Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those¬†MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because¬†everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

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Composers You Should Know Part 4

It’s been a while since the last “Composers You Should Know,” so let’s do another one. Recently Julia Wolfe’s piece Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I had been planning on including Wolfe in this series anyway, because she is a founder of one of the most important contemporary music collectives: Bang on a Can. If you don’t know about this, it came about in the late 80’s in New York to put on contemporary music concerts and remains an important source of new music concerts around the world.

Wolfe has written a large number of pieces for basically every ensemble, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go through three pieces in chronological order. Recordings of these pieces can be found for free at her website if you want to follow along. Wolfe has a very clear minimalist strain, but it could be said that a change happened in 1994 with her piece “Lick.”

Once the piece gets going, it almost feels like John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” with the style of minimalism it uses (as opposed to Reich, which is surprising considering the East coast/West coast divide in minimalism). But the important change is the introduction of pop culture elements, most prominently rock and funk.

The driving bass and drums simulate rock, and the guitar and sax introduce some funk riffs. All of this gets tied up in minimalism, but it isn’t that simple. Large sections of the piece lose all sense of time in a confusing mess. The work was groundbreaking and set the stage for how her style would progress in the following years.

In no way do I presume to speak for her or oversimplify anything, but we get a major change in the years after September 11, 2001. The next piece we will look at is “My Beautiful Scream,” which is a concerto for amplified string quartet. This piece is a direct response to the attacks and simulates a slow-motion scream. It almost completely throws off the driving rhythms in favor of building suspense through sustained dissonance.

It is a chilling and moving experience to listen to. The driving beat is part of her musical syntax, so it isn’t completely absent in this work. Here it feel more like pulses, quavers, and bouts of horror. Before, the technique was used to push the piece forward which made the listener feel light and floating along. Here we get a pulse that struggles, as if trapped, trying to stay above the dense sustained notes engulfing it.

In general, her music had been getting more complicated and dissonant, but after 2003 there is a sense that the tie to “Lick” is all but severed. The evolution happened little-by-little to arrive at darker, more severe, and emotionally rich pieces. That driving rhythm remained, but its purpose changed. Listen to “Cruel Sister,” “Fuel,” and “Thirst,” and then compare to earlier works like “Lick” and “Believing.”

This brings us to present day with “Anthracite Fields,” which is a study of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. It is a work for chorus and chamber ensemble. The choral parts are set to historical texts including lists of names of people who died mining. I’ve only heard the fourth movement in full from the website, but you can find pieces of other movements in the short documentary “The Making of Anthracite Fields.”

The piece is chilling at times and soaring and beautiful at others. There’s certainly some folk and Americana influence as well. I’m pretty excited to hear a recording. The work makes sense in her evolution as a composer and sounds like it is the most diverse and wide-ranging yet.

Overall, one of Julia Wolfe’s lasting achievements is her ability to blend and push the boundaries of rock and classical elements, but her finished products are so much more than that.

Composers You Should Know Part 2

Obviously this series could go on every week for the next year, so I’ll have to determine how far to take this. Recall that I’m trying to expose people to important living and working composers they may never have heard of. I’m not so sure about today’s choice, because in my circles he is a name people know.

Aaron Jay Kernis is someone you must familiarize yourself with if you haven’t heard of him. He studied under John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory and with several other people at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music. He has won more prizes, awards, and commissions than anyone I know of.

Let’s not focus on that stuff and instead get to the music. Stylistically he is often said to be neo-Romantic or post-Romantic with some minimalist influences. I’m not sure I agree, or could even explain what that is supposed to mean exactly.

The key thing I love so much about his music is how unfamiliar and original the chord progressions and melodies are without losing musicality. You could always create something new by using some random process to make the note choices for you, but that is the furthest thing from what is happening here.

Despite being engaging and interesting from the originality standpoint, the music still can be moving or heartrendingly beautiful. This is remarkable, because so much of music composition is setting up expectations and using familiar ideas to elicit certain responses in people. Kernis has the ability to do this after throwing away the conventions.

He is a magnificent orchestrator. He often produces wonderful and strange textures that are in constant flux and propel the music forward. The piece I’d recommend to hear all of these aspects is the second movement of the Second Symphony. It is moving, beautiful, and utilizes the orchestral textures while simultaneously being ominous and unfamiliar.

With how good his orchestral works are, I still think that his chamber works are where he excels the most. His second string quartet made him the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer. That piece is magnificent, but my favorite work of his of all time is still the first string quartet.

The first string quartet is usually listed under Musica Celestis if you want to find it. I think the Lark Quartet might have the only recording. I used to listen to this piece on repeat when I was in high school. It was without question one of the definitive pieces that made me want to be a composer. I’ve listened to it probably hundreds of times.

The first movement is aptly named “Flowing,” because the main first theme is a soaring, flowing melody. The piece is extremely dense and chaotic at parts. As I said before, it will feel very unfamiliar in terms of melodic lines, chord progressions, and even form, but it is more in an originality way rather than alienating. It still sounds natural.

The second movement “Adagio” is the movement I listen to the most. It starts slow and beautiful with long sustained, open chords. This is one of those deeply moving pieces. In the middle, the climax is shocking in its power.

He starts a low ascending pattern that climbs up higher and higher, getting faster and faster, to an intensity that is almost unbearable. Then the opening, chilling chord progression comes back while the intensity in the first violin lingers just a tad too long. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I found the effect so amazing that when I was younger I often tried to imitate it myself when I wrote pieces.

It only works if the performer is ready to fully put themselves out there. If you don’t go for it one hundred percent, then it will sound awkward because of how exposed it all it. Luckily, the Lark Quartet pull it off perfectly, and they will leave you with chills at the end of it.

One of the remarkable things about the string quartets is how large they can sound. He writes in a way that maximizes the medium’s potential. At times it is hard to tell whether it is a full string orchestra or just a quartet (there is a string orchestra version of the Adagio I just wrote about, but I think it isn’t as good, because the exposedness of that section needs to be one on a part to feel that way).

Anyway, I could go on like this all day about his music. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely check out some of his works, especially the first string quartet.

Composers You Should Know Part 1

I figured I would start a series on important living composers that most people are probably unaware of. I think a lot of symphony orchestras do a disservice by sticking to the classics. Even people that regularly attend orchestra performances have a hard time naming more than a handful of living composers outside of those that have made a bit of fame through movie scores (John Corigliano or Philip Glass come to mind).

It is a strange state of affairs if you consider any other artistic medium. An art connoisseur would have no problem listing living artists ad nauseum or an avid reader would have no problem listing living authors (and not just popular bestsellers). The blame can be spread over many sources, but it doesn’t help that the major orchestras shy away from new music. Public education doesn’t include it, either.

The person I’ve picked for today has been in the news a lot recently. Can you guess from that alone? John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year (did you know there was a Pulitzer for music?) for his work Become Ocean. As such, a lot of people have written about it, but I’ll give my own take in a bit. You may be thinking, “Ah, but I have heard of this person!” Make sure you are not confusing John Luther Adams with the minimalist composer John Adams (also recently in the news for his controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer).

John Luther Adams lives in Alaska, and this has been a major influence on his music. His pieces are often about some aspect of nature. Become Ocean fits into a larger program of the composer to create pieces about all the elements. This one is about water, but he has an earlier piece, Inuksuit, based on earth and one that has come out since then, Sila: The Breath of the World about air. I expect to see a piece about fire in the near future.

I have avoided reading much about Become Ocean, so I could write this without being influenced by other people’s reviews and interpretations. The Seattle Symphony comissioned the piece and premiered it in June of last year. Of course, when thinking about what an orchestral representation of the ocean would sound like, it is hard not to think of Debussy’s attempt with La Mer. You should get that out of your head, because this work is very different. Despite how much I love La Mer, I have to admit that Adams’ representation is brilliant.

Most of the work is quiet and almost zen-like. You can hear the gentle waves with short, scalar and arpeggio patterns up and down, up and down. It is hard to know for certain without a score, but it sounds like a piano keeps this ostinato going for the entire piece. On top of these waves are long, held notes tying the whole thing together with a dark murkiness.

This is most of the piece, and it may sound boring to you, but consider the following. The sun is setting, and you are sitting on the edge of a dock looking out over the ocean watching it. The repetitive waves transfix you, and you lose 45 minutes out there. It is beautiful and wonderful, not boring. That is this piece.

The piece, as a whole, continually shifts and moves. It has long, slow builds to magnificent climaxes. These moments are chilling in the strength and power, just as the ocean has the power to be a destructive force. It is amazing that the piece can seem so static, yet have so much underlying motion in the same way that changing your attention on the ocean can make it seem static or turbulent.

If you don’t listen to much modern music, then this would be a good place to start. The piece does not have a large barrier to entry like a serialist composition or quarter-tone piece or something with lots of references. Anyone can sit down and instantly be captured by the beauty. It will take a good deal of patience, though. There’s no melody or anything to command your attention. Like all great art, it requires some effort on the listener’s part. But that effort is well worth it.But that effort is well worth it.

John Ashbery

I own five books of poetry. All five of which are John Ashbery’s (Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains, Double Dream of Spring, and Three Poems). I first learned about John Ashbery over six years ago when I wrote a long paper analyzing The Ecclesiast. I wish I knew where that was, since nowadays I can’t make heads or tails of it, and a 15 page analysis would be useful.

Anyone reasonably familiar with contemporary American poetry has probably at least heard the name, since he won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (sometimes known as the “triple crown of poetry”) for his most famous book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. He is one of the first poets in what is known as the “New York School of Poets” which also consisted of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler.

The New York School of Poets is the basis of the book I just finished reading The Last Avant-Garde, though I don’t want to bring up the “avant-garde” discussion again. I must admit that I probably haven’t revisited these works in the past six years, which is sort of a shame, but also gives me a fresh clean way to look at them.

The most striking thing that I want to talk about is that back when I first got interested in Ashbery, it was because his poems were “cool.” They weren’t like any poetry I’d ever seen. Of course, what I didn’t realize was that that was the point. So what I learned from the book were a lot of the methods that the NY school used. They had some Dadaist-type influences. They liked the idea of randomness and chance playing an integral role in their poems. In general, the hated the Beats. The Beats were about rebellion and were intense. The NY school were more formalistic.

I think these ideas might be important as a movement, but Ashbery seems to differ. I didn’t notice this six years ago. Ashbery may have claimed to be using randomness, but his poems are far from it. They are also far from this notion that the NY school weren’t concerned with content. His poetry is actually astonishingly content packed. It isn’t even very obscured. I’m not stretching for some deep meaning. It really sort of slaps you in the face:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
clean-washed sea
The flowers were.
These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but–yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on
to divide all.
Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleep?

I can’t seem to get it to format properly. There is more whitespace in there. This is the opening to the huge prose poem The New Spirit. I know I’ve grown in my ability to interpret poetry, but really I think he is being quite clear in this opening. He is laying out (with example) how he is going to write the poem. The meaning is in what is left out. He starts right in after that on the nature of truth and in some sense the nature of consciousness (is life just a dream? how can we tell? things of this sort).

But that may seem sort of cliche or frivolous. Remember that is just the opening to a 31 page poem. And I can literally open up to any part of those 31 pages and get something even more profound (at random):

Nevertheless the winter wears on and death follows death. I’ve tried it, and know how the narrowing-down felling conflicts with the feeling of life’s coming to a point, not a climax but a point. At that point one must, yes, be selective, but not selective in one’s choices if you see what I mean. Not choose this or that because it pleases, merely to assume the idea of choosing, so that some things can be left behind.

This idea that life comes to a point as we get older is certainly not new. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the structure of The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy. I’ve never heard it phrased that way, though. The entire poem is a carefully phrased meditation on the nature of life and death. That is hardly void of content.

So my thesis of this blog post is just that I think Ashbery should be treated as a very special case of the NY school. Sure his poetry uses lots of neat tricks like self-reference and randomness, but when I hear NY school, I think it is too easy to think that the poet falls far from center on the form vs content scale. One could spend their whole life interpreting the content of this single Ashbery poem.

Rabbit, Run

I promised this a few weeks ago, but just haven’t gotten around to it. For all you literary types out there, don’t look shocked, but this was my first Updike novel. For those of you unfamiliar with Rabbit, Run it is the first book in a series of four. Two of the four won Pulitzer prizes (only one other author has won twice in the category of fiction, and he did it in the same set of novels!). Updike in general is probably more known for novels such as The Witches of Eastwick.

On to the actual book. I was infatuated with the writing for the first 50 pages or so. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was a sort of prose-poetry hybrid. Attention was paid to flow and rhythm and partial rhymes. The metaphorical language was beautifully constructed. Then I started getting into the story and didn’t notice it as much. I guess you could say I got used to it. This only lasted probably another 50 or so pages. Then the language started to really annoy me. What I considered great metaphorical language before was now just plain distracting.

Here is an example. I just opened to a random page completely confident that I would have a whole slew of choices. “Number 61 is a big brick place with white wood trim, a little porch imitating a Greek temple, and a slate roof that shines like the scales of a big fish.” Now that might not seem like much, but when it happens nearly every sentence it is hard to focus. I start thinking about Greek temples and fish. Maybe I just have a short attention span.

The story itself was great, in my opinion. Basically, this guy (people call him Rabbit), feels trapped in his life. He has the job he didn’t think he’d end up in, the wife he didn’t think he’d end up with, one child to feed and another on the way, routine, routine, routine…and he just needs to get out. So he runs. Leaves his pregnant wife one night.

Most reviews that I’ve looked up say that they hate the book because they can’t like Rabbit. That it is impossible to identify with a character so morally void. I’m not entirely sure these reviewers have ever truly examined their lives, though. I love what I do and it is exactly what I want to do, yet I can’t help but identify exactly with what Rabbit went through. What about people actually in his situation?

Here is why I condemn those reviewers and am going to set the record straight. I am at a relatively early stage of my life. I haven’t made it quite as far into “the trap” as Rabbit, since I don’t have a long-term job or family. But even my language there indicates how real this trap is. After grad school I will either get a post-doc or take a teaching position. Once I’m in a tenure track position, I’d be crazy to leave. All the while I’m fighting to establish myself as a researcher and teacher to get the tenure. Once you have tenure, you’d be crazy to leave, so that determines where I live for the rest of my life. When you truly examine it, you start to realize, am I deciding my life, or has it been preplanned for me?

There seems to be this socially accepted stages to life. You haven’t lived a successful life unless you go through these. So now you start asking yourself the question, well, I don’t particularly want to change my path, but if I did, could I? Remember, I’m at an early stage, but even this early, how significantly could I really alter my the path I just listed? Luckily, I’m not that far into the trap, so I probably could, but if I had a minimum wage job with a family, I probably couldn’t get up one morning quit and say that I want to become an author or something. Once you realize that you are stuck, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you want to change or not. It is the whole fact that you can’t. It is like someone else is controlling your life and not you anymore.

I should stop harping on this point. To sum up, other great points come up in the novel about religion and its role in situations like these. I don’t want to really give anything else away. I just wanted to emphasize the point that most people hate the book because they can’t identify with Rabbit, and I say how can you not?