And Then Some
JUNE 28, 1999:
The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison Houghton Mifflin, $28 hard
Great short stories must, to borrow from Tim O'Brien's masterpiece, carry "all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." For a short story to resonate with a terrible power capable of leaving a reader awed, it must pull off a literary hat trick of astounding complexity. In ascending order these three feats are: to provide in an astonishingly compressed period of literary time sufficient dramatic motivation for the story's main character; to discover and render in response to this motivation the single, perfect dramatic action capable of bringing the story satisfyingly to closure; and finally, to magically capture a sense of the story's world opening out into eternity despite the brevity of what has unfolded. This magic is the "and then some" mentioned above, and few stories achieve it, mainly because they remain resolutely single-minded, trapped on a solitary plane of the story. The best pieces in John Updike's Best American Stories of the Century open into the eternal, ultimately, because they capture, in compressed form, alternate and multiple levels of reality -- history, dream, hallucination, myth -- and they achieve this multilayered quality, generally, by discovering something formally new, extending the medium of the short at the same time that they honor its traditions.
Formal invention alone, however, does not cut it. A character's desire is what pulls a reader into a story, and the greater and deeper the desire, the greater the story. Hemingway's "The Killers," which felt new at one time, now seems emotionally adolescent, with Nick's decision to warn the Swede, which arrives completely without motivation, appearing boyishly sentimental. Donald Barthelme's "The City of Churches" seems dated and thin for the same lack of dramatic and emotional sweep and intensity. On the other hand, Nabokov's "That in Aleppo Once ... " compresses a moving love story as well as a vivid picture of the horrifying exodus from central Europe during WWII inside a metafictional framework that is fashioned out of a letter sent by the story's narrator to V., asking him not to write a story about what he tells him. And Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Key" fuses a perfectly detailed depiction of New York City's Upper West Side with one woman's transit to heaven where she is reunited with her dead husband.
Formal invention and emotional desire, though, need the thrust of a perfectly pitched voice if a story is to soar, and the collection offers up several examples of what Nabokov -- who knew -- deemed to be the toughest trick in literary fiction, to write a great story using a first person narrator. First person only conjures up its particular magic when the narrator displays, with extraordinary subtlety, a separation from him or herself either through ironic distance or self-condemnation for one's behavior. This distance, and therefore the complicated beauty of first-person narration, can never be achieved by a voice concerned only with being earnest for the same reason that great stories need to operate on several levels at once in order to produce emotional resonance. If you compare the first-person narrator's sugary sincerity in Alice Adams' "Roses, Rhododendron" or Bernard Malamud's narrator's workman-like march toward the melodramatic finale of "The German Refugee" (Updike admits he considered Malamud's exquisite story "The Magic Barrel, then selected this one without offering a good reason why) with the deft, gritty intelligence of Roth's narrator in "Defender of the Faith" or the pained bemusement of James Alan McPherson's narrator in "Gold Coast," you will, I believe, detect the microscopic difference in literature that accounts for gold, as opposed to the gold-plated. --Tom Grimes
Although it might be tempting to label Gish Jen's latest collection of short stories as "identity stories," there's more here than what appears to be, at face value, an encapsulation of a number of Chinese and Chinese-American experiences. The title story, which opens the collection, most explicitly focuses on ethnic identity, taken from the first-person view of a Chinese immigrant whose child-rearing methods clash with her daughter's, a conflict that emerges over the narrator's care of her Chinese-Irish granddaughter and is told in a clipped English that is more winsome than condescending.
But dig further into the book, and you'll see that while Jen does focus on identity throughout, she is highly capable of more subtle explorations of this theme, preferring to highlight her range and her imagination. On the novella-length "House, House, Home," one of the few stories in the collection not previously published, Jen experiments with style and tone in a disarming yet deft manner, following an art student-turned-mother through a failed marriage and an unexpectedly tender relationship with a professor, which preceded the marriage. In "Birthmates," Jen follows a middle-aged salesman to a convention in a story that skewers corporate culture while creating a sympathetic character who is locked out of the corporate in-group, only partially because of his Chinese heritage. In "Chin," an extremely short story which appeared in a Granta shorts collection last year, Jen examines a Chinese-American student's ostracization and tumultuous home life through the eyes of a white student who "wasn't his friend, but wasn't one of the main kids who hounded him up onto the shed roof, either." There's a distinctness to each of the nine stories here, each with their own carefully measured equations of humor and pathos, which, while speaking to Jen's admirable range, almost requires the reader to digest the collection in story-by-story chunks rather than attempting to read the whole thing straight through in search of links and convergences. While the question of identity and finding one's niche overarches each of the stories here, they all carry such closure and resonance that taking them as chapters, rather than self-sufficient microcosms, will actually make it more difficult to enter each of the individual doors Jen has left open. --Phil West
Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but it's possible that Scotland's J.K. Rowling has written the perfect fantasy novel of our time. Some might say of all time, because Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets really is that good.
Eleven-year-old Harry Potter debuted in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone (titled The Philosopher's Stone in the U.K., where I suppose that title conjures up images more romantic than Intro to Philo 101 courses). Since then the magical lad with the hideous step-family (the Dursleys) has become an international publishing phenomenon, winning awards and camping out on bestseller lists.
In Chamber of Secrets, Harry and friends have returned from summer break to the Hogworts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry for their second year of training. Amidst the usual schoolboy antics, horrible things involving the Dark Arts begin to happen: Students are turned to stone, the Chamber of Secrets is opened, and headmaster Dumbledore is relieved of his post. Harry and his friends have no choice but to find the Chamber of Secrets and the villainous Heir of Slytherin before it's too late. Rowling's inventive plotting is startling and bold -- not the usual half-baked condescension that passes for storyline in run-of-the-mill kids' books. This (along with sympathetic characters and facile storytelling) is a great part of Harry's popularity.
But the true brilliance of these books is that they invent a thoroughly original picture of a contemporary world that can accommodate wizards, witches, and all manner of supra-natural manifestations. Rowling updates hoary clichés like broomstick-riding, magic wands, and cauldrons of potions. Broomsticks like the Nimbus Two Thousand, for example, are just the thing for the competitive quidditch player (the book explains all). And there are loads of wizardly puns to wade through. Magic flight is accomplished through the use of "floo" powder that sends the user flying, yes indeed, up the chimney flue to their destination. It is irreverent and fun and full of surprises.
The Harry Potter series (look for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in September) is the perfect antidote to the twin diseases of pessimism and cynicism that trouble us on the verge of the millennium. Young Harry Potter is thoroughly of our time, but timeless. A hero minus the cornball, square-jaw, steely eyed gaze. He is bespectacled, befuddled, and believable. Harry's geeky cool rocks the Nineties like Buddy Holly rocked the Fifties.
Every child should read Harry Potter. Every parent should read Harry Potter to their child. Childless adults should adopt so they can get a copy "for the kids." Harry is magic and he doesn't miss a trick. --Mike Shea
Later Auden picks up whereEarly Auden left off, from the moment in 1939 when, with Christopher Isherwood, Auden steps off the boat from Europe onto the New York streets as "a light snow disfigured the public statues." It ends with Auden's death, or, as Mendelson puts it, when Auden's "work was done." In fact, throughout this biography, Auden's work and life are consistently blurred. Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor and an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University, looks at Auden's life almost exclusively through Auden's poetry. Auden's every struggle, and there were many -- with his gift, with his strong political and religious beliefs, with fame, with love -- is interpreted through the looking glass of Auden's writing.
Rather than a date-by-date, investigative journalistic report on Auden's affair with Chester Kallman, for example, Mendelson looks at poems Auden wrote during their love affair, from the first afternoon romp until the abrupt and bitter end. With a sestina-by-sestina analysis of "Heavy Date," Mendelson attempts to explain how Auden surrendered his "the wise bow to the beautiful" theory of love and developed the ability to love people instead of qualities.
What Mendelson's tome amounts to is high-quality, intellectually profound back story on Auden's work, which Mendelson quotes to the tune of approximately one poem per page. If, as Auden himself said, "an autobiography is redundant since anything of importance that happens to one is immediately incorporated, however obscurely, in a poem," then this biography is simply a faithful clarification of Auden's own self-commentary. Chock-a-block with literary theory, and with an expert correlation between theory and instance, this work is an English major's dream, an Auden fan's bible. At nearly 600 pages, Later Auden (much less the complete two-volume set) is also not for the casual gossip monger.
There is much to be said for the way in which Mendelson fashions an interpretation of a life through the life's work. Sacrificed is the anecdotal style of most biographies; few prurient details here. But what Mendelson ekes out in the process of his lofty, poem-centered analysis are the "organizing metaphors" of Auden's life, almost as though Auden's life story were a poem in and of itself. Indeed, as far as literary biographies go, it would be difficult to find one more thorough, more detailed, more strictly literary than this. --Ada Calhoun
If you're a Caucasian who burns incense twice daily, listens to Ravi Shankar regularly, and drapes Indian prints over every surface of your home, this may not be the book for you. Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language pokes endless fun at an arguably superficial Western fascination with India, and anyone who's ever dreamed of visiting this ultimate Land of Enchantment may cringe in embarrassed self-recognition upon reading Siegel's novel. The kicker is, however, that Siegel himself is a white professor of Indian religions, so not only does he know what he's talking about, he includes himself and other Asian scholars in his indictment of oriental romanticism. The result is a hilarious and insightful satire of academia, the Kama Sutra, Western notions of the East, and the human tendency to idealize romantic love.
The novel chronicles India scholar Leopold Roth's attempt to seduce an unwilling American-born Indian undergraduate, Lalita Gupta, while he simultaneously translates the Kama Sutra. Roth believes he cannot truly understand the Kama Sutra, or India, until he has sex with an Indian woman: "I am a tenured full professor of Indian studies, a Sanskrit scholar, and yet never, never in my life, have I made love to an Indian woman. Is that just, right or good? While I have had the oral pleasure of eating Indian food and endured the gastrointestinal torment of Indian dysentery, my psycho-sexo-Indological development has been arrested; I yearn to move to the phallic and then the genital stages of Indology," Roth remarks in his work. The progress of Roth's seduction is dutifully transcribed and woven together with his translation, as well as with other details of his life, including remembrances of his Indiaphile movie-star father and the courtship of his beloved wife Sophia. Unable to tear Lalita away from her basketball-star boyfriend, Roth finagles a fake summer study-abroad program to India with Lalita as his only student. After an exhausting summer of coaxing Lalita's affection, Roth returns home to find he's been left by his wife and suspended from teaching. Within a few months he is mysteriously dead, beaten to death by his own massive Sanskrit-English dictionary. The completion of Roth's translation is begrudgingly undertaken by graduate student Anang Saighal,whose abstruse footnotes to Roth's text add a tongue-in-cheek academicness to the story, and thus round out Siegel's cadre of targets for ridicule.
The beauty of Siegel's multilayered approach in Love in a Dead Language is that the novel can be taken as lightly or seriously as the reader wishes. Read it for its sharply funny attack on reality-impaired scholars, for the Kama Sutra board game and CD-Rom, for the sex secrets of a nonagenarian former movie-star. Or read it as a serious commentary on lust, love, intellectualism, the illusion of culture, and the culture of illusion. Whatever your motivations -- and this novel accommodates many -- just make sure you read it. --Jessica Berthold
In When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography, Jill Ker Conway begins by asking two timely questions: "Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?" and "Why are so many people moved to write their life stories today?" Utilizing her credentials as the author of her own bestselling memoirs, The Road From Coorain and True North, and as Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she sets about to not only answer these questions but to offer an academic context for understanding and creating our own life stories. For Conway, our identities are strongly conditioned by social norms and customs that become the subliminal "inherited scripts" by which we interpret our lives.
Drawing upon the texts of autobiographers throughout modern and postmodern times, Conway shows how Western archetypal patterns and social and economic realities shape a writer's inherited scripts and "reveal a kind of history of the way we understand the self." Whether it's the industrious and self-made Benjamin Franklin, or the corporate-driven Lee Iacocca, their sense of power and self-agency dominates their narratives and reinforces the image of the self-made secular hero who stands as an icon for male achievement.
For women, the lack of voice in politics and industry is reflected in the romantic heroine whose identity and destiny is determined not by her actions but by her happenstance to people, causes, or history. So both Jane Adams, founder of this country's first settlement home designed to aid impoverished immigrants, and Katharine Graham, Washington Post publisher, are compelled to conceal their own motives by describing their achievements in passive voices. Unlike their male peers, Adams and Graham can't relate their achievements directly to any action but rather as part of a destiny beyond their control.
While Conway doesn't quite prove the case that reading autobiographies provides a "humanistic discourse" with which to scrutinize our own lives, she demonstrates the need to critically think about our own inherited scripts so that our actions, not our stories, define us. "Search for ways we experience life differently from the inherited version and edit the plot accordingly," Conway advises in her typically professorial fashion. Even for those who aren't on the memoir bandwagon, Conway's insights into history, culture, and identity make When Memory Speaks worthy reading. You may never think of your own story the same again. --Annine Miscoe
Although I doubt it's intended to, Judith Hennessee's Betty Friedan: Her Life is bound to be used as fodder for antifeminist fires. Friedan's a slob (which explains her famous no-housework rant) and her marriage was a loveless ruin (Carl Friedan used to beat the crap out her, but, hey, Betty got in a few shots, too), which should delight the old-guard, Eagle Forum types. Twenty-three-year-old Not Feminists will shake their heads sadly, secure in the knowledge that they have nothing in common with a woman like Friedan. She's so insecure she couldn't get along with her own shadow, much less the other feminist leaders she's always lumped in with -- most especially, Gloria Steinem. One thing Hennessee makes clear, and it's an important point: Friedan collided with other feminists, both because she differed from them in ideology and because she was always jockeying for position. Friedan is not much of a collaborator.
But to tell the truth, I don't know what this book is intended to do. For if we come away with nothing else about Betty Friedan, it is this: She is not nice. This information is undeniably important in a biography. And in Friedan's case, her irascibility and total insensitivity toward others (not to mention her drinking) probably held her back -- as an author, a leader, and a human being. Okay. But I just don't think this same character flaw would be as exhaustively analyzed in a biography about a male leader -- say, César Chavez (who, for all I know, was a pussycat).
This seems to me to dovetail with one of Friedan's points of her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique. She said: In our society, if women were not nice and did not marry and keep house and raise beautiful children, they were considered Not Really Women. That was an awful thing to be, because there was nothing much you could do about it. Betty Friedan, for all her flaws (for publicity purposes, she even misrepresented herself as a suburban hausfrau breaking free -- she was never that) challenged that assumption. And the world hasn't been the same since.
And actually, after the chapter on The Feminine Mystique, Hennessee's book sort of lapses into a and-then-this-happened, and-then-that-happened reportage about her years with the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus. Before that, we're treated to an interesting psychological study of a woman learning to become her own worst enemy. Friedan was always jealous of her younger, prettier, but less brainy sister; her father died before she had a chance to make up with him after an argument; she might have become one of the country's most eminent psychologists, if she had not succumbed to graduate student panic and turned down a prestigious fellowship. But maybe Hennessee's book only follows Friedan's tragic lead -- brilliant and promising at the outset, crotchety and hateable in the middle, now worn out and probably going to die soon. --Roseana Auten
Horton Foote's Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood, is a fond reminiscence of the people and place that raised him. For those born in these parts, reading it is like listening to your grandfather talk. Judging from the tender, if not always flattering, anecdotes about friends and relatives, Foote would agree with another Southern storyteller, Harry Crews, who once wrote, "Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people."
Foote doesn't pull any punches about South Texas' harsh racial and religious environment in the early part of this century. Although prejudice abounded, the author makes the oblique observation that good people do what's right -- or at least what they think is right. A staunch Al Smith Democrat, Foote's father remarked about the 1928 presidential election, "God knows what Texas will do, son. The Baptists run Texas, but they don't run me." I never knew Texas Baptists were to blame for Herbert Hoover.
All this is not to say I don't empathize with one reviewer who wrote, perhaps harshly, "It's like being trapped in a tiny room with an elderly relative, forced hour after hour to listen to pointless reminiscences, shopworn stories, and didactic meanderings." To enjoy reading Farewell, a weakness for nostalgia helps.
After establishing himself as one of the country's preeminent men of letters, Foote returned to Wharton, about 45 miles southwest of Houston. He again resides in the same house he grew up in as a boy. In a career that has spanned more than five decades, he has collected most of the literary accolades short of the Nobel Prize. He has won two Academy Awards for his film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and the original Tender Mercies (1983). In recognition of his lifetime achievement, Foote earned an honorary award this year from the Writers Guild of America and will be fêted by the Texas Book Festival in November. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play Young Man From Atlanta, which will be staged here in mid-July by the State Theater Company. -- Cary L. Roberts
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