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

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[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.


May 2 2016

MISREADING & MISTRANSLATING: Between Boredom & Bombast

bookbread Canterbury

Misreading & Mistranslating: between Boredom & Bombast

The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on.

––Emerson[1]

Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam.

––Thoreau[2]

A philistine is habitually bored and looks for things that won’t bore him. An artist finds things boring, but is never bored.

––Kraus[3]

“You don’t impress me at all,” she said, “Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible, but that alone doesn’t make it true. What I really think, sir––why do you always call me dear Fräulein?––is that you can’t be bothered with the truth simply because it’s too tiring.”

––Kafka[4]

Reading Theory I: Somewhere in After Babel (1975) George Steiner writes that there is no such thing as proper translation—there are only mistranslations (some better than others), and that creative mistranslation is the job of the interpretant.

Reading Practice I: A few weeks ago in Al Cantion, a seafood restaurant in Comacchio, northeast Italy––with the icon of Sophia Loren centered high on one of the walls, beaming, bearing down on all the restaurant’s patrons––I, Bookbread, and my company Cosimo and Chiara and Scott were eating some delicious seafood when someone at our table mentioned the name Alessandro Manzoni in passing.

Because Bookbread cannot tell a lie under Sophia’s watchful eye, I confessed to my company that I Promessi sposi (Betrothed) (1827) was, for me, a boring read, hadn’t been that bored reading since a tenth grade assignment covering Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836).

But Italian natives Cosimo and Chiara (both university educated, the former from the rustic south, the latter from urban Rome) thought Manzoni boring also, and couldn’t understand why he continues to be so revered by educators of Italian Literature, when even the Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003) informs us:

I promessi sposi was a required text in schools. Up to a generation or so ago, it was not unusual to find Italians able to recite from memory long passages from the most famous pages of the novel.[5]

Bookbread remembered to thank Sophia how Manzoni could, occasionally, offer moments of slight self-depreciation in a tongue-in-cheek style:

The reader should know that among the common people in Milan, and even more in the country, the word ‘poet’ does not mean what it means among all respectable folk—a sacred genius, an inhabitant of Pindus, a votary of the Muses: it means a peculiar person who’s a bit crazy, and talks and behaves with more wit and oddity than sense. What an impertinent habit this is of the common people’s manhandling words and making them say things so very far from their legitimate meaning! For what, I ask you, has writing poetry got to do with being a bit crazy?[6]

Reading Theory II: Somewhere in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) Harold Bloom writes that there is no such thing as properly reading a poem––there are only misreadings (some better than others), and that creative misreading is the job of the literary critic.

Reading Practice II: A week after Comacchio, in the shadow of the Texas Capitol, a fellow writer and brother-in-law of Bookbread’s called Brick Made, invited me to the Chili Parlor because he was curious about Bookbread’s recent trip to Italia.

Memories of Bookbread’s visit through Emilia-Romagna were soon imparted to Brick Made. Later in the conversation I mentioned, without hesitation or criticism, that Bookbread didn’t understand Brick Made’s latest published short story about baseball. Ten years ago, when face to face with a writer, Bookbread would have told that person, “I liked it” whatever it was I just read of theirs, whether I truly did or not. Now too much truth spills out, and I think I’ve made a mess at the chili parlor.

“Oh, there’s nothing to get,” says Brick Made. “It was literary clickbait, an exercise in the gonzo-esque, trolling for what counts as trendy.”

“Well, trolling can be good. The random can be good. The story was really random. Bateson says somewhere that ‘without the random, there can be no new thing.’ ”[7]

“Yea, I carpet-bombed them with Dadaism. I wrote it to purposely make no sense—as randomly as possible––that’s what the mag wanted.”

“Benevolent blitzkrieg. But we’re in election season, so perhaps it’s appropriate.”

“Egg and face and all that. But they paid me. And published me. So I’m happy. Joke’s on them.”

(Another example of trolling the trendy: Edward Snowden/Scissorhands on CNN )

NOTES

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[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar: Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 31, 1837.”

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Economy.”

[3] Kraus, Karl. Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 52.

[4] Kafka, Franz. “Beschreibung Eines Kampfes.” (“Description of a Struggle.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. p. 37.

[5] Ragusa, Olga. “Alessandro Manzoni and developments in the historical novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. Eds. Peter Bondanella and Andrea Ciccarelli. Cambridge UP. 2003. p. 43.

[6] Manzoni, Alessandro. I Promessi Sposi. (Betrothed.) 1840. Translated by Fr Kenelm Foster. 1964. Edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds. London, UK: J. M. Dent. 1997. XIV, pp. 204–05.

[7] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 147.