This week, Five Chapters is serializing “Of Love: A Testimony,” a John Cheever story that, according to Lalai Lama, was published in 1943, but apparently hasn’t seen the light of day since. Part one ran on Monday.
Posts Tagged 'short stories'
Tags: Al Roosten, art and politics, Books, fiction, George Saunders, New Yorker fiction, short stories, The New Yorker, writing and politics
From an interview with Nina Siegal, here’s what George Saunders has to say about the relationship between politics and art:
I am pretty far left but trying to cultivate a healthy disgust for hypocrites and liars of both political stripes. I think our country is better than our government would make people believe. I think the role of art is to continually complicate our views and move them along the continuum from conceptual knowledge toward specificity. Our current problems, seem to me, have all to do with people in power who believe in their own ideas too much, ideas that were too much formed in the lab and not enough on the street. So we took those naive, bookish, messianic ideas and mistook them for truth, and now are reaping the harvest. I don’t like the demonizing of Bush et al—it’s too easy and won’t help us not repeat all of this. The only thing that will help is going deep (in kindness and true curiosity) and trying to really understand how the world looks to them—people like Rumsfeld etc wake up in the morning feeling very energized at the good they’re going to do during the day. So this is where art comes in: It’s the one way we can become Other long enough to understand that Other doesn’t really exist—we have it all inside us, and can therefore understand, and can therefore transform.
I think this attitude is exactly what makes Saunders such a potent satirist. For all the barbed, bitter humor and comic exaggerations in his stories, Saunders at the same time operates from a position of fundamental empathy for his characters. He doesn’t assume that some of his characters will be good and others will be evil; instead, he understands that most people believe themselves to be acting ethically most of the time, and attempts to understand why people often make unethical choices anyway, and how they justify their behavior in their own minds. (For a fresh example of this, turn to his recent story in the New Yorker, “Al Roosten”, in which the title character’s behavior is often less than laudable, even if he doesn’t see it that way.)
Many artists feel there’s no room for politics in art, but I think the real problem is that many people who make art on political subjects come in without the ability to separate the clarity of their political convictions from the fundamental murkiness of minds and hearts of human beings. It’s fine to imbue a work of art with a particular political point of view. What you can’t do, however, is reduce the full complexity of a person into the one-dimensional simplicity of a political idea.
Tags: Anne Enright, Books, fiction, short stories, Yesterday's Weather
Yesterday’s Weather collects nearly twenty years of short stories (including many that have not previously been available for American audiences) by Booker-winner Anne Enright into a single volume. In a brief introduction to the book, Enright notes that she’s chosen to present the stories in reverse chronological order—a wise move, as it turns out, because her more recent stories are vastly superior to the work she was publishing in the late eighties and early nineties. Old and new alike, her stories offer emotionally intense character studies wrapped in dense, funny, sensuous, and tightly-coiled prose. But while many of the earlier stories read as little more than tedious exercises in structure or heavy-handed extensions of dubious metaphors (a woman through handbags in “(She Owns) Every Thing,” a bingo player who sees the world through numbers in “Luck Be a Lady,” etc.), Enright’s newer work adds an invaluable new element: real, substantial insight into the way real people actually think and feel, coupled with an ability to bring those thoughts and emotions to life on the page. In “Honey,” a woman on a business trip debates having an affair with a coworker, but finds herself instead stunned and opened up to the world by an encounter with bees in a garden. Her restless, uncertain desire feels true to life, and when she turns him down, it’s because she realizes that her desire has nothing to do with him at all: “It was like she could fuck anything: the Killarney lakes and the sky that ran over them, the posh hotels with wafflecloth robes, and the pink scent of a rose that showed grey in the darkness, and the whole lovely month of May.” In “Here’s To Love,” an older woman struggles to understand why she loves her husband, and ultimately decides that the question doesn’t matter nearly as much to her as it might to the old boyfriend who she meets in Paris. The opening paragraph of “The Cruise,” made me laugh out loud, but when I re-read it (immediately after reaching the story’s end), it took on an entirely different meaning: a good joke transformed into a moving meditation on death, and on what we can hope to get out of life before we die.
In an introduction to the volume, Enright herself identifies what has made the difference between her old stories and her new ones:
It is odd, but only to me, to read of the bitterness that exists between female friends, when my own girlfriends are so generous and important to me. These stories are not written by the person who has lived my life and made the best of it, they are written by people I might have been but decided against….I discovered, when I started to look at them again, that I had forgotten the content of some of these pieces. What I remembered, with great clarity, was their shape….What I seem to be saying—a little to my own surprise—is that a person may change, but the writer endures.
Enright’s earlier stories feel like formal exercises, because that’s essentially what they were: the work of a talented younger writer who was better than competent, but who simply didn’t yet have the kind of lived experience that she can now draw on in order to infuse her stories with real wisdom and insight.
Tags: A Better Angel, Books, Chris Adrian, fiction, short stories
Note: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel has been selected as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008 by the New York Times. Below is an essay that I wrote to submit to the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers contest—an unsuccessful entry, probably at least in part because it ended up feeling more like a lit crit paper than a review. In any case: I have mixed feelings about A Better Angel, but I do think Adrian is a writer to watch, and his first novel, Gob’s Grief, is extraordinary. In the essay below, I take a look at A Better Angel with an emphasis on Adrian’s explorations of ideas about death and the soul.
Death-dealing hazards abound in Chris Adrian’s fiction, lying low the parents, siblings, and lovers of his characters with an actuarially improbable regularity. His most recent book, the short story collection A Better Angel, has a body count worthy of a Hollywood action flick. In “High Speeds,” a substitute teacher mourning her brother forms a bond with a nine-year-old student whose father has died in a plane crash. Both central characters in “Why Antichrist?” have also lost their fathers—one to cancer, and the other to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Disconsolate over the course of her life in the years since the death of a childhood friend, the narrator of “The Sum of Our Parts” flings herself from atop a parking structure. Dead brothers haunt the minds of the central characters in both “The Hero of Chikamauga” and “Stab”—and in the latter story, Adrian throws in a lately orphaned neighbor girl for good measure.
Death so dominates the lives and consciousnesses of Adrian’s characters that they often come across as less than fully human. There is something robotic about their sorrow; it’s as if mourning were the sole task that they have been programmed to perform. Adrian is a practicing physician, but he treats the characters in his stories more like anonymous subjects in a medical study: he is interested in their suffering only insofar as it might help him come to an improved academic understanding of death and grief. His approach as a writer is rational, philosophical, and abstract—and thus less concerned with the construction of psychologically realistic portraits of mourning characters than with exploring the meaning of death.
Unusually for either a fiction writer or a doctor, Adrian is also a divinity student at Harvard University. He fills his stories not only with corpses and their mourners, but also with prophetic visions, demonic possessions, and guardian angels. In one story, the Antichrist even makes an appearance. But, for all their Christian allusions and overtones, Adrian’s stories are more supernatural than overtly religious. He certainly offers scant evidence of any kind of faith—his suffering characters do not find any kind of peace or closure through their interactions with the divine. Most, in fact, end up sick, injured, insane, or worse.
Adrian then, is a doctor who writes stories about people who cannot be healed, and a divinity student who seems to doubt the power of religion to soothe troubled souls. Instead of offering assurances, he uses his fiction to pose big, old-fashioned, and largely unanswerable questions. What happens when we die? What does it mean for the body to fail? What happens to the conscious mind after the death of the body? Are the dead truly lost to the living forever? Adrian’s central concern is not healing, but rather the relationship between the body and the soul.
He gives that particular subject a thorough and sustained examination in “The Sum of Our Parts,” in which Beatrice, a patient awaiting a kidney transplant, has achieved a strange and incomplete separation from her corporeal self. “That part of her that was not her broken body” has become detached, and has gained the power to see into the minds of the members of the hospital staff. Adrian won’t spell out exactly what this part of Beatrice might be—whether he intends it to be her mind, her spirit, her soul, or something else entirely. But he does tell us that Beatrice continues to feel a connection to her body: whenever she attempts to leave the grounds of the hospital, her physical self invariably draws her back.
For a quasi-disembodied soul, Beatrice pays extraordinary attention to the physicality of the members of the hospital staff who are involved with her treatment. Looking into the mind of a nursing assistant named Frank, Beatrice gleans that he detests one coworker for having a “mousy” face, and meanwhile worries that his own arms might look “thin and weak” in his scrubs. A pathology lab worker named Bonnie ponders a coworker’s unusually prominent ears, and wonders if they might have shaped his personality. Several characters spend moments of reverie recalling the physical comforts of holding their loved ones, and also imagining what it might be like to touch or even inhabit the bodies of their coworkers. Adrian’s point is clear: our bodies determine who we are, and the division between our physical selves and our conscious selves cannot be neatly or easily drawn.
All the same, Adrian avoids taking a definitive stance on the question of whether or not the soul expires along with the body. In an unnerving scene near the story’s end, Beatrice coolly witnesses her own organs being harvested and prepared for donation. She begins to feel the loosening of her physical self’s hold on her consciousness, until she finally floats free. But there the story abruptly ends, leaving no way for a reader to judge whether Beatrice might have been bound for heaven or for oblivion.
For Adrian, medicine runs up against a wall of incomprehension when it comes to describing the lived experience of death, grief, illness, and suffering. This is why he won’t tell us what happens to Beatrice’s spirit after her body dies; and it’s also why the stories in A Better Angel so frequently move into the realm of the supernatural. Adrian is in no way skeptical of medical knowledge, or of reason’s power to make the world more comprehensible. But he knows that no pill or miracle surgical technique will ever cure human beings of their irrational and untenable belief that they must continue to exist even after their bodies die.
Death makes Adrian’s characters thoroughly unreasonable. They lose all perspective, clinging to counterfactual and often outright insane ideas in a desperate attempt to be rid of their grief. In “Stab,” Calvin, an eight-year-old boy who has lost his twin to cancer, begins sneaking out at night to accompany a neighbor girl as she captures and kills small animals. The girl—whom Adrian unfortunately names Molly Pitcher, severely disrupting an otherwise straightforward and serious tone—is an orphan whose parents were both killed in a car crash. Molly commits her acts of violence because she has come to believe that her parents will somehow be brought back to life by the blood of her victims. But her animal sacrifices bring no real dividends; in the end, Molly’s violence leaves a trail of bodies, none of which are resurrected.
Blood sacrifice also plays a significant role in the “The Changeling,” which tells the story of an otherwise-ordinary nine-year-old boy who suddenly begins to speak in the voices of the victims of September 11. When Carl’s father intentionally burns himself on the stove or slams his finger in a drawer, the spectacle of his self-inflicted pain causes the voices in the boy’s head to momentarily retreat. Realizing this, Carl’s father begins to inflict increasingly serious injuries upon himself, thereby succeeding in at least temporarily propitiating the angry ghosts who possess his son. But only temporarily—even when Carl’s father chops off his own hand with an ax, we have no real assurance that the demons have been driven from Carl for good. Carl has come to embody the incomprehensible pain engendered by the loss of so many lives in the terrorist attacks of September 11—and there is nothing that his father can do to bring about an end to suffering on that scale. “I don’t know what’s worse, or harder to believe,” Adrian wonders through the voice of Carl’s father: “that a little boy could be fucked-up enough to harbor the sort of sadness and rage that the entity presents us with every day, or that thousands of souls could be fused by a firebomb into a restless collection of spirits that hungers for a justice it can only define in terms of punishment.” Either way, Carl is lost to his father forever.
This is the conclusion that Adrian reaches again and again in A Better Angel: that no kind of medicine, psychology, reason, religion, violence, or blood sacrifice will relieve the deep and unending pain of personal loss. Mourning grips Adrian’s characters so thoroughly that it possesses them, becoming part of their bodies and taking full control of their minds and lives. Much as Beatrice’s wandering soul can stray only so far from its physical counterpart, none of Adrian’s characters can hope to be rid of their grief; t has become part of them. Nothing short of death will end their suffering.
A doctor is expected to heal the body, and restless souls are alleged to find comfort in the divine. But Adrian—the doctor and divinity student—populates his stories with the untreatable dead and characters who suffer grief beyond all consolation. “A Better Angel,” the title story of his collection, is about a drug-addicted doctor who lacks faith in his ability to cure illness. “I make my living praising the health of well children,” he notes while explaining his choice of a medical specialty. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illness, or really ever wanted to make anybody better, or ever convinced myself that I could.” He cheated his way through med school, and remains in the profession largely because it offers him easy access to the drugs that feed his addiction. He feels an acute and highly specific kind of shame because of his failure as a doctor. “If I were a tree surgeon or a schoolteacher or a truffle-snuffler, or even a plain old junkie, then sickness would just be sickness, just something to be borne and not something I was supposed to be able to defeat.”
The narrator has been regularly visited by a guardian angel since childhood. This angel strongly disapproves of his self-destructive behavior—when he takes a hit, she “stretches and shakes her wings,” becoming larger and uglier in order to make her displeasure clear. All the same, she believes that he has the power within him to do great things—including curing his father, who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. “Put out your hand,” the angel implores him. “Touch him, and make him well.” Instead, the narrator trades doses of painkillers with his father and then watches him die through a drug-altered haze. He places his hands on his father only after “his face was cold and his open eyes already had the look of spoiling grapes”—too late to heal him, regardless of whether he’d ever possessed the power to do so. “I want a better angel,” he tells his father. “That’s all I need.” If there is such a thing as divine guidance, it has utterly failed the living, who remain impotent and terrified in the face of death.
Adrian’s characters struggle against grief and death, and always fail. All the same, several of them maintain a pathetic hope that the outcome might in their case be different. In “Stab,” Molly imagines that her acts of violence can resurrect her parents, and Caleb believes that he can talk to his dead twin while looking in the mirror. The characters in “High Speeds” try to outrun their mourning by driving fast and reciting Emily Dickinson poems about death; and in “The Changeling,” Carl’s father tries to exorcise the demons of September 11 by doing grievous injury to himself. Not one of these strategies is ultimately successful—but Adrian’s characters continue to try, and suffer terrible disappointment when their efforts come to nothing.
In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a rural 19th-century town is stricken with a mysterious illness, which leaves many of its residents bedridden, feverish, and prone to prophesying about flaming towers and people falling through the air. Although the evidence points toward this being a vision of doom, the local minister, Reverend Wallop, insists that the town’s strange plague must have an upside: “It doesn’t happen for nothing—we are not transported so fantastically for no reason. The vision is a challenge and its meaning is a cure.” But in this story—as in all of Adrian’s stories—supernatural “transportation” does not lead to any kind of cure. The town’s affliction is in truth a vision of the future horrors of September 11, 2001; no positive outcome is possible for anyone involved.
One character in A Better Angel does cease to harbor such outlandish expectations: Beatrice, the quasi-disembodied soul of “The Sum of Our Parts,” who has so little hope that she sincerely desires to die. At one point, Beatrice recalls a childhood friend who, believing that he could fly, jumped from the roof of his parents’ house and plunged to his death. Adrian writes that Beatrice “would always think of him as the beginning of a long arc of sadness, as the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.” Unlike Adrian’s other characters, Beatrice is at peace with her loss. She doesn’t kill herself out of grief for her dead friend, but rather out of the sense of disappointment that she feels after having accepted the inevitability and permanence of death. It’s hardly encouraging that the only character who comes to any kind of closure in A Better Angel kills herself shortly thereafter. In Chris Adrian’s world, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
For all the obsessive analytical attention Adrian pays to death in his stories, he offers very little in the way of substantive insight into its nature. Not surprisingly, he cannot tell us what it means to die, or what happens to our consciousness after death. But Adrian does succeed in his effort to capture the anguish felt by his characters as they struggle against inevitable death and the permanence of their loss. Adrian’s stories express a desperate wish to believe that a divine act or a miracle of modern medicine might actually remove the barrier between the living and the dead. At the same time, Adrian the physician and rationalist knows how unlikely it is that anything of the sort could ever come to pass. Taken together, the stories in A Better Angel construct a compelling narrative about the deep and tormenting disappointment that comes with the loss of faith.
Tags: Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Books, Brokeback Mountain, fan fiction, fiction, Movies, short stories
Most authors are thrilled for the attention and sales that a major movie adaptation will bring, and Hollywood has been kinder to Annie Proulx than to most. But as it turns out, the film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” has recently been bringing her a particular kind of attention that she’d much rather do without. The Guardian is reporting that since the film’s release, Proulx has been bombarded by letters and emails from fans containing pornographic rewrites of her story. Apparently many of the writers have even gone so far as to tell her that they sincerely believe that they’re improving on the original, on the grounds that it had an insufficient amount of explicit gay cowboy sex for their tastes. In the article, Proulx sounds perturbed—though also much more good-humored about her unsolicited (and unwanted) emulators than J.K. Rowling, who recently went after a fan who compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia without her permission, and succeeded in shutting his project down.
In case you’re curious: Maud Newton links to a related Guardian piece which offers some choice selections from ten “Brokeback”-related fanfic opuses, all of which are available on the web, and no doubt very juicy.
Tags: New Yorker, Roddy Doyle, short stories
There was no sign of the bull, although there was dung in the air and—Donal saw it now—blood on the street. A topic for the phone call home in the morning.
That’s from “Bullfighting” a new Roddy Doyle short story, presently featured on the New Yorker website. In the story, Donal is a middle-aged, middle-class Irishman who is happy with his life, but occasionally has a nagging sense that there ought to be something more to it. The passage above comes just after Donal and some old friends have watched a bullfight in Valencia—but in a bar, rather than in the arena. They’ve gone on vacation, just the lads, but it’s far from an adventure out of Hemingway: for the most part, they drink and talk much as they would at home, and enjoy themselves in the same comfortable, deeply contented way. The story seems to be about the value of safety, of comfort, of boredom, and the idea that the prospect of adventure holds the strongest appeal from a position of safety and security. It’s like the Talking Heads song “Heaven,” Donal observes: nothing ever happens, and though it’s kind of dull, it’s also perfect.
Like pretty much all of Doyle’s stuff, this one is funny and carefully observed, and unfolds with a conversational, natural feel. Doyle doesn’t swing for the fences with “The Bullfighters,” and consequently he doesn’t hit a home run. But the story has its small pleasures all the same—and it also has a vivid, memorable climax that I won’t ruin for you by describing it here.
Tags: Chris Adrian, Don DeLillo, Falling Man, fiction, Promise Breaker, short stories
I found this story via a link from Maud Newton several months ago—but I wasn’t blogging then, and it’s stayed on my mind ever since, so I’ll blog about it now: Chris Adrian‘s “Promise Breaker” is spectacularly good, an you can read it online for free thanks to Esquire. (You do have to suffer through the presence of a large number of gaudy, highly obtrusive ads in order to read it—but trust me, it’s worth it.)
I’m not actually going to say too much about this story, for fear of spoiling its plot and ruining some of the great effects that Adrian pulls off via surprise. The opening of the story employs various tactics intended to disorient the reader—a device that ends up serving very well here. Near the end, I had a sinking feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen—and then when it did, I was devastated all the same, and I was astonished that Adrian had actually done what I thought he might.
It’s a story about family, grief, illness, and the strangeness and terror of being a parent. It’s a political story, too, and one of the boldest I’ve read in tackling the events and aftermath of September 11. (It’s a shame how writers & other artists seem to be only beginning to seriously approach this topic— and when Don DeLillo took it on in his terrific Falling Man, the book ended up being broadly maligned.) It’s a nervy, brainy, edgy story, and it’s highly suspenseful and utterly engrossing. I haven’t yet read anything else that Adrian has written, but if any of it’s half as good as this, I’ll definitely be a fan.
Tags: Chicago, Eugenides, fiction, short stories
Jeffrey Eugenides has a new story in The New Yorker, and it’s presently available for free on the web. The story’s called “Great Experiment”, and it’s a good one: a simple tale of temptation on its surface, and a complex meditation on the nature of American identity just beneath. At first I felt a bit uncertain about this one, as it’s yet another story about a poet—but as it turns out, the main character doesn’t really write anymore, and the only reason Eugenides makes him a writer at all is to show him drifting from the values he once held dear, now that he has suffered under the pressures of adult life for a number of years.
I love the straightforward elegance of Eugenides’ prose: there’s no flashy artifice, just flawless sentences, rich with ideas neatly expressed. In this story, Eugenides does a great job with the setting, too—he gets all the present-day Chicago details exactly right, and in so doing captures the feel of the city very well. (I say this as someone who’s lived there for seven years—and I understand that Eugenides lives here now, too.) And Eugenides also makes a lot out of Chicago’s big-shouldered industrial history and present-day identity as a financial center, and uses this to draw the lines between the city’s corrupt past and corrupt present in order to tell a story about how American ideals can all to easily drift into greed and criminality, until those ideals are more or less entirely abandoned. More remarkably, he captures the sadness of the main character’s loss of ideals—there’s a sense that Kendall’s dreams, and the American Dream, are beautiful things, but that Kendall and most Americans can’t live out their hopes and wishes without embracing the dark means of American success. It’s a story of innocence lost—of young America growing up and looking into its own heart, and admitting that there are costs to wealth and liberty and idealism.