April 23, 2012
Brevity and the Soul
by Tom Jacobs
There is the apocryphal story in which Hemingway, sitting in a bar somewhere in Key West, is asked by an antagonistic admirer to follow his minimalism to its logical outcome and to tell a story in six words. As the story goes, Hemingway picks up a napkin and writes out the following words:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
This is a pretty good story. The reader has to kind of inhabit it and fill in all that is unsaid (which is pretty much everything), but there’s an inexhaustible sadness there in the spaces between the words. Everything pared away until there’s almost nothing left. The iceberg theory of fiction.
The genre of short short fiction (or microfiction, or whatever one might want to call it) is itself kinda small, and little of it is worth reading. But there are exceptions.
There’s this: “Sticks,” by George Saunders, perhaps the greatest super short story I’ve ever read:
Here there is an entire novel’s worth of intrigue and emotional complexity and backstory and difficult familial relationships and unhappinesses and losses and redemptions. One can’t help but think of all those homes run by inexpressive and angry fathers who know something of love’s austere offices, these homes that suddenly erupt in holiday decorations that go waaay beyond the normal or expected. Rudolphs and Santas and baby Jesuses and lights and holly all over the place. This phenomenon…the phenomenon of the middle-to-lower-class father who has no creative outlet but finds an avenue in his front yard…this is an important aspect of contemporary life in the U.S., and one that needs more examination. There are dissertations here. And Saunders’ story is a most excellent jumping off point.
Then there is David Foster Wallace’s remarkable “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
I don’t think I’ve ever fully fathomed this one, but the final repetition of “now did one now did one now did one” is wildly suggestive. It seems to suggest something of the radical uncertainty of what it means to live in a world where everyone is wearing a face to meet the faces on the street.
Of course there are other forms and genres and things. Any good song is a mini-narrative. This is perhaps why Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” has always appealed to me. A man’s last night on the planet, desperately seeking one last shot of whiskey and to impart something of what he’s learned to another neophyte.
Then there’s the opening stanzas of poems. One of my all time faves is Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” He tells the whole story in the opening, and then goes back to fill in all the details and gaps. But it’s the opening that gets me. Remarkable:
There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee.
One can’t but want to know what happened…what were the conditions? What led to this? And why (and how) do you cremate a friend? The thing reverberates beyond itself. Like any good story, I suppose.
Anyway, I love this sort of thing, these short pieces that break your heart and break it fast. I want more. If anyone knows anything relevant, please post.
And I will leave you with one last piece. Short and sharp. Not a story, but a parable, which is like a story. It’s one that has haunted me for years. The applications are tremendous. It bears in its bones the possibility of reconstructing an entire civilization. Perhaps that’s too much to say, but I think that anthropologists in the distant future might read this and understand more of who we were and are than any number of novels might tell them. Of course we need Kafka here:
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
--Franz Kafka (1883-1924), (transl. Clement Greenberg), from Parables and Paradoxes, 1946
There are leopards in our temples. I don't know whether this is a good or bad thing. But it's unquestionably an interesting thing.
Posted by Tom Jacobs at 12:25 AM | Permalink