Category Archives: A prose flourish

My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

Leave a comment

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Other than literary days....

Heat, love, fear, discovery–literary suspense in Pen’s and Bruni’s “Desert Flowers”

Paul Pen’s novel Desert Flowers, translated by Simon Bruni, begins with a simple, natural, and graceful flow of narration as–and for that matter stands as–an overwhelming and sometimes frightening testimony to family and parental love, no matter the cost or parents involved.  Daily routines, though sometimes seeming a trifle eccentric to one or the other of the family’s members, are the accepted currency from each of them to the others, the things they are teased about or provoked into sharing and demonstrating.  And though romantic love “like that in the novels” between individuals, whether younger or older, is featured as a corollary subject, it is made to seem smaller, less compelling, and in the end less significant in some respects, than the deep and abiding love that a child and parent (or the two parents of a child) have for each other, even when one or both are in the wrong.

Desert Flowers, named for the mother and five daughters at the center of the novel’s focus, all of whom have floral names, is also a tense and original suspense novel, one which manages to paint in the hues and tones of mystery here and there amidst the familial picture as it develops.  It is possible almost to breathe in the sere desert air, to observe the changes of morning, night, sunrise, twilight, to sense the quotidian dangers of the plants and animals around about, to live with the characters in their pictured surroundings as the prose first pauses, then races ahead, then takes a moment to accustom the reader to variations of momentum and balance as quickly changing as a desert sky and as awe-inspiring.  After a heart-stopping opening prelude introducing the parents, Rose and Elmer, at night, when they at first believe (prophetically enough) that there is an intruder in the house, we change to a slow adagio of a first movement, which blends various repeated melodies of the family’s daily harmonious routines, making them seem uncharacteristically bland at first by comparison with Rose’s initial panic, which smacks more of the usual self-proclaimed suspense novel.  When the reader has been kept waiting a bit impatiently to find out the cause of her alarm for a sufficient period of time in which to wonder about Rose herself, however, the pace quickens suddenly and unexpectedly with the addition of a different theme of a stranger appearing without warning in the center of the family group when Elmer is away from home.

As with many real situations, the characters Rose, Elmer, and the young stranger, Rick, end up playing a game with each other in their struggles to one-up the opponent without departing from the strictures of good manners and seemly deportment.  But little by little, a second movement of the piece develops after an interlude of time when Rick is trying to piece together clues about his host and hostess and their family, almost as if he has some reason or other to find them suspect.  In this second movement, it is rather Rick who emerges as the questionable party for a time, and we follow his footsteps as he does things which do not suggest that he is a good guest or at least not one without flaw.

To continue the metaphor of a piece of music, the third movement is a movement of secrets half-revealed, with all three of the adults participating in the jumps of logic and understanding taking place, a movement of back-and-forth recriminations and accusations, whether made silently in the quiet of the desert night and one’s own mind, or in the daylight confrontations amongst the three of them.  Though the book has been an interesting and pleasurable read up until now, it is this movement which produces that frisson of luxurious fear in the readers’ minds, and a temptation to start choosing sides.  But that must not be yet, for there are two more movements to come, and compelling reasons why all three adults are vital and worthwhile beings.

The fourth movement is one of quick and unanswerable violence and retribution, yet exactly who is being punished?  The answer is not as obvious as it might otherwise seem to be, as even the children come in for their share of the suffering, however unnecessary or undeserved.

The fifth movement is one full of surprises, not only plot twists and a final, rewarding fictional ending that has elements both of justice served and of a cliff-hanger; there are also surprises, here at the very end, in some of the characters, whom one might otherwise have thought of as already fully developed.

All in all, this is a fine work of what one must after all call literary suspense fiction, since it has both the evocative and lovely language of the portraiture of the characters’ surroundings and the terse, carefully underwritten language of the literary thriller.  It’s not often that a book which starts out so very innocently and wholesomely, with a family’s daily concerns and small victories and challenges, has one unable to stop turning pages by a little before the middle of the text, but so it is here.  I would recommend it to anyone who truly enjoys literary suspense.  Shadowoperator

2 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

Gathering material for a memoir: “A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets”

Dear Loyal Readers,

I believe that it has now been roughly two months since I regularly posted anything to this blog, and while that is outrageous, I had my reasons, namely that first, I was completing crochet projects for Christmas, and then that (regrettably but unavoidably) I picked up a nasty laryngitis-sore throat bug during the holidays themselves, and was busy trying not to be too miserable, so as not to ruin my own and others’ good time.  But by way of apology, I would like to offer you my first ever guest post, done by an aspiring author who is handicapped by the absence of opposable thumbs, and digits on her little mitts long enough to type with.  She is my new roommate, Lucie-Minou, and we not only share living space now, but also share the same last name; that is, if I can ever effect change of her opinion that she adopted me, whereas I think I adopted her.  For now, she will only consent to be called “Lucie-Minou,” which is a Frenchified name given her because when I heard her say “Miaow,” and not “Meow,” I knew that she would prefer it.  Since I am only her amanuensis for this post, however, let me cease typing my own greetings, and give you the direct words (as far as I can claim to understand by inference and occasional miaows and lots of purrs and pats with a paw) of the aspiring author who has been staring out windows to gain perspective, and gathering materials for a memoir of her life up to now.  I suspect that her efforts will also owe something to fiction, due to the number of times she’s knocked down the same books from the lower shelves until they lie by her food bowl, apparently for reading with her meals.  So far, her interests seem to lie with Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love and Good Will, Barbara Howes’s edition of The Eye of the Heart:  Short Stories from Latin America, a pocket anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems (edited by Louis Untermeyer), e.e.cummings’s Erotic Poems, Loomis’s and Willard’s Medieval English Verse and Prose, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas.   Here, then is Lucie-Minou:

“Bonjour, mes amis!  There, we’ve now settled the question of whether I know any French for real and true.  I have to say that I pride myself on being able to be a sort of universally acceptable speaker, and frankly Shadowoperator is being a bit pretentious in assuming that my miaows are perfect enough to suit the French, certainly at least the Parisians, who themselves are very particular about their language.  Furthermore, as we are learning by our reading of a book loaned us by a friend who also is allowed to share space with a cat (Patricia Barey’s and Therese Burson’s Julia’s Cats:  Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats), “Minou” is a masculine cat name, not usually used for a female cat.  Still, I find it acceptable because I am in some ways an old-fashioned girl, and don’t mind bearing my father’s or my erstwhile husband’s last name, whichever of them gave it me (philandering husbands are a sore subject with me, however, best left out of the memoirs).

But on to my working life.  Right now, I am putting together materials in my head for a memoir, called tentatively A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets, about my early life (which to this point remains shrouded in mystery, except that I have a birthdate of 7/2/14), and then my woeful sojourn on the streets of a small Vermont town, belly swollen with young after being put out by my faithless human friends for something which was not, after all, my fault.  I was, however, lucky soon to find other human friends, who though they couldn’t keep me were able to bring me to a shelter, where I introduced myself to Shadowoperator and her nephew Charles when they came in requesting a cat.  Well, I may be a bit shy, but after all, I too am a literary cat, though at that point one with few options other than to present myself, and if a cat was wanted, I felt I could certainly fit the bill.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, “If you stroke me, do I not purr?”  Unhappily (though I don’t mean to go into this extensively in my memoir, my perspective basically being a bowl-half-full one), I lost my kittens because they were stillborn.  I will touch on that lightly in my memoir, as it was a definitive moment in my life, but not a permanently damaging one.  I am quite happy right now to be where I am doing what I am doing, and I think my memoir, which will handle both past and present, with a hopeful note of future doings, will reflect that.  Basically, though not wanting to give too much away, I plan to filter my own early days and days on the street through the more comfortable perspective of my present-day life, spent safely inside a condo without access to the street, watching from a window high above the goings-on of other beings not so lucky.  There are moments, yes, when I approach the condo door and sniff at it, detecting unusual smells and sounds, and then I feel my curiosity rising.  But when Shadowoperator hears me miaow at her to open the door and very solemnly says that prohibitive and final word “No,” I am content to let her go out without me.  For now, anyway.

But you are probably wondering about the other portions of my day.  Well, first we have breakfast.  That’s an English word I know.  Then, I do some portion of my memoir, looking out at the street for inspiration.  Then, after Shadowoperator has something called “coffee,” and her own food, there’s sometimes play in the desk chair with a bird on a stick, or a session of stroking, or a brush (I prefer usually to have my fur done while I recline in the desk chair, since I’m allowed to finish the job by pulling my claws in the chair back when we’re done.  It’s really quite bizarre how humans react to the places I choose to pull my claws–some places “No!” and some places “Good kitty.”  They really are peculiar about it).  Then, I find one of my two favorite sleeping spots and curl up for a nap, a long nap, coming out only to eat a bit or use the facilities.  Periodically, Shadowoperator sticks her head in the room to inquire where I am, what’s the good kitty doing, do you want a brush? and other such things.  She baby-talks to me constantly, sings to me lyrics we’ve put to other old songs, and I put up with it, though I do put my ears back when she hits a wrong note, or when she chooses to tell me that it’s time to change my litter because I’m “such a little ‘tinky-poo!”  Really!  Some things are not meant to be subjects of funning.  Anyway, the day progresses, and sometimes I go to see what she is doing, and sometimes she comes to see what I am doing.  When it starts getting dark, she comes back into my main room hangout and closes the curtains and turns on the lights for me (she knows I can see in the dark, but it seems to comfort her to turn the lights on, so I let her do it.  Besides, humans can trip over one quite easily in a dark room, and I don’t like those misunderstandings we have when she’s trying to reassure me that she didn’t mean to run into me).  Then, we have supper, another human English word I know, and persisting in her determination to have me artificially multilingual, Shadowoperator warns me repeatedly to “use les dents.  Chew your food, don’t just swallow it!”  This comes from a problem I have because I had a tooth coming in for a while, and I gulped my food so as not to hurt the gum line, which sometimes resulted in an upchucking later.  But these things happen, and for the most part (which seemed to amaze my human friend no end) I always regurgitated on a flat, wipeable surface, for her convenience.

I know several other words, too.  There’s “treat,” and “play,” and “down,” and “brush,” and my play antagonist, the “comb,” and a few other bits and pieces I’ve picked up.  For example, when we’ve finished our nighttime play, there’s the sentence “Okay, time for bed.”  I hang around for a minute or two, just to see if this is negotiable, but it’s usually not.  I also feel that I know what “Come up on the bed” means, because when my friend says it, intending to brush me or stroke me or go to sleep with me at her feet, I do it, and then she says, “Goodnight, Lucie-Minou,” and sings a little night-time song that the two of us know.  And then we go to sleep.  Of course, I do get up at night and roam around, sometimes accidentally knocking something off.  When this wakes my friend up, she comes to see if I am hurt or have made any sort of difficult mess, but so far we’ve managed just fine together.  At this date, I am very pleased with my new life, though I sometimes despair of being understood completely, because my human friend only knows a few cat words, and the only one she says even half-way right is a more or less happy word, “prrrrrrtt!” and no one’s happy all the time.  No, I am philosophical:  this is far better than what I had before, and I do my best to remain content.  Even my curiosity about the main hall door remains somewhat in abeyance, because I was recently curious about one of the closets, and when she opened it to let me see what was inside, that dreaded monster which she calls “vacuum cleaner” was inside!  So, I suppose there is some reason for caution.  I hissed, she petted me, and we went on with our game in the smaller condo hall, but I couldn’t remain easy.  Still, that’s for another time.  So, now that you know some of the material I will be covering in my memoir, I hope that you will respect my fellow artists and artistes as well, and check to inquire whether your cat, dog, parakeet or whatever you may have is planning a similar venture.  Except for the turtles, of course.  With them, it’s a bit plodding; they tend to be the old school philologists, and spend a lot of time arguing about the meanings of different word roots and grammatical endings in the works of others, and their “creative” efforts (to be kind about the matter) are deep, rather boring, and sometimes inconclusive.  They too have their advocates, however, and I would be wrong to slight them.  We all have our work to do, after all.  At this stage, it would be fitting to end as I began, and say ‘Au revoir, mes amis,’ and I hope you have had such good luck for the New Year as to find a new friend like I have found in Shadowoperator and she has found in me.”

Well, there you have it:  my first guest post, by a treasured and devoted friend.  I hope and trust I have accurately transcribed her miaows and purrs and pats.  As the medieval monk told his scribe, “When you transcribe correctly, it is my work.  When you do it badly, it begins to be yours,” or words to that effect.  Lucie-Minou seems to feel her obligation to speak more directly, and not merely to appear as a subject as did another medieval monk’s cat “Pangur Ban,” or Christopher Smart’s cat “Geoffrey.”  I would like to wish her all good luck with her creative venture, and all of you reading some form of pet to help you with your happiness factor.  Yours most joyously, vociferously, and sincerely,

Shadowoperator

1 Comment

Filed under A prose flourish, Full of literary ambitions!, What is literature for?

“Sleepless Nights”–or, Getting My Insomnia Steaze on with Elizabeth Hardwick

I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology:  I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am.  Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer

What have I been doing, you ask?  Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though.  I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months.  And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night.  I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects.  Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done.  Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep.  But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me:  I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.

The book?  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts.  How appropriate, I hear you say!  Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life.  But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it.  Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.

The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief:  “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.  The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see.  More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.  Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.”  From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known.  These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale.  Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!

There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms.  Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up.  Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.

However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied.  Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book.  She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says:  “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights.  Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment.  She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep.  She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness.  The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids.  No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac.  These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’  Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock.  The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism?  No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation.  The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning:  Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision.  Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed.  Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.”  Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.

Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction).  There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind.  In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.

Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer).  It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line.  Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon.  I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself.  And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.

7 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”–another perspective on the revolution from “The Farming of Bones”

Some time back, I wrote a post on Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones with the subtitle “There is no such thing as a small massacre.”  Julia Alvarez’s book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is another perspective on the same political situation in the Dominican Republic/Haiti island; it is told not from the viewpoint of the countless number of Haitians who suffered in the massacre which came about at Trujillo’s command, but from the supposedly advantaged perspective of some rich Dominicans who, because of political sympathies which were in line with those of the Haitians, were also deprived of their homes and livelihoods, though the characters in this book in particular were lucky enough to escape without losing their lives or suffering imprisonment.  Instead, they went to the United States as immigrants, and were able to re-establish themselves there.  This advantage also had attendant disadvantages, however, which is part of the unspooling tale Julia Alvarez unwinds, from the beginning present tense in the novel, when thirty-nine-year old Yolanda (known as Yoyo to her friends and family), the third child in the family of four children, revisits her roots.  The tale then moves on from section through section to the family’s past.

Alvarez has cleverly and significantly timed the tale so that she paints the picture not only of small revolutions going on in the family itself (such as when the four daughters, Carla, Sandi, Yoyo, and Fifi, rebel against their Mami and Papi during the sixties and seventies by becoming “offensively” American in their ways of thinking and behaving, and act much as other rebelling youths did during that time period), but she has also slotted the backward-developing story into the space of time such that it is during the girls’ late pre-adolescent period, just before they go to America, that they become aware that their Papi is a Dominican rebel, wealthy and privileged though he may be (he shares this status and these beliefs with many of the other men of the huge de la Torre clan, too).  This gradual retrospective story method allows for the girls’ own innocence as pampered rich children in the Dominican Republic to emerge also little by little, showing perhaps what some of the original causes of the revolution were, though there is never any overt or heavy-handed preaching of political views or goals.  Papi is just Papi, with his political preferences and his strong love of family.

Beginning with a section describing Yoyo’s present-day visit back to the island from the U. S., the tale is told in consecutive chapters, with each girl’s story told in turn, as a separate kind of “short story” which, however, probably could not stand alone.  The story goes back and forth between them, in third-person narration largely, though Yoyo’s sections predominate in number and length by a bit, and some of hers are in first-person narration.The very end of the novel itself is thus the farthest back in time, when Yoyo, the writer-poet daughter of the family, recalls finding a tiny baby kitten, not knowing what to do with it or how to justify adopting it from its mother before it has been weaned, only in a fit of childish behavior to hurl it from an upstairs window.  The story ends with her remark that often in her adulthood, waking up from her “bad dreams and insomnia,” she sees the mother cat, “wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.”  The story is so completely imagined and detailed that I didn’t feel this needed a “spoiler alert,” as in this book one reads for the whole substance and not just for the “whodunit” or final outcome, moving and well-imagined as it is.

To “lose one’s accent” is shown throughout the book to be a double-edged sword:  it allows one to defend oneself more readily from outright harassment by those of one’s adopted country who are mean or cruel, and even helps ease one’s way through the shoals of well-meaning condescension by more kindly disposed (if ignorant) Americans.  On the other hand, there is a lot more lost with the accent itself as one adapts to a new culture, a whole missing part of oneself which can cut to the quick with its absence.  Altogether, this book is a very meaningful and well-considered picture of both privilege and loss, of both development and possible retrogression, which should be on every library bookshelf and which well repays a thorough read-through.

4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

In Favor of Wool-gathering: A Crocheter’s Meditations Upon Both the Craft and Life

Though I begin by entitling this post “In favor of,” in actual fact it might more accurately be termed “for and against,” or “pro and con” due to the fact that nothing in life is perfect and all things have their down sides.  But beginning that way would lack the literary resonance of “in favor of,” which precedes other essays on life of more worth and importance than my modest effort, so I lay what claims for it I can, to belong to that fellowship.  Also, I am taking poetic license by calling it “wool-gathering,” because while this is a noteworthy pun in the case, in actual fact for a lot of people including me, it’s more like “acrylic-gathering,” since I often work in the less soft and more resilient acrylic yarns which are cheaper and bulkier both.  These caveats aside, I can justifiably refer to myself by the crafter’s jolly appellation “a happy hooker” (a bit of a hokey punning cognomen in use since the madam Xaviera Hollander’s bestseller came out in the 1970’s, a name supposedly adding more dash to crochet’s use of a single hook as opposed to the milder knitter’s pun of “knit-wit” for the use of two needles).

And now to begin, actually.  Crochet, like knitting, is a craft which abounds in opportunities for error, because in order to render even the simplest pattern, one must count stitches, so that I can see it being excellent homeopathic therapy for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it is probably a good way to acquire a roaring case of said disorder.  One thing’s for sure, unless one has crocheted a good long while and is only doing a simple single crochet or double crochet pattern (two of the basic stitches), it is nearly impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation or watch an exciting television program at the same time.  Such frivolity of approach brings on dropped stitches (missed stitches) and other unintentional and erroneous embellishments of one’s work.  The down side is that one is often working merrily along on a complicated and repetitive pattern, sure that because the repetition has become second nature that one is “sitting pretty” in one’s rocker or easy chair, so to speak, when suddenly two rows from where one made the original error, one discovers a flaw that necessitates the intervening work being pulled out and reworked, with more humility this time.  Probably the best secondary activity is to listen to music of a non-controversial or balmy nature, which is better than Muzak but doesn’t require singing along while muttering to oneself over and over again “one, two, three, four, five, three stitches in that one, one, two, three, four, five, skip two, one, two, three, four, five, three stitches,” etc.  Even classical music could become too disruptive, especially if it is a stirring piece that one feels compelled to hum or utter “ta-da-da” along with.  Many things in life, occupation-wise, call for tedious and unwavering attention to a specific thing, but crocheters (and knitters too) are among the crafters who most needlessly and relentlessly punish themselves with this form of self-abuse as a hobby.

One is also given a lesson about memory.  For example, try to repeat an afghan or piece of clothing that you have done before, and without a written set of instructions with exact stitches recorded (and books of patterns are surprisingly expensive for what they are), you are doomed to hours of frustration.  I have recently learned even more about the faults of memory, the necessity for patience, and the occasional failings of expert advice.  Taking down an afghan that I wanted to repeat but no longer have a pattern for, I looked at the pattern intently and tried to remember just what I’d done.  But memory could only take me so far:  I kept making things that just didn’t resemble what I was looking at.  So, I had to keep trying (patience, jackass, patience).  Then, to my great joy and regret (joy because I found a store pattern which was like part of what I was trying to accomplish, regret that I had to pay so much for it), I noticed after putting in the first row that the pattern writers weren’t perfect either (the limits of experts).  True, they were only a stitch off, but it left me trying to think up clever ways of coming up with the extra needed stitch at the end of the row.  I fudged it, and am proud to say that the gods sometimes aid the diligent and well-intentioned (and sheerly stubborn, or as a British friend of mine used to say, “bloody-minded”–so much more poetic!)

And now, I’m well on my way to accomplishing my goal of figuring out the (as it turns out) quite complicated pattern I once did blithely  in my foolish youth, when success was only a few stitches away, and I had plenty of time and patience, excellent memory and ingenuity.  Creativity, it turns out, can take many forms, and is often made up of these things almost exclusively.  What one realizes with this craft at least is that time is finite, patience and memory often decrease with age, and ingenuity is called upon more frequently to make up for the shortages of the other three.  As one of my favorite refrigerator magnets has it, “Age and guile always overcome youth and skill.”  So now you have it, my completed post.  Last but not least:  this post was inspired by the reflection which visited me this morning that I have obligations willingly incurred to my readers and blogging buddies as well, and it was high time I produced another post.  As to those of you who are waiting for me to respond to their posts, take it as read that i will do so very soon.  Right now, I’m still wool-gathering, and have to finish a bit more in order to be satisfied!

2 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Other than literary days....

The Close-Up and Personal View: “In the Heart of the Valley of Love” (A Dystopia by Cynthia Kadohata)

Normally (a word to be used advisedly when speaking of dystopias, which are all individual and unique and different from each other, but still!) when I think of dystopias, I think of large-scale pictures of societies in turmoil and decay, or turmoil and wrong-headed development, or sometimes just turmoil taken to the nth degree itself.  And I think secondly of science fiction/fantasy, because that is the “category” to which most dystopias necessarily belong, as visions of the future (I refuse to use the word “genre,” because “genre” means a quite different and specific thing in literary analysis; it does not really mean “the difference between a mystery novel and a romance novel.”  If I’ve ever used it incorrectly, may the literary gods that be have mercy on me).  But I digress.

The book I am reviewing today, Cynthia Kadohata’s novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love, is indeed set in the future (around the year 2052 or so), and it is unquestionably a dystopia, because it features many and varied negative societal outcomes that are worse than what we currently experience.  But there are two main ways in which it is different from all the others that have come my way.  Those ways are 1) that the bad incidents and happenings in this world are directly connected to things which have already happened, such as water and gas rationing being a problem, bug spraying over a large area of a city or town, things going mysteriously missing in the mails, government conspiracies and cover-ups, and so on and so forth, and 2) the extremely myopic or tunnel vision view of all these events and many more as experienced by the main character Francie and her boyfriend Mark.

I am more used to characters who are involved directly in fighting the dystopic elements, who come into direct contact regularly and usually (and eventually) tragically or with loss with “those in charge.”  But in Kadohata’s world (Los Angeles and Chicago and the environs of the near future), the main characters go around largely as many of us do today, more or less accepting the limits set on them, or at least avoiding an outright conflict over their “rights.”  They seem to be living their lives by rumors about how things are rather than with any exact certainty that such and such a thing is true.  This is what I mean by seeing with tunnel vision or myopically.  They understand what the safe limits are by the experiences of others they know or have heard of, and except for trying to get their friend Jewel to leave her abusive boyfriend (a situation as old as society itself), or trying to decide whether the character Matt, a man whom their college newspaper has defended, has actually committed murder or not, they are not political firebrands.  No government body is obviously oppressing them in particular, and what oppression there is is accepted by them as simply part of their way of life, however much they might deplore it.

The novel is narrated in first-person by Francie, and she contemplates her society at large in various comments and asides, but she clearly takes the small view of large things and events:  she is living her life the best way she can, and having experiences more or less similar to what any young woman of average intelligence and sensibility might have, barring a certain sort of superstitious nature, apparently a function of having lost her parents early, and having lost along with the aunt she lives with their male protector, her Aunt Annie’s boyfriend Rohn (he is mysteriously arrested and disappears).  Forces loom largely over the protagonists, but–to echo religious Scripture vaguely–no one exactly knows the time of his or her going or the manner.

Such subtleties prevail that the novel progresses more like a young woman’s diary entries than like a novel, though the “diary” is broken up into titled chapters instead of dated entries.  It is only at the very end, when Francie is contemplating her habit of “seeing” dead or missing people in the sky, that she utters the chilling flash forward comment:   “In the months to come, the sky would get even more crowded, but I would take my inspiration from right here.”  “Right here” is as we finally realize “the heart of the valley of love”:  it turns out to be a valley that a friend’s father and grandfather had spoken of, where they had buried a time capsule box of sorts, and which other people are quickly turning into a junkyard and dumping ground.  And there is the aura of hope:  with Francie is still Mark, her boyfriend, who stands beside her there, and she is capable of still finding inspiration, even in the middle of a wasted landscape.  And that’s the end of the novel.  Rather, perhaps it is the beginning of a new kind of dystopia, one focusing less on gigantic, large-scale plots, stratagems, and catastrophes, and one which takes these things for granted but looks instead at what can be achieved modestly and in small by Everywoman and Everyman.  It’s certainly a thought!

5 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

A Nobel-Prize-winning Master’s Use of Extended Metaphor–Jose Saramago’s “Blindness”

José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact.  What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things.  An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make.  But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.”  And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting.  As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses.  They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc.  Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.

The basic plot is this:  one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes.  From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious.  Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.

What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations.  The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them.  They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close.  The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried.  Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion.  The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book.  Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.

The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account.  Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter.  It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services.  They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.

Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world.  Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely.  The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear.  They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.

At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading.  This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place.  We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place.  This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise.  Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary.  The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way:  she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage.  This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance.  Blind chance, as one might say.  Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc.  This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity.  This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness.  I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.

3 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

The Astonishing and Predictive in the Everyday–Alix Ohlin’s “Signs and Wonders”

When someone entitles a book Signs and Wonders–a phrase which I recently discovered comes from Passover, and is in Elie Wiesel’s A Passover Haggadah–we think we are prepared ahead of time for unusual events and mysterious happenings.  But the fact of the matter is that Alix Ohlin illuminates the everyday event and ordinary life by showing the connection between them and the astonishing and predictive, the almost magical traces that we often call “coincidence” because we are afraid to call them “fate.”  There are sixteen different fairly short stories in this book, and in every one of them we see people engaged in lives that are like those we know from our own experience or witness around us.  But when we retell these sorts of events at parties, or gatherings, or coffee klatches with our friends, what obsesses us often is the magical trace, the thing that makes us feel “I should have known,” “It now looks so obvious,” “Of course, that was what had to happen.”

The title story, “Signs and Wonders,” has preeminent place in the book, coming at the very first possibly because of its thematic content.  Just as one place of emphasis is the very last (and Alice Munro’s book Too Much Happiness, which I recently reviewed, had its title story in that ultimate position), so Alix Ohlin, another Canadian writer of note, puts her title story at the first.  Briefly, the story is about an academic marriage which has run its course; but the wife cannot divorce the husband immediately because he is in an accident, and in all charity she cannot end things while he is in a coma.  When their adult son, who has problems of his own, is informed of their decision to divorce after the husband returns to health, he becomes hysterical, and only the prayer intervention of a woman whom the wife has always hated and whose pet bird she tried to release into hostile surroundings helps him.  As we are told in the last few sentences of the story, as the wife ponders in amazement at the fact of prayer come into their lives, “She couldn’t decipher [the signs and wonders]; she couldn’t read her life that way….But she could feel them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring clearly through the air, and she could only wonder how it was that she had never felt them before.”

As we continue throughout the book, we see other lives suddenly taken at a moment of attentive arrest in which “the beating of wings” of key or significant happenings can be witnessed.  There’s a doctor dating a nurse, who “helps” her returned vet brother out of his addictive life, and who later witnesses something, a moment in time, which reminds him forcibly of the brother’s perspective, and his words, too late.  There’s a stepmother who has a vision of one of her stepchildren dying, which she follows up on in spite of all pressure to the contrary, with astounding results.  Two women in a park, superficially alike and dressed similarly, experience a moment of fate when one of them is mistaken for the other, and shot.  Former assistants and interns of various businesses in New York hear of the death of a friend, and realize abruptly what their former life was like.  And so on through the rest of the sixteen deceptively simple stories.  Though death is sometimes the end or a major event in these stories, it is not really death in a depressing sense that these stories are “about”:  Ohlin wants us to pay attention to other things as well.

As I think I’ve made obvious, the lives described in the book are those of people anyone might know, well-polished surfaces in which anyone might recognize his or her own face.  What is crucial to each story, however, is the sudden intrusion of what Bob Dylan called “a simple twist of fate,” a funny or poignant or simply “there” little incident or fact which proves decisive in the lives of those depicted.

I said these stories are “deceptively simple,” and I think this is the mot juste for the author’s perspective and voice as well.  It would take much longer than I have here, I think, to penetrate thoroughly all the rhetorical tactics and narrative ploys and gambits she uses to get her points across.  But I think at least one point she makes is quite clear and lucid, and that is that we can never see the shape our lives are taking or the conclusion they are likely to have if we are too caught up in the moment or the quarrel or the obsession to take a look.  And if we do look, and really see, what we observe may indeed be a sign, and a wonder.

Leave a comment

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

Ellipses/Lacunae of Knowing, Feeling, Fact, and Time in Alice Munro’s stories in “Too Much Happiness”

Both Doris Grumbach, writing of God, and Mahmoud Darwish writing poetically of things and people he has lost have used the phrase “the presence of absence.”  Without explicit reference to either of their works per se, I would like to use that phrase, “the presence of absence,” to refer to the overwhelming sense of importance we derive from the ellipses or lacunae in the stories Alice Munro chose to put in her collection titled after the last of the stories in the group, Too Much Happiness.  Quite simply, in every story, there are things that the author in the case chooses to omit, to gloss over, or to mention only in passing.  My contention is that these ellipses or lacunae of knowing, feeling, fact, or time in Munro’s collection stand out from those of the usual method of omission in the sense that they are key and crucial to the meaning of the stories, and are not merely structural conveniences for moving the story along.

In the first story of the ten, “Dimensions,” the facts we receive are delivered from the wife Doree’s emotional stance until almost the very end, and we have three interwoven strands of encounter amongst characters.  There is the strand of story in which Doree goes to visit her criminally insane husband Lloyd, who in a fit of rage with her murdered their three children; there is the portion of the story taken up with Doree’s new life under her middle name “Fleur”; and there is the set of conversations she is shown as having with her therapist, Mrs. Sands.  In none of these strands, however, do we sense the introduction of a synthesizing voice, as if the shattering of Doree’s life has left these three strands only loosely entwined. The husband is spoken of as a ghost, and he insists at a key point in the story that he has seen the children in another dimension.  It is almost as if the story is “under-written,” though it is proficient and completely artistic as it is.  Only at the ending of the story, in which Doree is desperately and effectively engaged in trying to save the life of an entirely unconnected person does the perfect resolution occur–and of course the “message” if one must have one is that no life is unconnected to the rest.  Here it is that a synthesizing voice speaks, in a sense, because we are told that she has learned CPR from Lloyd before their children were dead, and then we feel the lacuna between a reasonable amount of give and take between them and the total disaster that their life together later became.  “At what point did such and such a thing manifest itself?” is a futile question, but we can sense the gap itself, the presence of the absence of married charity.

In “Fiction,” the second story of this volume, the unfilled spaces are both of time and suggested plot.  A woman encounters a younger woman, someone previously known to her as a child, now a young writer, who has written a story about people they know in common, including the older woman herself at an earlier stage, fictionalized.  Not only has the young writer’s life since they fist knew each other taken place during an ellipsis, she doesn’t recognize the older woman in the present tense section of the story.  There is also a hint in what the older woman expects to find in the writer’s fiction that she herself has victimized the younger woman, but this clearly is not in the fiction the younger woman writes, so there is a lacuna here, if in fact the tale is supposed to be based on her own experience, as the older woman expects.  Naming the story “Fiction” of course highlights the fact that the young woman’s writing is perhaps more artistic than the older woman expects, because in writing of one’s own life, one is free to use blanks and spaces and absences of fact and time and sequence.

“Wenlock Edge” is named for a portion of poetry by A. E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad, and here there is a presence of absence in that the character’s feelings are only sketched out, but the poem itself is left to fill in a lot of territory, especially in the quoted sections.  The narrator’s roommate Nina, not a serious student like the narrator, but a sort of Holly Golightly of the academic world and beyond, has some sort of undeclared (and therefore elliptical) relationship with an old man named Mr. Purvis, who at one point when Nina is ill asks the narrator to come to his house for dinner instead.  Later, Nina gets together with a relative of the narrator’s, who has taken the narrator out to eat many times in a sort of older-cousin way.  The lacunae come in when the two girls change places, because of what Mr. Purvis asks the narrator to do, what Nina does with the narrator’s cousin, and finally what the narrator does to “get even” with Nina and the fates for the shame she feels.  The two men are two different kinds of bachelors, and the various points at which the narrator is left in ignorance or “guesses” about things make for an exciting and ironic story:  after all, Nina has told the narrator’s male relative that Mr. Purvis is her own uncle:  what if, perhaps, he is only an uncle and not the old pervert that the narrator has always assumed he was, even before she met him?  Doesn’t that make the two girls the same, or very similar?  But these sorts of thoughts are ones left to the reader to intuit, the narrator’s elliptical remarks don’t make them explicit.

The next story, “Deep-Holes,” has as a major “presence of absence” theme the way in which early suffering leaves its mark on a young man, a mark which his own mother is not fully aware of until she meets up with him again, years later, after much searching.  Though she knows a few characteristics of his early personality which are predictive of his later ones, yet there is a huge ellipsis between the child and the suffering man during which his mother has not played a part.

“Free Radicals” is a story in which a woman whose husband recently predeceased her in spite of the fact that she has terminal cancer comes to terms with how much she still wants to live.  When a threatening drifter comes to rob her and possibly kill her (she cannot be sure of his intentions), she has to attempt to deal not only with death, but with the life she manipulated others to get.  Her sharing of a bottle of red wine with the drifter (and her remark that she cannot remember whether it kills free radicals or promotes them) has a symbolic connection to the end of the story and the drifter’s destiny, but there is a sort of blanking out of the obviousness of the symbol because of the sheer vitality and importance of the plot and dialogue as she lures him in line by line, still afraid for her life.  She also shows a sense of guilt for an episode in which she was the “free radical” to someone else’s happiness, and attempts to make up for the past as well as affecting the future with a bit of fiction of her own; of course, the past cannot be reversed.  The last words of the story, “Never know,” marks the lacuna that has ruled the plot.

In this story, “Face,” there is an ellipsis of memory between the evidence of the boy’s strawberry birthmark on his face, and having “face” or daring, as the young girl his playmate in the story does later, approaching his bedside when he is in the hospital and reading poetry to him without identifying who she is.  He is a minor celebrity in adulthood, so he is known to her, though he does not at first know her.  The lacunae also occur between the years in the story when they have encountered each other.

In the story “Some Women,” the ellipsis contains the significance of the title, which is different from the point of view of each of the story’s female characters.  As Old Mrs. Crozier would say of her daughter-in-law Sylvia “Some women take the joy out of life.”  As the narrator would say of the masseuse and attendant Roxanne “Some women are no better than they ought to be.”  As   As Sylvia would more evasively put it about Roxanne when Sylvia finally wins in a tug of war over her dying husband Bruce’s affections, “Some women are not aware of how they should approach the dying.”  Finally, when Bruce’s mother Old Mrs. Crozier intuits that her son has set aside his flirtation with Roxanne for his wife, she outright says something to Roxanne about leaving, and it’s obvious that she has switched her opinion and thinks some women get way above themselves, and above their place.  Bruce himself is in a way the location of the lacuna, amidst so much female activity and plotting.

The next story, story number eight, is called “Child’s Play.”  In it, two girls named Marlene and Charlene, who joke at camp about being twins but who are widely different in some respects both as children and as adults, conspire to do something quite horrible but described in everyday terms to a third girl, Verna, a developmentally disabled child.  But this event, which is the central event in the story, is held until the end, and almost is left out altogether; there is a lacuna or an ellipsis in the place where the narrator’s human compassion should be, though it’s obvious by the avoidance tactics in the narrative that  she now knows what she did, and how it should be morally assessed.  It’s the actual moral assessment which is missing, really, though the narrator remembers, finally, or imagines, what must have happened after she and Charlene left the other girl.  Thus, the repressed memory and the imagined results only come together at the very end, and it’s the overt sense of guilt which is also repressed, though clearly it has had a major effect on the narrator’s choices in life.

In “Wood,” we quite literally have the case of a man, an amateur logger, who cannot see the forest for the trees.  He is given numerous small contracts to log wood from various farms, and does so.  When a local ne’er-do-well gossips to him that he is not the only person with a contract on a prized piece of land, however, he loses his composure and tries to beat the competition, with the result that he gets injured, almost without knowing how it happened.  Though the story has a happy ending in a sense (at the same time having passages reminiscent of “To Build A Fire” by Jack London), the lacunae or ellipses center around what the truth actually is about the contract (never known) and the man’s realization that it is not only wood,for humankind’s use, but also has a life of its own as a mysterious and deeply silent living thing.  The wood has previously only spoken to him as something to sell; now, it speaks to him out of its own deep “presence as absence,” its enigma of the world before or without humankind.

The title story, “Too Much Happiness,” doesn’t seem to follow the same patterns as the other stories, in having lacunae or ellipses of knowing or feeling or fact, though the time scheme is transient, partial, and elliptical.  This story is a brief account of the significance and the ending days of Sophia Kovalesky, a Russian mathematician.  As Munro notes, “I have limited my story to the days leading up to Sophia’s death, with flashbacks to her earlier life.”  Munro recommends Don and Nina Kennedy’s book on Kovalesky for those interested in reading more.

As a whole, Munro’s book reminds us of Henry James’s edict that if a work is well-imagined, that the reader will be the one to do a good proportion of the work in responding imaginatively to the writer’s words.  Certainly in Munro’s case, there is much for the reader to respond to, without anyone being likely to get the sense that the work is not complete.  In fact, in calling the “blanks,” ellipses, and lacunae instances of “the presence of absence,” I intend to indicate the same sort of artistic choice as may pertain to the white spaces on an otherwise brightly-painted canvas:  they are an integral and vital part of the whole, and call for something from the observer, an act of responsive mimicry which makes the “filled-in” described portion itself all that much more sensitive and profound.

5 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews