Varieties of Weirdness in the American Short Story

January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman.

Reading next: The Fifty-Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

An odd connection to make, but Ben Greenman’s book of short stories reminded me of something that Stephen King wrote about one of his own stories, “The Moving Finger,” about a very long finger coming out of a toilet.  King writes to the effect (I don’t have the text directly to hand) that short stories are the form in which you’re still allowed, occasionally, to let weirdness happen with no logic or explanation, and that it’s one of his favorite things about writing stories as opposed to novels.

The comment’s always stuck with me, and I’ve come to think that short stories are an inherently weird form.  They are, by their nature, too short to explain everything.  In their own ways, short story masterpieces by Raymond Carver or James Joyce are as full of unexplained or inexplicable weirdness as “The Moving Finger,” just of a different kind: weirdness of character, of expression, of incident that would take far too many words to attempt to decipher completely.

I might suggest that this inherent condition of the short story has, perhaps contrary to expectations, been exacerbated in U.S. fiction by MFA writing programs in which everyone’s struggling to churn out stories, and looking for new angles to take.  Greenman is very skilled, and I enjoyed the book.  But some of the stories here are redolent of workshop and exercise.

The most obviously weird decisions in Greenman’s book are the settings of his stories “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That” and “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” Each story in the book is introduced with a “postmark,” in keeping with the theme of old-fashioned paper correspondence that runs through each story.  The postmark for “Seventeen Different Ways” is “Lunar City, 1989.”  It’s set on a moon colony, in the year 1989.  “Govindan…” is from “Australindia, 1921.”  It is set in a “former boomerang factory… on the border between India and Australia.”

But there’s other oddity that’s not so overt.  The first and last stories, each a single four-page paragraph (EXERCISE: write a story in one sentence/paragraph/quotation), exhibit Carver-style weirdness: characters left unnamed for stylistic and thematic effect, acting like strangers to themselves.  And another story with a truly excessively long title, “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living, Country Love Is the Only Love Worth Giving,” is narrated by a hilariously horny monster, with questions abounding from his every objectionable statement.  And yet it’s perhaps my favorite story in the book: you can get away with this over eight pages, with nothing but questions and laughter.  It’s the nature of the form.

Three or More Madmen

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not.  More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw.  That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.

Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai.  That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable.  Which is perfectly valid.

As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary.  The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse.  You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.

As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to  wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions.  And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems.  Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.

“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God.  Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:

A clean, whitewashed, square room.  How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square.  There was one window, with a curtain — red….  And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual.  Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life.  Somehow life and death merged into one.  Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it.  Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.

The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence.  It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions.  But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”

I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well.  If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist.  There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories.  Thank God.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary).  I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family.  As he dies, at the end, we read the following:

He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:

“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…”  He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.

Okay, fine.  God will understand.  But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged?  Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him?  And what are they to understand from “Forgo”?  One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence?  (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.)  The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”

Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare.  The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story.  It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?

Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse.  This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage.  And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art.  Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.”  He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.”  The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here.  He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife.  He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion.  Moral or immoral?  Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous  works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?

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