Monday, April 21, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I first met Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writers workshop, last July. I had no idea who he was, though his name sounded vaguely familiar. On the day that he gave his craft seminar, I was tempted to skip and explore Portland, but I went because he was doing a close reading of "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" by Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers. Jim's lesson was about leaving out and dialogue. The power of not saying or talking around an issue. It was one of the best craft seminars I've attended.
In the instant when he began his lecture I felt a longing to have been in one of his classes. He is that kind of a teacher.
Later on in the week he gave a reading of a story from his new short story collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway. And then I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard of him. I couldn't understand why he wasn't hugely famous.
A few months later I saw him at a reading in the City and he joked that, and it went something like this, "Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, had both said to their audience, if you listen to me about one thing it should be this: go out and buy Jim Shepard's new book. And that was the only thing that the audience decided not to listen to."
Courtesy for Beginners is a story in Like You'd Understand, Anyway. It's about a 12-year-old boy's miserable experience at summer camp. The unnamed narrator begins, "Summer camp. Here' s how bad summer camp was."
There are all the things you would expect: the fat boy, the horny boy, the skinny boy, the nasty counselors of whom he says, "the kind of guys who seem like nice boys to moms." (And doesn't that really tell you exactly what kind of boys they are, without having to spell out?) There is bullying, there is sexual tension, there is a piece of metal in the meat and so on.
But what makes this story different is that every incident in summer camp reveals something from the home life of the narrator which is falling apart, due to his younger brother's anger issues and emotional deterioration, and his parents' struggle with sending him away.
What makes this story so powerful is that it's neither a straight forward camp story, nor a straight forward, hard-times-at-home story. The reader quickly finds out that the narrator is depressed, he has a list of the deadliest poisons that he updates regularly, his friends no longer come around to his home, he barely notices anyone or anything at camp, he can't sleep at night.
What the camp story tells us is that many of the other boys experience some variation of this misery. Life is hard from the beginning and some people move on and survive and some don't. There are also many moments of guilt--hidden and revealed, of whys and why nots, of the things we think and the things we say, the things we should do and the things we do.
When the narrator loses his father's flashlight, to Chris the counselor, he's worried. He talks himself out of it by saying that maybe it was a good thing. That his parents will notice his failure to comply with what they expected. But then he says, "But I also wanted to be the kid who stayed up when everybody else went under."
In the beginning, Chris "he looked dangerously bored," kicks the fat boy in the face. "The sound was like when I whacked the sheet on our line with my wiffle bat."
Shepard's observations are astute. His voice is strong. His descriptions are vivid and refreshing. I found myself underlining so may passages and lines in this story that the entire thing has pencil marks over it.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried is a short story that I go back to time and again. With each read, a new layer, a new element, something very subtle is revealed.
Amy Hempel is one of my favorite writers. This story comes from her first collection, Reason to Live and is also anthologized in The Collected Stories.
She has said that it is the very first short story she wrote. It was written in a Columbia workshop with the legendary Gordon Lish.
Hempel's stories are often a glimpse into a moment of life. Her narrators are nameless faceless women and the major conflict they face is internal--man against himself, which always makes for the most compelling and devastating story. Often, she dismantles the traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, and in doing so, throws the reader directly into a scene--an event or conversation--without a setup. She is a minimalist writer who is often compared to Raymond Carver.
At the Cemetery begins lightly.
"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
The narrator proceeds to tell her best friend some "useless" trivia. And then a few lines down the reader learns about the camera above them. An uneasy feeling attacks the reader as it has the narrator and we find out that they are in the Intensive Care unit of a hospital. Little facts about the unit and the friend's illness and her slow death are revealed in glimpses, between breaks for "useless" facts and the narrators recollection of her friend's steady presence in her life.
We learn that it has taken the narrator more than two months to arrive at this bed side. Slowly Hempel reveals the narrator's fear and the story begins to take shape in her guilt. She says she doesn't understand the giddyness of her ill friend. This is where the reader sees what the narrator refuses to accept, the narrator's denial that her friend is ecstatic that she's come and forgiving but the narrator doesn't think she deserves that.
She says of her dying best friend:
She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.
The narrator reminisces specific moments of their friendship, each revealing something more about the narrator's fears and their relationship. An earthquake theme threads through the story as another one of the narrator's fears along with flying and death. In this story, dreams and reality are weaved together just as true facts and made-up facts blend. Yet it is very much a realist story. In doing this, Hempel evokes an airy mood that reminds of the arbitrariness of life against something as big as fear and the fear of loss and death.
There is such a great sense of uncertainty and flight, that throughout the piece the reader wonders if the narrator will stay or go.
At one point a doctor comes in to examine the ill friend and at his suggestion, the narrator goes for a walk on the beach, just outside the hospital--"off camera". When I haven't read this story for a while, this is where I think it ends. I think she goes for her walk and doesn't come back. The decision to so willingly go for a walk is what does it for me. But, in fact, she does come back. She stays long enough to watch a movie and eat ice cream and candy and to take a nap in the extra bed that her friend has requested for her. But eventually she does leave without any intention of coming back.
So where is the change in this story? For me, it's an emotional change that comes with the narrator leaving more guilty than she came and running away, still afraid, after looking. She's in a more miserable place now, because she's come and she's seen and she's left, but her ill friend doesn't have any of those choices. She must endure her death alone. Although the narrator is still afraid and miserable, perhaps she's in a better place because now she understands her fear and has faced it.
When she tells her friend that she's leaving the narrator says:
I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.
I felt weak and small and failed.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I decided to write a blog about short stories because I love to read them and I think that more people should give them a chance.
Within the writing community, as long as I've been a part of it, and I'm sure long before, there are whispers and sometimes shouts that the short story is dying.
Recently, I met with a wonderful agent who told me that the only way to sell a short story collection is to package it with a novel. Big publishers aren't publishing short story collections because the market for them is slim. The New Yorker, not so long ago, published three stories per issue. Now it has only one. The Atlantic cut its monthly short stories and replaced them with one "Fiction" issue per year. And everywhere else the readership and, with it, the market is diminishing.
In an attempt to inspire new readership, I plan to post reviews/analysis of one or two short stories each week. Eventually, I hope to have interviews with writers about their craft and about the business. When possible, I will try to post a short short, in its entirety.
Please give me your feedback and ask any questions.