Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"The Lover of Horses" (1986)

Read story by Tess Gallagher online.

Tess Gallagher's story is less a narrative than a brooding meditation on death—well, on life too. The life and death belong primarily to the lover of horses of the title, the first-person narrator's great-grandfather, by reputation a horse "whisperer." But it's also about her father, related to her great-grandfather only by marriage. As she sees it, they share a similar experience, swept up by life, chosen by something outside of and greater than themselves. "[H]e was in all likelihood a man who had been stolen by a horse," she writes of her great-grandfather's abandonment of his family at the age of 52 to join a circus. Thus, she reasons, the impulse to make oneself an outsider was not just an influence but a positive factor in all their decisions. In the case of her father the lack of bloodlines might make it something of a stretch, but OK. Her father loved to play cards, or more accurately gamble. Near the end of his life, in his 70s, he finds a game and has an extraordinary run of luck. It is a high point of his life, and highly meaningful—or anyway that's how his daughter, the first-person narrator, sees it. On some level it's rationalizing, but the story seems to believe it and even manages to dignify it, like a good Joni Mitchell song. Gallagher was more a writer of poetry, and in many ways that's how this story feels. Everything is pointed toward an idea that, at least in some cases, things choose us and not the other way round, as we usually see them. Horses chose her great-grandfather, gambling chose her father, presumably writing, or maybe love for her father or family, has chosen this writer. I'm not sure there's much ambiguity here, except perhaps that grief has affected her, distorted her view, which seems unlikely. And I'm not sure there's much more to the story than that. It seems slight in some ways—the easy argument is that these men are failures. But the narrator wants us to look beyond that. For example, at the joy of her father finally encountering his long-sought streak of good luck. She wants us to see joy where we might be inclined to see obsession, or something similarly unhealthy. Maybe so, maybe so. But hard to say.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"A Romantic Weekend" (1988)

Story by Mary Gaitskill not available online.

This story comes from Mary Gaitskill's first collection, Bad Behavior, and it's more overt about the sexual kink she often writes about, BDSM, a complicated acronym you should look up for further tediously detailed discussion. Told third-person omniscient, "A Romantic Weekend" goes inside the heads of both its characters, an unnamed man who calls himself a sadist, and Beth, his mistress for the time being (he is married), who calls herself a masochist. Among other things, the story has a firm grip on the terrible foibles of these relationships, which come of projection, incoherence, and other poor interpersonal skills. "What do you want to do?" Beth asks the man during their all-night flight on the weekend trip in question. "I can't just come out and tell you," he says. "It would ruin it." And therein lies a primary rub of sexual relationships, not just BDSM. We want our partners to just know. Explaining things spoils it all. At the same time, the reports Gaitskill makes from inside the man's head point to what Beth finally realizes. He is a dangerous moron. He wants to beat her, torture her—he feels like an overprivileged 14-year-old. He doesn't appear to derive any pleasure, for the most part, and what he consciously seeks is closer to a porny fantasy of snuff: "With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his." This is a remarkable formulation of at least one projected mindset of the sadist, or top, or dom, but it's off. (All definitions are off a little in this realm.) The story seems to be straining after something much more dangerous as well, the mindset of a serial killer say, or at least sociopath. But this character's translation of it, perhaps exactly because of the malevolence, is also infantile and silly, closer to the kind of dominating that literally an infant would exert (see also: Donald Trump), which in turn is based on the humoring goodwill of its caretaker. You see how quickly it becomes so complicated. The man in this story is mostly unpleasant, particularly in his actions, and it's not long before he has completely alienated Beth. In fairness, Beth has some strange ideas herself about masochism (as do we all, ultimately, and the other way too). Neither one of these characters is very good at this. The story is not so much about BDSM but more about the treacheries of forging sexual relationships, the many places where compromise fatally undermines them. The problem of stating needs becomes an endless tiresome matter of negotiation, which ruins it. All the ways that sex comes up short, and love with it. It's not bad, but I think Gaitskill has done better elsewhere.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Rock Springs" (1982)

Read story by Richard Ford online.

Richard Ford's excellent and well-known short story is right out of the Raymond Carver school of damaged lives from the white underclass. It's told first-person by Earl Middleton of Kalispell, Montana, who has decided to move his family, such as it is—his daughter Cheryl, their dog Little Duke, and Edna, who is separated from a violent husband and has been with Earl for eight months. Earl happens to be looking at serious jail time for passing bad checks and needs to get out of the state. Though an edge of desperation is always in his voice, he tries to front an optimistic attitude. He steals a cranberry-colored Mercedes Benz from an ophthalmologist and plans (dreams) of a luxury ride all the way to Florida. But about 30 miles outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming, an engine warning light starts to show on the dashboard. The car is disabled even before they reach the town, and Earl has to come up with a Plan B. For the most part the story goes rollicking along as a kind of unusual road trip adventure. Edna and Cheryl are often bored, restless, and peevish. Yet there's a sense of inevitable ongoing collapse, even as Earl soldiers on. The fights between Earl and Cheryl are about old things. Those between Earl and Edna are about old things getting fitted to new partners. When Edna complains about how much danger they are in, Earl offers to buy her a bus ticket back to Kalispell. Later, when Edna tries to take him up on the offer, it's as if the floor (the flimsy floor) of Earl's life has vanished under his feet. He tries to keep it all elaborately upbeat, but he is seething with resentment, stung to his core. The ending is a wonderful model of ambiguity. Earl can't sleep, and leaves the motel room to prowl the parking lot, obviously thinking of stealing a car. But then what? Will he abandon his daughter, who is no older than 10? It seems likely. We realize at that moment that we really don't know Earl well. We know he is a criminal, without compunction, and we have seen how hard he works to keep himself on an even keel for the sake of others. We sense the furies underneath that—we sense that he is dangerous. But we have no idea where the lines and triggers are, what could happen. Along the way, the symbology is rich and strange: a terrible story of a monkey, a gold mine company town setting, and the desperate sweaty voice of Earl, with a great big have a good day smile on his puss. Chilling and pathetic at once, perhaps even reminiscent a little of Jim Thompson.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I was impressed with Hailee Steinfeld when she was not even 14 in the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. She reared back and let the 19th-century dialogue fly like she'd been raised on a wagon train and a homestead, with iron in her spine. Haven't seen much of her since—she had a part in John Carney's Begin Again. Now it's more than five years later and she's still not even 21. And The Edge of Seventeen is depending on her for everything—it's basically a one-woman show, though with ample support. She plays Nadine, an introvert outcast in high school with a popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). In all the world she has only one friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since 2nd grade, who wouldn't you know it ends up falling in bed and then falling in love with Darian. Insert sibling rivalry template. Also their father died in a terrible accident several years earlier during a Billy Joel song. Adolescence remains approximately the most narcissistic period in any person's life, and that's the steady refrain here, with a side of real calamities. Nadine's fits of pique grow old, I have to say, and so does her sad sack family (Kyra Sedgwick is their mother with barely a grip). Steinfeld spends a lot of time pouting and fuming. As usual with teen fare, the movie picks up when the soundtrack plays and/or during party scenes. But in the last third it turned out director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig actually has a pretty good grip on the storytelling, and slowly but surely the movie brought me around. Scenes of awkwardness were convincing, long and deeply awkward. Banter is deployed as a desperate attempt at being normal. It reminded me a little of Ghost World, which has a similarly disaffected teen lead who is also alienating herself from the people she needs most, and ultimately comes to learn her lesson. Nadine also learns the lessons she needs to learn in The Edge of Seventeen: accept people for who they are, give them a break, reach out for happiness once in a while, you know, the regular drill. And stop thinking about Donald Trump so much. She has a few potential love interests, appropriate and otherwise, including a grizzled Woody Harrelson as Mr. Bruner, a hip older teacher with a natural rapport, Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), a hot guy with a cool car (or is that the other way around?) who works at the pet store, and Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), who steals a couple of scenes as a cartoonist classmate even more introverted than Nadine. Szeto is one of the best parts. The story follows familiar beats of teen comedy and coming-of-age drama, and it ended up winning me over. Nice one.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Winter Dreams" (1922)

Read story by F. Scott Fitzgerald online.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published this story in 1922 and it's standard fare in many ways, more in the vein of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, though it is also considered a foundational story for The Great Gatsby. A young man from Minnesota—"Black Bear Lake," as opposed to the White Bear Lake which actually exists there—goes East for an Ivy League education, returns home, sets up in business, and eventually moves to New York City. Dexter Green is his name. Getting rich is his game. The woman he falls for, Judy Jones, is a kind of early pastiche of Daisy Buchanan and especially Jordan Baker, both in The Great Gatsby—beautiful, and careless. Dexter falls in love with her almost at first sight, when she is 11 and he is just a few years older. Not much happens beyond random lifelong encounters between them, though it is marked by Fitzgerald's gift for wonderfully extravagant language. Describing a summer evening scene by a lake, for example, he writes, "Then the moon held a finger to her lips and the lake became a clear pool, pale and quiet." Lines like that are one of the main reasons it's so difficult to make a movie of his work. He casts spells that only words can. Meanwhile, Dexter is busy getting rich and Judy is busy breaking hearts. That's what we do in a Fitzgerald story. It's also apparent from this story and the way it moves, again, why Fitzgerald had such a hard time accepting the realities of America and the world in the Great Depression '30s. He preferred the middle-class greed fantasies of the '20s, the "roaring" '20s, which he had a hand in inventing and mythologizing. So the people in this story golf and belong to country clubs, spend summers at lakes sailing, and in general extol the virtues of wealth (I use the word "virtues" ironically). Fitzgerald's characters are more or less innocents, these men falling in love with jaunty chicks. But it's a very white world and I'm not talking about the snow. It's a world scrubbed free of common troubles of the masses, a world of rank privilege. The justification, which he doesn't really even bother with, is "the human condition," people forever unsatisfied and into mischief. I'm prone to forgive Fitzgerald some because he could be such a peculiarly good writer. Even the names he comes up with are just wonderful: Dexter Green, who loves money, and first earned it as a golf caddy at the country club. Judy Jones (much later, Judy Simms). T.A. Hendrick. Mr. Hart and Mr. Sandoval (golfers). Krimslich (Dexter's mother's maiden name). Irene Scheerer (Dexter's fiancée). As for the title, it seems beside the point, in many ways. But I suppose it's an allusion to the ideal Fitzgerald had of the experience of growing up in the Midwest, dreaming to get money, a specific experience shared by Dexter Green and Jay Gatsby. For fans only.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Barn Burning" (1939)

Read story by William Faulkner online.

This story sees William Faulkner in good form on the Snopes family. It's told third-person from the point of view of a young Snopes boy, who is ludicrously named Colonel Sartoris, though everyone calls him "Sarty." Sarty is only 10 or 11 years old, but he is regularly amazed and aghast at the behavior of his father, Abner. Abner Snopes is proud, filled with rage, and self-destructive. He perversely refuses to cooperate with anyone on anything, even friends or neighbors, even on things like building fences to enclose his animals. When these friends and neighbors object, and then impose penalties to counter his irresponsibility and offset the cost of their troubles, Abner gets mad and takes revenge, burning down their barns and such. Then the family has to move again. Abner Snopes is a classic Faulkner character—poor, white, ignorant, unyielding, and boiling with rage. Already Sarty can remember moving nearly a dozen times. Abner is described more than once as looking as if he were cut from tin, a familiar Faulkner formulation: " ... he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth—a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat." The story starts with a legal case against Snopes that can't be proved, but he and his family are run out of the area—once more Sarty has to move. At the new place, Abner immediately makes more trouble with his new landlord. The story is half shocking treachery and half pure comedy, as Abner alienates all people he suspects thinks they are better than him. In this case the victim is Major de Spain, also seen previously in Faulkner's work. The Snopes stories, in fact, are some of Faulkner's funniest, though the grim razor edges of violence and seething anger are never far. I'll also point out this story is a reasonably straightforward narrative. You always know what's going on and it has a lot of momentum. The ending, an epic confrontation between Abner and de Spain, is not entirely clear, but it's likely that's clarified elsewhere in the Faulkner canon. And if it's not, it's possible to make the note of ambiguity work too, so all good, right? The important part of the story to me is the unearthly unrelenting powerful physical presence of Abner. His anger can be felt palpably, yet even at his most threatening he is also an unmistakable comic element, a kind of downhome version of Tony Soprano, bumptiously cracking hilarious and maiming and murdering people. Remarkable balancing act and a good story.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Friday, November 25, 2016

"A Poetics for Bullies" (1964)

Story by Stanley Elkin not available online.

Stanley Elkin might appear to be 50 years or more ahead of our current preoccupations with bullying. But I'm not so sure. The first-person narrator is named Push, and he is a self-declared bully. He contrasts himself with bullies who beat up their victims, claiming they are more "athletes" than bullies. His style is mocking and tormenting through trickery, and he throws out a handful of his favorites at one point, most of which I happen to remember well from growing up, usually on the receiving end: making a match burn twice, the Gestapo joke, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Hard. That's all good, and Push often reminded me uncomfortably of people I have known—even been. Then into this fiefdom one day comes a tall and patrician boy named John Williams, who is unafraid of Push. In turn, that makes Push a little afraid of him, or something. This is our central conflict, and I thought it was weak after how vividly Push had introduced himself. Williams is a world traveler, and probably rich. He has many fascinating stories to tell. All the kids love him, and his behavior helps to make them less afraid of Push. In turn, Push becomes even more intimidated by Williams. I didn't like this turn in the story—it turns it into a type of practical moral illustration. Push is a coward even though he denies it specifically early on, attacking the idea that all bullies are cowards. Yet in the end he is plainly a coward. I do agree with the cliché all bullies are cowards, but that's beside the point. I don't need to have it diagrammed for me. Besides, Push is more of a winning character than repulsive. He's charming, funny, well spoken. He's a bully but somehow that's forgivable. Maybe he doesn't seem so bad, or maybe it's the radiance of his self-awareness. Williams somehow has supernatural powers to intimidate Push, but we have to accept it as a given. We don't feel his powers much, though he does tell interesting stories and is somehow ingratiating. But that's not enough. From perfect self-awareness to almost no self-awareness is an unexplained sea change for Push in this short story. I don't believe it, and I don't think I understand the point. I like Push but I don't mind seeing a bully lose, so I think my stubborn loyalty to him suggests Elkin might be hedging his bets on making Push so bad. He's more like rapscallion, and that keeps him sympathetic enough, and that's what I don't get. Please don't tell me this is about bullies being redeemable. Next you'll be talking about racism against whites.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

WALL-E (2008)

USA, 98 minutes
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon
Production design: Ralph Eggleston
Art direction: Bert Berry
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Kim Kopf, Garrett Palmer

As I got ready to look at WALL-E again for the first time practically since it was new, I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling: nostalgia for the era of Barack Obama. Strictly speaking, of course, the Obama era is not over quite yet. And, for that matter, released on June 27, 2008, the movie isn't even technically of the Obama era anyway. But the spirit is there, the sense we can come together, acknowledge and address our common problems, and solve them, however illusory or delusional that may now appear to be. The sense that the problems we have brought on ourselves are ridiculous and should be resolved immediately because they can be.

The reason for my reaction is obvious. In fact, the Obama era is ending, and we appear to be embarking on a period that's going to make Bush/Cheney look like a Sunday ride to the hounds. WALL-E, an animated cartoon movie rated G ("nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children"), operates from the premise that our unsustainable lifestyle has finally caught up with us as a species. Earth is no longer habitable—plant life is extinct, only adorable cockroaches are left, and the surface is piled high with trash. Human beings have been hurled into space on a five-year luxury cruise (with corporate sponsorship from the ubiquitous BNL, or Buy 'n' Large) while robots are left behind to clean up the mess and monitor for signs of returning life. In other words, it's a neoliberal nightmare.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Chopin in Winter" (1990)

Story by Stuart Dybek not available online.

Stuart Dybek's story is a smooth and accomplished slice of ethnic life from a postwar Polish neighborhood in Chicago. It's told first-person, as a memory of the narrator when he was a young boy, perhaps 10. It's winter. The daughter of the landlady of the building the boy lives in, Marcy, is the first of her family to go to college—the first even to finish high school. But now she is pregnant and making the decision to be done with school. She won't tell anyone who the father is or speak about her plans for it. She had been studying music in college and she still practices on the piano now, living at home again. Meanwhile, in the boy's household, his grandfather Dzia-Dzia soaks his feet in the kitchen and listens to her play through the walls. He is an itinerant figure in the boy's family, disappearing and reappearing for months and years at a time. Dzia-Dzia recognizes that sometimes Marcy plays "boogie-woogie" music, and he speculates aloud that the father of her child is black. In fact, they are the first words he speaks weeks after his most recent return. He is prone to long periods of silence. Later, he recognizes Chopin, and we are privy to his swooning over the music, which overall feels more like Dybek, or someone other than any of these characters. This goes on for some time—Marcy plays music, Dzia-Dzia swoons over it. Eventually, Marcy begins playing less. As spring approaches, she moves away and disappears. Much later, the boy finds out she is living with a black man in a black neighborhood and has a boy named Tatum. I like the details of the building and the people living in it more than the business about music in this story. It's competent music writing, inventive and alive to the difficulty of expressing the effects of hearing music and of describing it. We've already seen James Baldwin take on the problem, in "Sonny's Blues"—and much more successfully overall, I think, weaving it more artfully and tightly into the narrative. I like the plot point, in "Chopin in Winter," that Marcy goes a typical second-generation way of embracing Americanism and rejecting the values of her parents that brought her to the privilege. It's poignant and believable. I got the sense, maybe I went looking for it, that Marcy is talented and self-possessed enough that she will do all right. But it's not certain. I also get the sense there's enough for a novel here—with these characters and all their connections and intricate relations and histories—but paradoxically not enough for a short story, no sharp focus place to land on, just a general bittersweet coming of age. Focusing on the music looks like an attempt to universalize a familiar straightforward story in a new way, but I don't appreciate Chopin enough to connect with the flights here. I have to admit I also don't appreciate bebop, the Charlie Parker style, that much either. But in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" that doesn't matter to me, which is approximately the difference between the two stories.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"The Fat Girl" (1977)

Read story by Andre Dubus online.

Andre Dubus is a man, and even when he wrote this story in 1977 attempts to adopt the point of view of the other gender were considered problematic, especially a man attempting to represent the point of view of a woman. I note this in passing, as I thought this story was good and so have others—it's considered one of Dubus's best and has been widely anthologized, for example in two of the three collections I'm covering. I mention it because it did trouble me as I read. I kept looking for reasons not to believe it, and was never entirely convinced. At the same time that it might be weak on women's experience, it's pretty good on overeating and problems with body image. Louise has been overweight since she was a girl, and she suffers the implicit and explicit criticisms of family and friends. In her senior year of college, her best friend Carrie helps her get on and stay on a weight-loss diet, and she loses something like 70 pounds in a year's time. She keeps it off too—has sex for the first time, marries, gets pregnant. Now all her friends and family are implicit and explicit about their approval of her new body and life. Once pregnant, however, the cravings to overeat again return irresistibly, and Louise gives in to them, putting 50 pounds back on, which remain after the birth of her son. She's not even trying anymore, and all the criticisms return, her husband perhaps the worst of all. In fact, the marriage is doomed because of it. As the story ends, she has fully accepted it: "She knows [her husband] will leave soon. It has been in his eyes all summer.... [S]he feels his departure so happily that, when she enters the living room, unwrapping the candy, she is surprised to see him standing there." This is another short story I think falls within the oversize shadow of Raymond Carver. It's marked by the monumental yet mundane struggles most people are engaged in for meaning in life: looking good to others, winning the approval of others, feeling the love of others, all of it in the context of "ordinary" lives. There is a sense of an inescapable emptiness inside everyone, and an attitude, or hope, that redemption is possible, somehow. But it's elusive. They are almost clichés now they are so common in short stories since about 1970, but when they are done well they can be tremendously moving and poignant. There's a lot of that in "The Fat Girl." Still, the gender problem continued to worry me. In areas such as the relationship between Louise and her mother, or Louise and her girlfriends in high school and college, I remained skeptical. It felt real—it's a good story—but I could never entirely shake the skepticism.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (1892)

Read story by Arthur Conan Doyle online.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories brought a strange combination of the hyper-rational and the superhuman to the foundations of mystery stories as we know them today, advancing and developing them in new and better directions. The influence is still basically huge. Most Holmes stories feature at least one scene where the eccentric master detective reels off a series of insights that astonishes everyone within earshot. He's like a magician, but tut-tuts and gives all credit to science and the logic of deductive reasoning. Holmes is indeed observant, a fine trait for any detective, but his amazingly accurate insights are more often a matter of misdirection on the part of Doyle, who is the real magician. Examine closely any of these displays by Holmes, and one is more apt to find a series of lucky guesses. The clues often support other interpretations as well. But everyone in these scenes is amazed, so we go along with it. There's probably some psychological term for this powerful effect, and what the hell, it makes the stories entertaining. The fact is, there's something wonderfully comforting about Holmes and his sidekick / biographer, Dr. Watson, that makes their stories a pleasure. Holmes is a ridiculous superman but at least he has flaws too, and somehow it works. "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" is a fine example of how it's done. Holmes amazes his clients (and Watson, and us) once or twice, and solves the mystery before any of the rest of us, even as we are all exposed to the relevant evidence at the same time. Amazing! This one is an example of the locked-room mystery subsubgenre, in which a victim is found locked into a room that can only be locked from the inside, with no evidence of any other way out. It's an ingenious dream of a mystery—until, again, we look at it or think about it too closely, at which point it verges on self-parody. I'm reminded of villains in places like James Bond movies, who are never satisfied with simply killing someone, but instead must have elaborate schemes involving fountains, indoor pools, sharks, and floors that recede into walls. Certainly we have a version of that here. But we also have something that's scrupulously fair by the rules it sets for itself, the rules of giant swaths of mystery story writing. We have equal access to the clues, but Holmes is usually the only one who can put them together. I just picked one story for this exercise, but my own experience is that Sherlock Holmes stories are best enjoyed by the handful, meaning you're better off picking up a collection of a dozen or more (why not all of them!) and reading that. It's probably not a bad idea to make sure this story is included.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Willi" (1984)

Story by E.L. Doctorow not available online.

This story by E.L. Doctorow is not particularly interesting or original in its substance—a basic working over of oedipal strains, told from the point of view of the son, Willi. What's more interesting and ultimately unsettling and effective about it to me are its formal qualities. It is less than 10 pages, with two sections and a grand total of five paragraphs. They are big paragraphs. The first one takes up more than four pages. The setting is deliberate and precise: 1910 in Central Europe. As with the 2009 Michael Haneke movie, The White Ribbon, the ghosts of Nazism and the Holocaust brood over this, suggesting ... something. I am actually as confused about this story as I am about that movie, in terms of intentions, but something similar gets under my skin in both places. Willi is 13, and Jewish. On a beautiful summer day he wanders to the barn on his family's estate and spies his mother having sex with his tutor. This is disturbing to him on any number of levels. He is ashamed and furious. At first he tries to keep the secret, until his resentments push him to reveal his knowledge to his father. His father is a great and successful agriculturalist, a farmer advancing scientific methods. But he's only human, and it's 1910. So his response is to beat his wife, which only further confuses and agitates Willi, who throws himself between the two. The story ends: "I was enraged, I pushed her back and jumped at him, pummeling him, shouting that I would kill him. This was in Galicia in the year 1910. All of it was to be destroyed anyway, even without me." The last paragraph is by far the shortest of the five in the story, underlining the sense of an interruption, an abrupt transition. For its brevity, the story's long paragraphs establish a peculiar rhythm, also bluntly interrupted. I struggled with the language in this story, which is ornately overwritten to the point where details such as the mother's barn assignation have to be reconstructed. For example, it's also likely that, just before his discovery of her, Willi had masturbated for the first time. But it's not certain. The language is liquid and effulgent, but the radiance obscures the concrete details, except in random glimpses. So it is annoying to read, or was for me, at least the first time. The conflict is hackneyed enough I wasn't that interested. And yet something about this story does stick and haunt.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Arrival (2016)

As ambitious science fiction goes, Arrival is not bad. Twelve ships from space have appeared on Earth, positioned around the globe in no evident pattern, and no one knows what they want. My neighbor in the row behind me thought they looked like eggs. I thought they looked more like classic flying saucers tipped on the edge, although I didn't mention it to him (as it turned out, he had a lot of opinions on the action). In terms of alien encounter scenarios (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, District 9), Arrival encourages us to hold on thar, pardner. How are you supposed to communicate with the things in the first place? In many science fiction pictures, this language barrier is solved quickly and easily by something called a Universal Translator, which takes care of the problem in right good order. Except, that is, for stories where the UT fails and language problems are the point—remember "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra"? Arrival is that episode. Linguists are the key to our survival and we're not talking about pasta lovers. Colonel Weber of the U.S. military (Forest Whitaker) ropes in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out how to talk to the aliens inside the ship that is hovering 30 feet above Montana. They want an answer to the obvious question: What is your purpose on Earth? But as Dr. Banks literally diagrams at one point, it's actually quite difficult to translate that into another language when you don't understand the basis of the other language. There follow many fascinating scenes where concepts of linguistics are thrown around and aired out, as convenient. Love that stuff. I better not give away any more than that, as the trial-and-error process of understanding a truly alien culture (these are very alien aliens) gets sorted out. Anyone who follows the Language Log blog is bound to like it, and that includes me, although I can't say I loved it. It gets a little too full of tricks for its own good in the end. But it has a lot of intriguing fun playing around with linguistic theories of language, perception, and reality, e.g., does thought determine language, or does language determine thought? Ultimately it goes to a kind of silly place, a land of lost children and sadness, but that's why it's a movie coming out at this time of year. I wish, in fact, that it would have gone even deeper into the linguistics arcana, which is all full of head trips, and left the treacle out of it. But what are you going to do? Damn it, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner want Oscars. Worth a look.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Open Winter" (1939)

Story by H.L. Davis not available online.

H.L. Davis is not a writer I'm familiar with, even by name. He's a native of Oregon and won a Pulitzer in 1935 for a novel (Honey in the Horn). "Open Winter" is a bit long, and somewhat obscure in its ending, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Set in the late winter in eastern Oregon, its two characters, "one past sixty and the other around sixteen," are taking a herd of work horses to a ranch for the spring, by previous arrangement. The old man, Pop Apling, has been caring for the horses all winter. But when they arrive at the ranch, no one is there. Beech Cartwright, the boy, is in favor of leaving the horses there. He argues they've done what they were contracted to do. But it's been a bad winter, dry with severe drought, and leaving them there untended is certain death for the horses. Pop favors taking them 90 miles over rough country to some grasslands he knows. Beech resists, he's sarcastic and jeering like a teenager, but Pop promises he will see something that will make it all worth the extra effort. The trail is dry and hard, and along the way they meet unscrupulous sheepherders, who want to kill the horses—and Pop and Beech if they have to—to protect the limited resources of water and grass. The story is told third-person and stays closest to the perceptions of Beech, though it rarely goes into anyone's head far. That's the obscure part in the ending. There's not anything that can easily be labeled an epiphany, and if there is a change in Beech, and I think there might be, it's subtle and ambiguous. Nonetheless, the story works very well for me just as a naturalistic story of the West. The work is hard, dangerous, and intricate. Pop and Beech simply accept that they have to do it and do it. The boy complains some but he is a boy. At the same time, it's easy to understand his annoyance with Pop, who won't take any shortcuts. There's a great scene involving the confrontation between Pop and Beech and the sheepherders. This story makes me realize that all Westerns (and some neo-Westerns too, such as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) are about or at least involve the physical landscape and traversing it—at least that's a theory worth trying for a while. "Open Winter" certainly has that at its core, and is at its best when that's what's happening. One memorable scene (of many) involves carting horses back and forth across a river at night in a purloined ferry boat. The ferry can only handle five or six horses at a time and it takes them all night and they still can't quite get it done, setting the stage for another complicated confrontation. Wonderful story.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

The Other House (1896)

In which Henry James takes his turn at murder mystery, based on a play idea for which he never found financing. The murder mystery story at this point in history arguably still barely existed, in terms of what it would become in the 20th century, although Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were on the scene by this time, and mystery stories in general already had a long history. But I think by most standards The Other House is an unusual version of the type, certainly different from what we'd learn to expect from a Holmes story or, say, Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. For example, the murder in this novel does not occur until the end of the second third. For various reasons the whole thing is a grotesque exercise. The comedy of manners, a game of who marries who, is still the main point of the action and informs James's guiding instincts. It's a heartless crime, which nonetheless no one seems much bothered by. And no, this is no send up of British aristocracy, though they populate it almost exclusively. The motive for the crime is to make a marriage possible, the result of a strange deathbed scene and a promise made. It plays more like comedy, and the killer gets away. How droll. James is again using a novel to play with current trends. Previously it has been feminism, Marxism, and bohemianism, and now, at a remove from life itself, it is the murder mystery, originally intended for the stage. I admit I enjoyed it as I enjoy reading all James to an extent, and I admit I was equally exasperated, also more or less as usual, by the strange indeterminacies of the language. Lots of pronoun abuse, elegant turns of phrase rhythmically that obscure their meanings (sometimes fatally) and always require us to do most of the work. He's in a more formally British period now, with fewer Americans and Europeans dominating as types, or even around at all. I guess in some ways I'm reading all this so you don't have to. You're welcome. This is low priority but worth a look for anyone casting a wider James net. He's another American author, like William Faulkner, for whom finding a single definitive masterpiece is tricky business and rarely agreed on beyond pluralities. Regardless, this will never be high on the list for James.

"interlocutor" count = 10 / 340 pages (include "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898)

Read story by Stephen Crane online.

Stephen Crane's story more resembles a Western tall tale, broken into four distinct theatrical acts that fit together like puzzle pieces, telling a story of frontier life that is wry, even sardonic. Told third-person omniscient, the first part observes the groom, Jack Potter, with his bride on a train in Texas, headed for Yellow Sky. We learn that "The bride was not pretty, nor was she very young." But they appear happy. We learn, privy to Potter's thoughts, that they have married impulsively. Then we learn he is town marshal of Yellow Sky. As the train arrives in town, they are both quiet and pensive. The second section of the story takes place at a saloon in town, just as the train is pulling in. The people drinking there learn that "Scratchy Wilson's drunk, and has turned loose with both hands." This is a dangerous situation and the saloonkeeper immediately shutters the place and advises everyone to stay there and prepare to go to the floor if necessary. Scratchy (with too good of a first name to use the last) is "a wonder with a gun—a perfect wonder." They wish Potter were in town. In the third section, Scratchy appears, shooting, carrying on, and intimidating the people in town, including those in the saloon. He's looking for Potter himself. He has a grudge to settle. And the fourth section is the confrontation between Potter and Scratchy. I hesitate to give it away, in the name of spoiler protection for a 118-year-old short story, but this is the point where it feels more like a tall tale, or a story from a song or something. For God's sake go read it now I'm going to give it away. Potter is unarmed because he is returning from his wedding with his wife. When Scratchy learns that Potter is not only unarmed, but also newly married, he puts up his gun and leaves the scene. Under the circumstances, Scratchy can't kill him. "His feet made funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand." Over and out, that's it. The turn is so abrupt and surprising it almost seems silly, and then just as quickly charming. We don't know enough about Potter and his bride to say they are in love, but they bear a kind of tentative self-consciousness that makes it plain they have regard for one another. Potter is well liked in the town too. So is Scratchy, for that matter, except when he's drunk. Potter already had to shoot him once on account of that, which is the source of the grudge. The scene from inside the saloon in the third part showed how potentially dangerous he really was. Crane sets our expectation for violence almost perfectly. We're just wondering how bad it's going to be. The relief when it all turns out to be a lark is palpable—and overwhelms, at least for the moment, any disappointment that it's just a lark and stunt after all. It's a good story—lots of good color too.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Friday, November 18, 2016

"The Third Prize" (1928)

Story by A.E. Coppard not available online.

A.E. Coppard's story is a kind of morality tale with an ironic twist—which isn't that ironic, or even much of a twist, at least not to today's cynics. Two young Britons are both "very fond of foot-racing." During an August bank holiday they travel to a town that is holding races as part of a larger festival. They pick up a couple of chicks. In the one-mile race, one of the men, George Robins, wins third prize—a sovereign. When he goes to collect he finds there has been a clerical error, and another man is listed as the winner. George first claims he is that man and collects the sovereign. After a little while he goes back and sets the record straight, upon which he is awarded another sovereign, with apologies. His friend is unhappy about this deception, seeing it as a character failing, but the girls are impressed. Shortly after that they see a blind man playing music for money in the streets. A shady character has stepped forward to help him. George hands off one of the sovereigns to the shady character, intending it for the blind man. The girls are even more impressed now, and if his friend still has misgivings, at least George seems to feel he has set any sin to rights. Meanwhile, the shady character pockets the sovereign and doesn't give it to the blind man. The end. Though not even a century old, the language of this story is dense and antiquated, often dancing around its points, sometimes barely making them even indirectly. Parsing is required, in other words. This one tried my patience, to get to my point. What was intended as color—and may have read that way, and may still to some—feels much more like caricature, with an air of condescension. It's hard to make out much beyond good old irredeemable human depravity, rendered lightly as joke, though I saw some summaries that talked about the ins and outs of redemption and intentionality, so heads up, if you're into redemption and intentionality scenarios. But for me it's a couple of guys go to the carnival, have some harmless adventures, and come home again, no harm no foul. I'm not sure I even understand why this story exists, let alone what it's doing in an anthology of short story masterpieces edited by Robert Penn Warren. Is it really the color?

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Midair" (1984)

Story by Frank Conroy not available online.

Frank Conroy's story is a kind of object illustration of primal Freudian human psychology, sprawling across the long life of Sean Kennedy. It starts in 1942, when Sean is 6. His father has appeared, escaped from a mental institution, though we don't discover that until later in the scene. He is bursting with a crazy energy, taking Sean and Sean's sister Mary to their mother's apartment, which is locked. They break in through the fire escape. At 6, Sean barely even knows his father, hardly remembers him. Mary is older and knows him and loves him. But he is behaving erratically and scares both of them. Then authorities show up to capture him. The father tries to escape by taking Sean and climbing out on the windowsill before finally giving in. In psychological terms, the imprint has been made. The innate fear of heights is focused in Sean with a mix of feelings about his father, insanity, safety, and security. Sean will have no memory of the incident with his father, but from there the story moves across the years and decades, alighting on scenes where the mix of associations is touched: In college, where he meets his wife, to whom he is drawn but doesn't seem to love ("... she is more intelligent than Sean, and ambitious in a way he is not.... She is older than him"). At 30, trying to break into the apartment of his mistress by crawling across the steep-pitched roof of the building. Hearing that a young girl has fallen from an apartment window to her death, he embraces his children tightly in a spontaneous expression of love. These scenes and others represent echoes and fragments of the episode with his father. It's a portrait of a life with grace and meaning, yet not entirely accessible on that level by its owner, Sean. Of course there is a moment of clarity toward the end—it's an epiphany story. It feels lived and authentic, even if somewhat conveniently assembled. Fear of heights, humiliations of the father—the building blocks are solid even if there's temptation to complain it's obvious. It's done well and ultimately that carries it. The narration is third-person omniscient, staying close to Sean yet covering a time span of 50 years or more. In fact, I think I like best the way the scope is handled, skipping across the years but landing firmly in concrete places. Concrete, but not bludgeoning, merely well observed and quick to move on to the next point.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"An Outpost of Progress" (1897)

Read story by Joseph Conrad online.

Joseph Conrad has typically been tough for me to read. He can be ponderous, and in many ways, perhaps, this story shows the problems. The first paragraph alone covers most of the first two pages. But the story is on the long side for a short story, nearly 30 pages, which allows space to set a narrative rhythm that slowly but surely becomes riveting. It's set in colonial Africa, where two white European men, Kayerts and Carlier, have just been delivered to the outpost of progress in the title, an isolated fortification on a river, in a jungle, 300 miles away from the nearest office of the company that has installed them there. Though the story stays close to these two men at the outpost, the omniscient narrator occasionally shifts away to provide helpful information. Kayerts and Carlier are there for the sake of their careers and have little interest in Africa or the natives beyond what they need to minimally meet their duties. They don't do much. They talk to one another a lot. They discover literature. A third company official, described by Conrad in his blunt and dated manner as "a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price," is more the one running things there. Late in the story, after Kayerts and Carlier have been there five months and are expecting to see again soon their company official superior, who originally accompanied them there, things take a dark turn. Armed revolutionaries show up and stalk around the camp. Price—whose real name is Makola—meets with them and keeps Kayerts and Carlier out of the talks. From there, things begin to go wrong in bad ways quickly. It's a story we've known for some time, which is that little good comes of powerful white Europeans put in charge of natives in foreign lands. Conrad's story takes time to get up to full speed, but its power becomes immense. It goes in many directions at once, like a bomb exploding, and with shrapnel too. It's remarkable. Conrad's universe is a uniquely bleak place, and this story (which he considered his best) is a clinic in how he does it, starting with those long, long paragraphs that transport you inexorably to the interior.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"The Fisherman From Chihuahua" (1954)

Story by Evan S. Connell not available online.

This moody and atmospheric story by Evan S. Connell, set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California, during the off-season, struck me as comical, though looking into what others say it doesn't seem to be generally taken that way. The diner that provides the specific setting is owned by Pendleton. One of his regular is "a short fat Mexican who worked as a mechanic." Pendleton thinks of him as "Toltec" because of his resemblance to Toltec idols. He calls him "Pablo," which offends the Mexican. The Mexican is a regular, showing up most nights for dinner, pinball, and music from a jukebox. One night he shows up with a companion, who is taller, better dressed, more handsome, and silent. Silent, that is, until the Mexican plays music, at which point he begins to raise a mighty sound. It's actually hard to make out what is going on at first: "His lips had peeled away from his teeth like those of a jaguar tearing meat, and the veins of his neck looked ready to pop. In the shrill screams bursting from his throat was a memory of the Moors, the ching of Arab cymbals, of rags and of running feet through all the marketplaces of the East." It's singing. At first Pendleton tries to get him to stop—but the strange tall man doesn't respond to being addressed, only carries on that way whenever the Mexican plays music. After about a week of it, Pendleton notices that he's getting more customers for dinner. The strange tall man has started to become an attraction, even though it's the off-season. Here's where I started to take it as comedy. The eruption of noise appears to be unpleasant but it's the spectacle itself, the mere fact that it happens—the grotesquerie—that seems to be drawing people. Tracking down other interpretations, they speak of it more as a clash of cultures, where the California tourists are ignorant rubes and the strange tall man represents the dignity of an alien culture. But I don't get that. From the descriptions, the narrator seems as convinced of its alienating nonmusical qualities as Pendleton or any of the tourists, who seem to be there to gawk. He provides colorful detail ("the ching of Arab cymbals") but the experience does not sound very appealing. Then, just as Pendleton figures out he has something of a cash cow for his diner, the strange tall man disappears. The Mexican says he's out on a drunk. A few nights later, that he's recovering from the drunk. When the strange tall man finally comes back, he's apparently ill, fading away, and by story's end he's gone, leaving only the memory of the image of him wailing and shrieking, surrounded by fascinated Californians and visitors.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Witch's Money" (1939)

Story by John Collier not available online.

John Collier was a British story writer admired by Ray Bradbury, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Paul Theroux, and many others. He won an International Fantasy Award for his 1951 collection, Fancies and Goodnights. Not surprisingly, there's an air of the horror story here—which has nothing to do with the supernatural, only human stupidity verging on depravity. In the small and remote Spanish village where the story takes place, an arrogant American bohemian appears one day. The story is told third-person from the point of view of a lifelong village resident, Foiral, who instantly decides the American is a lunatic, but a different kind of lunatic, one he hasn't seen before. The American exclaims over the aesthetic points of the village, which are too familiar to Foiral to mean much. Then the American wants to rent Foiral's second home, which is vacant and untended. Foiral loses patience with the madman quickly, turning him down. Then the American offers to buy it, offers to pay too much, and produces cash to hold as security. This changes everything. When the American returns a week or two later, he pays Foiral the balance with a check. Foiral is naïve of such things, but humors the American. Later, he asks for the money in cash. The American is brusque and dismissive, telling Foiral to go to a bank and cash the check himself. This requires a daylong journey and Foiral, who is confused by the bank procedures, ends up opening a checking account. A week later he takes another day to travel to the bank, where he closes the account. The bank withholds a nominal fee, as banks will do. This enrages Foiral, who asks the American for the amount of the fee. Again the American rudely brushes off Foiral. Foiral and his friends conspire to steal the American's checkbook and they do what must be done to get it. Once they are in possession of it, they believe themselves wealthy and begin to spend and borrow money liberally. The story ends as the group takes yet another day to travel to the bank to convert the checkbook into cash. The last scene is the doomed and foolish group entering the bank. This story reminds me of Paul Bowles stories, probably because of the exotic foreign setting combined with the cruelties. It also has elements of a social morality tale, showing how irrational beliefs about money can corrode the soul. It's cold and clinical, observing alarming behavior without comment, simply reporting, though it gets well inside the head of Foiral. At the same time, it makes us guess about the exact nature of the ignorance, it is so deeply inside his head. The action can be swift, with all things changing at once, even when the characters they are happening to remain unknowing of their fates, which we see all too clearly.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

Doctor Strange (2016)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. To comic book superhero movies, I mean. What are you going to do? As claptrap goes, the movie version of the Doctor Strange comic book is serviceable entertainment, and true enough to the original claptrap of the comic book. If the special effects and murky theology of Inception wowed you, your mind may be blown all over again for the couple of hours this goes (3D! Imax! which I didn't do, but you could). At least you'll probably like going to get coffee with someone later to sort it all out. Yes, I know the totality of these "Marvel universe" movies is lumbering toward a staggering climax, but honestly, it started feeling like homework almost right away for me. I see, for example, that Doctor Strange has previously appeared in two Thor movies and one Captain America movie, so I'm already at least three movies behind. Meanwhile, I still can't get past the frigging costumes in any superhero movie yet, except parodies like Super. Call it denial on my part if you must, but I'm just amazed at what a movie industry powerhouse Marvel Studios has become. I liked the Doctor Strange comic book, mostly for the trippy art by the originator of the character and basic story, illustrator Steve Ditko. This movie, by way of pro forma and all, is the origin story of the mystical superhero with mysterious ties to the mysterious beyond, and as these things go it's not bad. Lots of great location shots from around the world give it a nice exotic gritty flavor. Even better, the story is engaging, and more lucid than I remember the comic book ever was, even as many of the more trippy sequences obviously look to Ditko for their inspiration. That's fun and even a little nostalgic if you're a fan of Ditko like I am. The story is neatly executed too, with a competent screenplay, good sense for narrative momentum, character development, backstory, music, surprises, and all considerations swept forward and unfolding with a pleasantly nimble drive. It's just full of stars and professional movie actors too: Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Rachel McAdams as Doctor Christine Palmer, and Benadryl Comfortblanket as Doctor Stephen Strange. Oh, look, there's Benjamin Bratt too. Cool. And Stan Lee, cackling at Aldous Huxley. Nice touch, man. God or perhaps Doctor Strange himself only knows where it goes from here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"The Lady With the Dog" (1899)

Read story by Anton Chekhov online.

Anton Chekhov's late story fits neatly enough into the 19th-century European realist version of adultery, with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. It's shorter, obviously, so somewhat abstracted, but no less potent. It focuses more on the mutual attraction between lovers, not just the woman's, though she gets pride of place in the title. (Translation note: The title has been variously rendered as "The Lady With a Dog," "The Lady With the Little Dog," "The Lady With the Small Dog," "The Lady With the Pet Dog," and "[The] Lady With [the] Lapdog." The literal translation from Russian is "Lady With Dog." I'm working with the Constance Garnett translations.) She's an eligible woman in a bad marriage. He's a banker also in a bad marriage. They meet on vacation, and have a brief affair. The story is told third-person, mostly from the point of view of the banker, who expects it will be a fling that soon fades from memory. But it does not. He can't stop thinking of her. Eventually he tracks her down and finds she feels the same. They begin a long-term, long-distance affair. The story's tone is not particularly judgmental, though it notes the inconvenience and meager rewards of their behavior. It's neither a glorious romance nor a doomed one. It simply exists more or less as a condition of life—a welcome one, in many ways, and an annoying one too, in many others. It's hard to envy them, but also hard not to sympathize. It feels very much like modern life as we understand it—or, more accurately, as we don't understand it. I like the way it moves along a spectrum of illicit relationship, from objectified sexual conquest as a kind of hobby, to the indignities of love. The story feels modern partly because it's so obvious that divorce would do nothing to change anything. Indeed, a modern version could well include both divorcing and then marrying each other and still come to a similar bittersweet conclusion. I'd like to take this place to raise my objections to the admonitions of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, in their Elements of Style book, against using the term "the human condition." They—or Strunk, with White evidently concurring a few decades on—view it as a self-evident cliché or banality. But some things seem to fall squarely in the camp of exactly "the human condition"—that impossible paradox of desire and "reality" (I insist on the scare quotes). Among those things are a good many of the people and situations found in Chekhov's stories, not least this tale set in Crimea of inexplicable human passion. By the way, if it's any help, the dog is a white toy Pomeranian.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"The Bet" (1889)

Read story by Anton Chekhov online.

Anton Chekhov's very short and much anthologized story has more gimmicks than I normally expect from him, though I think it works and also has many characteristic notes. It's more of a fable in structure, a thought experiment, and arguably gets twisty toward the end. The bet of the title is between a banker and a lawyer. The banker bets "two millions" (from the Constance Garnett translations) that the lawyer could not tolerate five years of solitary confinement, that no man could. The lawyer cries, "Make it 15 years and you've got a bet, mister," or words to that effect, and they're on. This all comes of a discussion about the death penalty. Neither man is entirely happy with himself about making the commitment, but there's no going back. The banker sets him up in a room and the rules are settled: "It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke." There was a system for exchanging food, books, and letters. If you're anything like me, it doesn't actually sound so bad. Chekhov's imagination feels lively and engaged, as he imagines various changes in approach to living over the years. At the end of the story, a number of ironic events transpire, and various surprises. They seem to be about the characters of the kinds of men who would make a bet like this. My favorite parts, actually, after the entertainment of the premise itself, are their private doubts and misgivings, which we're privy to via the omniscient narrator. The banker paces and agonizes later: "What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two millions? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless." I love it when Russian writers sound like that (which is possibly Garnett). The lawyer's own sense of the meaninglessness of the bet informs his actions in the resolution, more or less. But more than anything I liked reading about the terms of the confinement, though it was indeed very harsh and strict about human relations. Among other things, there's a good case here that both of them won the bet, and lost the bet, and did so independently of one another. A pretty neat little literary stunt—as I said, a thought experiment more than anything else, but a nicely done and intriguing one.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, November 11, 2016

"The Swimmer" (1964)

Read story by John Cheever online.

This John Cheever story, according to Wikipedia, "is probably Cheever's most famous and frequently anthologized." That surprised me a little. I knew the 1968 movie version with Burt Lancaster, which I saw on TV in the '70s and thought was strange, but I somehow never tracked back to the story until recently. It was a complete surprise to me—it's like a full-blown phantasmagoria out of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. It opens on what feels like a typical Cheever scene, a warm Sunday in midsummer someplace in the suburbs, where Neddy Merrill ("Neddy Merrill") is attending a friend's pool party. He realizes that the wealth of that neighborhood had become such that enough people he knows have swimming pools now that he could figuratively swim all the way home from the party, and he sets out to do that. He enters backyards, flops into the pools, swims their lengths, and moves on. Some pools are crowded with people at more pool parties, people who know him and hail him and offer him drinks. Some are abandoned—one is even empty. Merrill tries to remember the rumors he'd heard about that family, who are gone now apparently. Midway, Merrill notices a maple tree shedding red and yellow leaves. He assumes it must be blighted as fall is still weeks and months away. Next, he reaches a stretch of busy roads and no swimming pools. The people in cars jeer at him, wearing only his swim trunks. From then on, the scenes are increasingly forbidding, harsh, cold. Some of his friends say they're sorry for his troubles, but Merrill doesn't care to know what they are talking about. Increasing signs of the passage of time occur. It's fall now—or more blight. Merrill has no idea what people are talking about when they offer their sympathies, or when they are unexpectedly hostile. He keeps plunging in and swimming the pools, but we are more acutely aware than ever of his vulnerability, wearing only swim trunks, and the pointlessness of his mission in the face of all the strange evidence. The whole thing plays like a dream, with its pivots and dislocations. It starts outs as suburban parties echoing through the mind of the sleeping dreamer, before the turn to anxieties and other monsters from the unconscious. What starts out as a lark starts to look more like lunatic behavior, derangement, psychic collapse. When he finally arrives at his home no one and nothing is there. It's just an empty house where he lived once. I don't think I'm giving anything away here? It's not exactly a twist ending, playing off expectations. If anything, it's a twist middle. It feels like a dream, reading it, and it sticks with you. I liked the movie, but this story is way better.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Gertrud (1964)

Denmark, 116 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Hjalmar Soderberg, Carl Th. Dreyer
Photography: Henning Bendtsen, Arne Abrahamsen
Music: Jorgen Jersild
Editor: Edith Schlussel
Cast: Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe, Axel Strobye

I have to say I think the degree of critical regard for filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer seems remarkable, especially given how unknown I suspect he is at large. His most famous and lauded project is a silent movie from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which very nearly perished of its own obscurity and lack of commercial success. His next-best, according to critics, is the strange and unsettling Ordet, from the '50s, which practically gets lost in its own religious obscurantism. Dreyer made a few other movies as well, including an early talkie vampire movie, though not many.

It's apparent even from these few pictures that Dreyer and his gaudy middle initial mostly dwelt in realms of the spirit. But for his final movie, made when he was in his 70s with his reputation fully restored, and thus something of an anticipated public event, he picked up his strange fixations and fastidious approaches and moved them to worldly realms of the secular. Gertrud Kanning is a middle-aged woman arrayed with four lovers, let us call them past, present, future, and future imperfect. But Dreyer (an illegitimate son of a Danish farmer and his Swedish housekeeper) doesn't let go of his religiosity so easily, and Gertrud is no libertine. "Ascetic" is probably going too far, but "austere" seems to fit the tone of Gertrud and Gertrud about as well as anything.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Torch Song" (1947)

Story by John Cheever not available online.

John Cheever is famous for his artful midcentury short stories of suburban angst, and somehow became a comical figure ripe for puncturing. The root cause is probably a toss-up between his closeted bisexuality and the insistence with which he was taught to a generation of high school and college students, but one episode of Seinfeld also managed to do a lot of damage. I've always found Cheever a mixed bag and haven't read him that much, but when he's good he's good. This is one of his most anthologized stories. Published in 1947, it starts 10 years earlier, when Jack Lorey and Joan Harris, who are both from the same town in Ohio, happen to move to New York at the same time. In their first year they see a lot of one another, meeting for dinner or drinks or at parties. It's never a romantic involvement, but more the kind of alliance young people make when they are alone and new to a big city. After the first year they see less of one another, but over the years of the story they always seem to stay in touch one way or another. Among other things, World War II intrudes on their lives and then ends. Both have comically inept love lives. At the end of the story Jack is twice divorced, with at least one child, and "paying alimony to two wives." Joan's history is an even more ludicrous succession of a Swedish count, a drunken raging German, a hustler or con artist named Pete, and others. It's refreshing in some ways to realize these types of confused adult lives were not invented in the '60s, '70s, and after. A version of them has always been around, and certainly Jack and Joan are familiar people. From the first sentence, Jack—who is the main focus of the third-person narrative—thinks of Joan as "The Widow." As much as anything it's because she's a bit of a bohemian hipster, always wearing black. But the conceit is also taken to comically overblown proportions by the end of the story, when they have something like a falling-out, which again is offered and accepted as one of the ways these irresolute and tentative urban friendships can go, especially the non-roommate kind between a man and woman. It is just another alliance in the long trajectory of adult life to death. In that way, "Torch Song" is not dated at all. It's a vivid portrait of lives with no particular compass, and it looks a lot like exactly what we know.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"I'll Be Waiting" (1939)

Read story by Raymond Chandler online.

Raymond Chandler later derided this story as "slick fiction," probably because it was published in the Saturday Evening Post. And to the extent that Chandler was a precise writer, which he was, perhaps it is. It's also complicated and allusive, working on multiple levels, which is also something Chandler did a lot. Tony Reseck is the main character, a hotel detective. He is keeping an eye on Eve Cressy, a woman who has been at the hotel for five days without leaving. She tells him she's "waiting for a tall dark guy that's no good." The tall dark guy was released from prison a few days earlier, convicted with the aid of Cressy. But the story between them seems more about love than vengeance—seems, I say, as nothing is quite clear. As it happens, the tall dark guy is already there in the hotel, though Reseck and Cressy don't know it yet. At that point, Chandler's cinematic style is engaged and there's a lot of activity we are left to parse and piece together. The players—Cressy, Reseck, and the tall dark guy, as well as a few other hotel employees—are moved about like checker pieces. There are complications involving open and closed elevators. People don't know some things that others do—sometimes they come to learn them, sometimes not. It's lucid about its details, as Chandler often is, with vivid and concrete physical description. The motivations of characters, however, are somewhat more murky. At a basic level, it's hard to tell if things went the way Reseck intended them. Or maybe he was lucky—or maybe he was not lucky. It's hard to tell, even though we have a much better sense of who is alive and who is dead, though even that is not entirely clear. What's great about this story is the language, which is often the case with Chandler. Yes, he's prone to some belabored overworking of similes and metaphors in his descriptions, but they rarely feel unearned. Everyone in this story has known hard times and good times, and moreover they know both are coming around again. Until death do them part. For now, they'll be waiting.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"Cathedral" (1983)

Read story by Raymond Carver online.

The collection this story headlines was something of a breakthrough for Raymond Carver, and the story is one of his most anthologized. It feels more worked over and literary than the raw naturalism of "Fever," for example. It's a strange story in many ways, with strange people doing strange things, but it has real power. It's told in the first person by a man whose wife has invited an old friend of hers, a blind man who recently lost his wife, to visit and stay with them. The narrator does not like this. He is more or less candid about his discomfort with the man's disability, a theme he keeps coming back to until inevitably his discomfort has made us uncomfortable with his attitude. The blind man, Robert—the husband / narrator and wife remain unnamed—is loose and balanced, able to roll with the situation. Or maybe he has some agenda? It's hard to tell. He calls the narrator "bub," which the narrator doesn't know exactly how to take. They stay up late the first night. Robert is not tired, or doesn't know how to take a hint. Then the story becomes very strange. The wife leaves to change into nightclothes, comes back to the living room, and soon falls asleep. The television is on in the room. Robert says he doesn't mind. The narrator produces some marijuana to smoke. For Robert it's his first time. On the TV is a documentary about European history. Presently it begins to discuss and show historical cathedrals. The narrator seizes on this as a way to relate to Robert. "Something has occurred to me," he says. "Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they're talking about?" Robert dryly responds with recitations of facts they have both just heard. The narrator seems impossibly selfish and self-centered. He cannot see Robert as a valid person, and he can't hide it from Robert any better than he has from us. In fact, he is so candid in his narration about his prejudices and ignorance that it brings you up a little short as the reader. He tragically believes himself a solid man of common sense, and easygoing and humorous too. He is an everyman we have all met. He is the cast of Seinfeld, including supporting players. Carver puts him into the middle of a cunningly conceived situation—a blind man who calls him "bub"!—winds him up and lets him go. What follows is remarkable, when the blind man presses the issue of what a cathedral looks like.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Monday, November 07, 2016

"Fever" (1983)

Story by Raymond Carver not available online.

Raymond Carver puts on a clinic in modern short story fiction writing with this story from his Cathedral collection. "Fever" is less often anthologized than other stories in Cathedral, which also includes the title story, "Where I'm Calling From," "Vitamins," and others. But Carver made it his contribution to the anthology American Short Story Masterpieces, which he edited with Tom Jenks in 1987. That might indicate some feeling he had for it. In many ways it's typical of Carver, focused on a family at the moment it crumbles and full of incidents that are just out of control, like bad dreams. The first-person narrator, Carlyle, is a high school art teacher. He tells how his wife Eileen unexpectedly left him and their two children at the end of the previous school year, in early June. Now it's September, the start of the new school year, and his life is in total disarray. He has spent the summer attempting to come to terms with the loss, which he believes is only temporary. Eileen has left him to live with a former colleague of his. The school year is starting but Carlyle still has not made arrangements for day care of the children. At the last minute, he hires the first person he finds, a "fat girl" named Debbie who is 19. A few days later he comes home to find his children unattended on the front lawn, except by a dangerous-looking dog. Inside the house, Debbie is partying with three teenage boys. So it goes. Carlyle still talks to Eileen but he is beginning to hate her. She is full of nonsensical touchy-feely recovery talk. Eileen sends greetings from Carlyle'a former colleague every time they talk. There's more, with the same extremes of ups and downs, as coping proceeds. It's hard to convey the feeling of reading it—it's so immediate, so vivid. Carver was expert at plumbing these emotional pivot points inside people. No one, not even Debbie, is entirely unsympathetic, and everyone is capable of turning inward and doing the right thing. And the wrong thing. The pathos and confusions of the situation—a divorce, with young children involved—are captured well. There's even a nice and simple revelation that powers the story, as Carlyle shifts from believing his marriage can be saved and isn't over, to accepting that it is. This is a great example of what makes Carver so good.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

Director Greg Mottola has made a few movies worth tracking down for one reason or another—Paul, Adventureland, Superbad, and all the way back to The Daytrippers 20 years ago, on the indie circuit. His warm and gentle low-key style focuses on character quirks as the natural source of laughs and character motivation. It's most obvious when he also writes the screenplays (Adventureland and The Daytrippers), but it's always there. He did not write Keeping Up With the Joneses, which perhaps explains this movie's very strong desire to be a sexy spy and action movie. As a matter of tone, it keeps intruding until finally it takes over the picture altogether. Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Godot) are the new neighbors in the cul-de-sac on Maple Circle, in an upscale Atlanta suburb. We learn from a chatty realtor in the first scene that the Joneses paid for the house with cash, without ever looking at it in person, so it's obvious they are no ordinary suburban couple. Jeff and Karen Gaffney, however (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher), put out the old welcome mat for these exotics anyway, and Tim is grateful—because actually he is a spy who wants information about the corporation where Jeff works in HR. Soon enough, they have a bromance going, and Karen is warming to Natalie too. Then the movie starts to spring various surprises, so I'll leave off here on the plot summary. (Comedies aren't normally subject to spoiler rules, are they? At least I'm not sure I can think of one. I have to be forgetting something.) There are a few bright moments, most of them involving Galifianakis. Fisher and Godot have a couple good scenes too. But then familiar action routines start up, with car chases and firefights and such. This movie is not that funny, and I can't imagine it cuts the mustard as an action picture either.

What about this? In my town, the movie choices are basically a couple of multiplexes, plus a decent arthouse. The multiplex I tend to favor is presently undergoing renovations, switching over to a reserved seating system. Has this been going on for a while? You have to pick your seat when you buy your ticket. The seats are double-deluxe, overstuffed padding with wide armrests and a button to tilt back and shove up a leg-rest like a barcalounger. It's kind of like a dentist's chair. I'm not sure I understand the business strategy here, because now there seem to be fewer of these expensive seats in each theater. I suppose that means the prices are going up, but is this something people want? The aisles are wide and my worry is next they're going to try serving food in there or something insane like that. I've been going to the other multiplex a lot lately. Maybe I shouldn't worry so much.