Friday, April 30, 2010

Looking At Details in "Little Things"

Carver, Raymond. “Little Things.” Where I’m Calling From. The Atlantic Monthly Press: New York. 1988.

Raymond Carver was an American short story writer and poet and is considered one of the most important writers of the late 20th century. He has published five collections of short stories, including Furious Seasons and Elephant, and six collections of poetry, including Winter Insomnia and Ultramarine. He also published several compilations and one screenplay. Several of his stories won the O. Henry Award. Carver’s spare style is described as minimalist writing, which is when the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. One of Carver’s early tutors helped Carver achieve this form by telling him to trim his words from 25 to 15. Carver has also been included in the group of writers known as “dirty realists.” That term refers to writers in the 1970s and ’80s that used minimal words and focused on surface description. Most of those writers, including Carver, concentrated on the sadness and loss of the everyday lives of ordinary people – usually lower-middle class.

Carver expertly combined surface description with the desperation inherent in many of the lower-middle class. This is evident in one of his short stories, “Little Things,” which is just under two pages long.

Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard.” (Carver 114)

The quoted sentences are the first two sentences in the story. Even though the reader has not been introduced to the people in the narrative, these two sentences sum up their entire relationship.

Carver lets the reader know that it is early in the couple’s relationship by using the words “early that day.” He then uses weather to stand for their bond. “The weather turned” signifies that the relationship, early on, turned. The whiteness of snow represents the purity of new love, its innocence. But snow is also fragile, and it “melts into dirty water,” which shows that underneath the white façade, it was dirty and corrupted. It melts just like the relationship has melted, a dissolving over time. Carver uses the active verb “melting” because the relationship is ending, but it is not over yet.

In the second sentence, the use of the word “streaks” summons the image of tears. It also symbolizes pieces of the relationship coming apart. When the reader reads “ran,” it means the relationship dissolved at a fast pace as well as the people are running away from it. “Down” is a word with many implications in literature. Mostly it means a death (i.e.: down in the ground) and sadness (i.e.: tears go down, heads bow down).

The relationship is melting from the “little shoulder-high window,” which represents hope. A window helps people see past walls, but it is also an artificial opening. A person can’t usually escape their surroundings through a window, they can merely look out helplessly. The window is described as little, which means there is not much hope that the relationship will survive. Not much light is being let into the house. The window is also “shoulder-high” because a good relationship is just out of sight for the couple. They have to look down in order to see out of it, and I have already explained the implications of the word “down.” And even if they could see out of the window, it faces the backyard, so they are still confined and can only view their relationship in terms of the past or the “back” part of their bond. Hence, the couple in the relationship view themselves as trapped, and they have to force their way out.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Darkness In Monkeys

Minot, Susan. Monkeys. A Washington Square Press Publication of POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.: New York. 1986.

Susan Minot is an American novelist, poet and short-story writer. She has published five books, including Folly and Rapture. She has also written a screenplay adaptation for Stealing Beauty as well as the screenplay for her book, Evening. Minot’s first novel, Monkeys, won the Prix Femina award in 1988. She has also won the O. Henry Prize and the Pushcart Prize for her writing. Most of Minot’s writing is considered minimalist, which is where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. In an interview, Minot said she was learning how to write short stories when she wrote Monkeys. “…(I was) learning how to polish and be as brief as possible, which is an aesthetic that I prefer,” she said. “If you can say it in a shorter amount of time, that's better.” (Weich, Dave. “Back in Bed with Susan Minot.” 2002)

In order to write minimally in Monkeys, Minot used symbolism to represent aspects of the characters.

They threw stones into the thorofare and listened to hear them land. Sometimes the darkness would swallow up a stone and they’d wait, but no sound would come.” (Minot 108)

The first sentence is foreshadowing the end of the book when the children and their father throw their mother’s ashes into the thorofare. Obviously, in that action, they couldn’t hear any noise either. Silence, as mentioned in the second sentence as “no sound,” is often equated with death in literary terms. Throughout the book, the children, also known as monkeys, constantly talk and make noise. But they fall quiet when something serious happens. In the section where they discover their mother is dead, Minot writes that they are quiet. In that way, the silence interrupts all the background noise.

Not only is the first sentence foreshadowing their mother’s death, but it also describes their progress through life. The stones are metaphors for the children, who throw themselves into the darkness, entrusting themselves to faith, and wait to see where they will end up. This passivity is noted in their listening to hear the stones land.

The confusion about blindly going through life is a theme in the book. All the children rotate between living alone and returning home. In one scene, Caitlin pressures Sherman to get a job, and he responds that he will, hopefully, find one. Sherman embodies the Vincent children’s progression. Instead of focusing on a goal, he merely goes through life without paying much attention to it. He does not orchestrate his own fate. This numbness is depicted through the nightly intake of marijuana among most of the children, especially Sherman. The idea that the Vincent children are being lead through life, instead of leading themselves, is also evident in the last sentence of the book where Minot writes, “…following at one another’s heels, no one with the slightest idea, when they raised their heads and looked around, of where to go next.” (Minot 159)

In the quote’s second sentence, Minot writes that the darkness swallows the stones because death and depression swallows the family. However, she chooses to say the “darkness swallows” instead of “the stones descend.” There are several fitting definitions for the word “swallow,” which are “to accept without question or suspicion,” “to accept without opposition” and “to suppress.” The Vincent children accept life’s problems without complaint. They also tend to suppress their issues, like their mother, who they saw crying when she thought she was alone.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Road’s "Weird Little Marks"

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. 2006.

Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written 10 novels in the post-apocalyptic, Southern gothic and Western genres. McCarthy has won numerous awards and accolades for his work, among these are the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian was listed in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005. Modern literary reviewers compare McCarthy to another heavyweight author, William Faulkner.

During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy declared that he doesn’t like using punctuation in his writing. He occasionally utilizes commas and colons to set off a list but never uses semicolons or quotation marks, saying there is no reason to "block the page up with weird little marks." This aversion to punctuation adds further context to McCarthy’s spare prose in The Road.

He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure.” (McCarthy 4)

There are two missing pieces of punctuation in the quoted sentence: a comma and an apostrophe. With the two missing parts, this sentence would have read, “He thought the month was October, but he wasn’t sure.” This sole sentence would have been broken up by two marks, creating a visual cadence. Without the punctuation, the sentence reads flat and monotonous. It’s like a visual drone. A relentless background buzz.

Include this in the midst of multiple unpunctuated sentences, and the big blocks of featureless prose blend together.

He shoved the pistol in his belt and stood looking out over the yard. There was a brick walkway and the twisted and wiry shape of what once had been a row of boxwoods. In the yard was an old iron harrow propped up on piers of stacked brick and someone had wedged between the rails of it a forty gallon castiron cauldron of the kind once used for rendering hogs.” (McCarthy 92)

My computer hates these sentences. It wants to automatically correct all of the red misspellings and green grammar fuck-ups. As well, the reader hopelessly scans the pages of flat black ink, looking for spots of scant markings to break up the tedium. In this way, McCarthy’s distaste for “weird little marks” is effective in mirroring the plights of The Road’s protagonists. The nameless man and boy have been cast into an apocalyptic world where every day and everything is gray and featureless. The monotony and relentless nature of walking through the unvaried landscape day after day is best characterized, not in McCarthy’s beautifully stark descriptions, but in the image of black letters against a white page with nothing but periods, like small finalities, breaking it up. It is as close as The Road gets to being an illustrated novel.

McCarthy’s specific disdain for quotation marks even lends a voice to the protagonists.

Can I ask you something? he said. Yes. Of course. Are we going to die? Sometime. Not now. And we’re still going south. Yes. So we’ll be warm. Yes. Okay. Okay what? Nothing. Just okay.” (McCarthy 9)

You can almost hear the resignation in these slight exchanges. The man and boy rarely speak and, when they do, the short sentences composed of few words take up an entire line of their own on the page like short lists. It breaks up the big blocks of black paragraphs. Even though their voices are small, the man and boy’s speech is like a puncture in the bleak nothing of the book’s world.

Likewise, McCarthy occasionally punctuates.

Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates. Plastic trashbags stuffed with blankets. He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said.” (McCarthy 117)

McCarthy’s use of punctuation to set off lists is especially effective in this passage where the man finds a bomb shelter stocked with food and supplies. Instead of the continuous uninterrupted words marching along the page, this paragraph is strewn with commas. Couple those comma-ridden lists with the occasional single bit of food offset with a period, like canned hams and corned beef, and it reads like an excited babbling. This shows the reader what the man must have felt, his eyes flickering fast from one object to another. Instead of the drudging pace pounding from word to word, the commas provide a visual dip and swoop in the sentences.

The parade of commas works to offset the rest of McCarthy’s prose. The “weird little marks” stand out, almost alien, like the abundance of food in the bomb shelter. In this way, the reader can feel the hope as well as the doom. While the story of The Road tells of a dying world, its naked sentences emphasize the emotion in those words.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Split Psyche: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Jamison, Kay Redfield. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 1995.

Kay Redfield Jamison is an American writer and professor of psychiatry. She is one of the foremost experts on manic-depressive illness. As detailed in her memoir, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Jamison grew fascinated with manic-depressive illness because she is diagnosed with it. Her confusion over her mood swings and suicidal tendencies lead her to tirelessly research the subject and write numerous texts on it. Due to her work, she has been named one of the best doctors in the United States and was chosen by Time Magazine as a Hero of Medicine. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison describes her elevated and depressed moods. She also writes about the contradictions between being a psychiatrist and a patient, including that she consistently stopped taking lithium, even though professionally she knew that it was saving her life.

The mix between the professional and the personal pepper many sentences throughout the book.

“Perhaps it was not surprising that, as a meteorologist’s daughter, I found myself, in that glorious illusion of high summer days, gliding, flying, now and again lurching through cloud banks and ethers, past stars, and across fields of ice crystals.” (Jamison 90)

Even though the above passage takes up nearly five lines in the book, it is only one sentence. The two sentences in the middle of the paragraph are both run-ons. By making long sentences that pause at punctuation then spring forward, free of complete stops, Jamison patterns these sentences on the elevated mania of manic-depressives. The giddiness of these sentences is felt by the reader as their eye flows freely along the descriptions.

The above-quoted sentence starts in an analytical tone: “Perhaps it was not surprising that, as a meteorologist’s daughter…” The word “perhaps” signifies ambivalence and passivity, so the narrator seems to be non-judgmentally watching herself. This is the psychiatrist side of her examining her emotional self. The wording in this first part of the sentence is banal, like using “was” as the verb and “surprising” as an adjective.

Then Jamison bridges her two selves by coupling the words “glorious” and “illusion.” While the term “illusion” is a practical definition of what she experienced, she prefaces it with “glorious,” which is a very subjective adjective. This lets the reader know that these feelings are exquisite. Throughout the book, the narrator tries to get off lithium because she misses these highs. The word “glorious” shows the reader that her illusion is welcome and not frightening.

After the transition between Jamison’s two selves, the sentence takes off, like the emotional Jamison on her flight through space. The verbs and adjectives become more colorful (ie: “gliding,” “lurching”), so the reader feels the elegancy of gliding and the powerful pull of lurching. In the middle of these two verbs, Jamison throws in “flying,” which tells the reader, in a straightforward way, what is happening in Jamison’s mind. Not only is she flying in her illusion, but her mind is also flying upward in an allusion to the “highs” of manic-depressives.

Likewise, the nouns invoke powerful pictures for the reader. Instead of clouds and ice crystals, Jamison writes about cloud banks and fields of ice crystals. This gives the atmosphere the quality of a landscape, an area that is expansive. She further makes the descriptions expansive by using cloud banks and fields of ice as bookends to ethers and stars, which already entail the vastness of the solar system. This immense space also characterizes the highs that manic-depressives feel. Throughout the book, Jamison writes that, while in an elevated state, manic-depressives feel they can do anything and that the world and their potential is unlimited. They feel like they can, literally and figuratively, touch the skies.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Classic tragedy in The Virgin Suicides

Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. Warner Books, published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.: New York. 1993.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American novelist and short story writer. Eugenides published his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, in 1993. It was later adapted into a movie that was directed by Sofia Coppola and released in 1999. Eugenides second book, Middlesex, was published in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His third book, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead will be published in 2008. Eugenides has also published several short stories, including “Air Mail,” which was in the 1997 edition of Best American Short Stories. In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides’ writing balances between the external situations and the internal conflicts, providing great insights using both. Sometimes dark and frank, sometimes poetic and meandering, Eugenides captures the confusion and obsession surrounding his multiple narrators.

Eugenides also shows the narrators’ delusional romanticism by using elements from classic plays and literature. One of those is the decision to use the first person plural narrative in the form of a Greek chorus. Those stories surrounded tragedies, and Eugenides crafts his book in the same way as all of the female children in a home kill themselves. The observant narrators are also struck down by the tragedy because their lives are wrecked by their obsession.

As soon as we learned the names of these brochures we sent for them ourselves to see where the girls wanted to go. Far East Adventures. Footloose Tours. Tunnel to China Tours. Orient Express. We got them all. And, flipping pages, hiked through dusty passes with the girls, stopping every now and then to help them take off their backpacks, placing our hands on their warm, moist shoulders and gazing off at papaya sunsets. We drank tea with them in a water pavilion, above blazing goldfish. We did whatever we wanted to, and Cecilia hadn’t killed herself: she was a bride in Calcutta, with a red veil and the soles of her feet dyed with henna. The only way we could feel close to the girls was through these impossible excursions, which have scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives.” (Eugenides 169)

This passage personifies the Greek chorus. The men are characterized as being observational to the degree that they buy brochures to observe where the girls wanted to go. Even in the end, they observe the girls’ suicides, but do not actively do anything about it. Only in their many fantasies do they do anything more than observe. In the one instance when they attempt to participate in the girls’ lives (taking them on a collective date), they are not chosen and simply observe the date taking place. As adults, they are happier with the fantasies from those observations than any real life interactions. This goes back to their dreamy romanticism. In their minds, they are living out the fate of tragic lovers, but Eugenides casts them in the chorus to reveal to the reader that they are merely observers and play no active role in the girls’ lives or deaths.

However, Eugenides includes a tragic lover in the book, but he updates Trip Fontaine to show the reality of the classic figure.

Years later he was still amazed by Lux’s singleness of purpose, her total lack of inhibitions, her mythic mutability that allowed her to possess three or four arms at once. “Most people never taste that kind of love,” he said, taking courage amid the disaster of his life. “At least I tasted it once, man.” In comparison, the loves of his early manhood and maturity were docile creatures with smooth flanks and dependable outcries. Even during the act of love he could envision them bringing him hot milk, doing his taxes, or presiding tearfully at his deathbed. They were warm, loving, hot-water-bottle women. Even the screamers of his adult years always hit false notes, and no erotic intensity ever matched the silence in which Lux flayed him alive.” (Eugenides 87)

Supposedly, Trip’s romantic trysts after Lux are forever tainted by one encounter with her. His life is a wreck, and the narrators find him at a rehabilitation center drying out from years of drug abuse. This paints a particular picture of a tragic lover. However, Trip was heavily using drugs before he met Lux, so the reader knows she did not cause that downfall. And after their brief romantic encounter, Trip has intercourse with Lux and leaves her alone afterward, saying, “It’s weird. I mean, I liked her. I really liked her. I just got sick of her right then.” (Eugenides 138-139) Other small details show the reality of Trip’s tragic love, like during the first time he sees Lux, Trip recalls seeing shimmering lights, but the narrators believe it was most likely a result of being high.

In the passage on Trip’s encounter with Lux, Eugenides hints at another classic figure from Greek tragedies: the Siren (“Even the screamers of his adult years always hit false notes…”). Eugenides refers to them again through the chorus of narrators.

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.” (Eugenides 248-249)

While the narrators compare themselves to the Sirens (only in reversal in the belief that their calls could have saved the girls), it is actually the girls that are the Sirens. Even though they are mostly silent, the boys are drawn into their beauty (mostly referring to them as a singular entity, “the Lisbon girls”) and they doggedly follow the girls, which wreck their lives, as a result. Several key words in the above passage harkens the Sirens (“calling,” “alone for all time,” “deeper”). Eugenides also cleverly twists the siren song by placing the men “up here in the tree house,” instead of under the waves in the sea.

By updating these classic forms, Eugenides emphasizes the reality behind romanticism. In this way, he negates a theory that the girls’ suicides were a result of a degenerating society; thus opposing that same common theory that arises during every tragedy throughout history.

Building Imagery in Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade. Delacorte Press: New York. 1969.

Kurt Vonnegut was an American novelist and short-story writer. He has published 12 books, including Player Piano, Slapstick and Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. Several of his books are considered classic literature, including Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut is reputed as one of the most notable authors of the 20th century, and his book, Slaughterhouse-Five, appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923. Vonnegut’s writing is well-known and popular for its blending of satire, black humor and science-fiction. Many of his novels contain similar elements, such as the alien planet Tralfamadore, the writer (and Vonnegut’s alter ego) Kilgore Trout, the American nazi Howard W. Campbell and the birdcall "Poo-tee-weet?"
In the book Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes by building, so by the end of the novel, there are several connotations within some of the words.

There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.” (Vonnegut 186)

By starting the first-half of the first sentence with the claim that “there was only one vehicle,” Vonnegut strikes up the Tralfamadorian idea of fatalism. Throughout the book, there are references to an alien planet called Tralfamadore. Its inhabitants, according to the narrator, can see time as the fourth dimension. The Tralfamadorians see everything they have ever done and how they died, so they believe that death is simply a bad spot and everyone is always alive somewhere. Due to this, the Tralfamadorians don’t try to mess with fate. They keep fighting wars and, even, destroy the universe because it has always been that way. While the narrator claims there was only one vehicle in the quoted section, Vonnegut is referring to the only way that Billy Pilgrim and his crew would ever take because they are fated to take it. The wording of “only one” refers to there being only one way.
The metaphor becomes clearer once the sentence continues describing the vehicle as “an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.” It is described in the same way as the wagon and two horses that brought Billy back to Dresden after the bombing. Of course, the word “abandoned” is used to describe Billy and the other prisoners-of-war’s plight. They’ve been abandoned by the Germans, abandoned by America, abandoned by God, etc. But the fact that it is described as the same wagon and horses that brought Billy back to Dresden implies that Billy is fated to relive this one experience in his life. As is the case with many POWs, all of Billy’s roads begin and end in Dresden. He can’t escape it.
The second sentence describes the wagon, so the reader knows that it is the same one that brought Billy back to Dresden. It is unmistakably “green and coffin-shaped.” With that description, Vonnegut shows the dichotomy of hope and despair with POWs. In this book, the color green is associated with spring. Just a few sentences earlier, Vonnegut writes that it was spring and the “trees were leafing out.” (Vonnegut 186) Spring is usually related to birth, hope and renewal. However, the next description is that the wagon is coffin-shaped. This is obviously an allusion to death, literal and figurative. There is death all around Billy at Dresden, but his life as he knew it died there as well. He becomes a different person after being held captive. His figurative death signifies the birth of his new life, so Billy’s life and death after Dresden are always linked. That is why Vonnegut wrote “green and coffin-shaped” together. However, “coffin-shaped” is the final image because death is inescapable throughout POW’s lives, generally tormenting them. That is also why Vonnegut chose such an obvious image to represent death. You cannot mistake the allusion to death when “coffin” is written out.