Wednesday, November 02, 2016
Vance Bourjaily's "The Amish Farmer" skirts close to formal self-consciousness as stunt, recounting a college class in creative writing in which the first-person narrator—"Vance" he is identified at one point—presents a lesson on point of view in fiction. He does so by telling the class a story of a graduate student he knew, who took an appointment in the Midwest and had a hard time getting his beautiful wife to follow. When she finally does, reluctantly, her husband rents an isolated house for them in Amish country. Bourjaily has a lot of fundamentals about storytelling down, which are on display here. He shuttles easily between the classroom and the scenes with the graduate student and his wife in their isolated winter. He dwells almost lasciviously on his description of the wife, which is effective enough but reads as through written with a boner. That serves to undermine the spell of his language and narrative momentum, reminding us we are in a college classroom discussing the creation of fiction. This hackneyed setting is the greatest weakness of this story, though necessary to the points he wants to make about fiction, reality, and perception. Particularly when he addresses the specific point of view problems, after he's told the story, it gets pretty interesting. This is no trite Rashomon exercise. The actual events, though vague, are not much in dispute. Rather, Vance suggests to his class, it's the many varieties of story, such as farce, melodrama, or tragedy, each with their built-in expectations and understanding, that shades the way we understand his story. In turn, that depends on whose view it is. The story also has another, seemingly disconnected interest in specifically one of the students in the class. I didn't get that. Bourjaily, even judging by this story (which is all I know by him, though I have been toting around a paperback of The Violated for decades), was a pretty good writer, at home with and adept at slinging seductive language that makes him enjoyable to read. Still, there is a certain masculinist set of preoccupations (talking about point of view) that is often distracting, dated, and/or painful. That must be overcome for this thought experiment on fictional technique to work. After that, there's the problem of the clichéd setting. The story can be forgiven for failing to overcome these liabilities. It's worth looking at, thinking about, maybe even teaching. But there would have to be caveats.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks