European Gaze

March 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Reading Karl Knausgaard’s New York Times Magazine piece about his trek from New Brunswick from Minnesota:

One of my favorite books about the U.S. is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which among many other things is also a kind of road novel. It describes a journey through the small-town world of post-World War II America, where the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is constantly on the lookout for distractions for his child mistress, and therefore stops at an endless series of attractions, which every single little town seemed to be in possession of. The world’s largest stalagmite, obelisks commemorating battles, a reconstruction of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the world’s longest cave, the homemade sculptures of a local woman. Humbert’s gaze is European, deeply sophisticated, cultivated and ancient, but also perverted and sick, while the things he observes on the journey across America are superficial, childishly un-self-conscious, ignorant of history, but also innocent and possessed of the freshness of the new.

There’s an opportunity to read a criminally reduced book in a whole new light–one that finds echoes in real-life crimes purported perpetrated out of immigrant disaffectation. I am thinking of the Boston Marathon bombing, among other things.

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One Story and a Demonstration of Narrative Range

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_0338 (2)My reading so far in 2015 has been scattered across the board, as I continue to catch up on New Yorkers and wander in and out of Little Women and, in January, dipped into a couple of long-put-off books by local friends. In between, I’ve been getting to know the selections from One Story.

Toward the end of last year I realized that some of my lit journal subscriptions had lapsed, so I looked around for new ones to try out, and decided I should take a look at this one. Five issues in, I’m really glad I did.

There aren’t many outlets around for long-form fiction, particularly in print, where space limitations make it a challenge. The five stories I have read from One Story show off a range of narrative structures, including:

-First-person present tense that reads like third-person, with asides for expansive ancestral backstory (Issue # 197, “North” by Aria Beth Sloss);

-Exposition and commentary from an untrustworthy first-person narrator (Issue # 201, “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell);

-Second-person history of a woman’s life measured out by her history of boyfriends and lovers (Issue # 198, “An Inventory” by Joan Wickersham);

-A helicoptering third-person-omniscient story of manners set at a party honoring a wealthy South African businessman (Issue # 200, “A Party for the Colonel” by F. T. Kola).

In Sloss’s story, the narrator is the daughter of an explorer with ambitions to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon; she tells a story she was not around to witness, because she was in utero during the events. We learn in the first line that the voyage toward which the story builds up ended in tragedy:

My father made it as far as Little Iceland. That was the name of the iceberg they found his notebook frozen into, interred like a fossil.

So what we get is a tale regaled in second-hand fashion, with its ending spilled from the start, but that deftly wields the present tense to create intimate scenes of domestic tension:

My mother sits across the table from him, smoothing the napkin across her knees. She pretends not to notice how quickly he eats, moving his fork mechanically back and forth until his plate is clean. When dinner is done, he gets up immediately and goes to the little desk by the window and sits down. Opens his notebook to a new page.

Supplies needed for the construction of a balloon, he writes.

(I love the elision of the subject in the final line of the first paragraph. It is typical of the pacing here, which is one of the story’s strengths.)

Sumell’s story is right up my alley, its narrative pushed forward by a voice out to cause damage with a number of acidic lines:

He lit a cigarette. “Hate to lose you,” he said, exhaling smoke out of only one nostril. “Everybody likes your dog.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Let me know when you get back and I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate that too,” I said.

It should have ended there but didn’t, because Tommy spent the next few minutes telling me about a chili cook-off he went to before we finally shook hands and I rushed off to pack the truck with whatever and the dog bed and headed north.

Like Jim Gavin’s Costello, Sumell’s factotum narrator is resigned to a life passing him by and has his character informed by wry observations of others. He gets off on being unapproachable and unapologetic:

But then she asked what I did for work, and I told her.

“I pump fuel at the marina fuel dock for eight dollars an hour, but mostly I read magazines and eat sandwiches, or watch my dog laze in the sun and lick pelican shit off the cement.”

The look changed, got scrunchier.

We are eventually clued in that the narrator is not immune to emotional challenge—there is something he does care about and it is almost taken away from him.

Wichersham’s story is about the decisions of youth, tinged with reflective wisdom and not a small amount of ruefulness. Which means that while the second-person ostensibly puts the reader in the position of the decision-maker, the story reads more as a series of received actions, in the manner of a This Is Your Life-style reminiscence:

By now you had begun to gaze at Boy 18, who was in your English class in the spring of junior year. You liked his quiet, sprightly, manly dignity. He had a way in class of reading poetry aloud that conferred on each poem the tone it required. “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”—you don’t remember anymore who wrote the poem, but you can still summon up the mournful bell-toll of his voice reading it. He had delicate yellow hair, pale blue eyes; every day he wore a tweed sport coat and a white shirt, while the other boys were all dressing like lumberjacks and stevedores. He had an air of sadness, you thought, but it was somehow a pragmatic sadness, as if he were saying, “Yes, life is pointless, but then why not just get on with it?”

Strangely, the one story out of these five that I didn’t care for was by the far-best-known author, Ann Beattie (# 199, “And Then Someone Came From So Very Far Away”). It is about small-town New Englanders of late middle age, and pie recipes and farmers’ markets and the antagonisms that arise when the narrator’s sister visits from Pennsylvania. Although the story touches upon heavier themes such as drug addiction, I feel that its heft is supplied by too many internal thoughts and suppressed slights:

“When did chicken and fish become ‘protein’?” Prue said. “At the same time hair conditioner and gels became ‘product’?”

Her sister could be amusing. Her complaints were often bemused observations. What did Prue complain about, really? Prue, in spite of her childhood tendency to just give up difficult things if she didn’t see the end in sight, was funnier and a better observer than Nona. It had always been true.

Where Am I?

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