Monday, December 19, 2005

Joy Williams is an unsettling genius

A few weeks ago I mentioned Joy Williams’s introduction to a Jane Bowles story in the anthology You’ve Got to Read This. I had been reading Williams’s collection of essays Ill Nature over the past few months (since she writes 140 proof prose, you don’t chug it), and knew that she had a story collection published recently, but had not yet acquired it.

I have now done so, and want to draw attention (to the degree that I can) to Williams’s scintillating prose. Here is the opening paragraph of her story, “Honored Guest”:

She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke. They had left the notes everywhere and they were full of misspellings and pretensions. Theirs had been a false show. Then this year a girl had taken an overdose of Tylenol which of course did nothing at all, but word of it got out and when she came back to school her locker had been broken into and was full of Tylenol, just jammed with it. Like, you moron. Under the circumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all. It was just not cool. You only made a fool of yourself. And the parents of these people were mocked too. They were considered to be suicide-enhancing, evil and weak, and they were ignored and barely tolerated. This was a small town. Helen didn't want to make it any harder on her mother than circumstances already had.

Note the shifting relationship between narrative voice and the protagonist. Although told in the third-person, the narrative is essentially inside the protagonist's head, and numerous touches in the opening sentences ("Then this year . . .") reinforce this. Then it seems to take a step backward, into a more omniscient mode ("Under thecircumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all"). The narrative voice then ventures a bit closer again ("It was just not cool") and seems to toy with the second-person ("You only made a fool of yourself"). The final sentences seem to move out again, like a camera dollying back, to give a view of other parents and indeed the community. This is then tied off with a final sentences that brings it back into Helen's head.

This can sound as though the author is simply being inconsistent, but actually she is modulating the tone, with great skill. The most intimate sentence ("Like, you moron"), which goes inside the head of other, unknown students -- who are reacting to the action of an unnamed individual -- is full of contradiction: it is highly mediated (there is one more level of mediation: all these derisive responses are being imagined by Helen) yet very direct; extremely compact, yet full of feeling. These contradictions, binding the sentence together like the nuclear force of a heavy atom that would otherwise blow apart, lend it great energy.

The paragraph undergoes a major change after that point; it's a judgment call whether there should have been a paragraph break there. In those last sentences, there is another contradictory movement: we are both farther into the real world (we are speaking of other parents, and the community at large) and farther into abstraction (these are hypothetical parents of hypothetical suicidal kids, rather than the three kids who had actually tried or succeeded.) And this contradictory movement echoes one in the first half of the paragraph: the complex reaction the reader had -- perhaps without registering it -- to the two girls who committed suicide, who really did do it, and who are mocked for their multiple, effusive notes. "Theirs was a false show." Show? False? In what way? -- the poor girls are dead. Their peers' derision is doubtless covering other emotions: grief, horror. The pathetic notes are held up to ridicule because they are unbearable. The girl who OD'd on Tylenol is, in one respect, being jeered at not because of her similarity to the two suicides but because of her crucial dissimilarity: she plainly hadn't meant it. And all of this, of course, is being imagined by Helen, the single consciousness who holds it all together.

This is really brilliant prose.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Best Story Collections of 2005

Maureen McHugh asks if I can suggest some of the best short story collections of 2005. Having been nominated for a big prize for her own collection (huzzah!), she finds herself wondering what else is going on out there.

I haven't been following new fiction as closely as usual this past year (mostly because of preoccupation with my own projects), so I can make only a few suggestions. Terry Bisson published two collections this year, Greetings and Other Stories and Numbers Don't Lie. (The good folks at Tachyon sent me reviewer's galleys, but I have so far not found a newspaper interested in commissioning me to do a review of recent SF.) I have read about half the stories in Greetings, and it's good. As good as Bears Discover Fire? Can't say till I've read the rest.

Numbers Don't Lie is a trio of novellas about this colorful character. Such a volume may not be considered a story collection by everyone, but Jim Harrison's The Summer He didn't Die also comprises three novellas, and it was also nominated for the Story Prize, so hey, it counts. (Anyway, I like novellas.) And at least one of the stories in this volume involves Harrison's own colorful character, Brown Dog, so there. I liked the novellas, so count Bisson in.

James Salter's Last Night has some superb stories in it. Maro Lanagan's Black Juice appeared from Eos this spring, but I believe it first appeared overseas last year. Um, does anyone have other candidates?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Three-Story Day

I sat in a coffee shop last night while my daughter went to music class and read three (fairly short) stories out of You've Got to Read This. Grace Paley's "Wanting," the opening story in her Enormous Changes at the Late Minute, I have read several times. It is, in its quiet way, an astonishing work: Paley constructs a model bird out of popsicle sticks and Elmer's glue, and it spreads wings and flies away. More surprising, if less familiar, was Donald Barthelme's "The School," another three-page story. I read a lot of late Barthelme a few months ago from his collection Forty Stories, and they can pall fairly quickly. This may also be a late story (the volume has a wholly inadequate credits page), but it proved shockingly good, in a way wholly unlike Paley's. The story is a bravura piece, a performance almost, like someone making a wedding cake with the smallest layer on the bottom and the rest expanding as it grows upwards, the whole thing swaying precariously but remaining upright. You want to cheer.

The third story, however, was in its way the most interesting: "A Day in the Open" by Jane Bowles. It was introduced by Joy Williams, and in a reversal of the previous day's policy I chose it for the introducer rather than the author. (Williams is a fascinatingly fierce writer, whom we can discuss later.) Bowles' story, as Williams notes, is rough-edged in many ways; Bowles "introduces characters woodenly, usually in terms of their nationality. She doesn't know how to get into her stories or how to end them." Her husband, Paul Bowles, urged her to use the "hammer and nails" of fictional technique to get herself over these problems, but Bowles, as Williams says, had to invent her own hammer and nails for every story, and the effort shows.

This doesn't sound promising, and the story indeed has obvious problems of craft. (Bowles indeed introduces the secondary characters in terms of nationality, but not the two protagonists, who are presumably of the country in which the story is set -- which is never specified.) The story -- set in a whorehouse in, probably, Mexico -- involves a picnic that a powerful patron takes with two of the prostitutes, whom the brothel owner compels (though they have just woken up) to undertake. He takes them to a secluded place, along with a second man, and you get the awful feeling that violence will ensue.

A kind of violence does kind of happen, but it's not what you expect; nothing is what you expect. (The second man pays no attention to the proceedings, but spends the afternoon looking at his accounts ledger.) The story has clumsy sentences and bits of strikingly precise observation. You feel unsettled by the entire experience (in a way that reading an ordinarily insufficiently-crafted story never does).

It makes me want to read more by Jane Bowles, though not right away.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Story A Day

I am going to try to read a short story a day, a good resolution from whose perch I get knocked off regularly.

Yesterday I brought home You've Got to Read This, a hefty 1994 anthology (ed. Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard) in which about three dozen of "today's leading fiction writers" introduce their favorite story. I like anthologies like this, because a critic you like can lead you to an author you have never heard of, and vice versa.

Charles Baxter, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel, Edward P. Jones, Lorrie Moore, Francine Prose, Eudora Welty, Joy Williams, etc. introduce stories by a raft of writers, some nineteenth century (Dickens) or early twentieth (Joyce, Borges) but a fair number by writers who were living twenty years ago (Cheever, Carver) or are living now (Munro, Tim O'Brien). Why just "leading fiction writers," instead of including also some non-fiction writing critics? Never mind.

So I read "Labor Day Dinner" by Alice Munro. David Leavitt's introduction begins, "Few stories mean as much to me as Alice Munro's 'Labor Day Dinner,' which sounded enticing enough. I read the rest of the introduction only after finishing the story, and it was a fairly unenlightening intro. But the story (early for Munro: it was reprinted in a 1982 collection) is very compelling. A rather large cast (six women and two men, most of them important characters) interacting complexly. Munro introduces nearly all the characters before anything really gets going, which would usually be a fatal misstep. And she ends the story with near-violence that comes out of nowhere, also risky. It all works.

The story also moves from third-person omniscient into the POV of various characters by turn, which isn't easy. It is also told in the present tense. I suppose this shows that you can pull off anything, if you can pull it off.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

More Bad Rhetoric

Michael Rubin, a Bush administration flack, attempting to defend its disgraceful policy of planting occupation-friendly stories in Iraqi newspapers:

"We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs."

Say what? This is too inept an utterance to warrant comment (note the nonsensical "but"), save that he is doing what I pointed out in the last post: trying to intensify an image by ramping up its quantitative element. Instead of playing with one hand behind one's back, it's "both hands," just as some people think that "one-dimensional" is just like "two-dimensional" but with more punch.

I suppose it's a bit of a consolation that the fatuous mediocrities and preening war criminals of the Bush administration do not seem to have competent apologists.