who had “real meaning” for him, he was afraid of playing his few remaining cards too early. Having failed to join with the very first important Other he encountered, Junpei lost confidence in his ability – the exceedingly important ability – to give outward expression to love at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. I may be the type who manages to grab all the pointless things in life but lets the really important things slip away. Whenever this thought crossed his mind – which was often – his heart would sink down to a place devoid of light and warmth.

Junpei’s thought process sets him somewhat apart from Marcher in James’s story; the latter is too egotistical and self-absorbed to have any awareness of his essential plight until it is too late. By contrast, Junpei desperately wants to make a connection with one of the three women who will have “real meaning” in his life and is terrified of allowing the opportunity to pass him by.

Junpei becomes a writer of short stories because, he says, he lacks the patience to write novels: “He simply could not maintain the concentration it took to write a story over a long period of time.” At a party one night, he meets a woman named Kirie, with whom he begins a romantic involvement. (Junpei’s first thought when he sees Kirie is, “Here is a woman with excellent posture.”) In bed one night, she asks him what he is writing and he tells her that he is in the middle of a story about a female internist who is having an affair with a surgeon at the hospital where she works. Out walking one day, the internist finds a kidney-shaped stone, which she takes to her office to use as a paperweight. Each night she leaves the stone in the same place on her desk, and each morning when she returns it has moved to a different location.

The stone that moves of its own volition is the only fantastical element that Murakami allows himself in this story. Fans of his more surrealistic dreamscapes, such as the novel Kafka on the Shore, might find this disappointing, but there is a trade-off here: in place of fancy, Murakami substitutes real emotional heft. The reader gets caught up intimately in Junpei’s dilemma and when Kirie disappears, her absence registers with a pang that is undeniable, even though she has told Junpei that she is not able to engage in a serious relationship: “I want to concentrate completely on what I’m doing now. If I were living with somebody – if I had a deep emotional involvement with somebody – I might not be able to do that.” Kirie is willful and utterly convinced of what she wants; Junpei, who had succumbed to a series of “pale, indecisive relationships with one woman after another,” each culminating in “breakups [that] never entailed any discord or shouting matches because he never became involved with women who seemed as if they might be difficult to get rid of,” finds himself in the unfamiliar position of not being the one to end the relationship. When he is unable to locate Kirie (her phone number keeps returning a message saying that the number is out of service and she has never told him where she lives), he realizes how much she means to him and how bereft he is in her absence. She becomes the catalyst that allows him to complete his story about the doctor and her kidney-shaped stone.

Although he decides to number Kirie as the second woman in his life who has “real meaning” for him, his final epiphany is not quite so pessimistic as Marcher’s. “Numbers aren’t the important thing,” he thinks. “The countdown has no meaning. Now he knew: What matters is deciding in your heart to accept another person completely. And it always has to be the first time and the last.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 6: “The Snow Fence” by David Carpenter

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Welcome to Canada

David Carpenter is a rigorously masculine writer, in the tradition of macho American storytellers like Ernest Hemingway or Thomas McGuane. His subjects – hard drinking, hunting, pugilism – are reminiscent of Hemingway and his linguistic facility recalls McGuane. But Carpenter’s fictional voice, and the territory it covers, is unique to him. As Warren Cariou writes, “He is preternaturally attuned to the poetry of the vernacular and the extraordinary variety of Canadian English, and he is able to place each of his characters in their own particular spots on that lavish linguistic spectrum, so that every phrase they speak contains a compendium of information about where they come from, what they want out of life, their successes and failures.”

Mark, for example, the way a stuffy Ottawa bureaucrat demands huffy retribution against a bear that has attacked his son in Jasper Park: “How about shooting that bear before I have the lot of you fired for endangering people’s lives?” Then compare that to the rhythms of speech from the town superintendent, who wishes nothing more than to smooth things over and keep his job: “We’ll get a posse, and you come in at the end of the week when the Injun’s done his work, and by garsh … you can have your pick of the hides.” The latter, it should be noted, is said “with a toothpicky smile,” which tells a reader more about the character of the superintendent in four words than many writers could manage in four hundred.

The bureaucrat’s son was not seriously injured in the incident, which might never have occurred but for human folly. The town superintendent (he of the toothpicky smile) erected the snow fence out of fear that one of the tourists arriving on the train from Edmonton would get too close to “the army of bears” that prowls Jasper Park looking for food. The bears themselves “were never pushy about their panhandling,” and the superintendent wants to maintain their presence as a tourist attraction:

This must have been before the time when fear of lawsuits governed all social behaviour, because (knowing bears were good for the tourist business) all Thurmon Butters, the superintendent, did was put up a snow fence on the grassy area with a ten-foot opening for the bears. No people were allowed inside the fenced area. The tourists would gather on one side of the fence; the bears, on their hind legs, would rest their front paws on the top of the fence and sort of sway back and forth with the give and take of it. These fences are insidious things. They have their own logic, like slinkies.

The folly here is in Butters’ attempt to artificially curtail the natural environment, something which nearly always has negative consequences in a Carpenter story. The Ottawa boy’s injury sets off a chain of events that leads to the death of Noel Muskwa, the patriarch of the Cree family that lives alongside Barney Hetherington, the story’s narrator.

Barney narrates the story as an adult looking back on a sequence of events from his childhood. From the outset, it is apparent that the action in the story will not be entirely quotidian: “I used to tell this story during my drinking days down at the Athabasca,” Barney says. “It was a good test of people’s sobriety. The moderate drinkers would give me that Oh-sure-Barney look, and the drunks would grow wide-eyed with belief and make me feel for a while like a shaman.” The credulity of the Athabasca drunks should not be taken as a signal that Barney is an unreliable narrator; to the contrary, there is nothing in his narration to indicate that he is being anything but truthful. However, the story is told retrospectively, and the passage of time would certainly have an effect on the accuracy of a man’s memory. Moreover, Barney admits that there are aspects of his story that remain mysterious to him, even down to the present.

The central part of Barney’s recollections involves his friendship with Delphine, Noel Muskwa’s youngest daughter. When Noel was alive, he kept the family homestead just outside the town lines, so that he was not beholden to send his daughter to the local residential school. When the town expanded its boundaries, Noel would move his family further out, always remaining just the other side of the town line. After his death, Delphine’s care falls to her aging grandmother, who is less savvy about the machinations of the white man; one day a man in a car comes to the Muskwa home and takes Delphine away. When she returns, she is not the same girl Barney remembers from before her disappearance:

“Jesus ever talk to you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“He talked to me. Once when we was singin’ and once in my dorm.”

I’d had it up to here with religion, even then.

In a sense, the residential school is analogous to the snow fence: an attempt by the white community to curtail  a foreign element and make it conform to their own desires and beliefs. But the relationship between Barney and Delphine is not so simple that it becomes merely antagonistic once the young girl begins speaking about religion. Looking back on their childhood conversation, Barney realizes that he might have misunderstood Delphine’s motivation in talking about Jesus and the afterlife; she might have been trying to ensure that their friendship would endure come what may: “[I]f I did prepare myself, she and I would go to the same place, that we belonged together, like being back in Africa, or whatever she imagined Paradise to be.” This realization on the part of the adult Barney sets him apart from men like Thurmon Butters, in that it indicates an empathy that the superintendent clearly lacks. Barney is able to imaginatively inhabit other attitudes and ideas in a way that the majority of white men in the story cannot. (When he relates his story to his brother Darryl, the brother’s reaction is telling: “You were always the one with the imagination.”)

Shortly after the conversation about Jesus, Delphine is carried off by a grizzly bear and never seen again. The local newspaper refers to a “marauding” “killer bear,” but Barney takes umbrage with this description, because in his recollection the bear was not a marauder, and Delphine ceased her screaming protests once the animal picked her up by her belt buckle (an item that once belonged to her dead father). She was taken away by the bear, but her body was never found, nor was any of her flesh, bones, or blood.

If this has more sober readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh sure Barney,” consider that in Carpenter’s fictional world, it is often the drunks that get it right. There are elements in Carpenter’s story that resist understanding on a rational level – it would be wrong to call this story strictly naturalistic – and yet, the more outlandish elements all support a single authorial attitude: that those in communion with the natural world will live in harmony with it, while those who attempt to manipulate it for their own ends will be destroyed. When Barney thinks back on the events of his childhood, he feels “the whole wilderness [rearing] up to rebuke” him.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 5: “The Boar’s Head Easter” by Timothy Taylor

May 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Silent Cruise

From the spring of 1962 through the spring of the following year, Jake’s mother lived with her husband in Chicago. While she was there, she took a lover. Jake discovers this thirty years later when he reads his mother’s journals, which he has uncovered in the den of the aging woman’s condominium. He recruits his friend Syd, a photographer, and Syd’s girlfriend, Erin, to accompany him on a trip to Chicago over the Easter weekend with the intention of tracking down his mother’s old flame, now in his seventies, who is the chef of a game restaurant called The Boar’s Head.

Beginning from that simple premise, Timothy Taylor weaves a stunningly graceful tale about the nature of desire and the enduring tug of love.

It helps that Taylor’s prose is so supple and his facility for sensuous details so finely honed. In particular, he is adept at writing about food, at one point launching into an extended dinner sequence that compares the sybaritic indulgence in fine cuisine to poetry:

We talked about poetry. We talked about a gallery showing Syd had set up for Vancouver on his return. I explained the consommé techniques that result in its being perfectly clear.

Rabbit and wild rice pie followed, a careful slice plated table-side, garnished with sorrel. Sauterne the surprising choice here but perfectly, opulently balanced, full sweet to full savoury. Endless taste playing through the mouth. Butter lettuce salad next. Tossed with hazelnuts and oranges, the individual servings piled artfully with silver tongs. A glass of crisp white Bordeaux, not too cold. Citrus echoed nicely in the fragrance.

Back to poetry.

The final sentence is unnecessary, because Taylor has located the poetry in food, the luxurious, gustatory sensation of it, captured in prose that sings.

Taylor is first and foremost a stylist, but this is easy to miss, because there is nothing flashy about his style – no overly clever metaphors, no twee phrasing or self-satisfied verbal contortions. But when he describes a train making its way through the night as “scudding across a black sea, drumming with the energy of the rails,” the image is pristine: at once startling and completely recognizable. The description of the train entering Chicago is equally well done:

We burst past the charred shell of a warehouse and crossed North Branch. A sticky, viscous meander. Useless even to commerce. Union Station didn’t announce itself. We slowed to a crawl. Rounded a half-submerged corner past a thirty-storey building with lattices of wrought-iron fire escapes spidering down its sides. Then the city disappeared as we went underground and trembled to a stop.

The train’s “sticky, viscous meander” is surprising and vivid; the “half-submerged corner” zings with originality; and the train that “trembled to a stop” will chime instantly with anyone who has had experience with this mode of transport. It takes consummate skill to make writing appear this effortless.

The subtlety of the prose finds its match in the subtlety with which Taylor moves his characters through the story, teasing out their relationships without ever resorting to heavy-handedness or bald exposition. Through a sequence of carefully calibrated scenes, it becomes apparent that Jake and Erin are harbouring an unrequited desire for each other. The way their relationship plays itself out, and the note on which it resolves itself, is effected in seemingly effortless fashion. So too is the burgeoning friendship between Klaus, the chef at The Boar’s Head, and Jake, who was once a sous-chef at a failed restaurant in Vancouver. The similarities between these characters and their chosen professions is not accidental, and the trajectory of their story is foreseeable based on the situation Taylor has set up. What is not foreseeable, however, is the force that Jake’s epiphanic moment carries with it, a force that hits the reader doubly hard because the process of building toward it has occurred without the reader even realizing it.

Like Alice Munro, Taylor is able to convey depths of meaning and multiple layers of understanding through deceptively simple prose. It is appropriate that the story takes place over Easter weekend, a period of death and rebirth, for these are the twin poles that epitomize Jake’s experience. At one point, Jake reads in his mother’s journal: “Some rather beautiful and difficult things can be made in a surprisingly short period of time.” Taylor’s story explores emotions that are both beautiful and difficult, and does so with ease.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 4: “The Divinity Gene” by Matthew J. Trafford

May 4, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

From Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow

Defending her 2003 book Oryx & Crake as an example of speculative fiction, not science fiction proper, Margaret Atwood writes, “Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms.” It seems reasonable to expand Atwood’s assertion to include speculative short fiction, something that Zuszsi Gartner asserts in the introduction to the anthology Darwin’s Bastards when she writes, “Our business is to ask What if?” The “what if” of Matthew J. Trafford’s story “The Divinity Gene” is provocative: What if someone found a way to clone Jesus Christ? In Trafford’s hands, this “what if” becomes the springboard for an inquiry into the nature of religious belief and an examination of the unintended consequences that can accrue to scientific exploration without limits or moral boundaries.

Trafford’s approach is postmodern: the story’s three parts appear in reverse chronological order, and the opening section takes the form of an entry from an online encyclopedia complete with mock hyperlinks in boldface type. In this “Poplopedia” entry, dated June 18, 2029, we learn that in the year 2006 a Polish scientist by the name of Maciej Wawrzyniec released a DNA formula that is believed to be the genetic code of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Using this code, a group of humans – collectively known as the Jesi – were created, all apparently embodying the divine qualities of the original Jesus. The third section of the book details certain events from Maciej’s childhood in Poland, and the bridging section describes how Jesus’ DNA came into the scientist’s possession.

Trafford’s story begins as satire, and the dominant tone is one of irreverent humour (the story becomes less humorous as it proceeds). The language of the mock encyclopedia entry is dry and factual, focusing on matters such as the gestational period of the Jesi and their accelerated aging. But the author also riffs on the idea of Jesus in the modern world: “In 2010, the seven Jesi walked across the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Canada, carrying torches and inaugurating the 21st Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.” Of course, it is inevitable that corporations will want a piece of the Jesi, and the Poplopedia article informs us that Coca-Cola and Microsoft each created a branded Jesus for their own purposes. The Microsoft Jesus became the first of the resurrected Jesi, returning to life three days after being blown up by a suicide bomber in Israel. Because of a strange lethargy that sets in when the Jesi hit the age of 11 or 12, they lose all motivation and respond only to simple commands; as a result, they are put to work defusing minefields, their owners secure in the knowledge that if their workers get blown up, they will be resurrected three days later.

The satire here involves the ironic disconnect between Jesus’ miraculous abilities as a manifestation of his divinity and the impulse on the part of secular humans to marshal these abilities for their own ends. But rather than a Manichean dichotomy that posits the sacred and profane as being in eternal conflict, Trafford suggests that they are in fact two sides of the same coin; the story’s cascading ironies arise out of the co-opting of sacred impulses for profane ends, and vice versa.

Indeed, Maciej’s genetic breakthrough comes as a result of his extreme devotion: as a child he imagines that he is responsible for Christ’s suffering on the cross: “He thinks: How much of that suffering am I personally responsible for? And the answer comes to him as though his guardian angel whispered it in his ear: all of it.” Maciej takes horrific revenge on a don at his school who makes a pass at him, a revenge that goes unpunished at the time, although it is possible to argue that Maciej’s ultimate punishment is to witness the Second Coming of Christ degraded by a society that can only imagine the Jesi in utilitarian terms. The geneticist’s suicide note reads, “You have desecrated the one true thing that ever existed, and made my life’s work profane.” The name Maciej means “gift from God”; instead of acting as the bearer of such a gift, Maciej finds himself unable to go on living in a world that has forgotten God altogether.

In this, his trajectory is opposite to that of Jordan Shaw, the amoral billionaire who inadvertently releases the DNA code that allows Maciej to create the Jesi. Shaw is a professed atheist and a collector of horrific memorabilia: “copies of the Bernardo tapes; the pickled body parts from Ground Zero and [a] piece of shrapnel from the second plane.” An unrepentant hedonist, Shaw lives to gratify his own desires, regardless of how perverse or distasteful. The story’s scalding irony involves Shaw’s feelings of guilt for participating in the chain of events that would lead to the “fucked up shit” Maciej does with the DNA code. The guilt that Shaw feels is, for him, proof of God’s existence, but it brings him no solace:

So God’s finally won. I believe in you now, you prick. You’ve made my life a living hell and you’ve sent the dreams to drive me crazy. You want me to kneel down and pray? Fine, I can do that. But don’t think for a second I buy your bullshit about forgiveness and eternal love – there’s  no repenting everything I’ve done.

Blasphemous, corrosive, and ultimately moving, Trafford’s story wrestles with deep theological questions and attitudes toward morality that seem to have little place in a world that has abandoned the divine. “The Divinity Gene” does what all good speculative fiction does: it imagines the extremes we might arrive at if we continue along the road we’re currently walking. It is a cautionary tale, and one that we should pay close attention to.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 3: “Blow-Up” by Julio Cortázar

May 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blow-Up and Other Stories

A photograph never lies, or so the saying goes. That, of course, is bollocks. Nothing lies more than a photograph. An image captured in time provides a static moment, but the moment is decontextualized: the viewer has no idea what happened before the photo was shot, nor what transpires after. An artfully constructed photograph is just that: a construction, a creation of the photographer, the imposition of order within a carefully delineated frame. How much of a photograph’s narrative is imposed upon the image by the photographer, and how much of that narrative is available to the photographer in the first place?

These are the questions that preoccupy Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar in “Blow-Up,” the story that inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film. But Cortázar realizes that it is not only photography, but also fiction that is an artistic construction; his entire story can be summed up as an extended inquiry into the ability of art – any art – to convey unalloyed truth.

On its surface, the events of the story are simple enough. Roberto Michel, a Franco-Chilean translator and amateur photographer, goes out to the park with his Contax 1.1.2 camera on the morning of Sunday, November 7. There, he spots a woman and an adolescent boy and snaps a photo of them. He takes the film home to be developed and while looking at the blow-up of his photograph, he imagines a narrative for the two figures.

This, in any event, is the way a strict naturalistic summary of the story would unfold. Cortázar, however, is a defiant anti-naturalist (he referred to his masterpiece, Hopscotch, as an “anti-novel”), and his approach in the story actively resists an attempt to locate stable truth or certainty. The reader is on guard from the opening sentence: “It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.” Right from the first words of the story, the narrative perspective is shown to be slippery, the possibility of alternate versions multitudinous. Indeed, the first-person narrator bleeds into an unidentified third-person narrator at several points in the story, and Michel asserts in the outset that his narration is both contingent and compulsory: “I have the dumb luck to know that if I go this Remington will sit turned to stone on top of the table with the air of being twice as quiet that mobile things have when they are not moving. So I have to write. One of us all has to write, if this is going to get told.”

Michel’s approach to narration, like his approach to photography, is hyper-self-conscious; in the same way that “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it,” Michel avows that in telling the current story, “I’m telling a truth which is only my truth, and then is the truth only for my stomach …” But Michel can’t reach the truth through the prism of art; his narration is frequently contradictory. The blonde woman’s face is “white” and “bleak,” two descriptors that Michel immediately admits are “unfair.” Her eyes are compared to “eagles,” “leaps into nothingness,” and, most alarmingly, “two puffs of green slime.” Nothing is certain, nothing is absolute: “[N]ow a pigeon’s flying by,” Michel writes, “and it seems to me a sparrow.”

When Michel first sees the woman and the boy, he imagines the latter “illuminated by a total love,” wracked by “an uneasiness beginning to tinge the edge of desire,” which might lead him “to put his arm around her waist and kiss her.” And yet even in this idyllic fantasy, Michel is troubled by “a disquieting aura”: “I thought I was imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.” The photo, however, takes on malevolent overtones. There is a black car in the background with a man in a grey hat perched at the wheel; although Michel attempts to crop the car and its occupant out of the photo, when he blows up the print the car appears in the frame. Michel begins to imagine the boy, like “a Fra Filippo angel,” not as a breathless romantic but rather as a victim of the older woman and the shadowy man in the grey hat, “a flour-powdered clown or bloodless man, dull dry skin, eyes deepset, the nostrils black and prominently visible,” an evil couple determined to embroil the boy in an “abusive act.”

The climactic sequence in the story is expressionistic and indistinct, but conveys a tone of indefinable dread that would not be out of place in Kafka. “Everything was going to resolve itself right there,” we are told, but in the end, nothing is resolved and the truth remains withheld from us.

“Blow-Up” is not the original title of Cortázar’s story. The original title was “Las Babas del Diablo,” literally, “The Devil’s Spit.” The unnamed third-person narrator acknowledges at one point that “filaments of angel-spittle are also called devil-spit,” once again underscoring the shifting nature of reality within the context of the narrative. Cortázar has created a literary hall of mirrors, where everything is its opposite, where love and death mirror each other inextricably, and inevitably.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 2: “The Orphan” by Nell Freudenberger

May 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Lucky Girls

Nell Freudenberger’s stories tend to feature expatriates or travellers who find themselves – by accident or design – exiled from their homeland and forced to navigate customs and cultures that are foreign to them. Freudenberger’s prevailing themes are displacement and distance – both geographical and emotional. Her characters’ geographical displacement and the resultant clash of cultures act as catalysts for emotional confrontations that would otherwise be avoided; frequently, these conflicts involve matters sexual in nature. Yuan Zhao, the title character in Freudenberger’s debut novel, The Dissident, jars one archetypal American family out of its complacency when he takes up residence in their Los Angeles home. Zhao’s past as a member of the radical East Village art movement in China is juxtaposed with the typically Western peccadilloes of the Travers family: the matriarch’s affair with her husband’s brother, her son’s relationship with a Latina girl from Echo Park, and her daughter’s incipient eating disorder.

In “The Orphan,” the displacement works the other way around: an American family travels to Bangkok for Christmas to rendezvous with Mandy, who is living there and working in a hospice for children suffering with AIDS. Mandy’s brother Josh is a college student in Maine, where he is a member of the Cool Rich Kids, “a nationwide club of college students who donate money – from trust funds; inheritances; the proceeds from sold stereo components, computers, cars – to a variety of grassroots organizations endorsed by the group.” What neither Josh nor Mandy realizes is that their parents, Alice and Jeff, have separated. Jeff, who has taken up with a Mexican lawyer, now lives in a furnished studio while Alice resides in the family home along with their dog, Hank. The parents have contrived the gathering in Bangkok to break the news to their children.

The story is narrated in the third person from Alice’s perspective; by cleaving so close to the mother, Freudenberger is able to highlight the the familial and cultural disconnection that the family falls victim to on their travels. In the opening scene, Mandy calls Alice from a bakery; all Alice knows about Thailand is that it is “somewhere below and to the left of China” and that “in Thailand people make phone calls from bakeries.” Mandy is calling to tell her mother that Joo, her boyfriend, raped her, an accusation she subsequently recants. “It was a misunderstanding,” Mandy tells her mother the next day. “It was a cultural thing, actually.” When Mandy contrives a meeting between her family and her boyfriend, Alice storms out, forcing a confrontation between mother and daughter:

Mandy’s voice is wounded and self-righteous. “I thought you actually might give him a chance this way. I thought you actually might like him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re saying you don’t like him.”

“I find him unappealing, yes.”

“Physically.”

“Not physically,” Alice says, although, of course, she does. “Or yes, because I know what he did to you. I find him repulsive, because of that.”

Mandy snorts a contemptuous little breath. “This is exactly – I knew you would say that. I remember you saying it before.” She raises her voice in what is supposed to be an imitation of Alice: “‘I just don’t find Asian men appealing.’ Just admit it. He disgusts you because he’s Thai. You can’t stand the thought of me in bed with him.”

“I can’t stand the thought of you in bed with him because he raped you.”

Mandy’s repeated insistence that she was mistaken, that whatever Joo did, it was not rape, but only “a cultural thing,” rightly distresses Alice, at the same time as it highlights the degree to which she is unable to understand her daughter’s motivations or outlook. “Maybe I kind of liked it,” Mandy says. “Maybe I wanted to get fucked like that.” Mandy wields her knowledge of Thai culture – how to order in a restaurant or the fact that Thai verbs have no tenses – like a weapon against the resentment she feels toward her mother; it is unclear the extent to which she is deluding herself by saying that what she interpreted as rape was in fact “a cultural thing.” What is abundantly clear, however, is that Alice no longer comprehends her 21-year-old daughter; when Mandy gets into Joo’s Mercedes, Alice can detect Joo’s outline through the car’s tinted windows, but her daughter is completely obscured.

Mandy and Alice are representative of their respective generations. Mandy believes herself to be cosmopolitan and culturally tolerant, but she pushes this to the point that she appears willing to excuse an act of rape as a simple cultural misunderstanding. Alice, meanwhile, is skeptical “about the need for cross-cultural understanding with rapists,” but reacts to her experiences in Bangkok with a combination of bafflement and distaste. Josh, meanwhile, is perfectly happy to travel the world spending his father’s money as a member of the Cool Rich Kids, while Jeff considers himself an urban sophisticate, but is revealed to be something of a boor, the prototypical loudmouthed American tourist. Freudenberg sketches the ironies that accrue to the various characters and their particular delusions and misunderstandings so subtly that she is able to tease out their essential natures without ever resorting to pat exposition.

The story also features a careful attention to language and appropriate detail, as evidenced from a passage toward the end of Mandy’s initial phone call:

“Good night, sleep tight,” Mandy says, which she could not intend in a horror movie kind of way, to terrorize her mother, but it feels that way, especially after Alice has hung up, and is standing in the kitchen, listening to the Subzero, punctuated by the loud second hand of the antique grandfather clock in the hall, and less regularly by the zipper sound of cars, which she might count, or at least involve in some calculation, since she realizes she is holding a pen, which goes with the pad pinned to a cork message board on the wall below the phone, on which is written the number of a dermatologist, and that her left hand is touching the counter, not balancing but just making sure of the cold gray and white veined marble supporting three glass jars, flour and sugar and granola, with screw tops the same blond wood as the kitchen table underneath the window, where the sun is doing a kind of Mondrian thing of its own. It is eleven o’clock in the morning.

If Freudenberger’s story had nothing else to recommend it, “the zipper sound of cars” alone would be worth the price of admission.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 1: “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe

May 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Selected Tales

Poe did not invent the short story, but he arguably perfected it. Although he thought of himself primarily as a poet, it is for his tales of terror and the macabre that he will be forever remembered. Never before in American letters had a writer so thoroughly and obsessively plumbed the depths of the subconscious to reveal the creeping terrors that lurk under the liminal surface of everyday life. While Poe anticipated both H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, he also prefigured the theories of one particularly influential thinker: Poe wrestled with the notion of an unconstrained id years before Freud ever put pen to paper.

“William Wilson,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in October 1839 (47 years before Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), is an examination of the doppelgänger motif that has been recapitulated in American fiction by writers as diverse as Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood) and Stephen King (The Dark Half). But unlike O’Connor’s novel, in which Solace Layfield represents a comic replication of protagonist Hazel Motes, and King’s, in which Thad Beaumont’s pseudonym comes to life as a malevolent killing machine, the shadowy figure who trails the eponymous protagonist of Poe’s story is a symbolic manifestation of that character’s conscience. This is apparent before the story even opens; the epigraph from Chamberlayne refers to conscience as “That spectre in my path.”

Wilson, a self-confessed “object for the scorn – for the horror – for the detestation of [his] race,” is bedevilled by a whispery figure bearing his own countenance and sharing both his name and his birthday – January 19, 1813. Although at school Wilson and his reflection are “the most inseparable of companions,” Wilson is nevertheless troubled by the resemblance between the two, and plagued by an ineffable feeling of unease whenever his double is around. We are told that Wilson’s “feeling of vexation … grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or physical, between” the two of them. A card cheat and general ne’er-do-well, Wilson is tracked from Eton to Oxford, then to Paris, Rome, Naples, and Egypt. He flees, but he flees in vain: “My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion had only begun.” Wilson’s identification of his doppelgänger as his “evil destiny” is ironic, of course, since Wilson himself is the venal cheat and liar; it is his double who unmasks his duplicity at Oxford after he fleeces the guileless Lord Glendinning in a rigged card game, resulting in “a hurried journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and shame.”

Indeed, the other William Wilson is unflinchingly moral, mocking the narrator’s ego and bringing to light the narrator’s cruelties and misdeeds. If we remained in any doubt about the relationship between the two figures, Poe makes it explicit at the story’s close, when Wilson stabs his alter ego, shouting “scoundrel! impostor!” Having dealt what he expects is the killing blow against his antagonist, he eyes catch sight of a “large mirror” and sees his “own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood.” The story’s final words – spoken by Wilson, or his doppelgänger, or some combination of the two – give the game away: “In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” Wilson’s final act, then, is not an act of murder, but of suicide, for the two figures are ultimately inseparable: they are indeed the same person. The cry of “impostor!” is ultimately revealed as a wishful fantasy on the part of a man “addicted to the wildest caprices” and distinguished by “evil propensities.”

“William Wilson” is an examination of ontology and identity, but it questions the notion of self-knowledge, suggesting that complete understanding is illusory, or at least evades grasp until it is too late. Significantly, the narrator’s name is not William Wilson; this is a pseudonym that he adopts at the beginning of his narrative, which finds him near death as a result of his self-inflicted wound. The moniker in which he drapes himself is noteworthy: this figure, who “grew self-willed” and “was left to the guidance of [his] own will,” embodies in his chosen name the very characteristic he attributes to himself. He becomes “Will’s Son,” which is clearly ironic, given that this man of will is unable to outrun the moral conscience that dogs him throughout the story.

The themes that Poe was exploring continue to inhabit the imaginations of writers to this day, and as Philip van Doren Stern points out in his introduction to The Portable Poe, the 19th century Bostonian was among the most modern of early American writers:

He is the most often read of all his contemporaries, but this is no accident, for this neurotic and unhappy artist is strangely modern, oddly in keeping with our own neurotic and unhappy age. He knew what the death wish was long before Freud defined it. He was in love with violence half a century before Hemingway was born; he knew how to create suspense before the psycho-thriller was thought of; he used the theme of the double self before the term “split personality” was invented. And, most important of all, he was endlessly concerned with inner conflict – the major theme of present-day literature.

“William Wilson” is about inner conflict made manifest. In its awareness that a divided psyche cannot exist perpetually without one side destroying the other, it prefigures another iconic American anti-hero, the owner of a Gothic house overlooking a motel with “12 cabins, 12 vacancies.” William Wilson, like many of Poe’s tormented protagonists, is haunted to the grave by his divided – and divisive – self.

31 Days of Stories 2010: Introduction

May 1, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Brian Joseph Davis, literary provocateur and co-founder of the short fiction website Joyland, alerted yr. humble correspondent to the fact that May is Short Story Month, a grassroots endeavour launched in 2007 by Dan Wickett of  The Emerging Writers Network and Dzanc Books. An article from the Poets & Writers website provides some background on Wickett’s project:

The Emerging Writers Network kicked off its first Short Story Month in 2007, and Larry Dark, director of The Story Prize, floated the idea even earlier. “I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done,” Dark told The Pennsylvania Gazette in 2003. “There’s a national poetry month, and I think there should be a national short-story month, too. It’s a very American form. From Hawthorne and Poe to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, almost every great American writer has done the short story, and there are some great writers, like Flannery O’Connor, who practically only wrote short stories. Funding for the arts has been cut, but there’s a lot of activity around the short story, and I think it could be promoted and brought to people’s attention a little better.”

Longtime readers of TSR (c’mon: there must be a few of you) will know that yr. humble correspondent is a passionate advocate of the short story form, and while not detracting from Dark’s assessment in any way, it should be pointed out that short stories are by no means an exclusively American form. From Alice Munro to Mavis Gallant, from Haruki Murakami to Jorge Luis Borges, from Julio Cortázar to Ali Smith, short fiction has flourished around the globe. Much of the most innovative, stylistically adventurous, and experimental writing has appeared in pieces of short fiction, and yet the short story is little read in 2010. Short story collections sell poorly, and anxious publishers often sign up books of short fiction on the understanding that there is a novel on the way. (Rebecca Rosenblum is one of the few writers this critic can think of in recent memory who is following her debut collection with a second collection rather than a novel.)

To mark Short Story Month, Davis is posting one short story link per day over at The Globe and Mail‘s Books blog, In Other Words. Here at TSR, we have traditionally celebrated short stories in August; this is because the inaugural 31 Days of Stories in 2008 was timed to coincide with the Canadian Notes and Queries/The New Quarterly Salon des Refusés. However, an informal Twitter poll indicated that people would not be adverse to a month of story reviews and discussion in May so, following Davis’s lead, we’ll take the next month to focus on short fiction in all its manifestations. This is in no way meant as a competition with either Wickett’s program or Davis’s; on the contrary, you are heartily encouraged to follow the discussion as it unfolds across the Web. Short stories need advocates, as Dark rightly asserted, and yr. humble correspondent is delighted to be able to contribute in some small way to the broader conversation.

As in past years, TSR will be posting commentary on one short story per day throughout the month, along with ancillary discussion as it arises. In previous years, the 31 Days of Stories have confined themselves to works from the 20th and 21st centuries; this year, we’re going to reach further back into the past to talk about some early examples of the form originating both on this continent and on a large landmass to the northeast of us. We’ll also feature some contemporary writers, both masters of the form and lesser-known figures who are expanding the range of what a story can be and do. If you like what you read here, you are encouraged to comment, but more importantly, you are encouraged to go out and read some stories for yourself. Let’s try to ensure that this exciting, protean, and resilient literary form continues to thrive into the future.

Canada Also Reads

February 12, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

So, between deadlines in my day job, the ongoing tawdry spectacle of the Toronto City Hall sex scandal, and John Mayer’s dick, my attention has been elsewhere recently, as you might have surmised from the sparse posts going up around these parts.

But, fear not: yr. humble correspondent has not been idle. Behind-the-scenes work has been ongoing on a variety of fronts, one of which you may already be aware of: I’m marching into battle as a member of the National Post‘s Canada Also Reads panel. This is a cool idea on the part of the guys who run the Post‘s Afterword blog. Like many of us, they were disappointed by the lack of surprises in this year’s official Canada Reads list, and they decided to inaugurate a shadow competition, featuring books that had flown under the radar and deserved more attention. I have the honour of defending Mark Anthony Jarman’s stellar 2008 story collection My White Planet, which somehow came and went without the flurry of accolades it so richly deserved.

It’s got some stiff competition, though. There are seven other books on the list, being defended by some pretty powerful advocates. The Afterword’s shortlist in full:

• Writer and critic Steven W. Beattie defends My White Planet by Mark Anthony Jarman (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Author Tish Cohen (Inside Out Girl, Town House) defends The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (HarperCollins Canada)
• Singer/songwriter Andy Maize (Skydiggers) defends Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (McClelland & Stewart)
• Poet Jacob McArthur Mooney (The New Layman’s Almanac) defends The Last Shot by Leon Rooke (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Blogger John Mutford defends Yellowknife by Steve Zipp (Res Telluris)
• Author Lisa Pasold (Rats of Las Vegas) defends You and The Pirates by Jocelyne Allens (The Workhorsery)
• Author Neil Smith (Bang Crunch) defends Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada)
• Author Zoe Whittall (Holding Still for as Long as Possible) defends Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles (Invisible Publishing)

While I’m admittedly biased, I think this list is far more interesting than the CBC’s official list. Today on the Canada Reads website, Flannery, the CBC’s blogger, discusses the joys of reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees for the first time, experiencing the twists and turns of the plot without prior knowledge of where the story would take her. For me, this is exactly the problem with the 2010 Canada Reads lineup: pace blogger Flannery, the list has very little that’s surprising at all. Fall on Your Knees is a known quantity, a book that has already been given the Oprah Book Club seal of approval. Similarly, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X has lent its name to an entire demographic, and its language is pervasive in our culture (does anyone out there not know what a “McJob” is?). Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s richest and most visible prize for fiction. The Post‘s list, by contrast, contains books I’ve never even heard of before, and I find that refreshing.

Stay tuned for further discussion of Canada Also Reads in general, and My White Planet in particular. And yes, once again yr. humble correspondent will provide a play-by-play commentary on the official Canada Reads debates, which run March 8–12. We’ll see if we can entice Alex Good back to participate as well.

More soon.

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