11/13/10

Shit I like to read, recognize.

Here are some of my favorite short stories of all time. I’ve included mostly no real classics, either cuz I’m trying to be edgy, I have unrefined tastes, or both. James Joyce’s The Dead isn’t on this list, for example, because I don’t understand it, and I’m embarrassed, so I take it out on the Irish people. It’s a throwback thing, like vintage clothes, but with racism. These stories are great. Read them.

Reunion, by John Cheever
The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol
Bee Beard, by Ryan Boudinot
Escapes, by Joy Williams
Communist, by Richard Ford
Last Night, by James Salter
Blue Boy, by Kevin Canty
Tattooizm, by Kevin Moffett
A & P, by John Updike
Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

Some Collections:

Jesus Son, by Denis Johnson
Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver
An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, by Mary Robison

I’m also really into The Challenge: Cutthroat, on MTV.com

02/26/10

Two more stories to saw your head off.

How could I forget. First, Gusev, by Anton Chekhov, and a word about the danger of translation.

A quote from my beloved translation:
“And again there is silence… The wind plays in the rigging, the propeller thuds, the waves splash, the cots creak, but the ear is long accustomed to it all, and it seems as if everything around is asleep and still. It is boring.”

The same from the free web version’s translation of the story:
“And again a stillness followed. . . The wind frolicked with the rigging, the screw throbbed, the waves lashed, the hammocks creaked, but the ear had long ago become accustomed to these sounds, and it seemed that everything around was asleep and silent. It was dreary.”

“It was dreary?” Fuck you, web translation! Still, have a read. The ending particularly so stick with it.

The second story is Green Magazine by Kristen Gleason.

“The Etruscan man sees the world through a narrow shunt. Do not inquire as to its origin; smell the thing. Dress in shades of metal, and flit across his circle. Make him spin. Make him into a periscope. How he loves to search the horizon! Presage touch with the prick of a needle. Not requiring affection, he will not offer it, but there are ways. Become a flag and wave your color. Claim a place on your body, and his hand will come to claim it back.”

Right?

02/19/10

Reading, Your Mother: Fundamental.

Molly Says, Blog, Friend, Lover, I can explain: I forgot you existed. But here you are, and I want to get back together. I want to take this relationship to the next level. Let’s move from “it’s complicated” to “in a relationship,” Molly Says. But let’s take it slow because I don’t necessarily have anything to say, presently.

I can’t shake the pessimistic feeling that the only real reason I read things is for the hope that when someone asks me “have you read this?” I can say “yes.” I think if I had it my way, I would have everyone imagining that every moment they didnt see me I was huddled over a book somewhere. You know, instead of crouched in front of my laptop, smoking, drinking, or eating.

Nevertheless, here are some stories I’ve read recently that are also available on the web, with my favorite sentences plucked out, designed to titivate:

A & P by John Updike

“You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight.”

Dimension, by Alice Munro

“It got worse, gradually. No direct forbidding, but more criticism. Lloyd coming up with the theory that Maggie’s boys’ allergies and asthma might be Maggie’s fault. The reason was often the mother, he said. He used to see it at the hospital all the time. The overcontrolling, usually overeducated mother.”

Midnight in Dosteovsky, by Don DeLillo

“This was the day we saw the man in the hooded coat. We argued about the coat—loden coat, anorak, parka. It was our routine; we were ever ready to find a matter to contest. This was why the man had been born, to end up in this town wearing that coat.”

So there you have it. Get to reading and report back to me. And worry not, I’m sure something humiliating will happen to me soon and I’ll be eager to report on it.

12/29/09

Kevin Moffett, Tattooizm, the pleasure of making lists.

It’s winter break and there’s lots to see, read, and write. I attempted to engage some of my other MFAers in a short story reading frenzy over break. We compiled a list of our favorites, and I don’t know how they feel about it, but at times, I find the accomplishment of composing a list so satisfying in and of itself that actually setting out to complete the items on the list becomes less important. Nevertheless. Here in suburban Detroit, in addition to indulging in the many comforts of home, I have managed to read some things and would like to now talk about them. I hope to have more posts like this in the future but let’s not get into the business of making promises.

Observations about Tattooizm, by Kevin Moffett.
(I don’t want to summarize. Read the short story and come back to me.)

1. More than anything, I feel, this is a story about nostalgia, told in the present tense. It’s a warning of Andrea’s future, that she’ll come to miss how nice Dixon, her current boyfriend is. She assumes that her next boyfriend will be as attentive sexually as he is, but she’s 19. She doesn’t know anything. The fact that this male author can see so deeply into my naive 19 year old mind both humbles and frightens me. What else do they know?
2. The story assumes that women are better at tolerating pain than men, esp. in regards to getting tattoos, and this is an observation that I personally agree with. The implication in the story is that Andrea will hurt less after the breakup than Dixon.
3. There’s a wonderful use of “object” here. Dixon practices tattoos on himself. He asks for Andrea’s middle name and she gives the false “Olive.” He tattoos it on his forearm. From this we can only conclude that this man is nuts for her, and we mourn for him and the disparity in their relationship. Later, Andrea discovers the tattoo can be read as “O live!” And now all of us (readers, characters, the great god above) feel differently about the situation indeed. The lesson here is that we know how the characters feel based on their changed reaction to the same object. (Thanks to Robert Boswell’s workshop and his lesson re: “The lady and the Dog” by Chekhov, oh, how all of a sudden the yapping stupid dog at the beginning of the story is so much better received now that we’re in love!)
4. I have other notes here that I took right after reading the story, and they seem less profound to me now and I don’t know how to elaborate on them. They include, but are not limited to: “All I know is, I felt the same way about going to school for the first time, and I was wrong.” “It’s about men being too easily won.”
5. Another lesson learned: close third present tense is good for sudden changes in mind. There’s a moment where Andrea is experiencing a flooding of emotions/personal reactions to something, and then as soon as they start, in the same paragraph even, the mind is on to new things. “She decides to paint her toenails copper red.”

I liked this story a lot. I liked it because it was written by a man, and yet it had such startlingly accurate observations about a 19 year old girl’s psyche, and further, my psyche, which as I mentioned is both exhilarating and frightening. It doesn’t just know about 19 year old girls, it knows about 24 year old men as well, and in this relationship, nobody is as dumb as they appear to one another. Finally, I liked that this was a serious piece of literature about young people, and not just any kind of young person, but the kind that live in the modern world and are covered with tattoos and go real places and do real things. This is writing born out of my generation and I, at the very least, am delighted the opportunity to discuss it and take it seriously.

Oh lonely Internet space, if you search for Kevin Moffett’s Tattooizm whimsically on google and find me and want to discuss, please leave a comment. The spammy replies I get and (regretfully) reject are so disheartening. “Hey great site! (link)ass fuck(/link).”

11/18/09

The Curious Case of… who the Fuck is Gogol?

I think I may have just read the most baffling short story of all time: The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol. Leave it to those damn 19th century Russian authors to name all of their characters “Ivan” and make them do incomprehensible things, completely baffling my otherwise sensible Wednesday afternoon.

It happened thusly. I had some time on my hands and enough YouTube in my head to melt my eyeballs. I did a google search for “top short stories of all time” or something equally audacious, and came across this link, a list compiled by some other nutbar european author I’ve never heard of. I expected “The Dead” by James Joyce to be number one, but no, Alison Nutbar MacLeod values this Nose story above all others. And so I read it.

I can’t even begin to guess how my workshop would approach this story, (assuming we could somehow get around the weirdness of it taking place in Russia in the 1850′s, with all the dramatic, flowerly language that goes along with it).

Here is what happens as I understand it: A barber named Ivan finds a nose in a breadroll his mean, nasty wife has made, and he recognizes it as belonging to Kovalev, one of his clients. Ivan believes himself to be a wicked drunk and assumes responsibility for the nose, however baffling, and tries to abscond with the evidence. A police catches him trying to throw the nose over the bridge and he is apprehended.

Cut to Kovalev waking up and discovering that he is missing a nose. "To his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been!" !!!! indeed!

So we’ve been given two different perspectives at this point, implying an omniscient 3rd person narrator, until all of a sudden the narrator comes in all “allow me to tell you what Kovalev’s job is.” What the fuck is this? An omniscient first person narrator? Who does this Gogol think he is?

Since I recently had the audacity to turn in a story to workshop last week featuring multiple perspectives with a knowing, metafictional narrator (met with, as always, mixed reviews), I automatically feel a kinship with this insane Gogol person and press on.

Kovalev is distraught and goes running around St Petersburg with a hankerchief over his face. He attempts to place an ad in the paper for the missing nose and the paper is all “we don’t want to ruin our reputation.” Fair enough I guess. He then discovers a man who he somehow instantly recognizes as the lost nose itself. He follows him into a mansion and explains that the man is his nose, and that he needs his nose back because he’s kind of a big deal. But this other man doesn’t believe that he is Kovalev’s nose, and thusly escapes. Now, there’s all sorts of Russian shit going on that I don’t understand. Kovalev calls himself “Major” and is a “collegiate assessor,” which I think means that he has a pretty good job, but not the greatest job, and so he can’t shut up about it (kind of like upper middle class people who buy boats they can’t afford). The man who he thinks is his nose is a “State Councilor.” I can only conclude that this is better than a collegiate assessor.

Also this bit helps: “My dear sir, you speak in error,” was its reply. “I am just myself — myself separately. And in any case there cannot ever have existed a close relation between us, for, judging from the buttons of your undress uniform, your service is being performed in another department than my own.” And the Nose definitely turned away.

Why Kovalev thinks this man is his nose is anybody’s guess, but we know at least that the narrator agrees completely. The man is also his nose.

Kovalev has all these lady friends and he mentions them often, but in relation to their mothers, which is either some weird Russian custom of the time, or it is in fact very strange and utterly significant. Further scholarship is definitely required and it’s a damn shame I’m not likely to ever get around to it. Kovalev is convinced that it’s one of these mothers that has cast some sort of weird witch spell on him because he doesn’t want to marry her daughter, so he writes her and says so, and she’s like “I didn’t cast a spell on you and I still totally want you to marry my daughter” and from this correspondence Kovalev swiftly concludes "She, at least, is not guilty. Oh, certainly not! No one who had committed such a crime could write such a letter.” In a story like this, we have to just kind of rely on our protagonists reasoning, because injecting our own simply will not do.

So the cop who caught the barber trying to throw away the nose brings him to Kovalev’s house all “I found your nose. This barber was trying to throw it away, but oh no.”

Oh, but read this, it’s great. First Kovalev is psyched about getting his nose back, then… "But nothing lasts long in this world. Even joy grows less lively the next moment. And a moment later, again, it weakens further. And at last it reemerges insensibly with the normal mood, even as the ripple from a pebble's impact becomes reemerged with the smooth surface of the water at large. So Kovalev relapsed into thought again. For by now he had realized that even yet the affair was not wholly ended, seeing that, though retrieved, the nose needed to be re-stuck. “What if it should fail so to stick!”

I know, right?

So the nose doesn’t stick, and he calls in a doctor, and the doctor very knowingly, cryptically says that he could re-attach the nose, but implies that if he did, something really bad would happen. What? I don’t know, something really bad. He suggests he keeps the nose in a jar or try to sell it, and in fact, the doctor would love to have it if Kovalev doesn’t want it anymore. What the hell kind of a doctor is this?

So he lives for a few weeks without a nose, and it becomes the stuff of legend around town, and then bam, one day, the nose returns to his face, and everybody’s happy again. The mother’s all “you should marry my daughter now” and he’s like “no I’m still not going to do that.”

To conclude, I have to leave you with Gogol’s last couple of paragraphs because paraphrasing just will not do it justice. I warn you that this is the end of the story, so if you plan on reading it yourself you should go do that first. I myself despise having the ending of a story ruined for me. But If my summary suffices, here it is:

To think of such an affair happening in this our vast empire's northern capital! Yet general opinion decided that the affair had about it much of the improbable. Leaving out of the question the nose's strange, unnatural removal, and its subsequent appearance as a State Councilor., how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? Not that I say this because I consider newspaper charges for announcements excessive. No, that is nothing, and I do not belong to the number of the mean. I say it because such a proceeding would have been gauche, derogatory, not the thing. And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points — absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place — in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it.

Yet, even considering these things; even conceding this, that, and the other (for where are not incongruities found at times?) there may have, after all, been something in the affair. For no matter what folk say to the contrary, such affairs do happen in this world — rarely of course, yet none the less really.

How have I never heard of Gogol or this story? I can only conclude that my education has profoundly failed me. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know what it means. Alison Nutbar MacLeod suggests the nose stands for a penis, but all female authors think that all things stand for penises. All I know is, sometimes you read something and you know that you’ll never be quite the same again – just the slightest shift in my perceptions of the world and literature in general, but certainly worth noting. Someone, please read this and tell me I didn’t dream or imagine it.
“The devil only knows what this vileness means!” he muttered. “If even there had been something to take the nose's place! But, as it is, there's nothing there at all.”

09/19/09

Really real. The most real. Really.

 Where are you going, where have you been?

Once you’ve decided that this is your art, that what you’re going to do is try to write short stories that are beautiful and interesting and true, then now you’ve gone and done it.  You’ve put yourself in a delicate position.  It means you have to think about what’s real all the time.  Art almost seems stupid in a way.  We’re already living in reality.  When you’re in a bookstore listening to a 60 year old man drone on behind a podium, reading a poem about a birch tree outside his window and you want to kill yourself, that’s the beautiful, interesting thing.  Not the poem itself, it would seem, because the poem, you know, sucks.  The little boy that walks by the window outside and puts his funny face against the glass is more a poem than whatever boring, dead words are coming through the microphone.  Why not just walk around with a frame in front of your face and say “look at this tragic, beautiful thing I’ve created?”

Well, I don’t know why.  I shouldn’t have asked such an absurd question in the first place.  We have to just assume that reality itself isn’t enough.  It needs to be recreated.  

In writing workshop, we sit around a big scary table, staring at each other, trying to figure out how these characters we made up out of thin air would act, if they existed, which they don’t.  They don’t have to do anything realistic as long as what they’re doing stands for something real.  Everybody knows what it is, but we don’t know how to talk about it, and we certainly don’t know how to do it yet.

I don’t have any answers.  An unpleasant break from “real” writing indeed.  Back to the grindstone I go.