Saturday, June 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 39: Elizabeth Bishop, Was It in His Hand? (#58)

Elizabeth Bishop, "Was It in His Hand?" (1990) from Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters:

I'm not a big poetry reader, so I unfortunately can't make any smart comments about how this story reads like Bishop's poetry. I will say that this story reminds me of the Carver-ish literary genre: the narrator comes upon a weird / unexplainable character or event, explores the story, but still can't really make heads-or-tails of it. In his Damnation Game, Clive Barker has a character reflect on the unfinished nature of her own story: "Just a twentieth-century conclusion--all ambiguities." Which seems like a pretty fair description--or dig?--on a sort of story that yearns for realism by avoiding narrative closure.

Which I think is a pretty good way of opening discussion on this Bishop story since (a) it was not published in her lifetime; and (b) the editor who published this story found the beginning a long time before he found the end of the story. So why didn't Bishop finish the story right after she wrote the beginning? Why didn't she store the end with the beginning? Why didn't she publish the story when she was alive? Which is all a way of asking: was this story finished? This Elizabeth Bishop newsletter notes that the story is more Faulknerian that Bishopesque--but she wrote it in her teens, so we shouldn't be too surprised.

The story is about an unnamed narrator and her friend Louise traveling in winter and stopping to get their hands read by a black woman who lives with a white child. Mystery! And yet, for all her probing, the narrator leaves the house without any real solution to the mystery. It's finely told if somewhat formulaic; and those searching for a paper topic might well look at this story--it opens with people reading signs and the faces of buildings, and then includes more examples of reading and writing, like the little white boy Bob with his toy typewriter (endlessly spelling his name), and the black palm reader who looks at how deeply engraved people's lines are. So, yeah, plenty to work with here if you wanted to write a paper about reading/writing/known/unknowability.

But for all that it's finely done, it feels like many other stories of its type. As a plus side, I have a new example now to show people who don't understand the idea that "literary realism is a genre, with its own tropes and formula."

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