Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Donald Barthelme: "A City of Churches," "The School," and "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning"

Ragged Claws Network
In the laboratory of "The City of Churches," Barthelme plays with open doors and closed structures. Can you imagine a place in which there are no buildings but churches? Laughable. Ridiculous. A "church" is loaded with real world connotations, leading to valid interpretations of the story that will focus on religion and societal organization. But what if we can replace "church" with "building" or "container" or "form" or "structure" and apply it not just to writing fiction but to the whole composition of our lives?

In the handy voice of Mr. Phillips, "Where do you want to live?" The choices are necessarily limited by the imaginations of the architects who have come before; there is nothing but those to inhabit, unless you don't need shelter. (But we need shelter.) Unless you can, like Cecelia--whose name means 'way for the blind' or 'one of shining light'--dream. This will make people uncomfortable. They will reject and want and need and fear and possibly even try to destroy you. Barthelme writes to forge a door on the world we don't imagine but instead inhabit and therefore having to imagine not-inhabiting. To use a different metaphor, he wishes to illuminate the worn path, and he chooses a different route [ha] than Welty. What a challenge, a necessary challenge, necessary if we are to ever see outside our limits.

Would Barthelme agree that each of his stories is a new church? Would he explain, instead, that each is a dream? (But perhaps agree that a dream, once shared, becomes a church?) I don't know. I do know that he doesn't let you inside his dream easily. The doors do not gape like hungry mouths. They do seem to open when you knock, knock, and knock again. It is a struggle to get inside. However (although if he were alive, he might, and I paraphrase here, "regard C. with hatred" for pointing, and thus limiting, like this), I wish to guide your struggle. If you're looking for a way inside "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," try rereading the heart of the penultimate section of the story, "He Discusses the French Writer, Poulet."

And then go look up Georges Poulet on Wikipedia. Then you're inside a dream.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Richard Yates: "The Best of Everything," "No Pain Whatsoever," and "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired"

Richard Yates, illustration by Bill Russell for SF Chronicle
Stewart O'Nan will be at Susquehanna University in six weeks, and you're reading Richard Yates's stories now directly because of O'Nan's admiration. If you want to know more, O'Nan published an expansive article called "The Lost World of Richard Yates." Of course, since O'Nan published that article, Holt released Yates's collected works (2001), and Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Revolutionary Road (2008), and in 2005, Mark Winegardner asked O'Nan to pick three stories to include in 3x33, and O'Nan chose two published in 1962 and one in 1981.

At this point of the semester, I'm struck by the anti-ephiphanic endings of the first two stories. As O'Nan says, they're "plain and sad and inescapable." There's a sense of present and future failure. I'm caught like a deer-in-headlights before the dirtiness of the characters and their talk and their lives, especially in such quick succession after Flannery O'Connor. As I read, my head fills with Mad Men antics and attitudes, and it doesn't make me feel superior or in the least nostalgic--instead, I get the whiff of today's American culture as well--could I (or you) ever depict our own era with this clarity?

Then I reach this passage and I feel Alison's panic about being just one person in a world without end. Yates, in the character of a ten year old girl, writes: "I'm talking about something else. Because you see there are millions and millions of people in new York--more people than you can possibly imagine, ever--and most of them are doing something that makes a sound. Maybe talking, or playing the radio, maybe closing doors, maybe putting their forks down on their plates if they're having dinner, or dropping their shoes if they're going to bed--and because there are so many of them, all those little sounds add up and come together in a kind of hum. But it's so faint--so very, very faint--that you can't hear it unless you listen very carefully for a long time."

Here's to ending blog posts with an epiphany!  Because I'm still addicted, and because this story sinks/rises/deigns (depending on how you look at it) to confer a kind of "knowledge" for one to live with: Richard Yates feels like someone who knows how to listen.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Flannery O'Connor: "Everything That Rises Must Converge"

From goodreads.com
Dear Flannery,

Your bitter language sends shivers up my spine.  Please see my earlier post.  I want to take a moment to marvel at the intersection with the subject of Charles Baxter's essay, "Against Epiphanies."  Is my obsession with you perhaps related to a middle-class "addiction" to "the loss of innocence, and the arrival of knowingness"?  My shiver turns to a shudder.  Julian's knowing in the end mirrors my own, and I'm not sure I'm better off for having indulged.

Still Yours,

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Baldwin: "Sonny's Blues," "Going to Meet the Man," and "Exodus"

Dimitri Kasterine: James Baldwin, France, 1979
I'll lift from an entry I wrote two years ago: "Sonny's Blue" is a gift.  Because alongside the narrator here, we stare at it "in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roar[s] outside."  

Because Sonny writes from jail: "I wish I could be like Mama and say the Lord's will be done, but I don't know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped and I don't know what good it does to blame it on the Lord."

Because the mother says to her less sensitive son: "You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you's there."

Because Sonny says to his brother: "I hear you. But you never hear anything I say."

Because Baldwin writes, "All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours."

Finally, because: "He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."