On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

Uhh…. Now What?

I haven’t shaved since Thursday. I don’t think I’ve eaten a proper vegetable in longer than that. My four-month-old Macbook blew a pixel somewhere during the process. My fluid consumption hasn’t been caffeine-free since last Saturday. But I pulled it off.

Yes, friends, I finished it. I submitted it. It’s fate rests in the good hands of the folks at the publisher.

If you squint at that photo you can suss out what it was for. I won’t openly acknowledge it since I’m superstitious like that. I should know either way within the next couple of months. Me and all the other cranks who took advantage of the open call, ha.

Whether or not it gets accepted or not is kind of irrelevant, though. It was a good idea, and it’ll still be a good idea if they decide it’s not a good fit for them right now. I’ll find somewhere else for it.

What’s more important is the education this whole whirlwind provided me. Chief among the lessons: This is what I love to do. Waking up at 6.00 a.m. some days was still a pain in the ass, but once I got the coffee maker working, sitting down to work on it was a joy. I’m sure this was partially due to the pressure of the oncoming deadline thanks to my brain’s inability to summon an idea until just over a week before the due date, but it was more to do with loving what I was doing. The hardest part now is waking up tomorrow and not have to immediately rush to the cafe or the kitchen table to get some work in before I went to my job.

I hope it will be habit forming. This last week was the only time in recent memory I wrote every day. On something I valued, not cranking out a blog entry to distract myself from short stories or anything else I had on the go. Working on the proposal only served to affirm how much I love to make things, whether that’s podcasts or stories or blogs. These are the things that bring meaning to my life. Some of you probably knew that all along. I’ve always been a bit of a dullard when it comes to these things.

Thankfully, I have two other writing projects to try and finish this week, along with the aforementioned Macbook display issue to try and remedy, so I’ll be able to keep busy. Turns out, I kinda like busy.

Before I collapse in slumber, I would be remiss if I did not thank some people for their love and support this past week. I can be….,, unpleasant to deal with when immersed in a project like this. It lives in my head and consumes my thoughts, which can lead me to expect people around me to read my mind by osmosis, or to understand what I mean with little explanation. This can…strain some relationships occasionally. My thanks to those who gritted their teeth and let me go crazy, or kicked my ass when I was needing it.

To Richelle Gratton, Tera Brasel, Jeff Meloche, Khaiam Dar, Caitlin MacKinnon, Sarah Jacobs and Nicole Bryant: you all get shouts in the acknowledgements. And I hate acknowledgement sections in books.

Now, I think I’ll go pass out.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Fourteen

Title: Girl in Dryer

Author: Julie McArthur

Appears in: Broken Pencil #54

Premise: A young girl living in a skeevy apartment complex makes her way among aspiring drug dealers, middle school mean girlness and pot-bellied pigs. Currently unavailable to read online, but the issue is still on shelves.

Thoughts: Recently I had the good fortune of having my good friend, the poet and artist Annie Wong, drag me out of my cave for an evening of used bookstore browsery, poutine and pints in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.

I hold any time spent with Annie in high regard, as she sometimes feels like my one tenuous connection to anything resembling the Toronto literary scene, a phrase I admit leaves me with an upset stomach.  But when I talk to her about art, or what we’ve been reading, or what inspires our work, what we want it to be, I actually feel kind of good as a ‘writer’ *shudder*.

Anyhoo, Annie’s been doing some work with Toronto indie-arts institution Broken Pencil [a publication I’ve taken small issue with before] and sweet talked the clerk at the used bookstore into giving her a free copy, which she promptly gave me. I figured it would make for a good opportunity to check in on the state of underground fiction in the city, see what’s valued and if I could see a place for me there.

In short, no. But, Julie McArthur’s story, while not perfect by any means [and a bit of a comedown after the steady diet of Nelson, Moore and Hempel I’d been on up to this point] kept me from falling completely into despair.

The story has a compelling lead character in Alice, the girl who hides from the world in a defunct dryer in her building’s laundry room.  She has a mom who loves her but isn’t around much due to work, and a friend named Paul, an older guy in the neighbourhood who buys a potbellied pig for a pet and lets Alice hang out with it. She doesn’t expect a whole lot out of life and doesn’t seem to have mind.  She’s content to hang out with Wilbur the pig and snuggle up in her pink blanket reading her book in the dryer.

While I found the language kind of plain throughout [probably design, you can’t take these things for granted] McArthur actually managed to surprise me by subtly revealing a sinister underbelly to the narrative.  It’s in the way she deftly turns the character of Paul into something more dangerous.  When Alice informs him she witnessed some boys in her building stash a bag of drugs in an abandoned washroom, Paul suddenly becomes adamant about having her steal it and buying it from her. His motives are never revealed, nor are the repercussions when Alice finds the drugs are already gone, but he grows irritated in that way dangerous people do when a deal doesn’t go the way they’d hoped.  The way that danger slowly leaks into the story is admirable, and a welcome change from the other works in the issue, which go so desperately out of their way to be avant-garde. McArthur doesn’t want to play in that pool, and her story is all the better for it.

Lesson: You don’t need to throw zip! pow! cliffhangers at your reader. Sometimes it’s far more effective to let it seep into the story in drips.

Favourite line:  Didn’t have one. Like I said, the language is pretty workaday. Can’t have everything.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Thirteen

Title: Charades

Author: Lorrie Moore

Appears in: Birds of America [1998]

Premise: The cracks in sibling relationships become evident during a holiday game of charades. Read it here.

Thoughts: Earlier in these proceedings I made mention that a lot of your favourite writers want to be Amy Hempel. True Story: whoever doesn’t want to be Amy Hempel wants to be Lorrie Moore.

Moore exploded on the literary stage [and into my heart] with her first short story collection Self-Help, which used the second-person voice so well amateurs have been ripping it off ever since [How to Become a Writer,  with its opening suggestion of “First, try to be something, anything, else” is probably one of the most passed around short stories in recent memory].  She hasn’t been terribly prolific since then, three short story collections and a pair of novels, but every word she’s put to page is incredible.

The two things I took from this story, which uses a sort of third person free-indirect narration told through the point of view of Therese, the oldest sibling in the family, had to do with word choice, shitty first drafts and surprising your reader.

There’s a moment where Therese, a circuit court judge, is thinking about her younger sister’s decision to go to law school: “…she had assumed Ann’s decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sororal affirmation…”  Look at that word: sororal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before, anywhere.  I doubt Moore used it in an early draft of the work [pure conjecture].  She probably had ‘sisterly,’ and in the act of rewriting, decided that ‘sororal’ sounded better, set the tone of the sentence on a different level, suggested something about Therese and her level of education, how she views the world. Because who uses sororal?!  Every word is a choice, and when you’re blasting your idea down onto the paper, maybe the wording isn’t as flowery as you might like.  That’s fine, you can go back to the draft with a fine toothed comb in a week or so.  That’s how you change ‘sisterly’ to ‘sororal.’

I was talking yesterday about letting your characters surprise you, and how I wasn’t sure I knew how to do that.  Lo and behold, I read this story later that afternoon and Moore’s Therese manages to surprise me from out of nowhere with an offhanded comment about a public defender she’s been having a perfunctory affair with, despite loving her husband dearly.  It’s mentioned so nonchalantly in the narration, yet makes perfect sense for the character [I’ll include it as my favourite line from this story].

This all feeds into the idea of the value of rewriting, which is also something I’m either too good at or not good enough; when I’m not ignoring a half-finished story I can’t bear to look at again, I’m performing what Evan Connell called, ‘going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places.’  But you never get to ‘sororal,’ you never get to be surprised by your characters, if you can’t focus on what you’re doing when you go back to the draft.

Lesson: Write shitty first drafts. Don’t be scared of them. For more on this, read Anne Lamont’s brilliant essay of the same name.

Favourite Line: “He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he’s ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor’s office, but it is a limited thing — like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable. It is nothing, except that is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Twelve

Title: We and They

Author: Antonya Nelson

Appears in: Nothing Right [2009]

Premise: A progressive family in the early 90’s struggles to understand their adopted mix-race daughter.

Thoughts:  While my paperback copy of this collection is missing them, I’m fairly certain the hardcover enticed me with a murderer’s row of cover blurbs by everyone from Raymond Carver to Michael Chabon to David Foster Wallace.  Quite the endorsements.  The depressing thing is, Nelson deserves every one of them.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than that one line synopsis I provided would suggest, primarily the relationship between the adoptive family [The Landerses] and their relationship with the Catholic family across the street [The Pierces], the clash of values between them, and the reasoning for the Landerses adoption of the mixed-race toddlers Otis and Angel.

What I found the most striking about this story [and most stories in this collection, I’ve picked it apart pretty thoroughly as the margin scribbles throughout will attest; We and They was one of two stories I had yet to read in it] is how natural Nelson’s prose is.  Compare it to something like the Grace Paley story we looked at last time, where the writing is fantastic but moves at a slower pace, demands more concentration, Nelson’s writing just zips along, reading it is like cruising in a vintage roadster with the top down.  That isn’t to say the writing isn’t good, far from it. It just means, even at its most descriptive,  at its funniest, the prose is so relaxed and natural it never feels like any work went into it at all, which is of course the first sign that something is genius-level good.

I suspect, purely conjecture, that Nelson reads her work aloud a lot. In my experience it’s the only way to get prose that sounds that natural.  One of the few things I can admit that I do well is write dialogue, and a lot of that comes from reading out what I’ve written after a day of writing.  If it don’t sound right in your ear, it won’t sound right in a reader’s head.  Of course, you do run the danger there of tying your characters too tightly to the vision you have of them in your head, robbing them of the chance to live and breathe on their own [I admit, this is something I still have never had happened to me, they’ve never surprised me because they’re never alive to me, they’re just end up me in costume].  But if you’re going to find your ‘voice’, something I’m still not sure I have, then that’s the way to do it.

Lesson: Read out loud. Relinquish control of your characters. Really think of them as people, and not players you’re directing.

Favourite Line: “Our large family was not the result of Catholic faith and we didn’t attend Blessed Sacrament church or school, despite the fact that it was a stone’s throw away from our house. We threw stones, so we knew.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Eleven

Title: A Conversation With My Father

Author: Grace Paley

Appears in: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute [1974]; The Collected Stories [1994]

Premise: An unnamed author and her dying father argue about styles of storytelling. You can read it here, or even better, listen to the British author Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast page.

Thoughts: I don’t recall where or why, but I know I came to Grace Paley because Charles Baxter was always going on about her and how great she was [he even scores the cover blurb on her Collected Stories]. And, as I’ve previously discussed in these posts, I’m a sucker for ‘Collected Works’ editions that present the whole of an author’s career in one volume.  I think it makes me feel better about my limited output, like ‘Hey, Grace Paley lived into her 80’s and this one 360-page paperback is the sum of her fictional career!  I can totally pull that off!” But I also find comfort and solace in dipping in and out of an author’s work, different points in their lives, by flipping the pages and stopping at random, or scanning the table of contents for a title that pings an echo in my mind.

Paley’s ‘A Conversation With My Father,’ is one of my favourite short stories [I should really spend a minute to compile them one day].  It’s a story about storytelling, about stories within stories, and about how we use stories.  The narrator’s father chides her for her inability to write a simple story like Chekhov or Maupassant, “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

This idea makes the narrator uncomfortable but she tries for his sake [and why do most readers assume the narrator is a woman? There’s nothing in the text to confirm that]. She tells him a story about a woman he becomes a junky to stay close to her son, only for the son to clean up and abandon her. When her father complains she left too much out, she tries again, making the story longer and flowering the language but no more detailed. In the story’s final movement the father and narrator argue over whether the mother in the story’s life is over: the father sees her as a tragedy, the narrator chooses to believe the mother will change her life at age 40 and get a job as a medical receptionist.  The father responds in what are the story’s strongest moments, nearly begging his daughter to accept the tragedies of life, and how they cannot be negotiated with, asking, ‘When will you look it in the face?’

The story’s conclusion are when all the elements, after circling around each other, coalesce and tie together a theme and moral with a stunning subtlety: the father wants the narrator to accept that he’s dying, to relinquish the jokes and face the reality of their situation, but she cannot do it, she needs to temper the situation with jokes and cynicism and stubborn optimism; that’s why she argues that the mother will change her life, she wants to give her the happy ending she knows her father is already past, something her father views as an act of cowardice.  All this emotion and power in six pages, it’s incredible.

Paley’s word choices and metaphors throughout the story are impeccable, and will startle you with their beauty out of nowhere.  Paley started her career as a poet and ‘A Conversation,’ as with most of Paley’s work, bears a poet’s fingerprints. It’s a good thing to remember, that for as much as I’m reading these stories to learn things about structure and plotting and character development, adding a side of poetry into the mix can do wonders for my language and metaphorical thought.

Lesson: Read more poetry.

Favourite line:  “My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Ten

Title: Newlywed

Author: Banana Yoshimoto

Appears in: Lizard [1995]

Premise: A newlywed man who can’t bring himself to go home after a night of boozing encounters a strange being on the commuter train out of Tokyo.

Thoughts: And here we are, the story that threw the whole enterprise off the rails with a severity I never would have expected.  It didn’t occur to me when I started this that any of the stories I read might be…useless to the experiment.  This should not have been surprising to me, but it was. I read three stories in this collection, and while all of them were….fiiiine…..none of them inspired anything in me like the other nine stories I’d read so far.

And that, coupled with people’s unexpected re-discovery of something I wrote years ago that started getting unexpected praise, knocked me back down into the vortex of the “internal decathlon” pictured below.

(Artwork by Grant Snyder)

There is no reason for this.  I’m working on it, that’s all I can say right now. Serious this time. It’s a process.

So what was the problem with Lady Banana?  The first problem isn’t necessarily even her fault, and it’s a reality of reading Japanese authors in translation that I caution customers about all the time.  Japanese translations into English can read very plainspoken-bordering-on-boring; there’s a lot of telling, not showing [that cardinal sin of every creative writing class].  Newlywed definitely suffered from that problem. The narrator is always telling you how he’s feeling, it’s all blabby blab blab: for a story with a supernatural being in it, it felt really frigging plain. 

To be fair, the book takes care to note that Newlywed originally appeared as a series of serialized posters on Japanese commuter trains, like those ads you sometimes see on buses with poetry on them, something to bring some culture to the lowly public transit rider.  I’d like to think that fact contributed to the issues I had with the story, but I found Helix, another story from the collection, to have the same sort of dispassionate prose.  Maybe it’s just something in the Japanese character I’m unaccustomed to, and is actually something Yoshimoto captures brilliantly.  Still doesn’t make for a captivating read.

Lesson: Plain is boring, and deceptively hard to do.  Just because you write plain sentences doesn’t make you Hemingway.

Favourite line [or what passes for one]: “I’ve been watching this city long enough to know that it’s full of people like you, who left their hometowns and came here from other places. When I meet people who are transplants from other places, I know I have to use the language of people who never feel quite at home in this big city.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Nine

Collected stories amy hempel1

Title: And Lead Us Not into Penn Station

Author: Amy Hempel

Appears in: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom [1990]; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel [2006]

Premise: An unnamed narrator comments on the things she sees around New York.

Thoughts: The initial promise of this series was that I wouldn’t revisit stories I’d already read, which makes talking about Amy Hempel rather difficult, considering my copy of her Collected Stories is one of my more thumbed and marked up editions. Because, little secret?

I want to be Amy Hempel.

Another secret?

Your favourite author probably wants to be Amy Hempel, too.

Hempel, who I’ve just learned was studied under Raymond Carver’s old editor Gordon Lish [aka ‘Captain Fiction’], has a gift for constructing sentences with surgical precision that most of us amateurs can only read and exhale long, slow breaths at. She’s really that good, and seems to be criminally under-read, likely due to her relatively limited output and apparent refusal to write novels, focusing on shorter works and her career as an instructor at Harvard [Harvard!].

Point being, if you haven’t at least read ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,’ I can’t fucks with you literarily.

‘…Penn Station,’ while at first read feeling structurally similar to a lame poem I, and likely a million other people wrote in high school, leaves all of us in the dust for the delicate construction of her images and the plainspoken pessimism of her conclusion.  It’s a brief story, three pages at its total, sitting with you like a daydream and then blowing away into dust.

The great things about stories like this, or the work of Lydia Davis, is that they can encourage the amateurs among us to not be completely beholden to traditional ideas of form and plot and structure. Not that I would ever argue against those things, I feel like amateurs are far too eager to toss them aside in fits of laziness.

No, what I mean is that frequently in fiction writing you find you write a passage or a line that might exceed the art of the rest of the story, but has to be cut because it doesn’t fit the overall work. What a story like this does is encourage passages like that to live on their own, to make a place for them. Just really give them a hard look beforehand.

Lesson: Effective narratives can flaunt the traditional rules of plot and story structure, but you better make damn sure you’ve got the goods before you try it. Don’t kid yourself, you know the goods when you see it.

Favourite line: Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Eight

Titles: [1] A Platonic Relationship; [2] Find and Replace

Author: Ann Beattie

Appears in: [1] Distortions [1976], [2] Follies [2005]; both found in The New Yorker Stories [2011]

Premise: [1] A recently divorced woman in her early thirties rents her house to an undergrad student and develops an intense friendship with him. [2] Following the death of her father, a woman travels to Florida to visit her mother, only to learn the older woman is preparing to shack up with a neighbour for no reason other than being ‘compatible.’

Thoughts: So, why two?  Because I love collected works editions, that’s why. My recent second-hand acquisition of Ann Beattie’s ‘The New  Yorker Stories,’ [which I admit I only bought for the typography of its cover] allows me to do with Beattie what I’ve done with Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and others: read a career, especially the early stages, which is usually what I’m most concerned with, being a beginner myself. Beyond that, it’s a useful exercise to use books like this to see how an author’s voice develops, which is what struck me most about these two stories, the former written in 1974, the latter in 2001: the confidence and assuredness in Beattie’s prose is so much stronger in the newer story it’s almost jarring.

Not to say that A Platonic Relationship is a bad story, because it isn’t. But it reads as the story of a much younger writer.  There’s so much more life under the fingernails of Find and Replace…maybe the newer story struck more notes for me personally, being about the changing relationships of parents and children and such. APR had some distinct ‘been there, done that,’ elements at work, it felt like the 70’s frozen in amber, and it hadn’t aged especially well. FAR felt more vital to me and ultimately had more to say about age, family, change and the infinite allure of irresponsibility.

Lesson: Perhaps not returning to fiction until I was older was not the tragedy I thought it might have been. At least, not if you want to do literary fiction, anyway.

Favourite line: “What kind of writing?” he said, “Mysteries?”
“No. Stuff that really happens.”
“Don’t people get mad?” he said….
“People don’t recognize themselves. And, in case they might, you just program the computer to replace one name with another. So, in the final version, every time the word Mom comes up it’s replaced with Aunt Begonia or something.” 

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Seven

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Appears in: A Good Man is Hard to Find [1955]; The Complete Stories [1971]. You can read it online here.

Premise: A Grandmother and her family take a wrong turn on a vacation road trip and run into the serial murderer known in the papers as The Misfit.

Thoughts: Widely considered one of the greatest American short stories ever written, I shamefully admit I’d never read O’Connor’s masterpiece from beginning to end, despite having passages of it excerpted in at least 70% of creative writing books.  I’m not going to bother with telling you if the story’s good or not because it is, one of the rare examples of a writer deliberately layering symbolism on her work without it damaging the finished product: it’s the story that launched a million undergrad English essays. I’m also not going to break down my own interpretation of the story [though mine falls in line with popular academic opinion]. What I will tell you about are the choices O’Connor made that I admire. I admire that the mother’s name is never given, only ever referred to as ‘the children’s mother’; because the grandmother is the point of view for the story, and she’s selfish and vain, the children’s mother isn’t worth a mention by name, being no blood kin of hers.  The same with calling the murderous villain the family meets at the end of the story The Misfit.  He’s not a character, he’s a force of nature; I doubt Flannery O’Connor was one for superhero comics, which is intriguing since she essentially wrote The Joker into her best known work.

But the primary reason I wanted to make a point to read this story was because of its appearance in an essay I read recently on how even words as simple as ‘the’ and ‘a’ can add a layer of meaning to what a writer is saying, and are a choice, even if the words themselves are so innocuous.

The scene from AGMIHTF cited in the essay comes near the story’s end, where The Misfit’s accomplice has taken the grandmother’s son and grandson into the woods to shoot them. Throughout the story, O’Connor makes a point of drawing a reader’s attention to the grandmother’s son Bernie’s shirt, a yellow sport shirt with blue parrots on it. After Bernie and her grandson are killed, The Misfit’s accomplices return:

“Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.”

Bobby Lee tosses the shirt to The Misfit, who puts it on, beginning the story’s final movement. But what the essay I read was drawing attention to was O’Connor’s use of the word a.  ‘A yellow shirt.’  As readers, we know who the shirt belonged to.  If O’Connor had written it, ‘Bobby Lee was dragging the yellow shirt with bright blue parrots on it,’ the entire meaning of the scene changes.  The grandmother’s mental state, how she’s processing the horror going on around her, and how she’s not, all hinges on swapping out the for a. 

Isn’t that so ridiculous it’s amazing?

I’ll likely never write anything as good as the ending of this story [I found the first 2/3 far weaker, but they’re necessary for the ending to work], but I can remember that every story is a like a crystal, and every word choice an angle cut on it, that changes the way the light of a reader’s eye catches it.

Lesson: Every word is a choice. Every one.

Favourite line: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Six

Title: Leviathan

Author: Tobias Wolff

Appears in: Back in the World [1986]; Our Story Begins: New & Selected Stories [2008]

Premise: A pair of coked-out couples do lots of blow and tell each other stories.

Thoughts: The great American short story writer Raymond Carver gave a lot to American letters, but no contribution has been pilfered quite as wholesale as his story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  If the title isn’t being re-appropriated by everyone from Haruki Murakami to Nathan Englander to…well, me, then the structural conceit of two couples getting messed up and telling stories that quickly make the proceedings awkward.

Tobias Wolff, a Carver friend and colleague [and author of one of my favourite stories of all time, Bullet in the Brain] takes Carver’s formula and makes it is own. Instead of a civilized evening overrun by melancholy and despair, Wolff’s couples come across like a quartet of fuck-ups already sinking deep into debauchery, celebrating one of the women’s 30th birthday by snorting excessive amounts of cocaine, crying, gossiping and insulting each other.

The story’s centerpiece comes when Helen [the birthday girl], sick of the downers her friends and husband are becoming, gets the idea for each of them to share a moment they’re proud of.  She goes first and tells the story of when she took a neighbour of hers growing up, a boy with Down syndrome, whale watching along the coast of California.  After an afternoon of no sightings, a huge, barnacle-encrusted whale surfaced along the side of the boat and began rocking ir, brushing against it, over and over again.  As the crew of the tiny boat try to determine how to extricate themselves from the situation, Tom, the neighbour boy, begins mewling and growing agitated.  Helen, fearful that Tom might go berserk and throw himself overboard, talks him down, just puts her arm around him and acts as though she finds this monster hitting the boat fun and exciting, calming Tom down.  The whale tires and takes off, and the boat returns to shore.

Her friends are touched by the story, her husband falls asleep during it, so the three of them do some more coke. The end.

I’ll leave it to a million graduate seminars to dissect and break apart all the symbolism, the biblical undertones of whales and other monstrous giants submerged in black waters.  Anyone who knows me knows whales and other sea creatures are not something I care to think about for very long.

What I am thinking about is how we can take the things that influence us, the things that impress us, and imprint our voices on them.  I certainly can’t prove that Wolff was trying to ape Carver’s style [the two were friends, Carver was still alive when Leviathan was published, Wolff would certainly have read What We Talk About.. when published five years before], but the similarities are there, and they are strong, and it doesn’t matter to Wolff. A good idea’s a good idea, and aside from the two couples and the storytelling, they could not be more different.  One can borrow from their fictioneering idols and still make work that stands on its own as a representation of one’s own voice.

Lesson: You dont have to kill your idols. Don’t be intimidated by borrowing from things they’ve done, but ensuring your own voice is paramount.

Favourite line: This time it was Ted who was talking Bliss down. “You’re beautiful,” he kept telling her. It was the same thing he always said to Helen when she felt depressed, and she was beginning to feel depressed right now.

Next time, women!  I promise.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Five

Title: The Fuck Machine

Author: Charles Bukowski

Appears in: The Most Beautiful Woman in Town [1983]

Premise: A pair of drunks have sex with the titular ‘fuck machine,’ built by a German scientist living in the apartments above their local bar.

Thoughts: Ohhhh, Bukowski.  Working in a bookstore as long as I have, I can always tell when a certain style of customer slows their pace in front of the poetry section, they’re looking for Buk.  It’s pretty obvious. And it’s understandable, in its way: when I first read him in undergrad, I was deliriously shocked and amazed by the filth, promptly buying as many of his books as I could find.  Then you start to realize, he’s really writing about the same thing over and over [can anyone pull from memory the details of any of his novels?  I only read Women and I can’t remember a single fact about it]. Only the most salacious parts of his short stories have stuck with me. I remember when I first got online with any sort of regularity, I started digging for audio recordings of authors I liked, and was horrified when I listened to Bukowski reading. I expected to hear a haggard, sandpapery voice like Tom Waits drinking chlorine. Instead, I got Snagglepuss.


Anyway. The Buk’s the perfect candidate for this experiment, so I dug into the books I’d kept of his and tried to find the most offensive title I could.  I think I succeeded.

The thing about Bukowski is he always reads like he just wrote down the first thing that came into his head.  I know if he was any sort of writer he must have considered the things I’ve already noted in the previous four stories, but that never comes across.  The narrator [presumably his literary alter-ego Hank Chinanski, but never named in the story], Indian Mike, Petey the Owl who tries to pay the bar patrons to blow them, nobody gets any sort of description, or defining character trait [well, I guess Petey does, but it’s pretty one note].

Thing is, buried within all the drinking and filth and robot fucking, Bukowski throws out the seeds of ideas larger and better than the story he’s telling.  As the narrator and Indian Mike wait for Von Brashlitz to ready the machine, he mentions how when he was still in Germany, after it became clear the Axis would lose, the real battle became over how many German scientists each conquering nation could claim: Russia or America.  Whoever had the most, they’d be the ones to reach the moon first, they would reap the benefits of technology, etc.

It’s a throwaway sentence, immediately followed by the narrator informing him that “I’m still not going to stick my dick, my poor little dick into that hunk of sheetmetal or whatever it is!”

ASIDE: I’m finishing this entry at work, and was talking about the story with one of the young ladies I work with.
“It’s called ‘The Fuck Machine,’ guess what it’s about,” I said.
“A…fuck machine?” she said. “Like, a tube of some sort?”
“No, no. A fully functional robot named Tanya built by a German scientist after the war.”
“Can women use it, too?”
“Of course not.  Bukowski never cared about women.”

It was an interesting moment, because it honestly hadn’t occured to me how fully Bukowski fails any woman so unfortunate to read him. A topic for a million grad papers. End aside.

But, there’s something to be said for Buk’s discipline.  The guy really had no internal filter. Whatever idea he had, he made it into a story or a poem. Whatever awful thing happened to him, whatever depravity he engaged in, he used it as fuel for art, and that’s certainly preferable to the quadriplegia my creative self has been suffering from for three years.

Lesson: Sometimes, the act of finishing is worth more than the strength of the premise; don’t disqualify an idea without giving it a dry run first.

Favourite line: “20 bucks to fuck a machine?”
“he’s outdone whatever Created us. you’ll see.”
“Petey the Owl will blow me for a buck.”
“Petey the Owl is o.k. but he ain’t no invention that beats the gods.” 

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Four

Title: There Will Come Soft Rains

Author: Ray Bradbury

Appears in: The Martian Chronicles [1950]. You can read it online here.

Premise: In the year 2026, in the aftermath of nuclear devastation, an automated house in Allendale, California continues to perform its duties for residents that will never return.

Thoughts: It’s totally hypocritical for a guy who grew up reading superhero comics to chide and roll his eyes at science fiction for being pulpy in its narration, but those are still the moments that rang false to me here, despite thinking the story was great overall.

I’ve finally managed to develop the habit of looking at narration and asking myself and taking note of ‘who owns this?’ Who’s speaking it?  Bradbury’s working in a third-person “omniscient” style here, directing the narrative like a crane shot on a film camera, working through the house room by room as it performs its duties according to time of day. The world he builds in so few pages is identifiable, a reader can grasp the situation and the environment immediately [the first running theme in these stories]. Even though it appears in a collection of interconnected stories that fully flesh out an overarching story, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of ‘Soft Rains.’

What I like most about the story is Bradbury’s attention to detail, or maybe better put, his preparation. He knew every detail of that house before he wrote the first word. He knew every inch of the floor plan and every function of every imagined automated feature of the house, from the mice who clean tracked-in leaves and dirt, to the animated jungle scene that plays out in the nursery.

But there’s this flash of emotion that comes during the story’s climax that gave the story a sort of pulpy hysteria I didn’t think matched the rest of the work.  Probably by design, but it still struck me as off. It didn’t do anything to diminish my enjoyment of the story, though. Bradbury begins the story’s final sequence with a brutally casual statement of fact that actually made me gasp [though I might have still been reeling from tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead].  When the ultimate finish becomes clear, all you can do as a reader is watch, despairing, though you don’t know why, as all the living people in the story are long dead.

Lesson: Visualize your setting and your characters in their entirety, even if you don’t plan on ever using it. A reader can see through it if you try to half-ass it.

Favourite Line[s]: The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here,as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl,  ands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Three

Title: Surprised by Joy

Author: Charles Baxter

Appears in: Through the Safety Net [1985]; Gryphon: New and Selected Stories [2011]

Premise: A couple take a trip to New Mexico in an attempt to overcome their grief after the accidental death of their three year old child.

Thoughts: If we were interested in opinion for these purposes, I would argue that this was a strange story to get through. Most of Baxter’s stories are strange and difficult for me to get through, due to their Michigan settings echoing the drab mundanity of 1980s Amherstburg, Ontario.  This story never really fired off for me until the closing moments, which is likely by design; Baxter’s too masterful a stylist for it not to be.  We see the couple, Jeremy and Harriet [I find the name selection troubling, I associate it with elderly women, not the mothers of toddlers] in their grey moments of grief, the effort it takes to survive one hour to the next, the moment it becomes clear they need additional help, and the moment Harriet, to Jeremy’s sadness, puts her grief aside to see the beauty around her. Baxter keeps the tone of the story cold for the first half, mirroring the mental state of his characters. Even the use of a chapter break between the Michigan scenes and the New Mexico scenes denote the shift that will be occurring, up to the heartbreaking moment it becomes clear to Jeremy his wife has left him alone with his despair. Like Lipsyte, Baxter sprinkles the character details throughout to keep the Michigan moments from feeling like a total slog [Jeremy’s ‘Jazz from Mars,’ the conflict with the Jehovah’s Witnesses], and gives a cathartic emotional payoff by the story’s conclusion, surprising the reader with joy as much as his characters.

Lesson: Pacing is like fishing; know when to give some line, and know when to reel it in.

Favourite Line: “I don’t want to be all right!” he said, his voice rising, a horrible smile appearing on his face: it was a devil’s face, Harriet saw, and it was radiant and calm. Swear poured off his forehead, and his skin had started to flush pink. “It’s my pleasure not to be all right. Do you see that? My pleasure.”

Thirty Days of Stories: Day Two

Title: The Dungeon Master

Author: Sam Lipsyte

Appears in: The Best American Short Stories 2011

Premise: A group of misfits in the 1980s play Dungeons and Dragons and get their first idea of adult loss and pain. You can read it here.

Thoughts: Stories about childhood can be immensely powerful, and are also exceptionally difficult to do well.  When done right, like in Mitchell’s Black Swan Green or Boyko’s OZY, you recognize your own childhood, with all the peer group power struggles and minor events of great importance.  When done badly, they devolve into treacly melodrama with all the resonance of an afterschool special [I’m thinking of the painful dialogue in something like Cline’s Ready Player One].  Lipsyte’s story is certainly in the former camp, with the D&D players so outcast they don’t even play in the school-sanctioned group, they play at their friend Marco’s house, where Marco’s sadistic older brother, rumoured to have done time in a mental hospital for taking a bat to a classmate and exposing himself to girls in the neighbourhood, serves as their Dungeon Master. At the mercy of the Dungeon Master’s every whim, the narrator and his colleagues usually find their characters swiftly and repeatedly killed by everything from the town drunk to rectal cancer.  What makes the story for me is the way Lipsyte skillfully sprinkles character detail throughout the narrative, sorting the boys in the group into their roles without it ever being ham-fisted or awkward.

An example, here talking about a member of the group, Cherninsky:

He’s the kid people whisper has no mother or father at home, but of course he does, they’re just old and stopped raising him years ago, maybe when his sister drowned. He always plays a thief, and even outside of the game, when he’s just Cherninsky, he steals stuff from the stores on Main.

Look at that. You get the kid’s whole life, his whole perspective on the world, in two sentences.  And it works.

I tried to write a story about childhood, or adolescence rather, last year.  It quickly devolved into the aforementioned treacly melodrama.  The last time I looked at it, I found myself working out these lengthy character sketches for every boy in the story, which I’m sure is useful as an exercise, but might not really add much to a reader’s enjoyment if I find I’m getting bogged down in excessive description.  Lipsyte may have drafted similar sketches for all the boys in his story, but his skill is distilling them down to their essence, to the most important thing a reader needs to know about them:  the financial situation of the narrator’s family, Cherninsky’s dead sister, the dichotomy between the Dungeon Master’s sociopathy and Marco’s timidness. Lipsyte knows when to show one of these cards, and gives the readers a sense that they’re peeking in on a fully inhabited world.

Lesson Learned: Don’t get mired down in physical description or filling out a character’s entire life.  When character details are give, find a unique way to give them, have them relate to something the character’s doing.

Favourite Line: “I crawl over to the window. In the next yard, some kids kick a ball. It looks amazing.”