“Cat Person,” Marlene Dietrich, and Schlubbiness

The most talked about short story of 2017–or at least of December 2017–was a New Yorker story by entitled “Cat Person.” It was discussed in hallways and on-line, on commuter trains and in classrooms. In fact, even the photo accompanying the story in the magazine’s pages went viral and has been subjected to much analysis in itself.

 

CatPerson

The photo for “Cat Person”  (Photograph by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker)

 

To sum the story up, Margot, a young twenty-something college student meets Robert, an older man in the movie theater where she sells refreshments. After a second encounter, they begin texting each other and her initial hesitancy morphs into a realistic and charming internal battle of should-I-shouldn’t I.

The texting in the story is clever and does not feel forced. The turmoil that the young woman goes through is believable and sweet. And the man himself is a lovable bear.

It’s when they finally do get together when she returns to college from winter break that the story fails for me. Robert shows himself to be a bit of a “schlub.”  He is well meaning, but he is clumsy with himself and with her, and when it comes to their sole sexual escapade, he is both maladroit and ignorant.

Her condescension and abandonment of him finally forces him into petty meanness.

All of this reminds me of the early Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel.  Made in 1930 (in both a German and English version) by Joseph Von Sternberg, the film features Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola and Emil Jannings (in his first talking film) as Immanuel Rath, an elderly literature professor who becomes smitten with Lola who sings and dances at the eponymous cabaret “The Blue Angel.” While he has initially come to the cabaret to chase his students from such entertainments, he falls deeper and deeper for the sultry Lola. And as he falls for her, the orderly professor becomes more and more ridiculous and more and more an object of fun to Lola and her companions.

In the end, there is heartbreak.

It is there that I see the similarities. Neither the antagonist in “Cat Person” or Professor Rath in The Blue Angel are bad people. They are simply out of their element and ignorant as to how to cope. They are ordinary people in their respective worlds, but they become “schlubs” in the worlds of college romance and Berlin nightlife, respectfully–older men out of touch with the changing world around them

It is easier to empathize with Rath–Dietrich’s character Lola seems cruel and heartless much of the time–but Robert can also be seen as sympathetic. In “Cat Person,” Margot is also mean-spirited and self-centered. Her treatment of Robert–both during their date and after–is cold, perhaps undeservedly so.

But then 2017 is different than 1930, and Margot’s intuition may be pointing her in the right direction.

Penny Shorts–an online journal with an interesting spin.

Cynthia  A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

Cynthia
A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

On Wednesday morning I received a tweet advertising that my short-story “Don’t Crows Eat Corn?” was now available on the on-line journal Penny Shorts. And the tweet was accompanied by this stunning portrait by the Russian/American artist, Moses Soyer.

(Later, the editor Catherine Horlick said that “This portrait by Moses Soyer reminds me of Sandy [the protagonist in my story], although in fact the story is like a painting by Edward Hopper, who so brilliantly depicted subjects trapped by life.”)

The turn-around had been extraordinary. On Tuesday evening, I had received one e-mail accepting the story, another that attached a PDF of the proofed galleys, and a third asking for a photo and a short bio.

Even taking into account that the UK-based Penny Shorts was five hours ahead of me so that while I slept they were working preparing copy, it was a very quick and pleasant surprise.

The fledgling journal has an interesting “business model.” Readers can purchase individual stories for 50p (about 78 cents in U.S. dollars) or they can buy a variety of subscriptions that give them access to multiple stories during the course of the subscription. Agents and editors are given free access.

This was the text of the tweet that was set out:

J.P. Bohannon’s story ‘Don’t Crows Eat Corn?’ is new on pennyshorts. The day after her mother’s funeral, Sandy has to hide a bruise on the side of her head. http://bit.ly/1TCpHBr

And so, the link to the Penny Shorts web site in general and to my story in particular was tweeted out to the world. It was efficient–and quick–marketing.

As an editor, Ms. Horlick has been a pleasure to work with, attentive, professional and warm. Moreso than anyone else I have met in the business.  For those interested in reading or writing or both, you should visit her Facebook page or the Penny Shorts website itself.

Review: “The Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass

"I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river." Gass "in the heart of the heart of the country." P.179

“I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river.” William H. Gass “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Because of some administrative hic-cough, I was sent two copies this weekend of the same book: William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had not heard of it, although I recognized the name of the author (and immediately confused him with the novelist, William Gaddis). Having two copies, I gave one to my friend Tim Dougherty, who very well may be the best-read person I know.

Here was the text he sent me later that day:

John,

Thanks so much for the book. Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a seminal postmodern short story. The collection is one of my favorites, and the new edition blows my flea market paperback out of the water. And now I can throw that one away!

Who’d have thunk it.

So, on my train-ride to work the next morning, I read “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”  The story is the final piece in a collection of the same name that includes two novellas and three short stories, but I went to the last story right away.
And it is everything that Tim’s message had intimated.

First it is broken into short chunks with headings such as “People” or “Weather” or “Places” or “My House.” It is a sort of stream of consciousness, movie-like postcard of a town in Indiana and the people who live there, and at the same time it is a self-portrait of the narrator who has lately lost love (through death or separation I am unsure) and who is both crushed and buoyed by the vastness of the Midwest.

But it is the language that is so remarkable, that stands out yet does not make a show of it. There are exquisite lists. This is the narrator describing a neighbor’s basement:

...stacks of newspapers reaching to the ceiling, boxes of leaflets and letters and programs, racks of photo albums, scrapbooks, bundles of rolled-up posters and maps, flags and pennants and slanting piles of dusty magazines devoted mostly to motoring and the Christian ethic. I saw a bird cage, a tray of butterflies, a bugle, a stiff straw boater, and all kinds of tassels tied to a coat tree.

And here he is describing the town itself in a section called “Vital Data”:

There are two restaurants here and a tearoom. two bars. one bank, three barbers, one with a green shade with which he blinds his window. two groceries, a dealer in Fords. one drug, one hardware, and one appliance store. several that sell feed, grain, and farm equipment. an antique shop. a poolroom. a laundromat. three doctors. a dentist. a plumber. a vet. a funeral home in elegant repair the color of a buttercup. numerous beauty parlors which open and shut like night-blooming plants. …

But it is his memories of the lost love and of lost childhood, the feelings of being trapped in a dying world, and his description of the decadent monotony of small town life that resonates the most, in which the fiction writer becomes one with the poet, and where the language becomes as integral to the story as the story itself, where inside and outside, the public and the private, that which is thought and  that which is felt, all merge into one.

It is majestic and memorable.

And I can’t wait to finish the rest of the collection.

Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.

 

 

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

To be truthful, I was put off by all the hype that surrounded Tenth of December when it was released back in January. Articles about the short stories and their author, George Saunders, were everywhere. All the major papers, magazines and blogs were praising, lavishly, both the collection and Saunders himself. All of sudden I was seeing articles about or by Saunders from years past, all floating to the front, all becoming part of this giant group-hug! He was compared to Twain and Flannery O’Connor, to Vonnegut and Pynchon, to Bartheleme and Welty. Even the late David Foster Wallace was corralled in for a blurb on the inner covers.

And now, I can say, all the hype was legitimate and deserved.  Tenth Of December is something special. 10thdecemberbookcover

The longest story in the book “The Semplica Girl Diaries” begins with a father, in the near future, starting a diary. As he begins, he recounts his fears and worries for his children, fears that they are growing up with so much less, materially, than their classmates. He also reveals his own anxieties about his failure as a provider of these consumer necessities. During the course of his journaling, the family is teased with a windfall and then pushed towards ruin. Oddly enough, strung throughout the story, literally, are third-world women who sell themselves in America as lawn ornaments, putting his own focus on material success in a very skewed light.

Other fathers–or father figures– appear throughout the stories. In the first story, “Victory Lap,” a young boy saves a girl who is being abducted. But he second guesses all of his heroic actions in terms of what his father would say about his getting involved and not completing his chores. At the same time, the perpetrator keeps worrying about his own father–and while carrying out his violent abductions–worries whether his father would be proud of the way he is doing things.

In a very short piece, “Sticks,” an aloof, mean-spirited and inaccessible father dresses a crucifix-like contraption for every holiday: Santa for Christmas, a groundhog for February 2nd, a soldier for Veterans Day, etc. When his wife dies, he dressed the pole as Death and makes a memorial to her. His own–and the sticks’–ending is seemingly inconsequential, but full of pathos nevertheless.

George Saunders

George Saunders

On the whole, Saunders’ stories are full of dysfunctioning families trying to succeed in a world of plastic values and overwrought commercialism. It is filled with simple people having difficulty coping in an increasingly complicated world. This world he describes is a bit off-kilter, but it all seems unnervingly familiar.  And his telling of these tales is enjoyable and unforgettable.

Life and death, hope and despair, pride and self-loathing: these are the topics that Saunders addresses but in a way that is funny as often as it is heart wrenching, a way that is wryly observed, emotional and thought provoking.

All that hype was well deserved after all.

I can’t write, so I read Denis Johnson…

…and now I know I can’t write.

At times I feel I’m kidding myself. Who do I think I am pretending to be a writer, a poet, a thinker?  I am just an everyday slug without the discipline to get anything really worthwhile done.  And discipline is what you need. How many times do we hear that just showing up is 90% of the struggle?  Just do the work, day in and day out, we are told, and the creation will come.

I don’t do the work.

jesus-sonAnd so as I sneak off for my hour-and-a-half, two hours, I try to jump-start my atrophied mind by reading for a while at first. Unfortunately today, I began re-reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of eleven wise, lively, brutal, intense, truthful short-stories.

I’ve never felt so washed up in my life!

The first story,  “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is riveting. It’s like a very bad car accident that you can’t turn away from. The narrator, the hitchhiker, has been on the road from Texas to Kansas City. The first driver fed him amphetamines and Canadian Club;  the second ride was a hashish filled bubble to the city limits; and the third ride was the fateful ride–a family of four with a nine-month old baby on the back seat, destined to be brutalized in a head-on collision. The narrator is flawed and generous and seemingly prescient, for he seems to know that it is this family that picks him up that will suffer. His final words long after the car accident and while being admitted to the Detox at Seattle General are puzzling–if not telling: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

God, could it be Jesus’ son?

Much later in the collection–one could label Jesus’ Son an episodic novel rather than a collection of short stories with its single narrator and progressive (though disjointed) chronology–the narrator is in detox and is shaving another man. (The drugs they are giving him have steadied his hands to such a degree that he has taken to shaving fellow patients.) Here is part of the scene:

Just below one cheekbone, Bill had a small blemish where a bullet had entered his face, and in the other cheek a slightly larger scar where the slug had gone on its way.

“When you were shot right through your face like that, did the bullet go on to do anything interesting?”

“How would I know? I didn’t take notes. Even if it goes on through, you still feel like you just got shot in the head?”

But they aren’t Bill’s only wounds. “I’ve been shot twice,” Bill reveals. …”Once by each wife for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.”

This is the world of Jesus’ Son. There are bullet wounds and heartaches. There is addiction and abortion, love and lovelessness, disease and car-crashes and murder. Johnson once said about his stories “Some of us go to the movies to see everybody shooting each other, and then there’s another bunch who actually shoot each other.” It is this latter bunch that people Johnson’s stories. But in addition to “shoot[ing] each other,” they seek salvation, search for love, and try to survive on the wrong track that life has set them on.

Intense and unsettling, witty and thrilling, the stories are both unforgettable and beautiful.  Something any writer should aspire to.

So, Another Weird Coincidence…

So, I had sneaked out to this coffee house to do this wee bit of writing and reading. And I was considering saying something about the title–Jesus’ Son–and how it was taken from the Lou Reed song “Heroin.”  I had just decided against it when Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” comes on the sound-system and that sealed the deal.  When I mentioned the coincidence to the guy at the counter, he replied, “Lou is everywhere.”  I didn’t know, hah!

So, if you want, here’s a recent version of Lou Reed singing “Heroin” from where the title came:


Book Review: Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shephard

I don’t often read short story collections. My rhythms, I guess, are more geared towards the novel. And most of the short stories I read are in magazines or journals, not in collections where one follows the other. But I did pick up and read Jim Shepherd’s  Like You’d Understand, Anyway.

Someone once explained a short-story to me like this: imagine a brick wall is a person’s life. A short-story is just one of the bricks removed. We have little real knowledge of the bricks surrounding this one brick, just the one. solitary brick. Just this moment in a person’s life.  I don’t how accurate this is for all stories (it’s very Joycean) but I refer to it often.

Well, Jim Shephard’s stories are pieces not of a brick wall but from an extraordinary mural. The stories are all over the place and all over time.

There is a general fatalistic theme running through them, a feeling of being unprepared, unsuited, or even uninterested in facing the battles of life. And if that sounds like a very modern view of the world, it is.  Except Shepards’s characters are from all over history.

“Eros 7,” my particular favorite, is a sweet love story taken from the diary of a female cosmonaut in 1963, the early days of the  Russian-US space race.

“Hadrian’s Wall” is a sensitive look at young soldier in the Roman legion–lacking confidence and skill–as he is stationed in 2nd-century Britain.

There are stories that take place during the Chernobyl accident, during the French Reign of Terror, during an early ascent of the Himalayan peaks, during the 19th-century days of Australian exploration.

But there are also simple domestic stories. “Proto Scorpions of the Silurian” depicts a young man trying to deal with his overwrought parents who, in turn, are trying to cope with his mentally unbalanced brother. Another story,  “Courtesy for Beginnings,” shows a young boy who is terribly miserable at a horrible summer camp but who is forced to console his parents by phone who are also struggling with an unbalanced sibling.

But whether in Ancient Greece or modern Connecticut, each of these stories brings a modern sensibility of doubt, isolation and struggle. Each is a sensitive portrayal of a character far different than most of us, but very similar all the same.