Thursday, May 30, 2013

The B List

Once you've made a list, then gone public with it, you've opened the door to all manner of mischief.

In general, lists, in particular long lists, can be intimidating, but they are by no means immune from mischief. You got an immediate note from ENK, alerting you to a mistake you'd made in rendering a Joan Didion title.  That was the kind of alert you could fix by changing the title to The White Album, which is, after all, fact, by no means a matter of mischief.  Even in matters of fiction, which is to say your fiction, your take on Reality, you are interested in fact and consistency.  Thus the matter of mischief or, you should say, the source of it.

Within moments of yesterday's list, done for your Wednesday Memoir class, you were besieged with a clamor of complaints.  All of them were from you.

How could you, the first complaint began, think to provide a list without George Orwell's essay, "Shooting an Elephant"?  You've been using the essay in various classes at various student levels for the better part of fifteen years.  The reactions from students of a large political and generational spectrum have always been vigorous, introducing the necessary element of subtext into the discussion.

That objection duly noted, you went on to question how you could possibly have compiled a list without an essay or story from James Thurber.  No matter what the thrust of the list, compiling one with a hundred specific entities without one of those entities being a Thurber is of a piece with a laundry list without a single shirt or a grocery list without bread.  You could well imagine a grocery list without, say, anchovy, but grocery lists at the least have rolls if not an outright baguette or ficelle or loaf.  Lists should have a story or essay by Thurber or at least a reference to him.

You began thinking about the Thurber short story, "The Catbird Seat," which you like to use in connection with a story by Poe (whom for some reason you've decided to be hard on) called "A Cask of Amontillado."  To demonstrate your point, both are stories of revenge.  You wonder if there could have been a Thurber story without Poe having done his, thus you are grateful to Poe for having supplied the impetus for Thurber, although you believe Thurber was a pestered and snarky enough individual to have been Thurber without "The Catbird Seat," just as Poe would have remained on the course to be Poe, allowing you to be glad that Thurber came along to distract you from not being a great fan of Poe.

Another complaint, even though it sounds gratuitous in the face of you listing three items from Mark Twain, rails against your inclusion of the segment from Roughing It which he calls "The Mexican Plug Horse," a series of episodes so clear and acute that you are as well reminded--via complaint--that you did not include the William Faulkner yarn, "Spotted Horses," which has some of the dead-pan humor of the Twain.

By any standards, your list should have also included another stand-alone tale from Roughing It, "The Grandfather's Ram Story," and if you had any thought of exposing students to story-telling techniques, wouldn't you have also included on the list his magisterial "How to Tell a Story"?

Of course you would, but the imp of the list of the perverse got hold of you and gave you a good shaking, causing you to wonder what you had in mind with that list you compiled yesterday.

The complaints and mischief seem to pile up like bugs on the windshield of a car driving across the desert.  Your list did not have Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls, an omission you might seek to rationalize by the expedient of not thinking your memoir students needed to know about this remarkable book.  But this is of a par with making the judgment for your students without giving them the opportunity to consider whether they needed to read the Gogol or not.

You also took some flap for not including Herman Melville's piercing long story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener."  Once again, how dare you be so arbitrary?  You could well have removed something on the list in order to accommodate Bartleby as opposed to the choice you made instead of the Melville.

Of course you did not know which of the hundred one items on a list that was supposed to stop at a hundred, otherwise you might have been more deliberate and never got the list done.  While it is true that you included an essay by Raymond Chandler, you never gave so much as a thought to Dashiell Hammett, and so no wonder your dreams grew uneasy last night in the manner of Gregor Samsa, the narrative fulcrum in Franz Kafka's haunting The Metamorphosis.

There is no earthly reason you did not include Hammett's novel, The Glass Key, which is in its way the most political and morally conflicted issues of the Hammett works.  And while you're on the subject, how come you didn't include on the hundred list Hammett's most convoluted, The Dain Curse, which in its complexity reminds you of William Faulkner being set to write the screenplay for a Raymond Chandler novel, and having to give up because he could not decipher it.

Yet another complaint over the absence of a short story by Dorothy Parker, "The Standard of Living," reminds you of your opening observation about the tyranny of lists in the first place.  The list you composed yesterday was composed in all innocence of Parker's story, leading you to wonder what kind of a list-compiling mood you were in when you made those hundred choices.  To think you passed up John Sayles's short story, "At the Anarchist's Convention," causes you once again to wonder what kind of focus you were applying.

Is, in fact, a reading list without Philip Roth's novella, Goodbye, Columbus, much of a reading list? Of course not.  Even if it were by some strange slip of the imagination, what positive comment could be made of a reading list without Roth's short story, "The Conversion of the Jews."?  And how could you not add to the Steinbeck list his short story, "Chrysanthemums"?

List compilation is neither a safe or sure business in the first place, nor can you get shut of the consequences from doing your level best, then turning off the lights to wait for the dammed mosquitoes to slip in and begin their angry anthems of dinner music.

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