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Jan 4, 2010

Notes on Innovative Fiction

(These notes reference four short stories: "How To Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien, "Girl" by Jamaica Kinkaid, "Popular Mechanics" by Raymond Carver, and "Young Man on Sixth Avenue" by Mark Halliday. Page references are to The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, Michael Meyers, Ed.)

First, remember we defined the art of the short story very broadly, saying it was a "…a relatively brief fictional narrative in prose, anywhere from 500-15,000 words in length. Distinct from the "sketch" or the "tale" in that it has a definite formal development, finding its unity in more than plot — in character, effect, theme, tone, mood, and style." There are other more open-ended kinds of definitions, like the student who wrote "A short story is an asterisk in time." This definition emphasizes the one quality essential to the form, which we haven't entirely emphasized yet: brevity. Edgar Allen Poe emphasizes that quality, too.

In the notes I've presented and in our class discussions, our approach has been a mixture of reader-response, formalist analysis, and a little bit of historical/cultural research and criticism when that was interesting, as in the case of Melville. We haven't had time to dip into every approach that's possible. They're all enriching in their way. If you kept studying literature, you'd find that each piece you read seems to require a kind of unique, nuanced critical approach, because each work is different and unique in some way. That is especially true of the next set of stories we're about to look at, Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," "Jamaica Kinkaid's "Girl," and Raymond Carver's "Popular Mechanics."

My name for the type of short fiction we're about to discuss is "innovative." Sometimes I interchange the term "experimental." Innovative, experimental short fiction plays around with the conventional forms of the short story we described last week — elements like plot, character, point of view, and setting. It approaches form in a new way. Each of these stories extends the possibilities for the way a story can be told. So you think a story has to have a plot? Read "Girl," and think again.

HOW TO TELL A TRUE WAR STORY by Tim O'Brien

The innovative feature of this story is, once again, its narrator. In this case we have a very "intrusive" narrator (that's a formalist term), who's constantly telling us what to think about what we're reading. Once clear reason this story is different lies in the way the narrator keeps popping in, struggling, it turns out, to define what he means by a "true war story." O'Brien is giving us, then, a story about telling a story and it also tells a story. If it was just a story about telling a story, I think it would have really limited appeal. Maybe a few writers would take interest. But it also tells an interesting story about the experience of being a soldier in a horrifying war. It's an example of what might be called "metafiction." But I don't care a whole lot about that term. What's more important is whether you note the power O'Brien derives from telling the story this way.

Besides the narrator who keeps popping in and out, playing with narrative point of view is embedded in the story in other ways, too. Look at the layers of storytellers we have to wade through to get the story of the soldiers doing recon on the mountainside. Our narrator gets it from his buddy who got it from someone else, and then his buddy (Mitch) confesses he changed a few details to make it "true"…. "God's truth…" he begins the story… (423) But later, we feel sorry for Mitch as we see him groping for meaning just like the rest of us (425). It's still ambiguous what it's all supposed to mean, even what it means to Mitch. We can take our best guess, that's all.

Right from the first line, the story introduces a paradox, and in fact, the story is one long expression of the discomforting sense of paradox that accompanies the narrator's experience of war. (And if credibility is an issue for you, you should note that Tim O'Brien was a Vietnam vet.)

Throughout the story, irony and paradox accompany his presentation of the characters and events that took place "twenty years ago."

From the first line of the story, we're faced with a paradox, and the challenge is laid out. "This is true" (420). In what sense is this story "true"? We already know it's not true; it's a work of fiction. How is it "true"? If it isn't true in its surface details—these are fictional characters in a fictional setting—what exactly is true about it? If you can answer that, you've understood what literature as an important endeavor has to offer humanity. (That deeper inner truth; the inside scoop—the truth about consciousness and emotion, about the very things we think of as "human.")

The paradox continues at the bottom of the page: "A true war story is never moral…if a story seems moral do not believe it" (421). Why? If story has a nice, neatly wrapped moral, then it is probably contrived, the worst kind of falseness, a bigger LIE than fiction, which paradoxically is true. A real understanding of war is an understanding of war's obscenity, its evil, the "larger waste." It's Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, two barely grown boys who insist on having an dangerously innocent game of catch and one getting blown to bits, the other forced to grow up in a hurry. It's Rat Kiley absorbing the vile, violent, demonize-the-enemy code, internalizing it. It's the tragic loss of respect for life, including one's own. It's the scene with the baby water buffalo. "There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue." Believing in the "virtue" of war is a grand lie.

Here's another great paradox: "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way….The picture gets jumbled ; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed" (422). Is the narrator just totally confused, or is he trying to express a paradoxical truth here? I think a little of both! What makes the memory so hard to capture, and even harder to convey?

Skip ahead to p. 427. The narrator (and O'Brien behind him) sums up the paradox at the heart of his experience of the war. Although "Nam" is, as Mitchell Sanders puts it, "The Garden of Evil" where "every sin's real fresh and original" it isn't that easy for the narrator, who keeps trying to tell the story in a way that will communicate what war really means. "War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

In the next paragraph:

"The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply black glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. It's not pretty, exactly. It's astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference-a powerful, implacable beauty-and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly" (427).

And on p. 428:

"Mitchell Sanders was right. For the common sldier, at least, war has the feel-the spiritual texture-of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can't tell where you are, or why you're there, and the only certainty is absolute ambiguity."

SYMBOL plays a large role in this as in other stories. Here is deepens the meaning of war in a concrete, visceral way. One major symbol in O'Brien's story is the baby water buffalo that Rat Kiley brutally murders. Not only does this anecdote make the stomach believe, but the narrator is still having nightmares about it 20 years later. It is the moment when it becomes vividly clear how Rat Kiley has lost his humanity. We see it as clear as day watching him brutalize that poor innocent creature. In a way the baby buffalo is he himself, brutalized by the terror he's been forced to experience in Vietnam. The torturous way this passage is described…I think O'Brien is here trying to vividly make your stomach believe in the obscenity, the evil of war. This is one perspective from someone who's been there, in this "Garden of Evil" where "every sin's real fresh and original."

We've said a lot about the anti-moralizing at the heart of the art of the short story, and I want you to notice how Rat's buddies react to the horror they witness in that scene with the baby buffalo. How might you expect them to act? How does their response defy your expectations? What makes sense about it? They can relate to his feelings, possibly, in a way we readers can't. But remember, 20 years later, the horror of that moment keeps returning to haunt our narrator. Although it isn't easy to say what the "moral of the story is," do you think the story, by the way it conveys experience, projects a kind of moral force anyway?

GIRL by Jamaica Kincaid

Here's a story in which the conventional use of plot, character development, point of view, dialogue, setting — you name it — all the elements of form fly out the window! The story has an especially innovative point of view. It seems like a monologue, the mother's voice filtered through the daughters consciousness, and we're hearing her thoughts; but it's actually a dialogue, because the daughter does answer here and there.

At the heart of this "plotless" narrative there is still a very clear conflict: mother vs. daughter. There's "Mother" who wants to indoctrinate her offspring, prepare her to live an adult life according to the cultural mores of her place and time. And there's Daughter, who, feeling nagged and oppressed, responds by rebelling. She has her own sense of herself and resists this indoctrination. How does it all work out? That's ambiguous.

This story is a great example of literature's ability to leap across cultural boundaries. Kincaid is from Antigua (in the Caribbean) and it seems the story is set there. But it's a timeless, universal story about the generation gap. Parents will always try desperately to pass their own values on to their children — their lifetime's worth of learning and wisdom — and children will also try desperately to discover their own values and gain their own wisdom.

There's a little bit extra here, too. This daughter seems oppressed, not only by her nagging mother, but also by the role being offered her. It seems very confining and limited, and perhaps that's what leads the girl to reject it. Kincaid herself left Antigua at age 17 at least partly to escape her mother, and that makes this story seems especially biographical, though of course it is still fiction.

POPULAR MECHANICS by Raymond Carver

Here's a fact about Raymond Carver: he thinks a short story should have a sense of "threat" or "menace":

[There should be] a tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things. (Raymond Carver)

Do you sense a tension, a threat or menace, lurking throughout "Popular Mechanics"?

"Popular Mechanics," while it may seem strange and somewhat innovative (in length, tone, plot) is actually just the epitome of what Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad are saying when they maintain that the art of fiction is to "make you hear, make you feel—it is, above all to make you see"… Still, there's an experimental quality here. The first thing that jumps out at me is the artfulness of the point of view — the narrative voice that tells the story. It's a great example of that point of view described as "neutral omniscient" (or "camera eye" in my own lingo); that is, it's completely objective, completely lacking in "subjectivity" — it's wholly an observation brought vividly before you without any narrative intrusion whatsoever. It couldn't be more opposite the style of "How to Tell a True War Story," right? There's no one in this story to tell you what to think about these two individuals. You have to form that judgment yourself. All you get to go on is the picture that Carver puts before you. Does he give you enough detail to form an idea of what's going on?

Here's what Hemingway said about the art of fiction (we'll also revisit this on Friday):

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing….

Carver greatly admired Hemingway and derives a lot from him stylistically. In this story, do you get a sense of the size of the iceberg beneath the surface, seeing just this tip? Do you get a feeling for the hidden forces lurking just below this ruffled surface of things?

Although it seems very objective, the narrator begins the story with small, telling details that actually convey a lot. Even a very objective point of view is selective in the details it chooses. Although a camera doesn't provide commentary, there's still a consciousness there — someone is holding the camera, choosing a certain shot. The details in the first few sentences of the story convey a certain atmosphere, a specific mood; they set the tone for the "dark" events that follow. Remember, this is the writer who said he likes the feeling of "threat" or "menace" in a story. Do you get that right away here? What about details like the "dirty water" and the cars "slushing" by on the street, the gathering darkness outside, and the quiet comment that "it was getting dark inside too"? All of these details set a certain tone. Carver is using the setting to communicate something. The snow and the winter and the twilight could have become a warm, fuzzy scene, but he's not choosing details that paint the picture of a warm fuzzy winter twilight; there's no cozy fire in a fireplace. There's nothing toasty or warm here — the dominant impression created by the small details he uses create a cold, dingy, soggy darkness that overrides how the "weather turned" warm, melting the snow.

What follows this description is a scene between a parting couple. What kinds of things do you infer about these two adults based on the way you see them interact? Remember, Carver isn't going to moralize; he isn't going to tell you want to think, how to interpret their behavior. He's just going to show them to you, as vividly, as compactly as he can.

Here's one reading of the scene: these people are selfish and pigheaded, with only their own needs in mind, not one another's or the baby's. They destroy the baby. Not much good can be said about them. They both want their own way at any cost. You get the feeling, too, that their marriage has been one long power struggle, that the issue they've never been able to decide is how to work out their differences. Throughout this brief story, they constantly try to one-up one another. When he tries to physically rip the baby away from her, she fights him, but then accuses him of hurting the baby. She can't see her own part in hurting the baby, and he just as blindly tries to overpower her at any cost.

Is the baby symbolic? Is it the symbol of the way they've resolved differences all along, and the reason they're splitting up? Does it represent children in a divorce, pulled this way and that, used and forgotten in the grown-up power struggle that surrounds them, and they're innocently ripped and torn both ways by uncaring parents?

Surely this couldn't happen to a real baby….real parents would never act this way…. You may think so. In that case, is the story a complete waste of time, or does it express, paradoxically, a deeper truth, by being itself a lie? Tim O'Brien explores that same paradox, as we just saw, in "How to Tell a True War Story."

From your text, comes the question: What's the "issue" these two are trying to decide?

How does this story recall the King Solomon story in the Bible (1 Kings, Chapter 3)? In what ways does this story provide a complete contrast to that one? Does being aware of that contrast help shed any light on the meaning of the story? (These people are not wise like King Solomon! What does the true mother in the bible story have that neither of these parents have?)

YOUNG MAN ON SIXTH AVENUE by Mark Halliday

The innovative feature here is the way the narrator zooms in on one particular moment, portrays a vivid character in that moment and then, like a telescope pulling back, gives us the larger picture, the crushing longer view. The story provides the dizzying experience of time passing so quickly we don't know where it went. Major life events are swept aside in a single sentence; fifty years pass in single paragraph. As in a fable, there's summary, but also vivid, specific detail — we know we're reading a modern story. The form reinforces the story's meaning: how fast an entire life can go by! One moment everything makes sense; we're young and on top of the world, a force to be reckoned with. In the next (relative) moment, that present is vanished, our force hopelessly diminished. We're in a "pseudo-present" that seems to engulf us in our own obscurity. The pseudo-present will never seem as real as that other absolute one that was "obviously and totally the present," a present in which we commanded all our faculties, and walked with "fistfuls of futures that could happen" in all [our] pockets."

Carpe diem? Seize the day? Live and enjoy every single moment you have, because you have a finite number even though it may not seem like that when you're twenty-five. Maybe the point is that people have an internal age that they feel they are no matter how old they may get. This man is eternally twenty-five. Maybe the point is that it's great to be young and hip, and well read, with your whole life ahead of you. Better to be a vibrant young man on Sixth Avenue than an invisible old one who's about to get hit by a passing taxi cab.