Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End


The fabled New Yorker magazine perches at a tip of the literary triangle much envied by such competitors as The Paris Review, Granta, and Tin House.  Even readers who hold no brief for New Yorker—flat out do not like it or anything it represents—are aware of its presence.  The magazine is thus a presence to be scorned, admired, envied, entry to its pages sought by a larger percentage of working writers than could be accommodated.

Within these iconic pages, and in addition to the weekly “game” of seeing how many of the cartoons one “gets,” is yet another edgy template of sophistication, the weekly short story.

A significant presence in the first-generation New Yorker staff cadre, Wolcott Gibbs, eternally famous for his trenchant essays and his robust taking to the mat of the narrative style of Time Magazine, ventured one of the better descriptions of the New Yorker short story you have ever heard, related to you by Gibbs’s son, Tony, who also put some time in on staff.  “Take a typical short story by the likes of O. Henry.  Remove the first two pages, delete the last two pages, then send us what remains and we will, by God, publish it.”

The observation, although fanciful, had the right amount of seriousness and plausibility, its tone anticipating the ring of authenticity resonant in the narrative voice of the accomplished contemporary humorist, Stephen Colbert.

New Yorker short stories are uniformly provocative, as steadfast in their pursuit of uniqueness as possible.  You have seen a wide variety of voices and styles appearing in those pages of finicky, almost fussy determination that New Yorker fiction shall be as difficult to pin down as, say, Mitt Romney is difficult to define.  Opaque is an adjective seemingly designed for their fiction.

Endings seem to want to be as far away from the comedic endings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction as can be had, nevertheless leaving some residue of sensory awareness not unlike the after burn of a freshly ground horseradish.  Beginnings, although more in line with the conventional tug of a destabilizing event or attitude, identify some individual in enough hot water to make many readers concerned enough to continue reading through the next tier of complications.

You, for some time, have called middles muddles, perhaps even reaching that state of pun truth from the hundreds of stories you’ve read in that remarkable publication.

The ending is supposed to leave the reader with some emotion relevant to the theme of the story but also reflective of the accurate nature of reality as opposed to the   literary housecleaning associated with idealized endings.
The ideal of early and mid-twentieth-century fiction was to reflect a certain happy-if-strained state in which the values many conservative politicians praise in lofty abstractions allow contentment and fulfillment to trickle down.

Not any more.

Almost as though it were some adjunct of street photography, the contemporary short story is dramatizing the uncertainties, the loose ends, the missed connections, the agreements that are not agreements because the individuals are agreeing to different things.

In many ways, the modern short story begins where earlier stories end, at some basis of resolution or plateau, followed by erosion, destabilization, or entropy.

In yet other ways, life has become the art of The New Yorker short story, tart, edgy, not demonstrating any clear path to resolution, leaving you to wonder if you are still the bottle is half full person you were in your youth or whether you have had to negotiate your endings to those where the best chance of satisfaction is the knowledge that you have done the best you can.

You are living in a particular time of stress and turmoil, with its own particular symptoms, but you cannot imagine day-to-day activity was any better two hundred years ago when Jane Austen poured the final measures of her remarkable talent into Persuasion, which is your favorite of all her works.  There were notable similarities between those days and the mise en scene of which you write these lines today.


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