Category Archives: Short fiction

Questions, Questions

From far away enough, it can pass for a happy book. There is a sparkly fish on the cover. Tattooed on its body are blossoms and waves and variations of fleur-de-lis. But then our eyes stray to the bottom, past a curlicued tailfin, and recognize a most ominous title: Legend of a Suicide. And suddenly, on closer inspection, the fish does not seem happy at all. Angled toward its center are eight pistols, shining a brilliant red, hidden among petals—death where we least expect it.

“Nothing quite like this book has been written before,” a blurb promises. So we dive into it, expectant and curious, miring ourselves deeper into mystery with each section. And afterwards we wonder, What was that? How many deaths are in this book, how many tragedies? Is it six different stories, or are they all part of a larger work? The answer, as always, is on the internet. Officially, Legend of a Suicide is a collection of stories. It has however been packaged to look like a novel for the British market. This sparks an interesting realization: that the ultimate difference between a collection and a novel rests on the thinnest of lines—a mere avoidance of labels, a sequence of numbers atop titles.

Alexander Linklater from the Observer asserts that the shift “damages Vann’s endeavor, which is to change, from one story to the next, not just perspectives, but events themselves.” Certainly that is what Vann does, but—unintended as it may be—I do not think the novel format is “damaging” to the book. Misleading, yes, but it also allows for a reading that more persistently searches for a continuous thread among the chapters. It is, after all, despite myriad inconsistencies, one story, one legend, one pain, one family.

Still, inevitable questions arise. What really happened? Who? When? Where? And the most painful, Why? Here is where form intersects with substance. The confusion we feel upon finishing the book approximates the bewilderment one feels after death, after a suicide. We can never make sense of it no matter how much we try. Loss can never be pieced together; it will always remain a profound mystery. Why? We don’t know, we don’t know.

The book’s structure also toys with ideas of culpability. Because we aren’t sure what happened, we don’t know where to assign blame. Who did what to whom? Jim, Roy, Rhoda, Elizabeth. Our characters revolve around each other, drawn together by the force of their relationships. Jim obviously bears the utmost culpability. One doubts if anyone could have saved the man. But in “Sukkwan Island,” Roy feels responsible for his increasingly remote father. Initially he had no interest in staying on the island but “in fact there was no choice at all.” He could not simply give up his father.

But was it too late already by then? When did it all go downhill for Jim? There is a scene in the same story where father and son try to figure out exactly when “it went to hell” for Jim. They end up with no answer. In the same way, after a tragedy on this scale, it becomes difficult to draw the lines, to connect events and trace a trajectory. When was intervention still possible? At which point could anyone have halted the downward spiral?

In a way this uncertainty can be liberating, because it frees one from the burden of regret, but viewed in another way, it also expands the possibilities for remorse. Instead of mulling over a specific turning point, one regrets a thousand unsaid words, a hundred wrong decisions. In “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue” we see Roy still struggling, decades later, to reconcile himself with Jim’s suicide. Is it possible to stop going over and over one’s memories? Is it possible to stop asking Why?

In an interview with the New Yorker, David Vann says that writing the book helped him put his own father’s ghost to rest. Being curious creatures, we cannot help but wonder, How much of this is true? Yes, Vann’s father killed himself, but what about all the other details? The zabaglione? The iridescent shark? Pondering these petty questions, we come to realize the irrelevance of facts in the face of tragedy. Vann calls his stories “legends,” and the book itself is called Legend of a Suicide. What does the word call to mind? Myth, lore, hearsay, rumor—not factual but true in some fundamentally human way. And that is what this book is, in the final account. Not a straightforward tale, but a brave, poignant, wondrous mess.

If Vann had written this as a regular novel or memoir, we would not have these questions to grapple with, these insights to gain. Without legend as the central metaphor, the narrative would never have taken off the way it has. The more we read, the more we realize how crucial form is to the story. Even the simple exclusion of speech marks (fashionable nowadays) makes a related point: Who said what? How reliable is memory?

As a writer I am interested in the inseparability of form and content, and this book shows just that. There are just some stories that can only be told in a particular way. Sometimes that means taking big risks. Sometimes that means having to defend your artistic choices. Sometimes that means forgoing certain readers. But if, after weighing all this, you decide to forge ahead anyway—not courting acclaim, not worried about failure—then that’s how you know you’ve got something worth it.

I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn’t know why. And I didn’t want to know.

Advertisements

The Matisse Stories

What I know of England, I know only from its writers. Now nearing the start of my year-long sojourn in Norwich, I thought it prudent to brush up on contemporary British literature. What better way to get acquainted with the newest UNESCO city of literature? So recently I went on a Bookay-Ukay spree and brought home Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, and A.S. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. (Okay, I bought them so I could get them signed.) The Matisse Stories, a very slim collection, came as a late birthday gift from Danica, who also got me Junot Diaz’s Drown.

It’s my first time to read Byatt, but I didn’t need more than a few pages to know that I was in the hands of a master. “Medusa’s Ankles” opens innocuously: a Le Nu Rose copy entices a middle-aged woman to enter a salon for the first time. But when she becomes a regular customer, Lucien’s bears witness to her gradual disintegration in more ways than she intended. At 28 pages, the shortest of the three stories, “Medusa’s Ankles” comes across as a very sharp, very tight piece. The setup is fitting, the combination of details symphonic; no description seems superfluous. By contrast, “Art Work” meanders for several pages, introducing us to its characters, slowly, slowly, slowly. We do not even get a whiff of the conflict until past the halfway point; everything before that is just description, backdrop. That hypnotic, auditory opening? That five-page litany of Robin’s color “fetishes”? That’s Byatt setting you up. That’s her anticipating the conflict, laying down bricks for the concluding twist. At times I no longer knew whether some details were integral to the story—and frankly I didn’t care. The writer had already earned my trust, and I had long relinquished the critical stance for the sheer pleasure of her prose, which lilts and dips and somehow always allocates the right word to the right place. Even pox-infected skin occasions a lyrical description: “a wonderfully humped and varied terrain of rosy peaks and hummocks, mostly the pink of those boring little begonias with fleshy leaves, but some raging into salmon-deeps and ochre crusts.”

I do not have a favorite, but “The Chinese Lobster” is by far the most subtle of the three. Much of the narrative revolves around—and is indeed attributed to—an unstable girl named Peggi Nollett. Only later do we realize the story is not hers at all, and plumbs a concern much more delicate than the one she stresses. Byatt’s talent for articulating human vagaries is apparent from the first story, but it is in “The Chinese Lobster” that I find this gem:

Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, or hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.

Apart from Byatt’s adroit handling of language, what strikes me most about these pieces—especially the last two—is how they reflect the author’s uncanny intelligence. Her casual familiarity with pigments often made me reach embarrassingly for the dictionary. Her knowledge and self-assurance create a fertile foundation on which she constructs these stories. As a young writer, I am envious. I cannot even imagine undertaking a project of this scale: a collected ekphrasis devoted to one of the most celebrated painters of all time? The prospect is more than daunting. But then again, we’re talking about A.S. Byatt—Booker Prize winner, honorary degree collector, and international literary giant. I fervently hope to meet her one day. And get that autograph.

Medusa’s Ankles

She came to trust him with her disintegration.

Art Work

They call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives them.

It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person.

A Pocket Book of Short Stories

A Pocket Book of Short Stories is something I have seen in National Book Store since I was in grade school. Over the years, I developed the impression that these old stocks waited year after year for buyers that rarely came along. I never thought I would actually own a copy until Kai gave me her book.

With the increasing number of must-read authors nowadays, I rarely get the chance to read (or reread) classics. Each year, circulating before-you-die checklists remind me of how little of classic literature I’ve read. The short stories included in this collection, diverse as they are, share one thing in common: they all belong to a different time, and that is exactly what constitutes a classic—something recognizably dated, yet still works even after all those years. Nevertheless, certain problems arose in my reading which I think mostly have to do with chronological distance. I had to read “The Killers” twice to appreciate it (like my first time with “Hills Like White Elephants,” which grows better with every reading). Other stories I grasped immediately. I admired O. Henry’s narrative skill in “A Municipal Report” and Somerset Maugham’s excellent characterization in “Rain,” which had a strong impact on me, that deviously crafted story. Then there are those I completely fail to appreciate, despite repeated readings, like Sherwood Anderson’s “Seeds.”

I am particularly fond of two stories about women: Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.” I remember Mansfield’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I taught in class last semester. If anything, this second encounter made me realize how much I want to read more of her. I looked up her story collections, but the only one available from the Rizal Library—The Garden Party and Other Stories—is dilapidated to the point of decay.

Although some stories here barely leave any impression on me, there are also those I would want to assign to my students if ever I teach again—stories I would want them to remember. For these are not stories you simply breeze by and forget. You contemplate them because they bother you, and eventually you find that in the course of such reflection, the story has carved out a space inside you, a small repository of beauty that you will carry with you wherever you go.

Introduction (M. Edmund Speare)

The desire to tell stories and to listen to them is one of the qualities inherent in all human nature, and the storyteller’s art is perhaps the oldest of all the arts in the world, and the best-loved.

[The short story] is just the right length in a world of tumult and hurry…

The essential quality of the short story is its economy. …here everything must show intensity of concentration, a squeezing of a slice of life into the narrowest of compasses…

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Stephen Vincent Benét)

There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too.

Big Blonde (Dorothy Parker)

To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious.

There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops upon a window-pane, they ran together and trickled away.

Somewhere in her head or her heart was the lazy, nebulous hope that things would change and she and Herbie settle suddenly into soothing married life.

Paul’s Case (Willa Cather)

It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.

Seeds (Sherwood Anderson)

There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought.

‘We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for creating our lovers.’

‘I have seen under the shell of life and I am afraid.’

Bliss (Katherine Mansfield)

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.

Disorder and Early Sorrow (Thomas Mann)

Bert is blond and seventeen. He intends to get done with school somehow, anyhow, and fling himself into the arms of life.

Rain (W. Somerset Maugham)

But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.

A Municipal Report (O. Henry)

I must tell you how I came to be in Nashville, and I assure you the digression brings as much tedium to me as it does to you.

She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much—oh, so much too much—of real life.

‘Isn’t it in the still, quiet places that things do happen?’

A Lodging for the Night (Robert Louis Stevenson)

‘As for change, let somebody change my circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may continue to repent.’

The Procurator of Judea (Anatole France)

‘It is a knotty point, how far one is justified in devising things for the commonweal against the will of the populace.’

Forty Stories

Chekhov’s gun and The Cherry Orchard. Until I opened this book, this comprised the extent of my knowledge about the author: his oft-quoted rule and his last play, which I read for Mark Cayanan’s class three years ago. Forty Stories compiles Chekhov’s short fiction from over two decades of writing. Arranged chronologically, the stories in this collection reveal his development as a writer.

Chekhov begins with his career with tales of mischief, written for amusement. These range from short vignettes like “The Threat” to longer, more character-heavy pieces such as “St. Peter’s Day.” A few years into his writing, he begins incorporating socio-political issues in his works, and eventually arranges entire stories to revolve around this concern. Compared to his humorous sketches, these are more layered pieces that tend to opposite extremes: although often hilarious (“Sergeant Prishibeyev,” “Death of a Government Clerk”), these stories can also, at other times, be deeply disturbing (“Sleepyhead”). Later on he finds interest in emotional stories, in the daily grief of mortals (“The Huntsman,” “Heartache”), a preoccupation that will resurface toward the end of his career with newfound subtlety. His last few stories reveal a skillful combination of these fixations—humor, social commentary, and human emotion—in myriad situations set in the nexus of public and private life.

The back cover of Forty Stories quotes from Chekhov: “I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the Nevsky Prospect, or in the open fields, or on the ocean—wherever my imagination ranges.” And in his stories, the author does all these. His protagonists come from all walks of life: princesses, clerks, exiles, wives, servants. Chekhov covers a variety of experiences and problems, and illustrates them in diverse manners, so that even after forty stories, you don’t feel at all weary of his voice. He achieves a delicate poignancy in his character portraits, most notably in “The Bishop.” And although his latter stories are rather long, you don’t feel the length because of his easy pace and manner of storytelling. Lastly, Robert Payne’s competent translation and his excellent introduction (possibly the best I have ever read) also add to the qualities of this book—making it, for me, a worthy purchase.

Death of a Government Clerk

Very often in stories you come upon this word ‘suddenly,’ and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.

Heartache

He heard the insults which were being hurled at him, he saw the people in the street, and little by little the feeling of loneliness was lifted from his heart.

The House with the Mezzanine

I am beginning to forget the house with the mezzanine, but sometimes when I am painting or reading, for no reason at all, quite suddenly, I find myself remembering the green lamp at the window and the sound of my footsteps echoing through the fields of the night as I walked home on the day I was in love, rubbing my hands to keep them warm. And sometimes too—but this happens more rarely—when I am weighed down with melancholy and loneliness, I am the prey of other confused thoughts, and it seems to me that I, too, am being remembered, and she is waiting for me, and we shall meet again…

In the Horsecart

Here was her past and her present, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again the school and again the road.

And it seemed to her that everything in the world was shivering with cold.

On Love

…I kept trying to understand why she had met him first and not me, and why it was necessary that such a terrible mistake should have occurred in our lives.

The Bride

‘Can’t you realize that to enable you and your mother and your grandmother to live a life of leisure, others have to work for you, and you are devouring their lives? Is that right? Isn’t it a filthy thing to do?’

In her imagination life stretched before her, a new, vast, infinitely spacious life, and this life, though still obscure and full of mysteries, lured and attracted her.

Interpreter of Maladies

Four months ago, in Bacolod, Gen Asenjo recommended this collection to me. Typically, other books got in the way, so I finished it only last week. In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri made her debut with this breathtaking collection of nine short stories, with concerns ranging from love and estrangement, to acceptance and separation. Her protagonists struggle mostly with specific Indian-American issues, but the breadth and depth of her stories reach out to a much wider world of human emotion.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories offer no pretenses, but they possess a delicate quality that flows from page to page. Much like Alice Munro’s Away from Her, the collection makes you want to “spend a whole novel with its characters” (New York Times Book Review). The stories are quite long, but remain very easy to read. They exhibit a rare, understated beauty brought about by clear storytelling, unhampered by glaring symbols or images: simplicity at its finest. The writer’s unaffected style fools you for a moment into thinking that it’s not at all contrived, but then the elegance of the stories convinces you otherwise, until you conclude: even this effect must have been intended. Finishing the first story, I remember thinking: this is the kind of story I want to be able to write someday.

Although vaguely familiar, the domestic stories work because Lahiri provides such precise descriptions that make it impossible for us to connect them with any other—details as specific as a man scooping up his wife’s trail of cigarette ashes from the floor. Also, the Indian elements don’t feel at all forced. Wherever they pop up in the text, they seem perfectly natural in the context of these stories. (Lahiri’s writing makes me crave Indian food, although I have barely any experience with it.)

“It’s rare to find a collection in which every story is a winner. Here is one,” declares the San Diego Union-Tribune. I generally liked all the stories in this book; I think all of them can stand alone in their own right, but of course I enjoyed some more than others. My favorites are “A Temporary Matter,” “Mrs. Sen’s” and “This Blessed House.” It might be too rash to proclaim anything like this, but I feel this is one of the best fiction collections I have ever read. Naturally, this grants Jhumpa Lahiri A-list celebrity status in my books: someone worth recommending again and again.

Mrs. Sen’s

‘Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’ ‘Mrs. Sen, what’s wrong?’ ‘Nothing, I am only asking if someone would come.’

Away from Her

I have always been a fan of the Rizal Library. As a student I had a habit of hoarding books, only to re-borrow them two weeks later, without having read a single page. Now, as a part-time teacher, I am allowed to check out several books for a whole month’s period—a limited opportunity I intend to make full use of.

If you research Away from Her, you will find that it is not a book, but a movie. This is because Sarah Polley based her film on Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” and after it came out they published the story as a separate book, titled anew. Away from Her covers a difficult period in an elderly couple’s life. As his wife Fiona succumbs to Alzheimer’s, Grant must unravel the long history of intimacies and betrayals that make up their marriage and make a decision that could redirect both their futures.

The story combines the couple’s present predicament with Grant’s perspective on the past. He recounts a quietly shocking litany of affairs without the slightest hint of regret, only bitterness. But after everything, somehow he is still able to say that he loves Fiona. And despite obvious logic, I cannot seem to deny him that. Even at the end, Grant again betrays Fiona, but this time it is an act that, for complicated reasons, he chooses only for her happiness. I cannot say whether what Grant did was right or wrong, whether it was selfish or selfless. I refuse to pass judgment, just as this story does. Instead I think about “how mysterious the bonds of love really are”; how love changes through the years, in form and depth, until it is almost unrecognizable from the undying devotion we dreamt about during adolescence.

The narrative seems deceptively simple, but contains so much within it. “In Munro’s hands, a short story is more than big enough to hold the world,” declares a Chicago Tribune review. And it’s true, at one point I was jolted into the realization that I was just reading a short story; it had felt like a novel. Away from Her is all the more heartbreaking because it hardly gives you any sympathetic moments, only objective observations. It is a torturous distance. Upon closing, it leaves a silence that stuns you for a long moment, until you realize it wasn’t that distant after all.

Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.

Armageddon in Retrospect

I will always associate Kurt Vonnegut with Mike. He’s the one who lent me The Sirens of Titan, and it’s his book I’m reviewing again now (or at least it used to be—he gave it to me for my birthday). Armageddon in Retrospect is not your usual Vonnegut novel. This collection includes a letter written by the author as a soldier in 1945, a copy of his last speech in 2007, a nonfiction essay, ten short stories, plus several of his own illustrations.

Vonnegut’s son Mark writes the introduction, but in it he hardly talks about the book. Instead (and more interestingly) he introduces the reader to his father. He paints this picture of Kurt Vonnegut: intensely private man, profound humanist, dedicated writer, enigma to everyone around him. The next pages reveal the author through his own writing. Vonnegut’s nonfiction—even when not meant for publication (like his 1945 letter)—displays a balance of humor and gravity. His letter to his family: a tongue-in-cheek narration of a common (albeit extremely lucky) soldier’s life. His last speech: a series of jokes interspersed with commentaries on world issues. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” offers more sobriety. It is an affecting memoir about the destruction of Dresden, which Vonnegut asserts was “surely among the World’s most lovely cities.” He describes the bombing’s depressing aftermath, with soldiers more interested in personal looting than salvage work, and ends his memoir with the following declaration: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”

The succeeding ten stories share more than just thematic similarity. Judged as traditional fiction, they fail in terms of character (flat, one-sided), but what I like about them is their collective insistence to avert regular standards. Vonnegut’s fiction claims an appraisal based on idea: what it is trying to say and how it is expressed. Imbued with a sense of humor that prevents them from teetering into total seriousness, these stories explore nearly all aspects of war: past and future; us and them; American, German, civilian. But Vonnegut’s vision extends beyond fiction, even beyond words. It reaches into the minds of his readers, for ultimately what we take from this book is nothing but his perspective of the world: what it is, what it can be, what it should be.

Introduction (Mark Vonnegut)

In my early-to-mid-twenties he let it slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren’t nearly that good.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.

Guns before Butter

‘Before the war, everybody was overweight, living to eat instead of eating to live. Germany has never been healthier.’

The Unicorn Trap

‘The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!’

Unknown Soldier

If television refuses to look at something, it is as though it never happened.

Spoils

‘You’re the victors, you know, you’ve got a bloody good right to anything you like.’

The Commandant’s Desk

‘I feel almost as though being alive were something to be ashamed of.’

‘…those who can’t afford beautiful things love the idea of there being such things somewhere.’