Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Yorker Stories: Leaving for Kenosha, Richard Ford

I will move the first paragraph abstracts from the earlier posts to head their respective reviews.

Richard Ford
The New Yorker, March 3, 2008
It was the anniversary of the disaster. Walter Hobbes was on his way uptown to pick up his daughter, Louise, at Trinity. She had the dentist at four. Then the two of them were going for a hilariously early dinner at the place Louise liked—Papa Andre’s—out on the Chef Highway, a roadhouse on stilts that the flood had missed. Then they were going back to his condo for her homework and a Bill Murray movie. This was New Orleans.

81 words
6 Sentences
13.5. wps avg

Paragraph's primary contribution: Situational exposition. Slice of life, New Orleans, post-Katrina.
Narrative Voice: 3rd Person
Narrative Time: Narrative past, simultaneous with action.
.Description: Stage direction, sociological and pop identifiers.
Characters introduced: Two named, not including Bill Murry
Language: Simple sentences, or with prepositional clauses, two multi-leveled. Unornamented. No figurative language.
Dialog None

Assume: plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism.

It was the anniversary of the disaster.

There it is, our first sentence hook. Does it work? That is, does it work as more than a hook, more than a tacked on device to perk up our interest? By the end of paragraph we know this was not Louise and Walter's disaster, but background. Place and time: New Orleans a year after Katrina. In a sense, the background here is the story. The characters and the events of the day will be forgotten. Not Katrina. Walter is going to take his daughter to the dentist, out to diner, back to his condo for home work and a Bill Murry movie. Ripples on the surface of Lake Pontchartrain. So yes, annoyingly obvious though it is, the barb is quickly absorbed by exhibition. Read the paragraph as process. The rest of the story has yet to be written. This is not advance information about something that already exists, description of events that have already happened; read the paragraph as a set of limiting conditions. This was New Orleans. It was the anniversary of the disaster. As we write/read this story, we see that what falls between those sentences--the importance of the events of Louise and Walter's day, must remain subordinate to the setting, incidental, examples perhaps, illustrations standing in for post-Katrina New Orleans, but nothing more. This is a strategy that seems more interesting to me now, as I think about it, then when I first read the story. What we have here is the problem of how to write about such things: the killing fields of Cambodia, the holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events, the reality of which defy aesthetic assimilation. The heart of the limiting condition laid out in the paragraph is not the formal setting: small figures pursuing their insignificant business against a background whose meaning is beyond articulation; this is the but the manifestation of the aesthetic response... to disaster--the decision to leave in silence what could only be trivialized by reduction to an aesthetic subject.

The narrator is primarily limited third person: Walter's point of view, with a few sentence that might be read either way--as Walter's thinking, or commentary from above--or both at once. "It had become fashionable to blame bad things on the hurricane--things that would've certainly happened anyway--failures, misdeeds, infirmities of character that the hurricane could've had nothing to do with. As if life weren't its own personalized storm." The reflections here connect the lives of the characters to the larger setting, and at the same time, detach them from it. The connection is not causal. The personalized storms, and the storms of world are alike in that they are beyond understanding. "Because he was a lawyer, Walter knew you didn't expect to know why most things happened, You made the reasons up. It was difficult enough just to admit that things did happen." Our lives and the great events that surround us are alike in being inexplicable.

There is some back story. Walter has been divorced for a year. His wife, Betsy (like Annette Bening's character in American Rose)is a real estate agent who falls into bed with a client while showing him a house; this must have happened shortly before Katrina. It would have been their twentieth anniversary. Small disaster against the large. Walter came to New Orleans from Mississippi during an oil boom and stayed on after it dried up. He occasionally sees the wife of Betsy's lover shopping at Whole Foods. They have one child, Louise, who Walter is taking to the dentist, and then to bid a friend goodbye before she moves to Kenosha. While Louise is at the dentist, Walter is directed to shop at Wal-Mart for a card to give to Ginny. His search, and failure to find one to Louis's liking, takes up almost a fifth of the story. "Most of the cards in the tiers were for regular, identifiable occasions--graduation, birthday, anniversary, confirmation, sympathy over a mother's death, illness, events requiring humor. There were a lot of these occasions [...]Everything else required adaptation and compromise. you fitted your need for human expression into a category somebody else had thought up in advance and found words for, and then you bought the card, signed it, sealed it up, and tried think it was just right" ... another passage that might serve as general observation. What is real in our lives cannot be foreseen and prepared for. "You can put things best in your own words." Walter tells his daughter later. "It's harder, but it's better." Harder, because more often than not, putting things in one's own words is as likely to fail as those prepackaged cards, as we see in the sequence of minor misunderstandings between Walter and Louise as the story draws to a close. Ginny is leaving for Kenosha--someplace far away on another lake, cold and strange. Louise, too, anticipates leaving. Maybe Italy, she says. Or China. "And going alone. And not coming back. And never seeing anybody that I know today every again."

Would that include Walter?

"And Mother, too, probably, Louise said, and gave him a look of cold implacable certainty. A look that saw the future."

What she does not see, of course, being only fourteen, is that, if she lives to a normal age, this will in fact be her future--to leave behind, Mother, Father... everyone she knows today.

Walter "would make no more efforts to answer Louise's childish questions about Italy and China. No words were really the right words to answer with. In a a day he'd forget all this. This was a smart child--Louise--but not smart beyond her years. She would forget many things, too."

... and so it goes.

My reading of the opening paragraph, that this would be a plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism, was mostly right, though there was not much plot (slice -of-life would have been a better call), and I didn't see the interesting way Ford deals with a variant of Adorno's no poetry after the holocaust problem: how to deal with a great historical tragedy in a work of art. In a "Titanic," or a "Sofie's Choice," a few characters are isolated and foregrounded over the historical event. We are left to imagine the whole as an abstraction refracted through the lenses of all those left invisible in the background, absorbed in the representative figures of the story before us--as though it were all one story endlessly replicated, an aesthetic resolution purchased with a reduction that is impossible to justify when held against the reality.

Ford's minimalist treatment of the foregrounded story doesn't allow his characters or their "personalized storms" to grow large enough for us to read them as representative figures of the tragedy of Katrina. They are, rather, fragments of that larger, untold and untellable story. Walter and Louise, missing each other, misunderstanding, remind us how little we can understand, how little we can infer from our individual lives about the lives of others, let alone the great forces that sweep us across the pages of history, that drive us from New Orleans to Kenosha from one quickly forgotten day to the next.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Beginnings: Some Preliminary Considerations: Exposition

A prelude to analyzing short fiction. On exposition and the opening paragraph.

When I try to find something to say about first sentences I'm almost forced to think in terms of the "hook," one of the conventions of the short fiction review. In a story of a few thousand words there's no time for leisurely development, or so we are often told. If you accept this as a general principle, it's only natural to look for that hook, to devote at least a sentence or two to how the author has or has not succeeded in generating immediate interest. Let's leave for another time how this may or may not reflect a basic anxiety vis-à-vis the written word competing with the flash-and-pass mode of the electronic media.

I wanted to begin with opening paragraphs rather than sentences, precisely to get past the "hook" --the workshop clincher that's become a cliché of the genre. Though short fiction typically opens in medias res, a story that dispensed altogether with opening exposition would likely be received as "experimental," or in some way, unconventional. The opening exposition, we all know, may establish setting, tone, introduce characters, present necessary facts; those are the obvious functions, but some of these may not come till later in the narrative, and none of them alone quite hit on what may be the defining features, those that truly begin the story--which initiate the process and stamp everything that follows with its particular identity, such that, were the writer to violate what has been laid out in that beginning, she would have to change it--or lose the story in a narrative cul-de-sac.

What I've looked for in the opening paragraphs is an answer to the question: where does the beginning end? Where do we find the point of no return, that which defines the initial identify of the story? Surely not in the first sentence. Next candidate: the first paragraph?

But then, how do we define a paragraph?

How do we deal with stories that begin with dialog?

Or divide into smaller units what might just as well have been combined into a single paragraph?

A paragraph, we have to understand, is more than a typographical feature; it's fundamentally a rhetorical structure--and as I have no interest in pseudo-objective theorizing, I think it's important as well to introduce, even on the most elemental level, questions of aesthetics, but first, the rhetorical structure.

I can't think of a better place to look than Francis Christensen's "A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph." Christensen's basic formulation comes down to two principles.

One: the first sentence is the head of the paragraph. (We don't concern ourselves with identifying the "topic sentence," as this confuses structure and content.)

Two: every sentence after the head will either be subordinate to the sentence immediately before it, or coordinate with any sentence earlier in the paragraph. A sentence that breaks the sequence is out of place, marks the beginning of, or a transition to a new paragraph.

Virtually all of the many ways to structure a paragraph can be understood in terms of those principles. As for aesthetic questions, these take on meaning only in relation to the stories we want to analyze, so this will have to wait until tomorrow when I hope to post the first review (more likely, the way this is going, Part 1 of the first review!)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chic Lit: Marketing Gimic? Genetic/Existential Divide?

A while ago I mentioned a reading survey I gave my freshman. I asked them a number of questions about the books they'd read while they were in high school, both assigned and unassigned reading. I was surprised at how widely read they were, collectively, if not individually, and have been giving this considerable thought--how can I use this information in future classes?

I noticed that there were a number of titles that only the women had read, but none that were only on the men's lists. This held true by title and by genre. There were a few women who read sports books, adventure--but no men who read chic lit.

None. I admit that I'd not read any in that category myself. Not "Bel Canto", not "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood," let alone the cheesier stuff... you know, the one's with pastel covers covers, photos of female bare feet 0(no one admitted reading Good in Bed, but given some of the other titles, I don't believe them).

So I asked... after pointing out this apparent difference in reading tastes, that is--I asked one of the women. Do you think the world would be a better place if the men you know had read the books in question?

The class exploded (well, not quite... ) but there was a spontaneous and enthusiastic and collective female YES!

So, I asked. If you had the power to require the men you know to read these books....

Publish Post

Hmmm... not having read any of these title myself, I had to wonder--what am I missing?


And if so, what in particular? Please enlighten me. What is going on here?

Summer is Coming: Sunday Salon

Friday it was spring and April; today it's spring and March--cold! The magnolia are gone and the forsythia long gone; in Morris Park the white petals have fallen from the bloodroot--but spring beauties are everywhere and violets and mertensia. No sign of the trout lilies yet; May apples have opened their umbrellas, Solomon's seal and false Solomon's seal have hung their leaves on the line but not yet in bloom. After weeks of walking the streets, knocking on hundreds of doors, talking politics, attending rallies, grading papers and more papers, preparing for classes, at last it's winding down. Time to breath again. I still have stacks of papers to grade, and after Saturday, the finals, but classes are over and the primary is over. I'm looking forward to a summer of reading--time to read poetry again, which I've missed. Time to finish this novel. Time to write posts on for Barking Dog, to visit book sites, rejoin Sunday Salon.

I have notes on Richard Ford's "Leaving for Kenosha," the first of the New Yorker stories I plan to write about. I thought I might have the first of these up today but I find I need sleep on what I read if there are to be any thoughts worth exposing in public. Until I turn in my final grades I'll be dividing my time between end of term teaching duties and my summer reading and writing schedule. I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to post on one story a day until I've gone though the stack of New Yorkers on my list. Thirteen of them now. Lucky me!

Tomorrow: Richard Ford.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Art (of Politics ?) and Nature's Art

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean. So over that art
Which you say adds to nature is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend nature--change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

From The Winter's Tale:4:4

Is that not precisely (and how precise, as always, Shakespeare's words!) what we seek to do in changing that of nature's power within to a gentler scion.

First in line to vote. Maybe 25 people in line when I stepped out of the booth. Work to get people out to vote now, a break for classes in the afternoon, back to GOTV till the polls close at eight.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Politics, the alieanated beast...

This was a reply to a comment by Imani to my previous post... grown too long for the comment box.

I have little interest in overtly political art, politically driven literature. Work that has aesthetic merit will be political in the best sense--like Homer or Blake, without having to narrow the goal to aim for it. I've been feeling a "concern," as the Quakers say, something deeply personal. I'm not sure how to get my thoughts around it. I suppose... more than suppose, that the source has to do with how difficult it's been to balance these disparate demands on my time: my teaching responsibilities, my writing, and the volunteer work I've been doing on the Obama campaign.

There is no way I can choose one over another. Teaching nourishes me as a writer, gives me a place in the world, an emotional and psychological security, and what drives me to write, that which wakens me from my private garden of wishes, will not let me forget that I am not--that I do not exist as one alone. We find ourselves as individuals by incorporating what is other.

A tortured way of putting it. If I could find easy expression for what is gnawing at me, there would be no crisis. And there is.

Break it down. That's what I tell my students when they struggle to find words for complex ideas. Name the parts. Then trace their relationships.

The part that I don't know how to assimilate--the political. Break through from the abstract to the concrete. I tell them that, too.

I spent the day grading papers, and wanted to be out on the street knocking on doors. Yesterday, I spent hours in the heat doing just that: knocking on doors--and I was happy! But I have papers to grade, a novel to complete. And happy as I was--this airy sense of freedom--there were dreams of a private garden apart from all that, dreams of a deeper happiness.

I've come to see this as more than a personal crisis, as something perhaps symptomatic, where the political has come to occupy a place apart, an abnormal independence-power and the machinations of power removed from the needs that produced them, removed from the means they are meant to serve.

I respond to the rhetoric Obama employs precisely because it exposes this rupture. I feel it in my bones. I have terrible waking dreams of the alignment of forces I fear this will provoke. Some of these dreams have human faces, remembered--the doors that opened when I knocked.

We are a beast torn apart, fighting against itself, limb against limb, organ against organ, cell against cell.

That's what politics has become.

And it's become that because we have isolated it, removed it from the normal course of life and tradition... where it grows malignant and returns to infect every other alienated aspect of life... religion, culture...

We must find a way to reintegrate politics into our lives, all the aspects of our lives, without turning everything into politics... politics as the alien beast it has become.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Who are we? What are we doing? And why? Sunday Salon

I keep going over this. The compartmentalization of literary conversations and politics... I was tempted to write: ...and matters of consequence.

Not that I believe for a second that literature and the arts are not in themselves, consequential--even primary to politics. But they cannot be so as Mandarin pursuits apart from the messy realities of power and its relations to everyday life.

I'm not a political person. My drive is more toward tending my garden. But I don't see any escape from that most basic choice: either let others wield power for us, or become a part of the process--to attempt, as best we can, to actualize the ideal of "governance by the consent of the governed." And do it ourselves.

And so I go out and knock on doors. I take a stand. I try to understand--not only the "issues," so called, but what shapes them.

For that, I search in my reading, and as I write, for understanding.

I would like to see in Sunday Salon posts, more connection made between what we read, and how the world works. Is literature nothing more than a diversion from the blood bath of history?

Whatever we choose to read or to write, you can be sure it will be used by those who wield power. With or without our consent, complicit or otherwise.

We are none of us innocent.

An impossible choice, to be sure--between independence of thought and creative endeavor, and resistance or usurpation by one or another crippling ideological camp But the impossible is exactly what is needed. What has always been needed. And what, defeat after defeat... has lifted us above the "is" to something closer to what we might become.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A New Read on Antigone

From The Psychoanalytic Field , a preview of a review of Jampert on Deleuze and Guattairi.

Here are some exerts.

In his most recent book, Jay Lampert leads us back to one of Deleuze and Guattari’s most complex philosophical expositions of time and repetition without fuss or fanfare. He weaves for us an account of history that is both rich and concise. In a wonderfully honest and generous paragraph near the end of the penultimate chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy of History, Lampert asks: “How is someone trained in philosophy supposed to know how to name even one genuine event of ‘today,’ let alone analyse one convincingly as part of his book?

Lampert unpacks a most subtle and challenging set of questions that have preoccupied, if not defined, the long tradition of western philosophy. From Plato to Hegel, the rehabilitation of multiplicity, of difference, and indeed of chaos under the rubric of the One has had to confront the question of repetition and time, time after time, only to relegate it quite often to the status of a seduction. Contra those who have understood repetition as the reproduction in time of an origin or a preceding state of affairs, Deleuze elaborates a repetition “for its own sake” (« une répétition pour elle-même »), a repetition that accounts for that which does not return, for that which is a becoming without origin or destiny. This is a repetition that does not operate in time; it produces time. This is the repetition Lampert deploys to elucidate not one grand “Philosophy of History” but—count them—nine forms of past, of present, and of future, nine forms of succession and simultaneity, and, finally, nine “movements of the name of history.” Lampert braids his concepts, crosses them, stacks them, aligns them, serially, co-extensively, but always deftly and rigorously, in order to argue that “the succession of befores and afters is a triple by-product of there being three simultaneous simultaneities. What takes the place of the classical concept of history is nothing other than these multiple forms of co-existence with their multiple subordinate forms of serial distribution. Once it is proved that an event’s present status and its past status are independent yet simultaneous, it will follow that the succession-effects of the names of history run simultaneously, and that the past is a real place on the body” (9)

Here, the typical questions of a philosophy of history, of a universal history, (“How come?” “Why now? “What next?”) are all questions of contingency. I believe that these questions very quickly extend into the broader concerns around memory, desire, and life. Indeed, repetition does not belong exclusively on the stage of world historical events with their progressions, interruptions, and recapitulations; repetition also pertains to the passage from one affect to the next, from one performance to the next, and from one observation to the next. A philosophy of history that takes the syntheses of time for a point of departure, a philosophy of history as thought by Deleuze and Guattari and subsequently pursued and elaborated by Lampert is hence a philosophy of psychology, of art, and of science as well..

For the rest go HERE

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Literature and Politics: Sunday Salon

Blogging time out. I've knocked on more than 300 doors the last few weekends canvasing for Obama... out doing voter registration before that... and final exams coming up with stacks of papers to grade. No time, no time, no time...

The First-Paragraph short fiction review experiment is still underway, but I'll not be likely to do more than post a few additional first paragraph profiles until after the Pennsylvania primary on the 22nd.

I feel a powerful inclination to escape it all, to crawl into a corner, retreat from the world, post on Barking dog, work on my novel... tend my garden.

But if I don't stand up and do my part as a citizen, what have I done, but give my blessing to a world where we are all of us, terrorists. A charnel house waiting to receive the bones of our children and our children's children?

Aristole--and Hannah Arendt--were... are right.

We are political animals.

We cannot escape it. Either we work to shape our political condition, or we leave the world in the hands of the tyrants: Goya's monsters devouring all who do not serve their interests.

If we want to be free as artists, as writers, to commit our work to an ideal beyond politics, beyond propaganda--then how can we defend that claim to aesthetic freedom if we don't enter the public forum, acting as citizens of our neighborhoods, our cities, our nations... of the one great world we have in common?

I want to work on my novel. Volunteering robs me of the time. But I refuse to acknowledge the contradiction. Only by holding to both--even as they seem to pull us in different directions, do we enter fully into the human condition.

Friday, April 11, 2008

First Paragraphs: Stories from The New Yorker. SIX

I'm beginning to sniff where I'm going with this. The internal architecture of the story. I'm committed--will have to review each of these stories one way or another. We can see the need in this story to treat the "paragraph" with a degree of flexibility, to give some thought to how we define it. I can see how dialog is going to be tricky, though here, the brief quoted lines fit well into the context of a larger unit if we use Christensen's rule ("A New Rhetoric," Francis Christensen, Bonniejean Christensen. Harper and Row, New York, 1976)

Every sentence in a paragraph will be either directly subordinate to the sentence it follows, or coordinate with any sentence above it in the paragraph. A sentence that breaks this pattern may serve as transition to the next paragraph, or is perhaps parenthetic, or has begun to drift and is out of place.

Granted, the Christensen formula is most usefully applied to exposition and argument. In fiction, we can expect the pattern will often be broken, but never without consequence to how we read it. In any case, we should try to identify the paragraph as a rhetorical structure, not by it's punctuation, which is often arbitrary, or rhythmic, rather than structural. In "The Great Experiment," the first seven paragraphs form a coherent, rhetorical unit. The first quoted line serves as an epigraph. "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" To read it as more intimately bound to the story it precedes, one might hear it perhaps, as interior monolog: an unconscious, or semi-conscious conditioning thought of the protagonist, Kendall, gazing out of the window of this Lake Shore Drive Penthouse.

The third indented unit poses no problem; clearly subordinate, adding illustrative detail to the preceding description The same for the forth, where the sentence is isolated for emphasis and contrast.

The fifth typographical paragraph (as opposed to the real thing) is coordinate, if not in structure, in sense--a kind of displaced coordinate sentence, or rather, coordinate with an identical ellipsis: a repetition of the sentence omitted before: " The view straight ahead was of water... "

The Post-it sentence: again, isolation for emphasis.

As it was printed, these seven typographical paragraphs do form a unit. (click on the link)

,The Great Experiment

The New Yorker, March 31, 2008

“If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?”

It was the city that wanted to know. Chicago, refulgent in early-evening, late-capitalist light. Kendall was in a penthouse apartment (not his) of an all-cash building on Lake Shore Drive. The view straight ahead was of water, eighteen floors below. But if you pressed your face to the glass, as Kendall was doing, you could see the biscuit-colored beach running down to Navy Pier, where they were just now lighting the Ferris wheel.

The gray Gothic stone of the Tribune Tower, the black steel of the Mies building just next door—these weren’t the colors of the new Chicago. Developers were listening to Danish architects who were listening to nature, and so the latest condominium towers were all going organic. They had light-green façades and undulating rooflines, like blades of grass bending in the wind.

There had been a prairie here once. The condos told you so.

Kendall was gazing at the luxury buildings and thinking about the people who lived in them (not him) and wondering what they knew that he didn’t. He shifted his forehead against the glass and heard paper crinkling. A yellow Post-it was stuck to his forehead. Piasecki must have come in while Kendall was napping at his desk and left it there.

The Post-it said: “Think about it.”

Kendall crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket. Then he went back to staring out the window at the glittering Gold Coast.

Words: 247
Sentences: 14 17.64 wps avg.
Suggest story to come, heavy on sociological/ economic setting, status... from a POV above the fray...
Narrative Time: present
Voice: limited third person
Language: objective, reminiscent, conventional exposition

Sunday, April 6, 2008

First Paragraphs: Stories from The New Yorker.

[Five] New Yorker Stories: first paragraphs

Ungraded papers pile up as the end of the term draws near. Taking time to canvas South Philly as a volunteer for Obama (knocked on 157 doors yesterday). Piling up as well, unread New Yorker stories. I stare at them, wondering what I might do for Sunday Salon. No time to read them all. I looked at the titles, the authors, the accompanying illustrations, still couldn't make up my mind. With so little time, I wanted something that would reward my effort: how to choose? In the end, I gave up. Gave up the idea of reading an entire story, that is. Instead, I resorted to reviewing only the first paragraph of each of them. What might I discover? Would they fall into classifiable patterns, categories? How accurately would they predict the incident and action in the rest of the story? I thought, if I take these nine paragraphs, write first about each one, then go back and compare, and last of all, read the stories to see how much I gotten from that one paragraph--the experiment would be reward enough even for the dullest and most conventional the lot. Best of all, I would have to do this in one sitting. What if, I thought, I post paragraph and comments of three stories, then, between grading papers, add another when I need a break. If I don't finish all nine by the end of the day, there no reason I can't add the rest on Monday or Tuesday, and when I find time to read the stories--another source for fresh posts.

I don't expect much in the way of Eureka Moments. If there turns out to be any value to the exercise, it will be cumulative as material for comparison is added.

Here are the first three( 4,5). As I add to this post, I'll change the number at the top, that way, if you're interested, you will know when fresh material has been added..

"Leaving for Kenosha"
Richard Ford
The New Yorker, March 3, 2008
It was the anniversary of the disaster. Walter Hobbes was on his way uptown to pick up his daughter, Louise, at Trinity. She had the dentist at four. Then the two of them were going for a hilariously early dinner at the place Louise liked—Papa Andre’s—out on the Chef Highway, a roadhouse on stilts that the flood had missed. Then they were going back to his condo for her homework and a Bill Murray movie. This was New Orleans.

81 words
6 Sentences
13.5. wps avg

Paragraph's primary contribution: Situational exposition. Slice of life, New Orleans, post-Katrina.
Narrative Voice: 3rd Person
Narrative Time: Narrative past, simultaneous with action.
.Description: Stage direction, sociological and pop identifiers.
Characters introduced: Two named, not including Bill Murry
Language: Simple sentences, or with prepositional clauses, two multi-leveled. Unornamented. No figurative language.
Dialog None

Anticipate: plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism.

(4) "The Visitor
Marisa Silver
The New Yorker, December 3, 2007
The new boy was three-quarters gone. Both legs below the knee and the left arm at the shoulder. Candy spent her lunch hour lying on the lawn outside the V.A. hospital, sending nicotine clouds into the cloudless sky, wondering whether it would be better to have one leg and no arms—or, if you were lucky enough to have an arm and a leg left, whether it would be better to have them on opposite sides, for balance. In her six months as a nurse’s aide, she had become thoughtful about the subtle hierarchy of human disintegration. Blind versus deaf—that was a no-brainer, no brain being perhaps the one wound in her personal calculus that could not be traded in for something worse.
It was sad. Of course it was sad. But she didn’t feel sad. Sad was what people said they were in the face of tragedies as serious as suicide bombings or as minor as a lost earring. It was a word that people used to tidy up and put the problem out of sight.

124 words
13.7 wps avg.

Paragraph Overview:
This one jumped out at me. It was not the shocking condition of the patient, but how it was announced. Plain, matter of fact. Admirable restraint, and then it's left behind--the boy, his body three-quarters gone--or rather, further objectified, transformed in the protagonist's reflections to an abstract problem which she examines--as insubstantial as the nicotine clouds she sends up "into the cloudless sky" on her lunch break. Here's something to work on--this terrible contradiction of consciousness faced with a reality which consciousness cannot assimilate, a reality that stands nakedly beyond the power of imagination to tame. I couldn't stop with just one. I slid the index card down the page to read paragraph two. This one I look forward to reading. Will it live up to its promise?

Narrative Voice: Limited 1st Person
Narrative Time: Indefinite story-telling present.
Narrated Time: Indefinite narrative past
.Description: Spare, interior.
Characters introduced: Narrator, named. Unnamed patient, "boy."
Language: Minimalist. Ironic condensation. Subject matter: strongly affective--balanced by equally powerful aesthetic, philosophical distance.

Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject: Both sentences in Par. 2. Reminded of Addie Bundrun. A woman who has given birth has no need of the word, "mother." Reality guts the words that draw to near and leaves them hollow... how then to speak, to write... and of what? We are left with no alternative, but indirection.

Dialog None

This one promises to be a grabber!

The Bell Ringer, John Burnside
The New Yorker March 17, 2008

Contributors: (...poet and novelist. His latest novel, "The Devil's Footprints," was published in January.) Suspicion this is novel exert: high.

Half a mile beyond the sign for Lathockar mill, Eva Lowe turned off the main coastal road and took the back way through Kinaldy woods. It wasn’t the most direct route into the village, but her father had always liked that stretch of road, maybe because it reminded him of Slovakia, and they’d often come this way on their Sunday walks, when her mother was still alive. It was dark, out on the narrow lane that ran past the sawmills, dark and very green, the boundary wall a dim colony of moss and ferns, the shadows under the trees damp and still. To most people, it seemed gloomy, but for Eva it was as close to the landscape of home as she could imagine—especially now, with new snow settling on the pines and on the ridges of the drystone wall, so that the land resembled nothing so much as a children’s-book illustration, the snow steady and insistent in a kingdom that had succumbed to the bad fairy’s spell and slept for a hundred years in a viridian web of gossamer and thorns. Her father had always loved that story, and she still had the book he had read to her from, the one he’d bought because it reminded him of home. Those pictures were her one real memento of him, page after page of watercolors from a world that, even before she opened the book for the first time, was gone forever, leaf green and sky blue and damson, wiped out by a tide of cattle trucks and unmarked graves.

261 words
6 sentences
43.5 wps avg.

Paragraph's primary contribution: Exposition
Narrative Voice: Limited 3rd
Narrative Time: Present.
Past recollected.
Description: immediate and recollected.
Link present to past.
Characters introduced: 1 present, 1 remembered. Both named
Language: conventional, some ornamentation, mood evocative.
"...viridian web of gossamer and thorns."
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject:
" Those pictures were her one real memento of him, page after page of watercolors from a world that, even before she opened the book for the first time, was gone forever, leaf green and sky blue and damson, wiped out by a tide of cattle trucks and unmarked graves.
Dialog None
Anticipated story: Good-bye, Daddy! Conventional Realism

"The Reptile Garden"
Louise Erdrich.
The New Yorker, January 28, 2008
Contributor profile notes Erdrich only as novelist (?) Suspicion this is novel exert, moderate

In the fall of 1972, my parents drove me to the University of North Dakota for my freshman year. Everything I needed was packed in a brand-new royal-blue aluminum trunk: a crazy-quilt afghan that my mother had crocheted for my bed, thirty dollars’ worth of new clothes, my Berlitz French Self-Teacher, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (a gift from my father), a framed photograph of my grandfather Mooshum, and a beaded leather tobacco pouch that he had owned ever since I could remember, and which he had casually handed to me as I left, the way old men give presents.

100 words
2 sentences
50 wps avg

Paragraph's primary contributions to story: Exposition:
Narrative Voice: 1st Person, assumed female (the afghan bed spread)
Narrative Time: Present, after-the-fact
Narrated Time: Past, 30+ years after
.Descriptive convention: the evocative List
Characters introduced: Narrator, unnamed.
Language: conventional. POV, outsider (?)
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject: The List sentence.
Dialog None
Anticpated subject and theme: Coming-of-age story, Native-American assimilation. Likely, first sexual experience. Narrator learns the meaning of Amor Fati.

Ha Jin
"The House Behind a Weeping Cherry"
The New Yorker, April 7, 2008
Contributors notes: "...has published three short-story collections and five novels, including "A Free Life," which came out in October. Suspicion this is novel exert: low

When my roommate moved out, I was worried that Mrs. Chen might increase the rent. I had been paying three hundred dollars a month for half a room. If my landlady demanded more, I would have to look for another place. I liked this Colonial house, before which stood an immense weeping cherry tree that attracted birds and gave a bucolic impression, though it was already early summer and the blossoming season had passed. In spite of its peaceful aura, the house was close to downtown Flushing, and you could hear the burr of traffic on Main Street. It was also near where I worked, convenient for everything. Mrs. Chen took up the first floor; my room was upstairs, where three young women also lived. My former roommate, an apprentice to a carpenter, had left because the three female tenants were prostitutes and often received clients in the house. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable about that, either, but I had grown used to the women, and especially liked Huong, a twiggy Vietnamese in her early twenties, whose parents had migrated to Cholon from China three decades ago, when Saigon fell and the real-estate market there became affordable. Also, I was new to New York, and at times it was miserable to be alone.

215 words
19 wps avg.

Paragraph's primary contributions: Exposition
Narrative Voice: 1st Person
Narrative Time:. Recollected past
.Description: Setting, characters
Characters introduced or mentioned: 2 named, 4 unnamed, including Narrator
Language: Conventional Realism. Minimalist
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject:
None: depends on cumulative effect.
Dialog None
Anticipated story: will center on changing configurations of relationships, narrator to other characters; the evocation of place absorbing incidents and persons as primary symbol of an season in a life. Anticipate story of Vietnamese prostitute, Huong, will not end happily.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Power of Narrative, Obama

Update: July 15 2011
Obama has betrayed every expectation, proven himself to be a blind servant of the oligarchy

I've been canvassing on weekends for Obama, and got to go see him at a rally for volunteers last night...he has this story he uses to close meetings with volunteers.

The man a natural story teller. Maybe the best we've seen from a politician since Lincoln.

When he starts to tell a story there's a subtle change in his posture. He gathers himself in, his shoulders, thrust back when in full speech mode, relax. He walks back and forth across the stage as he speaks. He no longer looks out at the audience, no effort to catch someone's eye. As though talking to himself--or through himself--he lets himself become a medium communicating from a deeper and more private part of himself. There are pauses as he speaks. No longer any sense of being rushed.

This will take as long it takes.

Fifteen-hundred committed Obamaite volunteers make for a raucous audience. Everyone knows the stump speech. This isn't going to be an occasion for a new policy statement--or speech like the one at the Constitution Center. People crowd into the isles taking pictures... everyone seems to have one of those video camera phone. Through the routine part of the speech, the list of issues, why you're here, what we have to do... difficult to hear what he says. A lot of noise from the crowd... but once he gets into the story, the room quiets down... everyone listening now, and the silence of the pauses take on a kind of power.

The pauses, the silences, draw us together, draw us in.

This story... told I'm sure many times, starts out with a night early in the campaign. He was in North Carolina and had been on the road for days. He was missing his children and wife, bone tired. Got to his hotel room after midnight and was about to unlock the door when an aid tapped him on the shoulder.

--Have to be in the car by 6:00 AM


--You promised to meet city council officials at .... and it will take some time to get there.

.... next morning he wakes up more sleepy than when he went to bed. Opens the window to get some morning sun in his face... but of course it's still dark. And not only that--its raining. Pouring rain. Between the door of the hotel and the car his umbrella collapses. Water pours over his head and down his back. By this time, he says, he's wet, he's tired, he's mad.... altogether sporting a bad attitude.

At this meeting, there's maybe 20 people show up, but he's got to go through with it. Listen to the introduction... begin to speak... when people in the audience start pointing to something going on behind him... as though they want him to stop. He doesn't know what's happening, and when he looks around there's a woman, maybe in her 60's... about this tall (holds out his hand to indicate something under 5 feet)... and all of a sudden she barks out real loud.


No idea what she said. Found out later this was woman on the city council....has a reputation of beginning every meeting this way.

He starts to speak again.... FARDUP!

And then again... until she's doing this chant behind him, and he realized that what she's saying is...


Nothing left but to join in, so there he is, everyone in the room, back and forth. She says FIRED UP, and everyone answers, FIRED UP... and pretty soon ... he's feeling...much to his surprise...

Fired up!

Not tired anymore. Not asking himself, why am I here?

This is why he's there...

And that's what he's does now with his volunteers, in all their meetings... because you know, he says, the race isn't about Barack Obama. It's about you. You taking back your country. And that chant has powered the campaign every since... what brought you here. Because all of you know in your hearts... each one of you...

... that one voice, speaking out... has the power to change the world.

Even as I was caught up in the excitement of the gathering... impossible not be, I was observing... taking notes in my journal to preserve a particle of distance. I can remember demonstrations from years ago where it was either/or. I could let myself be swept away in the collective emotion, but only at a price. To continue to observe, to think, to preserve independent judgement, was to be cut off--to experience a deep sense of alienation--an acute loneliness in the midst of the crowd.

I didn't feel that last night. There was no contradiction. Though I could certainly feel around me the hunger for that loss of individual consciousness. Obama wasn't responding to it, wasn't answering to it. He retains a certain distance--an aloofness (something the press doesn't like). His most private moments are in those stories he tells, and it's the nature of a story that it returns you to your own center, that it does not violate the borders, but rather, requires you to remain true to your own center. I've never encountered anything quite like it... not since Martin Luther King. My cheeks were wet with tears... of amazement, not adulation.

I left wondering how he plans to encourage and develop this new constituency.. particularly the youngest... programs comparable to VISTA and the Peace Corp of the Kennedy-Johnson years. Realistically--that will be the most significant achievement of an Obama presidency--in effect, laying the foundation for policy changes in the next administration. I suspect that Obama has given this a lot of thought, and anticipate, after his nomination, to hear him speak to this concern. He so clearly understands the meta-issues involved in this campaign, that I can't imagine otherwise.

...and indeed, he's not waiting to take office to begin just such a program.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Short Fiction... where is the future?

This is in part a response to comments left to my post on The Aesthetics of Process.

Maybe there's something here about short stories. Novels have their several conventions...but there are writers pushing those conventions into new territories. Even when I read a novel, more or less within some conventional mode, I have in mind novels that have done more... or other, and this affects how I read and judge them. I can be comfortable with accepting that a novel is very good for what it seeks to be... but with short stories... it's a different story.

It's as though everything I read.. maybe since Dennis Johnson's Jesus's Son, belongs to some niche, an artifact of the past. It may be excellent for what it is... but always awakes in me a hope for something else.

I don't want this form to die. To die out. But if writers keep writing variations on a theme... how much of Chagal redoing Chagal can one take?

That leaves me more critical, more likely to be disappointed...even by stories I know to be very good, powerful, well la la

It reminds me of revivalist music... whether of the folk and traditional variety, or performance groups playing on period instruments... Baroque, Renaissance, Medieval. Reproducing the forms... beautifully... but it's dead... until some performance group violates the purity and marries the form to something new, making you hear again both old and new... anew.

I don't want to review a Baroque revival performance.

I want music.

I want short fiction that ravishes me as only the willfully contemporary can.

I love Bach... more than anything humanly created, I love Bach.

But at the Philly Bar and Grill... a local venue for indy bands and musicians... I can be transported by music, that while it will never last past this generation... revives my belief in the possibilities of music... and makes it possible to go back and listen to Bach, not as an historical artifact, but as part of a continuum.

That's what I want in a short story. A story that in no way resembles--or necessarily matches Checkoff, or Joyce... but reawakens me to what is yet possible, and renews my reading of Joyce and checkoff... not as historical artifacts, but still, and always... as forever my contemporaries

Interview: Rachel Blau DuPlessis

CAConrad has a long, wide ranging interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis at Philly Sound. DuPlessis touches on Mina Loy, Alexandra Grilikhes, Muriel Rukeyser, Joanne Feit Diehl, Carla Harryman, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Rosmarie Waldrop, Adrianne Rich, Kathleen Fraser, Ingelborg Bachman, and Dorthey Wordsworth... among others.