Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I've Grow Accustomed to Her Fez

An underlying subtext of the fact of my Lumix FX-30 camera becoming a friend who accompanies me pretty much where ever I go is the increasing sense of need to look and think outside the parameters of the conventions for writing with which I have educated myself.

Looking at a potential subject for photography develops muscles of thought and vision (sorry for the mixed metaphor) that find their way into my written work and the approaches I take to teaching others some of the ways and approaches that will improve their own writing. Even a cursory examination of the photographic images I've taken with my pal, the Lumix, reveals to me my fondness for gadgets such as sewer covers, for assemblages of pipes, of neon signs, of the truly small things in life, an awareness I attempt to drag and drop (apologies again for the metaphor, but what the hell, it is apt) into my sense of awareness when constructing a story.

Point to be taken (lesson to be learned): look to styles and technique in art to enhance the style and technique and approach in one's own process.

Accordingly, note the similarity between the portraiture of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and the line drawn (again metaphorically) in the sands of the modern novel and short story. Huh? What does that obviously cusp novelist between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Thomas Hardy, have to do with formal portraiture? Well for starters, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was more or less the evolved paradigm of the classic novelist, in theme and form. A scant fifteen years after Hardy was born, D.H. Lawrence was born. Fifteen years. Lawrence outlived Hardy by a few years. 1930, I think. And look what Lawrence did to the novel and, for that matter, to poetry. James Joyce, who carried the explosion even further, was born in 1882, twenty-eight years later, lasting until 1941. Thus at one point, while all three men were alive as metaphorical sign posts, fiction had undergone an amazing transformation, not unlike, to use the litotic construction, what happened to the portrait.

Was it Seurat who began rendering the face in dots and shadows? Was it Modigliani, who's chirporactic stretching added a strange-but-lovely exaggeration to the face and neck? Was it Picasso, who applied a kind of feng-sui to the face? Was it the pointillists who rendered what was formerly straightforward into dots, pulling things apart, allowing us to participate in ways we had not thought possible?

Probably the answer is yes to all the above.

The same thing is happening to the short story and the novel, endings are becoming less certain, things are becoming more ambiguous, elliptical.

Midway during the Summer session, in attempting to demonstrate a more or less post-modernistic trend had taken on the short story, I wrote this story:

A Vision Quest

By Shelly Lowenkopf

1. Rae hates her given name but cannot speak openly about her dislike of it because it is also the name of her beloved grandmother, who has emotionally and financially encouraged Rae to leave Kingsport, Tennessee, the better to seek her destiny.

2. She has already explored portions of Europe and New York on her own initiative, supplemented with stipends she and Grandma Rae refer to as research grants, prompting Rae to choose the yet uncharted chaos of Los Angeles.

3. In Los Angeles Rae discovers the locale south of Rose Avenue and west of Lincoln Boulevard known as Venice, where she rents a Japanese-style guest house with hardwood floors and shoji screens from Florence Givertz, who has a fine-browed, Mediterranean appearance, and who mostly does business on the Santa Monica Pier as Madam Karma, Your Guide to the Spirit World; but who also subs as a waitress at The Ivy.

4. Rae’s immediate goal is to find a job that will allow her to devote time to writing poetry, which she has already begun to publish in respected journals.

5. On Craig’s List, Rae sees two promising job opportunities which will allow her to work from the comfort of her own home, “using materials that we will supply at our cost,” both of which turn out to be scams.

6. Attempting to get from Venice to a poetry reading in a Silver Lake bookshop, Rae is intimidated by the immensity of Los Angeles.

7. Returning to Craig’s List, Rae discovers a small used car lot on Lincoln Boulevard, where she buys a 1998 Honda Civic with a rusted tail pipe which John, the used car lot manager, assures her will pass the California Smog Test, or your money back.
8. On a recommendation from Madame Karma, Rae visits the Venice Cat Rescue, finds herself attracted to a short-tailed gray named Rexroth, then brings him home.
9. Rexroth sprays on a lower bookshelf, pretty much putting the finishing touches on a paperback copy of Middlemarch.
10. John, you know, from John’s Used Cars, calls to see is the Honda giving her any problems, using a tone of voice that leads Rae to think he is hitting on her.
11. Rexroth sprays on a pair of Nikes Rae was already thinking of discarding.
12. Madame Karma tells Rae that Rexroth will continue spraying until she gets him some toys, archly suggesting that all males love toys.
13. John, you know, John, calls to recommend a place for Rae to take the Honda for servicing, which just happens to be next to a cool Japanese restaurant which he would be happy to show her.
14. Rae is now positive John is hitting on her.
15. Madame Karma tells Rae she needs plants to brighten up her life.
16. The Sewanee Review, which is a pretty hot journal, accepts one of Rae’s poems, making her feel her life is already pretty bright.
17. John calls, wanting to know if maybe Rae likes Mexican more than Japanese because there is a pretty good Mexican restaurant on Rose Avenue.
18. Rexroth sprays in Rae’s closet, causing Rae to lose her temper and shout “What is it with you?” at him.
19. Madame Karma, who happened to be home when Rae shouted at Rexroth, has overheard the exchange, in response to which, she brings Rae a large basket containing toy mice, a ficus benjamina, and a catnip plant.
20. Rae begins to suspect Madame Karma of hitting on her.
21. Rae names the ficus benjamina Tireseas, agrees to the Mexican restaurant with John in order to send a subtle message to Madam Karma about the vector of her romantic interests.
22. Rexroth brings home an adolescent rat which he consumes in the bedroom, leaving the tail and an organ Rae cannot identify.
23. During the course of a telephone conversation in which he appears to Rae to be breathing heavily, John tells her he cannot get her out of his system.
24. Hearing this makes Rae put into actual words the awareness that she has never wanted to be lodged in anyone’s system.
25. Madam Karma warns Rae that men who are heavy breathers are likely to be snorers.
26. Madam Karma encourages Rae to use this time in her life to welcome new experiences and not be hung-up by preconceived notions.
27. Rae realizes she is more interested in continuing her tenancy in Madam Karma’s guest house than she is in reversing preconceived notions.
28. Madam Karma appears to take this in stride, tells Rae she is a splendid person, emphasizing the word “splendid,” then extracts from Rae a promise to let her know if she ever changes her mind.
29. Rae comes home from an interview for a job involving the sorting and cataloguing of the correspondence of European authors who were forced by the onset of World War II to migrate to the U.S., and who chose Los Angeles for more or less the same reasons she did.
30. The job is so spectacular in nature that Rae cannot even allow herself to hope she is the successful candidate.
31. In her not-daring-to-hope reverie as she walks down the aisle way between Madam Karma’s cottage and her own guest cottage, Rae thinks she has blundered on a potential cat fight.
32. Rae has actually walked past an encounter of some acrobatic intimacy involving Madam Karma and a young woman Rae recognizes as a checker in the neighborhood Albertson’s.
33. Hearing that she has been hired for the job, Rae celebrates by going to an expensive Japanese restaurant.
34. When she returns home, slightly giddy from sake and her good fortune, Rae finds slipped under the door a note from Madam Karma explaining that she was only trying to minimize her earlier disappointment.
35. Rae enrolls in a writing class at Santa Monica College, then wonders if she is being vainglorious with her impression that the instructor and one student were hitting on her.
36. Nonsense, Madam Karma tells her, hitting on young women is something everyone in Los Angeles does, almost reflexively as pinching young women is something everyone does in Italy, or being rude is something everyone in New York does.
37. Rae now has excellent reasons to believe the writing instructor, who seems to know what he is talking about, and the student was indeed hitting on her.
38. The writing instructor makes a statement that will make absolute sense to Rae for a number of months before she finds her own voice, then finds the pronouncement arbitrary: A short story, he intones, should not have more than forty beats.
39. Rae messes up in love, never mind with whom or why, resolves to do better next time, spends a good deal of time strolling through neighborhoods of Los Angeles talking to herself and when a policeman in Echo Park stops her, then asks, “Are you all right, miss?” she smiles brightly, as though it were a windy day in late October or into November, when you could see the peaks of the distant San Gabriel Mountains set against the pellucid sky, and she thinks aquamarine blue, pure aquamarine.

I do not claim to have invented this form. If anything, the form is a satire on post-modernism. Forgetting the matter of whether there is any faint dram of artistic merit in the story, this form, which was exciting to think about all the way through the rendering of the events, does something severe to the conventional form of the short story. I wanted to tell a story, which in this case is a mixture of events suggested me by a student, imagination, and my own standards of which elements should be included in a narrative.

Notice that each of these dramatic beats is one sentence. I am now at work on the second story about Rae in which each beat will be two sentences, one of narrative, the other of dialog. I can see the potential for yet another story, with three sentences to a beat, which will, if nothing else, have shown the author as Humpty-Dumpty, trying to put the conventional form, the form in which I am most used to writing, back together again. Thus I will have completed another (still metaphorical!) lap around the track, taking something apart, seeing how it works, sensing what doesn't work. Thus too, when I say as a reviewer/critic/teacher that I do not much care for the work of a particular writer, Donald Barthelme or Raymond Carver come to mind, the blaaat, Bronx cheer my inner critic renders will be from whence such things should emerge--the heart.


Lori Witzel said...

Skimmed between giving Extreme Sour Warheads to adorable trick-or-treaters...and laughed a merry, silent laugh about the spraying tom named Rexroth.

I once adopted a cat for four hours (mostly because he was charming and incredibly ugly -- he had buck fangs). Four hours. Brought him back to the rescue shelter when he sprayed all over my drafting table. Eau de tom-cat -- I still shudder at the recollected scent.

John Eaton said...

Post-modernism and its accompanying post-modernity, huh, Shelly.

I remember walking through Lawrence's childhood neighborhoods, and feeling him there, still.

Softly a woman is singing to me,

John :)