Published over a hundred years ago, James Joyce’s collection of short stories titled Dubliners, in which each story presents lifelike characters drawn from Joyce’s observation of his contemporary Dubliners caught at a time of emotional crisis or psychological stress, became a template for writers who came after Joyce — Maurice Shadbolt’s The New Zealanders (1959) is a notable example where even the title makes a bow of acknowledgement to Joyce’s Dubliners — and there have been countless writers from North America to Australia, even Pakistan, who have reduced Joyce’s style to a formula that Ezra Pound outlined when, reviewing Dubliners in 1914, the year of its publication, he remarked, “Erase the local names and a few specifically local allusions, and a few historic events of the past, and substitute a few different local names, allusions, and events, and these stories could be retold of any town.”
The majority of writers continue to retell variations of the same stories a century later, applying the formula to some currently popular subject matter but without regard to what Pound believed distinguished Dubliners — that exceptional quality of language which he extolled for its “international standard of prose”. With popular writers, the subject matter, and not its execution, sometimes causes the retelling to exude a superficial seriousness associated with some socio-political or religious question where the readers are impressed by ideas expressed with no regard to subtlety of language or a strikingly individual style, for an original expression would prevent the readers’ recognition that the ideas affirmed their deeply held prejudices, as did, for example, the works of Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, which appealed to popular taste when fresh and green but have long since become as vegetables left too long in the fridge — wilted, mouldy and rancid.
On some of the best short story writers and how their craft is executed
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) had preceded Joyce in the creation of the modern well-made short story with its sharply focused action in which even a passing image — as of Gurov, the hero in Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Dog’, silently eating a slice of watermelon — takes on an important symbolic significance, and though Joyce had not read Chekhov when he wrote his own stories, his formal approach with its concentration on objective presentation is not dissimilar except for the faint music released by Joyce’s language that is experienced by the English reader’s inner ear. Most of the stories published in magazines and anthologies, not to mention the outpouring of thousands of students in creative writing classes, still deploy the Chekhov-Joyce formal combination in their construction, with some also coming up with a surprise ending which was the trademark of another 19th century writer, Guy de Maupassant. While most of the work thus produced is destined to end up on the heap of wilted vegetables, occasionally a writer has succeeded in distilling memorable work without veering away too much from the traditional formula, one of the best being the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964).
Though she wrote in the traditional mode, O’Connor’s control over characterisation, dialogue and dramatic development gives a cinematic vividness to her narratives and her prose, always forceful and imaginative and resonating with her singular voice, gives a depth to her stories that is missing in the short stories of two of her famous American contemporaries, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, who still enjoy an unmerited reputation as superior writers of short stories when any close reading will show their prose to be dull and their ideas of passing interest at best. Indeed, O’Connor’s achievement comes nearest, though still many miles away, to that of William Faulkner, the greatest American writer of fiction after Herman Melville. I need not repeat here what I wrote in my book, The Art of Creating Fiction, in which my detailed criticism of the structure and language of some of Hemingway’s and Steinbeck’s stories shows them to be the work of inferior minds whose idea of form is little more than composing a narrative according to a simplistic formula, but their promotion, especially Hemingway’s, by publishers and academics as emperors parading in dazzling clothes has provided their equally naked successors, the likes of Raymond Carver and John Updike, with the justification to produce more formulaic writing and see it praised as literature, encouraging the younger generation of writers to believe that its dumb and deaf gestures are sophisticated speech.
This kind of symbolic association, which usually is never deliberately intended by the writer, is an imaginative richness secreted by the imagery of a writer’s prose ... This is what I mean by my frequent remark that the best writing has a metaphysical dimension. It is all in the style, not in the story.
There are notable exceptions, such as Joyce Carol Oates, among American writers whose experiments with the short story form follow from and extend the high achievement of the finest in world literature, especially what has been produced in South America whose countries were raided by the Europeans for gold but whose art, a far more valuable, precious material that richly veins their culture, remains largely unexplored except for Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Most readers of Latin American fiction associate it with so-called magical realism almost as a knee-jerk reaction because they have been conditioned by reviewers who present the literary landscape as neat, hedged-in enclosures where readers browse like passive sheep, when the truth is that it’s a wilderness where a few magnificently towering trees are seen to have sprung out of a profusely dense undergrowth in the most unexpected places with no regard to nationalist boundaries, each waving its branches in a display of its individual splendour. At some distance from the deep-rooted Kafka and the uniquely independent Bruno Schulz, as well as the two upright evergreens, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, you’ll find Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortázar, María Luisa Bombal and Juan Carlos Onetti who reflect more than a magical light with their art. Amazing storytellers all, but each springing that amazement through stylistic innovation and a unique voice that converts the language of everyday speech to an unheard melody that sings in the reader’s imagination. And then, there is the greatest of them all: Machado de Assis (1839-1908).
While any ranking of the world’s best writers is an absurd irrelevance because each has worked in his or her own incomparable way, yet, as a writer of short stories, there’s no denying that for formal invention and imaginative brilliance Machado (as he’s known in his native Brazil) is the first among the moderns. Several great exponents of short fiction will come after him — Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, each contributing an astonishing originality to the form — but, writing contemporaneously with Chekhov, Machado demonstrated the wide formal range in which an original vision and understanding of human experience can be expressed in the short story. He can be playful, humorous, ironic, philosophical and pessimistic (sometimes all in one story, as in ‘A Canary’s Ideas’) while always being entertaining; by comparison, though their mastery over the short story form is never in doubt, Chekhov appears stodgy and Joyce solemn. Yet, so entrenched is the European colonial perspective which still relegates to the margin most works of foreign origin, that Machado’s stories remain neglected.
One writer who has not neglected Machado is Peter LaSalle. You may not have heard of him for we live in an age which equates literary value with sales potential and it’s no secret that good new writing, even with only a hint of stylistic innovation, is shunned by the buying public and that professors of literature who ought to be the cultivators of a discriminatory taste instead promote popular writers whose surface sophistication gives them the phony aura of looking original. Had LaSalle not modestly carried on producing his work without concerning himself with the self-assertive literary politics in which many writers engage to win transient fame, he would be known as one of the finest American writers of short fiction and not remain neglected except in the small circle of appreciative fellow-writers and friends among whom I am one.
I had admired some of LaSalle’s early work for its intimations of originality, though with the reservation that there was a self-conscious air to some of the attempted newness; then I read his story, ‘A Guide to Some Small Border Airports’ (1990), a multi-level piece of prose, perfect in its evocation of physical details associated with people, places and objects while the sentences point to a larger meaning that takes on a metaphysical dimension, so that by its end the story, which had one absorbed in its dramatic action to do with aerial photography as a cover for drug smuggling on the Texas-Mexico border, takes one to the frontier envisioned between life and death where the hard-edged physically experienced world begins its dissolution into nothingness. The small border airports have been desolate stations in a nearly uninhabitable desert and in the hero’s life-journey they are like Stations of the Cross from where in his single-engine Cessna, its fixed wing across the fuselage the image of a cross in the sky, he will find himself nailed among clouds “closing in from three sides”. This kind of symbolic association, which usually is never deliberately intended by the writer, is an imaginative richness secreted by the imagery of a writer’s prose, and, therefore, the denser the imagery representing the real world, the deeper the reader’s abstract spiritual awareness of unexpressed meaning.
This is what I mean by my frequent remark that the best writing has a metaphysical dimension. It is all in the style, not in the story. It is this quality I perceived in LaSalle’s ‘A Guide to Some Small Border Airports’, and reading his subsequent volumes of short stories, observe that his prose has never relaxed that intensity of imagistic composition that makes for good literature.
One of the best examples is his story titled ‘The End of Narrative’ in Tell Borges If You See Him (2007), which is composed as a sequence of 29 passages, some no more than a simple one-line sentence and some several pages long, numbered 1-29, and which the reader is also invited to read in reverse order, 29-1, a sort of Oulipo experimentation that Georges Perec and, before him, Cortázar and B. S. Johnson, would have applauded. Its first — or last — sentence, “Of course, there were many reports, as might be expected in a case like this”, serves to arouse curiosity if read as the opening or bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion if read as the end. The subject matter concerning an affair in which the man who has developed a charming idea of his mistress finds, when he discovers her blog in which she writes about her life when not with him, that she is altogether someone else, is not a new story as such; what makes it new is the way it is made to unfold: LaSalle projects a narrative about the structure of narrative as it is created to tell the story, and while doing so suggests that such narration is never feasible because there can be some unknown fact which, if known, would create a different narrative; at the same time, even as the possibility of its being narrated is being questioned, he makes the narrated story come alive by drawing the reader into a literary discussion about narrative practice by inserting a lengthy reference to a fact from Borges’s life which is missing from the narratives of his three biographies.
The Borges passage comes early or at the end, depending on the reader’s choice of direction (forward or backward) when reading the text, so that it either conditions the reader to experience the story as a narrative from which some vital fact could be missing or to conclude that the narrative coming to an end has not succeeded in telling the full story, though in either case what has been read is experienced as far more complex and interesting than if the narrative of the lovers had been presented as a traditional story.
At the close of the narrative we end up looking at the nature of narrative itself and understand that all human experience is a partial narrative based on an incomplete knowledge of facts that we mistakenly believe to be complete, that what we know of other people is invariably an invention of our imagination, a contrived narrative. This is high art, the 20th century leaping into the 21st, the author manipulating literary theory to create a literature that should impress even the devotees of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
The theme of reality as that vaporous area where clouds of dreams drift across what seemed a settled blue sky and cast a hazy veil across the serenity of belief runs through the stories in LaSalle’s latest collection, Sleeping Mask (2017), or it could be the reverse: a dreaming consciousness awakens to a confusion of beliefs from which it selects a particular sequence of probable events as rationally acceptable and calls it reality.
In the story ‘The Absent Painter’, a group of men who’ve become accustomed to be with one another each night in a bar notice that one of them, a painter, no longer turns up. Days pass, then weeks, and they wonder why the painter remains absent. They talk of other things, tell one another their personal gossip, but there are moments when someone again remarks on the painter’s absence. There are many conjectures: the artist could be working hard to finish new paintings for a forthcoming show, etc., various scenarios of his life are rehearsed, whole dramas imagined, but no one really knows why he remains absent. The story ends. Nothing happens. Now, in the so-called realistic story there would have been a dramatic dénouement at the end, but the reader expecting that sort of a concluding climax is given nothing. Yet, LaSalle’s version is the truly realistic one for nothing much happens in life; we fall into the routine of getting together in a bar and sit gossiping for an hour or two. Listening to the gossip, we hear several stories and imagine whole fictions, or stare at the ‘cute and especially hip’ young waitress, a drama student, and imagine the story of her life especially when she is not there cleaning tables and serving drinks, all of which raises a crucial epistemological proposition that what we believe is fiction invented to explain an absence that puzzles us, on which is based the construction of a whole edifice of doctrinaire propositions whereby, though eternally absent, a deity is religiously believed to be omnipresent.
Not all of LaSalle’s stories engage one in such philosophical speculations. He can be playful and erotically suggestive as in the title story, ‘Sleeping Mask’, though even in this simpler narrative there is an association suggested by the symbol of the mask with ideas of dreaming and wakefulness highlighted by LaSalle in the epigraph to the book he chose from Borges that give a deeper dimension to the story. Borges, indeed, is present in much of the book, not as an influence but as an approving elder watching another’s dreams awaken a reality in which time is again refuted and the self, caught in a mirror’s deceptive duplication, can only escape into a labyrinth of more bewildering dreams. Borges’s portrait, though not identified, presides over ‘Southern Majestic Zone’, a powerful story which at one level is about Argentina’s years of military dictatorship, though to say that is misleadingly to label it as a documentary portrayal of that time when LaSalle’s rendering, with its infusion of domestic incidents into the public drama of an unnamed country, is closer to a Kafkaesque envisioning of political reality.
In ‘The Flight’, the narrator comes out of the lavatory at the rear of the plane and walking back to his seat, finds the plane completely empty — even the pilot is not there. In ‘What Can’t Not Happen’, a group of American college kids go romping through the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, only it is night and the young tourists are all dead. In the beautiful and very moving ‘A Late Afternoon Swim’, an eleven-year-old boy goes into the water with his mother for a final dip in the ocean before going home, and seeing her swim out farther and farther shouts out, “Don’t leave me!”, but she keeps going, becoming smaller, with the boy continuing to scream not to leave her — or is it the man writing the story late in his life who is still yelling? To make these one-sentence references is barely to touch the surface of these extraordinary stories which, when one begins to savour their prose, plunge one into oceanic depths of language where the mirror of the sea reflects the myth of the self in dreamy distortions that shock one as revelations of truth.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 30th, 2016