Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reality as Ambiguity

One of your oldest and dearest friends was bemoaning the fact at lunch Monday that short stories of today, particularly those in the New Yorker, aren't as pleasurable as they once were; they are more ambiguous, he observed, sometimes deliberately so.

A reason for this, you ventured, is the growing resistance to the one-size-fits-all kind of endings of the past in which the payoff was more like the punchline of a joke, making the entire story a joke rather  than a nuanced narrative.  Another reason is because endings in reality are so hard come by today; we are more used to ambiguity, catch words, outright solecisms.  There are more emerging splinter groups and less finality.  Fiction reflects its time, whether we know it or not,whether we agree with the concept--or not.  Your pal has openers to sit at the table; he's written over thirty-five books, numerous essays.  He probably does not write short stories anymore because having one's second ever short story chosen for inclusion in one of the Best of collections could make a writer a bit self-conscious.  Barnaby Conrad may affect not minding being self-conscious but you suspect he is not at all happy being so, prompting him to take great pains not to be.

Jacques Derida and Michel Focault to the contrary notwithstanding, writers do matter in the sense that they have produced the text in the first place (unless they happened to have been Raymond Carver,who was undone literally and  figuratively by  Gordon Lish.  We do not have to know or like the author; in fact,it is probably to our advantage in many cases if we know nothing about the writer,reading merely for the adventure of the ride the author has promised by having allowed the story to be published.  Some authors, particularly novelists, will say things in interview situations or in prologues to the effect that it is not profitable for the reader to attempt to see the author in any of his or her characters.  Forget entirely the ways many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers went out of their way to publish anonymously.  Much of the reason behind this had its roots in the English law wherein writers were likely to be held responsible for libel, slander, and other related improprieties, punishable offenses that could and did have harmful effects on the wallet and the bum.  Whatever the reasons, an anonymous or pseudonymous author, knowingly or not, was worth a sponsoring membership in the Deconstructionist Club of the early twenty-first century, giving breath to the later philosophy of criticism we think of as post-modernism.

Many of the newer works appear before us as thinly disguised masters or doctoral theses, wanting, oh, wanting to remove trace elements of authorial emotion, wanting instead a panegyric to scholarly clarity which is not the same thing as emotional or even psychological clarity.  The author's scholarship and even handedness may be evident as subtext rather than the story teller's subtext of the difference between what is said and what is felt.

These are ambiguous, contentious, polar times, with new splinter groups splintering forth every day,each with an agenda, each with an adversary; in some cases, adversaries may be seen as tormentors.

Your own interpretation of the modern short story is of a negotiated settlement, skillful to the extent that none of the principals gets hurt, or perhaps even suggesting that some degree of discomfort resides in all human relationships.  Deborah Eisenberg is,in your eyes, the ideal short story writer for the time; her characters are filled with purpose, often driven to it,but they are lucky if things work out for them at the end; a number of her stories are represented by aching and longing that are emotional equivalents of the recent oil spill off Louisiana,  pouring millions of gallons of angst into an already muddied and beleaguered sea.

Conrad's holiday gift to you was a year's subscription to the New Yorker.  It is not so much that he cannot see irony in having given me the antithesis of his tastes in short fiction as it is that the thought of being ironic might make him uncomfortable.

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