Archive for the ‘Great Short Stories’ Category

“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer

January 11, 2009

drinking20coffee20elsewhere“Freedom is attained only when the ant of the self – that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves – casts off slavery and its legacy, becoming a huge brave ox.”  A small, black teenage narrator named Spurgeon hears this bit of wisdom, as if in passing, at the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self.”  He notes with boredom and anger that the preacher speaking is repeating a message heard earlier, and reading from a letter read earlier, about ways to keep slaves down – by pitting dark ones against light ones, big plantations vs. small plantations, etc.

We know by this point, about midway through “Ant,” that Spurgeon is completely justified in his anger.  He has taken a road trip with his father – always referred to in the full, ingratiating name of Ray Bivens Jr. – who is a drunk, abusive, self-deluded, avoiding a DUI conviction, owing Spurgeon bail money, and certain that selling a group of exotic birds to the Afro-centric attendees of the March will get him rich.  Spurgeon is smart, he debates for his mostly white high school, and has a loving mother who is as baffled by her ex as her son is, but whose obsessive religion makes her nearly as blind to her son’s potential and good nature as Ray Bivens Jr. is – although, at least his mother would never steal her ex’s car, fill it with smoke, and drive it across the country full of birds.

That speech advising how freedom is attained speaks for the situation of race in America, and also speaks to the freedom Spurgeon needs to find from his father.  Does Spurgeon recognize this?  “At first it sounds like what everyone else has been saying,” Spurgeon says.  That “At first” is telling.  Perhaps the blithe, angry, casually dismissive voice guiding us through this story with much analysis, insight, and sadness, finds something more to take out of this part of the speech.  He doesn’t act on it though – he instead proceeds to get in a fight with the inspired, angry men around him who mistake Spurgeon’s anger at his father for dismissal of the triumph of black rights.

Writing about race is tricky, as is writing about any “important subject.”  In order to do so in a short story context, you have to especially believe the prose discussing it – and a simple discussion will not do.  “The Ant of the Self” is the fourth story in Packer’s 2003 collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and I believe that no other form and no other collection could discuss race as well as this book does.  Its stories range from decade to decade, place to place, male to female, young to old, and chronicle, in each one, someone else facing the enormity of what it is to comprehend race in society.  The book closes with an astonishing story, “Brownies,” in which a group of young black girls accidentally stumbles onto the cruelty that defines minority interactions.  It ends with “Doris Is Coming,” a gripping story that concludes with a black girl sitting at a white ice cream parlor during the civil rights movement.

But “The Ant of the Self” is the story that has stuck with me the most since I read Drinking Coffee Elsewhere years ago.  It is a fascinating, beyond unpredictable narrative – you don’t even realize, for ten pages or so, that it is even about the Million Man March.  And even when it is, it’s not.  The true meat of the story is afterwards, at a bar full of black men who did not attend the march.  Spurgeon, who was indifferent to the march anyway, states it was like a vacation for him to be among black men for once.

A man with a goiter responds to him, “Back in the day, before you were born, couldn’t that type of shit happen… We the ones fought for you to be in school with the white folks.  We sent you to go spy on them.  See how the hell those white folks make all that money!  Now you talking ’bout a vacation!”  Spurgeon’s life is far from great.  Because of his father, Spurgeon’s connect to alcoholism, disillusion, money problems, jail time, and having to figure out how to tell his mother he doesn’t know where in DC her car wound up.  But it’s also something akin to progress.

Not that Packer wants us to get too hopeful.  “The Ant of the Self” soars – and works – because the racial and family dynamics simply follow the trajectory of the narrative.  Something happens between Spurgeon and his father, and it doesn’t end well.  Most of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere don’t exactly “end well” for their characters.  But the all reach a certain point of progress and understanding.  The final scene of “Ant” involves Spurgeon in an Amtrak station realizing he can’t go east anymore, and seeing a father and his young child, who had attended the march, acting warm and happy with one another.

The racial and family dynamics here tend to symbolize one another, jumping back and forth.  Spurgeon is trying to reconcile the disdain he has for his father while not being willing to reject him entirely – like the ant of the title, he seeks crumbs of affection from a man incapable of giving them.  Much like the black identity in this country, there is much to learn to live with, and much progress has been made.  Similarly, Spurgeon seeks an understanding amongst the throng of black men he cannot find – he is not large, or athletic, and thinks of thing in quiet, introspective ways, quite distinct from the men who will not listen to him.  His family dynamic is mirrored by the racial dynamic, and vice versa.

Short story writers learn to be economical with their writing, giving you just what you need.  Packer has the skill to tell a story about race, and not quite tell a story about race.  People talk about race in it, like people do on occasion, and they do it from their own perspective.  The mass of perspectives – generations of perspectives, from the men in bars with goiters, the jesus-loving women on the phone, the drunks selling birds, and the happy young children in train stations – proves that experience is varied and ongoing, and that anything is possible.  “The Ant of the Self” doesn’t quite end in a hopeful place, but ends where you know hope is very much possible.


“Cortes Island” by Alice Munro

September 17, 2008

“‘Forget it,’ he said, and made a halfway joke to cheer me up.

‘What is the point of an old woman anyway?'”

I know my reading habits pretty well, and there are times when I am thrilled to be finished with a novel, because it means I can get back to the short stories I love – and there are times when I feel additional comfort knowing what I’ll soon be reading is an Alice Munro story.  She addresses human behavior in a way that is more honest and inquisitive than every other writer I know, and when I read “Cortes Island” for the first time, it was unlike anything I had read.  I wasn’t even aware I was in the midst of a story until I found myself hooked and mesmerized and horrified and titillated.


“Cortes Island” is the story of a bride whose name we don’t really learn beyond her nickname of “Little Bride.”  She and her husband have moved to a small room east of Vancouver early in their marriage.  Our narrating bride admits to us that they had married, basically, out of lust, coming “from homes where unmarried sex was held to be disgusting and unforgiveable, and married sex was apparently never mentioned and soon forgotten about.”  They live underneath the Gorries, an elderly couple in which the wife is looking after her husband sometime after a debilitating stroke. 


The bride has much time to ruminate and read, and under the microscope of Mrs. Gorrie is sort of horrified and sort of irritated – Mrs. Gorrie is difficult, socially self-conscious, full of awful stories, and, mostly, annoying beyond belief.  We watch our bride recoil in disgust at her conversations with Mrs. Gorrie, but feels that “maybe my peculiarities, my ineptitutde, were in a class with Mr. Gorrie’s damages.”  But something else emerges when the bride begins to look after Mr. Gorrie himself – a hint of a past.  Through a series of saved news clips, Mr. Gorrie shows the bride what once was the wild soul beneath the haggard exterior of Mrs. Gorrie now – news clips showing an affair that burned down a house on Cortes Island, sending Mrs. Gorrie’s child to be lost in the woods for days.  After developing what seems like a sense of communication, the bride pictures Mr. Gorrie saying to her, “Did you ever think that people could be like that and end up like this?  Well they can.”


That was the line that kept me coming back to this story, and it changes for me each time I read it.  During the first time I read that line, it was an attempt to humanize a character of intense puzzlement.  Mrs. Gorrie is disgusting, judgmental, unaware of boundaries and decorum but also obsessed by them.  We’ve all perhaps known people in our life like this – people who seem in the midst of nervous breakdowns, and we too can sense their confusion and instability.  I thought that Munro, who seems to never employ a first person voice, wanted to use it here to allow an outside character to be a further form of speculation.  And I thought, most of all, that the craziest among us have something we can identify with.


Perhaps that is true, but I got a different sense in my second reading of “Cortes Island.”  Here is a peripheral story containing a story of a couple whose passion was so strong it burnt down the forest around them, and now, it lead to the same isolation and duldrums they always feared, incapable of avoiding the boundaries of love and sex and social decorum they so feared.  This time, I read the story and saw an implicit endorsement of the “conventional” mode of love and life – our bride, confused as she is, finds herself admitted to a club she thought she could never be a part of, and it is her compromise based on lust that allow it to happen.


But that is not entirely the case either, and if it were, then it could not explain the final sections of the story, in which the bride begins to have sexual dreams about Mr. Gorrie, about the woods he burnt up around them.  What “Cortes Island” does is expose the raw nerve of lust and sex that underscores motivation and gets hidden in social interaction.  Merely in the interplay between two women, we’re given access to the varieites of inspiration, lust, and irrationality that motivates the behavior of women – and men.  Munro is always at her strongest when she seeks to expose these rawer sensations that underscore our constructs as society, but what makes the writing so strong is that she does that through slight, invisible characterization.


Throughout The Love of a Good Woman, characters are consistently shocked by the own source of their motivations.  In “Rich as Stink,” we view a housewife undone by her desires through the eyes of her bewildered daughter.  In “Save The Reaper,” a woman cannot bring herself to fully describe her day’s actions to her grown daughter and son in law, even though, we realize, they are not that bad – they simply expose her loneliness and desire.  In “The Children Stay,” we see a woman enter an extramarital affair without thinking much of it at all.  Yet “Cortes Island,” I think, goes deepest with its themes because it has such a stark behavioral contrast at its center – Mrs. Gorrie’s total irrational behavior is given a Venn diagram specificity in the way it overlaps with the more rational, introspective actions of the story’s narrators, whose true life, like her name, is hidden in the small, outlying details.  Munro is the type of writer whose craft is so exciting, you don’t know it’s exciting, whose work is so under the surface, you’re breathless before you realize what you’ve read.  “Cortes Island” pinches the nerve of human interactions and rips it out without ever, seemingly, having to break the skin.

“UFO In Kushiro” Haruki Murakami

August 17, 2008


“Think about it – tomorrow there could be an earthquake; you could be kidnapped by aliens; you could be eaten by a bear.  Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

When a character utters this line in “UFO in Kushiro,” all of these things have happened – vaguely, to other people.  Its main character, Komura, has known of them only tangentially.  His wife has left him because he is too much like a “chunk of air,” and he has taken a trip to a vast, cold border town with frozen borders and chilling winds.  He’s talking with a woman who is unfamiliar to him, but is spookily prescient, and stirs something in Komura that he only recognizes in a fleeting instant – and that’s because what he recognizes is fleeting, too – himself.

“UFO in Kushiro” was one of the first short stories I read, and by that I mean “read” as something I did out of my own volition, and out of interest.  I did not know anything of Haruki Murakami at the time, nor did I know that After the Quake, for which “UFO” is the first story, was entirely different from even his other short works.  Murakami’s work is always defined by the mystical and vaguely koan-like, but the stories in After The Quake, which center on lives directly or tangentially affected by the 1995 Kobe earthquakes in Japan, are actually more direct and tangible than his typical work.

That is why “UFO” affected me so much – its mystery rises out of the corporeal at every turn.  Komura has taken a trip after his wife has left him, calling him a “chunk of air.”  He has gone to Hokkaido, the large island in Northern Japan.  His wife left him after days of watching earthquake footage on television, and a friend has asked him to deliver a small, extremely light wooden package to his sister.  Seems realistic enough so far, right?  In Hokkaido, there is a sister, and there is her friend, Keiko.  There is some interaction, but it’s the land that’s most interesting – the cold wind blows so strongly on the streets that snow cannot stay on the ground.  They go to a street where the “love hotels” all sit next to gravestone dealers.  He has brought this package of nothing – this chunk of air – only to have his friend’s sister disappear with it, leaving him suddenly far from home with his essence cold and missing.

The conversations in “UFO In Kushiro” might seem too ominous to be real to some, but think about times in life of great tragedy – it seems the comfortable, outer layer of our conversation has gone and we’re left with something else, something that exposes us a little more.  One conversation in particular shows Komura with the two women giggling of sexcapades gone tragic, and of the disappearances and mysteries that reveal life as fragile, as fleeting.  Are your conversations like this normally?  Probably not, but then again, how often is a context so overwhelmingly upsetting that our decorum, our normal interactions cannot suffice for what we truly have to say – not often. 

“UFO In Kushiro” is the story most directly connected to the earthquakes in After the Quake, much in the same way most of the stories of J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories were about people affected by the war, but got further and further away from the war as the stories went on.  “UFO” is lithe and evanescent, a wound and an idea marked by the intangible.  Sometimes it takes great distance and trauma to expose us to who we really are, or separate us from who we are, and in the final words of the story, there is a rather coy sentence that is, also, very true.  As a story, it moved me initially because of something I couldn’t place.  I can place that now – because I am more familiar with what Murakami has in mind, because I know that sensation more, and because I am older.  Who we are at our core is light and threatens to disappear at a moment’s notice, and life is the process of making some sense of what is left.


The Great Short Stories – An Introduction

August 7, 2008

The days in which I sit around reading short stories are over.  On my previous blogs, I’ve written about the experience of getting lost and loving short stories, but the times I had to read most of them are long past – mostly (and sadly), they were the few months in 2005 and the one month in 2006 that I was unemployed.

I hope to go back and read the stories I loved then, for the most part, I remember something about the ones I’ve loved.  Recently, I’ve read many Alice Munro stories, as I think she is unmatched for greatness in modern short story writers, and so maybe I’ll write about her.  However, what I really wish I’d written about was each.  It started for me, most truly, with Rick Moody’s “On The Carousel,” a 12-page story about a woman and her trip through a McDonald’s drive thru in Los Angeles.  I recently started a short story reading group with my friends and this was the first one we discussed too.  Truly, this story, at 12 pages, changed the way that I read and saw short fiction – it’s when I realized they were works unto themselves.

Tobias Wolff once stated he felt short stories were closer to poetry than fiction, because an author cannot let his attention flag, cannot let his narrative dip at all.  I hope to talk about the parts of life that my favorite short stories, in their detailed, cryptic way, put front and center.