Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Maxim Biller's "The Mahogany Elephant"

Monday night, I read the interview between the New Yorker and Maxim Biller. Often writers annoy me in interviews, but Biller made me a believer when he said, “I always try to keep it simple. I think the writer has to write in such a way that people know what he is talking about. Only then can they start to discover the secret of the prose behind the prose.” Has there ever been a clearer evocation of the Hemingway school of prose? the secret behind which universal emotions are exchanged. Like Hemingway, Biller’s story is more like a beautiful scene in a play than a narrative. Not that it doesn’t progress, because it does. A middle aged man, about whom no physical detail is spared, and his girlfriend – less described than the boyfriend – come together after three months apart. She has returned from India, a trip after which they’ve agreed to marry or never see each other again. However, it doesn’t look hopeful: she tells him she didn’t miss him, and gives him a present that he throws into the trash. They talk awkwardly, and she tells the boyfriend how the present has more importance than he or the reader expected, prompting the main character to search through the trash for the elephant. We find she lost it three times, and he has lost it a fourth. She helps him clean the mess of the trash, nevertheless, and jokes that they are done; a joke both the reader and character think is true. The narrator waits for her to urinate and realizes he isnt really sad about the break-up, more ready to start the joy of being alone.(funny, since alone he will be.) But, he is wrong; he finds her in his bedroom, clothed, and resigned to marrying him.

That’s it. We are given very little back-story, no long, exquisite stream of conscious, no highfalutin epiphany or grand understanding of life. The plot is a woman’s surprise decision to bind herself to a lifeless relationship. But, the remarkable victory is how individualistic and universal both characters feel. The waiting lover is described as, “he sorted out his photos, rearranged his books, moved the furniture around, and then he went on waiting.” This could be any guy killing time, but the next detail give us a key personality insight: “After that, he read all the letters he had ever received and threw most of them away, and then he bought a large map of India and hung it above his bed. Or rather, he didn’t buy a map of India, but that was what he really wanted to do.” This moment reveals to the reader that despite the narrator's claim to care about this woman, he feels little sentimentality about the relationship. Furthermore, we come to see him as the type to imagine hanging a map of India as a sign of endearment, but doesn't actually do it. Throughout the story, whether he is looking outside at the “large green leaves,” analyzing his girlfriend’s urination patterns, texting her apologizes while she is flying, petulantly making “up his mind to say as little as possible,” forcing her to drink wine instead of water, or throwing away the elephant she gives him, the reader sees the pettiness of the boyfriend. He is waiting for her to make a decision, while asserting very little himself; his passivity along with his desire for her “to suffer a little; he wanted her to say it and feel unhappy about hurting him” make the reader empathize with the girlfriend and want her to get away.

She doesn’t, instead she dies in the end; not literally, but examine how her voice and her appearance is described in the story. One of the first details we learn from the boyfriend is “she had lost weight on her travels […]She was tired […]she’d gone away to recover from feeling tired all the time, and now that she was back she was still tired.” He goes on to say, “And she’d grown older. Older or harder or more serious – he wasn’t sure which. There was a gray tinge to her tanned skin, the kind you usually see only on older women.” Also, one of the story’s most marvelous lines is assigned to her. The boyfriend asks how she wants her water, and she says, “room temperature.” Such a nice moment, because the emotional temperature of the room is so dry and dead, for her to want her water this way anticipates her last decision. The set-up for this revelation is telling. The boyfriend is looking for his girlfriend, and the narrator notes, “she said quietly,” and then a line down, “she said even more quietly.” The boyfriend can’t locate her, and her voice is dissipating like she is on her death bed, which becomes literal when the boyfriend finds her “in the bedroom. She was lying in his bed fully clothed,” like a person in a casket, I would add. The narrator, however, gets the same point across in the last sentence: “She lay there in his bed fully clothed, and then she turned on her side, laid her head on the pillow and put her hands under it, and looked at him gravely and sadly.” Note the use of the adverb gravely, never used more appropriately.

Again, that’s it. Except there is more, an element of what I will call magic, meaning less rabbits out of hats and more a sense of the metaphysical or spiritual. The lost elephant adds this to the story and throws off easy interpretations, taking the story a step further. The elephant’s fourth disappearance is a great metaphor because it tells you everything and nothing. The magic is that the lost elephant suggests an alternative force sending both characters a message, which is brilliant, because it’s a message neither the reader nor the characters understands but knows is important.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Helen Simpson's "Homework"

When the first line of a story is a young boy groaning, “I can’t do it,” and the last line is that same son’s proclamation: “You go. I can do it now,” the reader expects the story to have shown a positive change in the son; however I think George ends “Homework” telling his mother to leave, not from renewed confidence but realized fear. His mother has shown she is on the verge of madness. Herein lies the most inventive device in “Homework”: the plot, better described in this instance as the trick. The story takes the campy, movie-like scene of a mother helping her son with his homework, and subverts the reader’s expectations. Instead of helping her son write a typical answer to the English teacher’s “Write about the Most Life Changing Event” assignment, she convinces her son to write a miserable, fictional story of his life that says more about her own confusion and sadness than it does about his life.

Consider when our narrator is helping George write a fictional emotional response to his parents’ fake divorce (the mother’s exercise becomes more morbid, the more one considers it) and starts to suggest her own childhood dreams as a template: “You could put a bad dream in, George; that would take up a few lines. / ‘What about?’/ Oh an earthquake perhaps. I was always dreaming about earthquakes and floods and fires when I was your age.” The reader begins to see that the mother’s suggestions are connected to her experiences, and this becomes further illuminated when plot decisions for the assignment are taken from her past. The mother tells George, “You might even ask if you can go and live with your grandma for a while,” and later informs the reader, “When I went to live with my grandmother for a while, she had enough to eat but not quite enough to keep warm.” By this point, the reader has no doubt that this fictional assignment has become an expression of the mother’s unhappy childhood and domestic frustration.

That said, “Homework” has major weaknesses, and left this reader disappointed. The most glaring failure is George. A case in point is when he complains that the boy of the assignment shouldn’t have to cook, because “kids should be looked after by their parents,” and the mother responds, “You’re thirteen, George!” This moment is striking, because it speaks to the story’s flaw. George isn’t thirteen; he’s eight, maybe nine. There could be a cultural difference at play, but America’s thirteen year olds are seventh graders and eight graders, and already asserting an identity. Boys this age don’t ask for homework help (even the assignment seems implausible), and have started to feel a bulging distraction in their pants. I wouldn’t be surprised if this George still believes girls have cooties. (I must be crazy; even the boy of the story’s title page photograph doesn’t look thirteen.) Okay, maybe this George just happens to be sheltered and naïve. This could be true, but this wouldn’t explain his responses to his mother’s traumatic suggestions: “why,” “What happens next,” “cool,” all make him feel unreal. His mother is weaving an alternative life for him – one quite tragic and depressing, and his most admant concern is will his teacher accept the assignment.

Furthermore, almost as a lesson on how not to write, the reader is told George “said grimly,” “said dryly,” “looked up from his pad suspiciously,” “smiled reluctantly,” and “asked hopefully.” These are just the adverbs assigned to George in the last page of the story, and it is clear, somewhere in all these adverbs, the writer wants to show the tension George feels about his mother’s homework help, but my first read, one I attempt pen-less, became so distracted by these adverbs, I had to grab a pen and circle them. The complexity of a character can’t be fully dependant on a part of speech, especially not adverbs, yet this seems to be the story’s mode of operation. This wasn’t the only grammatical tick, either. Too many times, the story ends a moment of dialogue with a gerund clause. Examples: “George said, propped up on his elbows, eyeing me with wary optimism,” “I know, he said, spreading his hands palms upward in front of him,” “No, George said, shaking his head firmly,” “Life-changing event, I said, returning to the business in hand.” These four gerund clauses all are from the story's first page, which has three more I didn’t report. I find grammar in stories works best one of two ways: either so subtle and clear, the reader passes through it without pause, or so complex and elastic, the reader wonders how the writer composed the wonderful, mystery of the sentences.

The language of “Homework” may lack mystery, but there is an elusive thread in the story. The narrator tells the reader, “Last week I’d been making flapjacks while [George] stood by to lick the spoon, and I mentioned that I’d always liked the picture of the lion on the Golden Syrup tin. ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweetness,’ he read aloud, peering at the green-and-gold picture.” This phrase does strike the reader as interesting, and it returns during the story’s second to last paragraph, which breaks the fiction’s otherwise consistent tone. “When a man loses his temper, people say, That’s the Irish in him, or the Scottish, or the Viking. […]Dirty players or terriers are what they call footballers with that anger-stoked edge, but strength without sweetness is no use at all.” These two references to sweetness and strength are the subtlest thread in the story, and perhaps the most interesting, but I am still unsure how they interact with the mother/son relationship of the narrative. Is the reader supposed to see the mother as the strength or the sweetness? To me, she seems like someone whose life has stepped “onto the tines of a garden fork, and the solid shaft of the handle [has reared up and hit her] in the face.”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Denis Johnson's "1966"

Perhaps, the most important exchange in “1966” is the phone conversation between the brothers, Bill and James. Both are confused, young men headed down the same road, the older brother just further along; and if this story’s split narrative is meant to show two bones in the masculine psychological anatomy – one the narrative of Bill’s shore leave, the other James’ decision to join the military – than this conversation is the joint linking the two.

And, this joint is strongest when the conversation’s tension is sustained through the character’s unspoken emotions. The brothers’ awkwardness, for example, is shown through lines like, “O.K./O.K./Hey, tell mom I called, O.K.?And tell her I said hi. /O.K. /O.K…Tell her I love her. /O.K. So long.” Much of this back and forth banter seems mundane, but it works as silence between outbursts like Bill’s assertion of distaste for Honolulu’s weather: “Hey, kid, imagine this – did you ever lift the lid on a kettle full of boiling sewage? That’s what it’s like stepping out on the street in this place.” Furthermore, because the narrator rarely registers Bill’s emotions, the reader understands them through his descriptions of the weather, like when Bill warns James, “the tropics ain’t no tropical paradise […] It’s full of rot –bugs, sweat, stink, and I don’t know what all else. And most of the beautiful tropical fruit you see, it’s rotten –it’s mashed on the street.”

Yet, James ignores his older brother and decides Bill is “probably an alkie, like his father.” The revelation of the brothers’ different fathers helps to explain the distance between them, and Bill tries to overcome it when he tells James: “Well, you stay out of trouble. Learn by [my father’s] example,” but James responds, “I don’t follow none of his examples, I don’t even look at his examples.” This is important, because by ignoring lessons from both his brother and his brother’s father, James is following their footsteps, and Bill, aware of the real trauma of war, knows the tragic failure of this conversation and says it “just made him more depressed. His brother James was stupid. His brother James was going to end up in the military, too.”

After this phone conversation, Bill heads to a dive bar, and meets a civilian tanker named Kinney, and an unnamed, ex-marine, bum. Racist tirades and pitchers of beer start the conversation, and the bum goes on to describes the hats Vietnamese women would wear and how he yanked one “right off the bike, man, […] I saw one this one time where she was all bent like this, man. Her neck was snapped.” This description of a woman’s snapped neck is trumped later when the Bum tells about the time he saw a woman’s genitals mutilated. Bill doesn’t believe these stories, but the violence of war has affected him, and later and drunker, he removes his “white bucks with red rubber soles,” and pontificates his view against war, saying “I think, really, there ain’t that many different kinds of people on this earth. And that’s why I’m against war.”

Bill may have become a pacifist, but his younger brother will join him in Vietnam soon. This same night, James and friends search for a party they aren’t able to find; and, instead, parked in the middle of nowhere, they sit in the bed of James’ truck and drink warm beer. High school banter passes the time, and James decides he prefers Rollo’s girl, Stevie, to his girl, Charlotte, drives both his friend and girl home, only to return Stevie to nowhere, this time alone. James tells Stevie his plans to join either “the Army or the Marines,” which gives him the confidence to kiss her. They kiss and she says, “I’m trying to think, Does this man kiss like the Army or like the Marines?” This exchange ignites intimacy between them, which leads Stevie to try and probe James, asking about his father, but James ignores her and tells himself, “So now she suddenly thought they should tell their worst secrets to each other.” He leaves to urinate this intimacy from his body and returns to say, “I just made up my mind: I’m joining the Army Infantry.” Determined, he claims he’s “going to get over there to Vietnam. [..] Going to fuck up a whole lot of people.” The reader knows, mainly himself.

Bill is “in agony, dealing with bare feet on the hot sand, and now on the black asphalt.” Bill has left his shoes on the beach, and the heat beneath him represents the hell that awaits. He, Kinney, and the Bum, find themselves unwittingly helping Kinney collect on a debt, and out of nowhere, Kinney shots the debtor, and Bill, surprised and confused, tries “to understand where this noise had come from, to find some explanation for it other than that Kinney had just shot this man in the chest.” Soon the Bum, afraid of the cursing Kinney, is hiding behind a bus, and Bill is stumbling in a post-traumatic haze; his unhappiness defying his mother’s assertion that the war “didn’t hurt [Bill], I suppose.” James, aware of his mother’s financial insecurity, promises his tired mother, “You send me the envelope every month, I’ll send you some money back inside it,” and gets her to all but agree to sign her second son away to a war that has already damaged the psyche of her first. James’ promise, a promise the reader imagines Bill made too, seems unlikely, since Bill has been “assigned to grunt work and garbage detail on the base,” and the story’s last line that “hard times are coming,” suggests a similar future for James. By the story's end, the reader knows the Vietnam War will damage both sons, and the only brother left, Burris, first shown, “peering down the barrel of a cap pistol while he pulled the trigger repeatedly,” will have to wait a few decades to prove his masculinity and join his brothers’ misery.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Junot Diaz's "Wildwood"

To understand the cobbled structure of Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood”, one has to look no further than the story itself. There is a moment when the young, female narrator has been exiled to the Dominican Republic, and is dating a Dominican boy named Max, whose job is to exchange the film reels shared among the movie theaters in Santo Domingo. The reader is told (the whole story is told more than experienced) the job is important because, “if [Max] is held up or gets into an accident the first reel will end and there will be no second reel […] Because of me, he brags, one movie becomes three.” This is the structure of “Wildwood:” three different reels packaged as one movie.

The first reel is a beautiful, second-person account of the day a young girl learns her mother’s life force, her large, eye-awing breasts, are sick. Despite the inherent (male?) silliness of making large breasts a metaphor for a woman’s life force, this opening is the most powerful section of the story. The metaphor works because of the ambivalent relationship the daughter has to her mother’s breasts. She says of them: “the aureoles are as big as saucers and black as pitch and at their edges are fierce hairs that sometimes she plucks and sometimes she doesn’t.” This description of the mother’s breasts has a grotesqueness that speaks directly to the narrator’s feelings about her mother. The narrator tells the reader: “you don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said anything that wasn’t negative, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams.” These lines suggest the mother’s breasts match her monstrous parenting. (Monstrous seems too harsh a word? She did feed and house her daughter, but, for me, the mother’s neglectful, abusive parenting becomes horrific when she tells her molested daughter “to shut [her] mouth, and stop crying.”) Yet, our narrator admires her mother’s breasts, saying they “are immensities. One of the wonders of the world.” Furthermore, the most tender exchange in the story is when the daughter feels her mother’s breasts, and says of the experience: “at first all you feel is the density of the tissue and the heat of her, like a bread that never stopped rising. She kneads your fingers into her. You’re as close as you’ve ever been.” This opening reel successfully shows the conflicted, strained, but tender relationship between a mother and daughter through the daughter’s relationship to the mother’s breasts.

However, this tender moment becomes the impetus for the daughter’s rejection of the typical idea of a Dominican woman and becoming a punk rocker– the type of girl who spends late nights at Limelight, ignores house-hold duties, and rejects hyper-sexual street-yapping men with responses like, “Why, so you can rape me?” In this middle reel, the daughter becomes hostile to her mother and argues to the reader, “you don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around […] What it’s like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican Slave.” (By the way, moments like this make the story's intended audience unclear. Certain things are addressed and explained to the reader, because he or she isn't going to be Dominican.) Now, Junot Diaz has always been critical of Dominican culture, and by revealing its flaws, he has often unveiled its humanity; however, this story starts to go further than “Drown” dared. This second reel shows the narrator, not simply being critical of her mother’s culture, but outright rejecting it: we are told she wanted “the life that existed beyond Paterson, beyond [her] family, beyond Spanish.” Running away becomes her dream. Books like “Watership Down,” “The Fountainhead,” along with television shows further her desire to escape.

The story’s opening, however, rejects this change : “It’s never the changes we want that change everything.” So the reader isn’t surprised when the middle reel leads to a boring(for both her and the reader), anguished, boardwalk life; a disastrous failure, and the daughter, betrayed by her brother, is dramatically caught by her mother and forced to make another change: the last reel takes the exiled narrator to the Dominican Republic, where the reader sees her third and final transformation. Whereas, the second section introduces a remarkable struggle between a mother and daughter that ultimately feels like a daughter’s battle for a fate different than her mother’s, this third reel is as simple and cliché as “The Alchemist.” It seems Diaz wants the reader to believe our narrator finds what she always needed at home. I can accept this, but what is the alteration our narrator finds in Santo Domingo? “so much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosio has me dressing up like a real Dominican girl. She’s the one who fixes my hair and helps me with my makeup.” Can’t believe your eyes? Neither can I! The story's revelatory change is for the daughter to become “a real Dominican,” – with fancy hair and make-up to add gloss to insult. It gets worse: after sex with movie-reel Max, our narrator says, “when we were done and he was in the bathroom washing himself I stood in front of the mirror naked and looked at my culo for the first time. A tesoro, I repeated. A treasure.” Are we supposed to believe part of our narrator’ epiphany is that she learns to see her ass as a treasure? Here, I believe the problem is the story starts to ask important questions, like what does an individual owe to a culture he or she finds unsatisfactory, confining, and alienating, but then falls onto an easy, absurd suggestion that the needed change is for the character to see the treasure of her big ass and pretty hair. This inherently fails, because the real necessary change isn’t being addressed: the expansion of a culture, not the conformity of an individual, as if a spike-haired, flat-chested, punk-rock girl is less Dominican than her big-breasted, abusive, and overworked mother.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

William Trevor's "Faith"

William Trevor’s “Faith,” is the type of short story I imagine most New Yorker cosmopolitans would read for a paragraph, yawn, and skip in favor of Anthony Lane’s witty movie reviews. Myself, first read, I had to fight through sleep/boredom to get from one word to the next. The tone is dry, the language very formal, and the character’s emotions subdued; an interesting contrast to the manic, highly subjective, slapstick nature of Saunders’ story last week. In “Faith”, even striking character revelations are couched in language most readers under eighty find off-putting: “Conversation with Hester was often like that; Bartholomew was used to it, Details withheld or frugally proffered made the most of what was imparted, as if to imbue communication with greater interest.” This detail exposes an important aspect of Hester’s nature – her inclination towards concealment foreshadows and deepens the reader’s later understanding of her religious devotion – yet the narrator’s language, more than illuminating this aspect of her personality, obstructs the reader’s experience of the character.

To be fair, this language is absolutely consistent throughout the story and does match the consciousness of the two main characters: the adult siblings, Hester and Bartholomew. For example, the story opens with a description of Hester: “she was a difficult woman, had been a willful child, a moody, recalcitrant girl,” which, sets the story’s tone, while also juxtaposing starkly with the description given of her younger brother, Bartholomew’s “delicate good looks – fair hair, blue eyes […] lithe ranginess.” Essentially this story is an asexual love affair between these two siblings in the face of “the unexpected death of their mother, [and] their father’s [death] a mercilessly slow one.” Contemporary literature is filled with trivially unhappy married couples, and Trevor’s story of these two very different siblings is refreshing(less like a glass of water and more like a long jog) in the nuance of understanding shown between this brother and sister.

Take in consideration a moment of tension in their relationship: Hester, unemployed after nursing their parkinsoned father to his death, has found a small, desolate church soon in need of a priest and wants an uncertain Bartholomew to take this position. This leads to a quiet moment where the narrator describes that “since their childhood [Bartholomew] had resented, without saying it, her interference, her indignation on his behalf, her possessiveness.” Yet, instead of breaking into a pouty temper tantrum, he has “forgiven what she couldn’t help, doing so as natural in him as scorn and prickliness were in her.”

Same with Hester. During a road trip to visit Oscary, the church that later becomes their home, Hester reacts to Bartholomew offering money to the mechanic that tweaks a small trouble with their car by saying, “it was as it always had been, she was thinking, Bartholomew offering the man money when it hadn’t been asked for. The soft touch of the family, their father had called him, and used that same expression, laughing a bit, when Bartholomew first wanted to become a clergyman.” This softness clearly annoys the “brusque” Hester, but she doesn’t bicker with her brother, instead, concluding, “Bartholomew’s vocation suited him; it completed him, and protected him, as Hester tried to do in other ways.” This is just a glimpse of the authentic, developed relationship between these two characters, and their dynamic, so mature, so filled with unspoken dissatisfaction but perceptive empathy, is the most successful aspect of the story.

The plot, not as successful as the sibling relationship, nor as parched as the language, is about faith, abandoned and withheld. Bartholomew’s decision to take the priest position at Oscary doesn’t increase his faith but coincides with the death of it. It starts as doubt: “the clatter of the shoe on the linoleum when it slipped from his grasp brought more. Sensations of confusion lingered while he sat there, then were gone.” Bartholomew’s epiphany, therefore, starts because of an immediate awareness of the physical world, and becomes what he describes as “an eruption from his half-stifled impatience with the embroidery and frills that dressed the simplicity of truth, with the invasive, sentimental stories, that somehow made faith easier, and the hymns he hated.” Here, the impetuous for Bartholomew’s abandonment of the Catholicism is the dressed up, rituals, and showy part of the religion, the part opposite of the simplicity of his human sensations. (Nice foreshadowing of pending trouble at Oscary is shown with the car’s small tink during the sibling’s first ride to visit the church.)

Whereas Oscary ignites doubt in the brother, it seems to embolden a religious devotion in Hester, not previously shown in the story. The first mention of her religious piety comes casually in the middle of the story: “Belief was part of Hester, taken for granted, a sturdy certainty that brought her confidence.” We see this casualness become more like devotion through Hester’s physical interaction with the church. The narrator says of her, “The church was hers, she considered, for she had found it and brought life to it, making more of it than a mere outward and visible sign.”

Then, just as casually as Bartholomew’s spiritual doubt is placed in the story, Hester’s impending death is told to the reader. These twists could have given the story a despondent tone, and to some extent Bartholomew’s crisis does, but Hester takes a different note. She says, “How tidy it is![…] Living for your while, then not being there anymore. How well arranged!”(That’s one way of looking at it.) And while, Bartholomew’s continues “his deception of her and of his scanty congregations would one day assault his conscience,” the narrator notes “the intensity of [Hester’s] faith, the sureness of her trust, was unaffected by the pain suffered.” The brother loses his religion, the sister loses her life, and the story ends with a beautiful moment of Bartholomew, in his dead sister’s bed, and feels “the mercy of her tranquility seeming to be a miracle that was real, as it had been in the instant of death. Heaven enough, and more than angels.”