Thursday, October 31, 2013

Richard Ford: "Rock Springs" and "Great Falls"

Richard Ford Wins 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Literary Excellence
I've read "Rock Springs" a hundred times, and now when I start reading it, I just can't wait to reach the ending.

In fact, this time through, I went straight to the last line: "Would you think he was anybody like you?"

But before talking about why, I need to mention Alice Munro, who just won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.  This wonderful short story author says that she when she reads stories, she dips in and out, entering one way, leaving another, entering again.  Originally, she explained this idea in an often-quoted essay: "A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."

When Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Richard Ford was quoted as saying, "I’m absolutely ecstatic that Alice won; nobody should win if she doesn’t."

Back to Munro's ideas on reading.  In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, she expanded on her idea of the short story as a house: "I thought about the way that I read, which, as I said in that essay is going into the story anywhere. I can tell in a couple of sentences how I feel about a story. Then, I go on reading, and I read frontwards, backwards, all over. It is just like being enclosed in the story and seeing things outside the story in a different way—through the windows of that house. And it's not at all like following a path to see what happens. Quite often, I know what happens as soon as I start reading it. Maybe not the twists the plot will take, but the real story."

Wherever you first started reading "Rock Springs," what happened?  Did you feel anything?  Did you notice that someone was going on a journey?  Did you notice that the first person point of view forced you to identify with a narrator who is, I'll wager, nothing like you?  By the end, did you, in Munro's words, see "how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows"?  And did "you, the visitor, the reader,"  become "altered as well by being in this enclosed space"?

There is something that can't be understood about the real story until you get to the change in point of view at the end.  When Earl addresses us, the reader, I hear the real challenge: Can we identify and empathize with others' pain?  How much can we understand about ourselves by reading fiction?  How much can we be altered by writing, reading, and thinking about stories?

Typically, magicians don't ask us to empathize, not really.  They want us to marvel, to be amazed.  Ford reminds me that literary art is an old, deep magic that goes so much further than what most of us can manage, almost like what might resurrect us from the dead.  And by dead I mean stunned, stuck, immobile, pitiless, merciless.  Not to go all Aslan on you, but I think that experiencing a new point of view can bring us back to life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Junot Diaz "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" and "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie"

by Jessica Gilchrist

Over the summer, I read the entire collection "Drown" and read the collection "Self-Help" by Lorrie Moore that was mentioned in the forward to these stories. I mention it, because I didn't have the chance to pick up The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, though it had been highly recommended to me. So I ended up plowing through these two connections, never quite understanding where the bridge between them laid. I went into this blog thinking about how Diaz manipulates voice, how he becomes this young man sitting in the arm chair in my bedroom talking about girls, talking about that desire to make yourself into something that someone else can perceive.

But after reading the selection from the novel, I realized why this is such a great piece about structure. I've been struggling with plot since I decided I wanted to be a serious fiction writer. How does that even work? And yet, here Junot Diaz sets out the plot for us by clearly outlining what is happening next. I approached my short story over the weekend doing something similar after reading this. I wrote:
        Part 1: Introduce the Situation
        Part 2: The First Complication
        Part 3: The Second Complication
        Part 4: A Third Complication
        Part 5: A Climax (Confrontation?)
        Part 6: Dealing with It
This isn't very specific, but I think more or less that Junot Diaz does something very similar. This first section of Oscar Wao sets up so much about Oscar, from his oversized body to his impossible spectacles to his inability to confront the girl he broke up with in grade school.

Diaz does a fantastic job of creating a small narrative within this larger narrative. Each section lives and breathes on it's own. Take the part about Oscar and Ana, the way he divides his attachment to Ana from his final act of declaring his love for her. The way he spills out details about Oscar standing outside of Manny's house to Oscar listening to Ana on the phone makes us feel the progression of his emotion. The structure of this story pulls us so deeply into Oscar's subconscious that we are very gently living his life through vignettes.

I guess I'm interested in how this made you guys look at your own stories. Have you thought about unfolding them so logically as this? How does this help you? How would this hinder you? Also, were there any moments of language in either piece that really appealed to you? We'll talk more on Monday about the second person piece (and I'll bring in my second person piece), but I think there are some great moments where Diaz does some fantastic things with language.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Robert Coover: "the convention" and "The Brother"

Magicians are not normal, not conventional.  They believe the world is a container of mysteries, deep misunderstandings or areas of chaos that can, if spun in the right way, feel connected to transcendence.  Unlike people who choose to turn away from the depths, or those who go into the depths through introspection or meditation, magicians act outwardly on their passions.  Some magicians perfect old tricks, learning to amaze and inspire through the perfection of a wondrous form.  Others invent new tricks entirely.

Robert Coover is one of the new-makers.  He does not sit content with accepted forms of short stories.  Instead, like Noah, who "just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion," Coover, who teaches creative writing at Brown University, has made a career of being, in his own words, "not a traditional tale-teller."

In order to see the current day relevance of Coover's approach to the traditional Noah's ark story, I suggest that you visit this site about a Dutchman named Johan Huibers.

For "the convention," you might consider watching a few episodes of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner's award-winning drama series set in the 1960's, in a fictional New York City business world.  It will give you a taste of what Coover's narrator is living through: "everybody laughs Pete blows out his pink cheeks pats his soft belly what are we out of ice people are getting angry shouting taking sides Mike Oxonphire Les Gitlade Chuck S. Assout."

Mad Men Drinking at Work

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ann Pancake: Given Ground

Read these stories slowly, and read them with love.  You will need to in order to pull the narrative from "Ghostless" or "Wappatomaka" or "Sister."  For what Pancake specializes in is not surface plot and character but layers that work to simulate a world.  Her language is so rich, so full of texture, and metaphorical meaning, that it tends to overshadow some fictional elements that help readers to make sense of what they're reading.  You'll notice that Pancake does not follow all of the "rules."  For example, she does not identify characters in the mind of the reader early on in each story.  You have to work to see these characters--their gender, their age, their societal status--and you sometimes have to revise your first impressions.

Ann Pancake
It's a kind of compression--I mean Pancake's way of filling our eyes with language before clearly setting forth characters or situations--that takes time to understand.  These stories taught me how to read them.  When I reached "Sister," the seventh story in the collection, I finally relaxed into the experience, knowing that I would be reading about layers of sisters, and what happens to them, and I would read again in order to unfold, or expand, that which has been so compressed.

Is what I'm calling "compression" a strength or a weakness?  If you think it is a strength, why?  If you think it is a weakness, can you think up a rationale behind writing in this way?  How would you describe Pancake's magic?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Cheever: "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Five-Forty-Eight"

Jess Gilchrist writes to you:
"When reading "Goodbye, My Brother," I couldn't help but think back to our discussion of black sheep. Moreover, I started thinking about how I feel when I got to family reunions. There's always this awkwardness so potent that it makes you feel like you're walking through gauze, ambling around, trying to converse with people you haven't seen in years. Here are people who are forged from the same bones as you, who's blood is an aggregate of your pieces, pumping through organs fabricated from familiar tissues.

"But Cheever doesn't tell the story of the average black sheep. We don't get his plight. Instead, we get the inner thoughts of a brother. Why? Why give us this main character instead of Lawrence? What can it do for the story? How does it move this story forward? Why is this story more effective for focusing from the outside? How does it create conflict?

"That last question is key. Cheever is often called the "Chekhov of the suburbs" for his ability to cast dark characters against light character. I would push it a little farther. Is Lawrence dark for wanting to criticize their dilapidated house and their drinking? Is the main character wrong to point that Lawrence should've just asked for a specific drink? Who is dark?

"To some extent, we all are. I'm interested to see how this unique point of view appealed to you all. How did this familiar story resonate with you? What worked?"