Sunday, September 16, 2012

What makes a short story memorable? (No answer here.)

These days, most short stories, unless I teach them, slide off me. (Whole novels do as well, in truth.) When I consider all the stories I remember well, most of them come from when I was young and, as we say, with literal accuracy, impressionable. I know I read some Bradbury stories only once, but still they left their marks. Most of those that stayed, though, I read more than once. The same is true for the Harlan Ellison read in later high school. And then everything by Flannery O'Connor stuck. Much that I read of Updike.

Was it only the newness of these things as my affection for fiction deepened? So few collections in the years since have had such an effect on me. Chris Offutt's amazing collection, Kentucky Straight, comes to mind, though I don't think, half a dozen years later, I can talk about any individual story. Why is that? I keep hoping I'll come upon such memorable nonfiction again. (I'm sure I'm forgetting, at the moment, some more recent things that have actually clung to my brain. I know I enjoyed James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt, and George Saunders and Jim Shepard have successfully planted flags in my head. Still: Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?)

I'll certainly remember the Harlan Ellison story I just finished. Recently reading about Ellison, I saw that his story "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" ran in the 1993 edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Louise Erdrich. Especially since I'm teaching American literature (and one of Erdrich's books is on my curriculum), I was drawn to the story for its title, though the idea that it might connect with my curriculum didn't pay off.

The story, told in brief vignettes, involves a man name Levendis who slips through time taking actions which are alternately brutal, helpful, and timeline-changing. In a device that appears purposeless, each vignette is introduced by "LEVENDIS" and a colon. Almost immediately, I was  reminded of Shirley Jackson's terrific "An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" (a couple takes turns doing random good and not-so-good acts), and Ellison at one point makes it clear that Levendis has read the story as well. (This contributes not to the tales cleverness but to its clunkiness.) The piece has some nice moments, but there's no synergy to the thing, no sense that it accrues strength as it goes on. It's mostly Ellison riffing on an idea, which, yes, is fun, but left me wanting more. The prose bothers me in the way Stephen King's prose bothers me, in the way the author slips into casual speech—not because it's the best way to get the point across but because, I feel, the writer is trying to establish some down-to-earth cred. This rings false to me. Nevertheless, the story stuck with me (more in its overall idea than its particulars; I think John Kessel's "The Pure Product" gives some of the same idea much more heft and power). Unfortunately, for my money, Ellison ruins what's good about the story—its enigmatic refusal to pin down a predominant purpose—in the author's note at the end of the collection. Ellison talks at length about the recent death of Avram Davidson and of his long desire to get into such a fine literary collection. That's all good stuff. But then he wants to tell us the "point" of the story, undercutting his own work. I often say to students that the author is not always the go-to person when you want to know a story's purpose, and this may be such a case; I think, rather than the "randomness rules" theme Ellison sees, there's much in the story about the nature of the writerly imagination. Whatever Ellison thinks the story is about, he should have avoided saying it.

I read several stories in Jeffrey Ford's acclaimed collection The Drowned Life. Reading the title story late at night did not aid in the appreciation process: I kept nodding off. That wasn't the story's fault, but every time I picked it up again, I found that what had come before had found no traction. That is, I think, the story's fault. It feels aimless, and while I found much of the imagery interesting, the piece didn't seem to accrue meaning as it went forward, nor did its components become more clearly analogous to anything in the real world. As with Ellison's story, the writing had some of that "rough" contemporary phrasing which is an authorial stance I find tiresome. The weight of modernity (or something) makes our hero slip "under," entering a watery world he needs to escape. The best elements—and they're quite memorable—have that quality of the dreams that wake us: the distress of being unable to retain information, unable to reach a destination, unable to back out of a path on which a dream has led us. The piece felt more as if it simply ended rather than resolved, but the later scenes, full of dread, were excellently rendered. "A Few Things About Ants," however, had an even more fragmentary structure that resulted in less synergistic success. I'll have to read more of the stories to see whether the non-story is a standard approach for Ford.

Having heard Donald Ray Pollack, author of the collection Knockemstiff (the actual name of his home town in Ohio), interviewed on Fresh Air, I ordered his collection from the library. A self-taught writer, Pollack spoke of how he learned to write by copying, word for word, stories he liked; he'd carry a copied story around with him for a week, then copy down another one. Assuming one has a good ear and good taste, it's a fine method of instruction. The collection's first story, "Real Life," stars a little boy whose father taught him "how to hurt a man," and on the night in question, the boy receives, from this unpleasant specimen of humanity, something that passes for love. It's an unsurprising turn—we've seen it before—but Pollack is smart enough to make the scenes of brutality feel startlingly real and off-kilter, and he's also smart enough to push the story past the more familiar resolution to involve the mother in a scene that complicates further our understanding of these people. The collection's second story, "Dynamite Hole," takes an unexpected approach to its story of brutality and confusion by refusing to first establish sympathy for its inhumane main character. Not that we dislike him from the outset, but the character pulls us into his visceral responses and unappealing life before we can form any judgment. Then Pollack complicates our horror by making the character human (though not humane) in two moments at the end. I'm looking forward to reading more of this collection.

The only story I've read from Krys Lee's Drifting House is the first one, "A Temporary Marriage," which, though it has interesting characters (a South Korean woman who has, for reasons that are unclear, lost her daughter in a divorce; the odd and awkward man, a divorced Korean living in America, who takes her in so she can hunt for her daughter), proceeds in unsurprising ways for most of its length. But the woman's past is hidden for a reason, and she turns out to be not what we expected, so that the story rewards rereading once we understand that, like Mr. Rhee, we've been living with someone keeping her true self concealed.

Lastly, in my ongoing revisiting of Bradbury, I reread "The Dwarf," from The October Country, a collection I've always loved and made even better through Joe Mugnaini's illustrations (the image for "The Dwarf" looks like something Gahan Wilson might have done). It's hard to read this story now and not feel discomfited by its treatment of the "dwarf" in question. Mostly, it's one character who treats him badly, inverting his hopes after the man's girlfriend tries to do "Mr. Big" a good turn, but the way the story largely reduces the character to a symbol feels, in our more aware times, unpleasant. True, Bradbury grants the man his humanity by the end, but the genre, with the kind of "toughness" you'd see in dime-store fiction, doesn't allow much more.

And so I wonder why some stories work and other don't, why some stay with me and other slip away, even as I'm working on several pieces of my own. "About the Author" has, I'm aware, much of the randomness of the Ellison story: Does it add up to anything? Must it? Must I know exactly what? My next "Old Man" story, which I've set aside while I focus on some shorter, easier (one hopes) things, makes narrative demands on me that other stories haven't, and I want the work that goes into it to pay off for the attentive reader. Then there's "Vox ex Machina," a story that is writing itself (except in how it's going to play out at the end); it seems like the kind of tale people will remember. Isn't that what a writer wants?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 3): Melancholy's medicine

The collection A Medicine for Melancholy, first published in 1959, contains a broad range of stories published over the previous ten years in venues from Playboy to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the Saturday Evening Post. The collection contains some of Bradbury's most-remembered (not just by me) science fiction tales: "The Dragon," "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," and "All Summer in a Day." In addition, "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit" became a play.

Because the stories were written over the course of more than a decade, you can spot the shifts in Bradbury's style. It's hard to trace precisely, because some of the publication dates are missing, but that tendency to have voluble characters who, like Bradbury himself, go on and on about their big ideas, increases with the years. Earlier, it's the narrative voice that allows itself all that energy, and that works pretty well, and is typically balanced by Bradbury's sense that he should keep the narrative compact. By the end, the narrative voice has largely been shoved out of the way to allow the characters to go on at length, much as Bradbury allowed Faber and Beatty to prattle away in Fahrenheit 451 (an initially shorter piece he'd somewhat awkwardly inflated to novel length).

I reread the collection's first four stories—"In a Season of Calm Weather" (a man longing to meet Picasso comes upon him making elaborate drawings in beach sand), "The Dragon" (two men from the Middle Ages await a beast that rides through the mist; we learn it's a train crossing the time-twisted moors), "A Medicine for Melancholy" (an 18th-century English lass finds that it's sexual longing that ails her, though Bradbury is marvelously discreet), and "The End of the Beginning" (a man mowing his lawn waits with his wife for the launch of their son's rocket)—as well as "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," from later in the book. Each story has its pleasures. Though very little happens in "In a Season of Calm Weather," and I don't think Bradbury does a great job of conjuring the images Picasso etches on the beach, there's a nice sense to it of the fragility of art. "The Dragon," short and to the point, does exactly what it ought to do. "A Medicine for Melancholy" hurries itself along with characters shouting and speaking ridiculously, but it's a good tale with clever turns to it. "The End of the Beginning," like "The Machineries of Joy," is dominated by "philosophical" talk and introspection; brevity of speech and conciseness of prose would have helped enormously.

The best of the bunch, and one of Bradbury's best stories ever, is "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," one of his Martian tales. It runs too counter to the predominant narrative of most of his other Martian stories, so it couldn't have fit into The Martian Chronicles. Rather, it's an alternate history of the colonization of Mars, in which everything we take with us to that planet is changed—our plants, our ideas, our bodies. There's a creeping sense from the outset that something terrible is going to happen, and Bradbury both follows that sense to its conclusion while subverting it beautifully. Then he adds one more narrative twist to send us in another direction and comment on what's gone before, planting, too, one more tiny turn at the end. It's a masterful story that avoids the verbal windiness of many of the other pieces. The writing is, like the best of the work in The Martian Chronicles, tight and evocative. He moves the story forward quickly, but pauses to give us haunting moments and disturbing exchanges. The writer of this story is the one to learn from.