Year of Short Fiction Part 8: Tenth of December

Today we dive into the short fiction of George Saunders.

Saunders made it in the literary world on short fiction alone. He might be the only person I know of to do this. His first novel came out earlier this year and that was twenty-one years after his first story collection (and novella). I can’t believe I’ve made it nine months through the Year of Short Fiction without getting to him. There’s so much to learn.

I once watched an interview with Saunders, and he said that some of his stories start out as 200+ page novels. Then he realizes how unnecessary most of that is. It sometimes takes years or even a decade, but eventually it gets distilled down to the important bits, only a few pages long. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to do this. Most writers don’t want to do the work it takes to produce short fiction with this type of professional mindset.

I haven’t finished the whole collection Tenth of December yet, but I wanted to do a post on the title story. I don’t know how much longer this story started, but holy is it dense. I had to go back and read the first three paragraphs again after I finished the story for them to make sense.

We’re dropped into a character’s head with pretty much no context as to what’s going on. The descriptions are scatterbrained and keep referencing people and things that make sense to the character but not the reader. Some of the words and people are made up.

This is a character with a fully developed voice and backstory and eventually it starts to make sense, but this is exactly how you’d expect it to be inside someone’s head the first time. If it makes sense right off, you’re doing it wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t take as much time to get your bearings as I made it sound, but everything mentioned does play a role. So we figure out that we’re in the head of a child who has gone out to play. He’s making up stories, but he’s pretending they’re real. So to the reader it’s a little disorienting as to what’s real and what’s made up.

We also realize the short, choppy, scattered sentences with bad grammar and made up slang makes sense for a child. The voice is whimsical in what details keep getting added on for effect:

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

Then we change characters. The voice is unmistakably different. The sentences are more refined. It’s wiser, older, melancholy. But there’s something off. Then we realize he can’t get to certain words. Sometimes they come out as a similar sounding word that makes no sense in the context.

This man has something wrong with him. It’s obvious from the voice alone before we find out the truth. The story is so good and suspenseful and moving once it gets going that I don’t want to spoil any of that by revealing what’s wrong or what happens. I want to keep focusing on the voice, because I think that’s one of the best things we can learn from this story.

It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.

His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.

Let. Let me do it cling.

Clean.

Cleanly.

I think this type of really close third person is amazing in short fiction. It can get tiresome in a whole novel, but here it reveals so much in so little space. It’s entirely in the character’s voice.

The stream of consciousness takes us from what he’s doing to past times he’s done difficult things. This allows us to get a sense of the character in a natural way that would be hard to work in otherwise.

I’ve already exlained the word thing, but it’s pretty amazing the first time it appears and you have to work out what’s going on. “Leg me do it cling.” I read that, and was super confused. I had to read it again thinking I’d missed something. Then I continued as the character fights to find the right words. My confusion shifted to curiosity. What in the world was going on with him that he had trouble?

This is my takeaway. This collection of stories is a masterclass in how voice isn’t just another tool of characterization. It can be an integral part of the tension and action of the story if used properly.

I highly recommend checking out these stories and reading them with this in mind.

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Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 1: Lyotard

I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.

I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.

I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.

I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.

I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore. I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.” Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.

Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.

The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.

I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.

I don’t think this is that controversial. He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge. The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.

This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.

The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.

This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.

Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.

Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science. Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).

All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?

And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.

The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.

Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.

How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.

I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.

When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.

I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.

I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.

A Critique of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I recently got around to playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s one of those games I picked up forever ago, and it just sat around. I got it because it has to be one of the most critically acclaimed games I’ve ever seen. Giant Bomb and many, many other gaming sites gave it a 5/5 or very near such a perfect score.

I’m going to take a contrarian view, and I’m going to back up my claims with hard facts. Anyone paying attention and who knows about games should know better. I’m very confused as to how “experts” could have thought this game was good. I’m confused how “experts” could have even liked the game.

First, the game suffered from genre confusion. I’m all for experimenting with new, cross-genre ideas, but there has to be some content there at the end of the day. Was it a puzzle game? No. It fails on this front, because I never once had to “solve” something. From start to finish, the solution of how to progress was immediately obvious. Moreover, many of the puzzles repeated … several times … like, way too many times for a game this short.

Was it a platformer? No. The platforming aspects were too easy, and the stakes were too low. I think I died at one point because I accidentally let go of a trigger. That was my only death, and basically it happened because I itched my face or something. I got to repeat the task immediately with no penalty.

There is no platforming difficulty at all. In fact, many elements were downright bad on this front:

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The number of places where you must edge around a cliff or cross a narrow bridge got on my nerves. Not because I had to execute something challenging, but because the game designers clearly have no idea why other games use these elements. There is no risk of falling. The game won’t let you—I tried. So what’s the point other than to slow the player down? It’s more than an annoyance; it’s bad game design.

Basically, the game must be a story-driven walking simulator, because we’ve now determined it isn’t any of the other genres it’s crossed with. So how is the story? Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. It’s terrible.

First, it starts with a MacGuffin. This is already bad, mostly because we don’t even know what we’re setting off on our adventure to find. We only know it will magically save our father. That’s convenient. Where are we going? How do we know this cure will work? Don’t the writer’s know that MacGuffins are considered a cliche trope indicative of bad storytelling?

Then we haven’t even left our town and a kid is trying to stop us. Why? Our father is dying, and this kid doesn’t want to let us through. I get it. They needed an excuse to set up some “platforming puzzles” (that, recall, require no platforming or puzzle-solving skills). But you can’t have such a disgusting character with no motivation. I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” because I’ve never consciously experienced it. But here I did. This conflict between gameplay and story already ruined the mood of the game in the first five minutes.

Another act of ludonarrative dissonance was when I got to this big castle that I couldn’t enter, but it had these perfectly placed pegs to grab on to (not quite the picture I wanted, but you get the point):

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Really? This highly fortified castle has this convenient other way to scale it with perfectly placed pegs, just the right distance so that the rope randomly tied between the two brothers barely reaches. Is this a story game or a puzzle platformer? If it’s a platformer, we could overlook these huge narrative flaws. But it doesn’t work as a game in that genre. It’s a story game, but these scenarios wreck the suspension of disbelief for the story.

More succinctly, in the language of game design, these sections involve “environmental puzzles,” but the puzzles don’t occur naturally in the environment at all. This is bad game design.

And let’s not even go there with the deus ex machinas. Are you stuck and can’t actually progress? Yes? Oh, well, good thing a giant appears out of nowhere and just throws you across the ravine. Did you get to the top of the castle only to be at a dead end? Good thing there is a bird trapped in a cage that will fly you to the next area.

It gets worse. How is that bird still alive? It’s been trapped in a cage for who-knows-how-long, bleeding, without any food, and all the people that could feed it are dead. Are we really supposed to believe the bird is still alive?

Lastly, people claim the ending is really sad. They claim they were moved to tears. I couldn’t get past the shrieking woman singing that shrill song at the climax. It ruined the mood. Ending Spoiler:

On a more serious note, I’ve already mentioned all the reasons I never got into the story: ludonarrative dissonance, tropes/cliches, unmotivated characters, ruined suspension of disbelief, plot holes, etc. I just didn’t feel anything except relief the game was over.

On positive note, the concept could have been amazing. Part of what made the game easy was that the core concept was never executed to its fullest. You have to move one of the brothers with one hand and the other with the other hand.

The potential for some truly interesting and difficult gameplay is there. All they had to do was design parts where you have to move both at the same time in fairly precise and independent ways. Instead, they stuck to having you move both in parallel or one at a time. That was the main downfall of the game: It didn’t even deliver on its core innovative mechanic.

Overall, each element has much better games. For puzzle platforming, there are dozens of examples: Braid, Thomas Was Alone, Teslagrad, Super Meat Boy, Trine, and on and on. For story, there are dozens of examples: Gone Home, Bastion, To the Moon, and on and on. For atmosphere: Limbo, Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, The Long Dark, and on and on. I see no reason why anyone should play this game under any circumstance. There’s just much better games on every front.

I know. The whole is better than the sum of its parts for some games. In this case, that is not true. In fact, many parts messed up other parts. What the critics and people who liked this game were thinking is beyond me.

On Barthes’s “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”

I feel I may have been a little unfair in choosing “From Work to Text” last post. In the same collection of essays, Image – Music – Text, is a much better introduction to what Barthes is known for: (post-)structuralism.

Recall that structuralism began back in the very early 1900’s (maybe even very late 1800’s) with linguists like Saussure. Barthes begins the essay by recalling this work. They studied the idealized structure of language and pointed out how this ideal linguistics may be different than actual usage. This gave a systematic way to go about studying it which was still important.

If you’ve ever tried to read any structuralism, then you know that it is full of jargon. The most important words to know are parole vs langue and signifier vs signified. Langue refers to the idealized language we study and parole to the use of language in everyday life. Signifier means the word itself (i.e. the collection of sounds or scribbles on the page) and signified is what the word refers to.

Barthes wrote this essay in the 70’s, so linguistic structuralism had essentially died at this point due to people like Derrida and Chomsky. But Barthes mostly brings up Saussure as an analogy to what he wants to do. Narratives are also composed of chunks which can be identified, and they are structured in a meaningful way which can be studied.

Barthes identifies three main levels of description for a narrative: function, action, and narration. He uses “function” for the smallest unit of a narrative, because it is to consist of things like Chekhov’s gun. One unit might be the reference of a rifle on the wall. The rifle will function later in the story.

Barthes finds that identifying the functional units becomes increasingly more complicated the more you think about it. For one, he makes an assumption I don’t quite agree with to make things easier: art has no noise. If the author refers to a red sweater, the detail is not just meaningless noise, it must have some significance. If you want a rule of thumb, the functional units will be roughly each sentence unless there is strong reason to divide the sentence or include two.

These units come in two types: functions and indices. We already pointed out that function means the unit serves a function in the narrative like the gun example. An index unit integrates more diffuse information like the atmosphere. To understand the meaning of this type of unit one must move to a higher level of description (action or narration).

He then goes on to classify functional units even further into four functions: nuclei, catalysts, indices, and informants. These are what they sound like. The nuclei form the core of the story in the sense that deleting one fundamentally alters the story; a catalysts makes an event happen; indices we described already; and informants identify a location in time and place for the narrative.

Barthes then goes on to describe ways in which these units can interact. For example, the catalysts act on various nuclei. If this interests you, read the essay, but it may be a useful exercise to think about it yourself.

He calls a logical succession of nuclei bound together in some way, a “sequence.” For example, a short sequence of three functional units could be: hand held out, hand shaken, hand released. This small sequence might sit in a larger “meeting sequence”: approach, halt, hand shake, sit.

The next level of description was action. In a narrative, each actor/character belongs to a sphere of action. There are relatively few spheres per narrative (compared to functional units), and these can be classified. He gives a brief historical summary of people’s attempts to do this, but we’ll skip that for the sake of space.

The important thing is to not confuse short, trivial actions, which are functional units, with large scale “actants” between the characters. The classification comes in three main types: communication, desire/quest, and ordeal.

Barthes’s explanation of the last level of description, narration, becomes characteristically vague, because he turns to the classic problem of reader/writer interaction. There is, of course, clear evidence of the narrator in a narration (the fact that the words are there at all!). It turns out, there is just as much evidence of a reader, but these are more subtle.

For example, if a narrator says that his friend Susie owns the coffee shop, this is presumably not to remind himself of a fact he already knows. It exists on the assumption that the reader does not know, and hence shows there must be a reader. He goes on to describe types of narration, which I’ve discussed here.

One of the main points of the narrative level is to integrate the lower levels into a coherent whole. He calls this integration whereas the other fundamental process is called segmentation. He goes on to describe how functional distortion of these units can have meaning. For example, the unit of shaking hands can be interrupted by a sequence of thoughts. It is one unit which has been distorted and segmented for a reason.

He gives some more examples of segmentation and integration, but that is the main idea of the essay. I think it is far better and more useful than “From Work to Text.” Although structuralism and post-structuralism were major academic movements, I feel, like Sontag, that a lot more popular criticism can make use of structural analysis.

Narrative Voice vs Narrative Perspective

I’ve been on a bit of a Gérard Genette kick lately. If you don’t know who he is, then you probably haven’t studied much narrative theory. He is mostly known for his work on structuralism, but I’ve never really found the structuralists that interesting or compelling. Genette’s other major work was to almost single-handedly invent the foundations for modern narrative theory (in the 70’s).

It is true that Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (from which the idea of “show don’t tell” originated) came first. But until Genette’s groundbreaking Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method it wasn’t really thought that the narratology could be applied to anything more than simple, contrived examples. Genette clarified the terms we use today like “voice” and “mood” and showed how they can be used to examine actual complex literature (he used Proust’s In Search of Lost Time).

Today I want to pull out an interesting concept from Narrative Discourse. The concepts of narrative voice and narrative perspective tend to get lumped together as the “point of view” in inattentive analysis, yet the distinction is important and clear in contemporary literature.

To illustrate the distinction, let’s consider an example. I write a story with a third-person limited viewpoint about a child growing up. There is a clear main character, and we only see things from his “point of view.” Now what if I tell you that the narration is done through a set of journal entries from the child’s mother. Nothing about the story itself has changed, but it seems the “point of view” should be the mother.

The confusion comes from conflating two distinct notions. The first is narrative perspective. In our example, the narrative perspective is the child. Genette would say the story is “focalized” through the child, because the story unfolds with the child as the main character. The other concept is narrative voice. The voice of the narration in our example is the mother.

I think most people are probably comfortable with the distinction between voice and perspective, because these ideas have become universal. That’s why it is kind of surprising that it wasn’t until somewhat recently (in comparison to how long writers have been using the distinction) that we actually had terms to talk about them.

Of course, you can intentionally make these the same, but this tends to be more work than keeping them separate. You often hear, “You must develop/find your voice as a writer.” If you use your own voice for the narration, which will come most naturally, then the narrative voice is you and not the main character. To write in the main character’s voice will take a tremendous effort, because you have to overcome all of your own natural tendencies and stick to a consistent fictional voice.

Also, notice how much complexity can enter into a work merely by being aware of this distinction. There is a narrator, who could be a fully fleshed out fictional character, and there are one or more focal lenses to the narration. The narrator can learn of various events in a certain order. Then they can relay those events in a different order, which could be totally different from the order in which they happen to the main characters.

The main characters will have feelings and emotional reactions to events. The narrator can have totally different ones. The narrator can try to skew the telling of events due to their reaction. As you see, keeping the voice and perspective separate can be a useful tool for making complex and rewarding fiction. In fact, all the complexities listed here can be found as fairly standard technique these days.

If you are interested in isolating various elements of narrative such as voice and perspective, then I definitely recommend looking at this classic work.