Saturday, August 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 130: Edith Wharton, The Eyes (#109)

Edith Wharton, "The Eyes" (1910) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910:

You know how some ghost stories seem to have some psycho-sexual subtext. "Was it really a ghost," we ask, "or some passion that the protagonist could not admit to himself?" (See, for example, some readings of Hamlet: is Hamlet haunted by his dad's ghost or does he just want to claim his mother, Oedipus-style?) Today's story, "The Eyes," doesn't really call for that sort of analysis, since it's pretty obvious: Culwin is a confirmed bachelor who can't bring himself to marry but enjoys surrounding himself with young, handsome men. Which raises its own kind of question: Culwin isn't really all that repressed, so what is he haunted by?

The answer seems to be that he is haunted by himself and his future/history of doing harm without meaning to. When he notices the haunting eyes at night, they seem to "belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines." And the final view of Culwin's eyes matches up with those harm-filled eyes, a direct contrast with Culwin's earlier self-presentation:
I had been merely a harmless young man, who had followed his bent and declined all collaboration with Providence.
So, yeah, there's a way to read this that says, "avoiding Providence (i.e., being a little queer) has led this man into harm, even though he thought he was being harmless." And yet, when do the eyes appear to him? They appear when he contemplates lying to people (and himself) to make his life easier and better: when he considers marrying his cousin--which would no doubt be a terrible marriage--or when he lies to a handsome young man with no literary talent. And yet, in the one case, he resists temptation and in the other, he gives in. So why do the eyes appear in both cases to be the same? How has he really done bad "gradually"?

For all that, the story has a very traditional club/gathering story frame, but with the frame brilliantly connected to the story: Culwin explains his hideous connection with young men to a group including his current young man.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 129: John Cheever, The Swimmer (#125)

John Cheever, "The Swimmer" (1964) from John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings:

Look at what Cheever does here:
In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack. The sun was hot.
Now, after having read the story a few times--it's just that amazing and strange and beautiful--I return to this passage from the first page; and it seems to capture so much of the story. There's the fantastical and totally recognizable beauty of a cloud looking like something else; twisted into something fantastical and prosaic with the addition of the city names, stretching the world from Lisbon to Hackensack; and then there's the crashing return into the truly prosaic with the simple "subject verb" construction of "The sun was hot." How much more prosaic can you be than the simplest form of prose, the declarative sentence with a single clause?

But the single clause declarative sentence isn't all that common here. I haven't done a count, but I'd say that question marks probably rival periods here. For instance, when Ned comes to a difficult part in his whimsical quest to swim across many different pools to reach his house, why doesn't he turn back?
He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys’, where [his wife] Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing, not even to himself. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?
And that's about as close to an answer as we get: he can't turn back because it has suddenly become serious--a bit of information which is hidden in a question. Look at all those questions--each of them contains some information orthogonal to the question itself. That is, instead of asking "Why was he unable to turn back?", the narrator asks that question and fits in the info that he believes "that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense." Which will come back to bite us and Ned when we realize that "common sense" is something that this story has little truck with.

That is, what starts out as a story of whimsical dissolution--with everyone commenting on how much they over-drank the night before--turns into a tragic story of disintegration. Instead of merely returning home after some morning party at a friend's house, Ned seems to be swimming through the years, and discovering that his life has fallen apart as people start reacting to him differently: pitying him or cutting him or talking about his tragic past--that he doesn't even understand is his. The effect is something very much like being underwater: we can see what's happening but it's been muted; it's a struggle just to get on.

And while there are parts where we get glimpses of Ned through the eyes of others, the real power of this comes from our position within/without Neddy. A lot of this takes place somewhere on the spectrum from direct discourse to external discourse, so that Ned's own observations are sometimes hard to extract from the narrative. Which occasionally gives us this great double-vision, not just in the big picture (Ned is a beloved neighbor/Ned is an object of pity), but in the small, sentence-level movements:
When had he last heard from the Welchers—when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them?
From toe to top, this story reinforces itself--theme, plot, characterization, rhetoric. No wonder a passage in the first page contains the whole story.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 24 and 25

After my recent trip home, I'm far behind in my listening: without walking the dog or washing the dishes, my listening time drops very low. (By contrast, with all her time walking the dog while I was away, my girlfriend is all caught up in her listening.)

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

David Tallerman, "Prisoner of Peace": No recollection.

Kenneth Schneyer, "Selected Program Notes From the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer": What it says on the tin: notes from an art exhibit that slowly build up this character and her conflict. An interesting idea, but rather dry.

Jeffrey Wikstrom, "Nutshell": An AI on a colonization ship tries to solve a problem--all the people it unfreezes are insane except for one guy who tries to help in his own way. Cute.

Philip M. Roberts, "The Easily Forgotten": I think I might take a break from the short fiction podcasts--most of them aren't moving me much. Like this one, the story of a monster in an orphanage, I think... and the rest just rolled off me.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Sarah Langan, "Family Teeth (Part 6) St. Polycarp's Home for Happy Wanderers": A were-coyote sent to foster care eventually comes to realize her difference

Matthew Kressel, "The Sounds of Old Earth": Earth is being dismantled and an old man feels bad about it.

Jeffrey Ford, "Daltharee": Bottle cities and shrinking rays and people covering their tracks with murder.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Harry Turtledove, "Lure," "Gladly Wolde He Learne," "Clash of Arms," "Not All Wolves," "The Barbecue, The Movie, and Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material": This episode of Starship Sofa presented several Turtledove stories: a time traveler captures pre-humans using Oreos; a school administrator studies very hard to reach the top of his profession--becoming a teacher; a man engages in a trivia test about heraldry with--the Devil!; a Jew protects a werewolf; a time traveling researcher finds the wrong Genghis in LA. These are all on a range of cute-to-clever; and the writing is competent--I was never thrown out of the story. But I never really got a big emotional charge.

George G. Toudouze, "Three Skeleton Key": Rats! A ship full of rats crashes into a lighthouse island. What makes this interesting is the various reactions of the three lighthouse keepers; particularly the narrator, who just shrugs off this horrible attack.

Steven Savile, "The Horned Man": Man on vacation accidentally runs over and kills mythical horned man--a spirit of the forest--and has to take his place to save his wife. Mmm, okay.

Tom Thursday, "Ten Dollars--No Sense": Two comic characters have a bet about whether people are good or not, as to be tested by a stray ten dollar bill. Episodic and semi-structure-less, but carried along by its really fun language. Tom Thursday is turning out to be an unexpected discovery from Protecting Project Pulp.

Mark Rigney, "Called on Account": After the suspicious death of his little league star son, game announcer dad's spirit sticks around to tell everyone's dirt, which destroys the town. Interesting.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 128: Ring Lardner, Haircut (#184)

Ring Lardner, "Haircut" (1925) from Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings:

How has "Haircut" not been used as the basis for a Twin Peaks-/Top of the Lake-style show about a quirky town with a web of anger and hidden relationships? It's got all the requirements: it's a small town where a secret murder takes place. What more do we need?

"Haircut" also serves as example #1 in Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction for his discussion of irony and the "implied author." No, seriously: on page six, Booth brings up Lardner's "Haircut" and asks the central question, "How do we know that Lardner thinks practical joker Jim is a terrible person when the barber-narrator keeps telling us what a card he is and how he has a good heart?" In other words, how can we read into a story and see what the author really wants us to know?

Well, it's not exactly hard, is it? The barber-narrator talks--at length--about what a card Jim is and gives us some examples, including torturing his wife and children and fomenting strife among married couples. And even while the barber doesn't say anything bad about Jim, he provides plenty of evidence that the other people in town dislike Jim. So Jim's "jokes" annoy the sheriff and the townspeople and the kid who got hit on his head when he was young. Except for the barber and another joker in town, most of the people we see seem to understand that Jim is bad--even if some of the townsfolk go along with him in his mean jokes.

The real mystery of "Haircut" isn't "How does Lardner tell us the truth about Jim without judging him explicitly?" It's "How come these people haven't tried to teach him a lesson before this?" In Lardner's telling, Jim is a monster; but the entire town is somewhat complicit in his monstrousness.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 127: William Howard Russell, The Union Army Retreats (#81)

William Howard Russell, "The Union Army Retreats" (1863) from The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

William Howard Russell provides an interesting boots-on-the-ground (or in-the-stirrup) view of the Union Army defeat at the First Bull Run / First Manassas. He repeatedly stresses that he never knew how bad the rout was: even though he was caught up in the retreating army, he kept telling people that he thought McDowell would stop the retreat at Centreville. Russell describes the confusion and fear of the retreat.

Also, in this long section, Russell describes how the Union soldiers were a nuisance and a danger, both to civilians and each other; including reminding us how one Union soldier asked for a drink from his flask and nearly drained the whole thing. Russell also makes sure to tell us that, despite all the terror around him, Russell did his part to act nobly and stem the retreat; and how Russell was fairly cool and calm and even ironically detached from the proceedings.

What we don't hear from Russell is what he has no way of really knowing: not just what the war is like as it happens, but what it means. So when Russell is more interested in the means of the war than the ends, he may remind us of his fellow Englishman, Arthur Fremantle, whose account of the war hit on how gallant the Southrons were; but he also reminds us that, for the man in the field, the war is often a case of simply the few feet in front of him. (It may also remind us of the treatment Russell gave to the Carolinians post Secession, when he noted that they were terribly amateur and faddish.)

But what's funny to me here isn't just that Russell thinks the Confederates and the Union soldiers are terrible at what they do--amateurs and cowards; what's funny is how much Russell esteems his own part in the struggle as a detached observer.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 126: Ambrose Bierce, The Moonlit Road (#25)

Ambrose Bierce, "The Moonlit Road" (1907) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

"The Moonlit Road" was one of the stories I remember reading in graduate school for the class on the 19th-century American gothic. (Among other things that are flexible in grad school, periodization is probably the most flexible of all. Never fall for the trick when someone asks when a particular century ended. The answer is always: we are still living in that century.) This story served as an example of Bierce playing with psychological horror themes rather than strictly supernatural themes. So here, the horror isn't a creature that is invisible, but a jealous husband, a murdered wife, a bereft orphan--and each gets their chance to tell their side.

That's one of the best parts of this piece, the structural split and uncertainty, moving from one sort of uncertainty to another. First, we start with the son's account--and, note, much of his account is from his father's account--which includes his unhappiness, his mother's death at the hands of an unknown assailant, and his father's disappearance for unknown reasons. So that's a story with several holes, some of which can be filled with each other: his father disappeared because he felt guilty for murder.

The second third is possibly the father's account--but only possibly. It's the account of a man about to commit suicide who tells what he knows of his story, which isn't much: he only remembers the last few years; has some strange connection to a number rather than a name; has a recurring dream of testing his wife's fidelity and killing her when he suspected she was unfaithful; and another memory of running from an apparition he saw on a moonlit road. So there's the answers, right? The husband did kill the wife; did see her ghost; and ran away in fear afterwards.

And the third section finally gives us the wife's version--as transmitted through a medium, which already makes it somewhat suspect. But the wife's version (if real) tells us several things: there wasn't anyone in the house with her--so we'll never know anything about that person or apparition that the husband saw; and she was killed in the dark without ever knowing who did the killing--so her final appearance to her husband wasn't a vengeful return but an attempt at connection. But that doesn't mean that her section is totally full of love. In fact, the wife/mother's section is full of lines that include several options, both love and hate, like:
Sometimes the disability [the fact that dead and living can't interact] is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell--we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish.
Which of course leads to the question: if love or hate works, which is it here? Ultimately, even after we see all three versions, there are still questions that can't be answered here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 125: Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrunts (#190)

Ring Lardner, "The Young Immigrunts" (1920) from Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings:

In my brief experience with his work, I'd say that Ring Lardner specializes in people who don't entirely understand the story they're telling. In this instance, we get Ring Lardner's version of What Maisie Knew, only in this case, the child tells a story of how his parents drove from Chicago to Connecticut. So we get several jokes based on misunderstandings, like: dad says they will pass the normal school (i.e., the school where they teach teachers) in Ypsilanti and the child notes "I had always wanted to come in contack with normal peaple and see what they are like..."

And so on. The spelling is purposely off, but well done--still comprehensible and occasionally challenging. Similarly, the child narrator consistently misuses several words, including quite a few words that should have been dropped for the simpler "said" in dialogue. For instance:
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
But apparently this piece isn't just a little bit of silliness aimed at both parents and children and the modern terror that is moving. According to the LoA page, this piece is a parody of an earlier piece that was supposed to have been written by a child and published with all the misspellings intack; and you can read it here if you want.

By itself, the Lardner piece has flashes of comedy and some stretches of dreariness. The plot and characters are so thin that the only real reason to keep reading is the jokes; and there's not enough of them. Still, a very interesting historical artifack. Okay, that's the last time I do that--promiss.

Lone Star Con! My first con: a preview

This week, the World Science Fiction Convention begins; and this year it's in San Antonio, which is why it's called Lone Star Con. (Technically, Lone Star Con 3--because it's been here twice before. Though, that said, I can only find one previous time in Texas, in 1995.)

The World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon, is the big literature-based science fiction convention; and by "big" I mean "old" (since 1939) and "important" (since that's where the Hugo Awards are given). But times, they are a-changing or a-something. What with increasing importance of multi-media at such cons as San Diego Comic-Con, WorldCon might be on a slow slide to niche status.

Or maybe not. I'm going this year, so I'd hate people to look back at this time period and say, "that's where it started going wrong." And now that I've looked at the convention schedule, it looks like there are many interesting panels and events. So this is a short post to say "I am going to the convention" and "I'm looking forward to it." Tune in next week for my post-con report. (Which hopefully will be more interesting.)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 124: Jack London, To Build a Fire (#61)

Jack London, "To Build a Fire" (1908) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

Here's a general thesis: any story of Jack London will include some reference to the human machine or some such machinic/industrial metaphor. So here, when a man is freezing to death and his hands have gone numb, we hear
The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger-ends.
But that's about as close as London comes to making a joke here. The rest of this piece--17 pages!--is a man wandering around in a snowy waste with a dog. Like London's story "War," there are no names here, and at most an ambivalence towards the main character, whose primary attributes are that he's unimaginative and dedicated to survival. So when he's getting cold and needs to warm up his hands, he thinks of killing his dog and warming up his hands inside the dog, Hoth-style. Which is understandable, but not necessarily admirable.

And so the inevitable freezing to death end of the protagonist carries no real emotional charge and only a slight moral charge: when an old man who has lived with nature tells you to do something, maybe you should consider doing it. (In this case: don't travel alone; and don't go out when it's this cold.) Without that emotional heat, the story does primary duty as a mix of journalistic/environmental reporting (this is what happens to you when you get cold), with a slight side-line in instruction (this is how to build a fire).

Which is why I can totally see why London first tried this sort of story out in a juvenile market. (Though the LoA page does note how very different this story is from the 1902 juvenile story of the same name.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 123: Pete Hamill, Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato (#63)

Pete Hamill, "Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato" (1985) from At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing:

Pete Hamill's first story to appear in print was this profile of gym owner, boxing trainer, fight promoter, and etc., Cus D'Amato. I'm not a big fan of boxing--Cus is noted as being a fan of up-and-coming fighter Mike Tyson, who Cus would go on to train, and we all know how that turns out (Tyson: good at boxing, bad at life)--but if Raging Bull left me anything besides the mystery of Jake LaMotta's participation in a movie that makes him look so bad, it's the idea that human personalities and conflict can make even boxing interesting.

In Cus's case, the big conflict seems to be that eternal bout: principles vs. money. According to Hamill's profile, Cus kept by his principles, which was good for him--and not so good for his fighters:
Certainly he was on the moral high ground, but the terrible thing was that his personal crusade also hurt his fighters.
We’ll never know how good Patterson and Torres might have become if they’d been fighting more often, battling those fighters who were controlled by the IBC and the Garden. Certainly Torres would have made more money.
As you can see, even though Hamill is a friend and admirer of the subject, he doesn't--ahem--pull his punches on this topic. Cus may have been free to follow his principles, but principles come with a price-tag--a price that other people sometimes pay. As for Cus, he earlier notes that he was able to keep to his principles because he didn't want things. Which gives us a great roller-coaster ride as we see what things Cus didn't want:
“The beginning of corruption is wanting things.
That's a good line--let's get that on t-shirts!
You want a car or a fancy house or a piano, and the next thing you know, you’re doing things you didn’t want to do, just to get the things.
He's got an almost early punk vibe: down with cars, houses, pianos--just give me a cot in the office and my principles.
I guess maybe that’s why I never got married.
Wait, what's that now?
It wasn’t that I didn’t like women. They’re nice. It’s nice.
Wait, "they" seems to refer to women--who are nice. But that "it"--what exactly are you talking about, Mr. D'Amato?
It’s that women want things, and if I want the woman, then I have to want the things she wants. Hey, I don’t want a new refrigerator, or a big TV, or a new couch. . . .”
And that's where Cus D'Amato draws the line: women are nice, but man, they want couches and stuff.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 122: George Washington & Thomas Mifflin, Washington Resigns His Commission (#163)

George Washington & Thomas Mifflin, "Washington Resigns His Commission" (1783) from The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence:

When I answer the totally real and applicable question, "Which of the Founding Fathers is your spirit animal?," my answer has been the same since I was very young: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the curious, deceitful, inventor, who fills in American mythology the same role as Coyote, Raven, Loki, and other trickster gods.

Part of that was always the child-storybook depiction of Washington the unsmiling as this forthright pillar of truth, the original boy scout. Now that I'm older and have seen how much alcohol he (a) drank and (b) bought for other people to drink so that they would vote for him, my idea of Washington has softened somewhat.

Still, for all the Fish House punch he drank, we can't shake the idea of Washington as an American Cincinnatus--and for good reason too: like Cincinnatus, Washington went home. (And gosh darn if we don't need more examples of the executive branch that didn't involve extending one's power.) There is something grand and poetic in Washington's resignation:
I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence.
Of course, that's just a little taste as Washington's sentences do go on a bit; but I just pulled this phrase out as being nicely complete and balanced.

Today's selection also nicely highlight Thomas Mifflin's response, which he gave as President of the Continental Congress. I especially like Mifflin's closing note,:
And for you we address to him [god] our earnest prayers, that a life so beloved may be fostered with all his care; that your days may be happy as they have been illustrious; and that he will finally give you that reward which this world cannot give.
I'm not one much for god-stuff, but the note about days being happy as they were once illustrious is a useful reminder that illustriousness wasn't a virtue. Now, to that, Benjamin Franklin might have something to say...

Mosaic novels and short story cycles: Doris Manners-Sutton's Black God and the space between novel and short story collection

Sometimes I plan out what I'm going to say in these posts, detailing the nuance of the opening line; but after typing that whopper of a blogpost title, all other thoughts have leapt clean out of my mind. Here's the only thing that has remained: Doris Manners-Sutton's 1934 Black God is something that sits in the space between a traditional novel and a short story collection. That's the same space where Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Good Squad and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio sit; and it's got me interested in that weird space.

So let's play my favorite game: Categorize! That! Interstice!

In one corner, we have the novel, that 800-pound gorilla that goes back to, I don't know, Homer or Gilgamesh. It's the sort of story that follows a single or related set of protagonists over the length of an entire work. In the other corner, weighing all of, let's say, less than 15k words, is the short story, which can join together into a Voltron-like monster in a few ways. Let us pull petals and count the ways (and note the major differences):

  1. the short story collection: here, the stories are linked by some connection, such as
    1. author (George Saunders's Pastoralia);
    2. topic/focus/theme/setting (John Joseph Adams's By Blood We Live, a vampire anthology; various Best Of collections organized by venue or genre);
    • Note: the stories here are easy to remove and print elsewhere;
  2. the mosaic novel and the short story cycle (Egan's Goon Squad, some of the Wild Cards books);
    • Note: while these stories could be removed and reprinted, many of them impact each other and deepen the experience; stories in this sort of collection usually swirl around a set of themes/motifs and/or characters/settings/events;
  3. the "dispersed novel": well, I just invented that term and I haven't been sleeping enough, so take it with a grain of salt; but this is a book like Black God and (maybe) Tristram Shandy, where the main thrust of the story and characters is used as a thread from which to hang several anecdotes or other stories;
    • Note: the individual stories here are generally fragmentary, but not exactly incomplete; for instance, Tristram gives us some complete stories or moments, but they aren't all that significant except when put into the whole. Yet, the book's reluctance to engage in a single protagonist (or protagonist group) keeps the book from following in the mainline tradition of the novel. (See also postmodern novel and anti-novel.)
So that gives us a protocol for categorizing different books: the main question is fungibility--whether the story can be removed or exchanged without massively upsetting the structure of the book itself. But does it tell us how to write one of these dispersed novels? What secrets can we gain? Or, to put another way, what's really pushing the reader forward in the dispersed novel?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 121: Mark Twain, A Dog’s Tale (#68)

Mark Twain, "A Dog’s Tale" (1903) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910:

A curious story: the first two pages are pure comedy, about a dog who doesn't understand big words but pretends to and impresses all the other dogs in the community--who also don't understand the words. But after those two pages, we have nine pages steadily sliding into drama and sentimentality: the pup of that dog didn't learn the language, but learned to behave correctly from its mother. So that when it finds itself in a good house with a good family, it knows to risk its life to save the baby from a fire. After that, the scientific-minded father misunderstands and hurts the dog's leg. And later, he experiments on the savior dog's puppy, resulting in blindness and death for the puppy; and depression, loss of appetite, and death for the narrator dog.

The story, in its way, reminds me of Wells's 1896 Island of Doctor Moreau, another story that mixes in some pleasant diversion (adventure in Wells, comedy in Twain) along with some questioning about the relations of people and animals; the "humanity" of animals--such as their ability to feel pain both physically and emotionally; and the use of animals in scientific experimentation. It's curious to see these two men work through some of the same issues in their different ways.

But getting back to Twain alone, we can see how he forwards his position through some rhetorical (and narrative) tools here: putting us in the dog's POV from the first and giving us some doggy faults that help develop our empathy (since, frankly, we like people who aren't perfect--and that goes for dogs too); following in some fairly traditional tropes, like the dramatic irony of the dog hiding after doing something heroic because it misunderstands what it did--alongside the master's own misunderstanding of what the dog did; and, that old standby, surrounding the main actors with some minor characters to present the thematic or ethical approach. That is, here, the servants and children make no bones about the dog being the best, most loyal dog in the world; and they go on about it being a shame that dogs don't go to heaven--even while the story makes the case that they should.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 120: Ambrose Bierce, The Eyes of the Panther (#80)

Ambrose Bierce, "The Eyes of the Panther" (1897) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

Posited: the ghost/horror story is often a story of the past coming to haunt--and so derail--the future. That's at least the case with Bierce's "The Eyes of the Panther": a young woman (Irene Marlowe), haunted by her mother's experience with a panther, refuses to marry a very eligible bachelor. We can draw some strong distinctions between this woman's pioneer heritage and the city-bred lawyer bachelor; and the story itself sometimes reminds us of the steady march of "progress":
For more than a hundred years these men pushed ever westward, generation after generation, with rifle and ax, reclaiming from Nature and her savage children here and there an isolated acreage for the plow, no sooner reclaimed than surrendered to their less venturesome but more thrifty successors.
"Surrendered" is a curious word to use here; why not "sold" or "given" or "prepared." There's an undercurrent of violence here in the relations of humans. Did I say "undercurrent"? In a story where a jilted bachelor shoots and kills a woman because he thought she was (or mistook her for) a panther, I think we can drop the "under."

The story is told in that great way that Bierce has of mixing tones and giving the account from an elevated but not distant position. Which means that in the second section--the story of the girl's mother's experience with the panther--we get a POV that couldn't really be occupied by anyone, a mix of the mother's dreams and feelings and the father's discovery of his dead child. This POV is very carefully structured to give us all of the information, but none of the real answers. So, yes, a man shot someone--but is this a case of convenient murder, accidental manslaughter, or unwilling lycanthropy?

With that question unanswered, the final lines become uncomfortably haunting:
But it was no panther. What it was is told, even to this day, upon a weather-worn headstone in the village churchyard, and for many years was attested daily at the graveside by the bent figure and sorrow-seamed face of Old Man Marlowe, to whose soul, and to the soul of his strange, unhappy child, peace. Peace and reparation.
The bolding is mine, but the short sentence that punches you with its implications is Bierce's.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 119: Edgar Allan Poe, Hop-Frog (#32)

Edgar Allan Poe, "Hop-Frog" (1849) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales:

I'm a big believer in the idea that many of Poe's works have some deeper meaning, and often carry a sense of humor in the horrible. For instance, when "Berenice" begins with a digression starting with "Misery is manifold"; when "The Imp of the Perverse" slips a tiny murder story into a huge meditation on this human propensity to do the exact wrong thing; we can see that the horror is really part of something larger. So it's no surprise to read "Hop-Frog," the story of a crippled dwarf jester who takes revenge on a cruel king and his ministers, and find that people have noted a deeper--mostly biographical--meaning, as the LoA page notes:

The king requires broad entertainment, not nuance--which is what Poe sometimes accused critics and readers of being. "Hop-Frog" isn't the guy's real name, but is the name he was saddled with later in life--just like Edgar Poe was saddled with his semi-adoptive father's name Allan. Hop-Frog is overly excited by wine--and hey, didn't Poe have a drinking problem? And so on.

And yet, for all that this is clearly a story about amusement gone terribly wrong--which might have something to say about Poe's profession--the manifest content here is so strong that it would be a shame to miss the Guignol horror of this. And it would be two shames if we were to miss the terrible justice here: a prisoner is abused by cruel people; and then hoists the abusers by their own petard, getting them to agree and even ask for his help with every step, even as every step clearly brings them closer to their immolation.

The real mystery of "Hop-Frog" is why this revenge is isolatable to the king and his seven ministers and doesn't spread to the entire court or the entire country. After all, Hop-Frog and his friend (another midget, but perfectly formed) were originally captured in a war from a far-off country by some other people; and all these people at court laugh at Hop-Frog. So why not burn down the whole damn castle? Or the country? Why isn't this version of the Masque of the Red Death more terrible? So there is a way to read this story with a philosophical edge, leaning on one of Poe's favorite philosophical areas: morality.

The second mystery of the interpretations given on the LoA page is why no one mentions Hop-frog's beautiful friend. Why does the text say she's so beautiful that everyone is nice to her, even though the one major scene we see her in includes the king pushing her down and throwing wine at her? Why does the story focus on Hop-frog's horrible revenge, even though his friend is an accomplice in this murder?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 118: Mark Twain, A Presidential Candidate (#112)

Mark Twain, "A Presidential Candidate" (1879) from The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion:

For his senior year quote, a high school friend of mine had "Brevity, soul, wit." Sometimes Twain might have ignored that motto--sometimes his longer wit marched, at length, into the territory of the outright monologue, screed, or position paper. (See "Sixth Century Political Economy" from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a chapter that might as well, be called "What's the Matter with Camelot?", after Thomas Frank's book on people voting against their economic interests for bugaboo reasons.)

Today's entry, at three pages, doesn't come close to wearing out its welcome; and plays again in the shadow between the macabre and the mirthful that Ambrose Bierce played in just last week. It's a list of all Twain's faults, given to deprive his political enemies of ammunition to surprise him with. For that reason he talks about frightening his grandfather, running away from battle, burying his aunt to fertilize his grapes, contemplating cutting up the poor to sell to cannibals, and wanting money of all kinds (both coin and paper money*).

*Oh boy, can we talk about money in the 19th century some time? It is wonderful and fascinating and weird.

What makes this piece work so well, I think, is that Twain nicely specifies particular--hard coin vs. rag money isn't an issue that we care about today--while keeping the general issues so broad as to be clearly relatable: greed, cowardice, anger. Add in lust and gluttony and we've got almost a full set of sins. As many of my improv teachers noted, one of the keys to comedy is being specific; so when Twain notes that he treated a dead body poorly, we might go "ick." But when he adds that he used that dead body to fertilize his grapevine, that's comedy.

Also, there's something almost Larry Davidian in Twain's turning this around on us:
No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?
Or as Larry David would put it: Fuck me? No, fuck you, sir.

Inspiration where you can get it--and leave it there.

I'm on the train on Sunday night, heading to New York from Boston, with a bag full of clean clothes (I overpacked, never ended up wearing those jeans I had such high hopes about--for no other reason than that they are jeans and I look forward to wearing long pants again after a Texas summer); and a notebook full of ideas.

I wasn't looking for ideas--who goes out to look for ideas? That would be like going out to look for a Starbucks. Starbucks isn't a goal, it's some thing that just happens to one--but after: 

(1) seeing an 1850s-built fort in Boston harbor, complete with drunk Boston couple trying to break into places they weren't supposed to go; 
(2) walking around a craft fair where many people seemed to not pay attention to the cute dogs they were dragging around; and 
(3) discussing the Twilight Zone elements of taking a train through an unfamiliar landscape or through an unfamiliar emotional pain

I feel lots of inchoate or starter ideas running through my head, much like a train running through a mental landscape. Cute dogs taking revenge! Finding strange remnants in the old fort! Reviving the old Twilight Zone ideas of mental travel ("Next stop, Blattberg Falls; Blattberg Falls, next stop")! Even trying to figure the dog-equivalent of "Oh, the humanity"--"Oh, the caninity"--sparks some ideas.

BUT--and here's the trick I'm discovering--just because you have an idea doesn't mean you need to follow it, like a dog chasing a train. Sometimes you've got to finish your old projects before you finish a new one. Sometimes, you take ideas wherever you find them and you put them away and let them ripen in the dark.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 117: Jack London, The Apostate (#88)

Jack London, "The Apostate" (1906) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

From an economics, worker-consciousness aspect, Jack London is a fascinating guy, especially as an example of an intellectual worker who saw his work as work. Sure, he understood the worse sort of work in the factories--repetitive and body-deforming; but he was also always interested in getting his due for his stories.

And in "The Apostate," we see some of the roots of his attitudes towards work, in this fictionalization of a hard-scrabble childhood. (The LoA page notes that London worked in a factory as a teen, which is slightly older than the child-worker in this story, who starts in factory-work while still in the single digits. What the LoA page doesn't tell you is that London borrowed money from his black caretaker/foster mother to help get out of the factory life. Virginia Prentiss, what's your story?)

So here, we get a story that includes some dramatized scenes and a lot of summary covering Johnny's life as a child-worker: his fatigue and irritability; his sole illusion that the slop he's drinking is real coffee; his promotions; his hunger and dream of what he might eat; his anger over his younger children being fed from his earnings while he goes hungry; etc. It's a very long set-up for the major climax of the piece, when Johnny gets sick and realizes that he can't go on like this. Even though it's largely told in summary, the accumulation of topics and scenes helps London move the story along.

What's interesting, from a paper-writing POV, is how London uses the idea of the machine, as we hear that Johnny was born in the factory and "From the perfect worker he had evolved into the perfect machine." On one hand, the transformation of the human into machine is good. Like the perfectly Taylorized worker, Johnny:
"had attained machine-like perfection. All waste movements were eliminated."
So that's good, right? But on the other hand, while Johnny's muscles are trained (trained so well that he's even twitching in his sleep), his mind is emptied:
The rest of the time he worked, and his consciousness was machine consciousness.
And this is really the crux of the factory system, which reduces the human body to a series of moves that both deform the body (so many reminders of how Johnny's body is narrowed and twisted) and give nothing to the mind.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 116: Dashiell Hammett, Arson Plus (#117)

Dashiell Hammett, "Arson Plus" (1923) from Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writing:

I used to have a theory that you needed the genre to form before you could get parody of the genre. So, in the simplest form, you need Star Wars and space fantasy before you can get Spaceballs. Which is obviously true in that case--but doesn't really explain why Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled noir seems so much more light-hearted than Raymond Chandler's knight-errant detective stories. Chandler's heroes are by turns tragic, Christ-like (in accepting sins to protect others), world-weary, and solemn. Hammett's heroes are paunchy, quick witted, and nimble with their principles.

In some way, that sums up the tone of "Arson Plus." For instance, when a sheriff's deputy accompanies the detective and kills a man, the deputy says,
“I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this lad.”
And the detective tells him what he figured out about this strange arson case, which looks like it'll be arson plus homicide, but turns out to be arson plus insurance fraud. But as for the killing or any of the human tragedy that led to this point--eh, that's someone else's department.

In fact, except for the fact that this takes place in the streets rather than in a cosy tea-room; and includes some fast-talking dames and a private eye and guns; this story reads in many ways like an Agatha Christie problem story: a house burned down--whodunnit?

And maybe that's one of the keys to Hammett's lighter tone. Whereas Chandler is more interested in the morality of why, Hammett is still interested in the mechanics of how the crime was done. And that's my explanation for why this story reads so character-light and so plot-heavy, with the detective gathering all the evidence being the bulk to the text.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 115: John Adams, Destruction of the Tea in Boston (#62)

John Adams, "Destruction of the Tea in Boston" (1773) from John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1775:

Note: Although the webpage for today's entry promises three documents--John Adams's diary entry and a letter to a friend about the Boston Tea Party; and Adams's letter to his wife about the Boston Port Act--only the first two are included. But, bonus, this means I scanned the page looking for the third document and found the comment section; naturally, there's a comment that says the Tea Partiers were right then and they're right now and that ends with"God bless them, this country and Sarah Palin."

So it's nice for me to get back to John Adams's original documents, before Sarah Palin, before this event was even known as the Boston Tea Party. What we find in John Adams, especially in his diary, is some odd spelling and punctuation, of course; but also a real sense that this is a great moment, a moment that deserves some oratory.

In fact, Adams's remarks on the Boston Tea Party in his diary sound like a first draft of a speech, where he notes that the event was great (and I'll explain the bolded parts at the end):
This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire.
And then moves on to making a little threat:
This however is but an Attack upon Property. Another similar Exertion of popular Power, may produce the destruction of Lives.
He scoffs at the consequences of taking the action:
What Measures will the Ministry take, in Consequence of this?—Will they resent it? will they dare to resent it? will they punish Us? How?
And he notes the deleterious effects NOT taking the action would have had:
it was loosing all our labour for 10 years and subjecting ourselves and our Posterity forever to Egyptian Taskmasters—to Burthens, Indignities, to Ignominy, Reproach and Contempt, to Desolation and Oppression, to Poverty and Servitude.
(Note the shout-out to the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, one of the repeated motifs of the American Revolution, which raided just about all of history for metaphors and comparisons.)

He even finds room in the diary to address the naysayers--
But it will be said it might have been left in the Care of a Committee of the Town, or in Castle William. To this many Objections may be made.
Sometimes, in reading first person accounts, we find that some people don't understand the great historical events going on about them. (Like Franz Kafka reacting to the outbreak of World War I: "Germany has declared war on Russia — swimming in the afternoon.") But John Adams knows for a fact that great history is happening right here and now, all around him.

Lastly, I have to comment on Adams's love of lists and catalogues. All those parts I bolded are parts where Adams spontaneously makes a list, which would have great oratorical effect, but what effect did it have in writing his diary? There are many more here, like the attempt by the authorities to find the guilty--
to discover the Persons, their Aiders, Abettors, Counsellors and Consorters [...]
--or his list of the fears that might spring up, the
Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, [...]
There's really very little logical reason to go about making those lists. They don't help explain things. ("Oh, the governor is searching for aiders AND abettors AND counsellors. Well, I'm safe, since I only consorted. Oh wait!") The lists seem to come from his oratorical desire to get the point--and the feeling--across.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 23


Paolo Bacigalupi, "The People of Sand and Slag": A full-cast recording--which is something I have mixed feelings about--of this story.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Joe R. Lansdale, "The Pit": A man captured by backwoods racists is forced to fight in an arena. Not my favorite Lansdale, though his characterization of the reigning black champion as a guy who found something to like in this terrible situation is very interesting.

Donald McCarthy, "Boxed": A man has a magical box that lets him erase memories and he gets into a fight with his girlfriend. While the logistics of erasing bad memories while remembering important info was interesting, the story itself was pretty predictable after that.

Gregory Norman, "Freia in the Sunlight": Honestly, I don't remember, as the story did not keep my interest.

Zen Cho, "The House of Aunts": In Malaysia (I think), a young girl who is also a pontianak--a sort of female vampire--deals with a boy she likes. While this extra-long episode probably didn't need to be extra-long, I enjoyed especially the end, that made clear the gender issues of this particular vampire story. (Don't you know? Vampire stories always have gender issues.)

Lavie Tidhar, "Western Chow Mein Red Dawn": A bit much of a title. A story of a magical China, involving a young Chinese boy who becomes a wizard and hunts down the Englishman who raided his village and mines chi-laden meteorite for the Queen. A nice end that reminds us that English Queen and Chinese Emperor are both bad news for the little people.

Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword": The first Conan story, where Conan was the king who fends off a conspiracy and a monster. As usual, I like Howard's stories.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Manly Wade Wellman, "The Golgotha Dancers": A man gets a cursed painting, falls in love with the nurse next door. Even seeing that love plot being set in motion, the suddenness of the protagonist's avowal of love made me laugh.

Jeff VanderMeer, "Secret Life": The usual VanderMeer stuff: funny images and fun language, but plot-light and some of the oddness--all about a business where it's weird--feels like it doesn't go anywhere.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 114: Jack London, War (#9)

Jack London, "War" (1911) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

Perhaps it's only because I just read an Ambrose Bierce story yesterday, but this Jack London story has a distinctly Biercean feel to it: there's some thin characters (never named, hardly described externally or internally); a richly described landscape (we know some characters have leaves and pollen on them, but not what their uniforms would look like without that bit of landscape sticking to them); and a moral dilemma--to shoot or not.

Except, in Bierce, the story might be "The Story of a Conscience": one soldier who owes his life to an enemy soldier has that enemy soldier killed--and then commits suicide. (Uh, spoiler alert.) Here, in "War," there is no conscience, no karmic equality: our main character spends three pages scouting the landscape, is terrified of finding enemies, sees an enemy scout--and chooses not to shoot. In the back-half, that scout finds some apples by an abandoned farmhouse, but runs into the enemy, including that scout that he refused to shoot--who then shoots him at a great distance when no one else can. (That's the Saving Private Ryan ending--or vice versa, I suppose.)

Honestly, while the writing is nicely understated, London's diction and syntax is not the most straightforward, which gives that first three pages an interminable feeling--and not in a good way. The final three gives us some definite action, which is exciting--but what's the story here? That war is terrible? That nothing can be taken for granted in war?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 113: Ambrose Bierce, My Favorite Murder (#181)

Ambrose Bierce, "My Favorite Murder" (1888) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

After yesterday's uncertainty about how humor ages (poorly, usually), I'm presented today with a funny and weird Ambrose Bierce story--and usually we only think of Bierce as being weird.

When I was young and stole my sister's copy of Bierce's Can Such Things Be?, I remember laughing at some of the little touches Bierce put in his macabre tales. For instance, in "The Damned Thing," Bierce titles one of his sections "One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table"--because what's on the table is a dead man. So I know he can be funny, even when--or especially when--he's writing about death and destruction.

"My Favorite Murder" takes this connection between the macabre and the amusing and, as no kids say today, turns it up to 11. The bulk of the story is an artistic and at time geometric appreciation of how the narrator killed his uncle; this was accomplished by putting him in a sack, hanging the sack from a tree, and luring the uncle's own maladjusted ram into head-butting the uncle to death. So a lot of the humor in this bulk comes from the mismatch of topic (murder) and tone (artistic appreciation).

There's a few other layers in that murder-humor; for instance, the narrator joins a secret fraternity and discovers his uncle is one of the members and this means that his murder will also be a treason against the fraternity--and that makes it a good thing.

The whole piece is structured by that sort of reversal: now that the narrator has less reason to kill the uncle, he's even more excited to do it; once the narrator can prove how awful his uncle's murder is, he'll be let go; etc.

Which brings us to the frame story. Because the core of this is the evidence that the narrator gives to get out of his murder trial for killing his mother. As the narrator notes of his parents, skirting close to the classic definition of "chutzpah"--murdering your parents and then asking the court for mercy as an orphan--"one of whom Heaven has mercifully spared to comfort me in my later years."

In fact, while the core of this story is funny without necessarily carrying a message, the frame story paints the court system as completely ridiculous, with the defense attorney saying that the murder of his mother shows "tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim"--and then getting him off for just that reason. Let's remember Bierce's definition of "Lawyer" from The Devil's Dictionary: "One skilled in circumventing the law."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 112: Artemus Ward, Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln (#44)

Artemus Ward, "Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln" (1860) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

Even some stand-up comedy from the 1980s can feel dated ("White people do X like this. Black people do X like this. How do you like the brick wall behind me?"); so we might tiptoe our way up to something from the 1860s, not expecting much. (Especially something involving Lincoln, where our usual referent for Lincoln + "humor" are the incredibly offensive anti-Lincoln and anti-black cartoons of the day.)

So I was a little and pleasantly surprised to find this piece was... bearable. It starts out with "Artemus Ward" speaking in his broken, New Englander English--"I hiv no politics. Nary a one."--which seems to make him the butt of the joke. He starts off sort of as an idiot, the sort of man who would say
I’m the father of Twins, and they look like me--both of them.
But he quickly moves on to making fun of the office seekers who crowd around President-Elect Lincoln. Which brings us to one reason why comedy doesn't translate so well across time: he's writing in a time period where people who worked to get someone elected might be rewarded with some government office, the old office-holder being turned out usually if he had supported the wrong party. (Notably, Nathaniel Hawthorne lost both his custom house job and his surveyor job when Democrats lost.)

So the mid-section of this has lots of physical comedy, with office seekers coming down the chimney or crawling between Lincoln's legs.

And then we come to the end where we have an abrupt change in tone, from the silly to the serious. Which is a nice reminder that so much of this 19th-century humor that survives has a serious, often political edge. So we're not reading about clowns hitting each other with pies. (When did that start?) We're reading about office seekers who get frightened off by a man with a terribly thick accent who winds up his piece by telling Lincoln--and the reading audience--that we should let the Confederacy secede and try to make peace.

Ward somewhat undercuts that point by then slipping back into silliness, telling Lincoln to fill the cabinet with showmen, since they have no political principle and only want to please the audience, i.e., the voters. But maybe that point is somewhat serious too? Maybe all of this silliness about not having principles is a sincere encomium to the practicality that lets politicians compromise rather than go on fighting?

So here's another reason why comedy doesn't travel well: it's hard to know where the comedy ends and the serious message begins.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 111: Kate Chopin, A Morning Walk (#69)

Kate Chopin, "A Morning Walk" (1897) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

Here's a short story, only four pages, and the original title gives some hint as to the plot in a way that the current title doesn't: “An Easter Day Conversion” clearly tells us this is a special event; "A Morning Walk" sounds like one of many. Maybe the new title lets the plot creep up on the reader?

In any case, it doesn't creep up slowly. From the first we meet Archibald, all we hear is that he seems older than he is; he's more practical and scientific than poetical and sentimental--"For he leaned decidedly toward practical science; of sentiment he knew little..."; and that he's pretty inattentive to women.

Except that's the first page; already by the second we're hearing that today feels different for him--now he's noticing beauty. So already, by page two, we have something of a conversion. Where do we go from here? Well, Chopin keeps us between these two states--between the practical man of page one and the sentimental man of page two.

Whenever Chopin wants to stress the sentimental--as she does when Archibald meets young (20 years old) Lucy--she lets her sentences become compound and complex, as if all these ideas are suddenly flooding the usually staid Archibald:
He looked down into the girl’s face, and her soft, curved lips made him think of peaches that he had bitten; of grapes that he had tasted; of a cup’s rim from which he had sometimes sipped wine.
Not only is Archibald thinking in metaphor, but in multiple metaphors. So here we see the eventual endpoint of this Easter conversion: Archibald will become a lover of beauty, women, and life--and also probably Christ, though that seems to be downplayed.

But since Chopin never gives us a reason for the conversion; since she keeps us on tenterhooks between Archibald's two states; by the end of the story, I feel a little uncertain as to why we ended up where we did.

Casino Royale, a Structural Review (or review of structure)

I've been rewatching Casino Royale at the gym; and while it's a little long, I think it does some very interesting things structurally to keep the reader's attention and forward the reader's understanding. And I think attention and understanding are very closely aligned, even when the reader/viewer may not be conscious of what that understanding is.

  1. For instance, the movie opens with James Bond earning his 007 status by killing two people: one an Englishman who works for the government--and is betraying that government; and the other a long-haired assistant. Why does this matter?
    • First, it matters because the opening tells us that we're watching an origin story: Casino Royale is the story of how James Bond becomes James Bond. So we open with him earning his 007 status; and we see him bumble his way through a few of the tropes--for instance, saying he doesn't care whether his martini is shaken or stirred; and we finally see him at the end introducing himself with that formula we all know: "I'm Bond--James Bond." So that's a nice parallel between the beginning and end.
    • Second, Bond earns his name by discovering/killing a British traitor and a long-haired associate. So who does Bond take care of during this movie? Vesper Lynd plays a government agent and traitor; and Matthis plays another traitor, this one with the same long hair. That's not a connection the movie stresses; but by playing out a miniature version of the movie in the beginning, the viewer already has a template for what will happen.
  2. The plot is human-level, as Todd Alcott points out, having to do with stock market manipulation and a poker game rather than destroying the world or anything. However, it is still a complicated plot, which is why the film provides many assistants and associates to verbalize certain issues--sometimes in drips of info across the whole movie.
    • Le Chiffre's stockbroker notes that he's betting against the market in shorting the airline stocks; M will later explain to Bond what all that means.
    • For the poker scenes, there is always someone to explain things: the banker Mendel, the dealer, Matthis, Felix Leiter.
    • Note: There are certain issues--like Bond finding M's apartment or hacking into the system with M's password--where there are no answers, which is highlighted by the fact that people wonder about this. M asks at least once "How does he know these things?" This is a great example of "lampshading": by pointing out something that sort of doesn't make sense, the film is preventing us from balking by not believing. 
      • The answer to how James Bond does what he does is always: He's James Bond.
    • Or when Bond searches for information in the MI6 database, M's help often helps us by narrating his search, while M helps by reacting to the information. This isn't just an info-dump, as sometimes this information goes both ways, as when the MI6 organization helps Bond ID the bomb target at the airport or diagnose what he's been poisoned with.
  3. Scenes without action are enlivened by dialogue between characters at odds.
    • Bond and M spar over the dead bomb-maker, M lays out the business--including the exposition that they were looking for more powerful people.
    • Vesper and Bond spar--which also gives them a chance to introduce their characters disguised as a verbal fight.
    • Solange (Dimitrios's wife) pinpoints Bond's character during her seduction: he likes married women because he doesn't want to get attached.
  4. Scenes hook into each other, with almost every scene connected with a "because."
    • For instance, we meet up with Bond while he surveils a bomb-maker. (Again, there's no other explanation for this other than MI6 is surveilling this guy.) He chases the bomb-maker and kills him in an embassy, which makes the front page of newspapers. Because of that...
      • Bond gets the bomber's phone, which will give him a location to search next;
      • Le Chiffre learns the news, realizes he needs a new bomber;
      • and M is very angry because she's just been grilled by the government. (Note: we don't see that government scene because it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that M is angry.)
    • Even in little ways, one scene may explain the next. When Le Chiffre's stock option fails, he notes quietly "Someone talked"--and the next scene begins with Solange dead and tortured. (Which also tells us something about Le Chiffre: he tortures people. That will come up later.)
  5. One thing about this screenplay is that it seems to package large sections together. So, for instance, we have a long non-action sequence of how Bond learns about the bombing--then we have the action sequence about that. Then, after that, we have about four scenes of verbal sparring between Bond and M (in the Bahamas); and Bond and Vesper (on the train, in the car to the hotel, at the hotel).
    • This sameness/similarity might be problematic; but each scene of sparring gives us something different. For instance, the train scene shows us these two testing each other; in the car, there's more of a jokey tone between them; but when Bond makes a jerky move at the hotel (abandoning the cover), Vesper is angry. So we get a rollercoaster of their relationship instead of a change in the action.
  6. By contrast, the poker game is kept interesting by making the stakes clear (terrorism) and by intercutting between it and between some other action: the warlord attacks, Vesper is shocked in the shower, bodies are discovered in a car trunk, Bond loses his cool, Bond is poisoned, etc.
  7. Some people might feel that the multiple-endings of the movie is a flaw: first Bond beats Le Chiffre at poker; then Le Chiffre dies at White's hand; then Vesper's betrayal is discovered; then Bond shoots Mr. White. However, we should note that the first villain we actually see is Mr. White; and he shows up again at the end walking away with the money while Bond mourns Vesper. So there is something kind of repetitive about this ending, but again, the opening has helped set up some of it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 110: Abraham Lincoln, Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder (#60)

Abraham Lincoln, "Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder" (1846) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

Since my usual procedure when reading LoA stories is to read the story first and then the webpage that discusses it, I had a fun time with this one: while reading this, I assumed it was included in a volume of Lincoln's works, and I thought to myself, "This really could go into their True Crime volume." Well, whaddaya know, that's exactly where it is.

In fact, when I think of Lincoln's writing, I tend to think of grand oratory with some down-home folksiness. (Not always in the same piece.) But this story is very prosaic, where Lincoln just lays out--as well as he can--the confusing facts in this case of (not really) murder.

As a fan of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, I half expected this story to be about a murder case involving a farmer's almanac. But it's actually the story of a non-murder, where not all the facts line up neatly. Here's the case: Two Trailor brothers get arrested for murder after the third Trailor provides witness against them. But even though there's lots of circumstantial physical evidence proving third Trailor's story, it eventually turns out that... there never was any murder at all. So Lincoln wraps up with a worry: imagine how wrong the court could have been if the "murder victim" didn't show up.

Yet even with that forward-thinking bit of legal worry, the overwhelming tone here is one of objective fact-giving, like a lot of true crime articles. Which probably means that this is mostly for those true crime fans out there.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 109: Ida M. Tarbell, Flying—A Dream Come True! (#179)

Ida M. Tarbell, "Flying—A Dream Come True!" (1913) from Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

When I think of Ida Tarbell, I think of a crusading muckraker and journalist, an anti-monopolist who skewered Standard Oil. I don't think of an aeronautical enthusiast who experienced and wrote about her early flights as a way of popularizing and domesticating this new technology.

But that's the way she comes off here. Unlike the reports of death we get from J. Herman Banning or the reports of uncomfortable commercial air travel we get from Elizabeth Bisgood, the primary note in Tarbell's account is almost ordinariness. While she notes that the "dainty little" plane had "a terrific force in her" (note the feminine in both "dainty" and "her"); and that she felt a sense of exhilaration and "a curious sense of being part of the whole thing [Earth]"; Tarbell ends her account by noting "As a matter of fact, this trip of mine, to those who are familiar with aviation, is the most commonplace kind of thing, not worth a long letter like this."

Which is one of those great sentences that undoes what it says it's doing: my flight isn't worth a long letter--and yet, here's a long letter. There's a curious push and pull to this sort of writing that reminds me of Robert Heinlein's Saturday Morning Post stories: an attempt to write about something that seems both exciting--so that people want to do it--but also safe--so that people aren't afraid to do it. Heinlein wrote about the colonization of the solar system, but it seems to be the same thing that Tarbell is doing here about aviation when she writes both that "that it all was so natural, [...] so easy" and also "so supremely superior to any other motion that I had ever experienced."

Friday, August 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 108: Ernie Pyle, “This One Is Captain Waskow” (#74)

Ernie Pyle, “This One Is Captain Waskow” (1944) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944:

Ernie Pyle's report of Captain Waskow's death is very moving because it's so carefully crafted and so cannily underwritten. That is, as a wire story, Pyle doesn't lard his writing with, well, lard: there's no fatty description about the air and the night sky and the Italian landscape.

Instead Pyle starts by focusing on people's feelings about Capt. Waskow: the first section of this piece tells us that Waskow is loved and provides a few quotes to support that claim.

Only after we've established Waskow's essential good-guyness do we switch to the second section, about how the American troops brought down the dead bodies. (And OK, here's a not very useful description of the full moon--but it's just one sentence.) Before we get to Waskow's body, we hear about this somewhat pathetic parade, with dead bodies tied to mules, their rigor mortis-locked legs bouncing in time to the mules.

Only after we've got (a) Waskow was good and (b) here are some dead bodies, do we get the synthesis of this: "This one is Captain Waskow," says one of the men. And after that, since it's too late to help him, the soldiers who liked their comrade say a few final things over his body--mostly things like "Damn it" and "Sorry." Here's where the simpleness of the responses is mirrored by the prose, which again, doesn't overwrite and empurple anything. It is a very effective way that Pyle uses to get out of the way of his own topic; while at the same time, he lets his structure guide the reader.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 22


Kij Johnson, "Mantis Wives": A catalog of how female mantises kill their mates, since that's necessary to the procreation process. Horrifying, but not entirely moving. A Hugo nominee this year.

Aliette de Bodard, "Immersion": A story about a technology that allows cultural assimilation. A serious piece that might warrant rereading. Another Hugo nominee.


Tom Godwin, "Cold Equations": A classic story of a young woman who has to die because she doesn't understand physics. That's one way to look at it. It is a classic and in some ways a very beautiful story; there's something terribly right about the fact that it's a problem story ("How will we slow down the ship AND save the girl?") without a solution.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

David D. Levine, "The Tale of the Golden Eagle": Reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith, a robot--that was once the brain of a ship--that was once a golden eagle--finds a new owner in a romantic but debt-ridden schemer. Some nice parts.

Katherine Mankiller, "Saving Alan Idle": A genius, wheelchair-bound computer scientist creates an AI--"Alan"--who helps her when some disaster strikes. Not entirely successful, primarily because the AI really just comes off as another person; and the other instances of this AI act differently without any discussion as to why these same "people" act differently.

Merrie Haskell, "Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love": A robot actress tired of playing Ophelia meets an ex-child star who helps her grow as a person and artist. Some good ideas, but not necessarily moving.

Alex Wilson, "Vestigial Girl": A smart but physically undeveloped child (genetically engineered from her two dads) believes there's a monster inside her that keeps her from developing, schemes to kill it. Interesting in parts, though I'm pretty averse to brilliant child stories.

Lucy Snyder, "Magdala Amygdala": A sort of take on zombie/vampire myths, with a virus that transforms people and a system in place so that they get some of what they need--brains or blood. (If they have good insurance.) There's a quick shift at the end to some religious cosmicism that doesn't seem to fit.

Ken Liu, "Mono No Aware": (A Japanese title referring to the impermanence of things.) A story of a starship leaving earth before an extinction-level asteroid. Flips back-and-forth between life before the asteroid and life on the ship (where our narrator is the last Japanese person) including a moment of crisis on the ship. It's like a triumphant "Cold Equations," where the narrator sacrifices himself, but notes that everyone is a hero in their own way to lead him to this moment.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Gareth Stack, “Herbert Bowman Lay Absolutely Still”: Detective hired by decadent churchman; that's all I remember by the end, though some of the writing at the beginning was interesting.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 107: Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Battle of Gettysburg (#182)

Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, "Battle of Gettysburg" (1864) from The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Furthering my theory that everything today has some precedent in the 19th century, today we have a British writer who is basically embedded with the Confederate Army, reporting from the field. Fremantle was a British military man who took a six month leave to spend time reporting from the American Civil War. Curiously, his book, Three Months in the Southern States: April–June 1863, was printed in London, New York, and Mobile. So I guess everyone was interested in what the war looked like from that POV.

What it looks like is your typical mix: the straight facts of war reportage (what units moved where, who was wounded); character studies (this captain inspired the men by doing this, that guy was indefatigable, this one was loved by his men--much like in tomorrow's entry); and absolutely no mention of what this war is all about: slavery.

In fact, Fremantle's report hits all the right notes of Southern gallantry and bravery in this section, sounding very much like a founding document of the Lost Cause school of history. But let's look at his book. I was curious if it dealt with slavery; and here's the first paragraph (with some emphasis by me):
At the outbreak of the American war, in common with many of my countrymen, I felt very indifferent as to which side might win; but if I had any bias, my sympathies were rather in favor of the North, on account of the dislike which an Englishman naturally feels at the idea of slavery. But soon a sentiment of great admiration for the gallantry and determination of the Southerners, together with the unhappy contrast afforded by the foolish bullying conduct of the Northerners, caused a complete revulsion in my feelings, and I was unable to repress a strong wish to go to America and see something of this wonderful struggle.
If you ever read political reporting today, you'll find a corollary (once again, proving my thesis re: the 19th century and today): people will write "I agree with X politically, but he uses mean words." As if it's more important for some people to be dressed well than it is for all people to be free from slavery.

(If you're curious, "slave" and "slavery" come up about 35 times in this book, including many mentions of how slavery is bad, but the Southerners are familiar and kind to their slaves. Hrm.)

As usual, it's interesting to read something from someone embedded in history who doesn't know how things will turn out. Fremantle ends his book noting that the South is not in such bad shape; and he opens it with the opinion that the Confederacy is bound for greatness. Even his account of Gettysburg ends with the Confederates having had a bad day and needing to move for logistic reasons (ammunition), rather than reporting Gettysburg as a defeat. (To be fair, it was a bad battle for everyone involved.)

Lastly, from a craft perspective, the more prose pieces I read reporting the facts of war--what the land was like, how far a unit had to move to engage the enemy, who was positioned where and when--the more I'm glad for historical military maps. Prose is a good medium for describing how Lee rallied the troops; it's not as good as a map for showing movements over space.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 106: Judith W. McGuire, “Our Beleaguered City” (#130)

Judith W. McGuire, “Our Beleaguered City” (1862/1867/1889) from The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Note on the weird dates: 1862 was when McGuire wrote her diary; 1867 was when it was first published; but this text is taken from the 1889 edition.

"Our Beleaguered City" tells the story of a few days in the battle outside Richmond from the POV of someone not directly engaged in the fighting itself. (McGuire was a nurse.) Now most of the piece is given over to recording the events of the battle, which is interesting: without a front-line presence--or Twitter--we can imagine that McGuire is getting most of her information by gossip and the observation of others. This seems very odd to me; I mean, the end of Google Reader was big news where I live, so it's not always easy to put myself in the mindset of someone getting info in this way.

Now, there is another source of observation for the Richmonders, which is direct observation--from a distance--of the battle going on just outside. McGuire notes that lots of people took up posts on top of buildings to watch the battle, which was
a scene of unsurpassed magnificence. The brilliant light of bombs bursting in the air and passing to the ground, the innumerable lesser lights, emitted by thousands and thousands of muskets, together with the roar of artillery and the rattling of small-arms, constituted a scene terrifically grand and imposing.
That's also hard for me to really imagine: what would it be like to be so close to the front-line that you can observe the battle, but far enough away that it takes on an aesthetic sublimity?

There's one final part of the diary that reminds me of how different McGuire's mindset is from my own. After she notes that the Richmonders were watching, she asks
What spell has bound our people? Is their trust in God, and in the valour of our troops, so great that they are unmoved by these terrible demonstrations of our powerful foe? It would seem so, for when the battle was over the crowd dispersed and retired to their respective homes...
There's other ways to describe the Richmonders who stayed to watch the battle, not all of them positive. Yet, in 1862, from the Southron perspective of McGuire, that's all she offers.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 105: James Fenimore Cooper, Storm and Shipwreck (#187)

James Fenimore Cooper, "Storm and Shipwreck" (1843) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence:

Today's selection is a very simple anecdote: during the War of 1812, Ned Myers was on the USS Scourge, patrolling Lake Ontario; the ship sunk in a storm on August 8 (oh, timely), and only a few men survived. Now, that plot is very simple, but I'm a sucker for anything about the War of 1812 or about the culture of the Great Lakes or about Cooper's interest in sea stories. I'm also a sucker for the jargon of people who know what they're talking about; when Myers tells us something about a becket and how Myers sculled, I'm not entirely sure what he's talking about, but it sure sounds like he does. (Seriously, though, I hope this piece comes with a glossary in the book.)

There's one or two interesting moments, as when Ned rescues another sailor, who notes
"Davy has made a good haul, and he gave us a close shave; but he didn’t get you and me.” In this manner did this thoughtless sailor express himself, as soon as rescued from the grasp of death!
But most of the interest of this piece is generated by its history. I don't just mean "as history"--I mean the history of the piece itself, which is a little more complex than the simple plot of the piece. Apparently Ned Myers and J. F. Cooper were friends on their first sailing voyage; and after their lives took them in different directions, Myers contacted Cooper, which re-started the friendship.

Then, to top it all off, the wrecks of the ships from that night were discovered and explored recently.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 104: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Bouquet (#3)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Bouquet" (1889) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays:

Read one way, Charles Chesnutt's "The Bouquet" is a sentimental story about a poor (black) girl who wants to put a bouquet of flowers on her dead (white) teacher's grave. There's a sentimental obstacle--the mother of the dead teacher doesn't want black people at the funeral--and there's the super-sentimental helper--the dead teacher's white-as-wool dog, who has a playful rivalry for the affection of the teacher, but who turns up to help the little girl just in time. Simple, sentimental, heart-warming.

But seriously, this is the sort of story that makes me want to go back to school and write papers. First, it's easy to dislike the racist mother who doesn't want her daughter to teach at the black school, even though the family needs more income post-Civil War. As dear old mom puts it, “It’s a long step from owning such people to teaching them."

But the daughter isn't exactly a peach herself. I mean, you could read this and come away with the idea that the daughter, while not exactly progressive, adapted more easily to the new racial tolerance. And then we get this sentence, about the attention/adoration she got from that one girl who worships her:
[W]hen she grew more accustomed to it, she found it rather to her liking. It had a sort of flavor of the old régime, and she felt, when she bestowed her kindly notice upon her little black attendant, some of the feudal condescension of the mistress toward the slave.
What the what?

Take that along with the steady equation of "little black girl who adores the teacher" and "little white dog who adores the teacher" and we have a sentimental story that's a little thornier than your average "innocent loves attentive and dead teacher." So when the happy end is "girl is kept out of white cemetery, but little white dog helps deliver funeral bouquet, and then resumes position at the grave, while little girl envies the dog," that's the sort of "happy ending" where I think we can feel less than thrilled.

There's a lot more to say about Chesnutt's story, but I want to end with a craft issue, which is that so much of this story is told in summary, not dramatic scenes. But it's still something of a shock when we read the teacher's death summarized like this:
The children made rapid progress under her tuition, and learned to love her well; for they saw and appreciated, as well as children could, her fidelity to a trust that she might have slighted, as some others did, without much fear of criticism. Toward the end of her second year she sickened, and after a brief illness died.
Here's a character who, for the first few pages, might have been taken as the protagonist: she's the first character mentioned, she's potentially risking some social censure by teaching at the black school, she's defying the wishes of her mother, etc. You might have thought she was the heroine here--until her death is taken care of in one line that occurs right after a totally different, much longer line, focused on the children she teaches. So if mean old mom is racist and young daughter is less racist, we might want to look at these children as being the better hope for our future: they are our heroes.

Crisis and Character: Do characters have to change?

Well, that's a bad way to phrase the question: Do characters have to change? No. Thanks for coming, see you next week, and tip your waitress.

Maybe ask it this way: Do readers/viewers respond more when the character faces some crisis and changes? That's a little more complex a question and I'd like to look at two action/adventure films that I genuinely like and see what role character growth plays in my enjoyment. It helps that both films feature big guys punching Nazis.

Hellboy is an interesting film in that it flirts for a while with multiple protagonists: Hellboy seemingly has to face up to his freakish nature and human choices, while Agent Myers seemingly has to deal with the strangeness of the world. I say "seemingly" because both of these plot lines are really quickly handled or not really addressed. Hellboy starts off as a big lug whose solution to things is to hit them very hard; he ends up as the same. Myers may start off as the naive viewpoint character, but after one "what is that thing?" and one "I don't belong here," we never hear a peep about that.

Even Hellboy's major crisis moment is pretty weak sauce; when the movie presents the question "will he or won't he help Rasputin call down the Ogdru-Jahad?," not only is the answer an obvious "NO," but that answer remains pretty solid throughout the movie. There's one brief moment where Hellboy helps Rasputin and we see some cool special effects about what that means--and good thing too, because otherwise we might wonder why Hellboy is suddenly helping the guy who killed his dad and his love interest.

In fact, if we wanted characters who seem to change, we'd have to look to the director of the Bureau (played by Jeffrey Tambor) and to Liz Sherman. The director starts out as a bureaucrat/spokesperson; he ends as a field agent. He begins with a distrust of Hellboy as just another freak; and he ends working with Hellboy to kill a supernatural Nazi and then teaching him to light a cigar. Can we say here that a cigar isn't just a cigar? It's clear that Tambor's character grows from disapproving to supportive father figure. Why he changes is a little less clear to me; and after that support, he's left behind, another reminder of his symbolic role. (Another reminder: I don't even remember his name.)

Liz Sherman also changes pretty quickly, from person who doesn't trust her powers and thinks it would be weird to date Hellboy; to person who uses her out-of-control powers and kisses Hellboy. That first change takes a while and is fairly played out, with Myers (and Abe Sapien) building up a trusting relationship. The second is a little quicker and stranger, seeming to be based on the "you'd do that for me" moment of Hellboy killing monsters for Liz. (Of course, he'd do that anyway.)

So while Hellboy doesn't really change all that much, the movie presents an illusion of character growth by having the characters around him consider him differently.

Captain America
I did say I was going to look at two movies about big guys hitting Nazis and whether the main characters actually grow at all. With Captain America, the case seems easier: (a) there's no one else to compete for screen time with him the way Myers competes with Hellboy; (b) he undergoes some serious physical change.

But that physical change that makes Steve Rogers into Captain America only brings out the heroic qualities that were in Steve to begin with. And the movie does this brilliantly, setting up his inner heroism in a bunch of smaller scenes that make his later heroism believable as part of his character. In other words, at the end of the movie, Rogers chooses to sacrifice himself to save New York; and we know he would do the exact same thing at the beginning since we've seen it in much smaller ways--like when he sacrificed himself to fight a bully so that other people could enjoy the movie and honor the troops in the newsreel. In other words, there's no internal conflict, no crisis of character for Captain America to face. He starts off as a boy scout and he ends up as a boy scout.

There is one way that he does change, though: as the movie goes on, he gets better at talking to girls. Specifically, he gets better at talking to Peggy Carter. When we first see Rogers with girls (at the World's Fair), he has no interest in women; later, Carter even calls him out on his awkwardness when she takes him to the experiment; but by the end of the movie, after they have the requisite "this isn't what it looks like" misunderstanding, he's flirting right back with her. That's something he couldn't have done before.

And again, while the core of Steve Rogers doesn't change, we get some illusion of change through the fact that other people look at him differently. In fact, it's the Colonel (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter that seem to look at him differently--and they occupy the same positions as the characters in Hellboy: the boss and the love interest.

The villains' story
Here's another interesting parallel between Hellboy and Captain America: both start with a tiny prologue introducing the main character--but not really: we see Hellboy as a baby and Captain America as a popsicle. (Actually, we don't see him frozen, but we see his shield). And then both movies introduce us to the villains, whether Rasputin reborn or Red Skull finding his cube.

This early focus on the villains might threaten to make them the center of our attention, except (a) they're both marked as EVIL; and (b) despite some cool character design, these guys never really become interesting. Rasputin wants to summon dark gods and Red Skull wants to control the world. Why? No reason--or backstory--is given. What interesting positive traits do they have? Well, Rasputin loves his she-wolf, Ilsa; and Red Skull is clever enough to find the cube. But there's nothing really surprising--no, "Rasputin loves puppies" or anything like that.

Character change is often considered a requirement of good story-telling; but at the same time, in action/adventure movies, we often like our protagonists to start off as good guys. So the change in these two movies isn't in the essential goodness of the characters, but in some other quality--or sometimes just in the illusion that change is taking place by having supporting characters change their opinions.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 103: Waverly Root, The Flying Fool (#34)

Waverly Root, "The Flying Fool" (1987) from Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology:

This piece appeared after Root's death, if I'm reading the dates right; which has no bearing on my topic other than to note that it appeared long after Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris. So Root gets to give us the long view, both about what Lindbergh's flight meant and what people thought at the time. And most importantly, how big a gap there was.

That's kind of the major motif of this gently funny piece: everyone was caught by surprise by Lindbergh's flight. The newspaper editors didn't think he would make it; the politicians were caught by surprise; the police under-reacted by sending hardly any cops to deal with the crowd of well-wishers; etc.

In fact, it's about eight pages of gently poking fun at all the people who either misunderstood Lindbergh or tried to turn his triumph to their own ends; and then we get two pages of how Lindbergh totally knew what he was doing. Lindbergh didn't take a radio or a co-pilot because he totally knew he could do it. If you wrote that section today, you'd say, "we can't call him 'Lucky Lindy' because he's just that hardcore."

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 102: Ellen Glasgow, The Shadowy Third (#101)

Ellen Glasgow, "The Shadowy Third" (1916) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

I've never read Ellen Glasgow before, so I just have to take on faith that the LoA page is correct in its comments on how her short fiction shows her transition from some kind of fiction to some other kind. I can more securely discuss the description of this ghost story as Jamesian as both totally right (it's a genteel story about a child haunting that might be real (but yeah, totally is)); and also as giving James a little too much credit in the psychological supernatural field. James merely gave us, in "Turn of the Screw," one of the best versions--and the one most often read by people in college. (It's an example of Google selection bias before Google: the more people read that story, the more likely it is to get mentioned/linked, the more people then go on to read it.)

But "Shadowy Third" probably also reminds people of James in the Wings of the Dove background: doctor marries rich woman so that he can marry his true love after he inherits all her money. It is also, like James, told with a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity: although the nurse narrator totally did see the ghost child, she still can't give definitive answers about what happened or what motivated the people in the story. People are as shadowy and unknowable as ghosts here. So when the narrator sums up the doctor/killer with "He was, I suppose, born to be a hero to women," we should pay attention not just to her worshipful judgment, but that "I suppose" that interrupts the sentence.

Which is probably why this isn't just a story about violence against women or ghostly revenge, but about the special ability to know and how knowledge may change one. For instance, there's lots of precise description about who is wearing what or what the garden looks like. And then we get the description of the ghost child's eyes:
For the odd thing about this look was that it was not the look of childhood at all. It was the look of profound experience, of bitter knowledge.
Oh god, how many times are you going to say "look"? If I wrote that, it would be bad style; but Glasgow focuses on the look--the look the girl gives her, the fact that the nurse can look at the child, the understanding of "look" as something more abstract than "eyes." 

We see this throughout the piece, where the imaginative and sympathetic nurse gains some extra knowledge--she's the only one who can see the child-ghost besides the mother. Why? Because she's imaginative and sympathetic--a novelist manque. So she gets special information, but doesn't know how: "How the warning reached me--what invisible waves of sense perception transmitted the message--I have never known."

But there's also something special about the narrator that isn't peculiar to her, but to her profession. As her boss (and distant relative) notes, nurses get hardened by what they see and learn--just like child-ghosts. And sometimes that means that the narrator can't really fully describe what's going on, but bases her observations on some shared knowledge: "He was the sort of physician--every nurse will understand what I mean--who deals instinctively with groups instead of with individuals." That the nurse's observation about a type of doctor is directed towards a group of nurses is the sort of reflexive and ambiguous comment that keeps this from being a scary ghost story, and more a meditation on knowable-ness and tellable-ness. Like a James story.