Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two books by Charles Baxter, "Believers" and "First Light"

Charles Baxter: "Believers" and "First Light"

The idea for looking at these two books together is to try to get a glimpse at the different moves Baxter makes as he goes from the short story to novella to novel form.

"Believers" is a collection of short stories and a novella. The two short stories this posting examines are chosen for their length: "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb",  is the shortest story in the collection at 12 pages while "Kiss Away" is the longest at around 35 pages. The novella "Believers" is around 100 pages, and the novel, “First Light”,  is about 300 pages. Thus, each piece examined (however incompletely) below will be roughly a third of the length of the piece examined after it.

I doubt that Baxter sets out to write to a given length, that he goes fishing for ideas and finds he's bagged a 12-pager and he had better write accordingly. I would think the form and length begin to suggest themselves as he writes his way in. (Although it would be interesting to know exactly how that process does work for him, having read the collection and the novel).  More time is covered in a piece, or less time. More characters play key roles in a piece, or fewer do. In any event, his writing is good enough so that the length of each piece feels appropriate and inevitable, as though from the beginning he had a good idea of how each one would shape up.  This is particularly true of the novel, which feels as though it must always have been a novel in his mind.

I read that Beethoven, when he came up with his musical ideas, knew right away what weight of form they could bear. Some themes were suited to a large scale work like a symphony, others to the more intricate and intimate demands of chamber music, while another group might be too insubstantial to be suitable for much more than a quick bagatelle.

That's a form of judgment I'd aspire to - and even better, to know which ideas to trash altogether. It seems that at Baxter's level can judge fairly quickly what weight of form an emerging idea can bear or even which form most allows an idea to be fully realized.

In any event, here is some of what I found:

First, the shortest piece, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb". This one hones right in on a single main character and pretty much stays within a very limited span of time.  There is only a brief amount of history given for this character, and that in the form of his recollecting a session with his therapist. In the story, a banker has found a piece of paper on which may be scribbled a plan to bomb a public place. He wants to tell the authorities, he's worried people will be injured or killed and he could've prevented it, but he's also feeling paranoid, afraid that he, himself, will become the prime suspect. The bomb plan itself is both a vehicle for dramatic irony - he does not agonize at all over whether he should tell his girlfriend about his predilection for picking up young men and bringing them to hotel rooms for sex – and a metonymic object, a useful symbol (along with the story's title) for what's going on with him. The present-moment action in the piece spans only several hours with important information presented as analepsis in brief asides.
The long short story, "Kiss Away", has two significant characters rather than one, and two important peripheral characters who advance the plot or have thematic significance. The story stretches out over a span of several weeks. And since the story revolves around a relationship, time itself is needed to establish a rhythm in their interactions. Baxter's instincts here serves him well; I felt slowly drawn into the story of Jodie and how she connects with her new boyfriend, Walton. The time Baxter spends on this then makes the appearance of the potentially dark secret in this piece that much more effective.

This is a pattern in all four of these pieces - one question, or several, are either implied or asked in the narration, and each piece sets out to find the answers. In this piece, the question is whether or not the apparently likable, somewhat hapless miscreant Walton is, in fact, dangerous and psychopathic.

The motif of uncovered secrets and knowledge is woven throughout the piece: early on, Jodies sees Walton as the Joker figure in her pack of Tarot cards; Walton suggests the two of them go on a treasure hunt after a job interview; Jodie unintentionally awakens a self-styled genie in a diner who claims to be able to grant her wishes; and finally, a strange woman appears just a bit past midway in the story to warn Jodie off Walton.  (The appearance of a fairly important character this late in a piece is something I'm given to understand does not happen in novels.)

After the appearance of Walton's accuser, the story shifts from past tense to present tense as he defends himself. Jodie chooses to believe him. In the last section, the story has shifted into the future perfect, we are told she will accept his proposal of marriage, we are not told whether or not he has been, or will be, the violent, harmful man his ex lover claims he is, but there is the air of menace brought in by her thinking of the lines rape, murder, is just a kiss away from the Rolling Stones' song “Gimme Shelter”.  The connection to the story's title serves to accentuate this.

There is a particular trope in play here - Baxter gives us something right up front and the cause is later revealed. (This pattern is used again in the novel, "First Light", but there it is much more central.) In this case, it is Walton's limp, which Jodie notices at first sight. What has caused it? We find out, in the end.

There is some fine writing here. This, in particular, describing the first time she had sex with Walton: 

When she came the first time, a window shade flew up in her mind, and she could see all of her feelings waiting to be touched and moved, like passengers in a bus station. When she called out she realized it was Walton's name she was calling. She kissed all of his scars. She kissed his knuckles. 

Nice bit of foreshadow there, too.
“Believers”, the novella, takes even more time and space. Baxter reveals the end of the story first, the fact that the central character in the story was a priest, but has taken a wife, had a child, and left the priesthood. The novella then goes into the past to find out how this came to be. The main action in this piece spans several months, but the novella itself dips into three generations of the narrator's family and bits and pieces of their stories are told.
The focus gets fixed, however, on why this priest chose to disrobe. Here, the peripheral characters are featured much more prominently, are more fully fleshed out. The author spends several pages in different scenes describing how Ellen’s ears glow red at the tips with arousal when she is around violence, he’s able to dwell on the priest’s feelings about this couple and his odd attraction to them, he’s able to dwell on the priest’s own family and important scenes from the latter’s youth.
There is a particularly nice passage where the narrator's mother describes how his father had been towards her – just another person to look after in his parish – before the change had occurred in him that made it possible for him to desire her as a woman: 
There's a concentration men have when they're paying attention to you romantically. Like they're about to leap over a chasm and they're calculating how far they'll have to jump. Sort of a single minded look. He didn't have that. No. He'd look right through you. He was seeing God through you. In you. 

And so what happens to this priest so that he no longer sees God, so that now he sees with the more carnal eyes of the commonplace?  It is what he sees in that couple when he goes with them on a trip to Germany, circa 1937. (Note that again, there is something to uncover, or being uncovered, in this piece, as in the first two. But, then again, that seems to be the point of plot – at least, according to Frank O' Connor, to be the “hide” of the story.)
"First Light", the novel.

Each chapter is, in one sense complete, each offers a meaningful vignette, and each is contained within its own bounds of time and place. But, having established the characters over the first several chapters, Baxter does not have to re-establish them. Thus, his writing can go deeper and deeper into the layers of his two main characters' history without having either to repeat the basic facts (Dorsey is Hugh's sister, Simon is her husband, Hugh and Simon don't like each other, etc) or what has already been covered in the earlier chapters.

Baxter chooses to tell this story beginning at the end - Dorsey and Hugh are together with their respective families at the home they grew up in, and near the end of the chapter Dorsey announces her intention to "divorce" from Hugh, to break off their connection as brother and sister. In an ordinary book, we would expect this to work itself out, for them to come to some kind of reconciliation, but this novel is told moving backward in time, and the more we come to know the two, the more poignant this beginning becomes.

There are surprises here as the reader witnesses the changes in Hugh and Dorsey in reverse, how they move past each other as though on trains passing in opposite directions on a route from an open, more unbounded life to a more constrained, restricted existence. There is a poignancy in this structure, as we watch characters appear and then disappear in the narrative because the telling of the story has moved back to a  time before they came into one or the other's life. (For the most part, Dorsey's, is the life with the more significant relationships. For Hugh, the only truly charged relationship seems to be with her.)

There are specific types of adumbration Baxter uses, so that at most times several open questions - even if the reader is not always aware they are there - are raised and then answered in succeeding succeeding chapters. One of these is the question of who is the father of Dorsey's child? We find out only after several chapters that it is not Simon.

Another thing Baxter does is to make a few nods to the reader's experience of the piece. At the end of the very first chapter, we get Hugh looking for the keys he's carelessly thrown off the roof of a farmhouse. He knows he will find the keys soon, and the reader herself will also find the keys to reading this piece as soon as she goes into the second chapter.

Chopping the piece into discrete moments in time, gives each chapter some of the feel of a short story and each chapter intensely illuminates a moment, a particular aspect of character in each of the main players in the story, or illuminates part of their situation. Some of the brief chapters would not serve as complete stories - they are complete thoughts, though, in a string of thoughts that is this novel.

The demands on each chapter are less than they would be on a short story, but there is the need to keep the reader asking questions he hopes to have answered in later chapters. It is also noticeable that each chapter has an “aboutness” although sometimes this is something I can sense more than completely get.

The question I believe this book wants me to pose, wants me to seek the answer to, is why does Dorsey feel she needs to “divorce” her brother?  At first, quite frankly, I'm reading this waiting to find the moment someone has diddled her, perhaps Hugh, himself. That would be too easy and too cliché - I was thankful that such a revelation never comes in this novel - but I do feel that Baxter plays with this as an expectation on the reader's part. (If, in fact, Dorsey can be said to have a predator in her past, it's from her days as a graduate student when she falls – and stays fallen – under the spell of a brilliant but past-his-prime physics professor.)  As far as I can tell, Hugh has gotten fixated on the notion of protecting Dorsey but he must feel he has failed, especially given her pregnancy from her encounters with the enigmatic Carlo Pavorse and her unlikely marriage to the wildly and openly promiscuous (with both sexes) Simon.

Not that these isn't a sexual tension between Hugh and Dorsey. Hugh is always deaf not only to what is going on not only around him, but also within himself. There is a striking scene in the first chapter where he climbs on to the roof of their old parents' house, he thinks to check up on work he'll need to do. The fact that Dorsey's husband can see him from their bedroom, though, invites me to think Hugh's real purpose – whether he knew it or not – was to peek in on them, and it's likely this is why Dorsey makes her request.

As the book goes on in its backwards movement through time, there is the realization Dorsey has , much earlier on in both their lives, that Hugh's girlfriend and wife-to-be reminds her strongly of someone. That someone, she realizes with a sickening start, is herself.

There is some misdirection: waiting for the scene in which she is somehow ruined – or at least the seeds of doom are planted in their relationship – there are strong moments of physical connection or of danger between the brother and sister. In one chapter, in this one Hugh is the high school sports star and his sister is still a pre-adolescent with very little social confidence, Hugh and his pal her along on a dangerous romp into an amusement park that is closed for the season where she gets lost for a moment in the funhouse (a nod to Barth?). 

A climatic moment – and one of the shortest chapters – has Hugh out on the lake in a boat with his father not long before the latter's death. The father wants badly to tell him something, but in the end changes his mind.  What is it the father wants to say?

The form works perfectly in this novel, but as a whole it remains tightly focused on its initial (and climatic) moment, the "divorce" and because of the way the focus is kept fixed on Dorsey and Hugh, it retains some of the feel of his shorter work, it's easier to see how he's able to make that move into the longer form so that there's a sense of continuity between his writing in both forms.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Kate Wheeler, "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree"

Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree

I'm sure that of those people who imagine they actually exist, or imagine they do not, there are some who wonder what a collection of so-called Buddhist fiction would be. The editor of this collection, Kate Wheeler, wisely chooses to let this unanswerable question alone, to let the stories define only themselves. In the end, the reader is left with just these stories and the promise that another such collection would be entirely different.

The collection for me is very useful, especially since my own attempts to make the twain of writing and contemplative practice meet seem to have been epic fails (to use the common parlance). This is a wide survey encompassing a wide variety of approaches to the general topic.  There is a great variety of voice and tone, many different forms of practice are represented here, and even the authors themselves seem to write from different levels of experience in their own contemplative practice - one might be fairly advanced in meditation, another not so much.

I approached this one with a great deal of curiosity - one might approach fiction about the making of music the same way - to see what the authors did to make these pieces work, what their concerns were and what problems they typically encountered.

Why would a Buddhist want to write stories? Isn't the idea to get away from stories, to break free from all enchantments of the mind, free from its constant promises of good and bad things to come? Perhaps the answer is that the fictive project is something entirely different. It is not a "giving in" to the nervous mental chatter of an uncultivated mind, but is itself a form of practice, a form of deep concentration. It can yield up intense moments of joy, sadness, insight, transcendence, a state of flow and play. And, just as often, a desire to read baseball box-scores. (All of that is not unlike meditation, at least, the meditation as I now try to practice it.) What answers do the authors give?

In “Tanuki” by Jan Hodgman, what I remember most is the spot-on depiction of an elderly woman parishioner, the way she maintains a superficial adherence to custom and propriety but hardly cares to conceal her own corruption. She stands in, somehow, for the entire village. The nun who has taken over their temple is always in a precarious position there, and it is in her meetings with this shallow old woman that we see how unappreciated and misunderstood her work is.The author tells us this about how the nun came to her life: "She shaved her head after leaving a marriage she could only describe as tasteless."  Excellent - a present moment sensation used to capture the entire sense of the marriage.

In the story “In the Sky There is no Footstep”, by Margo McLoughlin, there is this depiction of a moment of insight:

Sometimes, after the morning puja in the women's meditation hall, Anagarika Liz would wait until all the others had left. Then she would step outside, look up at the sky and watch the clouds. The words from the Dhammapada would come to her: "In the sky there is no footstep..."

Wow. (Although I find it odd that this experience is described as habitual, come to think of it.)

Were there attempts to let the teachings unfold within the stories themselves? I think “Hungry Ghost” by Keith Kachtick goes for this, in its story of a traveling surfer who also pursues an interest in the dharma. He is in conflict with himself: he wants to remind himself to remain above desire, but there is the matter of a little cabana near his on the beach and the lovely young German woman in it. The desire builds, the conflict intensifies, he rubs his lama beads and frets, but after he's gotten past that, he brings a handful of beers and his guitar over to her cabana, they smoke dope and wind up in bed. At the end, there is a nice prolepsis, the story telescopes into the future (at least, the future as this man imagines it) and he sees that for her, this seduction won't be remembered as a good turning in her life, and just may be the place where she saw things begin to go wrong.  I ask myself whether this is Buddhist or Catholic in tone. A little of both, I think.

A story I love – and this one was not written by a self-described “Buddhist” - is “Zoo Animal Keeper I, REC-SVC-ZK”, by Martha Gies. This sentence, almost at the end of the story, comes after a live-in student of a traveling Zen monk has been turned down for a job. With the lightest possible touch, it captures the attitude of non-clinging and equanimity:

I invited Luke to come to Ka'ili'ili Road after work to have a bowl of tea, and he said he just might do that, which sounded to me like he would not. We shall see. I have placed two of the cigarillos that he likes in the Sensei's humidor, just in case he drops by.

The title story of the collection also works beautifully as a whole, this one illuminating the non-judging empathy an actor feels towards Nixon, a man he portrays in a one-man play each night, on hearing of his death. There is a strong sense of an exploration on what is personal and what is not, what is within the control of an individual, and what is the result of impersonal forces moving through.

“Greyhound Bodhisattva”, by Francesca Hampton – a remake of the story of the prodigal son (intentionally or not) - is a more traditional piece of fiction albeit one in which the character's conflict is “Buddhist”. A young priest, the 12th reincarnation of an important lama in his Tibetan lineage, has fled his village and is living – by monkish standards – an immoral life in America, having taken, at one point, an American lover. His people, it turns out, forgive him for all this: they want their reincarnated lama back at home where they need him. He dreams of the circle of lamas with whom he has incarnated this lama, and of his elderly teacher who, having been sent to America to fetch the wayward young monk, had only this to say about his lover: “at least she isn't pregnant”. Through this wayward monk's eyes, the reader sees that there is desire and remorse, but there is also compassion for the suffering he sees around him in LA. He “returns” to his role, not by returning to his village, but by attending to the poor and lowly he is now left among in LA. A vivid, Buddhist fantasy, I like.

A very strong piece in this collection is “Beheadings”, by Sharon Cameron. She handles the strong emotional content of the story by slowly peeling off layers until the story gets to the heart of the trouble. The narrator is seeking to find her brother, a brother whose emotional distress is shown in the second paragraph:

...Cambodia is "clean". He explained what I already knew: at least 1.7 million people dead from Pol Pot's scourge, a fourth of the total population. All the bad karma has washed over this place, he wrote. It's annihilated past sins. This is the cleanest place on earth.

Risky, I think – does her brother's trouble deserve to be elevated to the sufferings of a whole country? – but the author makes the revelations work with this juxtaposition. This is a story of a man unable to forgive himself and I read it only several months after attempting a similar story.  Another vivid passage:

What did it for me was seeing a scrawny dog with its head caught in a clear plastic jug, running around the streets of Phnom Penh, banging into laughing people, getting kicked away, taunted, and eventually forgotten.

The horror her brother is feeling is shown in episodes. In one, he engages in an old Shawnee ritual seeking to cleanse himself of his sin. In it, he has  to dive down into a river in the middle of winter – he has to break through the ice on the surface – to retrieve a handful of silt, because, having done so, he would be blessed and immune to "malign forces. All the evil in the world could no longer hurt him.”

Another approach is in “Mi Mi May” by Diana Winston. Here the protagonist is at a long Buddhist meditation retreat, striving for her awakening. She hits a bit of a detour in the person of Mi Mi May, a young woman who claims to have come very close to the final stages of enlightenment at this same retreat, her way of letting our narrator know she has the inside scoop on things. Mi Mi May is acting the bad girl now, no longer even bothering to pretend to practice. She prods the narrator into breaking silence by offering the temptation of fried chicken (to be brought in the next day by her visiting relatives).Mi Mi May is a funny, lively character, a great little archetype of the better devils of our nature.

There is a danger in this writing and that is the danger of the Buddhist cliché, the coded phrase meant to please the practitioner. It can be hard to avoid. In “In the Sky...” there is the moment when we're told the head monk will savor the cake, then "when the cake was gone, he'd let it go.”  Or, in “Beautiful Work”: “I cannot say what awareness is. It is nothing. It is no thing.” I'm not sure these are grievous errors, but as I went through the collection, these things that felt like cliches, or worse, attempts to please or impress the Buddhist audience, did seem to pop up enough so that I noted to myself that I should avoid them in my own writing.

My thought on that now is that it depends quite a bit on intention - if the intention is to illuminate a moment and doing so brushes up against cliche, so be it. It might be useful to have a sort of taxonomy of possible cliches handy, though, so that when they show up in the writing, one might make an extra effort to go further.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Donald Barthelme "60 Stories"

Donald Barthelme

The first time I read "The Indian Uprising" several years ago, I was irritated. Why would anyone want to write something so deliberately incomprehensible? What are these things, sentences or snakes? Whatever they were, they slithered out of my attempts to grab hold of their meanings, but they also curled themselves around my own fictive arms and it was hard to fling them off. I could not get rid of them, and I knew I'd have to come to terms with this writer sooner or later.

It turned out to be later. I eased my way in with some other experimental writers – Nicholas Mosely, John Barth – and when I decided my own writing was just too damn conventional, I thought – who better to look at than Barthelme? Why not make use of this container that is the MFA work and go into what he's doing? He became part of the study plan, I bought his book, I found essays, and there was also that fantastic wormhole of Google.

I thought this, from Gus Negative's Scriptorium, was excellent: For if any single theme can tie together an ourve so multifarious as Barthelme's, it is surely his tireless exploration of flux and transience, comic irruptions of the surreal into the mundane, junkyard cultural detritus bound up with old wire in a madman's basement to make beautiful, poignant artifacts.

Barthelme: postmodern; Barthelme: actualist (I love that one); a million labels stick to this guy – that must be a good sign, something he's doing works so well that no matter what camp someone is in, they want or imagine Barthelme's part of their posse, even if his writing seems to undermine the notion of labels. I thought I'd slap one onto the worn luggage (hardly new, I'm sure): “Buddhist-Dadaist”.

“Buddhist” is based on no scholarship, just the title of his book of essays, “Not Knowing”. Hmm, dead giveaway, I can practically see the stains of the lama beads on the pages. And the way his writing undermines the reliability of any narrative - how nice, shiny, void-like (and he might add lemony-fresh). (And yes, I'm now waiting for my own copy of "Not Knowing" to arrive in the mail.)

“Dadaist” - that one comes from sentiment, from knowing some Dada types first hand, from Monty Python, from any number of things. There's much to be said for intentional absurdity, for wanting to crack open the tyranny of the unquestioned, unchallenged, mundane patterns of life. Having that connection, at last,  I was delighted to see the cultural residues of the Dada running through "The Indian Uprising". Now, I had a way in.

I read through 60 Stories coming up to “The Indian Uprising”, an excellent preparation in and of itself. Maybe later I'll blog a bit about the other stories but time presses. I had hoped to describe Barthelme using his style, but I don't have the chops.

For me, in the first (new) read, “The Indian Uprising” is a collage: the piece coheres because it has a framework, the borrowed, conventional shape of the story of a violent insurrection threatening the safety of the narrator. But the largest chunks of the battlefield depiction are not direct renderings of story, but pasted in scenes of another story and funny, random bits of cultural debris. And rather than being static bits, each of those pieces are animated, little snippets of moving film rather than newspaper.

The effect is similar to those reading tasks researchers have recently devised, where a paragraph of text has letters badly misspelled or replaced with words having no meeting in that context and yet the paragraph can be read and understood. But in this early read, I'm not sure he wants that framework to hold, though he wants its traces.

Another read: now his use of direct juxtaposition allows him to have the narrative through-line (the uprising) reverse roles with what might have been taken as a secondary image, the story of his relationship with Sylvia. This takes over the lead role in the story and the through-line itself is relegated to the role of image. The story jumps right into this switch in the first paragraph with the delightfully surreal sarcasm of “the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire” a war image mixing a suburban scene with ad copy style that acts as a mini bridge to the domestic “'Do you think this is the good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'” 

Another read, another approach, going a bit deeper in - it is the story of the relationship told in a wild impressionistic style, and it is Sylvia herself who leads the insurrection. The last sentence captures beautifully a glimpse into the face of the wild, unfathomable other:  I removed my belt and shoelaces and looked (rain shattering from a great height the prospects of silence and clear, neat rows of houses in the subdivisions) into their savage eyes, paint, feathers, beads. Fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Barthelme himself writes (in the excellent summary of Gus Negative) that “without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” And in his writing, you see this happening within the story, within the paragraph, and within the sentence where succeeding clauses often become pivot points into entirely different layers of meaning: “On the map we considered the situation with its strung-out inhabitants and its merely personal emotions” or “I opened a letter but inside was a Comanche flint arrowhead played by Frank Widekind in an elegant gold chain and congratulations”.These sentences take unexpected turns yet still work, are not just random nonsense.

An author who would claim that "not knowing" is of the essence would be skeptical that any single thread of narrative is reliable, that it can offer more than a comforting illusion of understandable, linear progressions of causes leading to effects and to more causes. Wouldn't trying to trace real life in such progressions be as futile as trying to map wavelets in a pond?

For me, Barthelme's prose captures this bewilderment while keeping clear the emotional situation of the loss and confusion the protagonist is facing. And in moving through its collage elements, revealing different layers, he does a great job in capturing the quality of mind itself as it moves through so many associations, memories, desires, and fears in its course of trying to figure out what the hell is actually going on. In that sense, the story is representational.

And yet all of the time that this is happening, the author is aware of the object he has created. And here, the text and its construction are meant to be seen, the snowglobe holding the spectacle of the story itself being part of what we are meant to take in.

I love how Barthelme engages with theory, how it is not an adornment in his writing, but an internalized part of a personal sensibility. He feels free to challenge all assumptions and patterns, including whatever critical theorists (of which he was one) are coming up with.This will be important for me to keep in mind as I begin to use this course work to discover theory.

It seems he keenly feels the absurdities in the common patterns of language: he understands how to make a leap mid-sentence from the mundane and predictable to an unexpected, often very funny, associations. I felt my own assumptions exposed and I usually got a good laugh out of it. He had the hang of freely thinking and writing that  - it seems to pour out, not to be mapped out and fussed over. There is an affection for his readers, in their ability to see beyond all of those patterns and delight in those surreal moments and the freedom they offer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Women in Their Beds" Gina Berriault

This collection is the last by the highly acclaimed Berriault, a writer's writer - I would never have heard of it without the offices of my first term mfa advisor, Jess Row, himself a dedicated, life-long practitioner of the black art. This one is a real find: I felt a guilty pleasure in reading writing so good and so relatively unknown.

Several things are noticeable about the collection as a whole. Berriault does not alter the basic parameters of her approach all that much from story to story. Almost all of the stories are told from a limited omniscient, close 3rd point of view, all but one in the past tense (there is an epistolary story, a series of diary entries).She has a curious way with narrative distance - for the most part, she fixes a distance between the narrator and protagonist even as she has access to the many, many ruminations of her main characters, but she will freely dip in and write directly as the character (as she does very powerfully at the climax of "Women in Their Beds").

I get a sense that for some characters, especially Angela Anson in the title story, the narrator is almost merged with the protagonist, while for many of the others, the narrator - and the reader - watch them as though in a fish bowl. If there is a pattern, here, it is that the latter characters are usually male, while the former are female. I'm not sure how she effects this, since the grosser parameters (as mentioned above) are not changing.

"Women in Their Beds"

The first story, rather than a plot based on events, has an arc that traces a growing realization on the part of Angela Anson, a young woman who has gotten temporary work (using falsified credentials) as a social worker in a ward for indigent women in a city hospital. As she watches the women in their strange, institutional, and temporary beds, beds they can never make their own, this realization builds and then emerges in the climax of the story, a beautiful and insightful soliloquy. Angela, making ready to lie in her own bed, comes to an understanding of women in the beds in general, and at this moment,  the narrator drops away altogether and Angela addresses the women directly, almost as a prayer to and for those women. She speaks of the central importance of beds in the lives of women, how women come to make them their own, to center their lives around them either as young lovers, mothers (she calls out the troubled bed of Hamlet's mother in particular), and then, later aging matriarchs. And in this moment she reveals an affecting empathy for her would-be audience, these women who can longer lie in beds that are their own, and she reminds them that she herself knows that she may well be in their place one day. "Just remember the beds where you wished you weren't and the beds where you wished you were, and then name any spot on earth that's a bed for some woman at this very hour. A bed of stones and a bed of earth trampled by soldiers and and a bed of ashes, and where you're lying now, where you never wanted to imagine yourselves. If I'd wished for a bed or roses, and I did, I did, now I don't want it so much anymore".

There is another pattern I notice here: that in this story, as in several others, the character moves, almost in haste, from one episode to another, in between, troubled ruminations that create an effect of distance. What is being seen, shown, is disturbing but yet there is no strong felt sense of it. And then there is that moment of empathy and she seems to focus the force of all of the scattered images and thought-streams that have gone before into that powerful moment.

There were two structural devices that caught my eye in reading this piece: the first being the serial episodes with the women she talks to, the story focusing in on only one at a time, women whom Angela can connect either to her own self at an earlier time (a young woman who, like she once did, attempted suicide) or to others in her life (a fifty year old with pink champagne colored hair that recalls her own Aunt Ida whom she could never bring herself to love). The second framing device, much more quiet, acts as a complement that allows the story to avoid feeling too solidly framed around a procession of those episodes with the patients. It is the use of pages to doctors who are characters from fiction. These pages are woven in conspicuously but with a less regular rhythm. Her actor friends who are her co-workers page these fictional doctors to tease each other and call each other out cigarette breaks; but there is also an illumination in the names chosen, the sense that these names reflect how she is being seen in that moment: Paging Dr. Jekyl, then paging Dr. Zhivago, then doctors Caliguri, Mabuse, Freud, and Curie. I thought - quite nice: there is an author, the story has a design, but this musical interweaving of motifs and episodes doesn't make me forget it's a story as much as revel in it and still get drawn into its life.

"Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?"

Berriault is not ready to put the idea of bed down when she gets to this story.

Here, a young man, homeless, appears before a city librarian with a poem by the South American poet Ruben Dario, a poem that challenges its readers to face whatever circumstances they are in with good cheer and appreciation for their own lives. The homeless man demands to know where the poet was lying when he woke up the morning he wrote the poem.He says to the libararian, “I'll bet you wake up in your own bed. That's what I'm saying. What's-his-name wouldn't've thought up that poem if he woke up where he was lying on sidewalk.” 

The perishable constructions of identity pay such a central role in this story I'm tempted to say it would deserve pride of place in any anthology of so-called Buddhist fiction (and I wonder that it is not in such an anthology, actually).

There is a passage remarkably similar to Angela's soliloquy in “Women”. The librarian is nearing the end of his own carefully constructed existence and we have by now been shown the losses, major and minor, that have eaten away at that construction, not the least of which is the loss of his cognitive functions:  There is a certainty in degradation. You can puzzle over lines your whole life and never be satisfied with the meanings you get. Until, slushing onward, you've got, at last, one meaning for sure, because now its time had come, bringing proof by the thousands wherever they were this night in their concrete burrows and dens.

The librarian is both repelled and haunted by the specter of this homeless man who insists on the librarian's being his confederate in determining who or what this bundle of sensations is. In the end, the homeless man is found dead in the library, and as a crowd massed around the body, for the librarian, Humans speaking were unbearable to hear and abominable to see, himself among the rest. Worse, was all that was written down instead, the never-ending outpouring, given print and given covers, given shelves up and down and everywhere in this warehouse of fathomless darkness.

Up until now, I as a reader, have felt the same distance from this material as the librarian himself has felt from his own world, and it may be in this managing of this distance that this story is most powerful. Nothing has hit me emotionally in the story, but it's all vivid and disturbing. And then, the final paragraph, where the librarian has scattered the scraps of paper from the homeless man's pockets onto his desktop and tries to examine them with shaking hands, tore at my heart with surprising force. It was for me the single most powerful moment in the collection.

The narrator now becomes the librarian and asks,  had the fellow hoped to impress upon himself his likeness to other humans? A break-in of a different sort. A young man breaking into a home of his own.

"Soul and Money"

I begin to notice in this story a certain rhythm in Berriault's prose, a pattern of moving from general summary to specific episodes, and then, within those episodes, moving from summary scenes to specific scenes with dialogue, with a great deal of rumination interspersed.

I notice her facility for analepsis, as in this passage that in a sentence, describes the effect on his first son of the loss of his mother: "A Winter evening, Rachel and their little son crossing the icy street, a skidding car, and Rachel leaping to push the boy out of the way. Their son, growing up, wandered the world on his own, barefoot amonth the hordes of India and the hashish squatters of Morrocco, then, regaining himself or an altered self, he'd put himself through law school. A public defender, wearing decent shoes." It is  powerful moment, for it shines a light that reveals a new depth and sorrow in the life of the protagonist, Walter.

Walter was from the hard left and wrote columns for Arise, a newspaper that, for the true believers, was "a prescription nobody went and got filled." When we meet him, he is an apostate, wondering if he hadn't gambled away his life on a bet that could never pay off, his much younger second wife has "at last and yet too soon" taken on a younger lover herself, and Walter, at loose ends, is on his way to Las Vegas, a place he's been to often.

I found myself at this point scribbling questions in the margin: I don't understand, for instance, whether in an episode between Walter and his brother whether I'm supposed to have felt a change in Walter. In the event, I did not, but it's structural placement in the story makes me feel it's a key part of the setup. What I wind up feeling is that he withstands this challenge, hidebound and untouched, but then his meeting with a fellow apostate at the casino, something like two defrocked priests meeting in a veritable brothel, does shock him into a different way of seeing.Walter has thought he could catch the demon money out in its own game and instead, believes he comes to see it as "God's circulatory system". It seems, in the end, he gets a glimpse of the futility of his project in the Casino and flees.

"Lives of Saints"

Brief precis: artist constructs an image of himself as a celibate, spiritual-seeker whose life work is a series of statues of saints. Inconveniently for this image, he does have a child whom he does not acknowledge. The story follows the child, humiliated by his father's denial of his existence, as he visits each of his father's saints in an attempt either to avenge himself on his father by revealing his art for the sham work that is is, or to commune with his father's life work. It seems a bit of both happens. 

This one echos the first two stories in that bedding down, sleeping, becomes a central, repeated element in the story. The boy winds up sleeping near most of the statues, and it's when he wakes up that he's able to dismiss each in turn. There is something mysterious in the climax, after he's heard his father has died, he realizes that he, the living man, is something his father has left that actually has life, that is connected directly to real life and its billions of generations, as opposed to the dead, abstract representations that were his father's statues, artifacts removed from the eternal stream of real, living, cellular life.  "Contrary to that old saw about art being long and life being short, it was the other way around. He lay facedown under the tree and bit off some grass near the roots, chewing to distract his smile, but it would not give in, and so he lay there the entire day, smiling into the earth."

This one is mysterious: I don't kid myself that this scribbled summary in any way captures all or even most of its meanings, and I'm feeling that, despite its comic tone, it will stick, I'll want to revisit and question it again.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories

The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories

Words on Marcus's Introduction

In his introduction, editor Ben Marcus writes of the stories that grabbed us most in childhold. For him, these were the stories that made him want to lie awake and linger in their echoes, to allow the hidden, alchemical  codes of language time and space and silence to do their work. That silence was important - Marcus writes that literature is a silence - as the best stories did most of their work in that silence that occurred after they were read or heard. Questions of what and why and how did not matter, what was most important was the mysterious effects of the telling itself. As he puts it, “The best stories were stun guns that held my attention completely, leaving me paralyzed on the outside, but very nearly spasming within.”  It was the story itself that happened, not the events it described.

And the secret making of that effect is how Marcus redefines the notion of "plot". In selecting the stories for this anthology, Marcus was not interested in their plots, but rather, in what they were "plotting for", what was their "tactic of mattering", what were the hidden machinations that rooted the story deep in the reader's active imagination. The effect of these hidden machinations is to carve out new space in the geography of the reader's sensibilities, a geography that had been shaped up until the encounter with that story by habitual patterns of language. Marcus writes,  “Plot would be another name for our bodies, carved hollow to receive something amazing.” 

For Marcus, a plot is what is hidden, the “hide” of the story, and just as an  animal's hide conceals the inner workings of its body, the story should not give up the secrets of these hidden machinations too easily. This “hide” is one way in which Marcus defines "style" and style, especially in the unique use of language, is what Marcus focused on in his selections. Stories – or the sequence of events they describe – are limited, but the possible use of language in re-imagining them is limitless.

It is in this  limitless re-imaginings of their methods through new uses and formations of language that the authors are able to make stories that matter. And it seems that the idea that limitless re-imaginings are possible for all things, may be the most important message such stories carry.

Language is what carves, what is carved is our sensibilities formed from language, and that hidden machinery, that new use of language, the forms carved, is style. Marcus writes,  “a stylist seeks to master that technology [the sentence], to not let it lead or dictate terms, but to control it and make it produce whatever effects the stylist rescue the to do something strenuous and heroic...”

In compiling this anthology, Marcus asked for stories from the many different camps, “the realists, the metafictionists, …  and the fabulist maximalists”  and found that the very best writing in each didn't fit comfortably into any one camp, even made the act of rendering them into categories meaningless.  Any of the fundamental components of story – plot, setting, character – no matter the approach used, was but “a piece of language slapped to life by a writer...These are acts of language rubbed over the air to make people appear...”

Thus, because concerned with language, Marcus sums up his concern as being with style, which he defines as a way to to name the artist at work with language, for “language is ...the way we communicate privately to ourselves, [it is] the true code of our inner lives, and to be a short story writer is to know this, to tap into and reveal those ways of personal address we reserve for the private, necessary messages we send ourselves.”

Sea Oak - George Saunders

What is this story's “tactic of mattering”?  This one seems to be a story about a bunch of losers, something that is well trodden territory. These characters have either poor jobs or no jobs at all; they live a second rate existence in a crime ridden neighborhood. They have a matriarch, the narrator's aunt, a woman who seems to selfless to be possible: no matter how bad the circumstances she reminds them to be grateful for all that life has given them, she never has an unkind word for anybody, and she has been so uncaring for her own needs she has never even had a date with a man in her long life. And then she dies. What comes next moves the story into the fantastical: the woman digs herself out of the grave and comes back to the house as a corpse, rapidly decomposing, but anxious to finally get some living – and sex – in before she has completely fallen apart. This story, embedded in the first, makes both of them work. Saunders uses the tropes of magic realism – the fixation with the physical details of the corpse and the grave – to get us past the limits of credulity. And there is a real urgency. I root for the aunt, I want her to succeed in getting her people succeeding, especially if in doing so she'll finally get to have a lover. But, even as she begins to succeed, she falls more rapidly apart.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower

Tower's first person narrator speaks in the language of classic mid century comic books, although he lives in medieval times as a Viking raider and is given to belief in mythology, superstition, and the deeds of heroes. Hear his voice: “A turncoat Norwegian monk named Haddad had been big medicine on the dragon-and-blight circuit for the last decade or so, and was known to bring heavy ordnance for whoever could lay out some silver.”

What grabbed me in this was the contrast between what the first person narrator had heard of and believed, of magic and the deeds of his warrior leaders, and what he saw firsthand. At first, as he
describes what he knows of the exploits of his leader and other warriors, it seems this story might be an amp-ed up, hyper-violent fantasy. But as the story progresses, he describes only what is happening in the moment, what he actually sees, and it becomes clear this is not a fantastical world at all, it is only the narration of someone who believes magic and myth, and he is beginning to lose that belief. As the raiders row on their mission to destroy Haddad, he notes the obvious contradiction of rowing out to sea to destroy an enemy who has the power to control the sea: “I couldn't help but think that this crossing would have been a fine opportunity (for Haddad) to call up a typhoon and hold a massacre.”  By the end, the belief in the exploits and the magic have seemingly drained away, and he waits at night in horror, knowing that people very much like the man he was at one time may well be bearing down on his own settlement now as he and his wife and children lie in their beds.

Do Not Disturb - A.M. Homes

I did not like this one on the first pass – it is in fact, deeply unpleasant and unsettling  – but there was no doubt that it gripped something in my imagination. On the second pass, I could admire this work and the author's mastery.

The very beginning is a nice piece of prolepsis that pulls me right into the narration: “My wife, the doctor, is not well. In the end, she could be dead.”  I'm telegraphed past the immediate scene into the wife's serious illness, and also know from this sentence that, by the end of the story, it will not yet have killed her.

Homes is able to stay in scenes, weaving in enough details that come out in dialogue or asides to fill in as much of the back story (and no more) as is needed to make the story work.  It was a story I might have preferred to have not read, but I lay there in that shocked silence Marcus wrote of.  (Still, I now know too much, and in much too vivid detail, about what happens when a woman has a hysterectomy.)

There is a great exchange that happens after the husband (who narrates the story) has heard the specialist explain the operation to the wife. It jogs a memory of a time when the two of them talked idly about what method each would use to kill themselves if they were forced to do it with their bare hands. He begins by remembering her method:
     “ said you would reach up with your bare hands and rip your uterus out through your vagina and throw it across the room.”
    “What's your point?”
    “No point – I just suddenly remembered it. Isn't Kibbowitz taking your uterus out through your vagina?”
    “I doubt he's going to throw it across the room,” she says.

I've read about great stories that they cannot be paraphrased. The story is the paraphrase, it is already all essential. I was tempted to try to find an “about” for this story, or to draw a parallel to the wife's cancer and their hostile marriage, but I could not. I'm intrigued by a what Homes drops in at the end of the piece, a little snippet that undermines the narrator's credibility. He has told us repeatedly that his wife is full of malice and spite, feels that one of her own great failings was that she could not fix him, but he depicts himself as giving no reason for it. Yet in this last scene he is on the floor with a maid who is stroking his naked chest and giving him champagne to drink. As he tells the story, this is the maid trying to help him recover from physical paralysis brought on by his back spasms.

But is there enough for me to say that it's not the wife who's the creep, it's him? The story does not suffer from this, is not in any way vague or muddled – it is, in fact, sharp and clear, I forget there is a story or a writer.  The effect for me was that a series of questions came alive after the read, and I was haunted by both the hostility and malice in their marriage, by their strange inability to let each other go, and by even stranger, more remote echoes of love and tenderness humming in the background.

The Caretaker - Anthony Doerr

This one reaches to forty five pages, more a novella than a short story. I'm taken by the way the author changes pace and focus - in the beginning five pages, the protaganist's country has been shattered by a civil war, he has lost his mother and his own livelihood (selling stolen goods), and was wandered through Liberia witnessing shockingly violent scenes. In the remaining forty five pages, he is in Oregon, having worked on a freightor for his passage there. One thing that is of interest - Doerr writes convincingly about the protagonist's life in Liberia, but by bringing him into Oregon for larger part of the piece, is able to also bring this character into a setting the author will presumably know more.

Doerr's images are strong, surreal and it seems the story is organized around them: the violent scenes of the civil war; the whales beached, then sawed open for the medical examination of their organs; the protagonist's taking of their hearts for burial on his employer's land; the images of the employer's resort home falling apart as the protagonist charged with its upkeep lies in his own emotional paralysis; and the garden he grows over the buried hearts of the whales. Doerr also uses echoing: the man, in self-exile from Liberia, is effectively exiled in Oregon by his employer and comes back to almost literally haunt his employer's land; in Liberia he has lost his mother to an unknown fate, while in Oregon it is his employer's deaf teenage daughter, a girl with whom he forms a kinship, that goes missing. The girl has known some horrors, also, and I can guess that it was abuse, but Doerr remains silent on this.

Where the mythological sense  rises most strongly is in Doerr's descriptions of the natural world. After the man has lived as a vagrant in the elements for weeks and then months, he connects with the girl and he wants to tell her what this has taught him: "He wants to tell her what he has learned about the miracles of light, the way a day's light fluxes in tides: pale and gleaming at dawn, the glare of noon, the gold of evening, the promise of twilight - every second of every day has its own magic".  Wow, makes me want to take up the vagrant life in some remote forest myself.  (Does the above sentence have a dangling modifier? I'm not sure whether "every second of every day has its own magic" is the promise of twilight, or whether it is meant to modify the entire sentence...)

Doerr calls attention to his images and their intended workings in this story, particularly that of the buried whales' hearts and how the garden grows above them. He even has his protagonist speak directly on how things that die give rise to something else.  In that sense, unlike Marcus's introductions, he does reveal how his story works. But it does work for me through the empathy - perhaps romanticized - with his character, the scope of the story (stretching over two continents), and the vivid, surreal quality of his protagonist's experiences.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Notes on "Stories of Happy People" by Lars Gustafsson

There is a crucial epigram at the beginning, Gustafsson quotes Fritz Cramer: "Fundamentally complex living systems can be defined as systems which can delay the breakdown catastrophe for some time by organizing themselves in a more complex way for as long as possible." For me, on this first pass, the could be a motto for what Gustafsson's characters seem to be doing with their emotional lives.
Having read this collection of stories in the context of this MFA program, I find that it raises important questions for me. One of the things I've gotten more and more concerned with in my own writing is the authority of the writer. How does the author gain the reader's trust, how does the author assure the reader that this particular trip is worth taking?

If I had written a piece similar to one in this book and handed it to almost any critique group I've ever been a part of, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of the readers would've been strongly critical of the writing. “What are the stakes?” would've been the first question. “What is the trouble?” closely related to the first one. “What actually happens in this story?”  (From O'Connor I know that this last is a false criticism.)  I don't bring this up because I want to deflect the responsibility for my own skepticism to an imaginary critique group, but because I do think critique groups in general are somewhat hostile to fiction that doesn't have some of these elements. In the Gustafsson collection, those elements are notably missing – most of the meaningful action seems to have taken place “off”, before the story began.

The first thing reading "Stories of Happy People" brings up for me is the question of how an author gets the reader to believe in the writing enough to keep reading. What is it in these pieces, for instance, that works, despite the apparent absence of some of the elements that I might think typically define a story?

The second question for me involves the approach. All of these stories seem to be philosophical essays illustrated by static characters moving through sometimes interesting, often odd, and sometimes uneventful periods in their lives. I get only a vague sense of the characters, who they are, where they come from, and what motivates them. The overall effect for me is that the focus is on what the author is working out with his thinking, and away from the characters and their actions which appear for me to be off in the background.

The author intentionally intrudes with his own philosophical musings, although on occasion there will be what can seem to be planted dialogue that does the author's musing for him. (I think of Uncle Sven intoning, “As a boy, you find the world ridiculous; you want to do something entirely different. As an old man, you discover that you have done the usual things.”)

Yet, for the most part, I do remain interested. I'd have my head handed to me on a platter if I tried it myself in my own writing, but Gustafsson often (not always, in my opinion) makes this work.  Part of what makes this work, of course, is that the musings are so interesting in and of themselves. I loved this : “Industrialism was viewed as...a rockslide which nothing could prevent any longer; its products had long since ceased to fascinate them … and were viewed as toys, designed essentially to keep the slum dwellers in a good mood.”  And the notion of the preoccupation with the body as being “in the most fragile of all the continents of hope". His metaphors are striking and often delightfully odd.

Back to process: at first, it seemed to me that Gustafsson writes “from where he thinks”, not, as Robert Olen Butler would advise, “from where you dream”. A lot of this writing seems to be occurring up in the cognitive levels. I've been pontificating to my friends (like a very pale belt in Karate describing how to do the moves) that the magic of the fictive process is in the power of the sub-cognitive mind, that this internal magma somehow gives us access to a kind of tran-spersonal cultural sensibility, transmutes our own cognitive level musings and worries into more powerful and beautiful symbolic representations of them.

But, on the second pass at some of these stories, I do begin to feel their dreamlike qualities as well.The four trains, or the apparently dead girl re-emerging with an entire lived life, and other stories are intriguing. I think of the story, “The Girl in the Blue Cap”, and his description of sleeplessness: “The sleepless hour...possessed all the shadowless, labyrinthine clarity of total, absolute sleeplessness, like a desert city in Mexico or a high plateau in the Alps where an unmerciful light never ceases to shine.”Superb.

I think at times his musings can seem a tad muddled – I'm not sure this is the author, or whether he's intentionally portraying characters who are themselves caught up in whirlpools of thought they don't quite understand. The question for me is now how well does this work. The stories are imperfect – what stories are not?  (I love that one of his characters latches onto imperfection as being an essential part of any great work of art.) I don't think his handling of the presentation of his ideas is always successful, although I'm not able to point to an author right now who works in this space and does it better. Any comments, leads on other writers?

Still, I might try my hand at a story like one of these. One of the very first I ever did with my critique group was a rambling story within a story that talked about the nature of story itself. It was not a good story (and far worse than these efforts) but I'd like to give something like that another go.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Notes on "Lost in the Funhouse" (author, John Barth)

In reading this layered collection for the first time, I'm struck by how much more I'll be able to get from it if and when I deepen my grounding in both critical theory and the works to which this book alludes. I'll have some questions and comments on which of the theory books to read at the bottom of this post.

The author's explicit intention seems to be to have us file this book under “meta-fiction”: the book is as much about the many layered process of continual story creation as it is a collection of stories. I'm struck by the structure of the collection as a whole and it's thematic drive, the way in which all of the entries in the collection return to the same images and themes. One image is the image of things swarming towards a goal, be it the protagonist-as-sperm-cell in “Night-Sea Journey”, the honey bees in “Ambrose, His Mark”, or the crowds of people swarming to Ocean City. In “Lost in the Funhouse”, one of young Ambrose's epiphanies, rightly or wrongly, is that all of the sights and sounds and doings of Ocean City are either funhouse misdirections from, or funnels to, the essential sexual experience that most of the people are really there to have.

There is a recurring theme of paternity and authorship. In the Ambrose stories, there is an implied triangular relationship between Ambrose's mother and his father and uncle. Who really is his father? Who really is the author of a story? If there is an author telling a story, who or what is telling the story that contains the author? Barth gets into that theme right away in “Night-Sea Voyage”. There is a narrator sperm cell who gives us his experience of this voyage, and even a “prophet” sperm cell who senses the purpose and probable futility of their urgent voyage, and perhaps the similar futility, occurring at a higher level, of the “God” who created the sperm cell, himself created or produced by larger forces which in turn, etc, etc. (I noticed just now why it is such a convenience for Barth to cut his sentences off...)  The prophet sperm cell is - of course - put to death by the others.

Barth returns to this kind of recursive thinking throughout the book, although it is expressed most directly in the first story and in "Menelaiad". In "Menelaiad", Barth nests the narration of the story more and more deeply in the quoted voices of one character recounting what another character has recounted. Barth divides this story into subsections, each numbered according to the level of the recursion they are in, so that when Menelaus talking to himself (1) tells Telemachus and Peisistratus (2) what he told then-Helen on the ship heading home from Troy (3) what Proteus (4) has asked him, etc etc. (Prior sentence cut off intentionally, a la Barth.) The effect seems to be to strain the mechanisms of story telling so much that we can begin to see cracks in the funhouse wall of written language, we can see its own pulleys and levers (as Ambrose does in the title story). This was a striking effect for me, because having had that particular image implanted in “Lost in the Funhouse”, I saw it arising naturally as a metaphor in my experience of reading “Menelaiad”.

Barth has a field day whenever a moment arises when all characters, at all levels of the nesting, make the same comment or express surprise at the same time. There is no convention for this, so Barth makes up his own, trying to solve the problem differently each time. Barth hilariously deals with the all-levels-exclamation one time by bracketing quoted exclamations together so that characters within the same level are grouped together. Another time, he simply nests an exclamation point in seven levels of quotation marks, throwing in (I'm not sure why) parentheses, also. At one point he backs out of the nesting the old-fashioned way: I cried”'”, I cried'”, I cried”, I cry.

In the story “Lost in the Funhouse”, it is unclear to me whether I am reading an author intentionally breaking into the narrative with meta-fiction asides to his reader, or whether I am meant to read this as the sensibility of the closely followed protagonist, Ambrose, or whether I am meant to see Ambrose as the author. This fuzziness I take as an intentional effect produced by Barth, for soon after, in “Title” he writes of “the obvious possibility that the narrator and his companion may be mistaken for the narrator and his companion".

Also, as I began to see it, just as the funhouse is shown as a metaphor for the creation of stories, the language and culture based reality in which both the author and his protagonist operate is also shown to be a funhouse, a funhouse filled with misdirections, leanings, and distortions in perception. Barth does sell me on this endless layering of levels of story telling, so that you do sense how the author himself is in a story, the story told by, at the least, his culture and language, with probably the additional layers of the forces that produce language and culture implied behind other layers as well.

Another theme is of course the protean nature of stories and Barth gives us Proteus, himself. But he doesn't stop with just form-changing in stories: he returns to the brackish waters that contain story and storyteller and listener and melts the boundaries between them. The climax of the Menelaiad is when Menelaus realizes that Proteus may have changed into Menelaus-holding-Proteus and thus caused both to cease to exist. But yet, a "Menelaus" is still there, telling the story (and wondering about this).

I'm interested in how Barth is able to shift from one level of attendance in a story to another – to speak first to a reader, and then to a meta-reader about the methods he's using to speak to the first reader - without having us lose the thread of his stories themselves, but I can't say I can point to a specific technique he employs. It seems he chooses different techniques for different entries in this collection. In the title story, he has his narrator talk about how one might write the story about the incidents described, while in Menelaid, he doesn't speak directly to the reader but still changes this “level of attendance” using the nested narrators. I find the approach used in the title story the most effective, and the ambiguity around who's doing the “meta” talking (is it the author or is it Ambrose in free indirect style?) gives the experience of reading the story more texture.

Language was something else that stood out for me. The narrator of his Ambrose stories creates new comparative adjectives by adding “er” to roots. Thus, his face grew “ashener” or a fortune telling booth was “dilapiter”. In the Menelaiad, all narrators, Menelaus (who ultimately tells us the story), Menelaus with Helen, Proteus, and so forth all seem to speak in the same voice. There is, for one thing, a propensity for words compounded into new word forms by dashes (e.g., “whisked in a dream-dark boat, sleep-skippered”). The dashed compound words create striking rhythms and in some ways they recall Gerard Manly Hopkins. Could it have been an intentional reference to that poet's work and style? More likely, may it have referred to the style of “The Odyssey”?

Which brings me to the need for more grounding in theory on my part. I have several decent books, one of my favorites is “In Search of Authority” by Steven Bonnycastle, although that is more of a survey, I have found it to be extremely useful. How would I approach bringing critical theory into my studies as a writer?As for the Odyssey, I've gotten into some Ovid, have been through the Iliad more than once, but not the Odyssey. Which classics are the most important? That one, of course, is unavoidable, but what others?  (I think here, the Google ranking algorithm, which ranks links by what links to them, makes sense: the most important classics are those that the greatest number of other important works allude to and/or are influenced by.)