Posts Categorized: On Writing

New Yorker: The Empties by Jess Row – Genre Metafiction

Published in the October 27, 2014 issue of  The New Yorker, “The Empties” by Jess Row is a postapocalyptic (or is it dystopian?) short story set in the Northeast. What grabbed me about this story was in the fourth paragraph, where Row’s characters step back and view their own narrative. What story are we in? What’s happening?

Anyway, Quentin’s saying, I was down at the Grange listening to these guys arguing about the difference between dystopia and apocalypse. Can you believe that? One of them was saying that we were living in a dystopian novel, and the other guy, big bearded dude, from the West Rats Collective, said, No, dystopia means an imaginary place where everything is exactly wrong, and what we’re living in is a postapocalyptic, prelapsarian kind of thing, you know, a return to nature after the collapse of society as we knew it.

And I must have been three or four shots in—we were drinking Wayne Peters’s sweet-potato vodka—because I said, Look, kiddos, the truth is neither, because we have no idea what might happen, the infrastructure is still basically in place, especially if people from certain collectives hadn’t stripped out the copper over in White River—

—but my point is really that dystopian and postapocalyptic narratives are narratives, that is, stories: things that are inherently invented or collated ex post facto. Narratives are static. Real life is, is—


The point is, we need to just let all that shit go, because, call it End Times or whatever you want, things are different now. None of the old endings played out, did they? So we have to imagine new endings. Hence the possibility for hope.

So, immediately, Row let’s us know he’s familiar with this genre and willing to pull away from the standard script, but does he follow through? With further references to Cormac McCarthy, he’s aiming his sights high; but ultimately, the story doesn’t deliver. What starts out strong ends up as another post-apocalyptic, disaster story that aims for some literary quality (literary meaning complex sentences and characters who seem like people), but that’s been done by Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Margaret Atwood in the MaddAdam Trilogy, and to an extent in comic books like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, which may not have the literary angle, but do have an original storyline. In “The Empties” the power is out. That’s what leads to this collapse. It’s more benign than Ebola, Zombies, or a nuclear attack. But it’s like the first pitch of a baseball game, all that follows is the same. People are trying to survive after the collapse of civilization as we know it. Where’s the originality that Ross hints at on page one? These next two sentences point toward originality, or at least, create vivid, interesting images.

There was a girl, she remembers, who went up on the grassy hillside behind the Montessori school with a basket of scraps and a pair of scissors and began re-creating her Pinterest page, squares of bright cloth for each jpeg, strips of blue sheet for the tool bar and browser frame.

I love this image of a person coping and going through some technological withdraw in a such a delusional manner.

This isn’t science fiction, Quentin says, because if it were we’d have the answers, we’d know what happened.

And, while this second sentence states there will be no answers, it doesn’t set itself apart from The Road, which also had no answers, but plopped the reader down in a terrible present.

Perhaps, though, the originality is in the form of a disguised death. There’s a dreamy quality to the narration and one can easily imagine lucidity slipping away for the main character. The conversations are like the light from stars. By the time they reach the reader, we don’t realize they happened in the past. How much time has passed? Who said what? It isn’t until the end that we realize the character with whom she’d been talking to is dead. Quentin flows into Nathan and the reader readily confuses the two. There are no transitions or explanations; these are remembrances. Part of the narrator’s writing process. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, but then the true ending seemed to scale back. Outsiders approach the town. Are they good or bad? Is the world that black and white? We don’t know. We’re left with Quentin’s hope and the assault rifle slung across the narrator’s knees.

What were your thoughts on this story? What aspects of the story worked well and, or where did you think the story could be improved?

Review: The Art of Time in Fiction – Joan Silber

I really love these books from the “Art of” series published by Graywolf Press.  In Joan Silber‘s The Art of Time in Fiction she explores how writers use and manipulate time in numerous novels and short stories.

The chapters are: Classic Time, Long Time, Switchback Time, Slowed Time, Fabulous Time, and Time as Subject.  Silber explains what each term means and illustrates how the writer created the desired effect through their approach of time.

How does a novel that takes place over a school year (Harry Potter) differ from a novel that takes place over a lifetime (Love in the Time of Cholera)?  How does Alice Munro convey decades in the span of a few pages?  What happens in surreal stories where time seems to exist outside of normal experience?  Silber addresses these questions and many more.  As actions and consequences exist (in most cases) as a temporal experience, it’s important for writers to consider time.  While new writers may focus on basic mechanics, these questions and discussions are wonderful for people who have been writing for years and thinking about fiction.  Moreover, if the reader is familiar with many of the works Silber references, it makes the book even more enjoyable.  The Art of Time in Fiction is a quick read, but worth reading for writers interested in the subject.

Craft: This Business of Latin and The Bequest – Guy de Maupassant

After reading “This Business of Latin” (La Question du Latin) and “The Bequest” (Le Legs) today, my first thought was: these stories would be hacked apart in a creative writing workshop.  Why?  A common response to stories in workshop is that students want to see more of the characters.  What is so-and-so like when she’s at home?  Why don’t you show him interacting with his kids more?  Sure, it could broaden the view of a character, but it might diminish the focus of a story.

“This Business of Latin” and “The Bequest” are both stories about relationships, and the roles of men and women in French culture at the time.  “This Business of Latin” is much lighter than “The Bequest” in that the narrator is a schoolboy who thinks he is playing a practical joke on his Latin teacher.  We see the narrator’s naivete as things don’t turn out as he imagines.  The Latin teacher falls in love with the young washerwoman and the two marry.  In the end, the joke is on the narrator, but he still fails to realize it, even years later.  His lack of understanding is partly due to his belonging to a different social class, and partly due to his age.

Much darker, “The Bequest” highlights the inequities between men and women after a friend passes away.  Instead of leaving half of his estate to the husband and half to the wife, both of whom were his friends, Paul-Emile-Cyprien Vaudrec leaves everything to the wife, Madame Claire-Hortense Serbois.  However, she is unable to claim the wealth without permission from her husband.  French women were not allowed to inherit property, manage their own accounts or make decisions regarding their own children without approval from a father, husband, brother or some other male guardian.  It wasn’t until 1965 that French women were allowed to open a separate checking account[1].  The husband is concerned that people will gossip about the inheritance.  The townsfolk will assume the worst, and think that his wife was having an affair.  The husband then accuses his wife, who promptly denies the possibility that she was Vaudrec’s mistress.

In the end, she convinces her husband and goes along with his plan to have her accept the money on condition that it’s split between the two of them.  The lovelessness of the marriage materializes into view.  Whether Madame Serbois cries because her lover has died, or because her chance at a life free from her husband disappears is unclear.  What is clear is that Maupassant was interested in exploring gender and class.

What is the balance between social commentary vs. character?  How much of the characters do we need if the point is to explore an idea?  What difficulties might a writer encounter?  The challenge lies in telling enough of a story that the reader is captivated.  Maupassant’s stories, in this case, seem to ride the line by having just enough characterization.  The subject is more important than the characters.  We care about the characters, but really, they seem secondary to the demands of the narrative.

Overall, both of these stories are quite skeletal.  While they may get marked up if a student turned a similar story into workshop, it’s worth noting a difference between some contemporary short stories and Maupassant’s.  What’s more enjoyable for a reader: a story full of style and little else, or a story that lacks fluff, but exposes societal issues?  A blend would be the best.  In any case, a story with impact and relevance leaves a larger imprint than a story which seems empty in comparison.

[1] De Maupassant, Guy. Mademoiselle Fifi and Other Stories. Trans. David Coward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fiction and Audience

Due to a recent comment from a reader, I’ve been thinking about audience and writing.  Audience is difficult to determine.  Who is the audience for a story?  How often do writers think about this?

For my own writing, I don’t worry about it.  The audience is made up of myself.  Perhaps that sounds foolish, or near-sighted, however, I only really know what I like.  If I don’t like my own writing, why bother?  If I write a story, and it engages me, and I love it, then I think it will work for other people as well.  Will it work for everyone?  Of course not.  Are there stories and novels that work for everyone?  Is that even possible?

To further explore the notion of audience, I’m going to list 25 works, and ask readers to reply through the comments, who they imagine the intended audience to be?

  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Great Expectations
  3. Blood Meridian
  4. Jane Eyre
  5. The Catcher in the Rye
  6. The Great Gatsby
  7. 100 Years of Solitude
  8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
  9. Harry Potter Series
  10. The Windup Bird Chronicle
  11. Alice in Wonderland
  12. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  13. Frankenstein
  14. Everything Is Illuminated
  15. The Brothers Karamazov
  16. Sin City
  17. Anna Karenina
  18. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  19. The Quiet American
  20. 1984
  21. The Hobbit
  22. To the Lighthouse
  23. The Bell Jar
  24. Leaves of Grass
  25. Gilead

If you haven’t read something, then put, “Unread,” next to the number.

Rollingwood – Ben Marcus – Passive Characters

Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus is a study in the passive narrator/character.  It’s behind The New Yorker‘s pay wall, but the abstract says it all, “short story about a man trying to look after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son.”  The word which stands out here is “trying.”  The main character, Mather, is so passive and inept that the publishers can’t say this is a short story about a man looking after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son, but that he’s “trying to look after his son.”  Mather’s trying is similar to a failed New Year’s resolution, that moment when people examine the bubbles in their champagne, and do their best to ignore the person who each year says, they’re really going to try and loose weight.  It’s a cushion for the ego.  Mather can tell himself, I’m trying.  At least, I tried.

Another interesting thing to do with stories printed in The New Yorker, is to look at the meta tags they use on their website to describe a story.  For “Rollingwood” they use the following keywords: fathers, children, son, parents, parenthood, asthma, jobs, child care, nurseries, day care, offices, babysitters, boyfriends, exes, baby-sitters, carpools, buses, divorce, toddlers, anxiety, breakups, humidifiers, bosses, and cubicles.  Those keywords are depressingly spot on.

What “Rollingwood” does well is create a passive, hemmed-in character.  What “Rollingwood” suffers from is a passive, hemmed-in character.  The story is well-written and clear, just not too exciting.  Mather is dumped on by his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has a child.  He is walked over at work by his boss, and disrespected by his co-workers.  Even Mather’s parents seem indifferent to him.  Confronted with these problems, what does Mather do?  Not much.  Mather reacts.  Mather watches.  Mather endures.  The problem with Mather is that he’s a victim, but hasn’t yet realized how he’s a victim.

Going for a Beer – Robert Coover – Surreal Motion

Going for a Beer” by Robert  Coover is a short, surreal journey of moments that bleed into one another and skip years.  It reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly.”  However, whereas, Foer’s short story is a mixture of moments as well, it trends toward cleverness and romance.  The narrator comments on all these little idiosyncrasies between his girlfriend/wife and he.  He’s contradictory.  He’s saying what he means.  He’s a yuppy and life is passing so fast.

The narrator in “Going for a Beer” is not a yuppy.  Life is going too fast for him as well, but that is because he’s an alcoholic who can’t say no.  He doesn’t say no to one more drink, and he doesn’t say no to another affair.  Life is a haze and he’s anticipating events happening, only to realize they’ve happened and he’s approaching another familiar situation he doesn’t expect.  While both stories make for entertaining reads, Foer’s reads like a love letter for a cute, intelligent couple renewing their vows, and Coover’s story reads like an epitaph scrawled across a beery napkin.

How does Coover achieve this surreal sense of motion?  Let’s look at the beginning of the story for answers.

“He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment. Which was full of Kewpie dolls, the sort won at carnivals, and they made a date, as he recalls, to go to one. Where she wins another—she has a knack for it. Whereupon they’re in her apartment again, taking their clothes off, she excitedly cuddling her new doll in a bed heaped with them. He can’t remember when he last slept, and he’s no longer sure, as he staggers through the night streets, still foggy, where his own apartment is, his orgasm, if he had one, already fading from memory. Maybe he should take her back to the carnival, he thinks, where she wins another Kewpie doll (this is at least their second date, maybe their fourth), and this time they go for a romantic nightcap at the bar where they first met.”

First, he “finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar.”  That word “finds” creates a situation where the narrator is not quite sure how he got to the bar.  Find implies lack of intent or knowledge.  He didn’t go to the bar, or plan to go.  He found himself at the bar, literally and figuratively.

Second, his thoughts are always a step behind his actions.  This creates a strange world where the reader knows almost as much as the narrator, or is equally surprised.  “Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third.”  There is a disconnect, which follows the narrator throughout the story, and his life.

The third way surreal motion is achieved is by the narrator asking questions.  “Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment.”  Events blur, moments recede, and the narrator plunges toward another drink, slightly aware of the mess he’s causing, but unable to stop.

The story ends on a sombre note with the narrator seemingly unrepentant.  If you’re not cognizant of your sins, how can you know to ask forgiveness?  What also makes this story work well is it’s length.  It’s one paragraph, and hardly more than 1,000 words.  The reader follows the narrator, is with him, and then before the story can get too weighed down by the voice or affect, the story ends.  It works.  It’s original, and as life fades away for the narrator, the story stays with the reader well after the page is turned.

Backbone – David Foster Wallace – Subject and Direction

In the posthumously published excerpt from The Pale King entitled “Backbone” by David Foster Wallace, the reader follows a young boy with a goal: to be able to kiss every inch of his own body.  The story is captivating in its subject, but ultimately suffers from a lack of direction.

After the boy severely injures his spine, he receives instruction on incremental stretching from the chiropractor who helps him.  There is no reason for why the boy desires to kiss every inch of his body, but there doesn’t need to be.  Do children, let alone adults, always know what motivates?  The story marks the years as the boy makes progress, and not only does he change physically, but changes mentally and emotionally as well.  Words to describe him are: calm, unusually poised, self-containing, and dutiful.  The meditative concentration required to spend hours a day stretching have allowed him to develop a calmness of spirit and mind.  The boy’s calmness is at odds with his father’s frenetic career and relationships with women.

One way to look at “Backbone” is to divide up the sections.

  1. The boy’s obsession with being able to kiss himself.
  2. Seemingly nonfiction accounts of contortionists and sufferers of stigmata.
  3. The father’s own youthful obsession with betterment/success, and his cowardice toward women.

On the surface, the boy’s story is independent of the father’s, except when the father draws comparisons from the boy to himself.  Is the story about the boy?  The father?  Or, is it about both of them?  What do the bits of nonfiction add?

The nonfiction bits are interesting, provide some context/history perhaps, but seem like they could have been edited out.  This is a physical story.  The boy wants to be wholly accessible to himself.  The father wants women to access himself.  Perhaps, the passages about stigmata and contortionists illustrate how others are able to access these people through their abilities.

Earlier, I mentioned the story lacked direction.  The moment when I started to think that was when details began to emerge in a way that lacked subtlety.  The boy’s mother, who is completely absent from the story, is briefly mentioned as the cause for the father to seek extramarital affairs.  The father is described with phrases like, “this is when the torture started,” a echo to his son’s torturous stretching.  Moreover, words like “almost contort himself,” “lack of backbone,” and “contorted suffocation” in three adjoining paragraphs make the comparison so overt as to be disappointingly obvious.

Then, the story meanders back toward the boy and how he will overcome the inability to kiss the back of his neck, etc.  “He would find a way to access all of himself.  He possessed nothing that anyone could ever call doubt, inside.”  The boy will overcome.  He will achieve success, but that success may not be recognizable to anyone outside the boy, especially his father.

Paranoia – Said Sayrafiezadeh – Humor and Flatness

Paranoia” by Said Sayrafiezadeh is a mix of humor and friendship set to the beat of the buildup for war and the slurring words of the news-cycle.  The characters are in their early twenties and setup as opposites.  Roberto has lived in the United States illegally since high school.  His father and mother went back to Chile when their student visas expired and left Roberto to fend for himself and finish school. Dean on the other hand is a white U.S. citizen living some vague middle class existence.  Where Roberto is impulsive, innocent, and struggling to live, Dean is steady, questioning though still somewhat innocent, and doesn’t seem to have many worries.

The two characters have a great relationship.  At times, it seems like they are more like brothers than friends.  Of course, the inevitable happens, that’s what it does, right?  Inevitably happens.  Roberto is deported.  The deportation feels like the subtext Sayrafiezadeh has woven into the story.  The characters complain about the heat, then the cold.  They talk of war, about invasion.  Troops move out.  All of these things happen, and the characters don’t really care about them.  The weather and the war are of little consequence.

Likewise, Roberto is afraid of being deported, and then he is deported.  Dean discovers this on a visit when Roberto doesn’t answer the door.  Finally, Roberto’s boss beckons Dean into his shop and tells him the news.  The story ends with Dean walking home, and he doesn’t seem to care.  Sure, there’s a reference to Dean’s childhood, and perhaps it represents a yearning for a simpler time, or a return to innocence, but that doesn’t really come through.  If Dean, Roberto’s best friend, doesn’t care, then why should the reader?

The Other Place – Mary Gaitskill – Subject Matter and Daring

The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill is a dark story about parenthood and growing up.  To write is to have courage.  Courage to explore.  Courage to expose.  Courage to be examined.  The story opens with the narrator talking about his son, and more specifically, his son’s love for violent games, movies, and artwork.  In talking about his son, the narrator then examines his past, and his teenage desire to do violence towards women.  To write about that subject takes guts.  A writer needs to leave out thoughts like, what will my friends think about this or how will my mom react?

The reader is allowed to follow the narrator along and see how his past unfolds.  The person telling the store seems to be normal and have a loving family.  We learn secrets he hasn’t told his wife.  Will we discover a grown man who used to be a teenage murderer or a grown man with a troubled past who is trying to be the best father that he can?

Like the title hints at, “The Other Place” is a nightmare landscape of faceless violence and damaged people.  In the end it reaches a conclusion that is satisfying and unexpected, and while the narrator will always be there for his son, readers may ask who will be there for them?

Review: The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye – Donald Revell

I’m going to try and not be flippant.  In order to save you time and money, I will condense  Donall Revell‘s book, The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, to one sentence.

Pay attention.

For those of you who have time for more than two words, I’ll expand to three sentences.

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Fall in love with the world
  3. Write.

That aside, Revell does spend considerable time on select poems.  Those instances are worth reading, but can become tiresome as the same points are reiterated.