This post appeared on Andrew’s Book Club during Short Story Month–May, 2011. I’m reposting (with revision) in June because that’s how slowly this blog moves.
FIRST get your character up a tree. Then throw stones at him.
Who said that first? I’ve been repeating it for years. I’d tattoo it up one arm and down the other if it would make my stories as trouble-filled as “Virgins,” the opening story in Danielle Evans’s debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. It first ran in the Paris Review, then was selected for Best American Short Stories 2008.
Two Mount Vernon girls, Erica and Jasmine, lie to their mothers and take their cousins’ I.D.s to go clubbing in New York City. They also bring Michael, their friend and guardian angel. He keeps trouble, in the form of other guys, away.
Erica likes a good time but she’s not rushing to grow up. Whereas Jasmine’s been lugging a suitcase of anger and hurt for months, since a friend of Michael’s took her virginity and ditched her.
Here is the difference between Erica and Jasmine: Early in the story, at a movie theatre, they spot the guy who deflowered Jasmine. He’s got both hands deep in the hair of his new girlfriend and they’re kissing–deeply, intensely and in the middle of a crowded theatre lobby. Jasmine demands,
“When are we going to be that kind of girl?”
And Erica says,
“What, the stupid kind?”
At the club in Manhattan, the bouncer waves the girls in but turns Michael away cold. (This was the base of the tree, for me: two underage girls stranded in an adult club without their protector, Erica feeling, then burying, her anxiety.)
They dance—sexually, grinding—with men who come up behind them. Then they hit the bar. Erica pretends to be a college student. It’s mobbed; they get separated. (Stranded again, she’s higher up the tree.) Erica pretends to be a record store clerk, then a newspaper photographer, letting men buy her drinks.
Eventually, she finds Jasmine flirting with four men, bombed.
We’re going to an after party, Jasmine says. In the Bronx.
Alarmed, Erica says no, but things happen too fast. Someone has an arm around her. The valet brings a car around and the men get in. Jasmine sits on someone’s lap and drapes her arms around his neck. (Erica, high in the tree, is afraid to leave Jasmine.)
With seconds to make up her mind, she squeezes into the backseat.
(She’s now so far up the tree she seems stuck—indeed, she’s in a crucible–at which point the writer needs the guts to pick up a slingshot.)
Jasmine tongue-kisses the guy whose lap she’s on, escalating the situation as the car speeds toward the Bronx. (Stone.)
The man sitting shotgun informs Erica that she has an “attitude problem,” making clear that the balance of power has further slipped. (Stone.)
The man says,
“Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
–intimating that the evening is far, far out of the girls’ hands. (Stone.)
“Like hell we are.”
–signing away whatever may have been left of Erica’s autonomy. (Stone.)
And Jasmine’s lying; Erica’s a virgin. But in a sense, so is Jasmine; she’s a naïf when it comes to trouble this ugly, and innocence is what she’ll lose tonight.
They park outside an apartment building near a bodega. They enter a lobby, then an elevator. (Skull-cracking stone.)
Someone presses eight. (Stone.)
Erica considers an act of violence, about hitting Jasmine or pulling her guy off of her.
The doors open on five.
Evans stops time for the critical seconds the door is open. Here’s Erica, in those seconds:
There was nobody standing there and I kept waiting for the thing that would stop us, and then I thought, Nothing will stop this but me.
And she bolts.
(Stone for Jasmine, now alone: Will she be gang-raped? Will it be brutal? Will they let her go?)
Erica runs down the stairwell and out to the bodega. She calls Michael. It’s two-thirty in the morning. A lesser writer might resolve the tension here, but Evans throws a final stone, forcing Erica to one more decision.
I love how the story left me cleaved at the end. Weeks after reading I’m still halfway down a staircase in the Bronx, late at night, relieved to be free—yet also trapped in an apartment with Jasmine, hearing the lock click and the men laugh.
I’m grateful to be reminded:
I wrote my own book of linked stories by accident.
It started with one story about a girl named Leah, age 11. It was my first short story and took four months to write (not enough time, as it turned out), and took place in the basement of her building in New York City. When it was finished, I felt I knew Leah.
That seemed worth building on, and easier than starting fresh with a stranger, so I wrote a second story about her. This time she was twelve and up against a mean girl named Rainey.
Then I wrote a story about Rainey, at 13, with the man who abused her.
Then Leah again, with her best friend, at 15.
You could attribute the linkages to a total failure of imagination, as I admitted at the AWP panel on “Linking It Up: Working with Story Cycles, Linked Collections, and Novels-in-Stories” (with Anne Sanow, Clifford Garstang and Cathy Day). When Anne invited me onto that panel, I thought I knew what a link was: any person, object, situation, place that repeats between two or more short stories.
Still. I began rereading linked collections, among them Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Elissa Schappell’s Use Me, and Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, to see what I didn’t know. Sometimes, when you are in dire need of a craft lesson, one book opens itself up like a flower for your inspection, and for me, that book was Love Medicine. It revealed that stories can be crocheted together so intricately and dimensionally that they form a kind of lacework.
It made my own linked stories look like a child’s paper chain.
Here are just a few things Erdrich showed me. The examples won’t make much sense without the text—but close-reading has been the main way I’m able to limp forward as a writer.
Note: the tiny Post-Its in my copy, above, note each appearance and reappearance of a link, except for the obvious: characters, who continually reappear, and place. Most of the book occurs on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota.
Put the engine of the book up front. This story be the hub or contain the underlying or dominant link. (Cliff Garstang on our panel called this the umbrella story.)
The first and most powerful link in Love Medicine is a person: June Kashpaw, a Chippewa woman who dies early in the first story. June left behind a legitimate family, husband Gordie Kashpaw and son King; and an illegitimate family, lover Gerry Nanapush and son Lipsha. She also left behind a whole lot of tension. Lipsha doesn’t know who his parents are, but everyone else does.
The first story has broad swaths of backstory. I’m always bad at this. I’ve been reading lots of Andrea Barrett, because Dick Bausch says that Andrea Barrett calls this ELEGANT SUMMARY.
Every character in the book is impacted by June’s death, which is what makes this first story—in which she dies—the engine.
The central imagery—of water, and crossing water (which refers to both dying and coming home), begins here too.
Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.
The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.
This engine-up-front occurs in other linked collections, though not in mine, and has the effect of orienting the reader. We meet all the soldiers in the first and title story of The Things They Carried, and learn what matters most to each, and where they are and what they do.
In my collection’s first story, we meet a compelling character who reappears only once, then vanishes.
Make links kinetic so that they grow in power, and change, each time they recur.
Here is an Erdrich object-link that’s loaded and reloaded with emotional freight early on:
In the first story, June’s son, King Kashpaw, uses the insurance money from her death to buy a sportscar. Her relatives keep their distance, as if the car might be a ghost:
Nobody leaned against the shiny blue fenders, rested elbows on the hood, or set paper plates there while they ate. Aurelia didn’t even want to hear King’s tapes. It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched. Later, when Gordie came, he brushed the glazed chrome and gently tapped the tires with his toes. He would not go riding in it either, even though King urged his father to experience how smooth it ran.
Erdrich doesn’t stop there; she increases the freight. King drinks, becomes abusive, and chases his wife, Lynette, outside. Lynette locks herself in the sportscar, and King rips off a side mirror and beats the car. Finally Gordie, his father, grabs him to the ground in a hug and says,
“It’s her car. You’re June’s boy, King. Don’t cry.”
For as they lay there, welded in shock, King’s face was grinding deep into the cinders and his shoulders shook with heavy sobs. He screamed up through dirt at his father.
“It’s awful to be dead. Oh my God, she’s so cold.”
So when the car reappears near the end of the book, it really IS June; we believe that it means everything to King. But Erdrich doesn’t just use it as a link; she raises the stakes. Here’s how.
In the final story, Gerry (June’s lover) shows up in King’s apartment to get revenge. The two had been cellmates till Gerry escaped—and King ratted him out. Now King is terrified of Gerry. Lipsha’s in the apartment, too, and King hates Lipsha, his mother’s ill-gotten son.
Lipsha, for his part, has finally been told who his parents are: June and Gerry. He’s dying to declare himself to Gerry. And as tension builds, he’s handling a deck of cards, quietly nicking the edges with his fingernails.
Link no. 1: the sportscar. The men play poker. Lipsha insists they play for King’s car—for the car that is June, really. Lipsha wins the car.
Erdrich freights the link yet again by having the police show up, looking for Gerry. Gerry disappears out the window: just vanishes. Lipsha, driving away in King’s car, discovers that Gerry is in the trunk. He drives him all the way to Canada, to safety, “crossing water” with his newly-discovered father in the car that represents his newly-claimed mother.
Link no. 2: the cards.
Lulu Lamartine, Lipsha’s grandmother, has lost most of her sight (though none of her spirit and sexuality) in her old age, and she tells us in story no. 15:
Sometimes I played cards with a magnifying glass and sometimes I just played by feel and what I could hear.
Well, she’s lying, in her friendly way. What she can “feel” are the little crimps or nicks she makes with her fingernails. In story 16, Lipsha, handling King’s cards, also starts crimping them. He learned the method, he tells us, from Lulu, when he worked in the senior center where she lives.
She’d learned to crimp, that is, to mark your cards with little scratches and folds as you play, when she started losing her eyesight.
Watch Erdrich freight the link. When Gerry shows up in King’s apartment and the mood grows ominous,
His fingers moved around the paper edges, found the nail nicks. His wolf smile glinted. There was a system to the crimping that he recognized. Those crimps were like a signature—his mother’s.
That’s how Gerry–who was in prison when his son was born and given away–confirms that Lipsha is that son.
Let the reappearance of a link reveal character, increase tension, or further the story.
Let links be kinetic by changing with every reappearance.
A second reference to an event can be a lie, a different version, the second half of a story that the reader thought was complete, or a misunderstanding.
Consider the burning of Lulu Lamartine’s house.
Nector Kashpaw, in story 7, leaves his wife for Lulu, finds Lulu’s house empty—and accidentally burns the house down by setting fire to a letter he meant to leave there.
Lulu—who is fond of stating the truth in ways that make her look good—says in story 15:
How do I know? How can I say it was Kashpaw who lit my house?
I can say so because of what I saw in his eyes when I looked deeply through him…My house was burning in his eyes, and I was trapped there, alone, on fire with my own fire.
That makes her sound deeply intuitive, but it’s not true.
In story 13, Lipsha overheard Nector Kashpaw tell Lulu in the Senior Citizens laundry room,
“The letter was what started the fire…I never would have done it.”
Nector’s half-senile, so Lipsha ignores this out-of-the-blue remark. But it’s clear that Lulu filed it away.
Or consider Henry Lamartine Jr.’s apparent suicide.
In story 10 (shattering—The Red Convertible), Henry has returned from Viet Nam and cannot readjust. He is out with his brother Lyman, who’s been trying to engage him with the gorgeous red Olds convertible they’d bought together, when Henry leaps into the rain-swollen river. It looks like a playful leap, but Henry doesn’t resist the current, and he drowns. To a Western reader it looks like suicide.
Lyman then pushes the car into the water. From the poetic writing he seems to be giving the car to his brother, as if unable to own it alone.
Five stories later, Lulu tells us more calculated, less poetic version of Lyman’s action.
“It was an accident,” Lyman said, coming in the door. He looked half gone himself. I threw an afghan on his shoulders.
“Don’t say nothing.” I led him over to a chair. He sat in shock.
“The car went in,” he said. “Out of control.” There was a false note in his voice and I knew he had planned to say this. I also knew that no accident would have taken Henry Junior’s life.
My point is that by making the link kinetic – changing the version of an event when the telling resumes – Erdrich reveals and deepens character. We understand now that Lyman wants to save Henry from appearing to be a suicide. We understand that Lulu does not like to talk about emotional matters, and also that she will be his accomplice in this. We understand that mother and son—Lyman and Lulu—can communicate a lot with few words. And, finally, we understand about Henry that no river could kill him without his consent.
That’s an enormous amount of information in very few lines. It also results from the fact that Louise Erdrich is fully in control of the gap between the first and second appearance of the link:
Engineer that gap. Make it shapely.
I could have given it more thought in Normal People.
In my collection, I show Leah, my protagonist, at age 15 with her father dying, and it’s pretty clear that this is shattering for her. Four years later she remembers the smell of her father’s shirts, which she saved. A couple of reviewers said, hey, wait—when did her father die? They felt stranded in the gap. I didn’t know what they meant till I close-read Love Medicine.
Louise Erdrich may let characters disappear for years and then reappear, but she establishes early on that these are her rules; the reader never feels abandoned between stories. It helps that she is writing about a large community, not one main character. This too lets her move around freely.
Tim O’Brien writes about all of his characters in his first story (“The Things They Carried”), then is free to circle around the group and write about individuals as he sees fit.
Imagery can be a link if it recurs often. Erdrich uses water and bridges; here are examples of the many water links.
Story 8: The waxed floor “rolled and gleamed like a fire lake between us. And it deepened.”
Story 9: “It was, to Henry, as if she had crossed a deep river and disappeared.”
Story 10: “And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.”
Theme can be a link. Erdrich’s children are often motherless, raised by adoptive mothers; her sons are sometimes without fathers. Death is shown as something to travel toward, the way “crossing water” can mean both dying and coming home.
Cathy Day, my co-panelist, has blogged on linked stories from a different angle.
My friend Natalie Baszile and I are studying Away, a novel of such narrative thrust that only on reread, pen in one hand and phone in the other, are we starting to understand how complex it is, how many things Amy Bloom is doing at once.
We’re not going at this systematically, just passionately. Natalie says that examining Away is like standing on a tapestry, stunned by jewel tones, so it’s hard to know which threads to scrutinize first. I think this will become the Away blog for awhile. Not systematic. Just passionate. Pulling one thread at a time.
Here’s the official Random House summary, which is no substitute for the book.
Here is the first paragraph in its entirety (page 1 happens to be a page we looked at last night):
It is always like this: The best parties are made by people in trouble.
I love what she dangles before us in that first line: people in trouble. If there’s one thing I want to read about—
And here are the first two sentences of a second paragraph that could almost fill a page:
There are one hundred and fifty girls lining the sidewalk outside the Goldfadn Theatre. They spill into the street and down to the corners and Lillian Leyb, who has spent her first thirty-five days in this country ripping stitches out of navy silk flowers until her hands were dyed blue, thinks that it is like an all-girl Ellis Island: American-looking girls chewing gum, kicking their high heels against the broken pavement, and girls so green they’re still wearing fringed brown shawls over their braided hair.
Such urgency, right up front. Spill, spent, rip, dye, chew, kick. Girls, crowded together, hungry for work. But here’s the part Natalie and I are trying to understand: How, in two sentences, does Bloom sweep across so much time and space?
Here’s what she packs into Sentences 2 & 3 of the book. It’s like fitting a taxicab into a suitcase:
Lillian is a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe or Russia (her name, and the theatre’s, tell me this). In five weeks she’s been working hard not just at sewing but also at keenly marking the differences between girls with the shtetl in their clothes and hair, and girls who’ve shed it. Bloom shows me that Lillian has sharp eyes, because of how she notices detail. She shows that Lillian’s mind works as fast as her seamstress-hands, because of how data from the Bloom/Lillian POV comes flying obliquely at me.
Which is to say that Natalie and I have opened the suitcase and examined the taxicab but we can’t quite figure how Amy Bloom got it in there, or how to pack such a bag ourselves.
Here is another example of sweep, this time from the brief POV of Frieda, the cousin with whom Lillian lives (p. 13).
She would not ask to bargain with Italians every month for the privilege of doing piecework in her apartment, but she sees it all as part of the great ladder upward. She feels the smooth, pale wood under her hands, she sees her feet settled firmly beneath her; she dreams almost every night of her spiritual home, Fifth Avenue, and she is strolling with her friends, well-dressed women flashing silk ankles and strapped shoes, accepting compliments from handsome, prosperous, cigar-smoking men (clean-shaven, well-spoken men), climbing the polished marble steps to her brownstone, in which Frieda waltzes from room to room, skirt flaring as she catches a glimpse of the gleaming porcelain fixtures in her modern bathroom…
This sent me to my beloved first printing (not first edition) of Mystery and Manners, in which Flannery O’Connor analyzes that now-famous sentence about Emma Bovary playing the piano. Flaubert wrote:
Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.
Flannery, describing what Flaubert pulled off, might have been speaking of Bloom and Frieda:
The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk and his list slippers.
Critical, says Flannery, because “Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in.”
Just so with Frieda: At at one end we are bargaining with the Italians for piecework, and at the other we are on Fifth Avenue with “silk ankles” and a porcelain sink, and the result is the believable city of poverty, striving, and wealth in which Lillian Leyb has landed.
Don’t worry; there will not be a quiz. I write this stuff because I’m obsessed.
My mother sometimes phones to read me a line or a passage, often from The New York Times; and when I was a reporter in my twenties, she called to read me enslaved by the scent of lilac. She savored the idea of a passerby bound to a lilac bush by invisible ropes of scent.
Enslaved is not a word I lightly use; it’s up there on the shelf with holocaust. Yet the entwining of brutality and beauty to create an intangible bond was so heady, and so closely tied to fiction in some way, that the clause has stayed with me for decades.
It came back to me several times recently. This week I discovered In the Library, a perfume from the company CB, whose credo includes: “I hate perfume.” The fragrance In the Library is redolent of
English Novel taken from a Signed First Edition of one of my very favorite novels, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish.
It costs $65. O, I am dying to try this one; so far I’ve only admired the typography on the label, online.
And then there is the far more narcotic odor that rises straight from the page.
I’m still rereading—with exquisite slowness while my mom marvelously recovers—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From chapter 4 (trust me, I am far beyond chapter 4 by now):
He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.
At this my wrists start throbbing, and I type “last paragraph of The Dead” into Google and find:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Don’t you love the resonance? Can you smell the ink and yellowed paper yet? (Will you and I both order In the Library and recognize each other in the supermarket by scent?) I’m going to guess, in my ignorance, that Joyce wrote the Portrait paragraph first—but for an earlier manuscript that he called Stephen Hero. Set the record straight if you know.
By now, I’m scrolling down this blog called Falling Faintly to read other marvelous last paragraphs, including some Denis Johnson, for which many thanks, and also another example of repetition that seems to stream from Joyce through Faulkner to McCarthy, genetically speaking; Mendel with his peas would have been entranced.
The Last Paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
Warning: Page perfume can cause delusional behavior at the keyboard.
Last summer, for a six-week spell, I was reading part of Ulysses (with a group, and a study guide) simultaneously with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (with a class at Politics & Prose). Between Benjy, Bloom and the maddened Darl, the scents rising from those three sets of pages so infected my brain that I wrote two new chapters for my novel-in-progress in a kind of stream-of-consciousness. Then (insert head-smack here) I sent them to my agent. Yes, I did. Go ahead and feel smug. Two months went by. Being deaf to subtlety, I phoned.
“I didn’t understand them,” she said. “You weren’t telling a story anymore.”
Joyce tells stories. Faulkner tells stories. Landis, apparently, was blethering.
I still believe in trying anything, but also in sleeping on it, and being rigorous about clarity and story. I trashed the chapters, began groping my way back to Story and my own voice.
It’s all hard, isn’t it?
I’m rereading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because my brain deletes all critical data on some mysterious schedule. So I just had the great pleasure of remembering (again) that the first chapter is a collection of sensory impressions that alter as Stephen matures. Meaning: as his brain changes neurologically from a baby’s to a older child’s.
Dean used to read aloud to me a John Updike short story called “Wife-wooing” from the collection Pigeon Feathers, and somewhere is a sentence about the two-year-old baby that goes, “Language is to him thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can.” Joyce opens Portrait with Stephen at (I’m guessing) a slightly older two than Updike’s toddler, caring intensely what words mean, and remembering them.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
I love how that first paragraph is singsong, like a parent’s voice. The second has a marvelous lurching quality, like a toddler’s gait or attention span. And it’s so much more interesting to guess Stephen’s age from concrete details than to be told it outright. Joyce gives us a song fragment followed by Stephen’s phonetic (mis)pronunciation, and also this:
When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother puts on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
Quickly the memories lengthen from clauses to paragraphs, from memory fragments into complex scenes. Sentences begin to take poetic flight. Language deepens. That stuttering-lurching quality, in which Stephen’s baby-brain stumbles from one impression to the next, falls away. By the end of a 43-page chapter we have a 10-page scene packed with political allusions and adult complexities (observed and reported by a child, or from a POV that is part Stephen-child, part Joyce) that takes place during a single Christmas dinner.
Back to the beginning, however. Just one page in, Joyce leaps from the moocow to this:
The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery…
Joyce doles out adjectives conscientiously, to give a flash of color, or a shot of movement, or discomfiture. (And note that lovely repetition of “weak,” no accident.)
But no amount of rereading or parsing can help me understand exactly how Joyce takes Stephen from toddlerhood to Clongowes, his boarding school—a period of maybe three years, I’m guessing—in less than a page and a half. And it’s not just the three years. In that short space he tells us rhymes and a song of Stephen’s childhood and his Ireland, shows us Stephen’s mother playing a hornpipe on the piano so the little boy can dance; introduces Uncle Charles and Dante (Stephen’s aunt), makes it clear that Irish Republican politics were fiercely felt and discussed, and that the neighbors had a little girl whom Stephen planned to marry (a statement his mother and Dante make him apologize for)—we’re immersed in that house and its music and talk.
And every line conveys not only concrete sensory information but has abstract implications. If Mrs. Dedalus simply changes the bed when Stephen wets it, she must be kind; if he is made to apologize for the marriage statement, perhaps the neighbors are Protestant; if the family can afford a piano, they aren’t poor yet. (Their furniture will soon be carted off, and in Ulysses, Stephen’s younger siblings sell his books in order to eat.)
One and a half pages.
Talk about not needing to move people in and out of rooms!
Much gratitude to friends who sent good wishes and fabulous poems for my mom. We are back in hospital (I like it the British way) and managing to laugh a lot.
I had trouble packing for L.A. last night. Not shoe trouble, I always have shoe trouble, but what-to-read-to-my-mother trouble. She’s in the I.C.U. at St. John’s Hospital, Santa Monica, “nearly comatose,” my father says.
“You mean heavily sedated?” I asked from DC.
“I’m staying in the room with her,” my father says, “and she doesn’t know I’m here.” Comatose, sedated, what’s the damn difference? He loathes the machine that “breathes her” and he loathes the machine that delivers liquid Nutren Replete. Each snakes a tentacle down her nose or throat.
I flew in this morning to be with my father, and, I thought, to read to my mother. Even people under anesthesia supposedly hear their surgeon’s comments, so why not nourish my mother’s delicious and crystalline mind? She is taking (is taking, is taking) a class on Pushkin at UCLA; she has all the books by and on Pushkin a girl could want. So: Chekhov? But often someone is going to die in Chekhov. Or is living in privation. Is that right? Packing under duress, I suddenly can’t remember a word of Chekhov (below), despite three translations on our shelves. Packing, I’m frantic for engaging books that won’t make my mom laugh—what if she chokes on a tube?—and in which no one lives in privation, or dies.
Because privation might make her sad. Privation runs back generations in our family. When my mom’s mother was a girl in Cominets Podalsk, Russia, she and my great-grandmother carried other people’s laundry on their back to a lake, scrubbed it in cold water, wrung it out, and carried it home on their backs, heavy and wet. This went on until my grandmother was old enough to quit school (about the equivalent of third grade, I think) and walk to work in early darkness, alone, past a church graveyard to a cigarette factory. It was freezing; the children in the factory needed gloves. But with gloves one can’t roll cigarettes. So no gloves.
So no privation.
I consider Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband. It is the story, in what Carson calls “tangos,” of a marriage seen through to its end. What if my father turns the book over and reads this, and wonders if his own marriage is being breathed up by a machine? So no Anne Carson. I love the verbal delicacies in two recently reread story collections: Maile Meloy’s Half in Love, and Pia Ehrhardt’s Famous Fathers, but both write about adultery, and my parents will be 55 years intertwined in July.
The perfect choice would be Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which we both love, endlessly. I’ve read it twelve times. But my mother so connected with certain scenes, and re-tells them with such raw emotion, that I would not get through them. Pilate, at her daughter Hagar’s funeral, saying and singing the words: My baby girl. My baby girl. My baby girl. My baby girl. Looking into each person’s eyes in that church, saying it differently each time, asking it, praying it—my baby girl, my baby girl—and then calling out: And she was loved!
Mom, forgive me, I would break down.
Impossible to go wrong with the exquisite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But Stephen is beaten at Clongowes, I think, for losing his glasses. I think. Even if I misremember, could his unhappiness carry some resonance from my mother’s childhood?
After some internal debate over which of three editions to pack (vintage, fragile, or tattered), I pack Portrait from sheer love of both Joyce and Stephen. But wait—if Ulysses opens with Stephen newly motherless, does his mother die at the end of Portrait?
Surely we won’t get there. Surely by then my mother will be demanding coffee and Pushkin and Dr. Dog, the therapy dog from her last hospitalization.
Which was only a week ago.
I add two poetry collections by Amy Gerstler: Medicine and the new (signed!) Dearest Creature. I will get to say “skeleton tea” out loud, with envious enunciation. And my father will get to voice his disappointment with modern poetry and hark back to his hard-drinking days in Scotland with Hugh MacDiarmid and that crowd.
In lieu of the Ferragamo pumps, I slot in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, because Smith is funny and smart and spirited and so much better-read than I am—she and my mother might commune across the beeping machines. (My mother once commented that I could not call myself educated if I had not read Don Quixote; mortified, I dove for Don Quixote and found it so sad I couldn’t finish it. Zadie Smith has undoubtedly delivered entire lectures on Don Quixote.)
“Be careful,” my husband warned when he spotted Zadie in my suitcase. “An old woman dies in that book.” I’d forgotten.
And then I understood that it was hopeless.
Because an old woman dies in every book worth reading. Or a young man is punished for losing his glasses, or a marriage tangoes off a cliff, or a dying man drags himself out on deck one last time to look at the fathomless ocean—which Chekov story is that? Is it “Gusev?” Why can I remember nothing I’ve read at this moment, just titles and vague images, just a snapshot from 23 years ago in which my mother, with the sun full on her yellow hair and her apricot-colored skin and her maroon silk suit, reaches out to touch her daughter’s face as if all that brilliance and all the secrets of long marriage could actually stream from her fingertips to my flesh?
Perhaps it did. It was my wedding day and I am still married. My mother would know if that story was “Gusev.” All I can do is pack the wrong books Saturday night, and show up Sunday in the I.C.U., where I discover that I have no voice for reading at all, no will to do anything but smooth her sunstruck hair and tell her I am here.
“Either you see a picture immediately,” Cezanne told the writer Joachim Gasquet, “or you never see it at all.
Explanations don’t help a bit. What good does it do to comment on it? All those things are imperfect, imprecise things. We talk as we do because it’s amusing, like drinking a good bottle of wine.
…I’m always perplexed when a reader is perplexed, when a reader says to, or of, one of my stories, “What was that?” I think, Well, it’s what I said it was. It’s the thing I said.
Can explaining a story degrade a reader’s experience of that story, even if you’re not remotely a Cezanne or an Eisenberg? I promise not to go on about my own work much, but people often ask about “Jazz,” which opens my collection with the sentence “It is not true that if a girl squeezes her legs together she cannot be raped.” Rainey Royal’s legs have been parted by the knee of Richard, who is 39 and her father’s best friend—but she’s confused by her own sexual powers, and she isn’t sure it’s rape.
And readers want to be sure. Most think it’s rape: Rainey is 13, and Richard is 39. She says no, and he ignores her.
But she doesn’t scream. She’s been seductive with him. She accompanied him to the park, though her father sent them there at night for a concert. “She knows exactly what she’s doing,” one woman said.
Thus the question: rape, or seduction? And that’s consummation at the end, right?
I never answer directly, though after reading Cezanne and Eisenberg last week, I’ll work harder to tell readers why. It’s not that they’re missing something (unless the writing is flawed). It’s that a story and the question it poses cannot be teased apart, and also that once written, a story belongs to its readers.
It’s what I said it was. It’s the thing I said.
Sometimes I quote Michael Silverblatt, who does the legendary author-interview show The Bookworm on KCRW public radio, Los Angeles:
A short story is like a flower. It should keep opening in your mind long after you finish reading it.
*The extraordinary painting on the Tin House cover, “Jazzy,” is by New York artist Marilyn Greenberg.
EVENTS, DC AREA & BALTIMORE (self-promotion alert; two of my own are here–a new literary collaboration with Eileen Fisher, a designer I adore.)
Thursday, January 28, 4 p.m. — reading, signing, & shopping! A literary salon at the Eileen Fisher clothing store, with “sips & treats.” I’ll be reading from my collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Tysons Galleria, McLean, VA. RSVP if possible: 703.288.1802 $25 off clothing purchase.
Saturday, January 30, 1 p.m. — reading, signing, & shopping! The second DC-area literary salon for Eileen Fisher, with “brunch bites” served. The Shops at Wisconsin Place, Chevy Chase, MD. I’ll be reading from Normal People Don’t Live Like This. RSVP if possible: 301.654.9811 $25 off clothing purchase.
Saturday, January 30, 8:05 p.m. (doors open at 7) — Literary Death Match, Baltimore Edition. The Windup Space, 12 West North Avenue, Baltimore: map Appearing: Michael Kimball, Jessica Henkin, Rafael Alvarez. Competing: Michael Hughes, Mike Young, Jen Michalski and Dave Housley. Hosting: Todd Zuniga. Or read it all here.
JOHN ASHBERY teaching & reading Tuesday, February 2, at Georgetown University, 5:30 p.m. seminar in ICC 462; 8 p.m. reading in Copley Formal Lounge; free; details.
I was ecstatic when Will Barrett, in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, trained his German telescope—”knurled and calibrated with a black spiderlash in the nickel”—on a brick building clear across Central Park:
Not only were the bricks seen as if they were ten feet away; they were better than that. It was better than having the bricks there before him. They gained in value. Every grain and crack and excrescence became available. Beyond any doubt, he said to himself, this proves that bricks, as well as other things, are not as accessible as they used to be. Special measures were needed to recover them.
The telescope recovered them.
Every writer reads with a split brain, right? One eye for pleasure, the other peering at technique–but with my mental telescope trained right on the sentences, I often miss the big picture and end up with the bulleted list. But that’s my lens. In this manner I began rereading Cormac McCarthy, and found three scenes in The Orchard Keeper that felt linked in how they revealed character: through action, not emotion, and through a boy’s interaction with animals.
Page 63: The boy John Wesley spots a young rabbit at the bottom of a dry well. Every day he brings greens and drops them in, till finally the greens flutter over the rabbit
and it didn’t move. He went away and he could see for a long time the rabbit down in the bottom of the well among the rocks with the lettuce over it.
Subliminal revelation: a compassionate loner, kind to animals, responsible: he doesn’t miss a day, checks back even when there’s little hope.
Page 77-80: John Wesley rescues a injured sparrowhawk that eyes him “without malice or fear—something hard there, implacable and ungiving.” With no expectation of gratitude, then, he feeds it grasshoppers and meat. After three days it dies and (this flows into a third scene, or new part of the same scene) he gets a ride into town and walks into the courthouse. “He held the bag up. Hawk bounty, he said.”
Hawk bounty is one dollar. John Wesley acts like someone who has never had so much money:
He held the dollar in his hand, folded neatly twice. When he got outside he took it and folded it again, making a square of it, and thrust it down between the copper rivets into the watchpocket of his overall pants. He patted it flat…
…and pats it twice more as he walks. That’s a dollar he could have had three days sooner by wringing a hurt bird’s neck. But no, he’d perceived its majesty. For God’s sake, the boy was out catching grasshoppers so the hawk might live.
I was so happy when I saw the thread between the rabbit and hawk scenes that I went back to my novel-in-progress, wondering: might there be 2-3 short, spare segments (the rabbit is only 1 paragraph–half tell, half show) that I can weave in to establish the protagonist’s character in this way?
Good litnews is experiencing rapid cell division.
Jen Michalski, who edits the litblog JMWW, will have a story collection (her second), tentatively titled You Were Only Waiting for This Moment, published by Dzanc Books.
Samantha Dunn had a stunning op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.
It’s not what happens in a story that counts. It’s how your character reacts to what happens.
Janet Fitch said that, possibly at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And my friend Natalie and I have been discussing this as we work on our novels, because it improves every passage or scene we apply it to. Taken down to a cellular level, it really is the essence of intimate third person (a Henry James term, yes?).
Working in close third and struggling against lapses into middle-distance third, I find this means that the character, not the author, gets to do all the observing & describing. Ergo any details about people, setting or objects must be true to character, not to author. (I learn very, very slowly and am thinking aloud here.)
For me it means avoiding terms like “she saw” or “she noticed”–this relates to the chapter on free indirect discourse in James Wood’s How Fiction Works (Picador). Ultimately whatever the character observes will reveal her–sometimes what’s being described is secondary.
So here’s my cellular-level paraphrase: it’s not what gets described in a story that counts; it’s how it registers on your character.
And here is Lillian, the main character in Amy Bloom’s extraordinary novel Away (Random House), walking across Alaska on a desperate trip to find her little girl. But it is not Amy Bloom’s snow that she complains about. It is Lillian’s snow:
O Goddamned sky, O Goddamned sea, O Goddamned and everlasting snow is what Lillian says to herself as she walks. She could be calling out the Stations of the Cross or naming the circles of hell as she descends. Everything white is her enemy…She needs to keep looking at the clumps of red berries—the red is a small comfort and it rests her eyes.
So we see where she is—but also, in just a few sentences, 193 pages in, we get a new aspect of Lillian under a new and particular duress.
Also at Squaw Valley, a novelist said: “First put your character up in a tree, then throw stones at him”—was it Jay Gummerman? Where are my damned notebooks?
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In a Twitter status update on Dec. 30, 2009, Colson Whitehead designated January ShThFuUpAnWoOnYrNo month. (If you have to ask…if you still have to ask…) I know! It’s brilliant! And if you missed the tweet you saw it on Maud Newton! But I bumbled into this two weeks late. Hence the Unofficial Colson Whitehead February Grace Period, tailored for those who should not blog till their novels are done.
Indefinite extensions anticipated.