Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label Baxter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baxter. Show all posts

20 November, 2016

Charles Baxter, "Avarice"

"Avarice" is told in first-person point of view, present tense, with an short section in second-person that reads as first, "You get old, you think about the past..." And, there are some forays into the future, "On the other side I'll float for a while, between worlds."

Dolores is in her seventies and has found a lump in her breast, "I would be all right even though I would die." Jesus sent her ex-daughter-in-law to help her with the transition to death. "The person He sent to me was Corinne."

All under one roof is Dolores, her son, Wesley, and his second wife, Astrid, Corinne, Jeremy and Lucy, Dolores's grandchildren. In the backstory, we find out that Corinne left Minneapolis some years earlier and went to Tulsa until she was so destitute she returned to Minneapolis and the family took her in. "My son, Wesley, her ex-husband, had to take her in. We all did."

Also, in the backstory, we find out that Dolores's husband, Mike, was killed by a drunken socialite who went to prison for it. "The socialite's out of prison now, but my husband is still under ground in Lakewood Cemetery." We see how filled with murderous desires Dolores becomes until "Jesus intervened." All her adult life, Dolores was a librarian, "A librarian with the heart of a murderer! No one guessed." Here, for me, is one of the themes, that no one can ever really know what is in someone else's mind or heart.

There is a scene where the grandson, Jeremy, is appalled about the murder of eighty some elephants in Zimbabwe. The main theme of the story, avarice, is brought up in this scene as well as in other parts of the story. The killing of elephants for their ivory just so trinkets of smiling buddhas can be carved for the American market.

Also, we learn that Corinne's pension has been stolen by the capitalists that she hates, "but as a woman I'm a victim of capitalism, because did I tell you how they took away my pension? I had a pension, and they gave it to investors and the investors invested in bogus real I ended up with nothing." The main theme, avarice, hypnotizes people. "He believed that riches were distractions."

The main scenes in the story are Corinne eating cookies, Dolores and Corinne on a walk, Jeremy ranting about the elephants. Most of the story is backstory and foretelling. The story is a melding of Dolores's concerns and thoughts about dying, death, and what it's like to be dead.

"This is how I know she'll take care of me once I'm incapacitated. Slowly, on my bad knees, I get down too. How lovely is her madness to me now."

21 September, 2016

David Chang, "The Unified Theory of Deliciousness"

There is a wonderful essay about food in the 24.08 issue of Wired. And yes, for me, it applies to short stories. David Chang has hit on an idea for the base pattern of the tastiness of food, across cultures, across recipes. A continuous loop that is pleasing at a subliminal level for human beings, " a set of base patterns that people inherently respond to." I think this type of pattern works in literature as well.

This statement of his reminds me of Charles Baxter's "Lush Life" essay.  "When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren't just thinking about what's happening inside the picture; you're thinking about the system it represents and your response to it."

"When you eat something amazing, you don't just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life." Isn't this what we try to do in short stories? Writers try to evoke something, anything, in the reader, that connects them. And, often it is something insignificant and small that brings on a rush of emotions for the reader, but in this way the reader becomes part of the story and essentially completes the story. And, that why good stories with a poetic aspect are never completely consumed, the story is not static, nor is the reader.

I'm also reminded of the idea of the way physicists look at waves and particles. The looking creates it as either a wave or a particle. Your looking, or tasting, something makes it what you're seeking. Chang gives an example of saltiness. "When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time." Furthermore, "You'll think that it's too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you'll suddenly find it tastes too salty."

22 August, 2016

Charles Baxter, "Lush Life" essay

Baxter's essay published in the 2011 book, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft  talks about lushness in writing. I bought my copy at Deep Vellum in Deep Ellum. I encourage anyone in the DFW area to patronize them.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes.

Lushness is "typically vetoed or sneered at." page 289

Postmodernism encourages "understatement, irony, toughness, and skepticism." page 289

Lushness "can also seem manipulative." page 289-290

"If you want to be cool, however, you can't be lush. You can be one or the other but not both." page 290

"a lush style has, because of its large gestures, a component of unstable self-dramatization. But most importantly, lushness has a particular sense of time: lushness refuses to give up the past and instead tries to superimpose the past on the present." page 290

"The problem with cool styles is that they can cool into emotional frigidity, prideful stoicism, a kind of zombie-ism." page 293

"But many great writers have been intrigued by the possibility of sidestepping flashbacks and using superimposed temporal planes." page 294

"If the past lies somewhere dormant within the present, as the modernists thought it did, the writer's task is to do his or her best to express that simultaneity--and it is here, in the effort to combine time frames, that lush styles come to our rescue." page 294

"Lushness here also allows itself a considerable degree of freedom, a transfiguration out of the here-and-now." page 298

"hypothetical reverie" page 298

"Lushness, though it can be destructive, can also be demanding, in the best sense. The past begins to live in the present, and the self moves into a realm of thought and belief and love that the sentences have created for it." page 299

"Why do we now distrust lush styles? Partly because we are all being lied to, all the time, by politicians and commercial interests. People on TV lie just out of habit. We have been lied to so often, under so many circumstances, that skepticism seems to be the only survival mechanism in a trashy, duplicitous culture." page 301

02 February, 2015

Charles Baxter, "Charity"

The story is divided into two sections and is about charity given to a charitable person. It is also about love and attraction as well as about when that attraction fades. The first section is in third person POV and the second section is written in first person POV. Matthew Quinn contracted a viral infection while working or volunteering in a hospital. He develops an addiction to painkillers after he arrives back in the states. His decline into addiction, hopelessness and violence is fast and far.

The second section is told by Matty's boyfriend who lives halfway across the country and when he finds out that his boyfriend needs help he rushes to Minneapolis.

"Charity" was first published in McSweeney's and then included in the 2014 issue of Best American Short Stories. I love this anthology even as sometimes I might not love a story. It is a snapshot of some of the best writers working today. I also enjoy the writers' comments included at the back of the volume.

Kirkus Review of the collection
link to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Charles Baxter's website

25 January, 2014

Charles Baxter, "Bravery"

To me, "Bravery" is a retelling of some Bible stories and characters. Elijah likened to Jesus in his caring  kindness for people. The girl in the Alta Plaza Park compares to Susanna and Daniel, Elijah, rescuing her, Susan. The old Czech woman prophesies the birth of Jesus, Raphael. In my mind, a Jesus figure begetting another Jesus figure.

The opening scene of the girls teasing and taunting the boys standing on the corner is well-written with a truthful ring. Near the end Susan taunts her husband about the way he is feeding the baby, Raphael, i.e. their angel. After he returns home from rescuing a girl in the park, Susan washes him, i.e. washes his feet.

Susan has made it through this day and a voice from nowhere asks her, "What will you do with another day?" That is how the story ends. Susan might figure out how to allow Elijah "his generosity and its possible consequences," or "They would postpone the argument about feedings until tomorrow, or next week."

"Bravery" was first published in Tin House and subsequently selected for inclusion in the 2013 Best American Short Stories.

The story is about 15 pages long, 3rd person POV and past tense. The setting begins in Palo Alto, California, moves to Czech Republic then circles back to California. San Francisco.

17 October, 2010

Charles Baxter, "The Winner"

This story, "The Winner," by Charles Baxter pits a working class free lance journalist against a super wealthy developer and inventor who lives in a very secluded place with his wife and mistress. Krumholtz, the journalist, questions wealth and societal standards. The part of the story I enjoyed the most was the drive deep into the forest when Krumholtz was lost. The vegetation and the circling hawk lent to the sense of isolation. Krumholtz takes an interesting turn in order to elicit a response from these overly wealthy, self-obsessed people.

This story is published in Vol. 12, No. 1 issue of Tin House.


Charles Baxter's website
Tin House

18 July, 2010

Charles Baxter, "Gryphon"

The setting is a fourth grade classroom in, maybe the 1950s, with all the requisite types of children, the ass-kisser, the smarty pants, the tough kid, the gross kid and a kind of regular kid. Mr. Hibler, the "model" teacher, gets sick and substitute Miss Ferenczi takes over for two days in October and then one final day in early December. Miss Ferenczi allows 6 x 11 to be 68 while she's in the classroom. She doesn't--even after being reminded by Jeannie Vermeesch--think they need to say the Pledge of Allegiance. "A pledge does not suit my mood." She manipulates and yanks the rug out from under the children. Her first assumption made about the boys playing with the classroom pet is of torment, perhaps projection? and then accuses them of being in a cabal. So we know right away that we are in for a ride with this teacher. And sure enough, when Miss Ferenczi returns in December she does something unthinkable and is immediately dismissed.

I decided to look around to see if the name Ferenczi referred to someone and found that Sandor Ferenczi was a Hungarian psychoanalyst active in the 1920-30s. His most famous paper was entitled, "Confusion of Tongues" where he shared his theory of adult 'passion tongue' and child 'infantile tongue' and that adults can misconstrue the child's 'infantile tongue' and abuse them by reading their words as 'passion tongue.' [The photo is of Ferenczi and Freud.]

The children in this story attempt to keep the teacher on the classroom protocol. It's obvious that not only does the goody-goody kid want order and correctness but two of the boys also confer with each other about Miss Ferenczi's lies. It's almost as though Miss Ferenczi is testing the children to find the limits. She's lured them with exotic ideas and stories and taken their 'infantile tongue' and treated their seeming sophisticatedness with 'passion tongue' in telling them things for which they are not prepared.

I searched for a story on my shelves by Baxter so that I could read it while thinking about his theory of "staging." In this story, the staging is the fourth-grade classroom with a substitute teacher and the interactions of the children. The subtext is Miss Ferenczi and her emotional abuse and manipulation of children and maybe her own sufferings as a child. Miss Ferenczi confuses and scares the kids and robs them of their innocence, to use the cliche. This is a fourth grade teacher they will not forget.

One of my favorite scenes is when Miss Ferenczi is telling the class her life story and she looks up as she expounds on her mother's piano debut and the children's eyes follow her and the narrator tells us "Nothing up there but ceiling tile." It serves a couple of purposes. One, it is realistic thing that children do and two, it shows Miss Ferenczi testing her manipulative powers.

This story is included in David Sedaris's collection: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.

16 July, 2010

Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Graywolf Press, 2007.

The first chapter, "The Art of Staging," from Charles Baxter's book, The Art of Subtext, is helpful and interesting. He uses one of my favorite stories, "What Feels Like the World," by Richard Bausch as an example of staging. The story in the foreground, the staging, " the poetry of action and setting when it evokes the otherwise unstated." He also uses Joyce's, "The Dead," as an example. "Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed." Baxter goes into great detail with a Robert Frost poem and explains his theories eloquently and clearly.

Here is a link to some more biographical information on the Barnes and Noble website.