Year of Short Fiction Part 3: The Red Pony

The Red Pony is in one sense a novella published by John Steinbeck, but in another sense it is a collection of four short stories, originally published episodically in magazines. This makes it slightly difficult to pin down exactly what date to slap on this. The first story was published in 1933, so it came out before all his most famous works.

I was pretty excited to read this, because Steinbeck is one of the best long-form “family epic” writers. His masterpiece, in my eyes, is East of Eden, which chronicles several generations in great detail. It is true that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and other of his short works pack a punch, but nothing compares to the deep characterization he pulls of in his longer works.

I’m torn on this one. It’s certainly my least favorite of the short fiction series so far. I can intellectualize it’s strong points, but I didn’t connect with any part of it. And the end is super weird, but we’ll get to that. Obviously there will be “spoilers,” but I haven’t really been saying that considering these stories are a hundred years old and only take an hour or so to read.

All four stories form key moments in Jody’s maturation from childhood to adulthood. Steinbeck does a great job of establishing his innocence in a small amount of space by dropping small details throughout the beginning. One of the most interesting was that Jody had a rifle, but he wasn’t allowed bullets until he demonstrated maturity with it for a full year.

This is Steinbeck establishing family dynamics and rituals. It shows that Jody hasn’t undergone one of the key rituals on the path to adulthood. The first story is about how Jody trusts Billy to take care of a horse that eventually dies. Steinbeck cleverly foreshadows this by mentioning the buzzards at the start that eventually deal the horse’s final blow.

I see the novella as a sequence of four deaths and how Jody matures in reaction to each as he ages. In reaction to the death in the first story, Jody lashes out in anger and can’t understand how the adults in his life didn’t protect him from it.

The second death is stranger. A man comes to the family’s house and wants to live out his last days there because it is where he was born. This brings another perspective to Jody. The man rides off to the mountains with an old, dying horse. Again, the horse and human presumably die, but Jody learns of a more mature way to accept the inevitability of death through this stranger.

The third death is of a pregnant horse. This horse must die to save the pony inside of it. This teaches Jody of the circle of life. Death can bring about new life, which itself will eventually die.

Though Jody doesn’t realize it, this is a redemption story for Billy. Billy had promised not to let the horse die in the first story, and he feels guilt for letting it happen. Here, he promises Jody the colt inside the horse, and he has to kill the horse to deliver it. He succeeds in his promise this time. He gives Jody a horse to make up for the one that died and can let go of his guilt.

The final story doesn’t actually have a death in it, but Jody’s grandfather comes to live with the family. The grandfather participated in traveling west across the country. It was a grand adventure, but the grandfather makes it very clear such adventure is over. This kills Jody’s dreams of doing the same.

This is the final straw in Jody’s maturation. He learned of death, life, violence, the fallibility of adults, and now his boyhood dreams are gone. He must learn to live pragmatically in the real world.

The ending was extremely strange at first.

Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. “Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?”

His mother mimicked—“And another lemon to make a lemonade for you.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t want one.”

“Jody! You’re sick!” Then she stopped suddenly. “Take a lemon out of the cooler,” she said softly. “Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.”

Lemonade hadn’t made an appearance for the whole novella. What on Earth could this ending be?

It solidifies the idea that Jody has fully matured. His youthful self merely would have feigned interest in helping his grandfather to get himself a lemonade. The only reason the mother can think of that he wouldn’t want one is that he’s sick. But then she realizes he has matured. He’s acting selflessly, and so she encourages it.

I get what Steinbeck was doing. I just didn’t find it very compelling. I dreaded picking it up when I stopped between stories. There is pretty much no narrative momentum. Part of this comes from the stories being early in Steinbeck’s career, but I think when you look at it broken down in the way I did, it becomes clear that this is first and foremost a carefully constructed exercise. It’s obviously well done. I just didn’t like it much.

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 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.

 

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

Today we’ll cover two of the most famous of Cheever’s stories, “The Enormous Radio,” and “The Swimmer.”

“The Enormous Radio” was one of Cheever’s earlier stories, so I’m going to assume he did some growing before he hit the pinnacle of his story writing. This story is truly mystifying. I’ll try my best though.

The story begins with a husband buying a new, large radio. Something seems wrong with it, because they get static and weird conversations interrupting the normal programming. The story predates The Twilight Zone, but the premise could have fit right in with it: the radio picks up on conversations happening around their apartment building. They can listen to the lives of other people.

This also feels like the plot to Rear Window, except the suspense never builds. The wife hears a lot of terrible things she doesn’t want to hear (but can’t tear herself away), but it’s not like she gets wrapped up in a murder or anything. In the end, they fix the radio, but it’s too late. Their earlier peaceful marriage has been ruined by the thing.

There are a few ways to interpret the end. At first, I assumed it was ironic. The wife kept saying that at least they didn’t have problems like these other people. I thought the end was a big reveal that they actually did have these problems all along. The radio showed that all people have problems including the main characters. The radio gave voice to their hidden inner problems, hence the irony.

Later, I realized the radio might have caused the problems. This is the more obvious reading. They are bringing other people’s problems into their home which causes stress on their relationship. It is a less literary reading, and the end doesn’t have as much force if interpreted this way but seems consistent throughout.

So what did this story do to deserve such lasting fame? One obvious thing is that it handles a gigantic cast of characters in a very small space in an inventive way. You learn about these people and their problems through short clips of dialogue through the radio. It’s hard to consider this a knock-out reason, though, because lots of writers had been experimenting with this type of thing by this point.

Thematically is where it does its best work. The story examines the question of what it means to be happy in a new light. At this point, American authors seemed to have the dreary “realism” of what it means to not be happy down: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc. The other side was the fairy tale type story which gave an unrealistic portrayal of happiness. This story suggests that the couple is genuinely happily married, but they still have problems. It isn’t neat and tidy, but it isn’t dreary either.

Let’s move on to “The Swimmer,” aka, the greatest short story ever written in the English language. When I say I don’t get the Cheever phenomenon, it mostly has to do with this. The more regard people give to a story, the less likely I am to like it.

The story is about a man that decides he is going to “swim” home by diving in and swimming across all his neighbor’s pools until he gets home. It is midsummer and the swim starts off easy. But as the story goes on it gets colder and harder to swim. At one point a storm breaks out and it appears to be autumn. He can’t really remember some things that people keep telling him, and things generally get weirder. Finally, he makes it home to find his whole family had moved out a long time ago. The main character stands there confused by the whole thing.

I get it. It fuses a metaphor with reality to create a surreal David Lynch-esque story. The swimming home is a journey which represents his life. He’s out drinking (probably an alcoholic which blows all his money based on several people saying they won’t loan him any more), and his family leaves him without him even noticing. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, he escaped the reality of his life for this fantasy.

Of course, the story is extremely well written. It starts off with a clever hook of this swimming feat, but as it gets weirder, it keeps the suspense of trying to figure out what is going on. The little details that each of the neighbors drops allude to different parts of his life, so all the pieces are in place for the big reveal at the end. It’s sort of like The Sixth Sense where the ending allows you to go back and think about all the earlier details in a different way.

But I must return to the question: what makes it so good? I’m at a loss for that, because the journey as a plot device is as old as stories themselves. The journey as a metaphor for someone’s life is as old as metaphor usage. Surrealist conflation of metaphor and reality had been going on quite a bit by this point in literature. So even though it is a particularly well-done combination of these things, it wasn’t breaking any new ground or anything.

I also find the first half to be very boring, and it was difficult for me to get into the story. Why should I care about the character at all? Maybe this is part of the point. The guy is clearly a stand in for Narcissus. He is so self-absorbed, looking at his own image in the water that he loses his life without realizing it, so readers aren’t supposed to identify with him.

Next time we’ll move on to two stories I understand a bit better.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

I have a confession. I don’t get why Cheever’s short stories are so loved. If you look at my past blog posts, you’ll see that I could pontificate for hours on the greatness of stories by DFW or Barth or Borges or Barthelme or Calvino or … You might be thinking: well, those are post-modernists. You grab on to the structures, language, and self-reflexivity when you write about them. Most people read for character and story.

But I also get why Turgenev or James Baldwin or Michael Chabon or Hemingway or Joyce’s Dubliners are good. They show human struggle and focus on exposing deep truths. They are masterful at building intensity and pacing. They have consistent and unique voices throughout the stories. In other words, they’re about something, and the writing makes you see that.

Let’s talk about Cheever. Pretty much all writers put him in the top 10 greatest short story writers in English. I’ve seen several forums where “The Swimmer” is universally agreed to be the greatest short story of all time. This means I’m missing something. The fact that I don’t understand what makes him great means I can’t tell whether my own stories have this quality.

Unlike the stories mentioned above, Cheever stories read to me like they aren’t about anything, and then at the last moment you realize it might be about something, but that something is totally different. In other words, they are boring and the end doesn’t seem to cohere with the rest of the work. This series will be about some of Cheever’s most famous stories and my attempt to figure out why people care.

The first story is one that I almost get. It is the closest I’ve come to liking a Cheever story. I know there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet that explains the greatness. It will be a hundred little things that don’t seem like much on their own but when taken together add up to greatness.

We’ll start by examining “The Country Husband.” The beginning of this story is magnificent, which is why I say I kind of get this one. A man is on an airplane that makes a crash landing. This is the type of traumatizing event that can permanently change a life. This is probably the most significant thing to ever happen in this man’s life.

When he gets home, he tries to tell his family. One by one, they are all caught up in their own trivial activities, so they can’t hear him. We make fun of this as a purely 21st century phenomenon. You’ve seen the scene I’m referring to. A family sits down to dinner or someone is on a date, but everyone is so involved with their phones/tablets/devices/etc that no serious conversation could ever happen. No one even hears the other people when they speak.

This story proves that narrative wrong. Cheever perfectly captures this feeling in 1954. If the story ended there, I’d say this was a work of genius that has withstood the test of time. It is a brilliant criticism of suburban culture. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own egocentric trivialities (someone called me an idiot on the internet!) that they go unaware of actual traumatizing events even when being told to their face.

The story also contains striking poetic lines: “She paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty, and her wit have been lost.” Or: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” I’ve heard that people like Cheever’s stories because he drops these in unexpected places. But this can’t be a real reason he’s so admired, because almost all the rest of his sentences are so unremarkable.

Here’s where the story loses me. The main character becomes unrelatable. I don’t mean “unlikeable,” which I think is fine for a story. His actions make little sense. He says something extremely mean and out of character to someone. He essentially stalks the babysitter claiming to love her but briefly fantasizes about raping her.

I understand on an intellectual level that all the plot points, no matter how extreme and varied, tie together around the theme of breaking the myth of a perfect suburban neighborhood. But it seems to come at the cost of being believable, which I would have thought was the element that made a story like this great.

I can rationalize the behavior by saying the main character bottled this traumatic event up and these are the ways the pyschological trauma is manifesting itself. But that’s mostly a cheap way to fix something that really felt off to me.

Of course, the point was not to criticize, but to find out why it is great. In this case I’d say there is excellent metaphorical language, a strong and relatable cultural critique, and each element served the overarching theme.