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Monday, September 16, 2013

Emily Carter: "East on Houston" and "Parachute Silk"

Emily Carter published these stories in her first book, a collection called Glory Goes and Gets Some.  The tale of a woman who used to walk in a "borrowed dress that was as red as the stoplights" (in "East on Houston") is connected to the tale of a woman who, in her recovery from addiction, never tells her best friend, a heroin addict as well, that she is HIV-positive ("Parachute Silk").  In both stories, the narrator gives images of people wrapped in red.  Red as a stoplight, red as a red parachute: "I roll them around and drape the fabric over them in labyrinthine folds until all that can be seen is a big pile of red silk, full of squealing lumps, and then I say, 'Go!'"


Through Glory, and through Glory's friend Mathew, Emily Carter explores our human tendencies toward thrill and risk.  She looks into the subconscious urge for self-destruction that seems to plague even very thoughtful people, even the young, the most vulnerable, the "tiny girl of three" who is finally "out, standing upright, silent, an embarrassed smile on her face, sparkling quietly like a candied plum."

Look at the way Carter uses the dialogue between Matthew and Glory.  In every exchange, you'll find the word not or don't or no or isn't or didn't.  Why?  What power does the negative hold in characterization, in dialogue, in real life?

Incidentally, I jumped out of an airplane once, in the height of my devil-may-care twenties.  Glory asks, "What kind of a person would do that, and what do they get out of it, except a sense of relief when the thing opens correctly?"  Well, I did not try heroin.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Italo Calvino: Marcovaldo in spring, summer, winter, and fall

A magician can't prescribe the mood an audience member brings to the show, and likewise, a writer cannot predict the mood of her or his reader, whose mental preparedness--expectations or openness or sense of humor or sadness or willingness to experience delight--is outside the writer's control.  To captivate the unprepared reader is as difficult as making a dove appear from thin air.

Snowman Neighbor by MG Shelton
This afternoon, Italo Calvino's stories brought me out of a sour mood, which indicates something about the magic of his craft.  Sitting down to read, I was distracted by a strong, fresh disappointment with complicated origins: my mother had told me that my father, who became a Boy Scout in 1949 and who has been the scoutmaster of the same troop for the past twenty-three years, had announced his resignation.  Dad must have a fatal disease, I had thought in alarm when I heard the news.  Or was it that he is getting older and needs to make room for someone else be in charge?  Oh no, had he been asked to resign?  Was he very sad?  In conversation with my father, however, I had learned that neither of these reasons pertained.  My Dad cannot continue his allegiance with the Boy Scouts of America because the organization decided this past spring to admit boys who are openly homosexual.  My father resigned because of his beliefs, and his beliefs are directly at odds with my own.

My father will turn seventy-five this November.  He will be sad to no longer be a Boy Scout.  On a practical note, what will he do with all his extra time?  On a political note, what is the use of his protest?  The world, thank goodness, is moving toward greater social justice in terms of gender and sexual orientation.  Personally: what does it mean that my father is on the side of closure and fear?  Personally: what does it mean about his well-being?  Personally: what response am I supposed to have?  I am as stuck as Marcovaldo, yearning for something other than the cityscape and harsh realities of his life.

What we'd all like is the perfect reader, the perfect audience, ready to laugh or cry or be amazed, but what we must expect is that we have hard work ahead in order to draw any reader into any story.  As I read Calvino's tales of a simple, foolish man at odds with his environment, I felt things.  Complicated things.  A mix of gratification and sorrow.  A mix of sympathy and distance.  At the end of the fourth short story, I was ready for some magic--Calvino had prepared me to long for Marcovaldo's sneeze, which turns into a tornado, clearing the ground of the cold, cold snow.  When I stopped reading, my thoughts returned to my father, to "the things of every day, sharp and hostile," but my emotions had cleared, at least enough to make room for delight.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges: "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" and "Funes, the Memorious"

Borges has a style of world-creation that challenges fundamental notions about what is real, or what has meaning.  Take the arena of university scholarship, in which academics take great pains to provide proof of their sources, to "verify" their claims, to back up their "authority" in order to say the things they're saying.  This is the hallowed ground, the rules of which are taught in college to future generations of scholars.  In "Pierre Menard," the premise is that a scholar is defending and proving the value of his friend, Pierre Menard.   To do so, he uses the tricks of academic rhetoric--quotation, citation, logic, claims, argument.  But the very idea of Menard's work is indefensible: Menard was engaged in (re)writing a book that had been composed three hundred years earlier.  Furthermore, his expressed goal was to lose all evidence of his struggle to achieve this work.

Ha, ha, ha, ha!  In the world Borges was satirizing, or at the very least, confronting, people take pride and great comfort in ownership and material gain.  It is the proof of self-worth.  It seems that Borges wrote the estimable opposite of the Superman, a man who embraces monumentally futile work.  Consider the author's description of Menard's project: "He resolved to outstrip that vanity which awaits all the woes of mankind; he undertook a task that was complex in the extreme and futile from the outset."
The Funambulist
In the end, Borges's narrator links Menard and Jesus Christ.  Or, at least he links Don Quixote and Christ.  Or perhaps just the authors of the texts: Cervantes and generations of biblical scribes.  For all would-be writers: Do you care how people read what you write?  What are you writing?  What is writing you?

And now, I'll not comment at length on "Funes, the Memorious," as I hope to read comments that consider this story in terms of world-building.  Memory: another type of world building.  Another type of unreality.  Another narrative form, one that walks the tightropes of "truth" and "meaning." 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Extra, Extra: What Image Do You Conjure?


When you hear magician, what do you imagine?  This is a way of thinking about one's choice in the development of style.


















Monday, September 2, 2013

Aimee Bender: "The Rememberer" and "Quiet Please"

Once when I was an undergraduate, my boyfriend (coincidentally, his name was Ben) dreamed that giant books were separating us.  True story.  In those days, I listened to the Indigo Girls: "I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains, I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain."  And I believed in the song's refrain: "There's more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line, and the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine."  The problem was, I could never do it.  "Getting closer" is not a given, and "fine" is ambiguous, and, and....  It's a bit of a vicious cycle, unless you just let go and enjoy the song.

Paramecium: complicated single-cell
These old lyrics and this personal anecdote play in my head when I read "The Rememberer," especially right at the beginning when the narrator tells how she visited the "old biology teacher at the community college" to get some answers about what's happening to her boyfriend.  Like in Barthelme's "The School," the school in this story is no place to get answers.  The abundance of "why" and the lack of an acceptable "because" is Bender's playground.  In it, she explores the anxious heart of humanity, how we all want to know why, and how in the end, we appear to have only the "one self" that we "put to bed."  But the end of the story is not the story.

These two pieces show Bender seeking her source for the plural, rather than the definitive.  Rather than trying to nail anything down, she opens things up.  Her specific details--the glass baking pan and the great furry arms and the tip of a baby wave--suggest multiple meanings.  In "Quiet Please," the symbolism expands from the setting in a library (where else to get answers, right?) to the ultimate man, the muscleman (who else would be able to fix a problem, right?) to the work of art, the fairy with purple eyes.  Words, symbols, are magnificently plural, if we are open to this kind of magic trick.  The singular becomes plural.  Like a reproducing paramecium.