Friday, December 26, 2008

"Passion," by Alice Munro

A little turn on the old adage: "When the teacher is ready, the student will appear." The wonderful, the spectacular Gretchen Tremoulet, my ex-student and friend, brought me to Alice Munro. I had circled over Munro's work all through the '80's and '90's, watched her appear year after year in the O. Henry and Best American Short Story (BASS) anthologies, and I'd heard our best writers place her high in the list of writers' writers -- somehow I couldn't get there. In the abstract I honored Munro because she stayed with the short story form, much in the way Andre Dubus did, not letting the publishing industry push her out of the approach to fiction that is her art and wheelhouse. But in the case of Munro, as with Updike, we have longevity going for us -- and thus a long career of writing in which we can watch the artist come to full blossom. I've often said the short story, like a poem, is actually perfectable (we have to think that, even if it might not be absolutely true), in a way, sorry, the novel is not, and Alice Munro regularly approaches the rarified air with her stories.

"Passion" appeared in Munro's Runaway collection, one of a number of momentous achievements in that single volume. In this story, our third person limited point of view character Grace returns many years later to a town and a neighborhood where life-changing events occurred back when she was in her early twenties. Driving through this town and finding the old places, almost lost in their changed new world, Grace recalls the events. She had come to this town to work when she was 20 and had become friends with an interesting family -- in fact, it developed that she came very near to marrying one of the sons, falling into a relationship with him because it was so easy to, a matter of convenience. They were both ready to marry, they supposed, and there they were together, and so Destiny seemed to have spoken. However, Grace was not entirely finished with her education, and she was also a little more hot blooded than her prospective husband, who was stable to a fault and a bit boring it must be said, and Grace mourned the loss of excitement and passion that was bound to accompany her tying the knot with this man.

It happened that the family was gathering for a holiday. Grace did look forward to this, because she had a fascination and a soul connection to her prospective husband's parents, who were the original attraction. Holiday at that homestead, and the convergence of their whole family, was something Grace found herself wanting to be a part of. It happened that on the first evening as family was coming together, Grace cut her foot, rather minorly actually but more than could be handled by a bandade, and while everyone sympathized on the front step of the house as she surveyed the damage, her prospective husband's half brother Neil (a doctor, speaking of Destiny) came up the driveway to save the day. Neil, smelling of alcohol and dashing in his confidence, cupped Grace's arch in his healing hand and opined that the injury would take a stitch. And so he drove her to the ER at the local hospital where he was a staff MD and swiftly closed the wound. While they were in the emergency room, Grace's husband-to-be, Neil's brother, arrived in the waiting room and sent in the message he was there to take her home. With Grace sitting there, Neil told the nurse to tell his brother that they had left already. The nurse said, "He'll know you're here because your car's outside." Neil said, "I'm parked in the doctor's lot in the back." "Veeeery clever," the nurse said, and Grace was listening to all this and was into it. Neil looked at her and said, "You don't really want to go home yet, do you?" This brassy presumption on Neil's part was the sort of adventure and passion Grace had feared she would never see again as she slipped into a staid marriage without much thought simply because Destiny seemed to have spoken. "You don't really want to go home yet, do you?" Neil said to her in the emergency room. And Munro writes something like: "No," Grace said as if the word was written on the wall and she was simply reading it. The two slide out of the hospital by a back door and have an adventurous afternoon that turns out to have been the end of Grace's relationship with that family and the beginning of her real life, the one Destiny really did have in store for her.

Because this is a long short story, and very quiet and civilized, it is much like reading a novel. It has two more "turns" of story line than most stories, almost as many as Gatsby which might be four times as long. You do not put down a Munro short story and go, "Huh?" Follow her thread, and you will be rewarded. This is just one of the stories of Munro we could talk about. I raise high a toast, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, to Lady Gretchen for friendship and showing me the way to Alice Munro.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Richard Ford's "Reunion"

It sounds tricky, of course, but one of the themes in my own work is "what happened to men after what happened to women." I attempted to talk about this in my interview with Nancy Zafris, archived on the Kenyon Review site -- didn't do a very good job of it. The idea is that prior to the women's liberation movement men and women were raised, literally, to relate to one another in certain ways. When the change came, in the 1970's so goes my version of the story, there was an earthquake in the culture as old v. new smashed and ground against one another and as women in the full flush of new possibilities and a scramble for opportunity flexed themselves against their generation of men who were startled and puzzled by how all this was to affect them. Not talking about the men who resisted these changes for women, trying to protect their realm or simply trying to keep things the same so they knew who they were. Talking about those many men who were very happy at these new changes, still are, but did not anticipate the full array of implications. The baby boomer generation that gave us the "summer of love" in '60's was suddenly the generation of divorce. There was a huge scramble. A lot of full grown adults, more than usual by far, were single, or were behaving that way. There was a shakeout going on. It was fairly big and not subtle.

Richard Ford's story "Reunion," from his great collection A Multitutde of Sins, captures a moment, a chance meeting, of two men as they crossed the big main floor of Grand Central Station. One of the men, recently divorced, was waiting for his daughter to arrive on the train. The other was a man who'd had an affair with the divorced man's wife before the divorce. There had been a bad scene in the past, in which the husband caught the two in a hotel and open-hand slapped the guy silly. So that was the history of the two, not having seen each other since, when a couple of years later they chance to cross paths down on the main floor of the giant train station. They exchange polite hellos, neither of them ready to fight some more, but the maneuvers, body language, alpha behaviors, fully deploy. The (ex) husband has a psychological leg up on the other, because the last they met he'd slapped him around. The other guy (Johnny, our bad boy point of view character) has an interest in scoring a couple of points to at least get back to even, even if it's subliminally just by dominating this ostensibly nonconfrontational moment and scene. The (ex) husband finally says for him to leave. He says, "I'm due to meet my daughter right now and for obvious reasons I don't want her to meet you." So Johnny starts to recede, and the (ex) husband says something to him as he departs. He says, "Just so you know, nothing happened here today. Nothing happened." This was his way of saying, "If you were here to even the score, you didn't get it done."

The story is over moments after that. Johnny does a small swirl of narration to try to moderate the appearances of his intent. That is the climax. I suppose there is nothing new about menfighting over a woman. But when you read the story you understand that one reason she and her two men were now alone in this world has to do with forces bigger than marriage and adultery and family and even ego and narcissism and character and good and bad. It's geothermal, somehow, continental plates shifting. The story shows a specific instance of how certain underpinnings, or what used to be underpinnings, are iffy now, culture cracked and consensus gone, at least in our urban society if not in Pinkneyville, Illinois yet, causing a misery of uncertainty and a lot of rough games between people who aren't "bad" but who end up being villains in someone else's story.

Hell, I don't know. There is so much more to this story than what I'm saying -- I'm just trying to make an ordinary point. I'll continue to try to express this in paraphrase, but the wonder of the short story as an art form, and the wonder of Richard Ford's story collection A Multitude of Sins and, for me, this one story, "Reunion," is the SHOWING instead of paraphrasing. As a writer, I think when i've read this one, how can I write something that makes a reader feel what this story made me feel? And whatever that is, how could I ever tell it, let alone show it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Few Favorite Stories

My students know my favorite stories, mostly. Each semester I encounter new ones. But I thought I would say a thing or two about the time-honored faves.

"Helping," by Robert Stone. This story was called to my attention years ago by my writer friend Mary Burns. Stone doesn't write many short stories, but his short story collection The Bear and His Daughter came out in the mid-nineties, and "Helping" was in there. When it was selected for Best American Short Stories in the late '80's, they found it in the New Yorker, I believe. A very smart, tough writer, tough like Hemingway could only dream of being, and far more complex and smart. This story tracks a MSW-type counselor, a Vietnam vet, on the day he comes yet again off the wagon. The story follows him, Elliott, through a series of triggers that result in this lapse, and then we follow him home for the inevitable clash with his lapse-weary wife, Grace. Nothing expected happens, and the sad ending of the story stalwartly occupies the gossamer line between hope and hopelessness that is implied in AA's realistic axiom and admonition, "One day at a time." I always think, this ending is earned. How can I do that in a story?

"Waiting," by Ann Beattie. I'm sure in the old days this was one of the stories that annoyed Beattie's critics, with its minimalist blankness and the numb inevitability of its mysterious ending, so perfectly the feel in the air in the '70's (and it will come again). But after another generation of different sorts of writers has weighed in and processed through, and after all the tone and voice and explicit conflict (a lot of this in reaction to the old minimalism), the worldly realism so fully specified (as in the stories after Carver -- I'm being way too general but trying to describe an evolution), Beattie's first person present tense is new and interesting again and, of course, contrary to her critics, she's not at all limited to it (see "Find and Replace," in her Follies collection). Her character, we're back to "Waiting" now, doesn't know much more than we do, and the story's slow revelation of its situations drags her and us through a day when whole life change is in the air for her. Her husband is gone. She will be moving soon. She will be alone. She will have to sell a lot of stuff. She will be alone. The story literally hangs in the air, like that moment when we reach the apex but haven't quite started down yet. The protagonist is making herself some lunch, and as if things aren't bad enough, she notes in the corner of her eye that her dog is sleeping through food smells in the air. It suddenly hits her the dog may be dead, which would be just her luck at this time. She can't quite look to be sure. She goes onto the front porch, very upset. Someone finally comes by to help her. She's crying. The friend goes inside to get something, water maybe, and she says to him as he goes, "If you see anything wrong, please just take care of it." As with Stone's story, the end leaves much hanging, but the dog finally comes wagging to the screen door and is fine -- letting us know that this at least was a worry that would turn out okay; and so, trapped inside this woman's point of view, we wonder what else in her story is mere sadness and panic over things that aren't quite that bad and what is rational and much to be worried about. A very little story, masterfully representing an important stage we went through in short fiction that, make no mistake, informs the new wave and will come again. There is so much for the story writer to learn from this wise master.

"Customs of the Country," by Madison Smartt Bell. Like "Helping," this story was in Best American Short Stories in the late eighties. This story, too, was pointed out to me by Mary Burns. Bell writes it from the third person point of view of a struggling addict, a waitress, who alternates between violence toward her child (which results in hospitalization followed by foster care) and miserable lonely efforts to rehab herself in the eyes of the court and get her child back. She lives in an apartment in a miserable little apartment building that I picture as being like a two storey motel. The walls are very thin, and next door there's a couple. The male of the down and out duo next door is always wham bamming the woman, sending her crashing against the wall, knocking a cast iron pan off the wall of our character's kitchen onto the stove and then to the floor causing a nerve jangling clatter. This story too (Like "Helping") depicts the hopelessness of her situation and attempts to explain what her spiral is like, why she can't actually recover, why she can't actually get on top of her problems, why, instead, something very bad is likely to happen. Extremely well written, the story delivers a startling blow at the end and you're not likely to forget it.

Later I will talk a bit about "Design," by Richard Bausch; "Find and Replace," by Ann Beattie; "Passion," by Alice Munro, "Reunion," by Richard Ford; and "A Constellation of Events," by John Updike. In some sense, all of these stories are like Edward Hopper's wondrous "Nighthawks," capturing a small constellation of people in a frame -- giving us not only the tableau but the characters and the context in such close detail that we realize we could never have predicted the end and yet, in retrospect (I so love this), the ending we get is the only outcome that could ever have happened. Oh, and in these stories I like, the "ending" is never quite the end -- life will go on, the stir of issues and swirl of complexity will continue, the people flexing themselves against it all will show what they're made of on and on. When I write my own stories, these (and perhaps 50 others) play in my mind, their voices and their characters and the writing. Even though I know I can't quite get to their level, the journey is great and these master writers, in their best work, point the way.

Tell me some other short stories I should be sure to look at and why.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Long Short Story

These days I'm thinking a lot about the long short story, in the terms Richard Ford established -- a long short story being just short of a novella in length. Whereas the novella is "designed" with an arc like a novel, the long short story has an arc like short fiction. We know the boundaries between these forms are rough and fuzzy. But for discussion, the long short story would be no longer than 15,000 words. The idea is that it is a long work of fiction that is not long enough to be bound in book form by itself. Normally the long short story is too long for the litmags, but fits nicely in a collection of stories, often serving as the anchor tenant. "Brokeback Mountain," in Annie Proulx's famous story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories might be an example (although most of those stories are pretty long and I think "Brokeback..." played in the New Yorker). I'm not sure, but many Alice Munro stories have the long arc I'm thinking of, for example her "Passion" and "Silent" from the Runaway collection. I have a notion that online publishing might be perfect for the long short story, often as engaging and absorbing as a novel and at the same time with that graceful story arc that requires only an hour to read yet allows complexity and more than one turn before coming in for a landing. Can you name some other authors who write these or specific stories that fit this description?