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."