Wednesday, March 26, 2014

George Saunders: "Sticks," "Escape from Spiderhead," "My Chivalric Fiasco," and "Tenth of December"

Drip on?
Acknowledge.  Gimme the Verbaluce, and make it snappy.  
So I can like, freestyle re my sentences and thoughts, in elevated diction, my well-articulated thoughts recorded here for future analysis, both yours, dear imagined and projected reader, and mine, when in my waning years of sanity I pore over these blog entries from this, the year I am (was) 42, thoughts of, approximately: how George Saunders reveals through his creations the extent to which we are all responsible. He places within our reach mental images of worlds we have never inhabited (a yard bereft of glee in which our father projects himself onto a pole; a prison in which we, the bad guys, forced into decisions via mind-altering drugs, yet find the will to resist; TorchLightNight in the Grove of Sorrow; above/beneath the surface of a Switzerlandish pond) and when we enter them we sense the odd rightness and wrongnesses of our own worlds. 
Until we reach the end of the story.  
Until something in the drip begins to wane. Until we get another one.
Might I be addicted to his stories?
Drip on?
What's in it?
How do I love thee?  
Let me count the ways.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

George Saunders: "The Semplica Girl Diaries"

The American Dream.  Ah, the American dream. Back before the Internet, before Global Warming, before the housing bubble popped and Wall Street crashed, back in the days of Reaganomics and the AIDS epidemic and rich people on cocaine, the two most popular topics on which I was asked to write essays in grade school were "heroes" and "the American dream."  Back when I believed without skepticism in both, i.e. when I was a child, I also had the good training to believe in "goodness."  I remember claiming Mother Teresa for my hero (was this in 6th grade, or 7th?) and arguing that the American Dream meant that we should all have the opportunity to live happily, which would lead us to good lives, lives in which we were good to other people.

President Obama, in his inaugural address in 2009, drew on these ideas to try to reassure this country that we could be strong in the face of history, and against future trauma.  He said, "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."  For these words, and for the spirit they represent, Obama is a new-age hero to many.  But in no uncertain terms, George Saunders, shows us that perhaps a different time has come.  A time to see how the dream is flawed, that it's not okay to pretend that it isn't.  How what people "deserve" fails (consistently, depressingly) to match what they get. 

Our country is wounded, Saunders demonstrates, and with stories like "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," "Sea Oak," "Winky," "The Barber's Unhappiness," "I CAN SPEAK!" and more recently, "Semplica Girl Diaries," he pours salt in the wound.  But not without also kissing us gently.  George Saunders's work requires us to consider hopelessness, but the stories published in his newest book, Tenth of December, also respond with hope.  In "Semplica Girl Diaries," there is Eva, a little girl whose big actions cause trouble.  I find her the most likeable character in the story.  She is not a bandage for the wound, but she is hope for tomorrow.

In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term "American Dream" in his book The Epic of America.  He penned that the American dream is "a dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."  He also wrote, "The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class."

Think of the Semplica Girls, hampered by the barriers.  Repressed by the social orders.  The harried mid-life narrator of the story, a father of three who struggles to get time to write in his diary, refers to them in shorthand, SG, and it is only slowly that the reader perceives the actual nature of these new immigrants, just the newest line of slaves to the American Dream.  George Saunders, a kind of hero in his presentation of the anti-hero, creates enough distance from today's immigrants that we can feel completely indignant and shocked.  At what point do we stop touting an American Dream that is reliant on consumption and material success?  Can we change its shape, its exigencies?  Is there a new dream to put in its place?  Does a dream have to hurt people?  Is it possible for us to lead good lives?  And for all you young writers: are you still dreaming the old American dream in your writing, or are you going to help challenge and change it in order to get us all off our microlines?

Finally a writerly observation on diction and syntax.  Saunders's particular, stylized language (in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and elsewhere) is in itself a challenge and a change to the accepted, the cliche, and unexamined life.  What are the gains (or potential pitfalls) of such unusual grammar and word choice?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Post by Nick Martell, Amanda Ekstrand, Amy Anderson and Virginia Baynum, guest bloggers, on Antonya Nelson: "Chapter Two" and other stories

Antonya Nelson was born in January 6 1961 in Witicha, Kansas. She received 
her Bachelors Degree at the University of Kansas and then went on to get her Master Degree from the University of Arizona. Throughout her career, Antonya Nelson has won many awards for her writing including The National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship in 1989, The Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000, The Rea Award for the Short Story in 2003, and The United States Artists Fellow in 2009. In her career she has published 6 short story collections: The Expendables, In the Land of Men: Stories, Family Terrorists, Female Trouble, Some Fun, and Nothing Right. Additionally, she has published 4 novels: Talking in Bed,  Nobody's Girl: a Novel,  Living to Tell: a Novel, and Bound. 
Chapter Two is a story about a woman named Hil telling her own stories at AA meetings. She struggles with alcoholism, yet besides the fact that these stories are told at AA meetings, the reader can almost forget that she has this problem until she orders a beer toward the end. Hil and her neighbors tried to put up with Bergeron Love, the “neighborhood busybody”, although she went too far when she called child protection and accused a man in town of abusing his daughters. The town ostracized her, and her son had to be moved to a different school system when the angry father started stalking him. This is also a possible reason for why he is no longer present in his mother’s life. Hil also struggles with her son’s coming of age, and having him unfortunately see a naked Bergeron Love sitting in his favorite chair only worsens the challenges she faces as a mother with a teenage son.

Bergeron dies five days after the naked night, and Hil’s friend Jo calls it the Chapter two of the story. How did you feel about this being the title of the story?

Chapter Two, branching off from the story she tells about her neighbor, she includes some in-the-moment sections in which she is addressing the people at her AA meeting or is judging them. In an interview with the New Yorker, Nelson says that she chose this style of layerd storytelling because as she says: “I had the details of Bergeron Love as a character in mind, yet I had a difficult time figuring out how to capture the full range of her personality in a short-story format.” (you can read the full interview here:

What did you think of these asides to her “audience” at the AA meetings? Would you have prefered a more traditional structure, or did you like the originality?
At the AA meetings, why do you think she told the stories of Bergeron instead of those of her own life? She tells us through her reactions after the meetings that they had been her way of creating this character of herself- is she her own storyteller, or do you think she tells her story through the stories of others?

Female trouble is the story of McBride and his various interactions with the women in his life. While at first it deals with mainly his ex-girlfriend and his lover it eventually comes to the point where he’s dealing five different women in his life. Each women to him is exciting in their own ways. The story begins to explore, through McBride’s point of view, what he thinks is responsible for making women tick in general. While at first he thinks he understands women, the more and more he sees the differences in the women in his life the more he realizes how strange and unique they really are to him. Nelson deals with some very heavy themes in this piece that are handled in a way that doesn’t make them awkward and most would think they might be. An example of this would be how Nelson deals with the issue of sex. While it plays a major part in the story, it isn’t the main point of it and simply serves to show how each of the woman are different in how they act afterwards.

The Control Group: Nelson’s young protagonist, TV Mitchell, is in love with his elderly fourth grade teacher. While this seems like a simple coming-of-age story in the first paragraph, the second states “His [TV’s] mother had murdered her father, TV’s grandfather. TV’s tale did not differ substantially from the other gruesome stories heard over lunch from the boys’ corner of the playground, but his had the unbearable edge of truth.” (Nelson 784) This fast mood-whiplash, or as Charles Baxter calls it the “sandwich effect,” completely changes the tone of the story which could have easily been about a young boy’s innocent attraction into a gritty portrayal of a tragic childhood. TV, as well as Nelson, seems to shrug a lot of his past tragedy off since he never comes across pitiful and handles the murder as another story and like a naive child would.

Naked Ladies is a third person story told about a girl named Laura and her family who are at the Easter Frolic at the House’s house.  The story is closely centered around this image of naked women.  There are pictures on the walls, the Betty Boop necklace, the chocolates in the shape of naked women, and also the issues of Playboy magazine that Frank Jr.  The story also revolves around the idea of different classes of people and certain expectations.  Laura’s family arrives at the house dressed nicely and encounter the House family wearing sweatpants, sneakers, and whatnot.  Laura finds this slightly annoying because where her family is not as wealthy, they at least tried to dress appropriately for the occasion, and the Houses couldn’t really be bothered even though they have this extravagant house. This idea is another theme that shows up throughout the story, which also ties back to the idea of the naked women pictures everywhere.  We a painting done by Mr. Laughlin on the same wall surrounded by the “naked women”.  This is another point where Nelson uses the very visually based aspect of this story to reveal the off-balance to the issue of class going on between the two families.  Nelson writes, “The painting stood out among the women like a beggar” (796).  Which becomes almost more ironic towards the end when we are led to believe that the naked women are in fact ink drawings of Mrs. Laughlin.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Post by Caroline Knight, Gaby Syman, K.C. Schweitzer, and Julia Fox, guest bloggers, on Alice Munro: "Train" and Other Stories

Alice Munro has become known as one of the most influential short story writers in recent history. Just last year, Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Munro is a “true master of the form,” according to Salman Rushdie and has, “mastered the contemporary short story” according to the New York Times.

Growing up in Canada, Munro’s roots have influenced her pieces, adding backdrops of Lake Huron and small town living, so much so that these places breathe off the page and feel like a character themselves. Themes of Munro’s work are entangled with the ideas of men and women’s lives, passages of time, and relationships between generations. They explore the raw and real nature of being a human, and what that means when relating to other humans.

In “Train” the protagonist, Jackson, struggles with the idea of intimacy throughout his life. Munro uses the movement of the train as a subtle comparison to his movement throughout life, his transience.

In his life Jackson comes across Belle, an older farmer. Later in time, Belle becomes ill with cancer and Jackson, who can’t seem to grasp the ideas of Belles fathers’ death, runs away. How has Jackson's experiences in the past with WWII and his relationship with Ileane in high school shaped the darker sexual undertones of this story? Which other dark themes worked in layers throughout this story as well as “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Friend of My Youth,” “Save the Reaper?” How does Munro use all aspects of setting to characterize place as well as people?

Munro is a literary giant because of her mastery of interweaving themes, plot lines, and characters with a sense of visceral place. Her writing simultaneously encapsulates the repugnance of a personal history sparked by the feeling a dirty girl's hand on your thighs as well as the crispness of a sheer dress with, "sociable and youthful." As you think about her stories, consider their complications and how this relates to the human condition. Then think about how stylistically you can apply this to your own writing.

Post by Caroline Knight, Gaby Syman, K.C. Schweitzer, and Julia Fox.