Monday, September 14, 2009

Brian Evenson's 'The Father, Unblinking'

What I’m trying to articulate here is a particular urgency. A particular urgency fueled by my anxiety that people may approach narrative to not only reassure themselves by confirming their view of the world but that they read in order to shield themselves from actual engagement with the world and to think less. And I believe that this happens not on the level of content, but at the site of our interaction with language and within the relationship we have toward story. Easy reading isn’t a threat just because it breeds familiarity and complacency with how things are but because it teaches that understanding and meaning are easy, that they demand nothing of us but the barest attention. It absolves us of the responsibilities of choice and action.

One of the beautiful, unsettling effects of Brian Evenson’s ‘Father Unblinking’ comes from the narrative refusing to establish the reader in a definite relationship toward the story’s particular context. The narrative does not instruct the reader on how or what to feel. The details are specific, descriptive, alive, but they resist the emotional reassurance of instruction.

The story opens:

“He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open. The day had been a bright day, without clouds. He had found his daughter facedown in the sun-thick mosquito-spattered mud, by the back corner, where the dark paint had started taking air underneath and was flaking off the house now and falling apart at a touch like burnt turkey skin.”

Evenson’s prose asks us to pay attention to the specific details of the body and the physicality of the scene; the brutality magnified and made more complex and uncomfortable by the beauty and precision of the language. The world of the story comes at us vivid and unfiltered; the narrative voice gives us no instruction or commentary as to our intended feelings toward the situation. We are alone with the story, with no narrative holding our hands and walking us through, pointing at what we should be paying attention to, telling us how to feel or react.

Can we talk about trust for a moment? I’m having an intensely reflective sort of morning, one of those days where instead of focusing on my work my mind keeps insisting on this imaginary dialogue wherein I explain to someone I know but who doesn’t yet know all my stories how I developed a particular way of thinking about the world, or other people, or, on this particular morning, how I came to need words in the specific, particular way I need them. Does anyone else do this; have these imaginary conversations with people? I do this all the time. I’m not quite sure what the aim is, or why my mind uses this particular mode of thinking – why it transforms the thoughts into imagined speech rather than expressed by images or simple memory. This phenomenon probably goes along with why I write; the need to imagine someone else participating – not as witness or observer but as active listener, thinking, hopefully grabbing up threads or picking up on what I, in my distraction or close proximity, am unable to see. It’s an exchange – however I present the information, they will see it in a different way and the wonderful moment is when they go, aha, yes, I see exactly, it is this – and they see precisely what it is that I have seen but they see it with a different mind and in how they bounce it back to me, I see it again, true, from an entirely new perspective, and I no longer have to only see it in the one way, the way that I do, but can maneuver and jump around the thing. It doesn’t make the thing bigger it makes my comprehension of it more whole and complex. I could make up some sort of sports analogy involving a ball and probably a net of some sort, but I think you get the picture.

I don’t want to hand over anything that is already dead. There is no reason to give people something already fully answered and explained. If it causes no bother, why take the trouble?

At one point in my life, while I was having a nasty spell of anxiety, for no particular reason that I remember, imagining the conversation I would have explaining it to someone else was one of the few things that made me feel better. I’m sure actual conversation was helpful as well, but conditions are not always appropriate for conversation and people are not always available. I always have specific people in mind who I imagine speaking with. They change. I will not tell you who they are. That is a secret.

But this is what is going on this morning: I have been imagining the conversation that will never take place between myself and a specific, unidentified person in which I explain why I need words, and the particular function these words serve and the way in which these words need to exist in order for them to work. I’ll cut the suspense and tell you right now that I need the words in order to trust. Partially this trust is in terms of belief, the aha, yes, the words laid out in this way say something that is true and this exists in the world and I can believe in them and in the thing they say about the world. But the trust is also in terms of my own mind and the lack of faith I have in it.

There is a moment in a Zach Galifianakis dvd where Zach has just exited a crowded elevator because he is intensely claustrophobic and had started to feel as if he could no longer breathe. The cameraman asks him about the sensation of it and his thoughts about it and Zach explains that all he can think is that he’s going to be trapped in this box for the rest of his life and he’s never going to get out, not ever, for the rest of his life he will be in this box. And then he asks the camera “Can you really trust your mind? Really? Can you really trust your mind?”

One of the memories I would be explaining to my imaginary conversation friend is a particular romantic relationship that fizzled to a rather uneventful end and then turned around and gave me a rather abrupt, horrifying shock. I’m not going to get into the details of the story because they are beside the point and would only detract from the main point I’m trying to make here. What you should know: I was in my early twenties, out of college, the relationship lasted for seven or eight months, dissolved uneventfully until a week after the severance when I was informed of several, extensively unorthodox betrayals that I had not, in the least, been at all suspicious of. I did not see them coming. I had no inkling, throughout the seven or eight months, that anything of the kind was occurring. This is the problem, see. Not what had occurred or whatever fallout and consequence that came of it. Traumatic, I assure you, blah blah blah. The issue here is that I had no idea.

Since I was a wee little child, I had prided myself on an intimate, acutely perceptive knowledge of the world and of people. I was quiet, well-behaved, hard-working, eager to please those in authority, especially teachers, but I was never the smartest or the prettiest or boldest or the most fun. But I could see through people. I could peg them down with a glance. I knew their secrets without them saying a word. I could get at the heart of a problem. I knew how people felt; I knew what they were up to. I was intensely empathetic towards friends (and stuffed animals and pets) but I was also interested in figuring out strangers. That was the key, that’s what I had: I understood the complex depth of things. So, I get this, I have this gift, it is easy for me I have confidence in it: let’s be a writer. I can explain the heart and the longing veins down to the bone of people who would otherwise simply exist as flesh passing flesh, this is valuable. I might still not be the smartest or the funniest but I see and understand and take the time to feel what it is and I can show this to people who otherwise wouldn’t be looking. I read ‘Crime and Punishment’ and it was then, yes, right there, that sunken heart soul crunched despair and longing and beauty, that is what I want to do to people. So this is what I do, this is my life. And I go about my happy way thinking I can do this whole writing thing because I have this ability and it is worth something, it can get me there.

Time moves forward, I go about my life learning and doing; forming, shaping, and adjusting my knowledge of humanity; honing the skills, etc, believing that whatever might happen, whatever might come up in a life, even if it’s terrible, even if it’s the worst of things, I will have the insight and the perception and the knowledge and skills to understand it. I never cracked and had some hissy fit because some kid stole my ice cream because I knew that kid’s soul and the weakness and the pitiful self-importance that gave him the itch to steal in the first place and that was better than punching his face. I really should have known better, considering there had been plenty of life not making any sense or having any reason, but pah, I was young. Understanding was strength, it would get me through anything.

Ah, but then. Life threw this crap in my face. And this crap assured me that a) I did not know people b) I was not only not perceptive but idiotically blind and c) I could no longer rely on my perception to tell me anything true. My perception was wrong. Now, sure, there were some personal issues to get through and whatever existential crisis, but what was most horrifying was that I no longer trusted my perception of the world. It wasn’t about what someone else did to me – there was gruff from that but that shit falls off, it was that my mind had failed me. And my mind was what I was good at, it was what was getting me through. It was the source of my confidence that I had anything legitimate to say to anyone else, because I could notice things that other people hadn’t but that they would recognize as true. Losing faith in other people was never that big a thing; other people had always been suspect. Losing faith in my ability to see and perceive the world around me was . . . problematic.

If we zoom forward in time, several years after this little episode but still several years from now, we can imagine me walking through a Diane Arbus exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Black and white portraits, white walls, angular hallways, letters and correspondences framed and hung alongside the photographs. Yellowing, crimpled paper under glass. Wide-spaced typewriter script.

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus.

For a fiction writer, I was perhaps incorrigibly stubborn about being right. Because my job was to seek truth, right? There is a faith, between you and me, that whatever form I may present the subject, whatever narrative distortions or tricks, all live and breathe in service of a higher truth, un-communicable by any other means. Whatever game I might throw at you, in order for you to agree on playing, I have to show you something you believe, that you recognize as true but somehow had also been seeking, that you hadn’t thought of quite yet, or in that particular way. The words on the page in their particular order resonate because they are true, and had, up until that very moment, remained elusive.

There are, of course, those immensely intoxicating theories and textbooks and essays and novels deliciously wrapped and revolved around ‘subjective truth.’ And I did spend a lot of time among those authors and their words, the spectrum of known reality and its limitations, our limitations, from the close approximation of objective truth to the pits of a completely singular, individual universe. The consequences in believing one or the other, the reassurances, the pitfalls. What is truth, what is reality, what could these concepts possibly mean and what impact could they possibly have and meow meow meow meow meow. That’s all super. Great. Whatever you want. While it was essential for me to realize that my job was not to seek ‘absolute truth’ and that there could be value in communicating the way that I saw, rather than placing the value entirely in the realm of what is seen (like Diane), this faith-building exercise was simply part of the process of a mind approaching. This gave permission, it whispered in my ear that I didn’t have to be correct in order to be useful.

I still invoke the quote when I sit at a blank page thinking I have nothing useful to tell anybody. I tell myself to never mind all of that truth business because it is lofty, old white man blubbering nonsense, god in his clouds, white tower chin-stroking bestowing wisdom bullshit thinking that hasn’t been useful to anyone over the age of four or five for centuries. I have a way of thinking that is instructive for the very reason that it is organized differently from the way that anyone else’s way of thinking is ordered. We each pay attention to different things, notice particular and specific details. We can all love ourselves for this specialness. This, in itself, does not get words down on the page and this is not what makes those words matter.

At this point in my imaginary conversation, we would make eye contact.

Now, what if I tell you that the conversation is dimly lit? What if I say there is no overhead light but there is natural light coming in through a window? What if I say that the window is the entire length of the wall and that the room of which the window belongs is in a coffee house? What if I told you beverages sat on the table? What if I described them as steaming black coffee in white porcelain cups? What if I told you the table at which two people are sitting was the size of a chess board and difficult to cross your legs under? That the chairs were all wooden but different sizes and shapes? What if I told you that the fingers of the person across from me curled around the porcelain cup and that the edge of the nail on this person’s right hand moved back and forth along the side of the cup where the cup dipped toward its bottom? What if I told you that the person across from me bent their head down to blow on the coffee rather than picking it up to blow on it?

When do you picture it? When does it become a precise moment that you can see? When does it become more than your standard, hazy image of a coffeehouse or a coffeehouse separate from the one in your memory you always think of when you think of coffeehouses? When does it become something you picture specifically?

A test: Read each group of sentences. Circle the sentence that stirs the most interest.

The girl was unhappy.

The girl stood looking out the window twisting her hair around her finger.

The girl bent her forehead against the window, squinting her eyes into the dark, twisting her damp hair around her finger.

A man loses his daughter.

A man’s daughter dies from fever and he is upset.

He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open.

Now what do you imagine comes after these sentences? Which sentence has a sentence following it that you cannot even begin to imagine?

It’s not just detail. The more specific and precise, yes, the better we can see it, the more we believe, the more it lives in the imaginative space between us – not just you, not just me but as ours – but the best, most precise description in the world, while it allows us to see vividly and thereby convince us, it does not necessarily make us care. We need to be leaning forward at a particular angle toward this vivid life, and that angle is controlled by voice. Like a photographer handling a face for a portrait, the voice makes all these minuscule adjustments, imperceptibly arranging the angle from which we see and perceive information while at the same time, in taking the picture in this particular way, the photographer makes a promise. The promise may not be overt or direct but if we are to continue to read, the way we see the story has to secure our interest in seeing more. The voice is after something. We can have our heads perfectly arranged and still not care if we do not also care what the voice is after.

In my dark, unloosened days when I had thrown in the towel and adamantly insisted I didn’t know a thing, I could still see prose and recognize something described truthfully. And when that happened, the world returned as an accessible thing. If I can touch it or see it or smell it, I can believe it is there and that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. If it is good or bad, ugly or beautiful, is beside the point. This is not how you or I feel about it but whether or not we believe it is there and how well we can see it. Tell me what beauty looks like. If I say ‘bad’ can you picture anything at all? The degree of trust I have in prose directly correlates to the specificity of described objects and actions. If we see a particular image, if we can picture it specifically in our minds, we don’t need to be told about it, it doesn’t need to be explained. An author can write “The man was very upset over his daughter’s death” and we can feel sad about it, we can empathize with the father, we can be sorry for his loss but what does this tell us? What do we actually picture when we read “the man was very upset over his daughter’s death”? Do you have an image in your mind? Is it something you’ve seen or called up before? Is it based on anything you haven’t seen before?

Why should I trust an author who tells me how things are? Why would I trust my own notion of grief to apply to this character? How does depending upon my already well-developed sense of the world to fill the gaps of what the author’s not showing benefit me in any way?

Taken to the edge of this question is a narrative voice that refuses commentary. It refuses to tell the reader what the world is but shows the world in its intricate, visceral, complicated and unpinned wonder.

I apologize for not quoting more of the story, but it really feels like a betrayal of it to do so – you really do have to encounter it on your own and me rambling about the story itself would end up killing it. Literary criticism’s just a bunch of nonsense anyway.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ashwin's Thoughts

I got a great comment from Ashwin that won't fit in the comments so I'm posting it here:

I think you've said something in that good fiction - or any art, really - teaches us how to see. It's for that reason it's difficult - or perhaps futile - to assign criteria (as Gardner does) to any art form. Because the criteria is always external to the inherent need of the artist to express himself. No one can fit his world, his inner life, into the categories or options offered to him by the external one already consuming him. The true artist is always under assault. If the external world - and what it has to offer - was satisfatory, there would be no need, no inherent need, that is, to create. Every man and woman should be free. To express themselves in line with their conscience, which is their inner life. Gardner's code of conduct is the most undemocratic, damaging, set of instructions offered to any artist, anyone striving, within themselves, to be free. Listening to him, or anyone like him, is falling to the selfish need to be heard, instead of engaging in the more worthy pursuit of discovering how to speak. Or as one of our professors once said, sing. How can anyone teach you how to sing? Gandhi once said, "All true art is thus the expression of the soul. The outward forms have value only in so far as they are the expression of the inner spirit of man." Gardner's guidlines are merely suggestions for outward forms" of fiction. But what you've said, in that flipping open a book to see the prose, IS, to me, the search for the inner life of the author, and how that inner life is expressed. That's just what I think. I may be wrong. One of the damaging things about the professionalization of writing, or fiction, in our country, is that we often forget that fiction, while containing it's own techniques and logic, is a form - a true, open, liberating form -of freedom. And that freedom, when the individual is left to his own doings, his own conscience, discovers it's own logic and technique in the pursuit of something not yet known. You've mentioned that you don't know EVERYTHING. Well I second that, and find no value in knowledge sought for the purpose of ownership, or even worse, power. There is no power in knowledge. There is only freedom. The acquisition of knowledge gives us - should we listen to our conscience and the inner life in the process of obtaining that knowledge - the license to express it in accordance with our own, individual, path. Gardner is for the birds man. And so is any false prophet who claims they may teach you how to be your own man, your own woman, your own artist, your own liberated soul. Faulkner once said, "I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written about it." I think anyone fortunate to have been born free - as most of us are, in America - should understand that we have the very rare gift of expression, thought, and creative license. What a tragedy it is, I think, to sell that to anyone who has a very narrow understanding of what moves the soul. Usually, in our day, those people are called publishers. But that's a little too dramatic. You've mentioned the importance of the sentence. Now, who can teach you how to write the sentence you MUST write? Well there's probably a few deluded nuts who'd raise their hands at that one, but I think that it's always the last thing we'd ever really say which is what we need to say first. The final cry. And what prescription can you give me to mend that wound? I'll have to make it with my own hands, digging into myself, until I have nothing left. That's our gift, I believe, in America. To be able to do that unapologetically. We compromise our birthright from the moment we lend ourselves to taking guidance from those who offer solutions in nuts and bolts. Forms. Figures. Prescriptions. There are moments of clarity offered us, however, by those who haven't succumbed - and never will - to the dictates of false prophets. Some of them, you've mentioned on your blog. They aren't saints. Better yet, they're human. They choose the inner life - messy, raw, unnamable - over the very static laws offered to them by lesser men. These writers - or any such artist - or no other reason than being in possesion of the need to express themselves in accordance with their own vision, allow us - as you've said - to see.

Sincerely, Ashwin

Friday, August 7, 2009

To See What I Mean

Part III.

Remember how I talked about anxiety? And how anxiety can lead people to read for different purposes, to seek out different kinds of reassurance (aka comfort)? Well, I think the anxiety I experienced from reading Gardner was that there was some idea or tendency for people to engage with literature in a limited way, with a certain set of rules to this engagement, and a certain set of expectations that had to be met in order for that literature to be deemed worthy or useful or good. And I believe that the assertion or belief that fiction’s content is exhausted, that its purpose is to simply remind us of what is already known, devalues what it is that fiction actually does (not just what fiction says). Now, I do concede that there has to be some recognizable truth in a work of fiction – if we don’t buy it we will emotionally and intellectually disengage from it and the piece will have no meaning for us – it won’t matter. But if we open a book or approach a story with the idea that we are reading it to confirm, or to better clarify and articulate that which already resonates within us, aren’t we just glorifying what we have already become? How is that progress? How does that “crack the door to the morally necessary future”? Doesn’t that assume a) that we are already know everything and that b) we are too lazy or gentle with ourselves to keep these things in mind or articulate them for ourselves?

I don’t know about you, but I sure as fuck don’t know everything. And by ‘everything’ I’m not speaking of everything in the universe, but just on the topic of human emotion. I can be pretty damn stubborn about what I think I do know, but I assure you, I stick my neck out with the reassurance that I am presupposed as a complete ass and that I will be forgiven my trespasses, excused with the same flippancy conceded toward drunk uncles and developmentally challenged children. Besides, who’s listening? Does anyone else have a problem here with the idea that we know everything? That life is not mysterious? Isn’t that kind of permission to die? As in: oh yes, no need to worry, we’ve figured it all out, you can rest now? We may know some things, that murder is bad, for instance. But murder is sometimes necessary? Or forgivable?

How about this: Suppose I’m willing to believe we know everything (which we don’t), or that we will one day reach a point at which we know everything there is to know about human beings and their emotions: we still don’t know dick about what to do with this information. I don’t think that many of us know the first thing about how to behave or what to actually do when life confronts us. And when it does, when life shoves its dirty little mouth at us and we’re breathing its full stink, we’re likely going to act how we’re going to act, despite everything we might want, feel, intend, know what to be true or untrue. So how is the premise that literature instructs us how to live by reiterating old truths useful in any sense? Do we read to close a circle we know already exists but that we like to see clarified, getting darker, more solidly permanent? To get a better sense of where that perimeter lies, to make sure we stay inside it?

Or maybe, it might just be morally necessary to engage with literature because the potentialities of language will never be exhausted, because each word choice and syntax reveals a way of thinking that is not already ours, because we need to see things differently. Because language can transform the nature of how we see and how we know. Because narrative is not just content but action taken toward content. How to proceed, what to do . . .

I’m anxious that one of the dangers that can exist in fiction that seeks to reaffirm or reiterate already known truths, is that this kind of fiction can (not necessarily does but it can), with repetition, teach a certain learned, limiting relationship of the reader toward the world. That if we approach narrative with a rigid set of expectations and rules for how the narrative can produce meaning (such as the ones set forth by Gardner), a reader may be in danger of accruing a very limited set of lenses with which to perceive and know the world. That the limitations of the ways we engage with narrative may be a limitation on how we engage with the world and with each other.

Now, I understand that I am prone to somewhat reactionary, over-the-top fits of contempt and rage concerning things most people, or at least a fair number of people, would consider rather innocuous or of very little concern. I am unreasonable, malicious. Cold, unforgiving, dismissive. I can be a bit of a prick and I’m not only judgmental but enjoy being judgmental. I’m a snob when it comes to people reading ‘for entertainment’ or ‘leisure.’ Fuck you. Fuck you and your Jennifer Weiner on the best fucking seller list. Go check the NYTimes. See if I’m lying. Fuck your mass market murder mysteries, fuck your Harry Potter. Yes, Harry Potter. Go fuck yourself. See I got this problem (yeah, not just the one, ha ha. assfuck) with equating pleasure with effortlessness. With thinking that a good read is something that doesn’t force a person to think too hard. Something that tickles the pudgy brain flaps but has everything set out for the expected gratifications: description enough to make the setting convincing, empathetic characters, a narrative that assumes your immediate complicity. And I’m not just referring to the easy listening crap of the trash romance and mass market set – I’m talking about any form of literature that doesn’t cost you anything. That doesn’t leave you bleeding, spent on the floor, gasping for breath, torn up and trembling. Now, a reasonable person would say there is room enough in the world, on the shelves, for all kinds of different strokes for different folks, but as I said, I am not a reasonable person. Rather than pick up ‘The Kite Runner,’ I would prefer if you could just slap me, then push me onto the ground and shit all over my face. Make sure to tell me about your feelings while you’re doing it, too.

Let’s take a breath. Are we okay? Was that a little much? The shitting on my face? Just breathe a minute. We’ll get through this. You and me: we’re in it together.

Monday, August 3, 2009

To See What I Mean

Part II.

I knew there was something I didn’t trust reading Gardner, some vague suspicion that the man was grand-standing; making loose, provocative proclamations that weren’t accounting for everything; that he was drunk. Let me throw you a bone here (probably too many bones, more bones than you’d care to chew on, all from Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’):

“Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” p. 31

“None of this high minded rhetoric is meant to deny the fact that fiction is a kind of play . . . It is sometimes remarked, not by enemies of fiction but by people who love it, that whereas scientists and politicians work for progress, the writer of fiction restates what has always been known, finding new expression for familiar truths, adapting to the age truths that may seem outmoded. It is true that, in treating human emotion, with which we’re all familiar, the writer discovers nothing, merely clarifies for the moment, and that in treating what Faulkner called ‘the eternal verities,’ the writer treats nothing unheard of, since people have been naming and struggling to organize their lives around eternal verities for thousands of years . . . But the fact remains that art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future.” p. 80

That’s not enough for me. Literature does more than that.

I only recently discovered my true qualm with Gardner, and it’s something that should’ve been evident from the first, but that somehow didn’t dawn until weeks after I’d given up being angry about it. The thing with Gardner is that his primary concern in terms of what he identifies as good and moral writing versus ‘less useful’ writing has to do with a story’s content. His arguments are focused on plot and character. He does talk about the differences between first person and third, omniscient vs. restricted narrator, etc, but his focus on what he argues as the morality in a work of fiction is almost entirely content driven. I’ll throw you some examples:

“ . . . the writer who denies that human beings have free will (the writer who really denies it, not jokingly or ironically pretends to deny it) is one who can write nothing of interest . . .For the writer who views his characters as helpless biological organisms, mere units in a mindless social structure, or cogs in a mechanistic universe, whatever values those characters may hold must necessarily be illusions, since none of the characters can do anything about them, and the usual interplay of value against value that makes for an interesting exploration of theme must here be a cynical and academic exercise.” p. 43

“Though we do not read fiction primarily in order to find rules on how to live or, indeed, to find anything that is directly useful, we do sympathetically engage ourselves in the struggle that produces the fictional events. Reading a piece of fiction that ends up nowhere – no win, no loss, life as a treadmill – is like discovering, after we have run our hearts out against the timekeeper’s clock, that the timekeeper forgot to switch the clock on. The only emotions such fiction can ordinarily produce are weariness and despair, and those emotions, though valid and perhaps even justified (finally) by the nature of the universe, are less useful to the conduct of our lives than are the emotions we exercise in other kinds of fiction. Not even Aristotle would argue that fiction ought [ital] to be cathartic; he says only that such fiction is most satisfying. But certainly more is involved than simple pleasure or displeasure. At least in comparison with the resolved ending (Aristotle would have said if the question had come up), the ending in logical exhaustion is morally repugnant.” p. 54-55

Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction (the select, blessed few), ya’ll know I don’t give a shit about plot. You think I know ‘what happens’? I don’t have any fucking idea – that’s someone else’s business, not mine. I mean, I’ve been working on this – it’s a problem: I piss people off. Or to give you an example of how I go about selecting a book to read, if I happen to pick one up at random at a bookstore: I don’t read the back cover. I’m not interested in the synopsis: it’s not going to tell me whether or not I’ll enjoy reading it. The context, character and storyline don’t necessarily tell me anything. What I do is flip to a random page. Sometimes the first but never more than a third from the back. And I read the prose. The language is what’s going to get me to read it. What a book is about can be anything, I’m interested in how it’s told. Now, of course plot is important, and every book that’s worth its salt has well-constructed, beautiful sentences, but I’m without question much more concerned about sentences than I am with plot. In terms of the ol tree vs. forest routine, I’m looking down at a piece of bark I chipped off in my hand, already forgetting it came from the tree beside me.

So no fucking wonder my panties get all in a bunch reading Gardner. He’s all “meow meow content content” and I’m all “woof. Shut the fuck up already.” I totally agree with the whole free will package; characters need to have agency or no one’s going to give a shit, but is anyone nowadays really worried that free will doesn’t exist? Does anyone honestly question that anymore? Maybe I’m out of the loop but come on, grow the fuck up already.

I was not upset because Gardner was assigning values to different kinds of plots (to use his terminology, energaic vs. logical exhaustion) but that he would identify the value of fiction as located in its content; what the story says (or values) by means of its plot. And for me, much of what I adore about literature and one of the primary reasons I involve myself in it is that narrative has the ability to teach me how to see. Narrative can rewire and expand upon the way I perceive and engage with the world. This has very little to do with ‘what happens’ in a story’s plot but everything to do with how the story is told.

Remember that Gary Lutz story I talked about? Probably the first post on this bitch, little story called ‘Mine’? Narrator wanting to see the father ‘eye to eye’? Is it coming back to you? Nothing really ‘happens’ in the traditional, progressive sense. The plot or ‘fictional dream’ (that’s Gardner) progresses from one scene in the life to the next, descriptive explanations of a particular summer, adding layers rather than necessarily progressing forward. So while I doubt it would qualify as ‘useful’ in terms of Gardner’s standards, it does consist of a narrator who displays quite cunning and skillfully displayed agency. Agency in how the narrator sees, perceives and then proceeds to tell.

Where I am going with this? Is this your question? We’re going to Brian Evenson. We’re going to Brian Evenson and demonstrating how he fucks a reader’s world up, how meaning (remember Samantha? There’s a reason I talked about that) can be derived not just from reaffirming a reader’s belief, and not solely by means of the content, but by changing the nature of the relationship we have toward narrative. By clipping the traditional strings of narrative that hold the reader so snuggling in place.

But ya’ll bitches ain’t ready yet.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

To See What I Mean: A Long Rant Toward Us

The next few posts are all part of an ongoing series. Or rather, an extended piece I assume no one wants to read in one sitting, as it's already rather long. Trust me, we'll go places.

Part I.
The first story I ever wrote (or remember writing) was prompted by the death of a man at my church. He was a professional dancer, could only have been in his thirties. He died of AIDS when AIDS was just beginning to creep into public thought as an epidemic. It was 1988. I remember a performance he gave with two women in the parish hall. Large, decadent cloth was draped across banisters, their outfits a matching monochromatic, creamy shade. Their movements took up the length of the hall; the large space devoured quickly by their three bodies, graceful leaps defying the thump of the dull floor when their feet landed. I remember it as silent except for their feet, but there could have easily been music. It was modern dance but still very close to ballet. Fluid and controlled, their bodies were free from air, kinetic molecules released from gravity. I was eight years old.

The story I wrote in red pencil and I never showed it to anyone. I didn’t tell anyone about it either. I have a vague memory of one day finding it in my mother’s dresser years later some afternoon when my friend and I were talking bras, growing up, but this memory could be entirely wrong. I found a lot of reasons back then to despise my mother, to convince myself she invaded my privacy like a snake, that she couldn’t be trusted.

The story had been about a little girl named Samantha dying of AIDS. Samantha was my favorite girls’ name, my sibling envy of that toughness only boys could have, already pissed that girl delicacy and sweetness wasn’t as cool. Samantha was diagnosed and in the hospital. She was going to die. All her friends came to see her. Then everyone at school, even kids who weren’t her friends came to see her. Everyone felt really bad when she died. She was the most beautiful girl, even when she was sick, and she was braver than even the grown up men. After she died, everyone talked about how brave she was. How wrong it was that she died and how she took hold of her death with such dignity.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a very morose child. I wasn’t anxious about death or think about it often. I think my preoccupation at the time, and what prompted the story, was a search for meaning. That what threatened me, when I was eight and a man I knew died because of a disease no one yet had a handle on, was the possibility of dying without the life or the death having meant something. Of course I also desperately craved acknowledgment, the final triumph of the brave girl hero, and I’m sure the writing and its red scratchy penmanship was dripping with self-pity. Feel bad for me, look at what I’ve been through. But at the time it felt important. It felt important for me to put it on a page, to believe that the worst possible moments, the scariest things, could still be beautiful.

There’s been a lot of talk, for centuries even, about why people read literature, what its purpose is, its reason. A lot of the experts have suggested comfort; that human beings turn to literature for models to live by, to confirm and convince themselves of the great human truths. A whole life put down in a book, given order, described with precision and care. It’s reassuring, it lets us believe that sense can be made, that however tragic or dull there is a logic or energy that propels life forward. I can swallow that. I’ll tip my hat to the end of the bar where that announcement sits, but I’m not going to buy it a drink or go over to talk to it.

I want to suggest two particular anxieties that seem to me to run against each other, each anxiety responsible for an underlying desire drawing people towards story. I’m not suggesting these are the only anxieties or only reasons people read – those possibilities are endless and personal and can do and behave however they want. And I know it’s dangerous and kind of low down and shameful to group ideas or tendencies but I’m going for it anyway. Just run with me on this and rest assured I don’t believe I’m accounting for everyone, plus, I think the same reader can go back and forth on these, reading one book and getting one kind of satisfaction out of it, another story for a different kind of pleasure.

I think a lot of people read in order to reaffirm their own beliefs, to feel commended by their own view of the world, to believe the world as ultimately knowable and unthreatening. Or rather, there are stories that do this. However unstable the world of the story might initially be, the story’s job is reign the world back to something controlled, contained and finite. Familiar characters, familiar plot, vivid description and titillating action with a recognizable narrator, the reader knowing his or her place immediately as the fly on the wall, or the one confessed to, inside the character’s head or spoken to by some wise and forgivably fallible sage years after the event has finished. This appeals to a reader anxious to know that things are going to be okay, that there is beauty and truth in the world and we can see it and believe that it exists.

Another anxiety that I think is at work drawing people toward story is the fear that the possibilities of the world, of narrative, are subject to exhaustion, that one day there will be nothing left to seek or say. That there are only so many truths and discoveries and that these truths are simply repackaged once they’ve been forgotten in order to fit into a new style of thinking. That nothing under the sun is news, that someday we can (or will, maybe have) stop searching. Narratives that ease this anxiety will fill a reader with doubt, question the positions and authority of narrator and reader, thwart a reader’s expectations as to what they are supposed to find. Readers suffering from this anxiety read in order to see things in a new way, to discover something about the world or themselves that they didn’t already suspect.

One kind of story can reassure us that we are able to know the world, another kind of story can reassure us that there is still more left to discover. I’m going to ask that you keep this in mind.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Discomfort Part II: Diane Williams ‘The Kind You Know Forever’

Initially I had intended this post to be concerned with all of this sister-fucking business and the way both Evenson and Williams use naming (‘cat killers’ and ‘sister-fucker,’ respectively) as controlling devices – the kind of dismissive, encapsulating, excruciatingly inescapable characterization that informs the reader as much about the narrator as those named, and then how the narrator’s posture towards subject informs the reader’s understanding of the narrator and thereby their experience of story, but I just wasn’t feeling it. There’s a lot to be said about Diane Williams’ work and how uncomfortable it makes people who read it. Her work is excruciatingly awkward and embarrassing; it’s worse than shitting yourself in front of the UN while being told intimate details of your grandmother’s vagina by your father, loudly. I promise.

But what really gets me about the stories of Diane’s that I really love has just as much to do with her language and rhythm as it does with her vulgarity. I’m not saying you can take the vulgarity away – leave my vulgarity the fuck alone – it’s better than you and any nice thing that might happen to fall out of your dumb mouth. Oh Jesus, I’m sorry. I just get so defensive and irrationally protective around that which I love. Anywho, there are also some incredibly pleasant and riveting power dynamics at play in her stories, and a lot of them make me think of the kind of perceptual power I’ve spoken about earlier with Gary Lutz’ work and the way in which power/control/agency is captured, taken by the force of a character’s (or narrator’s) ability to see, perceive, transform, and shape into language. I definitely get a little flutter reading ‘The Kind You Know Forever,’ kind of like the narrator’s flirting with me. Have we seen Flight of the Concords? Do we know Mel? Reading ‘The Kind You Know Forever’ makes me feel like Mel making a tiger claw and pretending to bite Germaine but then I’m embarrassed and kind of shy about it at the same time. Don’t judge me. Read the fucking story (it’s in Excitability). Desire bound up in power and perception and confession and acuity and willingness amongst debilitation, chaos, better judgment.

The tension and drive of Diane Williams’ ‘The Kind You Know Forever’ rests in her syntax; in the ambiguity of her clauses, the dangling confusion from phrase to phrase. While the movement of Brian Evenson’s ‘Cat Killers’ goes forward in small logical steps, direct statements minutely building toward an unexpected, fearful place, Diane’s sentences meander and mislead, opening one door that leads into a maze of several other doors, forcing the reader to slow down, to stop and look back, trying to figure out where they were, how they got to be where they are. While our feet seem to slide from underneath us, the narrator herself remains entirely astute, alert, cunning. We are struck still by the dismissive mastery she has over this universe, the easy competence she displays in her description:

“I had just met them – the brother and the sister who had fucked each other to see what it would be like. And then they said – either he said or she said – that it was like fucking a brother or a sister, so they never did it again.”

The real boner (okay, can we tell that I’m really trying to cram in the obscenity before I talk about something other than obscenity? PENIS. PENIS PENIS PENIS. cocksuckerchildporntittyfuckassrammer. Labial shrug, colonoscopy, poinsettia) for me, is the precision of Diane’s phrasing and how completely (wholly, experientially, viscerally) it communicates a sort of human vulnerability. In every phrase there is a tension and control or authority for character, narrator and reader isn’t simple. Event, experience, perception and expression interact; they live and breathe, slippery and incomplete, unobtainable, within, around and on top of language. Let’s hope that sentence didn’t mean anything. I’m not shooting to kill here; I just want to point at some stuff and make you look at it for a while.

Take the following passage (the second to last sentence in particular conveys a sense of nervousness in the clunkiness of its phrases and dangling preposition):

“She handed out little wrapped gifts in such a hurry at the door, when we were all saying goodbye – it was such a hurry – I didn’t get to see where she was getting all of her gifts from. All of a sudden there was just a gift in my hand, as I was going out the door. At the end of the party, I had never gotten a gift before, not since I was a little girl, and then we thought we deserved those gifts. So now, something was turned around.”

Different people will scan this differently, but the way I read the first sentence incorporates this rhythm:

she HANded OUT diDUm deDum
lit tle WRApped Gifts didiDUMDUM
In SUCh a HURry At the Door deDUMdiDUMdi dediDUM
When We were All dedumdedum
It was SUch a Hurry dedeDUMdiDUMdi
I didn’t GET to SEe de didiDUMdiDum
Where she was GETting All of her GIfts from DUMdedeDUMdi dedidiDUMdi

I apologize for not being savvier with my keyboard and figuring out some sort of strike and slash business, but this format might be more accessible to those less readily familiar with poetic scansion. If we focus on the larger stresses and how often or rapidly they appear among the smaller stresses, we can see the simpler, straight rhythm slowly getting pushed down, becoming sloggy, groggier, weighted. There’s more pushing and piling up of smaller stresses in order to reach the larger stresses. And it’s not just a matter of adding more grace notes but adding triplets that take up a whole beat. Am I making sense? Are we musically inclined? The rhythm in the next few measures (phrases) is largely made up of threes (‘All of a sudden/There was Just a Gift in my Hand/as I was going/out the door’) and then the last sentence takes a turn by framing the triplet on either side with twos: one Two/One two three One two One or deDUM DUMdidiDUMdeDUM. Some of you might recognize that last rhythm DUMdidiDUMdeDUM as that triumphant bugle call (or trumpet, it might be a trumpet) when the hero shows up in the cartoon or the western. There is a sense of arrival in the rhythm, a kind of closure or finality. As readers, we have reached a destination both rhythmically and as a turning point in the story; that an event has happened is definite, secure. Neither the reader nor the narrator is able to articulate precisely how that event occurred but both are able to experience the sensation, the emotional and cognitive texture of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Position of Great Discomfort: ‘Killing Cats’ by Brian Evenson and ‘The Kind You Know Forever’ by Diane Williams

I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve been reading John Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’ and it has me depressed. Despondent, slunking in my chair with a bad attitude and snarly teenage frown. It’s a tone thing. I’ve got some bones to pick, and I’ll get to them later, I assure you, but for right now, let’s just say I don’t appreciate his fucking attitude or his condescending pedantry, self-satisfied smug fuck cock wanker that he is. Insightful, useful, yes, but he makes me feel as though literature is small; a tidy little package some old fuck sits at a mahogany desk in a finished attic looking out from a high window whittling out like a tricky word puzzle that will instruct the rest of humanity how to live. Assuming a sly, cunning cleverness to the tilt of his chin, bringing the lead tip of a pencil into his quivering, wet mouth. “Ah ha!” you can hear him say. “I’ve got it!” He may make statements to the contrary, but the small concessional bursts of the occasional sentence can’t compete with his overpowering voice. I understand: it-is-an-instruction-manual and so automatically vulgar (it’s copyright is also 1983 but I swear to you my anger’s still relevant), but what I’m getting at, right now, is that the effect reading him has had on me is to shut my mouth about what literature does, how it works, etc, which is problematic to our purposes here.

Again, to reiterate what I’ve mentioned before; the goal and purposes for what I set out to do here and how I propose we (you and I) should approach literature is to accumulate description and definition for the purpose of deepening knowledge, with fascination, joy, and enthusiasm, not to pursue description and definition for the purpose of restriction. I interpret Gardner’s tone to imply a finite set of definite answers to the problems faced in issues of craft, and this neatness, the compartmentalized assignation of value he’s bound around different aesthetic choices, gets my brain all crammed up and angry. I find it belittling. Why would we want to say one kind of novel is more profound, morally better, than another? How do these restrictions service us in any way? Does it make us feel better? Why impose a Victorian caste system on what we read? Can’t we just experience what the novel or story sets out for us to experience? Are we afraid to be alone with our books?

To alleviate my irritation with Gardner, and to get to a point, I want to look at two stories that place the reader in an uncomfortable position toward the narrator (in both instances first person) and toward the situation at hand. Much of the delight in these stories, for the reader, is trying to figure out where one stands in relation to the narrator. Within this maneuvering, the reader sinks deeper into the uncomfortable situation and has to deal with it directly as a human being, not just as a reader of a story. Are we titillated? I know I am.

The story ‘Killing Cats’ in Brian Evenson’s collection Altmann’s Tongue begins:

“They wanted to kill their cats, but the problem was the problem of transportation.”

An interesting dilemma, to be sure, but what is perhaps most unsettling is the tone with which the narrator presents the dilemma to us, with a particular word choice and syntax that displaces our expectations and anxiety, deepening the sense of threat and alarm we feel in reading it. We almost immediately have to adjust and accept the desire to kill the cats as normal: the logical structure of the sentence with the coma ‘but’ we would expect to take us to addressing the concern we have for the cats, and instead identifies ‘the problem’ as ‘the problem of transportation.’ That the narrator so coolly overlooks the threat of violence and chooses to relate to us, in explanatory language, that ‘the problem’ is a strategic hurdle in order to accomplish that violence, has us pull away and look at him funny. To utilize ‘The Good Times,’ “what you talkin’ bout, Willis?” would be a common response here, in the mind of the reader. It is ‘they’ that wanted to kill the cats, not ‘I’, but that the narrator is trying to explain pure logistics puts us in a cautious position toward him. The narrator hasn’t really done anything yet, and maybe there’s a reason for his method of presentation, and we can’t yet assess what his values are in this situation.

We continue reading, not entirely certain of where our horror should be located, though game enough to spread it around if need be. The narrator continues:

“They invited me to dinner to beg me to drive them and their cats out to the edge of town so that they, the cat killers, could kill their cats.”

There’s a sort of democratic decency in including ‘their cats’ in the phrase “to drive them and their cats”; the phrase could easily not include ‘the cats’ and still maintain the same basic meaning, but the inclusion brings something special to the narrator’s relationship to the cats – a notice, an acknowledgement. The inclusion might be a kind of neurotic precision, we may take it to imply affection (though probably not). However we take it, it maintains our attention on the existence of the cats. The narrator’s choice to name and identify ‘them’ in the clarifying aside “they, the cat killers” communicates a kind of formality and callousness, which could be an indication of the narrator’s contempt for them but could just as well be a sign of the narrator’s lack of affect. Continuing with the conclusion of the sentence “to kill their cats” the rhythm and repetition emphasizes the act and the narrator’s preoccupation with repeating it word for word, not in euphemism or just alluding to it. Not to be thought callous myself, but there’s a kind of giddy joy in the many repetitions of the words ‘cat’ and ‘killing.’ Go ahead, read that sentence out loud. Nobody’s watching. Frankness with a taut tongue: pleasure all around. Enjoy yourself.

There’s a certain restraint that works in tandem with the frank, affectless tone that keeps the story from drifting into absurdity. It isn’t so much the writing as it is the reader who proceeds cautiously. The narrator expresses no confusion in word or tone and continues to use very direct statements and appears clear in his intentions. Part of the reader’s experience in reading the story is trying to figure out the narrator’s intentions, and because of this, we read each sentence carefully and with great attention. Further on in the story, as the narrator reveals more of his feelings toward the cats we begin to see the narrator’s intention in articulating the problem as he has:

“I did not much care to try my hand at cat killing but all I would have to do was to drive. I did not have to kill the cats. So I told them, yes, I would drive them, yes, as a token of friendship – if they would pay for gas. They said all right, they would pay, and introduced their cats to me.”

Whatever our feelings are towards the narrator’s reaction to the cats, they don’t begin to compare to the disgust we feel toward the cat killers. The narrative builds slowly so as to point our attention to how the cat killers have gone about involving the narrator – the depth of disturbance these cat killers are capable of:

“But the people insisted on telling me names, and once they told me they insisted on apologizing, telling me the cats’ names were not names the people personally would have chosen, but had been, they unfortunately insisted on telling me, the names their children had chosen.”

Whatever kind of sicko the narrator may be, both the reader and the narrator are appalled at the kind of sicko these cat killers are, and we are now kind of on the narrator’s side, uncomfortable for him more so than uncomfortable toward him.

There is also excellent humor (there’s been humor from the beginning, of course, but not dismissive, preposterous humor to turn the whole story into a joke):

“He had wanted to ‘blast the cats away’ for quite some time, he said, Checkers most of all, he said, but Oreo and Champ were no exception.”

The repetition of the identifying action “he said” and the quotation marks at the beginning of this sentence do a lot of work to keep the narrator separate from what the man is saying, in addition to keeping the tone from slipping into humor or absurdity. The insistent, almost neurotic attention the narrator has in conveying very precisely the details and actions of the story invite us to take the story seriously; though we can laugh, the story is not absurd. Our discomfort in reading is challenged and we are forced to spend time with our discomfort. Our initial discomfort transforms into greater discomfort and more anxiety than we had bargained for. I would like to propose that this is an excellent thing for a story to do. We should read fiction not solely for the answers or guidance it can provide but read fiction for the questions it can put to us. We should be implicated, our well-being should be at stake. I’m not interested in being a fucking tourist. You want to be a spectator, you want to have your uncomplicated voyeurism and your values praised, go watch fucking television.

The story proceeds to recount the process by which the cat killers attempt to pull the narrator further into the situation and the narrator is confronted with what he can do now that he’s there. I’m not going to give away any secrets (go read the story), but when I finish reading, I leave the page with chills. It’s fantastic.
This has already gone on too long for a single post, hasn’t it? I’ll continue with the Diane Williams as a part II. I’ll leave you with her first sentence (from ‘The Kind You Know Forever’):

“I had just met them – the brother and the sister who had fucked each other to see what it would be like.”

Are you smiling? I’m smiling. How much fun is this? I love perverts.