Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dark Epiphanies

Has it really been over two months since I posted last? Shame on me for neglecting you, blog. It's been a lack of time, really, not a lack of ideas. I keep thinking, "I should write a post about that," but then time runs away from me, and it's another week gone without posting.

Claire Guyton's wonderful blog up on Hunger Mountain's website has pushed me to post, however. In a recent pair of linked posts, Claire mused on what she calls "limbo" in short stories: "people rarely change," she notes in a review of Jennifer Egan's "Out of Body," so why do so many writers and critics insist that a short story build up toward a moment of deep change in a character's life? Claire has her own reasons for "loving limbo," and she does such a wonderful job of explaining them, that I recommend you read the posts for yourself. What struck me most, however, was this paragraph:
I am partial to short stories that end in the middle of a crucial moment, made ambiguous by its refusal to resolve. I like reading endings like that and I like writing them. A moment of becoming (or not becoming), when a character is neither that thing anymore but not yet this thing, either—it’s so honest
Honest indeed, like the Edward P. Jones story which concludes with the main character flipping a coin to choose which corner to turn, then flipping the coin and turning a corner again and again. This is how we live: not in light, but peering through a glass darkly, and that peering is in itself fascinating, ripe with its own sort of drama.

So far as I can tell, if and when we do experience an epiphany, it is not a moment of perfect clarity, but one of perfect cognitive dissonance. It is not a sudden insight into what is, but a slow release into the recognition that one's categories of analysis, terms of debate, and ways of understanding the world (or some aspect of it) cannot hold, have been wrong all along, yet what should replace them are unclear. It is not a moment of "not this, but that," but of "not this – now what?".

My stories usually resolve this way, to the puzzlement of some readers, but, as Claire says, anything else feels dishonest to me. I wrote a story when I was in my MFA program about an academic refugee from Nazi-occupied Holland who comes to the U.S. and struggles to acclimate herself to her new situation, a struggle made all the more difficult by how placid her surroundings are. The bucolic environment in which she finds herself after the trauma of displacement only numbs her further. The faculty member I was working with told me that I was starting the story after the main action: that the story should have been about her escape from Holland, not her life afterward. I can't say that the story was totally successful, but I disagree with the claim that one of the problems with it was the situation it explored. If I were writing a Hollywood screenplay, then, yes, I might want something with more chase scenes and close escapes. I was writing a short story, however, a genre in which character can provide narrative momentum, rather than incident. For me, the question of how one puts one's life and self back together in a place where no one can begin to understand your brokenness was well worth exploring, and the insight that healing would be slow, piecemeal, and probably never total was more than epiphany enough to resolve it, if one can even claim that such a question can be resolved.

Perhaps our cultural moment has made us wary of endings that seem too neat, or characters who could have a moment of pure clarity at all, never mind one that transforms forevermore. Maybe we have become jaded by television shows that wrap up a complicated situation in 20 or 50 minutes, and by a 24-hour news cycle which confirms for us over and over again the awful and absurd ways people can behave. Maybe we are in a transitional moment in our culture, like the postmodernists claim, where the old modes seem worn out, but we haven't been able to come up with any new ones. As David Jauss has pointed out in his wonderful essay on endings in Chekhov (available in the archives of the Writer's Chronicle, if you are able to log in at, however, that 19th-century master was wary of the resolved conclusion long before our time, so I would like to think those of us who share that suspicion are in good company. Chekhov believed story endings should "return the characters to life again," and, let's face it, life is a mess that we pick our way through as best we can.

I know that some writers and readers out there decry the overinfluence, as they see it, of Chekhov in the contemporary short story, precisely because it has lead to an overreliance on domestic dramas in which "nothing happens." What it means to have "something happen" in fiction is a separate topic I would like to tackle some other time, but suffice it to say that a brief moment in time when characters who can't change come together can generate narrative tension and forward momentum, and raise questions necessary to ponder but impossible to resolve. In one of my favorite Eudora Welty stories, "A Still Moment," three men come together at the same spot on the Natchez Trace: an itinerant preacher bound for a camp revival, a serial killer who happens upon the preacher and decides to make him his next victim, and John James Audubon, who is collecting specimens and making sketches of the birds he finds. The prose roils with each man's individual obsession, until a white heron lights down in the marsh, transfixing each man. I won't spoil the story for you if you haven't read it (and if you haven't, please do), but suffice it to say each man then goes his separate way, pointedly unchanged in his obsession and his outlook, in the case of the preacher willfully so. I love this story for the elegance of its construction and the brilliance of its conceit, as well as the fine use of character and voice you'll always find in Welty. Could every story be "A Still Moment"? No. It would lose it's special character if that were so. But to claim that such a story should not have been written, that it presents its reader with a "zero sum"? I could never agree to that.

1 comment:

  1. "This is how we live: not in light, but peering through a glass darkly, and that peering is in itself fascinating, ripe with its own sort of drama."--Love this line, Stephanie. So well put! Now I'm going to go re-read "A Still Moment."