The midwivery of fiction writers

Entering a new world created for us by narrative requires an excellent midwife; this is the first of the many roles the good author plays. Transitions--from inside to outside, from home to work, from our world to the author's--pose a challenge. The consummate raconteurs know this, and so consider how best to birth us into the place and time we will inhabit for the coming hours or days.

There are different schools of thought on how this transitioning is best accomplished. Some go for the lukewarm toweling: clearing our daily world away, while replacing what we know with what we are to know, one story element at a time. Take Peter Hoeg's The Woman and the Ape, for example. It begins: "An ape was approaching London. It sat on a bench in the open cockpit of a sailboat, all hunched up with its eyes closed and a blanket around its shoulders. Even in that position it made the man sitting across from it seem smaller than it actually was." We have an ape. Only after we have a sense of what he is doing, what he looks like doing it, where he is doing it, and his mental state while doing it, does the author deem it time to introduce a new element: the man. Jonathan Ames, true to character, prefers immediate and shocking immersion as the mode best adapted for bringing the reader into the gritty world of i PASS like NIGHT. "I like this one whore on the lower East Side, her name is Goldie because of her teeth, and she's really sweet." In the very first sentence the reader juggles an "I" about whom little is known with a whore about whom we know just as little, except she has gold teeth. In the polite world of introductions, this is not the order of things: I might introduce a friend to a friend first by way of profession or background, but not by her interest in whores or the particularities of her dental work. Of course, politesse and narrative exist in realms apart; the judgments of one cannot infringe upon the territory of the other. To each midwife her own technique, so long as the reader recovers adequately to develop and grow within the particular world into which she was birthed.


Mode d'emploi: Short Story Collections

Short stories should be savored, drop by drop.
They should not be read too quickly in succession.
The genre holds the potential for the literary equivalent of an intaglio: the perfect literary artifact in miniature.

These are the accepted wisdoms on short fiction, pearls which have given birth to a relationship to collections of short stories that I find alien and alienating. If you are supposed to read them so slowly, one at a time, then the collection must stay around forever. It becomes the ghost on the night table, scaring away new reading adventures with its ghastly smile that morosely and malevolently says, "I'm still here."

Benjamin Franklin once said that visitors, like fish, smell after three days. What are books if not visitors to our minds? You may personally set your expiration date for visitors or books at a week, maybe two, but the fact remains that there is a finite span within which books remain seductive. After that, they become chores. With short fiction there is a fine line between savoring and working.

I hereby publicly throw off the shackles of short fiction dogma, and, to aid in the liberation of my shackled brethren, I will give my own theory on how short story collections should be read. The key word here is quickly.

There are short stories whose perfection makes you gasp at their artistry, as one marvels at the art of intaglio. In all honesty, however, this is rare. To treat all such stories as diamonds in potentia is fruitless and time consuming. Therefore, I recommend that you trust to the acuity of your personal literary taste, and skim. Read short stories like beach reading, until your mind stumbles on one that suggests it might repay a more careful reading.


Reflections: The Time of Our Singing

Richard Powers's novel, The Time of Our Singing, immerses the reader in a world of music and abstract physics in order to hold out a glittering promise of an America "beyond race." Don't jump to conclusions about the unrealistic or unjustifiable optimism of the author; when every moment is a single "now," that promise might be fulfilled only after hundreds, even thousands, of years' worth of nows have passed. All that we can be sure about is that that now isn't yet our own.

The reader follows the experiences of a family through the eyes of Joseph Strom, a product of the marriage between a light-skinned African American musician and a Jewish refugee from the Third Reich who teaches physics at Columbia during the most racially charged period of our history. Strom lives through, and lives in denial of, the place and era into which he has been born: America from Emmett Till's death through Watts to the riots after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King.

Powers excels at showing that exclusion of difference on both sides of the race line has crystalized the way that we think, feel, and talk about race. The symbols for this are the three Strom children and their parents. Each of the children take a different path in finding an identity necessarily defined by their undefinable race in 1960s America. Their parents, in an earlier era, lived a domestic life oscillating between deep connection and total alienation brought about, respectively, by the similarity of their personalities and the difference of their histories. The oldest son and lightest-skinned child, Jonah, seeks a place in the rarefied world of classical musical performance. After his first major review in which he is labeled an up and coming "negro" performer, he sets off to make himself into a star so talented and remarkable as to be beyond being defined by his African heritage. Ruth, the youngest and darkest of the three children, disowns her father for his obliviousness to the racialized hatred that causes the death of her mother. She joins the Black Panthers, suffers the death of her husband at the hands of police officers, and finally starts a school in Oakland. Joseph, our guide through this world, bounces back and forth between the two as he bounces between identifying with "white music" and "our music," as his sister calls the soulful spirituals and hip hop that give her and her sons strength. Jonah finally ends as an impressive music teacher at Ruth's award-winning school, and Jonah reaches the pinnacle for which he has been striving. Despite these external successes, each manifest a numb emptiness that derives, it is suggested, from their realization that their destinies are limited by white America's inability to see them as something beyond "black."

For all of its investment in difficult social and political issues, this is not a message in a bottle. Rather, it is an ode to the human endeavors that allow us escape, at least for stretches of time, from the realities of our own now. The book is a song about music, a theory about time, and a poem about how bringing the two together produces magical moments that sustain us, even amidst opposition.