Posts Categorized: Time

Review: Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

I’ve been sitting here trying to think of smart things to say about David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas. It’s not that I can’t think of things to say, but it’s that I can’t narrow it down to one pithy comment that sums up exactly what I want to communicate. Instead, I’ll say, Cloud Atlas is:

  • Dreamy
  • Layered
  • Complex
  • Interconnected
  • Creative
  • Risky
  • Beautiful
  • Sad
  • Hopeful
  • Constructive postmodern
  • Introspective
  • Adventure
  • Science Fiction
  • Literary
  • Mystery
  • Genre crossing
  • Futurist
  • Smart

That works better than a blurb. It’s a messy novel and deserves a messy description. And yes, I mean that in the best way possible. If Cloud Atlas is all of these things, then what is Cloud Atlas?
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Short Story: The Losing End – Bonnie Nadzam

Bonnie Nadzam‘s short story “The Losing End” published in the August 2011 issue of Harper’s is a glimpse of a man in a moment.  Time is sliced to a span of a few hours.  The main character, Lamb, aimlessly stands around a bus stop after his father’s funeral.  The setting is made of low rent sprawl: Courtesy Loans and Freeway Inn.

In the next paragraph time shifts.  Lamb reflects on the past year.  On “Cathy in gold eyeglasses trimming the tapered ends of French beans, while Linnie rang the cell phone in his pocket.”  This is the setup.  Nadzam shifts back into the present.  Shifts back to Lamb waiting for trouble, waiting for something.  That something is a teenage girl “in a lopsided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-colored sandals studded with rhinestones.”  Lamb thinks of her as “grotesque” and “lovely” and views her as “a pale little freckled pig with eyelashes.”  The girl’s friends dared her to ask Lamb for a cigarette.  The exchange between the two is dicey.  Lamb is not in his right frame of mind.  Or is he?  Like the girl, the reader has only just met Lamb.

The story takes a turn as Lamb suggests a pretend kidnapping to show the girl’s friends not to make fun of her.  Fear takes over.  She doesn’t agree.  She’s forced into his truck.  Lamb takes her to her home, but yells at her “like he thought a father would have done.” After this incident, he looks at himself as the girl may have viewed him with “his expensive suit, the Jeep Cherokee, the leather seats, his clean haircut, his smooth face, everything clean, everything expensive, everything easy.”

In the evening, after Lamb has justified his actions to himself, he’s back at a hotel where he’s living.  “Across the hall was another man, just like him.  Both their beautiful houses for sale.  Both their aging wives back on the market.”  He imagines the young woman Linnie, but then calls Cathy.  Her number’s been changed.  He imagines a new courtship period with her and how they’ll get back together.  This time, he calls Linnie, lies to her and coaxed her to have phone sex with him.

The story ends with Lamb a little drunk and thinking of the teenage girl.  “He hoped he hadn’t hurt her.  He hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly.  But he hadn’t meant to hurt her.  He was not that kind of man.”

All of these details come together to show a broader view of Lamb than a man burying his father.  He’s cheated on his wife.  Lives in a hotel.  He routinely lies to women and himself.  He and Cathy have no children.  Is he thinking of the girl at the end or his wife?  Was this afternoon a microcosm of the past year?  Lamb’s father’s funeral is a bit of a red herring.  It’s an excuse for his actions, but he doesn’t seem to be grieving; though, it does provide a hint of a missing father figure in Lamb’s life.  When I think of the title, “The Losing End” I think that everyone in the story is on the losing end.  Everyone is hurt; everyone is damaged.  It seems that Lamb instigated the affair, but to what end?

Pride – Alice Munro

As I’ve mentioned earlier in posts regarding Alice Munro’s stories, she is a master at creating complex narratives which span time.  “Pride” published in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s continues that trend, but not as deftly as “Axis” or “Corrie.”

The story starts pre-World War II and involves two outcasts from a small town in Ontario.  The narrator is an outcast due to his harelip, a physical deformity that keeps him on the outskirts, accepted, but overlooked.  It also keeps him from serving in the military during the war, which seems strange to me, but I’m going to trust Munro checked her facts.  The other character is a rich girl, then woman, named Oneida.  Her stature in the town as the bank manager’s daughter keeps her from being close to anyone.  After her father is involved in a scandal, she’s even more reclusive.

A relationship starts between Oneida and the narrator.  It’s built around friendship, but also need, as both characters are fairly lonely people.  There are missed opportunities as the narrator is self-conscious of his harelip and believes no one would want him, let alone a beautiful, sophisticated woman like Oneida.  For her part, she is seen as unapproachable and ages without serious suitors or loves.

The story is quiet, with a subdued mood.  Time moves slowly in the town, and while changes occur, their meaning is not always clear to the reader.  A vast apartment complex is built.  It seems like this is supposed to ground the reader in a time period or signal that we have shifted a decade into the future, but the importance is lost.

Toward the end of the story, both characters have aged considerably, but it feels out of place.  I missed when that happened.  Was Munro trying to make a point?  Time passes by so quickly that we all fail to notice, or was it a mechanical error in the story?  It feels like Munro was aware that the movement of time was a problem in this story, because at the end, Oneida says, “She’s on email.  She says that’s what I should do.  I’m not keen on it somehow.  Are you?”

When I read this it was a shock.  I thought the characters were in their 40’s or 50’s, and then I realized they were around their 70’s.  How did I miss that?  There were lines like, “During those years when the new shopping mall was built on the south edge of town,” and “looking forward to a careful old age,” that should have been clues, but I skimmed past them.  So when I read the line about email it felt like a deliberate, contrived piece of dialogue to pass information to the reader.  Email equals sometime in the late 90’s or early 00’s.  Okay, wow, Oneida and the narrator are both well into old age.  For me, this didn’t work.  I enjoy how Munro navigates decades in a matter of pages, but “Pride” is not her best example of this ability.

Axis – Alice Munro – Fragments and Time

Axis” by Alice Munro is a story that breaks off into multiple narratives, which like her story “Corrie,” span across decades.  The story revolves around three characters: Grace, Avie, and Royce.  Grace and Avie are both farm girls on scholarship to university where they intend to meet their future husbands.  This story takes place around the 1950’s.  That’s my guess from the opening sentence, “Fifty years ago, Grace and Avie were waiting at the university gates, in the freezing cold.”  Essentially, “Axis” examines the time period and the romantic/sexual relationships of the characters.

Royce is a World War II veteran and isn’t as earnest as the young women.  Whereas the women both want to marry, Royce is more interested in sex.  He’s been dating Grace during the school year, and comes out to visit her family’s farm in the summer time, after she has discontinued her education.  The whole scene is setup where the reader knows what will happen.  Grace’s family mistrusts Royce, and the weekend is spent trying to orchestrate a way for the young couple to have sex.  When their plan comes to fruition it’s no surprise that they are caught.  Royce’s reaction, while not unbelievable, is definitely over the top, and makes him despicable.
The narration shifts and Avie takes over.  The story jumps to her being married, being happy, speeds forward and suddenly she randomly meets Royce on a train.  What’s the point of this meeting?  To show that Grace’s life could have been like Avie’s if she hadn’t met Royce?  To show us that in the fifty years since Royce walked away from Grace that he, Royce, has become a geographer and drifted around without getting married or having kids?
It’s interesting that the story revolves around Grace, but never gives her a voice.  We see her in a limited way from Royce and Avie’s perspectives.  We don’t know what happened to her.  Both characters go on with their lives.  Perhaps, that’s what makes this story haunting.  It speaks to how easily we move on.  We relocate, and faces disappear.  That dear friend from college becomes a postcard around the holidays, an email address, and a Facebook page until they recede into memory, and then out of it.  They vanish.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful – Eric Barnes – Maturity and Time

“Something Pretty, Something Beautiful” by Eric Barnes reads like A Clockwork Orange set in Tacoma, Washington minus Burgess‘ style.  The story is full of teenage violence, angst, and a desire for inclusion.  Handled by a different writer that combination could be a mess, but Barnes handles these concepts deftly.  There is a maturity both in the writing, and in the voice of the narrator, Brian.  We learn that he’s telling the story five years after the events take place, and in those five years he’s gained perspective on the past.  It’s an appropriate distance.

What may throw some readers off is how time progresses in the story.  There are essentially two different narratives occurring at once.  The story begins with “We didn’t start breaking into houses to steal things,” in italics and present tense, and continues on for three paragraphs.

Next, there’s a shift back in time and font to when Brian and Teddy were “eight or nine years old.”  This shift seems to be there so we imagine the kids’ potential.  Brian and Teddy seem innocent.  They’re juxtaposed to Coe and Will Wilson (questionable choice of name) who are not their friends at this point, and are more like enemies.  If I wanted to be trite, I’d say they were the bad kids.

The narrative in italics that is woven throughout the story is the idealized memory of the break-ins.  The moments are dreamy and surreal.  No property is destroyed, and with the exception of Coe, no one is hurt.  The other narrative is full of violence and domination.  There is nothing pretty or beautiful beyond the italics.  The four boys operate like a pack of dogs, making sure each one knows his place.  Surrounded by drugs and destruction, one wonders where they’ll end up or how they’ll escape?  There are opportunities for escape, but to the boys, these seem impossible.  Faced with an escalation of crimes they have few options.

One part I thought could be cut was the last four lines of the story.

And now I’d spent five years forgetting.
But Will Wilson is still out there.
He could fine me, I suppose.
Or maybe I could try to go find him.

Each line is a paragraph.  Each line seems unnecessary.  It would be appropriate if this were a chapter in a novel, but for a short story they just don’t fit.  It seems like Barnes is trying to propel the reader forward, but to what?

Overall, “Something Pretty, Something Beautiful” is a haunting story that lets us inside a pack of teenagers as they roam through Tacoma searching for escape, and while it has its flaws, the flaws don’t overwhelm the strengths of the story.

Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 – David Means – Time

Five days of trading the field glasses and taking turns crawling back into the trees to smoke out of sight. Five days on surveillance, waiting to see if by some chance Carson might return to his uncle’s farm. Five days of listening to the young agent, named Barnes, as he recited verbatim from the file: Carson has a propensity to fire warning shots; it has been speculated that Carson’s limited vision in his left eye causes his shots to carry to the right of his intended target; impulse control somewhat limited. Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern of heists that began down the Texas Panhandle and proceeded north all the way up to Wisconsin, then back down to Kansas, until the trail tangled up in the fumbling ineptitude of the Bureau. For five days, Barnes talked while Lee, older, hard-bitten, nodded and let the boy play out his theories. Five days reduced to a single conversation.

David Means begins “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934” grounding the reader in the stakeout.  Five days it begins.  Five days it repeats.  Those five days run together and the moment becomes a lifetime.  How does Means achieve this?

After this opening paragraph the story moves to a time far in the future from this moment.  Lee is retired and lost in the past.  He thinks, “even at that moment in Kansas, turning to speak to Barnes, he’d had a sense that one day he’d be retired and reflecting on that particular point in time—back near the tree line.”  It’s not just that we see Lee as an old man looking back, but that even in that moment in the tree line he sensed this moment would stand out.

The third paragraph again starts with the repetition of five days. “Five days he had listened to Barnes, staying quiet, holding back on saying much until that last day, when Barnes turned and said, Look, Lee, all we’re doing out here is wasting time.”

What happens next is that Means slows down time even more.  Lee goes into a point by point analysis of how his gut feeling evolved into a hunch.  For the reader it’s obvious Lee returns to this moment often and plays everything out.  The scene finishes, and again we’re back at that future moment with Lee retired.

Years later at his summer cottage in Wisconsin, sitting on the porch and staring out at the water, listening to Emma inside cooking or watching television, he’d go back to that conversation, holding it out for examination and wonder if he had misstepped at that point. Shut your yap, he might have said. Clam up, kid. You can talk until you’re out of words, but, no matter what you might say or think, the fact that there is a chance Carson might show is the only thing that matters. Even later, Lee would understand that by holding back on his side of the argument he had allowed for a much more dangerous distraction, a paternal vibration—unsettling and unspoken—between the two of them. (That kid was like a son to me, he told his wife. He annoyed me the way I used to annoy my old man. Except the old man would’ve boxed my ears off.

Lee holds onto this moment looking for any chance he could have averted the outcome.  It’s not just that Lee thinks about this moment, but we get the feeling he brings it up often with his wife.  “That kid was like a son to me, he told his wife.”  How many times?

Again, the moment is broken down into bullet point style analysis.  This time it hones in on Carson and his men.  Lee is alone in the tree line.  The outlaws are knowledgable of law enforcement tactics.  Those five days of waiting were so lulling, so static; Lee and Barnes never had a chance.

As if out of a dream, Barnes emerges from his smoke break.

(dulled, Lee would later imagine, by the persistent tedium of a scene that had gone on, with the exception of the old man plowing on Monday, and again on Thursday, and the wind on Wednesday, for what had seemed, to his youthful mind, an eternity). He stepped forward into a single, ferocious moment. He stepped forward into a fury of gunfire while his mind—young and foolish but beautiful nonetheless—remained partly back in the woods, taking in the solitude, pondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive.

The story ends.  For Barnes, with his youth, the moment ends with his death.  For the older Lee, who relives this moment again and again, there is no end.  It’s a beautiful split.  Caught up in the dream-like landscape, where time seems nonexistent, it twists the rules even further as the moment, and in a sense, Barnes, exist only in the mind of Lee.

It’s a beautiful story.  Read it.