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.


May 4 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 5 here.)

As done previously in this series, in this post I will describe the essences of four short stories I’ve recently read. Then I’ll compare and contrast those essences, as well as the settings and narrators to each story. Three of the following stories were published by New Pop Lit and one by The Masters Review.

I.

The essence of the story “The Fetus” by Clint Margrave (of Los Angeles) might be found in the words of the teacher of the story, Mr. Schlosser, when he says, “Sometimes in order to study life, we also have to study death.” It seems as if the narrator is reflecting back on a past episode of his own life, that  he is studying a part of his “life” that is now “dead”––way back in 1980’s Anaheim––a time when, apparently, fetuses could be found in jars in the science classrooms of American middle schools.

The unnamed narrator––in a story where nearly a dozen student characters are named––speculates, near the story’s end, on the fate of the fetus in the jar. Was it forgotten about but never “disposed of,” was it buried, lost in the bureaucracy of the school district, “like a bad memory. An uncomfortable truth?”

This story isn’t just about bullying between a single dominator and a single victim. Margrave rather digs into the complexity of the social hierarchy of students in public schools. The narrator is a bully who targets victim Christian Wojtynek, but there are several indications that the unnamed bully is himself bullied by others. The narrator in “The Fetus” takes out his frustrations of being bullied by picking on Christian, who then, in the plot’s climax, throws the jar with the fetus at the narrator.

II.

The essence of the story “Eighty Pounds” by Jon Berger (of Saginaw, Michigan) seems to occur when the narrator Teague, a ne’er-do-well high school age kid, finds out that a friend of his, Kaleigh, was raped by the school’s top jock Will at a weekend party. The story also reveals Will is someone who has a history of bullying Teague.

With: (a) Teague’s father in prison; (b) Teague’s behavior scrutinized with zero-tolerance at school––he will be permanently suspended if he gets into another fight; (c) his struggle with a learning disability never fully articulated to readers; (d) his drug peddling that seems to only pay for his own supply; and (e) the fact that the drug peddling is encouraged by his incarcerated father, the nonromantic friendship with Kaleigh appears to have been the only thing good going on in his life. And now that too is probably ruined.

For Teague’s reaction to hearing about Kaleigh is to therefore beat up Will. Teague then gets permanently banned from his school, and Will’s future as a college athlete gets quashed.

This story takes place near a town called Merrill, possibly Merrill, Wisconsin, in the central part of that state. Teague shuffles back and forth between various institutions in Merrill: school, prison, juvenile hall. The story is told as a confessional, told in the past tense. By telling the story in the past tense, it seems obvious Teague is narrating from the future, looking back on previous events. Perhaps in the future he’s been arrested, and, under interrogation, was asked “how did this all start?” and Teague begins to remember this particular episode from his childhood.

But bullying is only a part of Berger’s story. Most of “Eighty Pounds” focuses on a kid trapped between the biology of his learning disability, weed farming, and drug usage on one end; and on the other, he is confined by the various institutions of the society that surround him––a society in which he seems only peripherally a part of.

III.

Both Margrave’s story “The Fetus” and Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” involve bullying among peers in an educational environment. They should be compared, therefore, to “A Man Stands Tall,” a story by Gabriel Moseley in The Masters Review Volume VI––a story about a reality TV show trying to capture 19th-century self-reliance by hiring a family to live in the wilderness. A line from Moseley’s story: “all bullies have sob stories” really stands out when comparing all three stories, because it probably applies to all of them.[1]

In “A Man Stands Tall” Moseley’s detached narrator mentions previous bullying incidents where the family’s son Ajay was the victim. Like “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” these incidents occurred in a school environment.[2] Through an unnamed narrator Moseley (a freelance writer from Seattle) reveals that the school institutionally punished Ajay’s bullies by making them write essays about why bullying is wrong.[3] Indeed, the essence of Moseley’s story appears to be the question: how do victims and the parents of victims deal with bullies? It’s a question everyone in a true community asks themselves as they watch their neighbors deal with violence among children, whether those neighbors exist physically across the street in real life or merely narratively (and digitally) on so-called reality TV.

IV.

The essence of “The Professor,” a story by A. K. Riddle (a seventeen-year-old writer from Illinois) appears to come when the professor of a prep school in the fictitious (?) town of Hayport, Wisconsin is informed by his physician that the professor-patient is descending into retro-immaturity. Much like a moment in Michael Chabon’s novel (but not the movie based upon it) Wonder Boys (1995), which is also about a professor, Riddle’s protagonist is warned that “You’re not a teenager anymore. You’re forty-seven.” In Wonder Boys the character Grady is a professor at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh and is known for writing one great novel. But Grady’s ability to improve his behavior––overcoming both substance abuse and procrastinating finishing his long-overdue second novel––gets him out of the social ditch in which he’s dug himself. So Grady is unlike the unnamed title character in Riddle’s story “The Professor,” someone who only further accelerates his own decline.

Riddle’s professor is a fan of Eric Clapton’s song “Layla,” which, as a song, starts off heavy and strong, then moves to a long declension in tempo, tone, and mood. The loud and rough guitar gets replaced by smooth, soothing piano. The bright calm of the C major scale comes in to overtake the bluesy A minor scale that came before. But the professor’s actions tend to do the opposite; he is running away from his role model of the old Englishman who learned to play American blues, running away from his dreams, and thereby, accelerating toward a waking life nightmare. Life gets rougher the more he goes along.

“The Professor” also represents a significant contrast to the three previously discussed stories in this post in that while Riddle’s story is grammatically told in the past tense, it essentially unfolds for the reader in present time––in the sense that the reader witnesses the professor’s downfall as the narrator relates the actions and consequences of the professor in “real time.”

I’m still trying to determine the significance of the repeated motif: “All rust and gasoline, chewed up dog toys”––for this is not only the literal image of a car that belonged to the professor’s friend back when he was in high school, but it’s also used to describe the professor’s own old car in the present.

Yet the line can also be interpreted as a metaphorical image of what the professor’s life has become at this point: just an old chewed up dog toy. He is certainly abusing himself, but I’m a little hesitant to go all the way and argue that the professor bullies himself, for unlike the first-person narrators in “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” the inner monologue of the professor is never revealed to the reader. But the professor’s antisocial behavior certainly suggests to readers he is trying to avoid facing some similar “uncomfortable truth” as mentioned in Margrave’s story “The Fetus.”

V.

As stories, both Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” and Riddle’s “The Professor” focus on decline in the Midwest;[4] the former on the decline of a society where an individual tries to survive the downfall, while the latter follows the nosedive of an individual, and it remains unknown whether the society he lived in contributed to his collapse.

With regard to the Midwest, it isn’t so important that “The Fetus” takes place in Anaheim so much as it takes place in the 1980’s. It’s also important (and evident) that it occurs somewhere in a middle-class American suburbia, no matter the sub-region. But all of these stories, “The Fetus,” “Eighty Pounds,” “A Man Stands Tall,” and “The Professor,” try to diagnose two particular sociological sicknesses of our time, what the Germans call Zeitkrankheit. Those two being: substance abuse and bullying, and both stem out of public school environments.

UPDATE:

From my father, who turned 55 yesterday:

NOTES

wood

[1] Gabriel Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer & Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 9.

[2] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 4, 6.

[3] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 8–9.

[4] The Midwest is not declining per se. There are places of decline and places that are thriving quite nicely. Joel Kotkin explains some of this very complicated situation:

It would be wonderful if this resurgence covered the entire Midwest, restoring the regions standing a century ago, when, as author Jon Lauck writes, “the Midwest stood tall as the republic’s ascendant and triumphant region.” Yet today many of the premier Midwest industrial hotbeds have not yet recovered their dynamism. Almost all the comeback Midwestern cities were never strictly manufacturing burgs, but rather state capitals, university towns, and trade and distribution centers. Places like Kansas City, Columbus, and Des Moines may have been hit hard by de-industrialization but not as thoroughly as places like Detroit, Cleveland, and even Pittsburgh. (“The Midwest is Booming—Just Not Where You Think,” NewGeography.com, April 30, 2018.)

Yet also consider Jason Segedy (director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio) and his recent take on the prospects of the Midwest in general and Akron in particular:

This is the type of place that is routinely ignored by urbanists and pundits. It is a community that is already racially diverse, and where many residents may be poor, but are also employed, and also own their home. This is the type of place where the binary, coastal gentrification narrative of rich versus poor, or white versus black, simply does not apply. (“Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, Not Gentrification Worries,” The American Conservative, April 6, 2018.)


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her storySteal Awaytakes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

If the focus of the essence of Arp’s story “Gormley” is on an individual at an individual moment, one might say the essence of Nicole Cuffy’s story “Steal Away”[1] is much wider in scope. Instead of the individual, the essence of “Steal Away” focuses on things like political economy and multiple individuals, family dynamics and cross-cultural relations between whites and blacks, as well as between Southerners and Northerners, as we see below:

The North was a different country, one that would demand Irving’s assimilation. The North would ruin him for the South, so that on the rare occasion Irving made it down to visit his parents—and they would only very rarely get to see him, their son, their only child—he’d be a stranger, an outsider….

To hold your children down to keep them near, to hold them down because they needed a good measure of get down in them to survive, was slavery. But to send her only baby upriver knowing she’d hardly ever see him again was also slavery.[2]

Compare this to a passage from Faulkner. Compare how both Cuffy and Faulkner both use the words assimilation and slavery:

What he [Houston] did not comprehend was that until now he had not known what true slavery was—that single constant despotic undeviating will of the enslaved not only for possession, complete assimilation, but to coerce and reshape the enslaver into the seemliness of his victimization.[3]

But now to the political economy and cross-cultural relations in “Steal Away,” for that is the essence of Cuffy’s story:

And Lysee [the landlord], harangued as Reggie said he looked, must be making a profit somewhere. He must be, or else he wouldn’t let their debt go, a debt built on joint notes, on poor crops, on overpriced fertilizer and seed, on seventeen percent interest rates, on crooked mortgages. It fired Hester up. She’d counted Lysee as a good one—never spoke an impolite word to any of them, never forced them to sign anything they couldn’t read, never tried to cut in on them on how to live their lives outside their work. Yes, he overcharged for supplies in his store, set up interest rates on their advances and rations money that kept them in debt, mortgaged their animals and wagons so they couldn’t sell them, but Hester had never held any of that against him. That was just how business was done in this country.[4]

It’s as if Cuffy’s narrator is saying Hester was fine with the landlord Lysee stealing from them here in there––if the reader interprets stealing to mean skimming off the top, and fine to mean that such skimming was to be expected in that particular time and place.

But now the unexpected intrudes into Hester’s life: Lysee says the banks have stolen the land out from under him (even though the loans he took out were likely legitimate). Because Lysee has lost the land, he expects the banks to replace Hester and her people with tractors and other advances in agro-technology. In the meantime, Lysee will confiscate their cattle and chickens, constituting a new form of plunder for the sharecroppers.[5]

So first Hester’s home and food supplies are taken from her and her family, then, while they’re consoling themselves by singing some blues to one another,[6] they get interrupted by the arrival of a neighboring wealthy planter, Mr. Simon Russell and an out-of-towner named Mr. Ashbury.[7] Hester’s family and friends are then asked to perform their music for the whites instead of for themselves. Their music––that is, their art, their spirit––is appropriated under the guise of it being appreciated.

And the white men’s appetite for that appropriation is insatiable. They ask for one song after another. But when Russell and Ashbury ask for a blues song, they are denied by Hester’s people, with the excuse given that it’s inappropriate to sing blues on Sunday.[8] Yet that denial also indicates that the blues they were singing before whitey arrived were something precious, sacrosanct. Despite having many things stolen from them, over the years and at that moment, Hester and her folk will keep certain treasures to themselves. They will not submit.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 6 here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] Nicole Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 171–86.

[2] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 177–78.

[3] William Faulkner, The Hamlet, (New York: Random House, 1940) III, ii, 1, p. 210.

[4] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 180.

[5] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 179–80. On the use of the word “plunder,” see Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 9, 11–12, 20, 119.

[6] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181.

[7] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181–82.

[8] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 184–85.


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

wood

[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.


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

wood

[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01: Method of Investigation

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01:
Method of Investigation

I don’t believe all art is political, just as I don’t believe all political activity is artistic.

Alfarabi (872–950 CE) was a medieval philosopher from Persia. In The Attainment of Happiness, he asks four questions that political science seeks to answer––a particular kind of political science meant to be understood in terms of the ancient city (polis), not the modern nation-state.[1]

The modern global Anglophone culture contains within it a North Atlantic culture,[2] and within that North Atlantic culture is a regional culture called the American Midwest. The Midwest is certainly neither a single city nor an entire nation-state (it even includes parts of Southern Canada), but the recent short fiction coming from this region reflects some of the culture of the American heartland that I think are worth writing about and reflecting on.

Following Biblioklept’s hybrid of meditation and manifesto toward writing a better book blog, I will begin an investigation of writers and books concerning the Midwest using Alfarabi’s four questions as an initial guide. For each work of short fiction under consideration, my investigation will ask:

  1. What is the work? What is the essence of each story, each book?
  2. How does it work? How does each particular publisher and author contribute to what that essence is (however it may be defined)? How is each story told? How was it published?
  3. From what did the work come from? Author’s origins, regional influences (or lack thereof)?
  4. For what purpose was each work written?

I expect this investigation to be a series of an undetermined number of blog posts. Applying what Alfarabi asks to what I’ve read does not mean I will engage in any political criticism of contemporary fiction.

Here and there will be mention of outliers, that is, writers and their work (usually contemporary short fiction) not from the Midwest. It may seem that I mention more outliers than insiders, and that may even be true in the beginning. But once momentum is attained, I expect the investigation to narrow its focus.

Lastly, I am not an expert on anything of or about the Midwest, just a curious observer and occasional visitor, nothing more.

(Looks for the Wendigo in the woods  of Michigan)

Continue to “Midwest Mod Squad no. 02

NOTES

wood

[1] As Alfarabi puts it:

[The political philosopher] should make known what and how every one of them is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it….

This happiness is virtuous, and what is virtuous, continues Alfarabi, is useful:

There is a certain deliberative virtue that enables one to excel in the discovery of what is most useful for a virtuous end common to many nations, to a whole nation, or to a whole city, at a time when an event occurs that affects them in common. (There is no difference between saying most useful for a virtuous end and most useful and most noble, because what is both most useful and most noble necessarily serves a virtuous end, and what is most useful for a virtuous end is indeed the most noble with respect to that end.) This is political deliberative virtue. The events that affect them in common may persist over a long period or vary within short periods. (Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20; pp. 28–29, ii, ¶ 28.)

[2] See Charles Taylor’s definition of North Atlantic culture in A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 1, 15.