Short Story (flash fiction) of the day, Where Are You? by Joyce Carol Oates

“You people who have survived childhood don’t remember any longer what it was like. You think children are whole, uncomplicated creatures, and if you split them in two with a handy axe there would be all one substance inside, hard candy. But it isn’t hard candy so much as a hopeless seething lava of all kinds of things, a turmoil, a mess. And once the child starts thinking about this mess he begins to disintegrate as a child and turns into something else–an adult, an animal.”
― Joyce Carol Oates

Downtown Waxahatchie, Texas

Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read a lot of what she’s written and understand most of it.

Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

Life After High School

Heat

What I like the best about her is that she is not afraid to go for the jugular. I have a need to explore the thin membrane – the border –  between what we all consider our day-to-day lives and the world of evil chaos that is right there on the other side. She understands that and will cross that membrane and will bring you along with her.

In today’s bit if flash fiction she does that, in only 500 words.

Where Are You?, by Joyce Carol Oates

 

Short Story (flash fiction) of the day, My Dead by Peter Orner

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Beautiful Cars, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

Tonight, I had a Zoom meeting from home. I used to go to these reading group meetings at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. My favorite was when I’d take the train and trolley from work every Wednesday after work for that week’s meeting on reading Gravity’s Rainbow.

It was fun.

It feels like a thousand years ago.

So now the same group is going to do another “Difficult Book.” We are reading Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov over the next few months – about a hundred pages a week. We will meet on Zoom every week to discuss what we’ve read.

Tonight was the kickoff meeting – no reading yet… only introductions and strategies. It was a little awkward – everyone seems so lonely. Hopefully, we will all get along. It should be fun.

Ok, here’s the opposite of a Russian novel – some flash fiction from The New Yorker.

My Dead, by Peter Orner.





 


Short Story (Flash Fiction) Of the Day, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up

—-Jamaica Kincaid, Girl

Somewhere in the Caribbean

this is how you write a short piece

Read it here:

Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

from The New Yorker

Short Story of the day, Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders

Afterward, our protestations of love poured forth simultaneously, linguistically complex and metaphorically rich: I daresay we had become poets. We were allowed to lie there, limbs intermingled, for nearly an hour. It was bliss. It was perfection. It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

—-George Saunders, Escape from Spiderhead

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, New Orleans

Trying to get through the isolation by reading more. Another short story today – a very good, if more than a little harrowing.

Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders

from The New Yorker

This story is touted as a famous example of dystopian fiction. It’s a peculiar type of dystopia… a personal hell… maybe a penance, maybe deserved. Still, even under those circumstances the important thing is that some humanity and some sympathy for your fellow man remains. Still remains. Even if it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Excellent read. One plus – it’s definitely not safe for work.

Short Story (flash fiction) of the Day – Skylight, by Silvina Ocampo

Above the hall in that house with a skylight was another mysterious home, and through the glass you could see a family of feet, surrounded by halos, like saints, and the shadows of the rest of the bodies to which those feet belonged, shadows flattened like hands seen through bathwater.

—- Silvina Ocampo, Skylight

Damian Priour, Austin
Temple (detail)
2000 fossil limestone, glass, steel
In Memory of Buddy Langston 1947-2004
Frisco, Texas

 

Today’s short story is a piece of surreal horror:

Skylight, by Silvina Ocampo

From  The New Yorker

This story was translated from the original Spanish by by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan. I’ve never understood why, but fantastic stories written in Spanish have a certain something that allows them to get away with words that English doesn’t – and, somehow, that certain something even comes through in translation. That is usually illustrated in works of magical realism (which are genius in Spanish but often twee and silly in English) but here is true in a story which… well, I’m not sure what is real and what is not – but it could be all real – relates to the horror of almost everyday life.

Short Story of the Day – The Weight by Anne Enright

The plane cut through a skein of dark-gray cloud, through a layer of liquid light, into another cloud that started as dark as steel wool, then thickened to gray and turned slowly white. In a moment, they would be free of it.

—-Anne Enright, The Weight

Reflecting pool, Arts District, Dallas, Texas

Today’s short short story, a piece of flash fiction.

The Weight by Anne Enright

from The New Yorker

I have flown on airliners a lot, have flown all my life. I have no fear of flying. My fear is driving to the airport, or getting through security, or missing my plane. Once I’m in the seat, I relax. A lot of it is that once I’m in that seat with the belt on – my responsibilities are over. Nothing I do or don’t do will influence the crash-free-ness of the voyage, one way or another. I think that is why so many people are afraid of flying (other than the fact that you are in a metal tube hurtling through the air at an insane speed miles above the earth) is that you are helpless. I don’t feel helpless – I feel relieved that it’s someone else’s responsibility… for a change.

This story captures clearly what it feels like (I suppose) when things don’t go as planned. There is a line you move down from relaxation to unease to fear to terror… when there is turbulence, for example. This flash fiction piece moves a long way down the line in a hurry.

How far does it go? You can find out in a few minutes.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 5 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 4 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem
Read it online here:

Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

And, after the insipid triumphalist overture of music and video and prancing androgynous spandex, when the orcas finally entered the arena and began their leaping, SeaWorld was overwritten by their absolute and devastating presence. By their act of stitching two realms together, sky and water, merely for the delight of a stadium full of children—children who, in response, leaped, too, and vibrated in their seats, and gurgled incoherently, practically speaking in tongues. Other kids, older and more intrepid than his own, raced down to the plastic barrier to be splashed, to stand with their arms flapping. The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelly eyes, were God’s glorious lethal clowns. Their plush muscular bodies were the most unashamed things Pending Vegan had ever seen. Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer.

—-Jonathan Lethem, Pending Vegan

A few years ago, my son Lee and I went down to the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater to see a new musical, The Fortress of Solitude, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous novel. It was Pay What You Can Night (pretty much the only way I can see quality live theater on an ongoing basis) – which is cool, though what we saw was essentially a dress rehearsal open to the public. Because of this, there was a bit of confusion and we discovered that our assigned seats weren’t there (the Wyly is infinitely reconfigurable and they had configured our seats out of existence). No problem, the box office had alternate seats which were better anyway (not that the Wyly has any bad seats) – we were placed in a line of vacant seats right up front. Two men sat next to us at the last minute.

The play was excellent, very enjoyable. I never read the novel, so I don’t know if it followed or did justice, but as a night of live musical entertainment, it fit the playbill. As the play ended, the man sitting next to Lee started asking him a series of questions, “Did you like the musical?” “What songs did you like?” – the inquiry seemed more pointed than curious. I looked at the man and at the Playbill folder in my hand and realized this was the author (of the play, not Jonathan Lethem, alas). The idea was to premiere the musical in the hinterlands (Dallas), iron out the rough spots, them move to Off Broadway (Public Theater) then, eventually, to the Great White Way.

It looks like the momentum has stalled and it probably never will make it to Broadway… but at least I saw it.

Today’s story, also by Jonathan Lethem, is a chronicle of a family’s trip to Sea World in San Diego. The protagonist is struggling with a sudden attack of giving a damn about animals and, possibly more importantly, just now coming off his prescription to anti-depressants. His doctor warns him he might, “see bums and pickpockets.” Worried that he might hallucinate, the doctor assures him that he won’t imagine them, he may simply notice them.

I, of course, have been to Sea World (the San Antonio version) with unruly children a couple of times. I dealt with it a little bit differently than the father in the story – I didn’t think about it. It was a day for the kids and all I was responsible for was trying my best they didn’t get eaten by sharks or destroy an expensive exhibit. All other thoughts were put on hold.

For about a quarter century.

—–

In the interview below, Lethem says, “I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.” When I first read this I disagreed – I couldn’t think of any story ideas from SeaWorld.

Then I remembered seeing the Shamu show one year. The Orca wasn’t in a good mood and basically stayed at the bottom of his tank and refused to do any tricks. He was the male in the pod and the two females were in the lake outside of the arena. They kept surfacing and making these loud sounds. There is no doubt they were laughing at him.

The neoprene-wet-suited show people tried to get on with the act. They even brought a volunteer from the audience out to try and coax him into getting to work. I thought, “Man, if I had a humiliated, cranky, and uncooperative killer whale at the bottom of a tank, the last thing I’d want to do is lean out and wiggle a fish over him.”

Hmmm. I guess that is an idea for a story.

Interview with Jonathan Lethem about this story:

This week’s story, “Pending Vegan,” follows one family, a husband and wife and their four-year-old twin daughters, on a trip to San Diego’s SeaWorld. When did you start thinking about using SeaWorld as the setting for a story? Did you ever consider inventing the theme park and fictionalizing everything, or was it important that the story be set in a real place?

This story really began with a class I taught, called Animals in Literature. I assigned Jack London, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Olaf Stapledon, Lydia Millet, J. R. Ackerley, and a bunch of other stuff, including some essays and theory. (Animals are actually pretty “hot” in theory now.) In the spirit of due diligence, I also read a bunch of animal-rights and vegan manifestos, which is how I blundered into the realm of “Fear of the Animal Planet” and so forth—books I purchased, and which sit staring at me from the shelf, even if I failed to assign them or, in many cases, even to read them. I suppose some of this bad faith leaked into the characters: What would it be to think you’ve gone about halfway, or not even halfway, down some irreversible ethical path, then got stuck there?

Of course all this remained inchoate until suddenly I visited SeaWorld. I can’t imagine anyone setting a story there who hadn’t visited. (I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.) Long ago, I’d have been certain to disguise it as “Fathomverse,” or “Poseidon’s Playhouse,” or “Orcasm,” or something. But that wouldn’t really be likely to fool anyone, would it? A lot of fiction—most?—derives some of its effects, and energy, from its hybrid nature: half documentary, or half confession or argument or whatever, and full of references outside itself, whether obvious to the reader or not. I’ve made my peace with this. Besides, I’d have had to give up “Sea World, Eat World.”

The story’s protagonist, Paul Espeseth, is going through a crisis of sorts, which he has hidden from both his family and his shrink. He’s renamed himself Pending Vegan as a way of acknowledging his increasing uneasiness with the relationship between man and beast, yet he’s acutely aware of his daughters’ ability to reconcile “their native animal-love and the pleasures of eating.” What’s it like to imagine a child’s version of the animal world versus an adult’s?

Forget “animal world” —what about just “world”? Where’s the script for breaking the news, to a kid, of reality’s roaring wackness? Its moral bankruptcy? Imagine a scene from the breakfast table with a six-year-old listening to an NPR report on the firing of nine air-force commanders over cheating on the tests to qualify as officers for oversight of nuclear missiles.
Six-year-old: “What did they cheat on?”
Father (already in trouble): “Well, see, they were in, like, ‘soldier school’…”
Six-year-old: “Don’t they know it was wrong?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “What are nuclear missiles?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “Why would they cheat? Don’t they want to be good at fighting?”
Father (suddenly impassioned, intense): “Well, actually, the reason this matters so much is that nuclear missiles are these weapons we don’t want anyone ever to use…” (He stops at brink of disaster.)
Six-year old: “—?!?—”
Father: “Uh, eat your pineapple.”
Six-year old: “My teacher told me that pineapple was bad for your skin.”
Father (with relief): “She’s definitely wrong.”

A dog bounds into the story in its final page. It’s not the first time dogs have shown up in your work (“Ava’s Apartment,” for example, an excerpt we published from your novel “Chronic City,” features a memorable three-legged dog). Do dogs hold a particular place in your imagination? Can you imagine a cat exercising as much power?

Cat person or dog person? Funny about that. I grew up with cats; I’m more familiar with them, more fond of them, and I identify with them more. My parents bred Siamese cats for a while, and in a lot of baby pictures I’m seen swimming in a mass of kittens. Dogs were in stories, first: “Nobody’s Boy,” “The Incredible Journey,” Jack London’s and—especially—Albert Payson Terhune’s work. I was probably the last boy in the history of boys to drink deep at the well of “Lad: A Dog” and “His Dog.” Meanwhile, real dogs terrified me. This lasted a while. Even after we got a dog, other people’s dogs terrified me. I was 33clear to me. As in the case of my character, dogs are a problem I can’t solve; they throw me back into the question of self and other. For a writer, that’s good. Writing a story about a cat would be like writing a story about my arm or my ear.

—- Interview with Jonathan Lethem in The New Yorker

The Wyly Theater.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 2 – The Itch, by Don DeLillo

Crow Collection of Asian Art
Sculpture Garden
Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 2 – The Itch, by Don DeLillo.

Read it online here:
The Itch, by Don DeLillo

But nobody showed up, so he sat awhile looking at the wall. It was one of those Saturdays that feel like Sunday. He didn’t know how to explain this. It happened intermittently, more often in the warmer months, and it was probably normal, although he’d never discussed it with anyone.
—-Don DeLillo, The Itch, opening lines

I have read some of Don Dellilo’s work… not what I would say a lot of it… not by any means all of it. The most notable absence is the massive novel Underworld which I have been meaning to read for a couple decades. Tomes of that weight and size require a commitment that I have been unable to grant for some time. Maybe soon.

Maybe before I die.

At any rate, I loved his novel White Noise enough that the other things he has written pale in my mind. That novel rotates around a bucolic modern scene that is interrupted by an Airborne Toxic Event of some kind… something that I am sort of familiar with in real life. It is an entertaining and haunting work of fiction.

In modernist fiction, there is an interesting difference between novels and short stories. In a novel, the strange detachment of modern life has to be dealt with and resolved… at least partially. In a short story, the author is free to wallow in the surrealism of daily life in this best of all possible worlds.

In today’s story that surrealism takes the form of an itch. The protagonist bounces from doctor to doctor… getting no help, and towards a possible love interest. But always present, if sometimes latent, is the itch, possessing a strange and fearful symmetry, and a perverse unpredictability. It doesn’t make life unbearable, but it probably makes it less fun. Which seems pretty unbearable.

Interviews:

I’m thinking of two dimensions of a screen or a page on which people read. We hope, writers hope, that in fact their characters are living in a three-dimensional world, first in the writer’s mind, then in the minds of readers.

When I’m conceiving a scene, do I see it in three dimensions? It’s not so easy to answer what appears to be a simple question. I see it — I see characters, I see people, I see streets, cars — and they seem to exist in this special level of mental reality. I could not distinguish the features of a character’s face when I have an idea concerning this character, when I see him or her in a room, and in most cases the room itself is fairly generic — except when I’m actually describing a room — this does happen somewhere in “Zero K” — and then I see a room much more clearly.
—-from an LA Times Interview

INTERVIEWER
Do you have any idea what made you a writer?
DON DeLILLO
I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. Maybe I wanted to find more rigorous ways of thinking. We’re talking now about the earliest writing I did and about the power of language to counteract the wallow of late adolescence, to define things, define muddled experience in economical ways. Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions. How much of this did I feel at the time? Maybe just an inkling, an instinct. Writing was mainly an unnameable urge, an urge partly propelled by the writers I was reading at the time.
—-From The Paris Review

Crow Collection of Asian Art
Sculpture Garden
Dallas, Texas

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….

Tenth of December

Almost a year ago, for the month of June, I read and wrote about a short story every day, for the entire month. I’m collecting online stories again this year (already close to the requisite thirty) – though I haven’t decided whether to do the same thing again.

Any suggestions or feedback would be greatly appreciated. Si o No.

On Day 7 of last year I read and wrote about the story Sea Oak, by George Saunders. It made me want to read more. I have just finished a long, interesting, but somewhat repetitive tome and wanted something shorter and lighter. So I picked up a book of George Saunders short stories in a digital loan from my library. It was the collection Tenth of December – and has been almost universally praised, often listed as one of the best books of last year.

And it did not disappoint.

First of all, though, the negative. George Saunders has a great skill – an innovative way – with words. Sometimes it feels as if he is showing off. Unusual forms, unexpected voices, mannered style – it’s all here and may be layered a little thick. I can see why the jaded literati have are so enamored – he can be challenging. In a few places I wanted to tell him to simply get on with it.

But, still, the stories had heart. The true judge of a work is whether or not you care about the characters and in these stories you do. They will break you in unexpected places and in an unanticipated fashion.

Back to the style. One technique that he uses to devastating effect is to tell a story from several points of view – from characters that are about to intersect in surprising ways. He uses this technique to illustrate how completely different the world is seen by different people. He exposes the little lies everyone tells themselves… simply to get through the day.

The first story in the collection uses this technique in triplicate. A popular girl, an unpopular boy, and a meter reader with bad intentions all tell their own stories in their own voices, observing each other under harrowing circumstances. A delicate structure, but one of great strength.

Another story – this one available online from the New Yorker, Puppy – uses the same technique for two women. They observe and are observed by each other and both found lacking – though they both are doing the best they can.

The title story – also available online, Tenth of December – has a young boy living in a fantasy world inside his head and an older man with a big problem intersecting on a freezing mountainside. Each has no idea of the others plight but are able to arrive at an understanding in the end.

Arguably the oddest, and possible the most powerful story, the The Semplica-Girl DiariesRead it here, too, courtesy of the New Yorker – is written as a diary from a father to future generations. The jarring language and constant use of abbreviations makes it a hard read (I was halfway through before I figured out what “SG” meant) but by the end you realize it is worth the effort. A devastating comment on consumer culture, international capitalism, and exploitation of third world workers – all disguised as a diary of a father trying to have a nice birthday party for his little girl.

So, there are three stories you can read online. If you like them, get the book – it’s worth it.
And those are three more stories I can’t use for my month of short stories in June, if I decide to do that.

Don’t worry, there are more where those came from.