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.

How Snack Cakes and Thomas Kinkade Explain America

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Pym, by Mat Johnson.

Pym is a wildly uneven book, its amazing premise (Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a true story, as revealed by the existence of a narrative by Dirk Peters, the black sailor on the voyage) and brilliant, relentlessly inventive plot undermined by some uninspired language (the word “guy” is used excessively) and underwritten elements.  But any book that can move from a satire on academic tokenism to a post-apocalyptic scenario in Antarctica is worth a look.  It’s a worthy entry in the category of the American Weird; the book it reminds me of most is Victor LaValle’s Big Machine.

Johnson is really good at presenting the scope of America’s absurdity, and the overlooked pervasiveness of race and racism in its giant problems: he has a real gift for skirting close to allegory in his fantastic scenarios.  I especially loved the inclusion of two connected elements of satire in the comic character of the narrator’s friend Garth: his overwhelming loves for the paintings of Thomas Karvel and Little Debbie snack cakes.

Karvel is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.  If you’re not American or have somehow, blessedly, missed seeing his work, just check out his website for an introduction.  You’ll see that, as Chris Jaynes  points out in Pym, the work “looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.”  Jaynes also points out that black people seem to have no place in the Karvel aesthetic: they are just not part of the “pretty picture.”

The cloying sweetness of Karvel’s landscapes is only matched by the HFCS-laden Little Debbies that Garth is addicted to, to the point of bring cases of them along to Antarctica.  Great fun is had with the Little Debbie name, logo, and long-lived slogan, “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”  The white American obsessions for centuries — racial purity, cleanliness, “wholesome family values,” the monetization, standardization, and mass production of just about everything — are mirrored in both Karvel’s factory-produced “masterpieces” and the omnipresent, addictive Little Debbie simulacra of homemade desserts.

Johnson’s greatest gift in this book seems to be for giving the abstractions of academic discourse — fear and attraction to the Other, sexual sublimation, the deep contextual underpinnings of American literature — lurid, provocative, narrative form.  To make them, in other words, interesting as entertainment.  The juxtaposition of Karvel and Little Debbie works beautifully on this level, bringing together many threads in American culture, politics, and aesthetics.  So do the brilliant plot twists in which Karvel and Little Debbies become the salvation of the black cohort of adventurers at the South Pole are a perfect example of this.  But to give too much away about that would spoil the fun.  The fantastical plot elements of the work do function, as I said, at an almost allegorical level for the predicament in which America finds itself: our gluttony and willful blindness to problems like inequality, racism, and global warming leading to a situation nearly as dire as that in which the black explorers find themselves in Antarctica.  Eventually the  hermetically sealed hothouse of Pollyannaish exceptionalism has to be exposed to the harsh elements.  The Little Debbies eventually must come home to roost.

American Weirdness

March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place.  It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.

And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely.  I love horror movies, after all.  And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways.  It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films.  It would involve poor people.  And black people.  And cults.  And drug abuse.  And monsters.  And abortion.  And weirdness.

Lots and lots of weirdness.  The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having.  I guess this is what we normally call mythology.

The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways.  One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home.  It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways.  It feels very true, as that kind of story.  Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself.  The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.

And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks.  While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching.  We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet.  We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.”  We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness.  Terrorism and holy war.  Angels and demons.  Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing.  A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.

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