Literature


There is no denying Alice Munro’s ability to weave a tale, but sometimes she is given more respect than might be due.  I just finished reading “Child’s Play” a 2007 story of hers that appeared in Harper’s.  Fair enough, but then to be included in The best American short stories, 2008?  I am not so sure about this inclusion.  The story seems overly hamfisted, an attribution I have probably never before given to Munro.

Part of Munro’s brilliance is her foreshadowing technique.  Sometimes she is not even hinting at a future plot development, but is merely coaxing the reader into an odd setting.  Instead of saying ‘we were at summer camp’ she goes through a mention of cots and coolie caps (and the discussion of ‘coolie’ as a way to set the time).  These are particularly brilliant strokes, not at all unique to “Child’s Play” but unique to Munro.  Her magic with dialogue is also … magical.  I cannot even begin to unlock how she does it.

All that said (and if I did not discuss it, then consider it, at the least, well-done if not brilliant), the reveal in this story seems tired.  I have the impression that Munro became tired of working her magic and decided to be a mere mortal about it.  She just blurts out the event causing the grief, causing the story.  It’s very sudden and sad to see a master not work her mastery.  But there is a moment earlier in the story where this also occurs.  Munro discloses her anthropologist eye and then tried to impress the reader with a clue about the secret dealings of women who just ‘click’.  Yep, she subscribes to ‘clicking’.  No explanation, no theory.  Once that affinity is posited she then moves on to describe how that relationship functions.

It is precisely that explanation that bugged me.  It seemed unnecessary, as a way to justify the way the two women interacted.  Here is where I prefer Hemingway.  He would have just done, instead of explaining.  The explanation comes off as an apology, a kernel of self-doubt.  It is possible that Munro anticipated this criticism, as not even one page later there is this gem: “I’ve felt less wary with men.  They don’t expect such transactions and are seldom really interested.”  This is why Hemingway could only capture relationships set against some background of overwhelming proportion.

Despite how good the story is, and it is a good one despite my comments, it is not even the best one I read this morning.  For that I offer a section of E.B. White’s rescue of Thoreau’s Walden, a book which needs resuscitation.

Thoreau’s assault on the Concord society of the mid-nineteenth century has the quality of a modern Western: he rides into the subject at top speed, shooting in all directions.  Many of his shots ricochet and nick him on the rebound, and throughout the melee there is a horrendous cloud of inconsistencies and contradictions, and when the shooting dies down and the air clears, one is impressed chiefly by the courage of the rider and by how splendid it was that somebody should have ridden in there and raised all that ruckus. (293)

Munro, Alice.  (2007).  Child’s play.  In S. Rushdie, ed.  (2008).  The best American short stories, 2008 (201-229).  NY: Houghton Mifflin.

White, E.B. (1954).  A slight sound at evening.  In J.C. Hallman, ed. (2009).  The story about the story: Great writers explore great literature (291-300).  Portland: Tin House Books.

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First, there is a new blog I am following.  The Wooden Pickle is run by a guy that is obviously smart and funny.  He says things in half the space it would take me and with more panache than I could hope to muster.  In any case, check it out.  He doesn’t write as often as I would prefer, so you definitely have time to add it to your RSS.

Second, a little ditty I came across this morning.  Not only do I understand exactly what is being said, but the brilliance of how it is performed is affecting and clear.  Geoff Dyer 1997:

What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them.  I would sit down at my desk and think to myself What perfect conditions for working, then I would look out at the sun smouldering over the wheat, or at the trees gathering the Tuscan light around themselves, or at the Parisians walking through the twilight and traffic of Rue de la Roquette, and I would write a few lines like ‘If I look up from my desk I can see the sun smouldering over the wheat’; or ‘Through my window: crowded twilight on the Rue de la Roquette’; and then, in order to make sure that what I was writing was capturing exactly the moment and the mood, I would look up again at the sun smouldering over the flame-red wheat or the crowds moving through the neon twillight of Rue de la Roquette and add a few more words like ‘flame-red’ or ‘neon’, and then, in order to give myself over totally to the scene, would lay down my pen and simply gaze out at the scene, thinking that it was actually a waste to sit here writing when I could be looking and by looking – especially on a Rue de la Roquette where the pedestrians hurrying home in the neon twilight would look up and see a figure at his desk, bathed in the yellow light of the anglepoise – actually become a part of the scene, whereas writing involved not an immersion in the actual scene but its opposite, a detachment from it. (229-30)

Dyer, Geoff.  (1997).  An excerpt from Out of sheer rage.  In J.C. Hallman, ed. (2009). The story about the story: Great writers explore great literature (226-430).  Portland: Tin House Books.

I am convinced the best Story is the love from afar.  Here is a recent entry (a good entry even in a nearly-impossible-to-fail genre):

Molly Auerbach’s “The Shiksa

Of course, the nose is not actually happening.  It is the fantast-ic frame which is really what the genre is about: exposing our insecurities or our confidences.  Usually this genre occupies a song form: Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amore”, natch, and Coldplay’s “Shiver” are the genre par examplance.

Blogging is also the genre put into another form.  Which is why I love it so.  This insight (yes, a confidence) helps complete Jodi Dean’s recent incompleteness.

More to follow to-morrow are as I discuss Mel Gibson’s latest, Edge of Darkness, and the Fear of Death.

Best.

The Father Brown stories by G.K.
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“…was a man who read his Bible.  That was the matter with him.  When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible?  A printer reads a Bible for misprints.  A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs.  St. Clare was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier….  Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted – lust, tyranny, treason.  Oh, I dare say he was honest as you will call it.  But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?”

From “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

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STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - DECEMBER 10:  French write...
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With the recent Nobel announcements I decided to check out last year’s lecture from the winner of the literature prize.  Here are some notes as I proceed and I might later compile them into something larger and more formal.

The opening of the essay is about why writers write.  Obviously there is reduction as Le Clezio attributes the same impulses to writers.  Writers see injustice in the world and decide to take a different approach to resistance, a form that is “another way to react, another way to communicate, a certain distance, a time for reflection.”  It almost sounds like cowardice Le Clezio is describing, but I will hold off on that since Le Clezio will surely attempt to rehabilitate the role of the writer.  I will spare us from the usual refutation that has been put to rest since Of Grammatology, however one thing needs to be noted.  I have never before seen the spoken resisatcne that is neither meditated nor mediated.  Le Clezio’s initial premsise seems overly Socratic.

Le Clezio then takes us to the next reason writers are not resistant: their works are consumed almost exclusively by the wealthy.  The hungry woman does not purchase books when instead she is worried about feeding her children.  Again I am not sure this is true.  So much so that it smells like a set up.  Le Clezio is constructing the straw man so he can later pummel it.  I am cynical of his motivations (the straw man construction makes me suspect he wants to appear radical is more improtant than being radical) even if I may agree with his ultimate conclusion.  This is Le Clezio’s founding paradox: the writer is a radical dressed in chic clothing.

The remainder of the lecture is a series of rembrances, which are interesting, that do nothing for what I guessed to be his argument.  In the end Le Clezio’s argument is less ambitious than it should be.  He argues that hunger and illiteracy are the same problem and need to combated together.  The once hungry is not much improved if she remains illiterate and the once illiterate is still a captive if hungry.  I am not sure this is at all controversial.  This conclusion is so brief and unexplored that it seems pithy.  I wonder if this speech was extemporaneous even though he had had months to prepare.

The blandness of the conclusion also makes me think Le Clezio’s writer is a bourgeoisie dressed in radical clothing.  Expanding literacy as a goal to combat hunger is insufficient in our politics.  If the goal is to sell more books then it is a great message.  Feeding people does little to combat hunger as the problem is more about distribution mechanisms than it is about the desire to resist.

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No sooner have I written the previous post than I begin chapter two of Chaloupka’s Kowing Nukes. Here is his argument:

…the warrior is now simply and starkly absent.  For several reasons (technological, political, and theoretical), the warrior has ceased to hold any kind of posibility.  Instances where the warrior seems to be present – Panama, Liberia, Grenada, Afghanistan, even the Persian Gulf – quickly present themselves as failures, spectacles, or exercises in nostalgia. (24)

It is precisely the absence of the warrior, also read as the increasing sociality of our civilization, that gives rise to so much literature about warriors.  Some may respond to Chaloupka that 9/11 returned us to a world that had ceased when he wrote the above words in 1992.  However, the remainder of the book pre-empts this argument by claiming nuclear weapons are an example fo the shift away from warriors and that our current world has not seen such a large revision to return us to the simpler times.  Der Derian’s Virtuous War (2001) is a better accounting of this shift than Chaloupka provides, but that is also easily acocunted for by the intended market for the two books.

The crux of my thought for now is that the Western and the espionage thriller are a romantic’s response to the increasing alienation we feel in our world.  I believe this alienation is inevitable and defines the human condition, but some reach out to a past time as a way to bridge the human gap.  Strip away the grocery stores and the deeply troubling give and takes of a long term healthy relationship and the writer is left with a solitary figure marked on the desolate horizon.  It’s the simple protagonist conflicted against a simple environment that best analogically allows the writer to conquer the true foe.

Chaloupka, William.  (1992).  Knowing nukes.

Der Derian, James.  (2001).  Virtuous war: Mapping the military-industrial-media-entertainment network.


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2006 Ojiya Balloon Festival (2006年おぢや風船一揆)
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This story reads oddly having just seen Up.  It is about an older man whose wife dies and he slowlys slips into a dementia, or at least his children think so even though his grandson disagrees at first and then blames the siblings for the slips.  The end of the story is shocking as the children take their father into the country, put him into a hot air balloon and then release him.  It is an act that, at first, I read as ultimate kindness.  A granting of the self-effacing wish, but then I reread the passage and it is instead the opposite.  The old man was terrified and the children were selfish.  More importantly, however, is how the grandson feels shame for not refusing to participate in the plan.

I wonder then if Up is not better read as a fanatsy of the main character.  What if instead of the adventure he is instead sitting in his rocker in the nursing home wishing the remainder of the moie is what he shoudl have done instead?

The other striking aspect of this story is the clarity of description West captures for simple events.  The first example is West’s ability to capture the plight of the moody man and also the response from the older confused parent:

‘Good God, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, just leave it in the damn corner.  I just bought it because I care about you and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.’  My father was incapable of moderating the rages that could explode from within him – I never once saw him simply angry or annoyed – and he left the room murmuring obscenities, letting George feel selfish for having defended his own dignity, his eyes staring through the room in search of a consoling detail…” (146-7)

I wish there was more time spent on the fetishistic disavowal hinted at by West.  It is precisely this shallowness that makes me wonder about West’s story though.  Even though there are some observations and he explains with such clarity that they become easily recognizable even without a shared experience – “[a]s though to fulfill his duty, George began to display not long afterward the mental defects Melissa and my father had complained of.” (147) – they remain shallow observations.  West does not probe but instead merely blames and accuses.

West is a clear writer but does that make writing quality?  Is writing which is easily digested and clearly reflective like a newly polished mirror the mark of quality.  Or should writing instead inspire and instead of reflect back at us make us want to instead reflect back at it?  I doubt this story prompts people to do that.  Even those of us who may be mean to our parents or who may be witnessing our parents being mean to our grandparents may not see much of ourselves in this story.

West, A. Nathan.  (2006.)  The balloon.  McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 21, 143-50.

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