Friday, February 10, 2012

Making the Invisible Visible: Steven Millhauser's We Others

This is the second in a series of posts about the short story collections shortlisted for this year's Story Prize. Last week, I shared a few thoughts on Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision, and this week I'll share a few thoughts with you about Steven Millhauser's We Others.

We Others, much like Pearlman's collection, is a volume of new and selected stories; this book contains some of Millhauser's work since the publication of his 2008 collection Dangerous Laughter, as well as a smattering of pieces from his earlier books. As a whole, the volume illustrates the trajectory of Mr. Millhauser's career and presents a portrait of how a quirky author's style can evolve over the course of several decades. My personal preference for these volumes is that the work appear chronologically so that the reader, engaging this work (for either the first time or a repeat visit), can observe this development, but We Others begins with the new stories.

Still: Mr. Millhauser's book contains a strong sample of his work, and the new stories haul the same thematic yoke as the earlier works. We Others is a collection that investigates the hidden aspects of our personalities, and Mr. Millhauser's facility with the first-person point of view provides the reader with tragic insights into confessions. Two of the new stories present this in stark relief: "The Next Thing" and the title piece "We Others." "The Next Thing" recounts a man's gradual (and willing) surrender to a burgeoning company town, a process that demonstrates how a corporation—here, the ever-expanding department store, The Next Thing—can dominate and monopolize a person's thoughts; The Next Thing seems equal parts Wal-Mart and Scientology, with how it siphons a person's independence. "We Others," in turn, relates the early days of Paul Steinbach's afterlife, and his struggles to decipher and abide by the new rules of his spiritual existence as one of the "others" is a considered—and also haunting—glimpse at how trauma forever alters the fabric of our existence, as well as our relations with those who have not experienced our woes.

We Others: New & Selected Stories provides its readers with a look at the unique and varied stories in Steven Millhauser's repertoire, but the stories also force us to stare head on at the disturbances and transformations of our realities, alterations that inevitably shift our natures—and the voice, the rhetoric, of Millhauser's tales often shift tone elegantly to assist the stories' in this task. Though the book is a long 387 pages with text-heavy pages, the collection rewards and instructs the patient reader.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Seeing beyond Our Ken: Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision

Starting with today's post and the two subsequent posts, I'll be doing a brief review of each of the short story collections shortlisted for The Story Prize. The Story Prize, in its press release announcing the finalists, provides some more background information on each of the three authors nominated for the award.

For today's post, we'll take a glimpse at Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories.

Binocular Vision, which comes from Pearlman's short story of the same name, serves multiple functions as a title. First of all, this title alerts the reader to one of the more philosophical pieces in the collection, in which a child uses a set of binoculars to spy on neighbors and interprets this voyeuristic impulse as "visiting." The result—and I'll kindly avoid spoiling the story for you—is that this viewer realizes that all the assumptions of watching, without ever nearing and genuinely understanding the watched, turn false.

Pearlman's collection, in both the twenty-one old stories and the thirteen newly collected pieces, actively counteracts this narrow sight with the sort of all-seeing (and equally binocular) vision that only fiction can provide. (Even the titular "Binocular Vision" accomplishes this, through the story's ultimate reversal.) This is a collection that encourages its reader to collapse boundaries, to enter another person's reality and vision of the world. Binocular Vision broaches a range of subjects—aging, fidelity, ambition, friendships, illness, political upheaval—with the constant intent of showing readers these unstable terrains and then, after we have viewed these landscapes, to travel along the routes of our own readerly vision and enter these richly rendered narratives.

As with most good fiction, Pearlman's stories offer us characters to guide us on these textual travels. The volume's final story, "Self-Reliance," leads us on an expedition into solitude and illness, during which the protagonist, Cornelia Fitch, must test her own limits and rely on a younger colleague's diagnosis: "He too was reliable—ten years younger than she, a slight man, a bit of a fop, but no fool. Yes, together they could beat back this recurrence, and wait for the next one." Her confidence thus boosted, Cornelia reflects on her own accomplishments and her value to others; she has earned most of what she wanted in her life, seldom been denied anything, and enjoyed a great deal of professional respect. But this inward thinking—which is at once important yet separates her from those around her—ultimately mires her, contributes to her end. A failure of metaphoric sight contributes to her decline.

The characters populating these fictions, though, are not alone in uncovering obscured lessons and experiences. The story "Chance" explores such hidden meanings with a Torah from Czechoslovakia, which remains cloistered while the synagogue goes about its regular business. "Capers" presents an elderly couple who adopt a series of unethical) hobbies, such as gathering loose change and shoplifting; the ploys embody their struggles with the aging process and encourage readers to reconsider our romanticized view of sedentary, post-retirement life.

I had heard of Edith Pearlman infrequently before The Story Prize announced the three finalists for this year's award, but Binocular Vision is a collection that, in my eyes, elevates her to the pantheon of short story writers that includes such figures as John Updike. Her stories tend to have an elegance and a poise generally lacking in much of The New Yorker brand of short stories, and her prose demonstrates what beautiful work a story can perform. This is a collection that should be savored, read over a long period of time, selecting story by story at random as one might chocolates from a delectable sampler.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Plot Just for Readers

Recently (and by "recently" I actually mean December, and last year is hardly all that recent), I was asked, "Don't you have a blog?" I told the individual that s/he must be confusing me with some other Patrick Henry.

And I realized that they were confusing me with somebody else: a Patrick Henry who possesses the wherewithal to actually update his blog. I vowed that I wouldn't make any excuses as to why I wasn't blogging, so I'll be entirely upfront about what impeded my semi-frequent virtual ramblings: I have no excuses, because I simply was not paying attention to the blog.

Living as close to New York as I do, I have realized that the epitome of "cool" is getting your blown-up image emblazoned on a billboard, with your photographed self's vest flapping casually in the wind as your image saunters, notebook in hand, toward the camera, and that people who do not have the dedication to work diligently for several years (yet alone to update their blogs) are unlikely to attain such popular deification. But somebody who does have this kind of cool working for him is Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of three novels (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and his most recent The Marriage Plot), and Mr. Eugenides has had his sombre visage gracing a Times Square billboard.

The living titan treatment that The Marriage Plot has, via the billboard, garnered for Mr. Eugenides is a treatment that I feel would have been more apposite for Middlesex, a novel that presents a more cohesive and unified effect than The Marriage Plot. Middlesex is an accomplishment difficult to rival, and The Marriage Plot does not quite reach the gravity and beauty of Middlesex, for which Mr. Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize. This most recent novel, however, still deserves a read on its own merits.

I could be snarky and tell you that this book should be read because its title does not contain a reference to large cats, the word "wife," or the threat of an explosion. That would be disingenuous, as the book offers its readers a valuable insight, often overlooked in contemporary fiction's attempts to use the fewest words possible to tell a story. The lesson: books bring people together and teach us how to love. Mr. Eugenides uses books—even the dense manifestos of the French, poststructuralist intelligentsia—to irrevocably entwine the novel's three central characters: Leonard, Madeleine, and Mitchell.

Any book, written soulfully enough, can teach us what we mean when we talk about love. Eugenides describes Madeleine's experience with Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, the slender volume that instructs her on the gravity of her feelings for Leonard:
It wasn't only that this writing seemed beautiful to Madeleine. . . . It wasn't only the relief of recognizing that here, finally, was a book she might write her final paper on. What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn't alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. . . .
It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn't tell anyone. With how much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so. (49)

Books make us realize that we are not alone, but Mr. Eugenides gives us further reason to remain readers: Leonard's and Madeleine's relationship thrives only while they are both continuing to read, to use books as a medium to understand one another. Books remind us that we are not truly alone while providing us with a way of better understanding others. And it is Mitchell, the third figure in the love triangle that Mr. Eugenides creates, who continues to read and to seek that connection with Madeleine, whose affections elude him into the novel's final section.

Yes, The Marriage Plot is set in a simpler time, the 1980s, when people didn't gawp at you if you admitted to liking British synthpop such as "Tainted Love" (which, by the by, plays on page 11 of this novel). But the message is one increasingly relevant today, when we bury ourselves in the words of Internet articles, blogs, text messages, newspapers, e-mails, and their virtual ilk. Literature reminds us that we do not have to forge ahead alone. There are others out there, like us.

Odds are, some of them even enjoy the same books—and yes, even "Tainted Love."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing a Personal Biography: Reflections on Alexandra Styron's "Reading My Father"

Alexandra Styron's Reading My Father (2011) sounds, if the jacket copy is to be trusted, like the companion piece to William Styron's mind-staggering—yet eloquently brief—memoir Darkness Visible (1990). This is, of course, because the book's description opens with an invocation of Mr. Styron's depression memoir, now a classic in the field of depression literature. And it would be a gross misreading to state that the elder Styron's battle with melancholy does not inform the book; one of the threads that Ms. Styron delicately needles throughout her prose is the insinuating yarn (one woven from her ancestors' mental states and her father's biography) that her father's depression is equal parts experiential and biological.

The book, though, is an object lesson in the importance of genre—just like many other mislabeled works of art. Several years back, I saw a production of the so-called "rock opera" Movin' Out, based on the songs of Billy Joel. The expectation, going in, was that the production would have the look and feel of something like Mama Mia, a musical that somehow generates a plot out of a single group's songs. But the difference between Abba and Billy Joel is one of narrative access: Abba's songs, generally told from the first person, open themselves to the possibility of a person inhabiting that voice, while Joel's tunes (either a straight third person narrator or a secondary figure telling somebody else's tale) require that somebody tell us what's happening. Had I been told, on entering the theatre, that I would be observing a ballet enacting the narrative of Billy Joel's songs, I would have been more amenable to the artistic project. But I was told "rock opera," and a ballet to rock is hardly a rock opera.

I allude to my experiences with Movin' Out to emphasize the importance of genre and narrative approach when reading something like Ms. Styron's volume. Reading My Father—termed a memoir, at least according to its title page—lacks the explicit self-evaluation and introspection that we generally expect of that literary form. Terming this book a "memoir" performs two other functions: the book enters a dialogue with Mr. Styron's Darkness Visible, and the book likewise finds itself in a literary genre that, recently, has sold like hotcakes.

Though we do learn of how the late Styron's irascibility upended the family's life and created distance between various members of this book's ensemble, the great novelist's fits and personality tics—along with the effects on Ms. Styron and her elder siblings—is hardly the focus of this piece of nonfiction. In the book's second chapter, Ms. Styron reveals her actual purpose for writing this reflection on her father. She spoke about telling her "father's ghost stories" at the 2 February 2007 memorial service for Mr. Styron, which she had hoped would offer "an opportunity for closure, as they say in griefspeak." Ms. Styron began her address with an opening line that, she claims, had been consistent through all drafts of her remarks:
"My father used to scare the crap out of me," I declared. The lurid stories I chose that day were selective (omitting a few that my husband, Ed, thought were actually too awful to get a laugh). And after I told them, I wondered aloud why he had [told ghost stories]. Why would a grown man scare his children so completely? . . . Was it catharsis? Was he blowing off steam after a day grappling with all those barbarous slavers and Nazis who inhabited his books—real-life maniacs on the loose inside his head? . . . The answer that I settled on reflected what I believed was a deeper truth. Whether he meant to or not, Daddy taught us a lesson—a lesson which tested him hard at the end of his days—that life requires courage, and a sense of humor.
Ms. Styron seeks, through Reading My Father, an understanding of that man's courage, sense of humor, sensibility, and raison d'être. Her endeavors to explicate her answer, to respond to the question of why a man such as her father would evoke such fear in his own children, takes her into a genre that is beyond a father-daughter memoir or a depression memoir; she embarks on what I shall term a "personal biography," an exploration of an ancestor's history.

This term—"personal biography"—strikes me as particularly apt, as Ms. Styron casts herself as a child whose coping mechanism was an avoidance of her father's often ornery disposition. So she investigates Mr. Styron's life and his writerly craft, re-reading his works and studying his papers at Duke University and interviewing Mr. Styron's friends, editor, and biographer. Reading My Father is a biography, in that it espouses a particular picture of a man and sketches his contours, colours in the lines of his character so that readers learn about the man; it is a biography of art, too, in that Ms. Styron's approach to her father's fiction is one of biographical criticism, in which his life necessarily translates into his prose. But the stakes are personal, as Ms. Styron is working to discover the man behind those texts, the father whom she often missed seeing directly, clearly, as a child.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Literary Liberty: Some Thoughts on Banned Books

This semester, I'm teaching a section of freshman composition, and I've selected the 2010 Best American Essays as the reader for the course. Early on, my students read Arthur Krystal's contribution to the volume: an essay entitled "When Writers Speak," which presents a case for written texts as the most powerful means of conveying thoughts, ideas, and arguments. Krystal claims that he appears most intelligent in writing, "not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought, or at least supplies a petri dish for its genesis." This development of thought, or so Krystal contends, does not occur when writers simply speak. The mind is the petri dish, and language, the germ growing into something larger.

I asked my students why, in addition to fostering our own ideas, we should write; a few commented that writing removes a person's fetters and allows them to move freely in an arena of thought. Unlatching our intellectual shackles gives us the freedom to move between different modes of thinking, different ways of considering and approaching information.

But all this, as I pointed out to my students, is if writing—and consequently, reading—are such open venues. Which historically, they haven't been—even in the allegedly democratic twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The problem is something that John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty: Limiting access to books doesn't simply prevent a free and open exchange of ideas, but promotes bigotry, stunted ideologies, and stultifying social values performed by rote.

This past week was the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, meant to increase awareness of the book's importance to our intellectual way of life. The ALA's advocacy page for the week offers a gloss of the event's zeitgeist: "Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week." Banned Books Week follows Mill's belief that the only way for society to progress is to confront these issues—even if they are "considered unorthodox or unpopular"—in our personal thinking and in the public sphere.

Consider the effect a book can have on our social values. And Tango Makes Three (2005)—which the ALA ranks as the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010—relates in a delicately illustrated children's book the true story of Roy and Silo, a male same-sex penguin couple who were given an egg of their own to hatch at New York's Central Park Zoo. Parents and communities opposed to homosexuality attack the book for its depiction of—and its pronounced support for—same-sex couples as viable parents. (The book also offers readers the notion that homosexuality is natural, undermining one of the key talking points of the LGBT movement's foes.) This book, however, educates children on tolerating and accepting a group of people, of extending human rights and admiration to folks who have been denied those liberties for far too long.

"There's something about writing," Krystal notes, "that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves." But those thought patterns (and by extension, our attempts at self-expression) depend upon the intellectual climate in which we live. Books like And Tango Makes Three ask us to engage with pressing social issues, while other books—challenged for offensive content—thrust readers into situations in which we must struggle with our own repressive and cruel history.

We have not yet reached—and perhaps shall never attain—the unfettered expression that Krystal touts in his essay. Nor have we shaken off attempts to restrict knowledge. Regardless, our intellectual evolution requires that we grapple with contentious texts and learn where we stand, a process that requires poise, consideration, and respect for others.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare and the Infinite Monkeys, or Why Art Isn't an Accident

Some people take their clichés too seriously.

A BBC article this morning, entitled "Virtual Monkeys Write Shakespeare," investigates Jesse Anderson's project to simulate an infinite number of monkeys hammering on an infinite number of typewriters, to see how long these code monkeys take to reproduce the Bard's complete body of work. In short, this is a virtual test of the platitude that an infinite number of monkeys pummeling relentlessly on a battered keyboard can shamble together the prose of a lyrical genius. So how much value is there to this cliché?

"If you put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, they'll produce Shakespeare": this concept is called the "infinite monkey theorem." (And yes, there's a Wiki page on it. And no, I will not explain the mathematical proofs.) Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "The Total Library," traced the idea as far back as Aristotle--so the idea is hardly new. Literary theory uses this concept in one of two general ways: either to argue that art is not an accident, or to contend that anybody has the ability to produce art. In the latter case, the monkey adage swings from our tongues to insinuate contempt at someone else's good fortune, or to compliment a budding talent.

But let's stop for a moment. Anderson's project provides a fun glimpse into a quirky thought experiment--can an infinite monkey actually generate Shakespeare's texts, yet alone any others? There are a few pragmatic issues that weigh down this test, like a monkey on the back. Firstly, nobody--save the titular Doctor of Doctor Who--has an eternity with which to toy around in time and space. Secondly, genuine art is a reaction to life experiences, a considered and developed response to an individual's sense of reality. The collaborative effort necessary for monkeys ad infinitum to gather in a room and produce a text are staggering. In the instance of a single monkey, an eternity could elapse before producing the opening chapter of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.

Which would leave literature in a sorry place, indeed.

This is to say that the complete works of William Shakespeare are the culmination of the Bard's singular existence. His endeavors as an actor, playwright, father, husband, lover, etc. produces an array of influences far vaster than the random happenstance of monkeys slapping their digits across a typewriter's keys. Furthermore, Shakespeare has a certain social, historical, and political context--Elizabethan England, the rise of empire, the culture of the stage, bowing to the wants of groundlings and nobles alike. Perhaps the only context—political or otherwise—of imprisoning monkeys with typewriters is a pending legal action by the ASPCA, or a series of coy adverts released by PETA.

Let us leave literature to each other, and to our individual talents and insights. And let the monkeys keep their own interests intact. "Monkeys," as the BBC article's photo caption reads, are "more interested in throwing faeces than writing sonnets."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest Post on The Story Prize Blog

Hey folks! Long time, no blog. Anywho, mosey on over to The Story Prize blog for a guest piece, by yours truly, on Flannery O'Connor. The piece pulls in some thoughts on O'Connor's fiction, as well as a review of an event sponsored by One Story, where editor Hannah Tinti discussed O'Connor with novelist Ann Napolitano.