June 2, 2013

An itch that has to be scratched eternally

Other than an occasional one, I do not have the time to read the actual short stories in Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the Art of the Short Story but am really enjoying reading the introductions to the short stories which are typically 2-4 pages long but very enjoyable!

For example, yesterday I read David Means' introduction to Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? Here is an excerpt:

A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally. It opens up a singular feeling forever in the reader that arises out of what seems to be a paradigmatic stance.We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life. All we’re given is a sliver of some wider existence, a collection of minutae, a shift of viewpoint, a statement made weeks later. The poetics of the modern story are both anachronistic (tapping old modes of myth and folklore) and contemporary (the pop song, the thirty-second commercial spot). One must -- as a writer and reader - crystallize deep meaning from a few, slight gestures: ........ 
…Raymond Carver brought an art form back into relation with itself. He moved the short story forward but seemed to be rehashing and digging up his style from some buried aboriginal source. James Joyce did the same thing in Dubliners. He reengineered the short story, solidifying it with a new type of lyric firmness. It might seem, because Carver’s style is so pristine, so simple-sounding, that the lesson of his work is that one should keep the writing clear and simple. It might seem that the lesson of his work is that one must revert to the Hemingway technique of cinematic reportage, zeroing in on the peak of the meaningful action and image while leaving everything else submerged. Maybe, maybe not. Carver’s style teaches us that the bare bones of a story - no matter how ornate or twisty a style might get - are always simple, rudimentary, and arriving from a deeply humane source. Heart and style and story must be united, somehow. In other words, you have to care, and care a lot. Fancy prose - wildly interesting mannerisms, snarky jokes, weird cartoonish futures - are all fine and dandy, as long as the bare bones come from a pure, honest, humane concern.
Later in the introduction, Means writes:
A good short story - any good story - is like one of the cave paintings in Herzog's movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The essential mysteries of the human condition, of the fact that we can make art at all, are reduced to a few strokes, a primal essence, bare-boned, stark, pulled out fo the dimness with the flickering light of a flaming torch, which in contemporary times takes the form of a highly sensitive, poetically minded reader flickering his/her soul - across the text.

Elsewhere, Means was not so eloquent in describing what a short story does:

Means, in a less elevated but equally eloquent manner, compared the form to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—a short burst of energy that makes you want to reread, or replay, to capture that emotional feeling.

But Means, it seems, sure knows how to craft a great short story himself. I have not read any of his work to date but this article in the Paris Review talks about how "Means has delivered exquisite local portraits of the destitute, desolate, and disconsolate in postindustrial America" through his many short stories. Asked if he would like to some day move to the longer form and attempt to write a novel, he says:
Yeah, I'm tempted by the novel. Tempted is the correct word because compared to the demands of the story it would seem that the novel, all that wide-open space, would be enticing after four story collections. But what's not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big and wide for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big. I love novels, and I read them more than anything, but stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they're highly charged, a slightly newer form, and inherently more contemporary.

Big and wide can mean expansive and comprehensive, but it can also mean bloat. Novels often thin themselves out to a watery hue—some even start that way—and at times seem to only ride along the surface of things, giving us what we already know, reporting the news that is just news. Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. I keep reading novels that feel, even if they're trying new tricks, like old news, and often resort to cliché to keep moving: out of the corner of his eyes, his heart was pounding in his chest, that kind of thing. Those books are just surfing along on a very small waves—reading them is like watching surfers on Cape Cod trying to catch whatever's coming in on a lame day.

I'm not at all interested in simply reporting what's here right now, or cranking out an entertainment device that's going to touch the widest number of people. I'm interested in digging and excavating as deep as I can go into those small eternal moments and how they expand out, or close in, on the lives of my characters. I lean towards the souls on the fringes of the corporate/industrial landscape, and some of those folks are mute, silent, close-lipped and don't say enough to start filling a novel. As a story writer, you have work with sharp but relatively small tools, the picks of metaphor, the shovel blade of images, the trowel of point of view, and then you delicately lift and brush in the revision with love and care knowing that one slip and you might damage an extremely delicate thing. In the end it has to be as solid as marble. But during the process it's like an ancient shard of pottery.

All of this just to say that, yes, I'm tempted still by the novel, but I'm happy to be working hard at stories. I could go on here to talk about how, paradoxically—and maybe I'm contradicting myself, but so what, like Whitman said, do I contradict myself, who cares, I'm an American, I have to hold multitudes—bloat can be good if it's interesting. A move from stories to novels for me would be partly a matter of not giving into the temptation to abuse the form.

It's a death trap to write something as a flight of fancy, or to sell more books. I was working on a novel a few years ago—I'm still working on it on and off—but then I began to write a story, “The Spot,” and it landed in The New Yorker and I was happy and shifted gears and continued to write stories. When I'm down—and even Alice Munro admits that at times she feels guilty for not writing a novel—I just start a defensive mantra: Blake never wrote novels. Whitman never wrote novels. Carver's work is still around. Franz Wright hasn't written a novel. And it's not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn't coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode.

Brilliant! Makes me want to read some of his short stories but there isn't time for now. Instead I may just read these four reviews of Means' book of short stories, The Spot - 1, 2, 3, 4 - and make a note to myself to maybe some day get back to his stories. In the interests of time, that itch will have to be scratched some other day! I'll leave you with an interview with David Means in the New Yorker about this collection of short stories.

David Means’s short-story collection “The Spot"  is a stunning, often terrifying study of human motivation at the extremes of experience. Inhabiting settings that range from the dark plains of the Midwest, to the seeming order of suburbia, Means’s characters live at the meeting places of cruelty and mercy, criminality and victimhood. Three stories from the book, “A River in Egypt,” “The Spot,” and “The Knocking,” first appeared in The New Yorker. Means recently answered my questions about the American landscape, violence in contemporary culture, and Bruce Springsteen.

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