Archive | September, 2012

Read “Accident” by Etgar Keret

26 Sep

In India, there are Hindu women who shave all of the hair from their heads. These religious pilgrims—many of them peasant women—offer up their long, black tresses as a religious sacrifice. It is an opportunity to both renounce the ego and express gratitude for the blessings they have received from the gods.

Later, the locks are sold—sometimes overseas to America, where they are in high demand—and the hair is then styled into wigs and hair extensions for women who wish to augment their beauty.

It is hard to imagine a woman in poverty giving thanks for the blessings she has received. It is especially hard to imagine when another woman on the other side of the globe examines the silkiness of various hair extensions with the ends of her hot pink, acrylic nails, struggling to decide which set of strands she will purchase.

The sacrifices of the smooth-headed Indian women are a reminder of blessings taken for granted, and the subjective lenses that filter our world-views through various shades of light and shadow.

This week Granta published “Accident,” a new short story by the critically-acclaimed Israeli author, Etgar Keret, that explores the notion of persistent hope amidst despair, and the way that the relative nature of tragedy often works to remind us of our own blessings.

(If you plan to read the story, but not now, beware: the rest of this post has spoilers).

In the story, a man travels in a cab from Beersheba to Tel Aviv. The night before, his wife nearly died of a miscarriage, and three days earlier, the narrator learned that his father’s cancer has returned, and the only way to fight the tumor effectively would be to remove the tongue and the larynx, which would render the father unable to speak or eat.

Photographic portrait of Israeli author, Etgar...

Israeli author Etgar Keret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the cabbie has his own problems—he’s never had a wreck in 30 years, but he’s recently been in a minor fender-bender, and the guy he hit tires to cheat him out of 200 shekels (about $50) which he says he doesn’t owe.

Finally the narrator, consumed with his own anxieties, boils over, and screams at the cabbie, telling him of his own problems. Now the cab driver understands, and tries to get directions to Tel Aviv by parking in the right-most lane of the highway rather than on the side. The narrator waits in the car—and smash—glass shatters around him, cars fly, and the narrator is in the back of an ambulance. When his father calls, asking him how he’s doing, he doesn’t tell him that he’s in the hospital, that his wife has had a miscarriage, that he’s been in an accident. Instead he lies, telling his father that they’re at home, that his son is tucked in bed already.

Why?

His father was a Holocaust survivor, and the trauma of the event—still a living entity some 70 years later—makes life itself into a blessing, even if it brims with tragedy.

The narrator puts it best: “I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be positive, like my dad. My wife is fine now and we already have a wonderful son. My dad survived the Holocaust and has reached the age of 83. That’s not just a half-full glass; it’s a glass overflowing.”

In an interview from Critical Mob, Tracy O’Neill questioned Keret on the role chance played in the lives of the characters that populate his fiction, and to what degree these individuals have the ability to control their own fates.

Keret’s answer, not specific to this story, illuminates the reactions of characters in “Accident” to the forces that continually disrupt their lives:

To what extent does anybody control his destiny? Life is very much like falling of the edge of a cliff. You have complete freedom to make all the choices you want to take on your way down. My characters choose to yearn and not lose hope even when the odds are completely against them it doesn’t make the landing at the end of that fall any less painful but, somehow, it helps them keep a little dignity their bone broken body.

After the accident, the EMT in the ambulance tells the narrator that as soon as he’s out, he “should run to the nearest synagogue and give thanks for still being alive.”

What seems to be operating within this text, too, are varying levels of communication and expression. The cabbie spews complaints about his fender bender, and yet the pain the narrator faces at the loss of his unborn child that for most of the ride, he cannot say anything: he is rendered speechless by the depth of his grief.

English: A sculpture in memory of the holocaus...

A sculpture in memory of the Holocaust in Tel Aviv University (TAU). The narrator in “Accident” works at a university.

The father, soon-to-be most silent of all, after his surgery, has suffered most of all, yet he does not complain as the cabbie does, but instead avoids speaking of pain, lying to his son one day over the phone that he is at the grocery, instead of at the hospital, just as his son deceives his own father in the end, too.

Throughout the story, Keret reiterates in subtle intonations that tongues should be waived in gratitude, rather than complaint—that every syllable should be an expression of thanks, a words of recognition for every blessing, even if it is cloaked in tragedy.

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Quote

The Most Beautiful Things

23 Sep

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.”

– John Steinbeck

A peacock at Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, Andalusia in Milledgeville, GA.

Read “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

21 Sep

Vestal, New YorkMy aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.

Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.

In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.

But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.

After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:

“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”

(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)

The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.

He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.

The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:

“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”

In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.

Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.

English: T.C. Boyle at the powerHouse Arena, D...

Author T.Coraghessan Boyle

The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.

Read Drunk; Analyze Sober

12 Sep

It’s time to declare the new age of the short story.

It’s time to laud the concise.

It’s time to realize that in this day and age of blogs and online journals and YouTube videos, print media—books and newspapers, especially—are falling behind our modern needs. What is it about these online mediums that we find so compelling?

For one, it’s brevity.

We read fewer books these days, and it’s not that we’re less educated, or less intellectual, or stupider than our forebears. We’re busy. Driving on clogged highways from one place to another, working long hours at the office, shopping for groceries or catching up with the daily updates on the presidential campaign. I’m overwhelmed myself, and as an aspiring writer, it’s my job to read everyday. Yet any time I get the chance to relax, I find myself unwilling to begin a novel when I know that I won’t have time to read it.

Take Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada. After I read a New York Times book review purporting it’s genius (and it is terrific, so far), I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began on the first of 400 or so pages. Then school started, with it a flurry of papers and assignments, and I tried to fit it in where I could. On the elliptical. In the car while driving to class. Shampooing in the shower. Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t work. By the time I’ve cracked open the Kindle again, I have to spend the first ten minutes just trying to reorient myself within the pages. Sorry, but that’s not the literary experience I want.

So how do we adjust to our modern time?

I vote the short story. What better form to occupy the tenuous space between long-form literature and fragment-style online writing? What better form to offer us the rejuvenating experience of one writer’s pure, individual (edited) voice, as compared to the frenetic copy-pasting, quoting, and linking of blogs? What better form to supply a complete literary experience within a compact, tightly packed unit, all the more powerful for its quick, sharp punch?

Yes, I vote the short story. There are so many fantastic works, in so many fantastic styles—not just contemporary authors, but our classic literary heroes, too. Just this month The New Yorker published a Fitzgerald story.

Only a few months back, they published a very different kind of story, “Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan, which was originally published in short bites of prose on Twitter. Egan’s project demonstrated how the fragmented form of internet writing can create a new kind of literary experience. (Though she worked through a very new medium, she did plan out the story for months beforehand with the trusty pen and notebook of writers of old.) Still, the story works well with the form, and it is a chilling, wonderful piece. You can read it online at The New Yorker here if you subscribe.

Esquire holds a summer short fiction contest. The Atlantic has its yearly short fiction edition. Every year, The Best American Short Stories collects the best of the best from the nation’s top literary magazines, and both new and familiar names grace the pages.

Not to mention there are thousands more online from zines to short story data bases to the websites of standard literary magazine, and they’re one of the only things you can find online for free. Yes, some stories are “subscriber only” but have you ever read a novel online for free? Ever? Yeah, me neither.

My goal for this blog in the future, then, is to engage the short story, especially those written by our contemporary authors. How are we defining ourselves, these days? What can our authors tell us about the world we live in, our systems of values, our means of perception?

I don’t want to write a book review for a novel you won’t have time to read. I don’t want you to simply take my word for it, my own personal analysis that could exalt or condemn a book.

What I’d like to offer you is an opportunity not only to read, but to engage. A fireside chat of a sorts, but let’s call it a coffee break, or better yet—a bourbon break. The goal is to enter together into a discussion of the works that affect us (and affect us because we have time to read them).

Here’s what I plan to do: read short stories from a variety of publications, post the links, and discuss. No author wants you to simply move your eyes across the page and afterwards post on Goodreads about your accomplishment. When they construct a story, they desire you to think, and to continue thinking.

A story is a silent conversation that passes from the writer to the reader. You may read about a character with a talking pig, but the situation will hopefully imply a far deeper meaning than what appears on the surface.

My goal is to explore, explicitly, this implicit conversation between the writer and the reader.

So with that, I’ll return to this blog’s title. Write drunk and edit sober, an adjustment of the famous Hemingway quote that I’ve adopted to have a new meaning—to write with the heart and to edit with the mind.

For this project, I propose a similar mantra. How about “Read drunk; analyze sober”? Let’s engage with literature. Let’s get drunk off it, drunk on emotion and the reverie of words and phrases. But then let’s analyze. Let’s look at author Q&A’s. Let’s consider what this literature does for us in our modern time.

Why am I right for this job? The same reason you are. We’re interested minds who wish to engage with story—that wonderful place where an author can craft art out of communication and reveal meaning in a series of contiguous events.

Fresh Meat for Turtles

11 Sep

Koi pond

Koi don’t go for worms, and they’re not suckers for bait, either. People don’t fish koi because they’re bottom feeders—fish who spend their time nibbling algae from green-fuzzed rocks—and the koi wouldn’t be tempted by the likes of a flashing hook with a bit of dangling chum. People don’t noodle koi either, because koi aren’t catfish. Koi are ornamental, fat goldfish—sleek orange and yellow darts of flashing scales—and they live peaceful, dull lives, gliding in slow circles around decorative ponds.

My grandfather, always oblivious to such demoralizing information, decided one day to take my brother and me fishing in the Houston city park. There swam the koi, and there stood us, gazing down at their yellow fins batting the water. Grandad smiled, set up his plastic lawn chair, cracked the tab of a fizzy orange soda, and cast his line into the water.

I was eight years old, my brother was twelve, and all that morning we’d dug up earthworms and stuffed their writhing bodies in rusted soup cans. Now we skewered the skinny, wiggling earthworms on our hook, tossed in our lines, and waited. We waited all afternoon, and still the koi did not bite.

“They must be full,” Grandad said. “Or else they’d bite.”

After a long day at the koi pond, we gave up. Those damn fish weren’t interested, and there was nothing we could do to convince them. Earthworms weren’t for them, and that was that.

As much as I hated those stupid koi for not biting, I learned a good lesson that day: don’t waste your worms on the fish that will never bite.

These days I no longer fish. Instead, I write.

I’ve just started my senior year at Vanderbilt University, where I am a candidate for English Honors in the Creative Writing track. This fall, I’ll draft a thesis for a collection of short stories, and next semester, I’ll write it. Better yet, I’m enrolled in a Graduation Fiction Workshop, which will allow me to interact with people who are just as serious about writing as I am.

What an exciting time, right?

What a terrifying time, too—all around us, people are proclaiming the End: if not of the world, then at least of the book.

“The book is dead!” cries the modern-day Nostradamus.

Yet there is the book, like a plague-victim in a Monty Python film, hopping along, crying out in shrill falsetto, “I’m not dead. I’m getting better!”

And here we are, aspiring writers desiring to write. Sometimes, it feels that what waits ahead is the koi pond: me sitting there, at the water’s edge, attempting to bait my line for fish that aren’t even remotely interested.  All the koi in the world have gone off to watch movies and play video games and record episodes of The Bachelor.

Perhaps this analogy is falling through. Let’s try another.

Summertime, and I’m in my grandfather’s backyard. Blackberries are plump and full in the heat, and the garden is sweet with the smell of figs. A mockingbird sings from the branches of an oak tree.

“Let’s buy a chicken,” Grandad says.

My brother and I are perplexed, but not surprised. My grandfather often surprises us, and besides, it’s hot and we’re bored. So we go with him. We walk to the grocery store, and Grandad buys one whole chicken, still wrapped in its thin plastic sheath.

We follow Grandad back from the store. Instead of making our way back to the house, we trot down a steep, weed-lined hill to the Braes Bayou, a concrete-lined tributary that cuts through my grandfather’s neighborhood. The water is murky and smells faintly of sewage. Green algae floats on the surface of the water. My grandfather unwraps the chicken from the plastic, the tremors from World War II still shaking his hands. The bird is plump, it’s flesh pink and dotted with bumps where its feathers have been plucked.

Grandad takes one step back and swings. The bird makes its final flight through the air, then lands with a giant kerplop in the water. It bobs, settles, and floats. Nothing happens. Then—movement. A turtle head rises to the surface, then another. Suddenly, there are twenty of them, with thin red stripes on the sides of their faces.

“Red-eared gliders,” Grandad explains. “They like chicken.”

The turtles circled, then bit. They tore off chunks of pink bird meat with little jerks of their heads.

Wow,” I said, marveling. “There are so many.”

Grandad nodded, grinning. “There sure are.”

There are some people who will never read—just like there are some koi that will never bite. But then again, why fish, when you can feed?

_Box Turtle eating 5958.JPG.xcf