Friday, May 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 38: Alice Brown, Golden Baby (#114)

Alice Brown, "Golden Baby" (1910) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

The Library of America says that Alice Brown was one of the trio of women regionalists of New England, along with Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett. (Or rather, they quote Russian-American critic Elias Lieberman, which seems to be their standard operation procedure: quote some guy who sounds authoritative. Who is Lieberman? Why did he get chosen?)

But even though she's presented as a regionalist, the LoA gives us as atypical Alice Brown story: a man on a boat with a bunch of other people tells a story about another boat trip he took. That story involves the passengers all hating each other; the boat being supernaturally stopped; and a "coolie" woman with a little saintly baby who helps make everyone love each other and gets off at Haiti to join the revolution.

There's a lot to enjoy about this story, starting from the amusing depiction of the characters on the first boat: the blotto scion of an old family who contributes nothing but remarks on how old his family is; the  man going around on the world on his own fortune to find a bug to kill other bugs, who is explaining himself (and boring) a merchant of seersucker; and the guy who narrates the story, who has a William Morris look to him--a reference to a man with at least one foot in utopian dreams. (The note on the LoA website connects Morris to the arts-and-crafts movement, which is accurate but almost beside the point: this in-story narrator keeps talking about how to make the world better, which clearly makes the connection with William Morris as utopian writer.)

Then there's the enjoyment of this William Morris-esque narrator's story, with its descriptions of that original trip and all the different classes of people: mothers kitting out their daughters so as to sell them on the marriage market, "copper kings," idle scions of old families, etc. There's a certain eerieness to the ship stopping and some fun interchange between the narrator and the wireless operator of the stopped ship. There's the promising weirdness of this saintly golden baby, which seems to prefigure Du Bois's strange and neglected 1928 Dark Princess, with its golden baby and pan-colored conference. (Does Alice Brown mean Chinese/Asian when the character describes the mother/nurse as a "coolie"? If so, then we have a pan-color collaboration, with Asian woman and golden child coming to help black Haitians.)

There's even, if you're bent this way, a pleasure to be had from how the story doesn't quite make sense: what was this golden baby doing in New York when the ship started? Why did the baby stay on board the ship the first time they passed Haiti? What does this baby have to do with class struggle since everything else about it is marked as racial? Why doesn't the baby's magical love powers work from the very beginning? And then, at the end, why does the story end with a return to the frame story and remarks by a "minor poet" that this story is the same as the "Ancient Mariner" when it really isn't? Why does it end there?

So if you're looking for a clear tale, this story-within-a-story is not it. But looking back on it now, it seems like a bridge between an older style of weird tale and the dreaminess of Kelly Link.

Short story read aloud, week 12

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Michael Haynes, "The Barber and the Count": A fine little problem story / character view: when the count kills the barber's daughter, does he take revenge? And if so, how does he take revenge so as to avoid being killed himself. I heard this on Podcastle, and while I like it fine on the sentence level, it doesn't move me much: if you live in a world of magic, and you use magic to kill someone, why don't the forces that be take revenge on you? Sure, they may not figure our your method, but your motive is clear. That said, this story does a nice job of keeping the audience in some uncertainty about whether the barber wants revenge at all.


Sarah Monette, "White Charles": Starting out as a quasi-M. R. James story--an archivist realizes an old box of books came with a monster (the ghost of a hand of glory)--the story turns into something that reminds me of Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom": the archivist has to confront the idea that the monster is really just a sort of person that has only known slavery and servitude. It's a little simple in some ways since the monster turns out to want to be destroyed just as the main character wants to do. But the language here is nice--evocative of a different time period without being campy.

Cat Rambo, "The Mermaids Singing Each to Each": A thematically rich story about a sex-less boat pilot (she took the neuter operation after her uncle raped her and has a tense relationship with the AI on the boat that used to be the uncle's), the greedy killer, and the man who lost his father (when the father underwent the surgery to turn him into a merman), as the three of them go to salvage a strange accumulation of material. The plot is simple--salvage, greedy guy double-crosses them--which allows the themes room to grow, but it's still a little disappointing in the abrupt end of the plot.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

L. Sprague de Camp, "A Gun for Dinosaur": One of those older stories about time traveling hunters going to bag dinosaurs. Yeah, it's an old story that might be done differently today, but it's an enjoyable romp with clear contrasts in its characters--the over-excitable rich hunter and the less active/bloodthirsty hunter; the angry judgmental guide and the good-natured guide--without those characters becoming absolutely simple.

Brendan Detzner, "Charlie Harmer's Day Off": A ghost gets involved in a scheme to take over bodies, feels bad about, but still gets his music-loving friend's body and goes nuts with it for a while (even throwing up feels good when you've been a ghost long enough). There's some interesting characters here, particularly in Darius, the music-loving friend whose other great passion is hating the friend who is marrying the woman he loves. Even though it's short, the story is broken up into several sections, which I rather like as it gives definite pauses between scenes.

Elisabeth R. Adams, "Subversion": A very talky tale of a man who comes in to try to rectify his split persons, which he split in order to fulfill all of his many responsibilities--work, girlfriend, cats. Well done in that it avoids informational lumps, but a little light on the story side of things. It would work very well as the premise of a stage play if there were only a little more drama.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Carrie Vaughn, "A Princess of Spain": Catherine of Aragorn and teenage Henry VIII-to-be fight a vampire! This isn't actually all that pulpy/silly, despite my use of an exclamation point; it's actually mostly about the young Catherine's uncertainty as a young wife to a sickly prince, who is haunted by a vampire. In that, Vaughn does a nice job of bringing us into the anxious and hopeful mind of Catherine, which makes it more immediate and personable. The vampire hunt aspect is less interesting, though I think Vaughn plays nicely in the historical fantasy realm, playing on our knowledge of how Catherine and Henry VIII end up.

Ken Liu, "The Perfect Match": Judging from two data points (this story and "Real Artists"), Ken Liu has a sideline in near-future thought experiments. Here, a man who loves his Google-like computer assistant first is confronted by an anti-algorithm faction with how much that assistant/algorithm manipulates his life; from there, he's convinced to turn against the algorithm, which of course catches him, which nets him a job offer from the boss of the company, Christian Rinn (i.e., Sergei Brin, of Google). A lot of this story is discussion--Jenny teaching Sai about the danger of algorithm-life, Christian making the case that Centillion is the best version of an inevitable cyborg life. As a story, I'm not sure how successful this is, but as a thought experiment presenting many different sides of the argument, I rather like it.

J. T. Petty, "Family Teeth (Part 5): American Jackal": A man on the margins of society meets a woman on the margins, whose family happens to have some coyote (or were-coyote) curse; so while they try to get away, coyotes hunt them when she gets pregnant. The characters here may not seem very identifiable: the protagonist male remembers leaving a cousin of his stranded somewhere for only a little money and lies cheerfully about everything; the love interest woman has a little anger problem. But because the two of them get along, the reader may be tricked in to identifying or caring about them.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Stephen R. Donaldson, "Mythological Beast": In some future where people have medical devices implanted and everything is safe, a man discovers that he's transforming into... a unicorn. What? There's a lot of repetition here to make sure we know what's safe vs. what's unsafe. But the sort of generic top-down utopia (run by computers, with everyone listening) is really turned on its head by the transformation, which is very interesting and unexpected. Lesson: Don't be afraid of some curveballs.

John Kessel, "Buffalo": Kessel tells the story of his father's time on the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression alongside the story of H. G. Wells's visit. Kessel (dad, character) is a science fiction fan, Wells is a man who sees disaster coming. There's very little speculation here, but it's of interest to sf readers since it's about fans and authors. As a story, the gentle omniscience leads us along with these two guys and their disappointments; as a son's story about his father, it's a very touching but not overly sentimentalizes story.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 37: John Kenneth Galbraith, In Goldman, Sachs We Trust (#43)

John Kenneth Galbraith, "In Goldman, Sachs We Trust" (1954) from John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967:

When I was studying Nathanael West and the breakdowns of the 1930, I remember one scholarly book argued that jigsaw puzzles saw a big rise in popularity in the 1930s because it was very difficult to put together a view of what was really going on in the world. That is, the jigsaw puzzle took what everyone was experiencing (confusion over how the world fit together now, especially the financial world) and allowed people the pleasure of solving the picture. This professor connected the financial jigsaw puzzle to the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, with the soon-to-be dispossessed farmer wondering who he should shoot to solve his problem and the sympathetic bulldozer operator noting that you can't really shoot anyone to solve this problem because no one person is in control of the system.

That's the feeling I get reading Galbraith's "In Goldman, Sachs We Trust," part of a chapter from his book on the stock market crash of 1929. Galbraith draws the lines--with many numbers--of how Goldman, Sachs came to dominate the market with its investment trust.

But, although the headnote says this piece is very clear and although we could be said to have lived through a very similar crash recently (with overleveraged investment firm), I still found this version of the story a little hard to follow. Maybe when we're dealing with these many numbers, I want some of those Ezra Klein-style charts and graphs. Or maybe this is one of those situations where people seem to be doing something so cockamamie that it's hard to grasp after the fact. Or maybe I just didn't read it carefully enough while I was at the gym today (busted!).

Galbraith does make his explanation a little easier to follow--but maybe a little harder to prosecute--by personifying Goldman, Sachs: Goldman, Sachs comes to understand something, and Goldman, Sachs uses some new financial tool, and Goldman, Sachs buys and sells. Who does this? Are there people behind these bad decisions? In Galbraith's account, not really. So who do we shoot to change the system?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 36: Mark Twain, The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls) (#51)

Mark Twain, "The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls)" (1865) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890:

This is earlyish for Twain, a sketch for the Californian that tells the story of naughty boy Jim, who never gets caught or learns a lesson. It's three pages of pure parody about the sanctimonious moral literature of the time plus one final page of pure righteous indignation at America for holding up Jim as a model for success.

Although Twain is winking at us throughout, there's so much annoyance-to-anger here that I think he reaches his limit at four pages--any more and the feeling would sour. At this short length we can laugh at how Twain sets up what we expect and then undercuts it: when Jim frames good boy George for a stolen penknife, we hear a lot about the justice of the peace who could out the guilty party--if this were some sort of Sunday-school book. He'll go to great lengths to make sure we understand the trope that he's avoiding, telling us what didn't happen:
And then Jim didn't get whaled, and the venerable justice didn't read the tearful school a homily, and take George by the hand and say such a boy deserved to be exalted, and then tell him to come and make his home with him, and sweep out the office...
And what becomes of genre-busting Jim? He gets off scot-free and becomes wealthy and respected even though he's immoral and possibly homicidal. Twain tosses off the rest of this boy's life in a penultimate paragraph that is almost surrealistic in its concentration and juxtaposition:
And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.
There's comedy in there, sure, but it's pretty dark comedy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 35: Henry James, Paste (#97)

Henry James, "Paste" (1899) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910:

My grad school friend Lubna nailed the experience of reading Henry James for me: "I'm waiting for something to happen; I'm waiting for something to happen; oh my god, it happened!; wait what happened?" In the big fight between James and H. G. Wells (once good friends, then bitter enemies), I often find myself more on the Wells side, arguing that literature should be for something. As Wells put it in his satire Boon:
[A James novel] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .
At the same time, I can understand why Henry James has become so beloved of literary critics and professors, many of whom I respect. He has a Jesuitical eye for casuistry, which is a fancy way of saying that he puts his character into interesting moral situations. For those who have a puzzly-mind, there's something fun about unpacking his sentences. And for some, there's the supreme pleasure of ambiguity, which is the final position where many--though not all--of his stories end: with a situation where the unknowable greatly outweighs the knowable.

Take "Paste," for instance. At first it seems like a pretty simple inversion of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace"; in that story, a woman borrows and loses a pearl necklace and then replaces it after much exhausting work, only to learn at the end that the original was a cheap fake. So in James's story, a death in the family reveals a heap of costume jewelry from the dead woman's time as an actress, but wait--are these pearls real even though they're mixed in with fakes? And if they're real does that mean that dear old dead (step-)mom was involved in some hanky-panky as an actress?

(For another version of this story, check out Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind," where the detective goes to hunt down a necklace of real pearls given by a woman's pre-marriage sweetheart; the pearls turn out to be fakes and the lost love turns out to be just another four-flusher, but to protect his memory and the old woman's happiness, the detective returns fakes and says that the original (also fakes) must've been sold.)

But "Paste" isn't just an inversion of de Maupassant, it's also James through and through. By which I mean that almost no sentence gets told straight through, but instead is subject to emendation and qualification at the same time. Reading James is often like reading a gloss on the material that you're reading at the same time. So:
The pair of mourners, sufficiently stricken, were in the garden of the vicarage together, before luncheon, waiting to be summoned to that meal, and Arthur Prime had still in his face the intention, she was moved to call it rather than the expression, of feeling something or other.
Once you read that once or twice, the meaning becomes clear and you could almost direct this scene in a movie: "Okay, you mourners, you stand here and remember that you're sad and you're also waiting for lunch; you Arthur Prime, give me a restrained bit of some feeling." Once you read it three or four times, you start to get some of the nuance: what does it mean for mourners to be "sufficiently stricken" and also waiting for lunch?

James is one of those POV masters who tends to filter the story through a particular character's mind, much like Austen would use a character to filter the story. Austen tends to use that for irony, whereas (I think) James uses it more for uncertainty. What feeling does Arthur Prime have about the death of his dad and step-mom? "Something or other." How clear is that feeling on his face? Our POV character would call it the intention rather than the expression. Which leads us to our big question: Who is she? What does she really know about this story?

And that's what this story is really about, the ability to know and tell a story. Our main character--a poor cousin working as a governess--turns over the story of her step-aunt's time as an actress; she looks to the material history to tell a story: "There was something in the old gewgaws that spoke to her, and she continued to turn them over." (Pearls and stories are like rocks: you turn them over to see the truth underneath.)

And she's not the only one who assigns to material objects the ability to tell a story. The governess shows the pearls to her employer's visitor for use in a tableaux vivant because "Our jewels, for historic scenes, don't tell--the real thing falls short" (my emphasis). And when this woman--Mrs. Guy (de Maupassant is understood)--sees the pearls, she wants them: "There's a special charm in them--I don't know what it is: they tell so their history" (my emphasis).

So we have all this telling, but at the end, we don't really learn the story. Our POV character ends up wondering if the pearls were really real; what that would say about her step-aunt; whether her cousin screwed her over by not admitting the pearls were real AND also selling them; whether Mrs. Guy is lying to her about buying them from a shop; etc. The story begins in confusion as unknown characters talk to each other about something we don't really know; and it ends in confusion as we know all the characters' surfaces, but not what's underneath.

Or let's look at a simple line of James's as a sign of the uncertainty here:
It was the sharp selfish pressure of this that really, on the spot, determined the girl...
Wait, determined her to do what? James could easily tell us some of what goes in these characters' interiors, but like the pearls, the characters remain somewhat opaque.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 34: Helen Lawrenson, “Damn the Torpedoes!” (#126)

Helen Lawrenson, “Damn the Torpedoes!” (1942) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1946:

One of the great aspects of analog searching--that is, browsing the selves--is the serendipitous find, which is much harder to replicate digitally. One of the pleasures of this Library of America Story of the Week project of mine is that I find pieces to read things that I might otherwise have skipped, which is close enough to serendipity for government work.

Speaking of government work, today's entry is an article from 1942, originally in Harper's, all about the Merchant Marine, which is private work facing public dangers. That is, as Helen Lawrenson notes, all of this seamen who daily face death at the hands of uboats could just up and quit whenever they want to. They don't get money; they don't get the honor of military service; and they face all the dangers of the military. So what keeps them at their job?

I think Lawrenson's idea here is that its patriotism and honor that keep our supply ships running. She starts off with a section of authentic sailor talk on shore, which features complaints and horror stories, but ends on a little speech about how these sailors are keeping the swastika, the rising sun, and the "bundle of wheat" away from the White House, mom, and apple pie.

While it is useful to remember the non-combatants who helped America get through the war (including all the rationing and work-force-joining women), Lawrenson's piece strikes me as a particular form of war-time propaganda, an equal parts mix of "rah-rah boys" and "we can do better": the Merchant Marine don't have to face death, but they do because rah rah; and the least we can do is arm their ships and do more to patrol our ocean. It's very interesting to see that structure applied to a private industry, but it's a very familiar thematic structure.

That said, like many of the pieces I've read, this is a very interesting view of how people talked (or how their talk was recorded--no one curses or talks about sex) and possibly worth mining if you're writing something based in the 1940s.

Cabin in the Woods rewatch: the genre angle

What makes Cabin in the Woods so successful? Part of it is the genre-knowingness: we see zombies and semi-torture porn areas and cenobite-knock-offs and everything else we've come to recognize as horror movies (minus maybe the non- or semi-supernatural slasher). The film also explains lots of things that have become genre standard: for instance, the group splits up because the white collar puppeteers expose them to some dumbness gas; and Dana drops the weapon she was just using because the handle gives her a little shock. Those are two things that happen all the time, the kind of thing that audience members yell at the screen about; so here we get the trope but we also get a cute explanation of the trope.

I've also seen some argument that the film plays with character. So a typical horror film might include pretty flat stereotypes--jock, slut, egghead, virgin. But these characters start out more complex: Curt is a big guy, but he's funny and smart--only later does his personality get flattened to "have sex, do violence" and that semi-ridiculous speech before he attempts to jump the gap. Also at the beginning we learn that Dana, far from being a virgin, has actually just been broken up with by her lover, who was also her teacher. So we could say that Cabin plays with its genre even here, giving us what we expect (the flat characters) but also explaining that flatness or showing how the characters aren't flat.

But I think we have to look at the structure still. I think I need a new blogpost for that.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 33: James Thurber, You Could Look It Up (#39)

James Thurber, "You Could Look It Up" (1941) from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings:

I sometimes find it easier to talk about works that I don't like so much, so today's remarks on Thurber's short story might be short.

As the headnote remarks, Ring Lardner was expert at this sort of sports story in semi-literate dialect. An aging baseball coach remembers the time the general manager of the ball club was so sickened by the team's fighting and losing streak that he hears a clownish midget named Pearl. It's kind of a longer story, so let's see the rough breakdown:

  • p553-4: the unhappiness of the team, the manager
  • p555-6: manager meets and hijacks midget Pearl
  • p557-8: manager and Pearl make fun of the team, with hints of a plan
  • p559: Pearl joins the ball club
  • p560-1: the ball game goes on as ordinary
  • p562-3: the manager substitutes Pearl, the coaches and umpires argue
  • p564: Pearl tries to get a walk by doing nothing at bat...
  • p565: Pearl hits the ball, the opposing ball team falls over themselves
  • p565-6: the manager attacks Pearl, all hell breaks loose
  • p567: everything is better on the team after that fracas
So Thurber's language and the outsized personalities of the characters do a lot to carry the story. For instance, Pearl himself often sounds either like a 1930s gangster or a carnival barker. But the story also goes along at a fast pace because it keeps changing and giving the reader some new scene or movement. For me, the most boring element is when the ball game goes on as ordinary, but even then, we have one way on Pearl and we know something is coming.

So maybe we should look at how Thurber manages anticipation. After all, despite the title and the repeated phrase, we can't actually look this up--we have to wait for the narrator to unfold the story.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 32: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Ambitious Guest (#106)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Ambitious Guest" (1835) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

The great Sensational Designs by Jane Tompkins points out that we mostly teach Hawthorne these days as the guy who wrote character-centered pieces about sin, with Puritans a-go-go; but in his own time, Hawthorne was more celebrated as a sketch-writer and otherwise. Here's a story that doesn't really fit in with our idea of Hawthorne's greatness but might fit better with his contemporaries' view of him. In fact, this story might comfortably sit with Edgar Allan Poe's in some of its movements.

The story here is: a family gathers in their crossroads inn, a guest comes to talk about ambition and his hopes that he won't be forgotten, then there's a landslide that kills them all without leaving any trace of the visitor. Sad trombone sound.

Where this Hawthorne story reminds us of its 19th-century roots is in its aggressively omniscient POV, as when the narrator fast-forwards the story of how the guest and the family become close: "Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of bear's meat...".(Also: "bear meat"! Rim shot!) Or when the landslide threatens to destroy their home and they run outside to the shelter they had prepared: "Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction." Well, that doesn't leave a lot of room for ambiguity now, does it?

For a generation of people raised on the idea that Hawthorne is all about ambiguity and sin, it may be strange to read this story with its focus on pure happenstance leading to an ironic end about remembrance and monuments.

Is there something to take away from this for today's fiction author? I have my doubts for today--could an author sell a story with such an aggressively omniscient 3rd person narrator?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 31: Kate Chopin, A Respectable Woman (#10)

Kate Chopin, "A Respectable Woman" (1894) from Kate Chopin:

Do you remember Willa Cather's story "The Garden Lodge," about a woman who put away her romantic side so far that she wouldn't fall in love with an artist who visited? Chopin writes a much shorter version of the story where the visitor is a quiet journalist and the "Respectable Woman" of the title doesn't have a long back-story explaining why she's so anti-romance. Which also helps when Chopin's Mrs. Baroda seems to give in at the end in a subtle remark to her husband that she's overcome not just her dislike of the friend but a whole host of feelings.

Chopin has a dual reputation: as a regional author of New Orleans/Louisiana stories; and as an author of stories about women. And sometimes those two aspects come together, as in The Awakening. Here, while the story nominally takes place in the NO/LA area, there's not much regional color. The focus is all on Baroda and her tension over her attraction to her guest, Gouvernail.

What's interesting about Chopin's super short version of this story is the POV isn't the swooping omniscient 3rd that could tell us everything we need to know about these people and their situation adn how they feel. We get a tight 3rd on the Mrs., which means that Chopin can get away with saying, "She made no reply to this apostrophe to the night, which indeed, was not addressed to her."

If a beginning writer wrote that, I might roll my eyes at the repetition: if it's an apostrophe to the night, then of course it's not addressed to her--that's what apostrophe means (an adress to an absent person or personified thing). But here, since we're sort of in Mrs. Baroda's mind, the doubling of info might hint to us that she's feeling left out without wanting to note that she's feeling left out. That's the conflicting feelings going on.

Short story read aloud, week 11

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Ed Ferrara, "Gig Marks": A wrestler on the independent circuit (cf. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) is haunted by a new wrestler who--get this--had his feelings hurt by the old pro and then committed suicide. There's something so monstrously weird about that and it boils down to a very old sort of "guilty conscience/haunted by a ghost" story; but the detail and observation of the wrestling world probably sold this story. (It helped that the writer has authentic experience working in wrestling.) There's also some good thematic work about how people in the world fake everything--they lie to the fans, to each other, and to themselves.

Andre Harden, "The Curse of the Mummy": An unhappy woman with a bad man in her life gives the bad man up to an ancient evil--and gets cursed with having to drag around that ancient evil until she can find someone else to pawn it off on. I don't mind this structure (see also The Ring), but it doesn't seem that much of a curse and the steps leading up to it are pretty odd: here's a woman who thinks her man has stolen a semi-winning lotto card, so she gives him up to this ancient evil. Sure, there are other bad things about him, but this as the inciting incident seems odd--and also pretty much tells you how it will end.

Ferrett Steinmetz, "Dead Merchandise": A woman is on a quest to destroy mind-mapping feral advertising that has led to her dead children (whose minds were warped by political and military ads that led them to fight in foreign wars) and dead husband (who became obsessed with buying commemorative material about his children). A pretty good example of the "start with action, rewind to fill in back-story" structure, though what really sells this story is the theme of out-of-control advertising (which is something we've seen before on Escape Pod).

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Holly Black, "The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue": A secret werewolf pretends to be a waitress/actress, until she gets cast as a princess and a bear in a fairy-/folk-tale revue, in which her true self comes out. A boffo opening--"There is a werewolf girl in the city. She sits by the phone on a Saturday night, waiting for it to ring"--and a boffo ending--"There is a werewolf girl on the stage. It’s Saturday night. The crowd is on their feet. Nadia braces herself for their applause." There's a distance and archness to the story that keeps us from getting into the horror of being a monster, which is interesting, but not inviting.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Weston Ochse, "The Blue Heeler": A lonely kid is friends with a strange person locked in a concrete box--after his only other friend was driven mad, possibly by that same strange person. The core of this story is "parents take improper revenge on weird guy when kids go missing, weird ghost befriends lonely kid." So it's a slight twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street idea: the guy is innocent and he doesn't do anything harmful--he just helps the lonely kid learn the truth about his parents. But what about his loneliness? I really enjoyed the uncertainty--is the Blue Heeler a friend or a monster?--but I feel like the story needs a little more tying up.

Gene O’Neill, "Graffiti Sonata": Unhappy ex-husband sees graffiti, his wife and daughter die, he hears a knock at the door. Everyone loves stories that end with knocks on the door, right? This was the first of six stories that were nominated for the Bram Stoker 2011 from the Horror Writers Association. This story didn't blow me away, though I think the structure with its repeated episodes probably matches the standard sonata form. But that doesn't add much to my experience.

Adam-Troy Castro, "Her Husband's Hands": New technology allows remnants of soldiers to remain partly alive, which sounds great but can be stressful: our main character finds this out when her husband comes back as just a pair of hands. On top of that, he's got PTSD. There's a big subplot here about how some soldiers elect to have their memory erased and how the husband here chooses to remember because of all the good people he served with (he says). Haunting and nightmarish and ultimately happy; and for all the "wait, they can do what with technology?" moments, there are many human moments.

Kaaron Warren, "All You Can Do Is Breathe": A miner rescued from a cave-in gets visited in the mine and after by the thin man who sucks away part of his happiness. The ending is a stomach-punch where the miner commiserates with a child who was lost in a well and also saw the thin man, leading the main character to tell a bunch of children that life is empty. Is there a PTSD theme in the 2011 awards?

George Saunders, "Home": I'm fascinated that this was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, mostly because there's so much dark humor in this story, like when everyone thanks the main character for his service. The main character is a soldier returned from war after some terrible actions, who finds that many things at home have fallen apart in some way. For instance, he twice goes to a store selling some technological item that he can't understand and he keeps getting the same unhelpful response when he asks. Saunders does this amazing job of keeping the tone humorous when everything is terrible (or vice versa) by starting with a damaged but not malicious narrator who helpfully observes everything around him but remains uncertain about what's going on.

Ken Lillie-Paetz, "Hypergraphia": An insane writer fights with a story in some way. This story doesn't work as well in audio as it probably works visually, since the author seems to be having a conversation with some part of himself in a story. Ultimately, it reminds me strongly of "Graffiti Sonata": loss happens, revenge or punishment occurs. Note for self: do some little bit of experimentation with PTSD theme and let the Bram Stoker nominations roll in.

Stephen King, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive": This was the winner for 2011 and it reminds me that King is supposed to be a discovery writer, i.e., he writes without planning. Not that "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" is un- or mal-formed, it's just very simple: some depressed Northeastern dead-enders drive a van with all their kids to visit their parents, in order to get some money out of them; meanwhile, some old poets are stopped at a rest area for a picnic with plenty of nostalgia. So you have some people who seem to have no future (because they are socio-economically disadvantaged) and some other people who have no future (because they are old and also poets, which means an economic disadvantage of another sort). What's really amazing about King is how deep he gets into the characters' minds with their present-day reflections, both on their future hopes, their present tensions, and their pasts.

Valentine Wood, "Kroom, Son of the Sea": This is from the pulp podcast; this story was originally from 1930 and it shows its age. It's a Tarzan-like story with a Professor Challenger like setting: a child who gets lost and discovers a lost island where he gets raised by friendly natives. The whole story is very obvious and slow: from the beginning, where we have the baby and a shark, we know the ending will be when the child kills the shark--which would be nice parallelism if the threat of the shark wasn't built up in every single section of the story. On top, as usual for the period, the dialogue here is full of info and low on character (and low on probability that anyone would speak like that).

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 30: Sarah Orne Jewett, Going to Shrewsbury (#27)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "Going to Shrewsbury" (1889) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories:

If you take a writing class now, you will probably read or write a piece where a character speaks in a deep accent, with lots of dropped letters that may or may not be marked with apostrophes, guv'nor. And if you do, likely you'll realize that a little dialect goes a long way for most material. The other thing you may find is that dialect is not a replacement for character and POV. Verbal tics are easy, right? But characterization is hard, right?

If you find yourself in this situation, go read Sarah Orne Jewett. She uses dialect pretty hard, so she may not be a good model for that. Here, enjoy:
"Shrewsbury's be'n held up consid'able for me to smile at," said the poor old soul, "but I tell ye, dear, it's hard to go an' live forty-two miles from where you've always had your home and friends. It may divert me, but it won't be home. You might as well set out one o' my old apple-trees on the beach, so 't could see the waves come in,--there wouldn't be no please to it."
So: lots of accent, lots of apostrophes to mark dropped letters. And yet, this isn't impenetrable--it's just enough accent to remind you that this is one of Jewett's patented Northeast rural ancients. (If you've read Country of the Pointed Firs, which I recommend, you know that Jewett likes wise old women.) The feeling here is thick, as old Mrs. Peet has lost the farm to an unscrupulous family member, and expresses that exile in cultivation terms (a tree by a beach). Also, check out that Peet's dialogue isn't just accented, but also includes some non-standard phrases.

That's probably my favorite part of this story, the use of regional idiom/accent and personal POV and the way that Jewett combines the personal and the regional. Compare this form of regionalism with the impersonal anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston's Harlem scene. Here's a story that's primarily monologue, and which gives the monologuist an opportunity to paint her background and her personality.

But since this is mostly monologue, the story here is pretty simple: the narrator meets Mrs. Peet on her first railroad trip as she starts her exile from the farm to the town. This might sound like a cliche--"oh, the old ways are passing away, the trains destroy families"; only Jewett's narrator goes on to note that she heard that Mrs. Peet really enjoyed living in town with her family there.

Which is why I think we need to take a firm stand against the analysis presented in the headnote as Richard Cary's read of this story, that this is another example of how Jewett extolled the old ways and warned against the new urbanity. Did Richard Cary not finish the story before he wrote his analysis?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 29: Theodore Dreiser, W. L. S. (#102)

Theodore Dreiser, "W. L. S." (1901) from Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men:

When I read Library of America's Story of the Week, I read the story first and then the headnote or other information on the page. From that you can tell that I apprenticed early under teachers influenced by New Criticism, which makes sense: just read the story and you don't have to worry about things like history, which is hard to follow.

So when I read "W.L.S.," I did not know that the piece was actually based on a real person Dreiser knew; and if you don't know that, it reads either as wish-fulfillment/Mary Sue or as parody: W.L.S. can do anything! He's an illustrator, a mechanic, a philosopher and logician, a titled baron in Germany, etc. We could put this next to Cather's portrait of Stephen Crane: both feel somewhat romantic in their view of the alchemical artist who is able to transmute experience into art.

(Honestly, part of the reason it reads almost as parodic to me is that when I read sentences like "Thus he worked out by means of a polygon, whose sides were of unequal lengths, a theory of friendship which is too intricate to explain here," I hear an echo of my college senior project where I wrote a Borgesian pastiche full of lines about how great this guy was, who drew charts about laughter and combined disparate fields.)

So imagine my surprise when I read the headnote and find out that W.L.S. was a real dude: William Louis Sonntag, Jr., a painter associated with the Ashcan movement (urban realist) whose father was associated with the Hudson River (pastoral landscape). Was he really this mechanically apt? This promising an artist?

The frame of this piece is pretty banal, with Dreiser noting that tragedy in life is rarely so clear, but sometimes--which pretty much tells us what's going to happen to Sonntag. But comparing this piece to some of Dreiser's other work, it's interesting to see how straightforward the sentences move even though the story itself doesn't move very much: I knew a guy, he built mechanical boats, also he had friends, also he showed me how interesting the city was, he died. That's a story that doesn't go far, but the sentences keep us on track in a way that you might not find in Dreiser's long novels.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 28: Ana Menéndez, Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings (#99)

Ana Menéndez, "Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings" (2004) from American Food Writing:

Cuban-American Menéndez traces her family's shifting traditions of Thanksgiving as a barometer of their deepening exile. Just to make sure that we understand the melancholy edge of this, Menéndez ends with the encroaching senility and mortality of the elder generation. That last shift seems out of place, untethered from the main thrust: cultural change comes to us all and death comes to us all, but that doesn't mean they're related, and Menéndez doesn't do enough work in this short piece to connect them.

That little bump to the side, this piece is full of clear writing on complex issues. I pretty much fell in love with this piece at the second line. After recalling how their "Tanksgibing" was originally super-Cubany, Menéndez says, "Back then we didn’t know enough to know we were being ethnic, much less trendy." You want to read that again?

"Back then we didn’t know enough to know we were being ethnic, much less trendy."

Look at that recipe: we get the innocence of the recent immigrant just learning that the way they do things is peculiar, i.e., that they are peculiar. (Shades of Malcolm X noting that recent black immigrants to America are about to learn their first English word, a word that will forever set them apart as Other.) And in with that exile experience, there's the countervailing (or parallel) force that marks that peculiarity as culturally (or monetarily) valuable.

Which brings up another thread in Menéndez's complexly packed piece: we have the melancholy of exile; the immigrant marked as Other; the Other re-absorbed as value--and the transformation of culture in the face of American capitalism. Now, we should add that Menéndez's memories of her immigrant background are a child's memories. So who knows what the family had to do monetarily to afford that whole roast pig when she was young and it just seemed to appear magically. (Well, not magically: Menéndez as a child knows the pig was once a living pig. But there's no hint of the capitalist system they're already embedded in.)

So it's interesting to note how often Menéndez's thoughts of cultural change are marked by the market: in the old days, families would keep their mojo sauce secret, but today you can buy some "chemical syrup" called mojo in the store. And her family's first experience of traditional Thanksgiving food was not just a pumpkin pie, but a pie bought at the supermarket. And so on.

Food traditions change because lifeways change, which makes food a great representative of that change, but also only a sliver of it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 27: Olivia Howard Dunbar, The Shell of Sense (#143)

Olivia Howard Dunbar, "The Shell of Sense" (1908) from American Fantastic Tales:

Is it my imagination or do many of these stories come from American Fantastic Tales? I think that double-volume set suffers a bit under the idea that these stories should be entertaining; I mean, when we read Nathaniel Hawthorne, many readers probably say, "Well, this story might be boring or strange or too subtle--but it's Literature, so that's okay." But when we hand someone a ghost story and it seems boring or strange, we don't have the crutch of the Literature label to fall back on.

You can probably guess that I don't give Hawthorne any leeway I wouldn't give a ghost story; in their own ways, almost everyone we think of as Literary was trying to write entertaining literature at some point. (Check out Henry James's disappointment that his plays didn't end up being crowd-pleasers/money-makers.) That said, I found "The Shell of Sense" weighed down by a turn-of-the-century wordiness that interfered with its entertainment.

There's a solid premise here: a story told from the POV of the ghost who sees that her husband/widower and sister love each other. In fact, they always loved each other, but they resisted their own desires out of love/devotion to the now-dead wife. The ghost starts out wanting to keep them apart and then, realizing how good they are, shifts to wanting to get them together, which is a great character arc where success in one desire is achieved and fails to satisfy at the same time. So that's a great structure.

Only at 11 pages, "The Shell of Sense" seems to stretch out the premise, while sounding a bit like the spiritualist and New Thought writers of the time

I am glad I read this story for at least introducing me to the Dunbars. Olivia Howard Dunbar wrote an essay in 1905 noticing how the supernatural has always been in fiction, but has recently dropped off (which is a fascinating theory that I've seen echoed in scholarly books); and she was a suffragette; while her husband Ridgely Torrence staged an all-black non-minstrel show on Broadway in 1917. Very interesting.

Cabin in the Woods rewatch: the sympathy angle

Here's a meta comment before I get into a very spoilery examination of Cabin in the Woods, the Joss Whedon/Drew Greenberg horror movie/commentary: why do I have both an "Overwatching" and a "Movie Analysis" tags?

I think it's fair to say that Whedon's material has a style, often very verbal and witty and quippy--there's a reason that his film after The Avengers was Much Ado About Nothing, a pretty verbal and witty Shakespeare play. (Well, they're all pretty verbal...)

Perhaps that style is not always well-suited to the material; there's something flippant about the way that Thor says of Loki that he's adopted that doesn't really fit with Thor's character up to that point--but it sure does get a laugh. However, when dealing with teens and new adults*, Whedon-esque dialogue works pretty well. And when some very similar-sounding dialogue is put into the mouths of corporate drones, like the people planning to murder the kids...

Well, that's the thing: you might be tempted to say that the glib wittiness of the bureaucrats sounds unconvincing, but it also sounds very identifiable, which is one of the great tricks of this movie: we root for both sides.

In a lot of adventure/genre fiction, there's a character who is pretty unpleasant whose death doesn't disturb us (if it occurs early) or whose death we cheer (if it occurs late and they've been unpleasant). If you want some early evidence of this, check out the early sound film version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932). This is very much the case with a lot of standard slasher and horror movies.

But just about everyone in Cabin has some redeeming and identifiable issues. The suits aren't some squares working for the Man (don't know why I slipped into 70s slang, just roll with it), they're fun-loving jokers talking about wanting a beer and planning for the future--Bradley and his wife are trying to have a baby. Aw.

Which is why the audience may suddenly find themselves rooting for Richard Jenkins's character when he's running to fix an electrical problem--even though that fix will then trap the campers who we also have been rooting for. That's one reason we spend so much time with them and another reason why they are portrayed as just regular people.

There's a lot more to say about this movie, particularly it's construction--how beats early on get paid back in full at the end, but that mighe be worth another blogpost.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 26: William Howard Russell, Celebration in Charleston (#54)

William Howard Russell, "Celebration in Charleston" (1863) from The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Histories labor under the difficulty that we readers know how things turned out; even more problematic, we know What History Means. Though, occasionally, we present-day luminaries may be at odds over what history meant, whether the people in it were terrible fools or noble martyrs.

Or maybe it's just histories of the Civil War that labor under that burden: some people hold to the idea that the South was defending freedom and rights and gentility. I think that's bullshit and I think William Howard Russell agrees. He doesn't come out and say it in so many words, but his constant refrain about Charleston after the surrender of Fort Sumter is, "look at these amateurs."

Sure, there may be something noble about volunteers (getting drunk), but when a military man fails to order these volunteers not to smoke near the gunpowder, you know you've got some trouble. And when one of his Carolinian hosts points out the cheerful black slave at his club, Russell basically notes that the best-organized military he's seen is the anti-black patrols that just now rang the curfew bell. So what are these people fighting for? Russell realizes that it may be freedom, but it's a freedom based on slavery.

Russell's essay on Charleston hits two major themes: the demographic and the architectural. The demographic:

Our Carolinians are very fine fellows, but a little given to the Bobadil style—hectoring after a cavalier fashion, which they fondly believe to be theirs by hereditary right.

But Secession is the fashion here.
Whenever Russell has a chance to point out how terribly unprepared the Carolinians are, he does so. And his architectural descriptions hammer this home, since he goes on (and on) about how Fort Sumter was barely damaged and could have done serious damage to Charleston's jerry-rigged fortifications if the Federal soldiers wanted to.

Combining the demographic and the architectural, Russell notices an unfinished building, which his Carolinian guide says is a federal custom-house that they're not going to finish because they believe in free trade and no duties. Later, Russell has the good manners not to bring this up when one of the Confederates notes that none of them have been paid. Is that a connection he doesn't make or a connection he avoids making to seem more neutral? 

But after all that, then Russell notes that the Carolinians' hate for Union has finished the US:
I am more satisfied than ever that the Union can never be restored as it was, and that it has gone to pieces, never to be put together again, in the old shape, at all events by any power on earth.

So after all that "amateurs" stuff, here is famed war-correspondent Russell opining that this is the end for the union simply because of Carolinian sentiment. It's a nice reminder that, while Russell and I may agree on the terribleness of slavery and the backwardness of feudal culture in the South, we disagree on whether the Union could come back from that--but only because Russell is still in that history.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 25: Willa Cather, The Garden Lodge (#136)

Willa Cather, "The Garden Lodge" (1905) from Willa Cather: Early Novels & Stories:

I want to reiterate: I use a random number generator to determine what stories I'll read next. The fact that this Cather's short story appears right after a Cather non-fiction piece is purely random. And I feel I need to reiterate that because Cather's view of Stephen Crane as a romantic artist (so disheveled!) is largely echoed here in the story: Caroline has submerged her wild, romantic, artistic side (but I'm being redundant, according to Cather) until, for a brief moment, a visiting artist awakens that side of her--as he does for all women.

First, fun with names: Caroline is a form of Carl, which is a name-form probably derived from the position "carl," e.g., housecarl, a male freeman or simply a man. She marries a man named Noble--the first time she gets a last name and also a clear social status gain for her: going from a man to a noble. And then she's entranced by a man named d'Esquerre, which is either Catalan for "from the left (bank)" or a misspelling of "Esquire," i.e., a gentleman or horseman--kind of a step down. So I think Cather is having some fun with us in putting meaning in to the story; but we don't need it since she comes out and tells us that Caroline wants the stability of an unromantic life.

Second, Cather may be clear in some ways and then frustratingly Jamesian in others. No, I'm being unfair to Henry James, whose ambiguities tend to be pointed and purposeful. We know that Cather was a big fan of his early on, so maybe she's going for Jamesian roundaboutness when she writes

What he had was that, in his mere personality, he quickened and in a measure gratified that something without which—to women—life is no better than sawdust, and to the desire for which most of their mistakes and tragedies and astonishingly poor bargains are due.
I just don't think she gets there. Mostly it seems like the sentence is afraid to name what it's talking about while also casting a wide net: she's talking about all women.

Third, let's get to women here. While this is mostly the story of Caroline's struggle--she came from a bohemian family and had to put away her artistic desires to make ends meet, though there's still something in her that wants out artistically--Cather also makes clear that d'Esquerre has something like this effect on everybody. The whole story is in omniscient third, swooping most often between Caroline's feelings and sweeping statements about the world, such as
D'Esquerre's arrival in the early winter was the signal for a feminine hegira toward New York. On the nights when he sang women flocked to the Metropolitan from mansions and hotels, from typewriter desks, schoolrooms, shops, and fitting rooms.

It goes on for 113 more words in that vein in that paragraph alone (there's a whole second paragraph about how much cripples and unfortunates like him), making sure we get the idea: all women respond to this tenor.

So when we hear that "the shadows had had their way with Caroline," there's a definite gender edge to that bite. But what is it actually chewing? That women all want some artistic or sentimental side. Seriously: at the end, the staid bourgeois husband tells Caroline that he wished she had some sentiment. Because I guess that's what makes a woman.

I have to say, I do love--in a ghoulish way--that we get the biggest description of her brother's person after he commits suicide, marked with her relief: 

Caroline had been fond of him, but she felt a certain relief when he no longer wandered about the little house, commenting ironically upon its shabbiness, a Turkish cap on his head and a cigarette hanging from between his long, tremulous fingers.
He used IRONY? The monster--I'm glad he's dead. The story seems somewhat ambivalent about the end, when Caroline defeats her romantic side; but most of the ambivalence seems borne of pretty restrictive, gendered roles.

In its vision of women's roles; its unhelpful ambiguity and circuitousness; its swooping omniscient POV, I can't really recommend this, even with that ghoulish touch of her gladness over her brother's suicide as comic relief.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 24: Willa Cather, When I Knew Stephen Crane (#85)

Willa Cather, "When I Knew Stephen Crane" (1900) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings:

These sorts of journalistic pieces offer a double pleasure: we seem to learn about Stephen Crane, the romantic young author doomed to die young; and about Willa Cather, the talented amateur at this meeting. In reality--and "in reality" will be a constant refrain here--Crane was 23 when he went through Nebraska and Cather was an overworked 21-year old. (In another journal, we hear that Crane was surprised to see a young girl at the newspaper office in Nebraska because she was sleeping on her feet.)

But the portrait we get of Crane is a little cliche: he seems feverishly busy, as if he knows he's going to die and is trying to fit more work into the little time available; his clothes are a mess (they don't even look like they were measured for him!) but his hands are delicate and sensitive; and he offers advice about how writing isn't done mathematically but comes from an itch that can't be scratched--and if you don't have that itch, you'll be better off.

In short, this is the classic vision of the writer-as-romantic. It's possible that Crane really was this cliche (some people are); or that Cather's view of Crane was really this blinkered. (For god's sake, she even compares him to children who know they're going to die young and thus pack all of life and innocence into a short time.)

There is one thing that interests me in this recollection, though, which is Crane's discussion of how it takes him time to process thoughts; which Cather then demonstrates by comparing his boring next-day article on a shipwreck with his great story "Open Sea" which came months later. That might fit the trouble artist vision that Cather builds here, but it's a specific addition to that cliche that makes it stand out.

Short story read aloud, week 10

To my podcast regimen (exhausting already), I've added Tina Connolly's Toasted Cake (actually added a while ago) and the old-style radio/comedy theater show The Thrilling Adventure Hour. I'm not sure it makes sense to review those show by show, but I may revisit that in the future. For now, though, they both come highly recommended.


Catherynne M. Valente, "The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew": I don't know what to say. The story is told in snippets from an unknown narrator, interspersed with the surviving documentary clips from her trip to Venus to investigate the lost colony and the whale-creatures there that were milked. So there's a mystery with no solution--a few mysteries actually, including the last survivor of the colony,the lost documentarian, etc. But why wrap up that story in this form?

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Scott M. Roberts, "The Discriminating Monster's Guide to the Perils of Princess Snatching": A cutesy title for a decidedly non-cutesy story about a monster who kidnaps a princess from our world ("princess" = has great destiny), only this princess gets in the way of the usual routine: sacrificing destiny to a bigger monster who has allowed our main character monster to live a perfectly happy mainstream life with wife and kids (and flushing toilet, etc.). I honestly lost track at the end, partly because it was a long story and I rested my eyes. There is something a little long about this story and, judging from the comments, there were a few things that could have been made clearer. But I like the way this story tries to subvert certain tropes (even if those subversions aren't ground-breaking)--the princess is a cutter, the monster wants to protect his family.

Rae Carson and C. C. Finlay, "The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz": A good example of how a humorous way of talking can carry a story pretty far. Here, The Great and Powerful Oz comes to the land and puts into play several different light-hearted schemes aimed at unseating one of the witches. (He continually talks about how this kingdom needs a male king.) But all of that is just a ruse: flying a mouse with a helium balloon isn't really about surveilling the witch's military, but about figuring out the wind currents. So there's a certain serious edge at the end here when we see everyone's schemes come to fruition,  but the stakes are so low that the story keeps its humorous tone. Also, with very distinct sections, the story can hop around between different POVs.

Ken Liu, "Good Hunting": The son of a demon hunter befriends the daughter of a fox-spirit, and they reconnect in Hong Kong after Western imperial powers build railroads that interfere with traditional magic. For instance, the fox-spirit can't become a fox anymore. Then, when the fox-spirit without magic becomes the mistress of a western man who has a metal fetish who starts to amputate her limbs, the demon hunter-turned engineer helps build a steampunk(ish) transformer body for her that can become a fox again. The story has a balance and structure that becomes clear when you read further on--the long section in the beginning of magic shows how the world could be, which comes again at the end when the magic is replaced with steam. But it still comes off as a longer story with many discrete sections, each of which is itself a little long.

Helena Bell, "Robot": Very much like Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," this is a long series of instructions and thoughts from a senior citizen to her alien robot care-taker / body-snatcher. The form is great--there's something of Carole Maso's Ava in here, with the old woman remembering her life along with her instructions to the robot. But (as a trend) the story seemed a little long and unfocused. Did the robot really need to be an alien?

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Bev Vincent, "Silvery Moon": Eh, bof. A werewolf goes on a camping trip with some work acquaintances, kills his romantic rival, possibly eats or rapes or has sex with his romantic interest. As much as I like the werewolf idea of instability--there's some desires inside me that I can't entirely control--this story didn't really do much besides putting that idea through its paces.

David Thomas Lord, "In My House of Crafted Cards": Tales to Terrify seems to be in a little slump around here, with perfectly fine stories that revisit some classic monster (Vincent's werewolf story, now Lord's vampire story) without any particular interesting changes. So here, the author writes a story about a son and fiancee who get caught up with a vampire. It's a long story, with a story embedded (the fiancee tells the dad about the vampire) where the listener interrupts a few times to ask why this story has all this extraneous detail. Here, that comes off less as clever lampshading (pointing out the issues so that the reader can't) and more like a reasonable question.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 23: Nathanael West, Business Deal (#21)

Nathanael West, "Business Deal" (1933) from Nathanael West

A short comedic slice of Westiana: The head of a studio crumbles in the face of a young writer who wants $500-a-week to continue working.

I say "Westiana" purposely, and only partly because this short piece was published in the magazine Americana. For one thing, the studio head, Klingspiel uses the line "Vas you dere, Charley?," which was a 1930s catch-phrase from a radio show that West also used in Day of the Locust (I think). For another thing, West was one of those Hollywood writers who didn't mind pulling back the curtain on the veniality and lowness of the move-making business and "Business Deal" fits very well with Locust. (And his other books often have some element of the screwball entertainment business, from prostitution and vaudeville in A Cool Million to the newspaper hell of Miss Lonelyhearts.)

There's also a great deal of the usual Westian farce here:
The repeated buzz of the dictograph cut short his delicious sport. He flipped the switch irritably.
"Who is it?"
"Hwonh hwonh hwonh hwonh hwonh."
"I'll see them later," said Mr. Klingspiel. "Send in Charlie Baer."
If there's a take-away from West's "Business Deal" (and his other work), I think it's his coolness towards his main characters. Whether you think Klingspiel or Baer is the hero here, no one comes off well: Baer is a cipher, with his cipherdom emphasized by how uninflected his voice is--first like a cow, then like metal; and Klingspiel is a b.s. artist, throwing anything at Baer (this is a public monument, a young man should be happy making what I'm offering, you're not that great) and finally himself at the end (I'll show that enemy studio by offering you even more). West positions us at a distance and slightly above the action here, so that we can laugh and judge.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 22: Shirley Jackson, The Night We All Had Grippe (#71)

Shirley Jackson, "The Night We All Had Grippe" (1952) from Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories:

I have to start with this, from Jackson's story about her trip to the hospital for her third pregnancy:
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name, “ I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
"Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
AUGH! Although Jackson shows a remarkable amount of restraint and quiet humor in that excerpt, which was apparently something she had a little sideline in. "The Night We All Had Grippe" is in that comedic--and domestic--vein. It's only six pages of very little story: Jackson, her husband, and their three young kids all have the flu and go through a night of wandering from bed to bed with all of their accoutrements--juice for the kids, brandy for Jackson, water for her husband, a blankie for one, a cardboard suitcase with cards and other toys for the baby, etc.

This story would be tedious, since it's just various people moving from bed to bed, but read this:
I went back to sleep, but some time later the baby came in, asking sleepily, “Where’s Jannie?”
“She’s here,” I said. “Are you coming in bed with us?”
“Yes,” said the baby.
“Go and get your pillow, then,” I said. She returned with her pillow, her books, her doll, her suitcase, and her fruit juice, which she put on the floor next to Jannie’s. Then she crowded in comfortably next to Jannie and fell asleep. Eventually the pressure of the two of them began to force me uneasily toward the edge of the bed, so I rolled out wearily, took my pillow and my small glass of brandy and my cigarettes and matches and my ash tray and went into the guest room, where my husband was asleep. I pushed at him and he snarled, but finally moved over to the side next to the wall, and I put my cigarettes and matches and my brandy and my ash tray on the end table next to his cigarettes and matches and ash tray and tin glass of water and put my pillow on the bed and fell asleep.
There's something quietly hilarious (and restrained) about mom's need (or instinct) to keep track of everything (because you know at some time someone is going to ask you, mom, where things are). Because she's not just a renowned writer, she also has to do this second, unpaid job. Which brings me to the second brilliant choice that makes this short story so compelling: she presents the whole thing as a riddle, like it's just good fun. But it's not just fun. No one else in the house can let the dog out? No one else can prepare a hot drink or bring a snack up to people? On the surface, this is a light non-story, just a slice of domestic life; under that, though, I feel there's a big unanswered riddle: why does mom have to do everything?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 21: Elia Kazan, Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea (#123)

Elia Kazan, "Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea" (1945) from The American Stage:

How long do we have to be upset about the fact that Elia Kazan named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee? Honestly, it's still the first thing I think about when his name comes up. Maybe that's part of the punishment. (As if Oedipus is somewhere going, "Can you believe they use my name to describe that?" That's some variation on the "you fuck one sheep" joke.)

In this piece, Kazan describes his experience in the Philippines, where he was to advise the US Army on entertainment. But his big takeaway from that experience is less about "what GIs want from their entertainment during deployment" and more "what this group of potential theater-goers will mean back home."

That said, the piece is sort of scattershot: here he is saying that every unit will have someone to help with the theater, which requires a lot of skills; here he is noting that the men like to put on variety shows where they joke about their resentments, which is a form of catharsis; here he is noting that these men can switch from laughter to sentiment--and that the army is one harmonious mix of races.

Kazan himself switches registers here, from theory (a pain shared through theater prevents self-pity) to practice (we drank beers in the jeep on the way to the show); from the observational ("There is hell in the bowels of the weather here...") to the reflective (he feels left out at the officers' club, that something had passed him by).

That said, I can't help but feel there's a certain measure of self-congratulation here. Sure, Kazan ends up noting that these smart GIs are going to demand theater that doesn't rest on the old patterns; that this audience of tomorrow will challenge theater people. But at the end of the day, who will rise up to meet that challenge? Elia Kazan, who by coming to advise on entertainment "became one with the thousands of men over here."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 20: Madeline Yale Wynne, The Little Room (#42)

Madeline Yale Wynne, "The Little Room" (1895) from American Fantastic Tales

I'd love to make that cutesy comparison here between Madeline Yale Wynne and her father, Linus Yale, founder of the Yale Locks company: see, not only was Madeline a metal-smith, but her most famous story is all about a room that only some people can get to--as if there were some sort of lock on it.

That central conceit is pretty eerie and ambiguous enough to launch a thousand theses--the room is connected with childhood innocence (children mostly find it) or femininity (positively, as Woolf's "room of one's own," since husbands seem excluded) or patriarchy (the little room as the limitations of women's role) or lost possibilities (the room is decorated with objects from the past that represent futures that never were) or, etc. Add to that eerieness--well, "queerness" in the words of the story, so you can see why people read this story as having to do with gendered roles--the fact that the two aunts who live in this house never seem bothered by the fact that they have a little room which is sometimes a china closet. Frankly, they don't even seem cognizant of that fact.

I'll come out and say it: I love that conceit. It's small-stakes but eerily unexplained. And though the opening is at first hard to get into--it's just the unmarked dialogue of recently married couple going up to visit the wife's aunts--it is full of great oral explanations, the exact kind that young married people give to each other. Check out the wife's description of her aunts:

You see, Aunt Hannah is an up-and-down New England woman. She looks just like herself; I mean, just like her character. Her joints move up and down or backward and forward in a plain square fashion. I don’t believe she ever leaned on anything in her life, or sat in an easy-chair. But Maria is different; she is rounder and softer; she hasn’t any ideas of her own; she never had any. I don’t believe she would think it right or becoming to have one that differed from Aunt Hannah’s, so what would be the use of having any?
I love that so much: the comparison between one aunt and a jointed figure (or jointed piece of furniture); and the other aunt's softness and easy going nature captured in her roundness. It's simple contrast in the end, with some of those verbal bobbles that happen when people try to explain things they understand very well: "She looks just like herself."

That said, I think this story loses some momentum and realism after the opening. Because after the opening dialogue, the POV gets a little loosey-goosey, hopping from husband to wife to explain his disappointment at being made fun of and her anxiety over the disappearing room. Then we jump forward a few years when some other people go to inspect the house (two women friends), one of whom finds a closet, while the other finds a little room, which similarly strains their friendship. OK, so the little room/closet causes strife, but with that episodic structure of this couple, then this couple, we don't really care all that much about any strife. (For comparison, check out the humanity and empathy generated by yesterday's "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" through its close observation of one couple.)

Life is short, my RSS feed is long

In light of the upcoming shutdown of Google Reader (c'mon, Google, really?), I think it's a good time to make a few trims to my RSS feed. (This is especially on my mind now since just a few days of camping lead to a ballooning of unread items: I think I get somewhere between 150 and 200+ items a day.) Most of these cuts aren't very momentous--I'm not as plugged into gaming culture right now so Penny Arcade is often wasted on me--but there's one I want to comment on:

I'm cutting myself off from Andrew Sullivan. While his system of aggregation often highlights interesting items, that in no way makes up for having to slog through his biased opinions on material which he doesn't entirely understand. Others have so ably bullet-pointed his failings, so I don't really need to go through the list of the times he was wrong or his blinkers.

What really gets me about him is his inability to break the pattern: a topic comes up, Sullivan spouts off on it; many bloggers and dissenters point out where he is wrong, but Sullivan doubles down, often with the self-righteous patting-himself-on-the-back that goes along with his "I'm just telling it like it is" and his "your liberal orthodoxy can't hold me back, man"; eventually, a few weeks later, after someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates intervenes, Sullivan makes some sort of correction or apology, which often seems sincere if not self-congratulatory about being able to change his mind--wash, rinse, repeat. Whatever the topic is--race and IQ; terrorism; structural prejudice against women; the war in Iraq--Sullivan can be counted on to be wrong, but somehow find a way to cast himself as being on the right side throughout. 

In short: he's a prick. If he had a bar stool rather than a blog, no one would listen to his mixture of pious self-regard and toadying for certain powers that be.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 19: Edith Maude Eaton, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (#5)

Edith Maude Eaton, "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" (1912) from Becoming Americans

References to Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club are going to be inevitable, even if I never read the book. I like to think I'm pretty good at guessing backgrounds from people's names, but I could never have guessed that "Edith Maude Eaton" was the name of an Anglo-Chinese woman who immigrated to America, where she wrote some pieces about immigrant Chinese life under the name Sui Sin Far.

In a way, this story might remind one of Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang": both stories are about minority communities and their particular customs. But where Hurston wrote anthropological and story-light about a single moment, Eaton writes much more narratively.

As I said, the story has a certain Tan-ness to it, insofar as it's about Chinese-American integration and the interaction of families--husbands and wives, parents and children. The scope is domestic, with the main question being whether Mr. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance will clear up the miscommunication that has led him to believe his Americanized wife is cheating on him, while she is actually helping the next generation organize their lives by American standards of love. In that scope, the story is very affecting and reminds me of the humanity William Dean Howells shows his characters in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).

For instance, when Mrs. Spring Fragrance consoles a lovelorn woman, Mr. Spring Fragrance accidentally overhears some, but then moves away to the other side of the house:
Two pigeons circled around his head. He felt in his pocket, for a li-chi which he usually carried for their pecking. His fingers touched a little box. It contained a jadestone pendant, which Mrs. Spring Fragrance had particularly admired the last time she was down town. It was the fifth anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s wedding day.
Mr. Spring Fragrance pressed the little box down into the depths of his pocket.

So we get his circumspection (not wanting to overhear), his kindness towards animals, his attentiveness towards his wife--and then the simple action of pushing the box with the present further into his pocket. Why? Does he want to make sure it's a surprise--or does he have some doubts about giving this gift to his wife if she's not in love with him? In short order we see many of his good qualities that make us sympathize with him and the beginning of his misunderstanding, which will make that sympathy into worry for him.

Because the writing is straightforward and doesn't worry about just out-and-out telling us things, Eaton packs a fair amount into a short space. Even so, she has a delicate hand, whether she's letting some fact speak for itself--the young lovelorn woman has a Chinese name but everyone calls her by her American name--or subtly leaving out some info. For instance Mr. Spring Fragrance doesn't give the jadestone pendant to her, which we learn pages later, when we see her kind reaction to that lapse in his attentiveness.

But even in this low-stakes domestic story (no fights, no murder, no mayhem), Eaton gets in some well-aimed jabs at American-Chinese relations. While Mrs. Spring Fragrance is away in San Francisco, she attends a lecture on the topic of how America is so good to China, which she describes to her husband in a letter:

It was most exhilarating, and the effect of so much expression of benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents. And murmur no more because your honored elder brother, on a visit to this country, is detained under the roof-tree of this great Government instead of under your own humble roof. Console him with the reflection that he is protected under the wing of the Eagle, the Emblem of Liberty.
It's a small jab but a deep cut. As demonstrated by a conversation between a white American neighbor and Mr. Spring Fragrance, Americans don't just need explanations about the Chinese--they need explanations about themselves.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 18: Harriet Prescott Spofford, The Moonstone Mass (#152)

Harriet Prescott Spofford, "The Moonstone Mass" (1868) from American Fantastic Tales

I may have a ridiculous grudge against H. P. Spofford: for an American Gothic class I had to buy a book of hers and it was rather outrageously priced for a collection of short stories, I thought. That said, I think I can approach this story with some claims of neutrality.

The meat of the story is the nameless narrator's adventure searching for the Northwest Passage or the fabled Arctic Sea--the patch of open water some people believed was at or near the North Pole. By "meat," I mean "majority": he is tasked with finding the Passage on page 92 and is rescued on page 101, leaving only 90-1 free of ice.

Stories about amazing adventures in the polar region will always recall Poe for me, though he wasn't the only person writing ice-sea fantasias in the 1900s. And for all that Poe occasionally goes for the breathless, I think Spofford's style of concatenation without conjunction is her own:
I sprang from that block to another; I gained my balance on a third, climbing, shouldering, leaping, struggling, holding with my hands, catching with my feet, crawling, stumbling, tottering, rising high and higher with the mountain ever making underneath...
Personally, that sort of breathlessness doesn't do much to illuminate what's really going on. I found myself mostly getting exhausted by her lists of verbs. (I feel the same way sometimes about Walt Whitman's lists of nouns, which start about the same time.)

That said, while the centerpiece of this story is all about nameless narrator's adventures, the frame is worth noting: although he's well off enough, the narrator has this irrational fear of poverty, for which he has put off marriage with his fiancee; and so he agrees when his rich uncle (a "misogynist") promises him early inheritance if he discovers a Northwest Passage (which, notably, his uncle doesn't believe in--that is to say, this seems a bit like a snipe hunt); but when he comes back, the narrator marries his fiancee and promises to feel rich in her affection--except he's still haunted by the idea of the treasure he passed up in the Arctic: the mass of moonstone that gives this story it's title. So for all the story seems like a happy-ended comedy--they get married, no more Arctic adventures--there's a tiny hint of obsession and tragedy at the end.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 17: Gertrude Atherton, The Striding Place (#82)

Gertrude Atherton, "The Striding Place" (1896) from American Fantastic Tales:
The note at the beginning of this story, about the strained friendship between Atherton and Ambrose Bierce, is worth the price of admission (free!). And thank god, too, because while the author and others consider this story to be Atherton's best, I found it a little formulaic, with the one note of weirdness to be more confusing than exciting.

It is a bit unfair to judge older works as formulaic since they may actually be part of the original thrust that laid down the formula for later works. But still, let's note that formula:

  • the story begins with a mood and a mystery: Weigall is visiting a friend's country house, but is bored by the usual activities (shooting, talking to boring women)--but he's actually more interested in the mystery of his disappeared schoolboy friend, Wyatt Gifford;
    • the story makes no bones about how close Weigall is to Gifford, introducing Gifford as "His intimate friend, the companion of his boyhood, the chum of his college days, his fellow-traveller in many lands, the man for whom he possessed stronger affection than for all men...";
  • after the introduction of the present-day mystery, we get a flashback to their friendship, which emphasizes their talks about metaphysics, about the relationship of body to soul; and the relation of soul to self; which ends with Gifford noting that he wants to separate from his body and would even do so if he came back to find his body somehow disabled, which pretty much tells you how the story will go;
    • and it also raises the question: why do rich gentleman always talk about metaphysics in this sort of story?;
  • after the mystery and the flashback, we're back with the mystery, as Weigall wanders the land, comes to a dangerous river, and discovers Gifford's body trying to get out... only when Gifford is rescued, Weigall notices that Gifford has no face!;
    • wait, what? We get a long sentence of Weigall being nervous and thinking something is wrong, and then, "But he sprang to the side of the man and bent down and peered into his face. There was no face." You've got to love that jump from Weigall peering into his face to that bald sentence that there's no there there.
The story winds up where it started, with Weigall's love for Gifford, which sure makes the story interesting to read today, when we like to associate homosociality with homosexuality (and may not be wrong to do so, especially with this story that makes such a to-do over Weigall's affection for Gifford and indifference towards women). So we could just read this story as a failed homosexual encounter: Weigall may not like women, but Gifford is "making love" to one. (It's always fun to read that old phrase with today's meaning.)

Atherton also gives a vivid description of the woods and river, probably written from real life (since she did visit this area). Certainly the environment seems to reverberate with the themes here--the English forest looks different up close than from afar, the river has an undertow that can drag men down. That is something worth keeping in mind when thinking about setting description.

Short story read aloud, week 9

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Richard Parks, "Mansion of Bone": A Japanese fantasy: the empress's man comes to a ruined house--destroyed by bandits looking for treasure--and fights off robbers disguised as monks thanks to the restless but loyal spirits that he then releases. A fun, thin problem story, where the hero has to figure out a series of problems: find the treasure, defeat the guardian, defeat the robbers.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Nick Mamatas, "Willow Tests Well": A super-bright but unempathic girl gets recruited by a secret government agency to help them run their terrible conspiracy. Most of this story is about the girl's terrible life, which might or might not (but probably is) largely directed by the government agency to make her into a tool. But at the end, Willow is clearly tired of being used as a tool, even in a high-powered position. Beautifully written, with a few sentences that turn at the end into something horrific, which is an excellent technique when used judiciously.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Sandra McDonald, "Searching for Slave Leia": An excellent story, told in second person, but to a specific "you": a tv producer/writer whose near-death experience doesn't stop her from thinking of her life in arcs and tropes. This is an excellent example of using a self-aware character to revive (or excuse) an old trope, that of the near-death reliving of past experience: the main character remembers her disappointment with slave Leia from Return of the Jedi; her father's love and early death before her success as a tv writer; and her job with a diva tv creator who is stressing her to death.

Jeremiah Tolbert, "La Alma Perdida de Marguerite Espinoza": A Spanish-y fantasy world where God is stingy with souls so that people can go soulless (which is bad because when you die you just disappear), get animal souls (which can transform people, though otherwise I'm not sure what good this is), or have human souls--either bought, inherited, stolen, or, rarely, congenital. A fun setting, through the quasi-Spanishness of it seems odd--why Barcelenia rather than just Barcelona? The story is pretty simple, involving someone who was born with a soul, but who now works as a soul courier, who gets caught up in a family struggle over money and souls. The courier's memory of his teacher is a little too obvious in the way of sign-pointing, but it mostly works to point out the issues.

Karin Tidbeck, "A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain": A curious story, more like Kelly Link than Isaac Asimov: A woman is recruited as the audience for documentary play; then we learn that the woman is actually an actor playing the naive audience-member; and her character is then recruited into the play. So that's all meta and odd--and then we meet a woman isolated in an undersea exploring vehicle who is dying slowly since her oxygen tube got destroyed. This is where we really learn where they are: the "abyssal plain" isn't an afterlife area, but a deep sea area. Honestly, the story doesn't do much for me; perhaps re-reading it (or reading it in visual form) would bring to light various echoes and subtle nuances; but right now it feels like a less successful variation on Theodore Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea," with a dying person seeing something, with here the focus not on the dying person but on what's being seen. On the positive side, this story inspires me to experiment more.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Michael Moorcock, "The Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel": a Burroughsian pastiche that namechecks C. L. Moore, whose Northwest Smith this story largely resembles, though the hero's Burroughsian-ness is thick enough to choke out almost any other reference the story might be making (and it might be making quite a few): not only is he the best (half-)Earthman on Mars, like John Carter, but he was raised by Venusian apes, a la Tarzan. But the story does involve a lot of "Shambleau"-ist material from C. L. Moore, like a dark god that wants to mate with the protagonist. But being Moorcock, this isn't just a pastiche, but goes on in sort of a weird way: hero John MacShard rescues the girl at great personal cost and is rebuilt into the he-man he was before--and from this experience he takes away the moral that the inequality between the haves and the have-nots is too dangerously extreme.

Michael Moorcock, "A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club": Another club dialogue story with the existential boxing dwarf Englebrecht, though this time they're talking with Death and God, who apparently is all capitalist and money-worshipping and stuff. It's light, the type of polemic story that may amuse but will only resonate with those who already agree.

Laurel Winter, "Infinity Syrup": A woman discovers a syrup that makes life amazing, giving her glimpses of other aspects of life. Then, surprise surprise, she can't find any more. I actually don't remember this very well, though I did enjoy it. Perhaps it needs more of a takeaway point.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 16: Raymond Carver, Why Don’t You Dance? (#91)

Today's selection is no longer available at the LoA website, but I found a copy of one version here.

Raymond Carver, "Why Don’t You Dance?" (1978?) from Raymond Carver: Collected Stories:
When I was at Bard College, my fiction writing class was convulsed for one afternoon with the revelation that Raymond Carver's stories were heavily edited by Gordon Lish, so who was the genius of that minimalist style? I still remember Mona Simpson's Solomonic wisdom: if Lish could've written those stories, he could've, but he didn't. I was never sure whether she believed that Carver was responsible or that both were responsible.

Which is a long, name-droppy introduction because the Library of America collection of Carver's stories includes the published versions and a few of Carver's originals. But the only version I've read is the Lish-edited version.

But it might be my favorite Carver story. The first line is immediately arresting in its confusing material and incredibly simple grammar: "In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard." There's nice balance in the bookending of the locating phrases--"In the kitchen.... in his front yard"; and his actions are simple--pouring and looking. But the sum total required me to reread it to try to figure out what's inside and what's outside.

Which is kind of the central theme of the story: after some mysterious crisis (divorce? death?), the character has brought all his furniture outside, but arranged most of it as if it were still inside. He's connected all the electric cords and even gotten water outside. But what's really inside him, his history, remains forever mysterious. And as the girl discovers at the end, when she's trying to talk out the inside of the story, she never can bring out what the story has in it.

The outside/inside issue also gets a workout in the floating POV: we start with him and his thoughts; get the boy and girl who come to his unusual yard sale, where we only get a hint of their thoughts; and then we get a lot of surface skating that could, technically, be from any POV, with only very little drops of personality (a question gets marked as "preposterous," which it is from the man's POV); and finally we end up with something of the girl's POV, as she tries to talk abou the story.

So the floating, mostly shallow, vague POV keeps us at arm's-length from the terrible things that have clearly happened here.

Another technique that Carver uses is something that makes me reconsider what I wrote in my reading of his "Kindling": there I wrote that Carver often gives us the step-by-step actions. But here, the story resembles more a scratched record, giving us skipping fragments that occasionally repeat. For instance, the first section has the man in his house looking out, the second has the boy and girl driving up, and the third has the man coming back from the store. But wait, when did he leave? Oh, Carver, you fragmentary rascal.

This fragmentary nature comes out also in the repetitious writing, which Carver can get away with in such a short piece. (Although Wodehouse also gets away with repetition--Bertie thinks about something and then says it--though there it has a different effect and rationale, to wit, the comedy of Bertie's external and internal coherence. He doesn't pretend to be something other than a twit.) For a big instance of repetition, here's the man telling the kids his plans:
"I'm going to sit down. I'm going to sit down on that sofa."
The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.
Sure, eventually we hear more than just sitting on the sofa--leaning back and staring! Things are really happening now!. But there's repetition all over here, as when the girl notes that he must be desperate. What's the effect of all this repetition? It makes me sad because it seems like these people are exhausted by life (in the man's case) or keep hitting up against the same limit of expression (in the girl's case).

There's a Will Ferrell-starring movie based on this story with the title Everything Must Go, which is a phrase that occurs in the piece itself. For a long time I thought the emphasis was on "Everything," as if this activity was all consuming. Now I see the emphasis on that "must," as if there's no options or alternatives presented in this story.