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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Odysseus and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse
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The last piece from the Szereto collection about revenge was Szereto’s own piece and I was having none of it.  However I am glad to report that I enjoyed the latest story.  Rosie Jackson‘s “Echo” has some issues: a silly take on American male identity fed in part by her Rush Limbaugh-like treatment of feminism and a ham-fisted reference to Echo and Narcissus.

The nutshell version of the story is a normally loud and proud woman falls in love with an American writer.  She then serves as his Echo, repeating what he says as brilliance and this allows him to be successful.  She grows tired and stops parroting him and instead begins to mutate his ramblings into transgressive axioms and his success and life then collapse.

What redeems the story from the eye-rolling inducements are these very transgressions.  The first instance:

‘I got the deal, honey,; he grinned.  ‘You’ll be so proud of me.  The world’s my oyster.’

‘Oysters in honey,’ I fumbled.  ‘Deal the pride.  Get the me.’ (137).

En-couraged by his obliviousness, the protagonist pushes further:

‘Something’s not right here.  I need to get back to my previous vein.’

‘Vain,’ I pointed out.

‘I’m running out of time here babe.  Maybe you could put together my invoices?’

‘Maybe you could put my voice in.’ (137)

It’s a short read and only the 10th in the anthology.  There are 17 total, but so far this particular story is my second favorite.  The ending, however, should have been given a final edit.  The story contains a reference to a Narcissus flower but the ending is over the top in its relation to the same flower, as though the reader needs the additional lecture to understand the allusion.

Jackson should have taken her cue from THE classic ancient text about not needing to say everything.  Note the discussion about the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.  The Sirens sing a song and Homer tells us about the legend and what happens.  Homer even has Odysseus listen to the song, but never once does Homer tell us what they sing.

Todorov tells us that they sing, “we sing.”  So the Siren song is self-referential and as sailors escape the Sirens are then forced to hurl themselves off the cliffs because the song is death itself.  Consequently there is no song for Homer to recount (58-9).  Pucci’s account, however, places the absence as an act of humility.  If Homer were to include the sublime verse of the Sirens’ song then Homer would, in effect, be calling his own verse more sublime .  It seems obvious why Homer would want to avoid this interpretation.

Salecl, however, has a superior account which envelopes both Pucci’s and Todorov’s positions:

…the Siren’s song is the point in the narrative that has to remain unspoken for the narrative to gain consistency.  It is a point of self-referentiality that a story has to omit in order to attain the status of a story. (61)

“Echo” can end the way it does, but Jackson should have omitted the final Narcissus reference because that reference turns “Echo” from a story about a relationship informed by the Echo and Narcissus myth into an example of the myth.  And a bad example at that because the analogic is too easily disrupted.

Jackson, Rosie.  (2007).  Echo.  In Mitzi Szereto, ed.  Getting even: Revenge stories (133-39).  London: Serpent’s Tail.

Pucci, Pietro.  (1987.)  Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Calecl, Renata.  (1998).  (per)versions of love and hate.  London: Verso Books.

Todorov, Tzvetan.  (1977).  The poetics of prose. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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Saint Wolfgang and the Devil by Michael Pacher).
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To-day’s short story was short.  Shorter than the author had anticipated.  Mitzi Szereto’s “Hell is where the heart is” only earned my attention for almost 3 of its 34 pages.  A couple of things: 1.  The jokes are not funny.  She tries too hard, similar to Nate‘s stand up comedy.  2.  In the almost 3 pages she launches into tangents that are supposed to be funny, but then makes the cardinal errors, “Ah, but I digress…” and “Oh, there I go, digressing again.”  It’s very third grade.  3.  It is a take on the Faustian bargain, but form what I can tell does not offer anything new to the genre.  And it is a deal with the devil to seek revenge on a guy for an emotional breakup.  I am not interested in reading about someone so pathetic that she wants to deal with the devil for emotional revenge.  4.  This is really the cardinal error.  This volume is from a publishing hosue I have never before heard of and I am unfamiliar with many of the writers yet I am willing to take a risk.  But, the editor of the volume is Mitzi Szereto.  I have dropped classes just because the professor is the author of the textbook, and sometimes those people are ‘experts’.  When planning my publishing house I think about doing this very thing but I refuse because I find it so droll.

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Cover of "Ulysses"
Cover of Ulysses

I have often thought of publishing stuff in hard-copy.  Friend’s works.  Stuff I like.  I think the place where I should begin is a collection of my favorite short stories.  There is, of course, a copyright issue to deal with since some of my favorites are not yet public domain.  In any case, here is my current list and I am always willing to hear suggestions for additions if I ever did this.

Anton Chekhov.  “The Witch” and “The Lady with the Dog.”

William T. Vollmann.  “Epitaph for Jaguar” and “The Handcuff Manual.”

? Duffy (I forget the first name).  “Payment in Kind.”

A small list for now, but I just read another one that would definitely make the list: Donald Barthelme’s “Alice”. (60 Stories. 68-75.  1981.  NY: Penguin Books.)  It is written oddly, almost a stream of consciousness style, but more accurate than Ulysses or any other attempt I have crossed.  Maybe I just find it accurate because I should be on ADHD medication.  Here is the openeing paragraph for clarification of what I mean:

twirling around on my piano stool my head begins to swim my head begins to swim twirling around on my piano stool a dizzy spell eventuates twirling around on my piano stool I begin to feel dizzy twirling around on my piano stool (68)

Barthelme’s style here does a good job of relating the dizzyness, but the rest of the story is also written like this.  I wonder then how unique the dizzy sensation is.  Does the narrator always feel like he is twirling on a piano stool?  While I think I have that feeling more than most, at least since being hit by the car, I can tell that it accelerates at times.

Here is one of the slower paragraphs to help demonstrate the haze riddled world of the narrator:

I maintain an air of serenity which is spurious I manage this by limping my limp artful creation not an abject limp (Quasimodo) but a proud limp (Byron) I move slowly solemnly through the world of miming a stiff leg this enables me to endure the gaze of strangers the hatred of pediatricians (69)

During high school I had a friend whose father walked with a pronounced limp.  The father was born in Ireland and I think something had happened to him there and he was unable to seek adequate medical attention for it.  The interesting part, though, was my friend’s younger brother who adopted the same limp without having had an injury.

Sometimes when I have been sitting for a while and I then stand and walk, as I am about to do here in my favorite coffee shop in Uptown, what a gorgeous day it is BTW!, I have a stiff leg and I walk with a limp.  I love that limp though. I imagine people see me and think that I earned it in some glorious spectacle.  In any case, Bartheleme’s story turns on a feeling, Byron’s pride, to which I can immediately relate and have never before shared with another writer.  Therin lies some of Barthelme’s magic: his keen eye.  I would recommend this book for anyone wanting to read some great short pieces of fiction.

I will leave you with a joke Ursa‘s cousin told me the other day:

A man in the area was walking and sees the neighborhood mentally ill man with a rabbit.  The man is crying and emotionally wrought because the rabbit is ill.  The original man thinks the rabbit is fine but knowing the character takes him to the neighborhood vet, where they ar eboth well known.  The vet talks to them and understands that all he needs to do is look the rabbit over and diagnose it as alright and the guy will be happy and content.  They are shown into an exam room and the vet leaves, saying he will return shortly.

The two men and the rabbit are in the exam room and a labrador retreiver runs into the room.  The men stiffen with anxiety, but the rabbit is fine and the lab just sniffs around some.  A woman enters, apologizes and retrieves the lab, exiting for the lobby.  The door remains open.

A black cat then runs into the room and also sniffs around.  Neither the cat nor the rabbit react as the men do.  Again the owner comes into the room, apologizes and leaves with the cat.

A few minutes later the vet returns and declares that the rabbit is fine.  he then hands a bill for $500 to the first man.  “Doc, I thought you’s just look him over and …you know,” the man says in hushed tones hoping to not give away the show to the mentally ill man.

The vet replies, “yes, but I have to charge you for the cat scan and the lab report.”

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Dinkytown
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To-day’s short story is from the same anthology as yesterday’s, M. Szereto’s Getting even: Revenge stories.  Tony Fennelly has a funny story about killing an Aries (“How to kill an Aries”) using his self-centeredness and recklessness against him.  It’s funny if only because I know people like this (I wonder when they were born as I have some curiosity in astrology even though I do not [want to] believe.)

My main issue with this story and much contemporary fiction in general is that authors tend to neglect buyer’s remorse (the mechanics of desire.)  Plans are put into place and they come to fruition.  Sometimes there are unintended consequences but these effects are about the contingent and precarious nature of living and acting socially.  While these questions are valuable, an even more valuable question is the remorse people feel when they actually get what they want.  Thomas Jefferson once said, “the best way to convince someone they are wrong is to let them have their way.”

The main character in this story is happy when her plan comes to fruition.  She just killed her husband and while her life will be better off for it, she should, while still in the hospital, be struck with a sense of loss and “what now?”

I am reminded of one of my first assignments as a Beltway Boy.  Once a year in Morgantown there is a block party near the university, not unlike the one recently held here in Minneapolis, and the police decided this particular year to break up the party even though there had not been a single complaint.  Not unlike last week’s Dinkytown “riot”, we need to notice the increased deployment of this term by the police, the police were overly hostile and caused more damage than there would have been by allowing the party to party itself out.

The police had overstepped their bounds and a lesson needed to be taught.  Soriano has a friend who played football as a Mountaineer, and this friend’s sister was married to brute of an ass who was also one of the very cops that over-reacted, laughing as he shot drunk college students with rubber bullets.  He was the obvious choice for a lesson.  ‘Metaphoric condensation’ is how George referred to it.  I was surprised that George, a terse bowtie wearing famous pundit, read Zizek.

We broke into the house late one night as they slept and using chloroform we put Nikesha into a deep sleep.  Soriano and I pulled Elliott, bound and gagged, onto the porch.  We sat him down and George talked to him.

“Do you know who I am?”  Elliott shook his head affirmatively.  “Good.  Then you know that I am conservative and the last person to think these kids ought to have the run of the place.  When police officers act stupidly the way you did you make it harder for all of us.  You embolden the liberals.”  George always over-enunciated and even his attempts to use the vernacular still sounded prissy and over-educated.  “Now you can tell people we were here, but nobody will believe you.  You may end up receiving a Section Eight.”  Elliott sighed and looked down in what appeared to be acquiescence.  “Good.  Here is how you should have handled the student riot.  You should have brought in a fire truck and sprayed cold water over the top of the crowd.  It was cold that night and they were drunk.  Drunk people like to fight but they hate to be cold.  That would have been the humane thing to do.  You will remember that, will you not?”  Elliott nodded.  “You need to also be nicer to your wife or we shall return.  Do you understand?”  Elliott nodded.  We left him on the porch, bound and gagged for the neighborhood’s amusement as Nikesha was still been asleep well after sunrise.

The plan went off without a hitch and yet I felt guilt and a complete lack of satisfaction.  Eventually we had to pay Elliott another visit, before the next year’s block party so the effectiveness our plan was never tested.  However, the Morgantown PD have never rioted before while responding to the block party and yet that potential sign of success does not squash my sense of buyer’s remorse.  Sadly the Minneapolis PD now has some answering to do for their over-reaction last week.  What is even more sad though is the Star Tribune’s purchase of the PD’s spin of necessity and restraint.

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I just finished this short story and thinking about it I am surprised it affected me as much as it does.  The premise is simple: husband kills himself and the wife learns about his gambling addiction and huge debts afterward.  The widow decides, after being pushed into financial ruin by those same creditors, to seek revenge on all of those creditors.  What is most telling about the story though is the writing.  Duffy really has some great turns of phrase and her description of an all-encompassing grief is he most powerful and accurate accounting I have ever seen.

As she learns about her husband’s former life there is this little gem:

That was something else I had not known.  His weakness.  His soft, pathetic fear.  Scared to tell me, scared to face he facts, scared to acknowledge the mess he had made of it all, scared to look at himself and his truths.  Chicken.  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Becasue he saw a truck coming. (38)

Let us aleave aside for a moment that the truck really is an object worthy of avoiding, but this passage is really well done.  The punctuation drives home the varied fears, even though it is just one fear (which Duffy arrives at the end of the story) and the insight is valuable.  I can see some of myself in this description and I do not think I ever before realized some of these fears and how damaging they can be to a relationship.  There are always unsaid things, but the question is not about what is unsaid but why they are so.

The writing in this story is great, but I also love the implicit criticism of capitalism within.  The widow admits and never shifts all the blame off of her husband, but to think that he had no accomplices is ridiculous, and this is what the story sets out to demonstrate.  It is not, for Duffy, even that capitalism needs to be dissolved, but rather reformed/humanized.

Imagine if someone, anyone, just once, had been kind to him.  Had told him gently to take care.  Had not threatened him with reveltation and recriminiation.  Had helped him find a way back. (43)

And the story ends.  Well.  Predictably well.  About half way through the reader has a moment of “wait a minute, there’s a problem here.”  Duffy sees the problem and resolves it the only it can be.  There were some other ways out, and maybe they could have been explored to their unfulfilling end, but the way Duffy does it is nice.

Duffy, Stella.  (2007).  Payment in kind.  In M. Szereto, ed. (2007).  Getting even: Revenge stories (35-43).  London: Serpent’s Tail.

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Ironical monument to Anton Chekhov who visited...
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To-day’s short story was … short.  Written near the beginning of his career, it is the first story in the collection I have which is arranged chronologically, it looks like and feels like and might even smell like a Chekhov story, but it certainly does not hit like one.  The story is much like the tea I am drinking at the moment and the cofee shop I am in.  There is a great established place called Spyhouse here in Minneapolis and they recently opened a new one closer to where I live.  But it is too sterile, not funky (god how I hate that word) enough.  I feel as though I ought to be in a place called The Tea Garden.  The tea to-day is passion prairie, which almost made laugh out loud when I read it.  It is too sweet and lacking all the good punch of tea.

In any case the cook in the story is a young woman who is forced into a wedding.  We see her protest the wedding in the beginning of the story, then time passes and we see her wedding.  Then the next morning her husband takes advances on her wages, and we, of course, feel sorry for her.  And that’s the story.  All of it.

It is very odd and I am not too sure what to think other than seeing Chekhov working through the mechanics of how to write a short story.  There is talk about Chekhov as an objective writer and this story is pointed to as proof of that.  I think that notion is crap, for there are two portions of this story where Chekhov does pass judgement on the situation: at the end when the 7 year old hands the cook an apple to try and supplement her now garnished wages and second when the same 7 year old imagines the cook’s unhappiness on her wedding night.  That imagining makes the reader turn to darker places than a 7 year old does because the 7 year old does not know about wedding nights and what goes on, even though his imaginings can exist in both worlds:

“The poor thing is crying somewhere in the dark!” he thought.  “While the cabman is saying to her ‘shut up!'”

What a brilliant mechanism!  The innocent horror of the 7 year old is held to and yet Chekhov successfully takes us to a palce where the child imagines correctly, just not in the full context.  There is nothing objective about Chekhov, which is good, writing should challenge us and should level normative judgements.

Why then is there so much confusion about Chekhov as objective, because objectivity is easily mistaken for restraint and discipline.  This is the same conflation that is made about realism.  Ted Gioia has a good piece about the problem with realism as a genre.  Good literature should be an intervention and hence already disqualified from a realistic assesment, but beyond the impossibility of the genre there is also the danger of such a genre.  The dangers are well known and Gioia does a fairly good job of it, but Chabon’s Maps & Legends is a better read and more developed argument.

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