Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reader Response: "People like that are the only people here."

I didn't think I was going to write my response on "People like that..." by Lorrie Moore. We were given a wide selection of short stories to read for this class. I could have picked the magical realism of "Eyes of Zapata," or the regretful coming of age story told in "Knowing you in Snow." I really enjoyed both of those stories.

I chose "People Like That..." because it was the one that reached me the most directly. The story is about misery. To read it is to dive head-first into a very quiet, very small place of absolute suffering. Parents contemplating the death of their child. The story dwells on incomprehensible details of a cancer, treatment and human pain. It hones in, unflinchingly at the interior thoughts of a mother as she does what she can to help her baby live.

For a story that exists primarily in the mind and conversation of the characters it has a singular power to seize images and describe them in fever dream prose. A mouse heart buried in snow. His eyes two dark unseeing grapes. It is the crying of an old person: silent, beyond opinion, shattered. The descriptions shock and they dismay but they also are perfectly calibrated. We do not wallow with the narrator. We listen, we empathize, we escape.

Because that's the final verdict of the story. Their child leaves Peed Onk. They are able to carry on with their lives. They haven't won, they haven't been transformed utterly by the experience. They survived it. That's what the story seems to suggest. There are some kinds of suffering that can only be documented, catalogued, and shared.

This point comes up later in the story when Frank shares, 'the worst thing that has ever happened to him.' The story he shares, of a botched procedure that nearly killed his son at the hospital also happened to the narrator. The sharing doesn't help the narrator of her husband. It doesn't hurt them either. It is more important because it exists at all. They have entered a community bound together by incomprehensibilities. They only thing that unites them is the cold fact that it has happened to other people as well.

Thought it self is the subject then of this story. That is the central motif. The Husband asks the Mother, "are you taking notes?" About the procedures. About the people they talk to. About the horror of it all. So the Mother lays out all of the observations and opinions she has. But what does it ultimately matter?

Yes I took notes. Where's my money? A cold statement but absolutely not a cynical one. All of her observations have brought her memories. All of her observations about the worst things that happened to her, they are just that, observations. They are awful, perhaps readers have experienced them too, but at the end, Moore shows us leaving that world behind. That is the point. To survive and to escape.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading Response to Dear Everybody

Dear Everybody by MIchael Kimball belongs to a long tradition of epistolary novels. Epistolary novels tie together letters or other documents into a coherent narrative instead of telling a story through a narrator. The advantage of telling a story through epistolary means is that the work, when done well, gains an illusion of realism. Rather than constantly wondering about a narrator’s function in a story, a reader can appreciate a tale knowing exactly who wrote the tale (within the confines of the story) and to whom it is addressed. The novel itself becomes less of an attempt to describe the world realistically as much as realistically capturing the nature of written correspondence.
The difference with Dear Everybody is that the illusion of a conversation is somewhat disrupted by the nature of the letters. In the novel, the narrator, Jonathan Bender, is sending out thanks and regrets to people he doesn’t expect replies from. He doesn’t expect replies because he is firstly a lonely, troubled soul who addresses to letters not only to people living and dead but entire states. He also doesn’t expect replies because when taken together, these letters serve as Bender’s suicide note. If this novel was merely that, the grim recital of the events leading up to a suicide, it would lose a lot of its power. But the letters contained in the short novel span a multitude of emotions. Everything from grief, anger, humor, and resignation.
The device of writing a novel through letters becomes less of an attempt to create realism and more a way of adding force to heartbreaking emotional center of the story. The letters are real attempts at communication, however misdirected. By following their paths, readers are brought into the center of the story in a way that is more immediate than a more conventional perspective. We are not just reading the novel, we are receiving the novel. The novel is, in a sense, addressed to us.
I personally greatly appreciated the way this story is told. By breaking the narrative into discrete little chunks, almost zen-like koans, we get the chronological events of Jonathan’s life but we also get an impression of his emotional states. I would also say that the form of the novel suggests other ways of telling stories. I just got done listening to an NPR piece on novels told through twitter messages. One of the most basic characteristic of humans is our need to communicate with other humans. Epistolary works are certainly a technique to explore the relationships between people.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading Response to "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Reader Response to “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Morgan Crooks
I once heard Flannery O’Connor’s work introduced as a project to describe a world denied God’s grace. This critic of O’Connor’s work meant the Christian idea that a person’s misdeeds, mistakes, and sins could be sponged away by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice at Crucifixion. The setting of her stories often seem to be monstrous distortions of the real world. These are stories where con men steal prosthetic limbs, hired labor abandons mute brides in rest stops, and bizarre, often disastrous advice is imparted. 
O’Connor herself said of this reputation for writing ‘grotesque’ stories that ‘anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’ This is both a witty observation and a piece of advice while reading O’Connor’s work. These are stories about pain and lies and ugliness. The brutality that happens to characters in this fiction or that they themselves perform is part of the meaning of the story.
After a previous read of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I found it impenetrable. While I liked some of her work very much (Good Country People in particular) I found I didn’t get the ‘joke,’ in this story. Is the story suggesting that the mean and small-spirited people of the story deserve, in some respect, their murders? I don’t think so. The Misfit is carefully presented in almost garish detail as a true monster. And really, the mistakes of the grandmother are very small in proportion to their consequences. Finally we have the mystery of the grandmother’s execution after pronouncing The Misfit, “one of my of my own children!” It took until this second reading for me to understand the point of this exercise - not a detailing of one vain and self-important individual’s comeuppance but rather the recapitulation of something more valuable. The grandmother is aware, horribly aware of the fate of her children and herself. She is brought to death’s door and allowed to see for one moment the bleakness that lies beyond. We can say the grandmother is able to understand the tragedy of someone's life besides herself. O’Connor has her accepting The Misfit, accepting his tragedy as worth comment and lament. It is not a joyous realization but then, as The Misfit says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The story drives this point home with its choice of imagery and foreshadowing. O’Connor devotes the first third of the story to the small details of the family’s clothing and mannerisms, trivial details like the mileage meter’s tally or the advertisements for road-side restaurants. This creates a comfortable solidity to the story. When the narrative literally careens off of the road, these images weigh down what might quickly turn lurid and ethereal. An example of foreshadowing appears after one of the descriptions of the grandmother: ‘in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.’ Well, the readers will encounter her dead body by the end of the story. Whether she is everyone's definition of a lady is up for debate, but she certainly surprises us with her magnanimous statement before her death.
In terms of what I’d like to learn from this story I’d say that the more ordinary of O’Connor’s techniques are very important: her use of imagery and naturalistic dialogue grounds the story. I think a reader gets a picture of the family in all of its cranky dysfunction and we want them to be shaken out of their complacency. In “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” the outlandishness of the narrator propelled the story. The wide gap between Merricat and conventional reality provides and interesting tension. In “A Good Man,” the conventionality of the characters draws us in. As a writer, O’Connor is able to generate outsized tragedies from collisions of the mundane and the grotesque. Each is applied in just the right proportion.

Monday, July 16, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle: A look at Shirley Jackson's literary barriers

Barriers are, for me, the central image and metaphor of "We Have Always Live in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson. Barriers to movement, to change, and to understanding thread the narrative and slowly cinch tighter and tighter around the protagonist. These barriers provide the story's meaning, form and structure, and its larger value. 

 It is no accident that we begin the story during the course of one of her periodic trips beyond her house into the hostile territory of the surrounding village. By seeing Merricat outside of her element, we get a better view of the restrictions that color her life. As the story progresses, Merricat's world begins to shrink and shrink until all that is left is a single barricaded kitchen. This increasing claustrophobia functions a little bit how suspense and drama might in another story. Merricat's response to change and conflict is to pull back, to barricade, and to hide. The natural conclusion of this story occurs when Merricat finds an equilibrium with the outside world, a tightly controlled citadel shielding the only things of any importance to her. I sincerely do not doubt Merricat's pronouncement at the end of the story that she is happy. Like a symphony that finally arrives at the chord that completes the melodic progression, this statement is meant to bring the conflict of the story to a close. Whether we, the readers, are happy with the arrangement that Merricat and her sister are able to work out is not important. That they are happy is what matters.

In constructing the story, Jackson deliberately puts barriers in front of our understanding. With the exception of Uncle Julian, no one in the story is particularly interested in uncovering the causes and consequences of the fateful dinner that wiped out the Blackwoods. Constance is wracked by guilt over the events of that night and avoids the topic. Merricat also avoids the topic out of the fear that it will disrupt her relationship with her sister. The townsfolk, while whispering about the murders and shunning the survivors, nevertheless bury the true meaning of the murder under layers of propriety. A reader interested in discovering why Merricat killed her family or why Constance covers for her will not get much help from Jackson's choice in a narrator. Merricat is simply not interested in revealing what lies in the basement of her life. She is concerned with magic and protection. We see her elaborate and continued efforts to prevent the outside from getting in. The truth, behind the motives and methods of the murder, only serves to undermine Merricat's determined defenses.

So this can be a very frustrating read. And a rewarding one. It's a little bit like a mystery story where we are trying to piece together a narrative through the crumbs Merricat provides for us. But the answer to the mystery is not central to the meaning of the story. Ultimately, in terms of resolving the conflict of the story - will Merricat be able to remain with her sister - the mystery is not important. 

What is important is the evolving relationship between Constance and Merricat and the question of whether they will be able to stay together. That is the important question because that is the only question that concerns Merricat, the narrator of the story.
One moment in the story that illustrates that occurs after the terrible fire that destroys half of the Blackwood's home. Hiding from the village, Merricat confesses something that Constance already knows and that the reader must strongly suspect: that she is the true murderer. In a lesser story, this moment would be reserved for the final pages or even words of the story. Rather, Jackson chooses the moment of this confession so that it seems to provoke more questions than it answers. It the confession introduces a conflict between Merricat and her sister. Merricat is in doubt whether her sister will stay with her when various townsfolk and relations come to the ruins of their house. They are tempters, working to pry Constance from Merricat. The tension in these scenes is only removed when Constance apologizes to Merricat for being 'wicked' and, reminding her of 'why they all died.' Merricat is 'chilled,' by this Constance's confession, which gradually reassured. Past this point, the narrative begins to enter a resolution stage, where the sisters gradually settle into a new role as the town's catered pariahs.

The value of this story for me, as a writer, is the use of deliberately simple language to paint a fantastical mental world. Merricat's voice, which is artfully restricted and obscure, points to a technique of creating a world of magic, buried horror, and darkness with an economy of language. Jackson doesn't need to construct towers of artful prose to tell Merricat's story, a simple and direct voice serves the story far better. In fact, Jackson seems to highlight this choice early on by having Uncle Julian adopt a very lofty language while describing the sordid details of his family's death. Jackson seems to suggest the truth of the night is simple but also terribly beside the point.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fiction Workshop Second class

What does a story need in order for me to enjoy it?

I need a story to capture my attention in the first two or three sentences. If I've gotten a good recommendation about a particular novel I might be able to wait a chapter or two, but I want a sense early on that a story is going to go somewhere and getting there in a hurry.

I prize clear and precise language. If the right word is five syllables long and I need a Google search to find what it means, then so be it. But, my assumption is that everyday words are more than fine for everyday situations. The professor talked about words being delicious fruit, which I think is a good metaphor. The thing about fruit, though, is that I don't want fruit for every meal. 

Except for blueberries. Because that's different.

The last thing I'd say is I like stories that end with a definite but ambiguous ending. The example I often use is Faulkner's final image for "The Bear." A tree being defended by a deranged hunter while squirrels scamper around. It's strange, specific, and compelling. That's what I want endings to be in stories.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What if question XKCD style

I won't spoil it but Randall Munroe has a hysterical and very thorough answer to what would happen if someone threw a fastball at 90% the speed of light.

The Eleventh Reason to Write

As part of the first Fiction Workshop class, we asked to read a series of reasons why writing is important. To summarize briefly, writing is important and worthwhile because stories:
  1. Delight us.
  2. Create community.
  3. help us to see through the eyes of other people.
  4. Show us the consequences of our actions.
  5. Educate our desires
  6. Help us dwell in place.
  7. Help us dwell in time.
  8. Help us deal with suffering, loss, and death.
  9. Teach us how to be human.
  10. Acknowledge the wonder and mystery of creation.
Of this list I probably respond most forcefully to the idea of seeing the world through the eyes of other people. This was termed 'empathy' when we discussed the list and that seems to be an appropriate description of one role of fiction. It expands the number of lives we might encounter. The story of a well-written character brings us closer to a world might never otherwise touch.

As for my own reason why writing is worthwhile I'd add this:

I once heard poems defined as the simplest way of saying a word never before spoken by humans. I believe stories are the simplest way to explain some novel way of living. The is the eleventh reason they have power. There is a magic in creating something new, however small. No story, even if it is copied word for word by another author can possibly mean the same thing as another. Each story has its own specific meaning.

During the early centuries of the Christian church, as questions of theology and cosmology roiled the communities of early believers, one version of Christianity was Gnosticism. Gnosticism held that knowledge, not faith, was the path to salvation. A quester for liberation or salvation passed through a great many tests. Each of these tests could only be passed if the quester knew some spell or magic word. One such Gnostic sect held that there were 365 steps before a soul left the world of matter and entered the world of the spirit. 


Each day, in other words, of a person's waking year, is a test. 

Stories, each one pushing a person towards new perspectives, new language, new ways of thinking, cannot help but unlock a few doors.

Monday, July 9, 2012

First day of Fiction Workshop

It's back to Ancient Logic in the first time in...a long time. I created this blog to more or less test out Blogger. The conference I went to for technology that could easily be brought into education pointed out that making Blogger pages was dead simple. While that was true the first iteration of the site was also really ugly.

But now I'm glad that I opened this site because it takes at least half an hour off the process of getting up and started with this new blog.

Still, one thing that needs to be changed is the purpose of this blog. What was initially created as an experiment will be repurposed to talk about my writing.

I am a writer. I have written two novels and an assortment of short stories. Over the next few months I hope to publish some of what I've written, ultimately getting to one (maybe both) of my novels.

I am also a history teacher. This is not unrelated to the statement above. My view of teaching history is that it is the art of telling a really long story with a cast of thousands spread out over the entire world.