Year of Short Fiction Part 6: Cosmicomics

I’ve sort of been dreading this one, but it’s the only thing remaining on my short fiction list that I own. Three years ago I wrote up my interpretation of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino can be strange and highly symbolic, but that book’s meaning jumped out at me with little effort. He had constructed a condensed history of critical theory through the story.

I had a vague familiarity with Cosmicomics, so I knew it would be harder. The stories all feature or are told by a character named Qfwfq. Each story starts with a tidbit of science such as:

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the galaxy.

The story that follows is usually related to this somehow. The collection as a whole can be read as a symbolic retelling of the history of the universe. Calvino has taken real science and created mythologies that actually fit the data.

But it’s more than that. The stories often have a moral to them or a symbolic quality. They aren’t just fictionalizations of the events of the early universe. They’re almost parables like classic mythology. He’s achieved something odd with these.

The collection came out in 1965, fairly early in Calvino’s career, and well before the highly experimental If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino believed realism to be dead, and these stories mark his foray into a new type of fiction. He held on to pieces of realism but incorporated highly fantastical elements.

That’s enough of an overview, let’s dig into my favorite story to see these elements at work. “All at One Point” is a story about the Big Bang. More specifically, it’s about the time when the universe existed in a single point.

The beginning of the story comically plays with the idea that “we were all there.” On a scientific level, this is obviously true. Every atom in the universe existed in the singular point “before” the Big Bang. This includes every atom in our bodies, so we were physically there.

Calvino cleverly takes this statement to its extreme form and personifies us as actually existing at one point. The narrator, Qfwfq, says, “…having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pber^t Pber^t underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.”

The story spends quite a bit of time in a Flatland-type thought experiment. Through humorous interactions, Calvino teases apart a lot of odd ideas about what it actually would mean to collapse the universe to a single point. For example, one couldn’t count how many people were there, because that would require pulling apart, no matter how slightly.

One family, the Z’zu, got labelled “immigrants.” This, of course, makes no sense, because there is no such thing as outside or inside the point. There is no such thing as before or after the point. Time only started at the Big Bang. So the family couldn’t have come from somewhere else.

The humor in this surface-level reading of the story is already worth it, and I won’t spoil any of the other awkward moments shared by these people from all occupying the same point.

Then the story turns its attention to Mrs Ph(i)Nk_o. She is one of the Z’zu, the family everyone hated. But she’s different. She is pure happiness and joy, and no one can say anything bad about her.

In an act of epic generosity, despite what people say about her family, she says:

Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!

That’s what causes the Big Bang. The universe is made and expands and the Sun and planets and everything. It all happened because of a true act of selflessness and love. The phrasing of the final paragraph is very moving. I won’t quote it here, because I think it must be read in context to be appreciated.

The theme, when condensed to a pithy phrase, is something like “love can make universes.” It sounds really cliche and cheesy, and I think this is one of the things that makes these stories so brilliant. In the moment of reading, they feel profound and fresh.

Calvino’s use of vivid space imagery takes you on a grand journey. These cliche themes are the same that one can find in all the great ancient stories. They only feel tired when done in modern stories. By creating his own mythology, Calvino is able to revisit these sorts of themes without embarrassment.

For the Year of Short Fiction, I do want to return to the question of: why short? In other words, does great short fiction have a genuine uniqueness to it, or is it essentially the same as a novel, just shorter?

I think here we can definitively say that this type of writing can only work in short stories. Even expanding one of these to a novella length would be too much. These stories each revolve around a conceit and a theme. The conceit would grow tiresome if done for too long. I cannot imagine a novella of jokes about everyone existing on top of each other. They would lose their impact.

What excites me about Cosmicomics is that this is the first thing I’ve read this year that I feel this way about. I could imagine the novellas I’ve read and even Cthulhu working as full novels. They wouldn’t be as tightly written, but they’d still work. The very nature of Cosmicomics is that they are short stories. I’m glad to have finally found this.

I should stipulate, though, that one can read the entire collection of stories as a novel: an autobiography of Qfwfq’s life and fictionalization of the history of the universe. This is also an interesting and unique aspect, because almost every short story collection I can think of has separate, unrelated stories. This full collection should be read together to get the best experience.

Year of Short Fiction Part 5: The Call of Cthulhu

Somehow I went my whole life without reading a single thing by H.P. Lovecraft. Since we’re still doing short fiction from the early 20th century, I decided to rectify that. I’m not much of a reader of horror, but there’s certainly a lot any writer can learn by studying the genre. And let’s face it, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the most important works of horror to every be written both from a literary and cultural perspective.

There is a joy in experiencing this story with little knowledge of the plot, so I’ll word things in a vague way to keep the secrets untold.

The first thing to jump out at me was the dense prose style. The first two sentences already indicate this is not your average pulp genre writing:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

I had to look up a few words in the first pages, though some of these might have been more standard back when it was written (e.g. bas-relief). These opening lines set up much to come. The main character has to piece together various found stories to get the full picture (i.e. “correlate all its contents”). Later we will get a scene set on infinite black seas. So these lines had full intention behind them to set up later parts of the story.

I was a little surprised by how real it was. One might say it is written in a hyperrealist style. The level of detail provided is almost distracting. At times, it was hard to remember the story was fiction instead of reading actual travel logs and notes by people. There are many names, and each of these people have precise degrees and jobs and even full addresses (7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I) associated with them.

In other places, we’re given exact coordinates of various sightings: S. Latitude 34° 21′, W. Longitude 152° 17′. This gives the reader precise information about the settings of various events, but at the same time, it’s kind of useless unless you pull yourself out of the story to Google it (as I did). These details mostly serve the purpose of making everything as real as possible.

This story really hits upon one of the things I wanted to encounter when I started the series. There’s close to a full novel’s worth of material in it, but it’s somehow packed tightly into a single short story.

This hyperrealism is part of what makes this possible. Instead of getting lots of lengthy “show don’t tell” descriptions that usually flesh out a single moment into a full short story, Lovecraft presents several detailed fragments that the reader must piece together on her own. In this way, we get years of events in a few pages, and it all feels natural since we’re just reading a few primary sources along with the main character.

This makes it hard to tell exactly what is happening, but this is done to give the reader the same experience as the narrator, who also doesn’t know what’s happening.

And now we’re in horror. It’s often said that the most suspenseful and horrifying things are those things we can’t see or understand. The structure of the story brilliantly puts you in the unsettled feeling of the unknown. It opens with a vague description based on a symbolic representation of the monster:

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.

This cleverly lets the reader’s mind run wild over the first half of the story about what exactly this Cthulhu is. Lovecraft proceeds to add mystery upon mystery: sudden deaths, cults, people going mad, and conspiracy. It’s somewhat brilliant in how it continuously adds suspense without resolving earlier mysteries.

Lovecraft keeps you guessing with that unsettled feeling. Is the main character interpreting this correctly? Is he putting together a set of unrelated things? Is he going mad? Or maybe, worst of all, he’s right, and all of this has been hidden from the rest of us.

Overall, I think a lot can be learned from studying this story. The dense and flowing prose style is impressive on its own. I may have to do a whole “Examining Pro’s Prose” on it. Moreover, the tension and forward motion Lovecraft creates through mystery and hidden information is excellent. Lastly, he brilliantly packs in so much information through the use of non-linear structure.

 

Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

Year of Short Fiction Part 2: The Awakening

This week we’ll look at The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I want to situate the novella in time first. To me, this novella is almost a cross between Madame Bovary and Mrs. Dalloway. It is interesting that Madame Bovary is often considered to be the birth of modernism in literature (though in 1856, it was actually a few decades before modernism took hold). Mrs. Dalloway, on the other hand, in 1925, is almost the birth of postmodernism.

The Awakening is smack in the middle of these two novels being published in 1899. All three of these works have female protagonists that feel trapped by their social and marital roles. All three women bravely defy these expectations and then have tragic consequences for doing so. Bovary focuses a lot more on the social aspects whereas Dalloway focuses very much on the internal state of the character.

Chopin writes in the middle of these two modes beautifully (though I’d classify the novella as realism rather than modernism or postmodernism). I think if I had read this book in college, I wouldn’t have really gotten some of the paradoxical sentiments; it takes being married to understand these characters. Early on, Chopin establishes Edna Pontellier as happily married, except not quite.

It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.

This is a brilliant way to put it. There’s nothing in particular that can be voiced that makes either dissatisfied or unhappy. It’s rather just a feeling. I think we’ve all been there.

Later Chopin makes it even more explicit. The husband thinks to himself, I’ve done X, Y, and Z, why do have to be the one to now do this other thing. And it’s sort of these little feelings of entitlement that can build up to something significant even though deep down neither are dissatisfied. Both still love each other. I love how Chopin gets at that feeling through these little details.

Anyway, that’s what I referred to as a paradox before. Globally, one wants to yell at the characters: you’re happy, you can’t even voice any complaints. Yet, internally, it is very easy to identify with these details Chopin drops in for feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction.

The Awakening‘s subject matter is quite a bit different from Bovary despite the plot parallels. Emma Bovary seems to be having her affairs in attempt to escape the vacuous bourgeois life in favor of romance and beauty. In contrast, Edna Pontellier seems to have her affair in a broader struggle to establish an identity separate from “wife” and “mother.” It has a much more positive feminist message and has less to do with romance. Though, of course, there is overlap in these two themes.

I also think Chopin is much more ambiguous in the messages we are to take away. How should we view our roles in family and society? How does one find oneself with all these structures imposing themselves? What is the meaning of Edna’s suicide? These are all explored but no easy answers emerge, probably because there still aren’t easy answers.

As usual, I have to spend some time talking about prose style. I thought there were moments of true brilliance. The sea is a prominent symbol throughout the novella, and some early descriptions are amazing.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Edna learns to swim as part of her awakening, and she views this private space in the sea as essential to her freedom. This passage simultaneously is a description, a symbol, a revelation of Edna’s internal state, and a foreshadowing of the sensuous aspect of her awakening and eventual death. That’s a lot to pack into three sentences, and Chopin does it with elegant prose style.

Year of Short Fiction Part 1: Daisy Miller

Let’s dig in to our year-long series. I’ve started with Daisy Miller by Henry James. It might not be the best one to start with, because I wanted to examine how writers tighten up their prose and structure and so on for shorter works. James is known for extreme care in his prose, even in long works like Portrait of a Lady.

In general, I’m going to try to go in chronological order so we can look at how short fiction has evolved. Daisy Miller originally appeared in a magazine in 1878. It is a novella-length work.

The story is told over four scenes. Each scene is basically an event that occurs while Daisy, an American, is travelling in Europe. A lot of James’ themes we’ve seen before appear: reputation, independence, society, roles.

Daisy meets a man named Winterbourne while travelling in Switzerland. She flirts with him, and since they don’t have a history, he can’t tell if she is a free spirit who doesn’t care how society views her or if she is, for lack of a better word, slutty. In either case, he likes that she does what she wants.

They then meet up again the following year. She has taken up with an Italian but still flirts with Winterbourne. He decides she probably just flirts with everyone. She stays out too late with the Italian, and Winterbourne tries to warn her of the danger. She catches malaria and dies.

I knew nothing about this before reading it, so I was kind of surprised at this ending. Much of the second half of the novella revolves around Winterbourne figuring out a note Daisy sends him in which she declares that she cares what he thinks. This draws out the theme of following roles set out by society. In one sense, it indicates she doesn’t care what other people think. In another sense, it shows how much Daisy really cared for Winterbourne. She’d listen to him and no one else.

Winterbourne had the opportunity to save Daisy. He made the decision to not bring her in from the mosquitoes in a heated moment of passion. The novella is warning us about how fast tragedy can strike. Sometimes ridiculous split-second decisions can cost a life. It’s only after it’s too late that Winterbourne realizes how terrible a mistake he made.

But Winterbourne goes on with his life. The tone of the novella suggests the whole thing is gossip, and Winterbourne treats the tragedy as gossip. This seems a warning more relevant for today than for the time it was written. We hear about tragedies and gossip as if they are entertainment, then promptly forget them. There’s something disturbing in how we remove ourselves from the fact that gossip is about a human who has their own feelings and life.

Late in the novella, Winterbourne changes his opinion about Daisy. When she is most taken with the Italian, he sees her as irresponsible and in defiance of society. He later sees her as innocent, and she just didn’t realize how society saw her indiscretions. This was the most interesting to me, because: how many times have we seen the public side of a person only to realize they aren’t at all like that? We have to give people a chance despite whatever reputation they might be carrying when we meet them.

Structurally, James executes the novella brilliantly. For a work so short, many years of time get covered. He accomplishes this by using four focused scenes. The reader then must infer the events between the scenes from context. A lesser writer might fill the reader in with exposition, but this would be boring to read.

One thing I was surprised about was to see that dialogue had a lot of excess surrounding it. Modern sensibilities suggest that the dialogue should speak for itself. Adding too much to the tags is repetitive and distracting. I’m talking about things like:

“Of course I care to know!” Daisy exclaimed seriously. “But I don’t believe it…”

I think most serious editors these days would flag that and either remove “seriously” or change the tag entirely to “Daisy said,” because it’s clear from the words and exclamation point that Daisy is exclaiming and serious. I’m curious to see if this type of excess gets pared back as we move to modern novellas and short stories.

Year of Short Fiction Part 0

If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that 2016 was the Year of Giant Novels. I got kind of burned out on that by the end, so I decided to make 2017 the Year of Short Fiction. I thought I’d spend a post talking about my expectations for this and what I plan to read (and take suggestions).

First off, I’ve read a bunch of short stories and posted analysis here in the past. So I wanted to collect some of them here for pre-reading if you’re interested. I also want them all in one place for easy reference for myself while going through this year.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Lost in the Funhouse

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I think there are some more, but these are the ones that get the most views on the blog.

Expectations: I’m pretty excited for this, because well-written short stories can be great. I also think the novella is a vastly underappreciated form. There are a ton of hidden gem novellas that haven’t been discovered because they aren’t marketable. The length is too short to appeal to people that like novels and too long for people who want 15 minute stories. This didn’t used to be the case when you look to the past: James, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wharton, and even Dickens (and more) have excellent and popular novellas.

Short fiction can accomplish much of the emotional or thematic resonance of a long novel in a fraction of the space. But to do this, the language must be much tighter. Novels can afford to meander or falter on the amount of description. Short fiction can’t.

This means I should be able to dive deep into the art and craft of prose. I should also spend a lot less time complaining about filler. I think that was my biggest surprise with the Year of Giant Novels. Some great novels need all that room, but most do not. I found myself sifting through a tedium of excess that should have been cut by an editor who knew better.

My guess is that this series should mostly replace my Examining Pro’s Prose series, since we’ll being doing it in the course of this series.

I also hope to encounter short story collections that don’t work. Many novelists take a crack at short story collections without realizing it is a completely different skill. If the description/pacing/etc are done in the same way as a novel, it will fail miserably. It could be instructive to dive into ways short fiction fails.

Right now, for me, Joyce’s Dubliners is the quintessential example of the short story collection done right. Some of those stories pack a serious punch with deep emotional content with fewer words than this blog post. I hope to find some more examples of this to point people to this year.

Right now, I don’t plan on re-reading story collections I’ve read in the past. This, unfortunately, rules out some great stuff like anything by David Foster Wallace or James Joyce. The goal is to expand my horizons.

Here’s what I have on the list so far:

Short Story Collections:

Gene Wolfe – The Fifth Head of Cerberus (these might be better classified as novellas?)

Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

Roxane Gay – An Untamed State

Italo Calvino – Cosmicomics

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Novellas:

Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I’ve never read this?!)

Kate Chopin – The Awakening

Henry James – Daisy Miller

I’ll continue to add to this list as I come up with stuff. If you know of any you want me to do, please leave a comment. I’m very interested in finding great novellas written in the past 20 years. I know almost all of the above classify as “literary fiction,” but I’m not limiting myself to this. Tell me of some great sci-fi/fantasy if you know of any! Or even flash fiction collections could be interesting to look at.