Sunday, April 30, 2006

Top Ten Online Stories 2005 Reviewed

Tomorrow, May 1st, the Million Writers Award run by storySouth will name the top story of the year (chosen by reader vote) from the top 10 notable stories storySouth's editor chose from a list of approximately 130 notable stories for 2005 selected by a panel of judges. (Five of the stories The King's English published last year were -- ahem -- notables.)

"Famous Fathers" by Pia Z. Ehrhardt (Narrative Magazine) should be our pick as the best story of the lot, but we just can't get there. The main character is the daughter of the mayor of Texadelphia, and her problem is that she wants her father's attention and can't seem to get it. Thwarted, she embarks on a sexual adventure/love affair with one of her father's employees. Her recklessness intrigues, and the writing is head-and-shoulders above any of the others in the top 10 -- Ms. Ehrhardt is clearly in control of her material, and her voice -- but it left us cold. Perhaps it's the narrator's disconnection from anyone around her, her father's never-punctured remoteness, and her mother's odd absence that leaves the characters largely obscure and the story unsatisfying.

You could do a lot worse than to choose "Diamonds and Lemons" by Omar Beer (Fiction Warehouse) as your favorite story of these top 10. In it, Paul and Margaret are engaged to be married when Margaret dies in a car accident. The story shows its readers (rather than telling them, and thank God for an author who trusts us this much!) how Paul makes his way through life, noting its details without latching on to any. When Paul goes to dinner a year after the accident at the home of Margaret's parents, Donald and Janine, Janine becomes upset and Donald and apologizes to Paul, his guest:

He took his drink from the bar and swirled it with his hand. He sat down ... "She just gets a little wound up." Donald took a small drink.

Paul held his. "Should I go?"

"We're not there yet," Donald said softly, patting the air with his hand. "She'll be back down in a few minutes." He flipped through channels, lapped back around to the news station, stopped.
That's nicely done, that "not there yet," and Donald patting the air - it conveys just the right amount of detachment, that of a man who knows his wife and relies on her displays of anguish to cover his own. Ultimately, the story feels flat: Paul leaves the story as he began it, having confessed to doubts about marrying Margaret that were after all hardly surprising. Even the title demonstrates the problem. "Diamonds and Lemons" is a lovely title, but it is, like Paul's scattered, uncommitted experience of life, fatally unrevealing.

Another story in the top 10 that's worth a read is "Two Lives" by Michael Croley, which appeared in Blackbird. Cleverly constructed, a story of plangent regret, it suffers two fatal flaws - its primary narrator is a writer (ho-hum); and it lacks dramatic power. Even the story-within-the-story, about a young boy's father who loses his livelihood and must sell moonshine to keep his family in food, cuts away once the going gets tough.

But I didn't choose any of those as my favorite. Instead, I chose Richard Bowes' There's a Hole in the City", which appeared on the Hugo-award-winning SCIFICTION website before it was rudely shut down for good by its parent company (you can still access the story, though). Bowes' piece is a ghost story, set in the chaos of 9/11 - the slow revelation of the mystery pulls you along. It's strangely similar to Terry Bisson's "Super 8" of 2004, which made storySouth's top 10 last year. Bisson's is better -- it's longer and more sophisticated and because it's also about people haunted by friends from their crazy, student days, it makes Bowes' piece look like a knock-off -- but they both have the virtues of being told in a plain, direct style that counterbalances their spookier aspects, and evincing the supernatural with subtlety and trust for their readers. And, judging from the votes so far, it appears that other readers agreed with me that Bowes' piece is tops.

I think it's significant that Bowes' piece is entertainment fiction, not literature -- most of the other top ten stories could not even compete at this most basic level. A few of the stories struck me as interesting only because they were set in exotic (to us in the U.S.) settings -- Anjana Basu's The Black Tongue" (Gowanus), "Wedad's Cavalry" by Mohja Kahf (MWU: Muslim Wake Up) , and "Nang Fah Jam Laeng: Angels in Disguise" by Cynthia Gralla (Mississippi Review) all fell in this category. You can skip Basu's piece entirely, unless you're curious about what a novel excerpt looks like. Even if it's not intended to be one, it's paced like one, and has all the resolution of an opening chapter, and all the focus on witches and its setting in India can't save it.

"Wedad's Cavalry" details a young Saudi Arabian wife's quest for an orgasm and how her female friends educate her. Though it has some entertaining passages -- the delicious irony of the narrator's second husband, a fundamentalist Muslim, making warm, sweet love to her while detailing all the religious justifications for taking pleasure in it -- it's sloppily written (note the clumsiness of the dialogue at the outset, much of which is there for the reader's sake, not the characters') and the basic question of why it's set in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s is never addressed. Set in Saudi Arabia, fine - but why that particular time period? Everything the author describes seems, from my admittedly ignorant point of view, to be typical of Saudi Arabia now. This begs the question, and makes the reader suspect that it's set in the 1980s because the story is autobiography masquerading as fiction.

Gralla's piece is unsatisfying in the extreme. Set in Bangkok, the only thing of interest is its setting; the self-absorbed narrator never engages with anyone, and nothing happens to her. It's supposed to be about seeking solace and healing from a place, I think, but when you're done, you say to yourself, Who cares?

But stories set in less exotic locales weren't necessarily any better. Witness "The Rules of Urban Living" by Kara Janeczko (Anderbo). Told from the point of view of a woman living in an apartment house, it consists entirely of musings about the etiquette of, well, urban living - how we pretend we can't hear other people's private lives through thin walls, and yet we draw conclusions (often false) based on what we hear as well. "Urban Living" is also supposed to be about the end of an affair, but the narrator is so detached from everything and everyone around her, her experience so abstract, that the story can do nothing more for its readers but inspire a longing to move to the country.

Even better-known writers suffer from self-absorption, like John J. Clayton (his delightful "The Man Who Could See Radiance" has been aired on Selected Shorts on NPR), and his infuriating "Light at the End of the Tunnel" (Agni) proves it. "Light" exists in a perpetual postmodern uncertainty that can only be described as coy. Ostensibly about the death of the narrator's brother, one of a group of 12-year-olds taken by a camp counselor into the Hoosac Tunnel through the Berkshires and killed in a train accident, the story includesthe history of the tunnel, speculation about the camp counselors who led the campers into the tunnel ... but the narrator keeps hedging, refusing to allow the reader to get comfortable with any of the details, because they're all conditional: maybe it happened this way, or that way, or maybe it didn't happen at all. So it's not clear if the 12-year-old campers survived or not, because the narrator won't even tell us for sure if they existed; or even if his brother Joel exists. Which is why it's infuriating to find the narrator recalling the near-accident in the train tunnel the morning after Joel's wedding only to write, "Or there is no Joel; I grew up with my missing brother more real in my life than anyone." Infuriating, yes, but that's not all. Clayton has the temerity to finish up with a sententious paragraph about how much it matters whether or not the train comes through that tunnel with the children inside it, whether there's an accident or not, it matters, "either way, the same: nobody's life ever again the same." Which is horseshit. Of course it matters, but it's an obvious point and it's small details like whether or not the narrator has a brother to lose in a train accident that matter more. If he doesn't have a brother, and there was no train accident, then all Clayton's doing is using his power as a narrator to jerk his readers around. Rubbing our noses in the fact that he's in charge of making up the fictional world his readers are agreeing to pretend exists is pointless and manipulative. I'm not necessarily a hound for realism, and I do like postmodern work as much as anyone -- I like Fowles' two endings for the French Lieutenant's Woman, I like Pynchon's main character dematerializing 3/4 of the way through Gravity's Rainbow, and I think John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" is as perfect a metafictional story as has ever been written -- but for God's sake, commit to something. Otherwise, it's just writerly games, and no fun for the reader. Reminds me of Tim O'Brien's idiotic In the Lake of the Woods, which abuses the narrator's position of knowledge mercilessly to tease and needlessly confound the reader. Since O'Brien's point in that book is the unknowability of "the truth," it's particularly irritating that the main obstacle to the reader's ability to make up his/her own mind about the truth -- or to draw his/her own conclusions about its subjectivity -- is the narrator/author.

After Clayton's piece, it's a relief to turn to "Down and Out in Brentwood" by Neal Marks (Crime Scene Scotland), which is a slick little piece of crime fiction. You'll like it a lot of if you're a fan of Elmore Leonard. In fact, you'll be right at home: the narrative voice and the angle of attack are obviously an homage to Leonard, right down to the references to Detroit. The only thing it's missing is a Sig Sauer. Not a bad piece, but I suspect Marks can do better working in a more original vein.

Considering all 10 of the top stories, I'd say that many of their authors chose detachment as a theme, which is too bad, because detachment also made many of these stories weaker than they should have been. This is a common problem for writers. Most of us like to be observers, and that necessarily flavors our fiction. The problem is, readers aren't really interested in the aper├žus of writers. It's conflict and engagement they want from the characters they read about. It's the hardest thing in the world to create characters that care about something passionately enough to wrestle internal as well as external conflict, and still make your story realistic. It's less difficult, though not by any means easy, to do this, as Bowes does, well enough to merely entertain. (Literature is often distinguishable from entertainment fiction because it does not entirely depend upon its plot to interest the reader, and can be re-read without spoiling its pleasures.) So here's to 2005's top 10 authors, and all who set their sights on bigger game.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

On Being Irrelevant

From Frederick Barthelme, Natural Selection, p. 144 :

...I just suddenly thought it: "This isn't my world, anymore." It's a curious sensation to describe, this moment in which you realize your sole proprietorship has been breached, your purchase on the world around you has given way, that you no longer obtain, so to speak, that not only are you not a primary force in the culture, but your group is not a primary force, not even in the small way in which it was, formerly. It's that moment when you know beyond any doubt that whatever it is you think about anything, about any cultural or historical or theoretical thing, whatever you think about politics and personal relations and government and clothing, movies, art, theology, sociology, whatever it is, it just doesn't matter, period. That's a bad moment and the only comfort is that it happens to everybody, it even happens to people who don't notice that it's happened to them. If you do notice it's heart stopping, it's like somebody points a finger at you and says, "You. You're out. You're in the way. Move along."

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Bizarre Fate of Dorothy Parker's Ashes, Plus Muzak's Founder

In Fort Mill, South Carolina, you can find the corporate headquarters for Muzak -- equipped, we hear, with an "awesome" sound system that quite purposely does not pipe tunes into the elevators. Guess you'll need that iPod after all ...I know all this because I caught that fascinating piece on the evolution of the Muzak company in The New Yorker recently - anyone else see it? Apparently, it's not your father's Muzak anymore. Heck, it's not even the Muzak of the early 1990s: they're hip now, with a digital menu of over 1.5 million songs (with everything from Led Zeppelin to 50 Cent and Miles Davis) and chances are you hear it regularly in retail stores everywhere, and never notice. I have to say I haven't thought much about Muzak in a long time -- though one of my neighbors, whose living room was recently overhauled to make it look up-to-date circa 1958, apparently works at Muzak, to judge from the van parked outside his house -- so it was quite an eye-opener to learn about Muzak's founder (What? Muzak had a founder?), a career Army officer born in (yes) 1865. Talk about a guy who moved with the times.

Back when Muzak actually was Muzak, instead of a musical chameleon crafting soundscapes to express a corporate image, the writer Dorothy Parker died. This would be the famously sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker, author of the often-anthologized "Big Blonde," and recently the subject of a movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. --Actually, that's a terribly demeaning way to speak of a serious writer, but the truth is that I haven't read anything by her, not even "Big Blonde," and while that may speak to my own shortcomings as a person and as a reader, it's also true that Parker has either been neglected, her work has grown dated, or she's been terrifically underappreciated, because not many people my age have read her. I can't judge why her work has fallen into obscurity, given my unfamiliarity with it, but a piece in Bookforum pointed to one reason why Parker might have missed out on some attention, and that reason's name was Lillian Hellman. Hellman was Parker's literary executor, and exercised such repressive control over it that almost none of the biographers or publishers who might have touched off a renewal of interest in Parker after her death in 1967 were allowed to go forward, and by the time Hellman lost interest, in the early 1970s, so had much of the rest of the world. Even Parker's remains were neglected: her ashes sat in the file drawer of a law office on Wall Street for fifteen years before they were finally interred on the campus of the NAACP, to whom she'd willed her entire estate. Alas, poor Yorick!

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Why Math Matters

From a review of the new Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger plane:

Debra also pointed out ... the hydraulic system that operates the A380's control surfaces ... The hydraulics also handle the braking on the A380's twenty-wheel main landing gear. A 302-page promotional Airbus publication titled A New Dimension in Air Travel informed me that "the brake is capable of stopping 45 double-decker buses traveling at 200 mph, simultaneously, in under 25 seconds." It is an ambition of mine to learn enough math to figure out comparisons like that and write them myself. But I'm afraid I'd get carried away with digressions about what kind of engine you'd have to put in a double-decker bus to make it go that fast, where you'd drive it, how you'd find forty-four people to drive the other buses, and what would happen to the bus riders.

--"The Mother Load," by P.J. O'Rourke, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2005, p. 173.

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In the Beginning was the Word ... and Someone with a Big Mouth

"...it is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened."

--Jose Saramago, Blindness, p. 265.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Call Me Hypocrite

A while back, I complained about the fact that writers aren't more inventive: when authors find a stable, compelling voice and mode of telling stories, they rarely deviate. I decried this on the theory that different stories demand different voices and approaches, and that part of what readers expect from writers is a new way of seeing things. If there really are only seven plots, as Christopher Booker argues in (you guessed it) The Seven Basic Plots, then it's up to authors to relay their stories in the most inventive, varied ways possible. And part of the skill of being a writer, it seems to me, is to avoid getting too comfortable in any one combination of voice and point of view.

Well. I was soon to be hoist by my own petard.

A couple of weeks ago, desperate for something diverting to read, I picked up a Terry Pratchett novel, Monstrous Regiment. Those of you familiar with Pratchett know that he's a very funny man. I don't pretend to have read all of his books -- his oeuvre is quite large -- but based on those I have read, I'd say he's not particularly inventive in the way that I describe above. His charm comes in his ability to elaborate endlessly on the Discworld he's created. Most fantasy writers create a world and then find themselves stuck with characters and mores that grow increasingly rigid, until the whole thing groans creaking to a halt, and the author has to create an entirely new world. Not Pratchett. From within his Discworld, he's fearlessly found new characters to write about, on topics as varied as the postal system or what it's like to be Death, though his overriding theme is human folly and stupidity. From his abiding rage, he is able to spin endless jokes and riffs on contemporary culture, while never failing to be entertaining.

So imagine my disappointment when I opened Monstrous Regiment and found that it was ... earnest. Oh, there're occasional jokes (there's a vampire in it who has, like a reformed alcoholic, sworn off human blood - he's a member of the Temperance League), but all in all, it's a fairly bitter story about sexism and the stupidity of war (and humans for waging it). So it was entertaining enough, but it lacked the usual Pratchett brio. As author of over 20 novels, he's got a right to flag occasionally, of course. But man, was I mad that he dared to write a book that was halfway serious. What I wanted was the old Pratchett, the usual Pratchett, the one I was comfortable with. It's not clear that he was experimenting with something new, by the way, just that he was angrier and maybe sadder than when writing other books, but the effect was the same: he blazed a new trail, and I was damned if I was going with him. Put me in mind of T.R. Pearson, whose voice in The Last of How it Was and other earlier novels is peerless and quite mannered; but when he began to deliberately break it down in a later novel, Cry Me a River, and meld it with contemporary details and a less mellifluous voice, he lost some of his charm for me, no matter how much I admired him for his daring.

Which just goes to show you: that's why writers aren't more inventive.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Most Hair-Raising Extended Metaphor of the Week

From "The Drug Pushers," by Carl Elliott, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2006, p. 91:

The seduction, whether by one company or several, is often quite gradual. My brother Hal explained to me how he wound up on the speakers' bureau of a major pharmaceutical company. It started when a company rep asked him if he'd be interested in giving a talk about clinical depression to a community group. The honorarium was $1,000. Hal thought, Why not? It seemed almost a public service. The next time, the company asked him to talk not to the public but to practitioners at a community hospital. Soon company reps were making suggestions about content. "Why don't you mention the side-effect profiles of the different anti-depressants?" they asked. Uneasy, Hal tried to ignore these suggestions. Still, the more talks he gave, the more the reps became focused on antidepressants rather than depression. The company began giving him PowerPoint slides to use, which he also ignored. The reps started telling him, "You know, we have you on the local circuit giving these talks, but you're medical-school faculty; we could get you on the national circuit. That's where the real money is." The mention of big money made him even more uneasy. Eventually the reps asked him to lecture about a new version of their antidepressant drug. Soon after that, Hal told them, "I can't do this anymore."

Looking back on this trajectory, Hal said, "It's kind of like you're a woman at a party, and your boss says to you, 'Look, do me a favor: be nice to this guy over there.' And you see the guy is not bad-looking, and you're unattached, so you say, 'Why not? I can be nice.' The problem is that it never ends with that party. Soon you find yourself on the way to a Bangkok brothel in the cargo hold of an unmarked plane. And you say, 'Whoa, this is not what I agreed to.' But then you have to ask yourself, 'When did the prostitution actually start? Wasn't it at that party?'"

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