Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.


May 20 2021

Short Story Review: “Server” (2020) by Stephan Moran

Western book stack

I don’t recall having that many (consciously) physical reactions to literature…. though upon arriving at the last pages to Andrew Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), I remember being tempted to throw the book across the room.

Since the book was borrowed, I ended up not throwing it (also because it belonged to my supervisor at the time). Later he and I discussed Card’s denouement, and I eventually came to realize it didn’t have (what, as kids, my siblings and I would’ve called) a “trick ending.”

But reading Stephen Moran’s short story “Server” (Moran Press, 2020? [hand-stitched!])—each of the three times that I read it—gave me the heebie-jeebies, a sense of constriction bordering on claustrophobia, the way some people have described how they felt watching Uncut Gems (2019).

My siblings have worked in restaurants over the years, and I try to tip generously except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, so I can somewhat empathize with the server-narrator of the story named Scott. Parts of it certainly reminded me of passages from chapter XIV of Orwell’s memoirish Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

Between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.

And:

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English––no French––and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Stephan Moran’s “Server” offers similar sentiments, but much more intensely. The story is nearly pure intensity. Reading it is like running out of coffee but resorting to sticking your finger in an empty light socket in order to wake yourself up.


Aug 19 2020

The Brave New World of Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” (2019)

pencil shavings

I’m very excited to have The Fortnightly Review publish my essay review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019).

It covers not only Arnade but has plenty of Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, James Agee and Walker Evans, William Least Heat-Moon, Samuel Johnson, Wesley Yang, Yuval Levin, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Jul 19 2020

Short Story Review: “Coven Covets Boy” (2018) by John Elizabeth Stintzi

Mark Twain in Athens

In short, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s short story “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) is an amazing piece of contemporary short fiction.

My amazement at such a work makes it difficult to write about it with sobriety. Compounding that difficulty is the sheer difficulty of the text itself. For, like Allen Dulles’s description of counterintelligence as a hallway of mirrors [sorry, I can’t find the citation]—or perhaps more readers are familiar with the climax of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973)–Stinzi’s text contains stories inside other stories. Here readers will find refractions of narratives running on multi-vector trajectories.

In “Coven Covets Boy” readers encounter characters (mis)interpreting and retelling facts and acts from daily, various high-school scenes, scenarios involving notebooks, diaries, “fieldbooks”–– scraps of stories overlapping and interwoven within one another, much in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, Derrida, Eco, and even Tokarczuk—all this, and Stintzi still manages to have a coherent, linear pulse beating underneath.

There are in this story people who forget they are characters in these scraps of micro-stories, while others are unaware—still others are willfully (sometimes manipulatively) aware of the many, sedimentary layers of narrative they and their peers are involved in.

This story merits multiple rereadings and offers much to working artists as well as casual readers.

Huzzah!

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCzZNvhFrl1/

Mar 23 2020

Rereading “Slaughterhouse-Five”

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

I first heard of the book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) when, as a kid, my siblings and I would often watch a VHS copy of the film Footloose (1984) that makes mention of the book at the film’s beginning.

But that movie doesn’t mention the author. So I first heard of the name Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) when I was in college and he was interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in 2005. At the time, there were certain mannerisms from Stewart that made this viewer think Vonnegut was, for Stewart personally, one of the most important interviews he’d ever done.

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five during the weekend of my sister’s wedding, about twelve years ago. Before then I had never heard about what happened at Dresden.

But now, holed up at home, I found my great-grandfather’s copy and read it over this past weekend.

I’d been wanting to reread a particular passage in the sixth chapter that has stuck with me since the first reading.

It’s just a few paragraphs about maintaining order and routine and self-respect and dignity:

View this post on Instagram

Advice for when working from home.

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

I found no deeper meaning in the passage this second time around, though the book overall seems more poignant now in my memory than it did before.

But I still don’t know what to think of the novel overall: it is comedy and misery and absurdity and truth all thrown at the reader in a scatter-shot style.

I did, however, notice in this second reading, how much of a Midwestern book it is, by a Midwestern author. This geographic significance is what I’ll retain as I continue my readings and eventually compare it to other things from the Midwest that I’ve read or intend to (re)read.


Mar 20 2020

Short Story Review: “Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat

pencil shavings

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

Sashi Bhat’s short story “Earning Disapproval,” published in The Puritan magazine (Winter 2019), is a story that focuses much on an abundance of detail. This surplus renders for readers something between a sense of verisimilitude and nostalgia for the life of a Hindu Indian-Canadian girl in middle school during the mid-late ’90s.

Some of the details mentioned I recall from my own days in middle school–such as girls’ enthusiasm for the film The Craft (1996) and the slime toy Gak (which smelled awful) made by Nickelodeon.

Other details I wasn’t so familiar with, such as the narrator’s mention of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), a very popular Indian film I was unaware of; although, after watching a clip from it, I recognized the star Shah Rukh Khan from things I once watched for an Indian film class in college.

Overall, reading “Earning Disapproval” reminded me of a remark by critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) when, in his essay on Milton, the critic mentions:

… the famous “Miltonic vague”—the preference of vast but rather indeterminate pictures, tinted with a sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity, as the case may be—to sharper outlines and more definite colours….
(Saintsbury, “Milton, § 22 His versification and style,” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume VII: English Cavalier and Puritan, eds. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (Cambridge UP, 1907–1921).)

“A sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity….” yet containing things with “sharper outlines and more definite colours” is the lasting impression I have after reading Bhat’s story. I find these traits in my own attempts at fiction, so perhaps I’m being overly critical of Bhat because of my self-awareness.


Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

porticos in Bologna, Italia

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

View this post on Instagram

New output, fresh from Bookbread dot com

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on


Jul 19 2019

Evil Elvis

porticos in Bologna, Italia

This is one of Rod’s better columns in a while. But there are things one can be nit picky about, such as when I read:

There is a certain sort of tiresome person who, whenever you bring up the steep and consequential decline of cultural standards, can be counted on to say, “People used to think Elvis was evil.” If a cable network ever stages live executions or barnyard orgies, these same people will turn up mouthing the same cliche. This line is not an aid to thinking clearly, but is an obstacle to it. It’s meant to assuage the consciences of those who say it, and to grant them permission not to think about the troubling thing in front of their noses.

…. as if some of the enemies of Elvis were not interested in a WASP-led theocracy against godless communism, as if their antagonism against black music and black music appropriated by white singers was something other than an effort to maintain their power and influence over all non-affluent WASPs and all non-WASPs? (Were not the enemies of Elvis also the enemies of Catholic-all-too-Catholic JFK?)…. 

But overall this is a great post–particularly the part about the Atlanta airport and the elusive sense of “home” shared between strangers.

UPDATE: I guess what I mean to say is that the “troubling thing in front of” my nose, is that WASPy extremism is just as extreme as “barnyard orgies” and broadcasting “live executions.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByJrqxfg4pG/

Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

I.

What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”

II.

The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]

III.

The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.

IV.

For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.

NOTES

wood

[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,” NewPopReview.com.

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.


Jun 7 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 06 here.)

I.

These actions [of remembrance] are inward, in the vast hall of my memory. There sky, land, and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten. There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it….

––St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE)[1]

One of my motives for starting this series is to get to know contemporary fiction better. For recently I’ve had more luck getting my non-fiction writing published.[2] But I haven’t quite given up on fiction, though I think I need more practice. So I won’t deny that I study the stories in this series in hopes of one day becoming a better fiction writer.

Again, the essence of a story is its center of gravity—the thing holding together what would otherwise be a chaotic mass of random thoughts. The essence of a story doesn’t necessarily confine that story to a particular “form.” No, the essence of the story doesn’t necessarily formalize its story. Why? Because the essence may organize that chaotic mass of random thoughts into something only slightly less random than it would be without an essence. Just a few steps away from oblivion might be all it takes for something Dadaist to arrive at definition.

In other words, something out of the chaos of the page suddenly renders itself in the mind of the reader; something in-and-of the story is realized to be significant, weighty, and indeed, grave. Whatever appears grave gathers the attention of onlookers, which is why we rubberneck at the residue of fatal car collisions as we continue to contribute to rush-hour traffic. So too does the reader’s attention become centered on such gravity. Thus the essence is indeed a story’s center of gravity.

II.

Memory’s huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and reconsidered. Every one of them enters into memory, each by its own gate, and is put on deposit there….

––Augustine [3]

The essence of “The Unraveling,” (via New Pop Lit) a short story by Tianna Grosch of the woodlands of Pennsylvania, occurs when Dex, a card shark conman, somehow witnesses his wife-girlfriend Elizabeth being fatally thrown out a six-story window. Yes “somehow,” because either Dex, or someone coming to collect Dex’s debt, threw her through the glass. Or perhaps she threw herself out. In Elizabeth’s last moments she mentions having been pregnant, so maybe she aborted her pregnancy, and once Dex found out he pushed her in a fit of rage. Or perhaps she felt so guilty about the abortion that she jumped herself (again, it’s never fully explained to readers; and that’s okay).

But regardless of what really happened to Elizabeth, Dex feels guilty. The narrator is unknown, unnamed, and tells the story almost completely from Dex’s point of view. There is, however, an extended flashback from the point of view of the doctors of Lethe who perform the memory-removing procedure on Dex, and there are indications that it may have been a botched operation.

Grosch leaves lots of possibilities up to her readers, but most of the story’s underlying concern is about Dex seeking a way to forget his horrible memory. So the essence might be about a guy presently wanting to forget his past fuck-ups. Philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983), although he was discussing group behavior rather than that of individuals, once remarked:

A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in … reckless strivings.[4]

Dex certainly doesn’t glorify his past; but, being human-all-too-human, he probably has an exaggerated view of that past. Thus it might be said that “The Unraveling” is a story of his reckless strivings.

“The Unraveling” takes place in an unnamed city, one in which about the only details a reader can gather are that this city has gamblers, violence, and a subway. But throughout most of the story Dex is trying to get to the town on the outskirts of the city called Lethe. It seems like a place almost impossible to get to, not unlike the impossible journey to get beyond the city limits in Alex Proya’s film Dark City (1998), a film whose tone and mood reminded me much of “The Unraveling.”

III.

How then can [memory] fail to grasp [itself]? This question moves me to great astonishment.…

––Augustine [5]

Like Grosch’s narrator, the narrator of the story “Jonah and the Frog” (via Five on the Fifth) by Texas writer James Wade is also unknown, unnamed, and tells the story completely from Jonah’s point of view. The essence of this story occurs when the character of Jonah vomits up a living frog––a frog which seems to represent Jonah’s struggle to excrete a painful memory, but one never fully explained to readers. It is clear, however, that Jonah seeks to purge some unknown guilt.

In literature, a frog is usually something between vermin and varmint––not quite a bug, not quite a beast––but in her novel Barren Ground (1925) Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) once compared painful memories to a beast:

Recollection. Association. It was morbid, she told herself sternly, to cherish such fancies; and yet she had never been able entirely to rid her memory of the fears and dreads of her childhood. Worse than this even was the haunting thought that the solitude was alive, that it skulked there in the distance, like a beast that is waiting for the right moment to spring and devour.[6]

Based on mentions throughout the story of “the docks,” “the water”––as well as “The Quarter” being a place where one can publically drink all night––I suspect “Jonah and the Frog” takes place in New Orleans. And in this story, Jonah spits out a frog; somewhat of an inverse of the biblical whale/fish spitting out Jonah the Prophet, though I admit connecting modern New Orleans (surrounded by swamps) to ancient Nineveh (modern Mosul, surrounded by desert) seems too weak for a strong reader to seriously contemplate.

IV.

The affections of my mind are also contained in the same memory. They are not there in the same way in which the mind itself holds them when it experiences them, but in another very different way such as that in which the memory’s power holds memory itself. So I can be far from glad in remembering myself to have been glad, and far from sad when I recall my past sadness.

––Augustine[7]

Both stories of “The Unraveling” and “Joshua and the Frog” focus on their aquatic environments. Both leading characters want to purge memories of guilt and regret. In this sense they remind me of the premise to a movie I’ve never seen, Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) starring Jim Carrey, for in that flick Carrey’s character tries to forget an ex-girlfriend via a surgical procedure:

 

Moreover, the theme that memories can never be completely forgotten runs through both stories. I believe that if Dex or Joshua were able to (somehow, paradoxically) convince themselves that their painful memories had left them, it would only be temporary. Eventually the memories, or fragments of them, would return. And when those memories did return, they would feel anamnesis: that is, they would remember something which they thought was unknown but was in fact something they already knew.

Anamnesis is one of the primary lessons Plato tries to teach in his dialogue Meno:

Socrates: ‘one thing I would fight for to the end, both in word and deed if I were able—that if we believed that we must try to find out what is not known, we should be better and braver and less idle than if we believed that what we do not know it is impossible to find out and that we need not even try.’[8]

Compare also Augustine, writing about 800 years after Plato:

The answer must be that they were already in the memory, but so remote and pushed into the background, as if in most secret caverns, that unless they were dug out by someone drawing attention to them, perhaps I could not have thought of them.[9]

And finally, consider Robert Graves (1895–1985):

It is not too much to say that all original discoveries and inventions and musical and poetical compositions are the result of proleptic thought—the anticipation, by means of a suspension of time, of a result that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning—and of what may be called analeptic thought, the recovery of lost events by the same suspension…. This explains why the first Muse of the Greek triad was named Mnemosyne, ‘Memory’: one can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.[10]

Both Dex and Joshua seem too close to their memories—both believe they need some “personal space” from certain mental pictures of their pasts. For Georgian writer Harry Crews (1935–2012): “Nothing is allowed to die,” including memory, “in a society of storytelling people.” Yet, paradoxically, “the only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[11] In other words, memory is a kind of storytelling to oneself, and apparently, neither Joshua nor Dex are capable of coping with their own tales.

And, as Dick Hallorann (a reoccurring character in Stephen King’s oeuvre) knows, memories cannot be completely banished: “Not memories. Never those. They’re the real ghosts,” warns Hallorann in Doctor Sleep (2013), which is the sequel to King’s The Shining (1977).[12] Both novels deal with alcoholism, that is, they deal with people addicted to a substance that allegedly helps them forget unpleasant memories.

Both Dex and Joshua, to their (or their authors’) credit, seek to transcend their memories, not simply destroy them. But by (mostly) destroying them, they prevent themselves from transcending them, as the hero Paul is able to do in Frank Herbert’s (1920–1986) Dune (1965):

He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future…. Things persisted in not being what they seemed…. He felt carnival excitement in the air. He knew what would happen if he drank this spice drug with its quintessence of the substance that brought the change onto him. He would return to the vision of pure time, of time-become-space. It would perch him on the dizzying summit and defy him to understand.[13]

NOTESwood

[1] Augustine, Confessiones in Saint Augustine: Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) X, viii (§14), p. 186.

[2] On language, religion, tradition: “Custom Versus Culture: A Modest Distinction,” Real Clear News, (Chicago), August 14, 2017. On recent Confederate statue removal at UT: “Between history and myth in Austin, Texas,” Fortnightly Review, (London), November 2017. On comparing Prince William’s recent haircut to Donald Trump’s: “A charming sense of novelty,” Fortnightly Review, (London), February 2018.

[3] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§13), p. 186.

[4] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §50, p. 68.

[5] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§15), p. 187.

[6] Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground. 1925, (New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. – Old Dominion Edition, 1945) I, v, 58.

[7] Augustine, Confessiones, X, xiv (§21), p. 191.

[8] Plato, Meno (85C–86E) in Rouse, W. H. D. Great Dialogues of Plato, ed. Eric H. Warmington & Philip G. Rouse, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, (New York: Mentor Books, 1956, Twelfth printing) p. 51.

[9] Augustine, Confessiones X, x (§17), p. 189. See also (X, viii (§12), p. 185) where the translator Chadwick notes:

Memoria for Augustine is a deeper and wider term than our ‘memory’. In the background lies the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, explaining the experience of learning as bringing to consciousness what, from an earlier existence, the soul already knows. But Augustine develops the notion of memory by associating it with the unconscious (‘the mind knows things it does not know it knows’), with self-awareness, and so with the human yearning for true happiness found only in knowing God.

[10] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: a historical grammar of poetic myth, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1948; Second Edition, 1975) 343.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 4, 126.

[12] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 45.

[13] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books Premium Edition, 2010), “II. Muad’Dib,” 583.