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.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

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