Friday, February 21, 2014

Appreciating the Short Story via George Saunders

The last book I finished was Tenth of December by George Saunders. As I read and enjoyed this collection, I remembered how deceptively simple writing a short story seems. A delicate balance needs to be maintained within a compressed amount of space. Drop the reader off in the depths of the story's world. Don't waste time (or underestimate the reader's ability to comprehend) by loading up on backstory or over-the-top explanations. Give just enough to orient the reader in the new world, to help them absorb the environment - an experience similar to riding a bike after years of not pedaling. Give details at the right speed, so the reader is engaged and wants to delve deeper. An overwhelmed reader may throw the bike down and run home.

A reminder of how deceptively simple writing a short story seems.
Reading George Saunders, it's easy to forget how much nuance and thoughtfulness goes into a short story. His writing seems effortless, seamless. His characters are fully human, with all the flaws and quirks that entails. His writing doesn't feel like writing at all. More like we've suddenly been given access to each character's unique inner monologue. In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," we read a character's journal entries. They are written in the fragmented, missing verb/noun/article style we so often use in our texts and emails. Unstructured grammar can be annoying to read, but the technique adds authenticy to the character's humanity and corresponds with the character's frazzled mindset.

All of the stories in Tenth of December are compelling. I'll just focus on one to try and grasp at how Saunders does it. The story "Home" is told from the point of view of a young man named Mike.
  • In just the third paragraph, we get some vivid insight into the state of Mike's mother's house, and the kind of life Mike is used to witnessing/living: "Inside were piles of newspaper on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head above the fridge and the old orange rug rulled up halfway."
  • It soon becomes evident that Mike has returned home from war. On the 2nd page, his mother's boyfriend (Harris) asks Mike, "What's your worst thing you ever did over there?" A man comes to the house to evict Mike's mother (Ma), who tries to get out of it by saying, "This is my son! Who served. Who just came home. And this is how you do us?" Harris chimes in with, "This is how you treat the family of a hero? He's over there fighting and you're over here abusing his mother?" The story slowly feeds the reader with appropriate details regarding Mike's service and the family dynamics. We settle into Mike's world via an organic receipt of information. Saunders lets us learn via natural sounding character conversations and situations. There is no need for the narrator or the author to directly talk to the reader in a whispered aside in order to fill us in. We are never removed from the story in order to receive factual details.
  • Mike's sister Renee has somewhat escaped, and now lives in a nicer part of town with her husband and baby. Mike goes to see Renee in her fancy new house, and there is this great image: "I looked at her and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, on mushrooms, trashed the patio." I love this flash of a memory. Saunders uses a fleeting recollection to say everything about Mike and Renee's childhood - the environment they grew up in, the bond between them. Each word is telling - from the mention of Dad, who gets no other recognition in the rest of the story, right down to the way Aunt Toni spells her name with an "i." 
  • There's another flash later on. Simple words tinged with innocence, youth, abandoned optimism. Simple words touching on our complicated relationships with nostalgia and the people who raised us."Oh Ma, I remember when you were young and wore your hair in braids..."
  • Something dark is hinted at. Renee continually asks Mike if he "did it" and Mike continually side-steps the question by changing the subject. What is "it"? An atrocity comitted while fighting in the war? There's some talk of a court martial. Maybe it's the unknown reason why he no longer lives with his wife and kids?
  • The intrigue of this dark secret increases as we observe Mike acting impulsively and violently. He body slams the guy who evicts Ma from her house. He makes Ma and Harris watch as he sets the house carpet on fire. "Something had been happening to me lately where a plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet. When that happened, I knew to trust it. My face would get hot and I'd feel sort of like, Go, go, go. It had served me well, mostly. Maybe he wrestled with a temper before his service, and the seedling of anger was exacerbated by war. Perhaps in the present tense of the story, he struggles with an act he shouldn't have committed and/or PTSD. 
  • An interesting scene occurs between Mike, Renee, and her husband Ryan. Mike wants to hold their baby, but they won't let him. Is this refusal tied to the "it" that Renee has been questioning Mike about? Mike did something - or was at least accused of something - that makes Renee and Ryan doubt him. They don't trust Mike with their child. 
  • "Having all these people think I was going to hurt the baby made me imagine hurting the baby. Did imagining hurting the baby mean that I would hurt the baby? Did I want to hurt the baby? No, Jesus." Mike's inner monologue piques the reader's curiousity and suspicions. It walks a line between indignation and self-doubt. He tries to convince himself that he can actually handle holding the baby. He pushes deeper, recalling recent experiences of having no intention of doing something, then suddenly finding himself in the middle of doing it anyway. He tries to diffuse the situation by picking up a pitcher of lemonade and holding "like a baby." The lemonade spills everywhere, he spikes the pitcher to the floor, and runs outside. We feel bad that Renee and Ryan hurt Mike's feelings. At the same time - judging by how he handled the lemonade pitcher - maybe they were right to keep him away from the baby and what the hell did Mike DO before we enter the story?
  • We hear snippets about Mike's experience in the war from Ma. She says he has a Silver Star, that he was cleared of the court martial. It's hard to tell how much truth her words carry - as she has proved to be an unreliable character, and Mike neither confirms or denies her assertions. She also seems to mention Mike's veteran status for self-serving reasons. To get others to treat her better.
It's hard to articulate exactly why the Tenth of December stories work. In many ways, the stories are perfectly ordinary. Ordinary in the sense that they feel like the words and worlds of real people, desires and struggles we recognize in ourselves and in those around us. Yet they are extraordinary because they capture the ordinary so completely. Everything is familar - with a subtle splash of science fiction and absurdity, borne on an undercurrent of humor. These stories resonate because at their core, they explore the multitudes of existence that many of us encounter everyday. Family tensions. Conversations that say everything and nothing at once. Heartache. The awkwardness of growing up, of trying to exist beneath strange rules. Uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. Chance encounters with strangers. Trying to identify and do the right thing. Material tokens of success, petty jealousies. Just trying to make it from one day to the next.
Reading Tenth of December is like eavesdropping
on the words and worlds of real people.

And like my favorite flavor of short story, the endings in each Tenth of December story are not endings at all. It's not THE END, not exactly. It is a shift, an understanding that this character we've been drawn into is making a noticable change. The reader must say goodbye at a pivotal crossroad. This stirring change may take hold and push the character to a new place (positive or negative). Maybe the change will drift away and the character settles back into old habits. We don't know. But as the story ends, there is still satisfaction in knowing that a shift occured. The uncertainity of whether or not the shift will stick - and even the uncertainty of whether or not the shift itself can be identified as positive or negative - makes these characters real. As we turn the page or close the book, the characters seem to go on living in a paralell universe. We just can't eavesdrop on them anymore. We must leave them on the cusp of something pivotal.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year, New Writing

With a new year upon us, talk swirls furiously - and often briefly - around resolutions. It seems that writers are fond of making writing-related resolutions; maybe in part because writers are often predisposed to procrastination? Goals to write more, write every day, write a specific number of words each day, etc.

2014 Daily Planner
Year of the Snoopy
Within the past few years, we've had a tradition of going to NYC around Christmas. This trip has also evolved into the time when I buy my daily planner for the coming year. Similar to selecting a new notebook, choosing a new planner is serious business. Specific criteria have to be met. This year, I stood in the NYU Bookstore trying to decide if it was a good idea to spend $24 on a planner. In addition to having monthly overview calendar-type pages (very important planner criteria!), it had a lined page for each individual day. It was like a combination planner/journal.

The need-to-write-more bug plagues me too (I am also perpetually tormented by the procrastination bug); so I justified my purchase by hoping that those individual day pages would help me write daily. Just make it to the end of the page each day. The pages are much smaller than an 8x11, so it seems less daunting. There is no set word count to reach. My handwriting can scrawl into the margins. I can skip a line, draw arrows, make notes. Just get to the end of the page.

I have been noticing - and thinking about - the idea that new year's resolutions are actually pretty silly. There is no reason to believe that the best time for change is January 1. Every day is a fresh beginning, we can change at any moment. As I move through my 2014 planner, a blank page will greet me every step of the way. New day, new blank page. New blank page, new writing.
Every day starts with a new blank page                                   A chance to start over, change, create

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Capturing the Elusive

'Tis the season for the Christmas tree to reclaim its corner of the living room. Admiring the decorated fir from the couch, I'm enraptured by the tree's cozy glow. Hazy golden lights; twinkling reflections across strands of garland; familiar ornaments, remembered from childhood. It's like having a silent, steadfast friend by your side - calmly smiling, pushing against winter's chill.

Elusive beauty...
A fully dressed and lit up Christmas tree looks nice; and this prompts many of us to take a picture of it. I do this every year, and every time I'm disappointed that the Christmas tree picture never does justice to seeing it with my own eyes. Is it a lighting issue? Lack of proper photography equipment and/or the expertise to use it?

Camera aside, it was also impossible to write the first paragraph of this post without it coming across as overly sentimental and possibly, I don't really think the Christmas tree is my friend :) The words above don't come close to the intangible way I feel looking at the tree in the evening - all cozy in my PJs, wrapped in blankets. The radiators sputtering heat; napping pets and a loved one nearby.

Maybe the Christmas tree is so alluring because its essence cannot be captured or defined.

Sometimes I think about how the novel and other written forms have existed for hundreds of years, and wonder how it's possible that there are still any stories left to tell.  Even though the same themes have fueled artistic works for centuries - love, death, betrayal, existential questioning, etc. - these topics have been explored in a myriad of ways. Each writer's unique perspective undoubtedly plays a part. But beyond that, perhaps the reason why our art circles around the same big topics is simply because the "basic" aspects of human existence are impossible to pin down.

We are drawn to the elusive, and search for the grain of knowledge buried within. We take pictures of our lovely Christmas trees, and desperately write about our pains and triumphs. Trying to capture a mysterious meaning, to uncover a slippery truth. We strive to create something tangible that we can look back on and say yes, I was happy then. Yes, I understood, and this will help me understand again.

Happy holidays!!! Cheers to the stories of 2014 - and beyond.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Staying Present

In the midst of brown stumps, 
a cluster of baby green leaves bloomed
The impending winter has reared its head in fits and starts. A delicate dance of assertion and retreat. Dry, blustery cold in the 20s and 30s, followed by a balmy day in the 60s and rain.

The rose bush has been pruned to meager stalks of brittle thorns. In the midst of the brown stumps, a cluster of baby green leaves bloomed. They have hung on since before Halloween. Not spreading out along the rest of the stalk, but not curling up and dropping off either. The forsythia bush has been trimmed away from the garage. At the base of the shrub, miniscule yellow flower petals emerged.

Had this tiny bounty been there since the first burst of spring? Tucked safely behind the abundance of sun and summer days that lingered without a sense of immediate closure, perhaps they had survived  the bugs, wind, drought, and the changing seasons.

Maybe they were tricked by a string of unseasonably warm days. Foolishly making a naive effort,
ignorant to the fact that winter is so close.

Maybe it speaks to the benefits of awareness, of existing within the present as it is. Sensing a comforting warmth and light, stretching and basking in the glow, the branch put forth one last leaf. While understanding that winter would soon sweep in - that flowers must fade - it chose to enjoy the fleeting moment. All other leaves and blossoms had shriveled and blown away. The brave rose leaf and lone forsythia petal remained. Nakedly exposed, clinging to a plant descending into hibernation. Fully enjoying precious time before the freeze.

Stretch, bask in the glow
Live in the present as it occurs

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Role of the Supernatural in Character Development

There are some obvious similarities between The Amityville Horror (the 1979 film; I've never read the Jay Anson book) and The Shining (the 1980 film and, of course, the Stephen King novel). There is an evil house/hotel that terrorizes its inhabitants. Both stories also feature a lead male/father character who is extremely afflicted within the surroundings.
  • George Lutz. James Brolin portrays this real person as a man who doesn't waste words. Gruff, with hints of a temper lurking close to the surface. He recently married Kathy, who has three kids from a prior relationship. The newly formed family is still getting used to life together.
  • Jack Torrance. In comparison to the George Lutz film character, we're given much more insight (via the novel) into Jack and the personal history that led him to The Overlook. Alcoholism, rage, drunkenly breaking his son Danny's arm, hints at his misogynistic nature.
Family tensions fill these stories, before the horror starts
When these stories begin, everything isn't peaches and cream. The families grapple with various tensions before moving into the doomed house/hotel.

In Amityville, there are fragile relationships with stepkids; newlyweds who will have to scrimp and scrape to make mortgage payments. A man who likely led a rather solitary, independant life before marriage, suddenly thrust into the role of family man.

In The Shining, there's unemployment, writer's block. A recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies. A strained marriage, and worry about what's going on inside the son's head.

When the lead male character starts to act out, his behavior plays right into the wife's insecurities, anxieties, and fears about the relationship.

When the babysitter gets locked in the closet in Amityville, George and Kathy ask daughter Amy why she didn't open the door. Amy blames her unseen "friend" Jody. George bluntly tells Kathy that it's about time her kids had some damn discipline. The look on Kathy's face says it all. He just touched a nerve. She worries he will never accept her kids as his own, that he doesn't respect her as a mother, etc.

Later on, when Kathy tries to convince him to abandon the malevolent house, he says, "You're the one that wanted a house. This is it, so just shut up!" Another hint at the non-supernatural tensions that pulled at their lives before they moved into the house.

"I've  always been crazy,
but it's kept me from going insane"
- Waylon Jennings
Did the supernatural create his behavior,
or just push him over the edge?
How much influence does the supernatural have on George and Jack's misbehavior? Does the supernatural possess George/Jack, causing them to act negatively against their will? Or does the supernatural sense negativity within George/Jack, and use it to exploit their natural tendencies? Or do George/Jack sense a supernatural presence, then react to it in the same (albiet more extreme) way they would react to any other external stressor (work stress, family stress, etc.) - i.e. by lashing out?

According to Wikipedia,  Stephen King "viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick's take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself."

Based on how these lead male characters operate in the beginning (before the horror starts) - and based on the backstories provided - the lead male's intense/undesirable actions (as a reaction to and/or result of supernatural forces) don't contradict the way they've been characterized.

Yes, the walls drip blood and there are bad vibes in Room 217. However, the most compelling aspect of these stories is the unraveling of the lead male and the family dynamic. The supernatural horror and male misbehavior is an external extension of darker impulses glimmering in the depths of the lead male characters - impulses that their wives had previously sensed, but believed/hoped would never surface.

Within the world of these stories, perhaps it is easier for the wives to accept their husbands' misbehavior once they begin to believe that their husbands are influenced by supernatural forces. What's scarier? A supernatural presence that can take over your mind and personality, or realizing that someone you love (and even yourself) has undesirable capacities?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Maintaining Mystery

I recently finished In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O' Brien. This novel is built around an unsolved mystery labeled as fiction, and since it is not chronicling a real life event, the author is free to "solve" the mystery any way he wants to. Except he doesn't.
Unsolved Mystery

John Wade has suffered a crushing political defeat, due in part to public revelations of his questionable actions during the Vietnam War. His time in Vietnam - and the death of his alcoholic/verbally abusive father - haunt John's mind and memories. When the reader meets John, it is clear that he is quite unsettled. His wife Kathy soon disappears, leaving a missing boat as the only significant clue.

Despite a comprehensive search, no one can figure out what happened. The local police, family members, and acquaintances suspect John of killing her. Some chalk it up to an unfortunate boating accident. With post traumatic stress that causes him to drift from reality, even John can't say for sure what he was doing the night his wife vanished.

At first it seems a novel with an omniscent (or objective) third-person narrator. But there are well-placed footnotes and chapters dedicated to collected "evidence." Through these techniques, the reader realizes that the narrator is some kind of reporter/investigative writer, and the novel is the narrator's way of presenting a comprehensive overview of the case. I wasn't sure if this narrator was a fictional character enmeshed in the world of the novel; Tim O' Brien caught up in the midst of creating this novel and speaking directly to the reader; or a fictional extension/alter ego of O' Brien.

I started thinking - why don't we find out what happened to Kathy? Is it a cop-out on O' Brien's part? Maybe he couldn't decide what would sit better with readers: if John actually killed Kathy or if he was innocent? If Kathy died or just ran off and made herself scarce so she could start a new life?

To me, the most acceptable scenario is that the narrator is a fictional character within the world of John Wade, Kathy, and the others. It becomes clear that many of the chapters are pure hypothesis - the narrator's explorations of possible scenarios that could've befallen both Kathy and John. If the narrator is a fictional character, then the fact that we don't find out what happened to Kathy is no longer in danger of being a cop-out on the part of the author, but a more realistic mirror of what so often happens in reality. Watch a few episodes of Dateline, and you remember that crimes and odd happenings can go unsolved for decades, despite the amount of people involved/interviewed/investigated.

Sometimes in life there are no answers, despite how bad we want them. The narrator acknowledges this phenomenon in several of the novel's footnotes (one of which, if you read all of it - not just what I included below - is perhaps the most direct nod to the narrator's role within the novel):

"Our own children, our fathers, our wives and husbands: Do we truly know them? How much is camouflage? How much is guessed at?"

"Mystery finally claims us...The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating...Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe."
[Excerpts from In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien]

Writing and exploring the deep psychological well of the human condition  - specifically the premise that we can never know everything about another human - is interesting, yet difficult. There still has to be enough substance within the work to interest the reader, even if the mystery is never fully revealed.

People in life don't walk around with nametags that identify them as this or that. And even if they did, there is never just one nametag/label that can sum up the complex nature of an individual. So should our fictional characters' motivations/longings/personalities, etc. be definitively labelled within our writing, just because as writers, we have the power to create them?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Poem for Thought

Man paces the beach
rounded calves of
pale freckled skin

Perhaps unaccustomed to
sun exposure


He flies a kite with casual ease
a nonchalance only gained
from endless practice

He keeps the kite
on a short leash

Simple blue diamond  it hovers
silently persistent
got a monkey on your back?
walk circles to shrug it off


He treads without alarm or tension
Familiar with this friendly presence
kite peering over shoulder

His soul on a string

The above is an untitled poem by Fiona Clifford