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.

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