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?


Matt Hiebert said...

Excellent article, Bill. I hesitate to call it a mere blog post. I know in the case of your Old Man (etc.) stories, it is your narrative voice that sticks with me. Since you use different characters as narrators that voice changes, but the effect remains the same. I'm not in your league, mind you, but I tried to capture the same sense of distance in an urban fantasy story I just finished. If it gets published I'll send you a link and you can say "He doesn't understand me at all!"

William Preston said...

I'm glad to hear those voices have been compelling for you. I do try to actually hear a narrator, which I hope helps keep them coherent (and also, to some extent, differentiates them). In "Unearthed," I tried throughout, especially in the revision process, to make some different sentence construction decisions, pushing her to write more "loose" sentences than periodic ones.

I look forward to being able to say "He doesn't understand me at all," ala Marshall McLuhan. It's long been a dream of mine . . .

Good luck with that story!