Oct 28 2020

Short Story Review: “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away” (2019) by Jim Bosiljevac

typewriter

I don’t know what you call this style of narrative, but I’ve met it (or at least cousins of it) before. Of course, style is and isn’t substance. And all styles have their precursors, unchosen genealogies harkening back to nameless literary ancestors of yore.

What I see, as far as style goes, in Jim Bosiljeavac’s short story “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) can only be called the pulsing hyperpresent of the narrative—a rugged intensity emitting, radiating through each pseudo-sentence of the story. (Bosiljeavac’s piece contains no commas.)

I first encountered this style, as many of us do, in the grade-school classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. Later I saw in Conrad, particularly in “Heart of Darkness” (1899) and grew weary of it in Faulkner, even at his best:

It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about ankles of a drowsing elephant;––the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons. (William Faulkner, Go Down Moses. (New York: Random House, 1947) “V. The Bear.” § I)

You can find this style in Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1947):

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of a we; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness. (The Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1953) V, 86.)

Sometimes the pulsing hyperpresent style pops up in Jack London, sometimes in Camus (as in the 1957 short story “Le renégat”), and certainly in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971):

A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke, turning, turning, like the falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. (Grendel, (New York: Knopf, 1971) I, 14)

This style that emphasizes an intensity of immediacy can even be found in Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002). But when it comes to Bosiljevac’s story, I think one of the key paragraphs is toward the end, where—much like in Conrad’s Darkness and Bierce’s Occurrence, dream and reality, conscious and subconscious have folded over one another (perhaps bleeding into the metafictions of Stephen Dixon). Bosiljevac writes:

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Whatever you want to call that style, Bosiljevac has written an interesting, strong piece of short fiction. It is not completely perfect. I thought the naming of the children, in all their biblically onomastic glory, was a little too corny, too much like The Waltons going to bed. But other than that, what readers get is a potent, probing tale of night and sweat, suspense and silence. This is a writer (who apparently also spends some of his time in Austin) to watch out for.

The Waltons Say Goodnight


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 03 here)

Chris Arp graduated from NYUs Creative Writing Program. His storyGormley,” is set in mid-nineteenthcentury Britain.

The essence of Chris Arp’s story “Gormley”[1] comes at a moment toward the end when the narrator recognizes the newly acquired dignity[2] of his former tutor Mr. Quentin Stirk. His dignity is apparent when he gives a speech at an abolition rally in Bournemouth in the 1840’s. The narrator appears to be completely disinterested in the topic of the speech, but, now realizes a sense of a loss of possession he once felt he had over his former tutor.

But let’s first consider the narrator:

I learned to develop my taste for the more quotidian pleasures—commerce and politics, gossip and drink—the ones that, however dull, lead to family and fine company and laughter. [3]

He doesn’t quite seem “blinded by idiotic vanity”[4] the way some have complained of members of the middleclass. Is the narrator to be interpreted as a financially prudent aristocrat who could afford a private tutor, not to mention a privileged sense of owning another human being (see the quotation below)? Or do his “quotidian pleasures” betray him as merely someone “utterly middlebrow”[5] and “terribly ordinary” like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich?[6] To me, he’s ambiguous.

Yet the question of the narrator is of considerable importance when the reader encounters to the essence of this story:

Watching him [Mr. Stirk], I recalled that evening on the verandah, when the young teacher transformed before our eyes. This old man at the pulpit had captured that glimmer of dignity and cultivated it over the years, shaping and molding it, buffing it to a high polish so that now he could display his gifts before any audience, in any venue.

I do not mean that he was performative. I mean that his splendidness no longer belonged to me and Mr. Gormley Kay. It no longer belonged to the past. What I felt, watching him, was that I had lost something precious. I felt, queer as it may sound, as if I had lost a piece of myself. This was the pettiest sort of jealousy, unbecoming in the young and unthinkable in a man of my years. I strained to push this away. I strained to be more magnanimous, more mature. [7]

So the narrator seems to be older and looking back on the entire story, not just this moment within it. But also, in that moment from the past with the gathering of abolitionists, the narrator remembers being self-aware of his behavior—the self-awareness of an adolescent, not a child. Was that captured “glimmer of dignity” he speaks of akin to the line from the old sailor’s tale that mentions how “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound?”[8] I wonder.

The narrator in “Gormley” sees his own jealously in that moment as of “the pettiest sort,” as if through the jealously he might sooth the loss of perceived possession over Mr. Stirk, someone who now appears to have more dignity than he. But, as it says in the sailor’s tale, “It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing,” and perhaps the same can be said for the narrator of “Gormley” when he reflects back on that poignant moment.[9]

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 05 here)

NOTES

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[1] Chris Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 95–111.

[2] Compare the definition of “dignity” given by Stephens, the butler and narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (New York, Viking, 1989):

‘Dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. (pp. 36–43, quoting 42).

[3] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 108.

[4] Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale (1907), ch. II.

[5] On the phrase “utterly middlebrow,” see D. G. Myers, “Obama and Franzen sittin’ in a tree,” A Commonplace Blog, September 12, 2010.

[6] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), ch. II.

[7] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 110.

[8] Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), § I.

[9] Conrad, Heart of Darkness. § III.