Monday, October 12, 2009

The End Is in Sight

You are hardly what you would think of as a minimalist.  In many ways, minimalism represents to you the short stories of Raymond Carver as edited down to the bone by that editor, Gordon Lish, whose own collection of stories you once spoke of in a review as the emperor having no clothes.  Minimalism also represents to you the short stories of Ernest Miller Hemingway.  So far, you've mentioned three names, all of whom you hold in some form or another of grudging acknowledgment.  You are more positive about Deborah Eisenberg and Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon, cheerful about Louise Erdrich, proof that negativism or grudging acknowledgment are not your default positions.

Minimalism has a good deal to say for itself, a statement that is at once an irony of contradiction, and the further acknowledgment that any work begins with more to it than what survives; a work should leave something for the beholder to do, even if the work is done in the first place with no expectation that anyone but the creator will see it.  Thus we get down to the bone of what a story is:  a dramatic effect in which elements are strategically arranged to provoke a concentrated response in the beholder.

You have not thought of a story that way before, an indication that has fork-in-the-road connotations.  Perhaps there was a good reason why you had not thought so and today's insight should be rendered in quotation marks, suggesting it is not completely formed.  On the other hand, you could ask, what took you so long?  You have been reading short stories for a long, long time, at first merely content to let them happen to you, not thinking to nor allowing yourself to see beyond them, not arriving, for instance, at the notion that Montressor's confessional of how he sought, then gained revenge on Fortunato was a peak experience for him, one that has given him something to dine out on for years after the actual fact, making some who had heard the story more than once to wonder if it had taken place at all or was just a fantasy in the teller's mind, just as Peyton Farquhar imagined his escape from his impending hanging in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  

While it is possible to read things into such stories as the Poe or the Bierce, they are largely set straightforward, almost as literary equivalents of cafeteria food.  True to his vision in the review he wrote of Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales," Poe does in Amontillado everything he insists a story should do, but it took you to add the subtext, which might be a reason behind your less-than-enthusiastic regard of Poe.  You in effect want to be led to render judgments, to experience the ghost of aftertaste, to be made to wonder about possible outcomes and relationships not explicit in the text.  You tend to savor those writers whose stories are a swirl of time and event and space and consequence and the absence of finality.  There is, for instance, a grim finality in the most popular version of Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire," but it comes upon you now that London had his eye on the evolution of story because the one survivor of the story, a dog, takes us off stage and allows the vision of the story to move on with him.  Check the dates on this, but it is possible that a London story you greatly admire, "A Loss of Face," contains an even more sophisticated development of this theme because it allows us to see how the protagonist not only got his revenge at the end of the story, it inflicted a furtherance of the revenge against his antagonist.

Modern stories, significantly stories of the twenty-first century, tend to end with an impending event that will take place off stage, leaving us as readers to glean the emotional sense of closure from the awareness or lack of awareness of the main characters rather than the event itself.

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