A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 2 – What Is Remembered

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day two – What is Remembered, by Alice Munro.

Read it online here:

What Is Remembered

This afternoon, I worked on making a list of stories I am going to read and write about for my June Month Of Short Stories and realized that a lot of them will be linking with the New Yorker. Well, not very surprising….

Here we are on the second day, and we have a story very different that the first… instead of the efficient, biting prose of Raymond Carver, we have the lush genius of Alice Munro.

She doesn’t cut her words to the bone. She is quite generous with her word count. For example, in today’s story, here is her description of the arrangement of napkins at a funeral’s buffet table:

She looked down at the table napkins, which were folded in quarters. They were not as big as dinner napkins or as small as cocktail napkins. They were set in overlapping rows, so that a corner of each napkin (the corner embroidered with a tiny blue or pink or yellow flower) overlapped the folded corner of its neighbor. No two napkins embroidered with the same color of flower were touching each other. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had—for she did see a few people around the room holding napkins—they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way, and this order had been maintained.

The amazing thing, the genius of Munro, is that this seemingly odd bit of description encapsulates the whole story, somehow. It has nothing to do and everything to do with the rest of the work.

This is the story of an affair – or of a one-night stand… a one-evening stand, really. But it isn’t a prudish morality tale – it is a laying out of a woman’s life and how much more there is than meets the eye.

Alice Munro doesn’t write with words as much as she writes with time. What is Remembered, like much of her work, moves back and forth over handfuls of decades, following the echoes of the past into the future and the conception of the future into the past. Like the title implies, this is a story about memory and how a person’s fate isn’t so much shaped by what they do as much as it is by how they remember what they have done.

On the ferry ride home, after the fact:

She had to join the crowd of jostling bodies making their way up the stairs, and when she reached the passenger deck she sat in the first seat she saw. She did not even bother, as she usually did, to look for a seat next to a window. She had an hour and a half before the boat docked on the other side of the strait, and during this time she had a great deal of work to do.

No sooner had the boat started to move than the people beside her began to talk. They were not casual talkers who had met on the ferry but friends or family who knew each other well and would find plenty to say for the entire crossing. So she got up and climbed to the top deck, where there were always fewer people, and sat on one of the bins that contained life preservers. She ached in expected and unexpected places.

The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and, by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever. This day’s experience set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside.

She had “an hour and a half” and a “job she had to do.” She had to fix what had happened into her memory, all of it, exactly as it had happened.

As the rest of the tale unfolds, we learn she didn’t do her job well. She forgot a lot. And what she forgot might have been more important than what she remembered – it protected her from a life that was not only wildly different, was a life that would not have been her own.

What we remember, what we forget, what comes back to us after it is too late….

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 15 – Train

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day fifteen – Train, by Alice Munro

Read it online here:

Train

There is no greater master of the short story than Alice Munro. I’ve pretty much read everything she has written (more or less) and, although I didn’t remember specifically reading today’s entry, Train, once I was a few paragraphs in, I remembered reading it – though it, like all of her work, is complex and subtle enough it was as good the second time around.

As a matter of fact, it is a story that I think needs to be read twice… with a gap of time in between. It is a story that is told in the details – details conveyed in otherwise throwaway lines of text, lines you won’t notice the first time through.

I have been thinking about one aspect of the story – one that bothers me a little. That’s the idea of a coincidence.

A lot of stories have coincidences – old friends meet, an important item goes unseen until it is needed, disparate paths cross…. That’s fine – you can always say, “the coincidence is needed, without the coincidence there is no story.” Coincidences happen.

However, I think that by this rule, you are limited to one coincidence. One coincidence makes a story – two or more make a manipulation by the author trying to drive a plot.

And I think this story might have two.

There is the big, obvious one. Jackson is working at the apartment building when Ileane comes by looking for her daughter. Read the story to find what the connection between the two is – it’s the relationship that drove the opening scene in the story. This sort of time-shifting and echoes happening across entire lifetimes are specialities of Alice Munro.

But, earlier in the story, Jackson stumbles across Belle. They are two of a kind and end up in a strange relationship that lasts decades. The two of them meeting like that might be a second coincidence.

Or maybe not – because if they were not so oddly and tragically well-fitted for each other Jackson would have simply passed by. I guess that is good enough.

Still, that second coincidence stuck in my craw a bit – a tiny flaw in an otherwise wonderful tale. I shouldn’t think about it so much. No use picking nits in the presence of a master.

There was a road running by. A small fenced field in front of the house, a dirt road. And in the field a dappled, peaceable-looking horse. A cow he could see reasons for keeping, but a horse? Even before the war people on farms were getting rid of them, tractors were the coming thing. And she hadn’t looked like the sort to trot round on horseback just for the fun of it. Then it struck him. The buggy in the barn. It was no relic, it was all she had.

For a while now he’d been hearing a peculiar sound. The road rose up a hill, and from over that hill came a clip-clop, clip-clop. Along with the clip-clop some little tinkle or whistling.

Now then. Over the hill came a box on wheels, being pulled by two quite small horses. Smaller than the ones in the field but no end livelier. And in the box sat a half dozen or so little men. All dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads.

The sound was coming from them. It was singing. Discrete high-pitched little voices, as sweet as could be. They never looked at him as they went by.

It chilled him. The buggy in the barn and the horse in the field were nothing in comparison.

He was still standing there looking one way and another when he heard her call, “All finished.” She was standing by the house.

What I learned this week, April 25, 2014

Bike rider on the DART train.

Bike rider on the DART train.

Yield to Wheels: DART reconfigures rail cars to better accommodate bikes, wheelchairs and more

This is a welcome upgrade. It is surprising how many bicycles you see on the DART trains now.

What’s frustrating is the number of able bodied people without bikes, luggage, or grocery carts, that you find sitting in the fold-down seats in the handicap or bicycle spots on the trains in the present format. They sit there, usually engrossed in their phones, blithley ignoring the growing crowd of people in wheelchairs, holding bags, or doing the “DART Dance” with their bicycle (The DART Dance is moving back and forth, standing in the open area of the train, as each stop opens on the left or right). The only way to fix that is to remove the seats.

train_animate


Right now, the way things are going – I can relate to this person….

This Guy Is Trying to Collect Every Single Copy of the Movie ‘Speed’ on VHS

Yeah, it’s like a radical dedication to uselessness.
Totally. I don’t give a shit whether what I do is practical or not; I just don’t want to perpetuate society’s shitty capitalism forever. If you see everything needs a use or an instrumental value as like part of a capitalistic worldview, then the World Speed Project is anti-that.


We Didn’t Believe In ‘Artisanal’ Toast, Until We Made Our Own

What the world needs now – a three dollar and fifty cent piece of toast.


Dallas is a canvas for change

Travelling Man - sculpture east of Downtown Dallas

Travelling Man – sculpture east of Downtown Dallas

How Highways Hurt Dallas

On a recent business trip to Dallas, I was shocked by how much concrete and how few people I saw. My first impression was that Dallas is a city stuck in an outmoded way of thinking about transportation. It was like my plane was a time machine that had taken me back to 1970, when everyone still thought that the way to fix congested highways was to build more and wider highways. Coming into town, I saw more concrete going down, from the DFW Connector Highway Construction Project north of the airport to the massive LBJ Express Project. I learned that about $15 billion is currently being spent on highways in North Texas, more than in any other region of the country. All the construction seemed bizarre because the area already seemed to have an unhealthy abundance of highways. This is not bragging material for the city; this should be embarrassing. Given what has been learned about highways in cities over the last 40 years, priorities could have been better placed elsewhere.


The 50 Best TV Shows Streaming on Netflix (2014)

You already know what #1 is, of course. Still, there are 49 more to discover – it could ruin your life if you wanted to let it.


Kristen Wiig, Alice Munro And Negative Space In Fiction

Director Liza Johnson on the Challenges of Adapting Alice Munro For “Hateship Loveship”

Hateship Loveship Departs From Alice Munro’s Iconic Story — But Still Does Her Proud


The 23 Best National Park Adventures – #10 Carlsbad Caverns

I have actually done this one. If you visit Carlsbad – be sure and sign up for the Slaughter Canyon Tour. You get to hike a very long half mile through some steep and intimidating scenery. A ranger then unlocks an iron gate and takes you on a tour of an undeveloped cave. There are no lights (a spare flashlight is required), no paths (you use ropes to get over a tough patch), no sound effects… only an enormous ancient beautiful cave.

They have been giving tours of the Slaughter Canyon Cave for decades, but you will feel like you are the first person to walk in there.


Cross-Post: A Reaction to DMN Editorial on 345

I-345 near downtown Dallas

I-345 near downtown Dallas

How to Build Another Uptown

This battle is not just about I-345. It is about a strategy. It is about duplicating as many times as we can the one success urban Dallas has—Uptown. It is about a city devoted more to residents than to commuters. Tearing down the aged hulk of I-345 is a first, small step. But it could be enough to tell the market that Dallas is finally about to assert itself as a real, honest-to-God city.


SORCERER, The Movie That Got Blown Up By STAR WARS

SORCERER is one of my favorites; one of the most tense and exciting films ever made. It is a shame that it never hit the big time – a victim of (as the article says) Star Wars fever, and an unfortunate mistake in titling (trying to tie in to The Exocist). See it if you get a chance.

Of course it is a remake of a classic French film, THE WAGES OF FEAR. It’s the rare example of the remake being as good as the original. I don’t know which version is better, they are very similar and completely different. THE WAGES OF FEAR is available streaming on Hulu plus.

Life After High School

I read a lot of short stories. A lot.

All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.

“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”

“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”

Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.

The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.

Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.

That is something I am interested in.

There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”

Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.

“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.

You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.

The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.

So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.

But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.

So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”

And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.

For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.

Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.

But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)

What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.

So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.

After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:

“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”

And there it is.

Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.

And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.

Now… that is a story.

The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.

Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.

The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself

Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…

Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.

and finally, this one, simply says,

In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.

Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.

Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?

I don’t think so.

What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.

What I learned this week, October 11, 2013

Revealed: How Gaudi’s Barcelona cathedral will finally look on completion in 2026… 144 years after building started

This amazes me to no end. Seeing the Sagrada Familia is something I want to do before I die… now I want to live long enough to see it finished.

I had better start taking care of myself.


50 People On ‘The Most Intellectual Joke I Know’

It’s hard to pick a favorite one…. maybe:

Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?

A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.


I’ve had a small fascination with the icons marked on shipping crates… especially ones with art in them.

mystery1

I always find this blog from the Dallas Museum of Art interesting

Uncrated

mystery


There are a lot of good things on this earth, but there are few things better than this:

Temptress


Congratulations to Alice Munro. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this week.

I’ve always said she is the unquestioned master of the short story. Glad to see someone working exclusively in the underrated form and genre of the literatry short story (pretty much) get this recognition. The only problem with reading Munro, as a short story writer, is that when you finish one of hers you realize that you will never be that good – that she has done something you will never be able to pull off.


There’s a new Pynchon novel out, Bleeding Edge. I’m not as excited as I have been in the past… (I have a lot to read) but still… I have to go read it.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway


Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out: David and Goliath

Excellent talk by him here: Malcolm Gladwell discusses tokens, pariahs, and pioneers


INTERVIEW: WHY DO MOTORISTS GET SO ANGRY AT CYCLISTS?



Short Story Day Thirty – Passion

30. Passion
Alice Munro
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/22/040322fi_fiction

As we are in the ninth inning, the home stretch, of my month of short stories we come across Alice Munro. She is the master – the best of the best.

I have been voraciously reading Alice Munro for decades now… and she should be in my list of writers that I have read everything – but she writes so much (all short stories) that there is always more. Most of what she writes shows up first in the New Yorker – she is the quintessential New Yorker fictioner.

What she does is magical. Read her stories and pay attention to how she plays with time. There is usually several different time planes going on – complex, yet made clear by careful attention to detail. The story is often told by illuminating subtle changes in a character between fictional scenes that take place on different sides of a shift in the story. Often times this shift is never actually shown or described… merely inferred from what has scarred or uplifted (or both) the characters before and after. There are subtle connections across time and place – you have to look closely to figure them out – but they resonate deep in your mind as you read.

Today’s story, Passion, is pure Munro. A woman is looking back over a critical period of her life – how critical it was and in what way isn’t clear until the final sentence.

I didn’t do this on purpose – but it is very interesting to compare this story to yesterday’s – The Garden Party. Both are tales of class differences. But Passion – the Munro story – is the opposite… a mirror image, of Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

In this one, the protagonist is a poor girl that stumbles into contact with the wealthy. However, as occurs in yesterday’s tale – once in the other’s camp she is exposed to death, and is changed in complex and subtle ways. Both women (both about the same age) are smart, resourceful, and perceptive beyond their years and expectations and are relied upon to help keep things going smoothly. However, both learn that the world is a harder, more complicated, and dangerous place – with darkness, passion, and beauty all wrapped up and twined, twisted, and knotted together.

The wealthy Traverse family in today’s story is not as isolated or as heartless as the Sheridans in yesterday’s – but they are every bit as flawed and are quietly doomed.

Munro spells out this doom without embellishment or symbolism – she simply tells the story – with great skill. It’s perfect. It’s why she is the best.

She had thought that it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way.

What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.

It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.
—-Passion, by Alice Munro

What I learned this week, October 19, 2012

Terrible news from here… a Dallas Icon for the last sixty years, Big Tex, has burned.

RIP Big Tex

Big Tex destroyed by fire at State Fair


Why are you reading my stupid blog? Why aren’t you reading Cloud Atlas? The movie is about to come out and you have to read the book first.

David Mitchell basks in ‘Cloud Atlas’ boost

With the Wachowskis-directed film version of his intricate book ‘Cloud Atlas’ out soon, David Mitchell finds himself ‘happily bewildered.’

A User’s Guide to Watching (and Keeping Up With) ‘Cloud Atlas’


Dallas Skyline from the Soda Bar on the roof of the NYLO Southside hotel.

48 Hours in Dallas

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen


Happy 35th, Atari 2600!

Yes, I had one of these… and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The sounds of the Space Invaders guys as they moved down,  inexorably, faster and faster,  is burned in to my memory forever. For some reason, I enjoyed the crude golf game. And I was really excited when the ultimate twitch-game Defender came out – though it wasn’t as cool as the arcade version – it must have really pushed the console’s capabilities. The thing only had 128 bytes of RAM. That’s bytes, not kilobytes.


You Built What?!: A Tesla Coil Gun That Produces Foot-Long Sparks


Kristen Wiig, Hailee Steinfeld to Star in ‘Hateship, Friendship’

Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte also are cast in the indie dramedy from “Return” writer-director Liza Johnson. The project starts shooting next week in New Orleans.

Based on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a book of short stories by Alice Munro, the project centers on a nanny (Wiig) hired to care for a rather wild teenage girl (Steinfeld). Using email, the girl orchestrates a romance between the nanny and the father (Pearce), a recovering addict living in a different town.

I am a huge fan of Alice Munro – I think she’s the best Short Story writer… pretty much ever. Sometimes her stories are too subtle to translate to film or video very well, but still… this has to be pretty good.


12 quotes about reading to inspire writers

1. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
— George R.R. Martin

2. “Show me the books you read, and I’ll show you who you are.”
— Unknown

3. “If you cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”
— Oscar Wilde

4. “For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”
— Eudora Welty

5. “These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.”
— Gilbert Highet

6. “We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts; we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
— Philip Pullman

7. “The walls of books around him, dense with the past, formed a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters.”
— Ross McDonald

8. “Never judge a book by its movie.”
— Unknown

9. “A man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
— Mark Twain

10. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
— Stephen King

11. “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

12. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin