Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On "The Look-alike" by Stephen Langlois (1693 words) ****

Edgar Allan Poe had many a story about dopplegangers, and now Stephen Langlois has one too. And it's a nude. One gets the feeling from the tale that this is a man who largely goes unthinkingly through his life. It is a stale existence, filled with two jobs and too many bills, no friends and a family who has left him. Enter the twin, similarly unthinking but even more like a zombie. The twin can do the man's bidding. Wish fulfillment or something else entirely? Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On "Cold Reading" by Michael Swanwick (2058 words) ***

Swanwick's "Cold Reading" covers the familiar ground of a person waking up to find he's become part of a play. I think Pirandello. I think the film *Audition*. I think actually of a number of other plays that sit out there in the world but that I cannot identify. Perhaps, the idea is less often used that dallied with, subtly, as in movies lie The Player, a film I should rewatch sometime (it's been a good twenty years). What sets Swanwick's play/life apart is the energy he brings to his piece, the enthusiasm. Sure, all the schlock angst is here, but so too is the bravura of performance. Read the story here at Flurb.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On "Begin Chest Compressions" by Roxane Gay (5230 words) ****

Gay's "Compressions" is a gutsy story. It's about relationships--and about how we're not always certain of how good a particular person is for us, even when that person has stuck with us unto death. It's about failure, about what happens to a relationship when something horrible happens and how both parties feel somewhat incapable of dealing with the fallout, and how that in and of itself can draw them together.

Chad is a good guy, but he's no great catch, according to his mom. Sarah is a pretty girl who knows she can probably do better but whose pity for Chad keeps her bound to him. One night, the couple is attacked. Let the compressions begin. Read the story here at Fringe.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On "Childhood" by Lisa Lerner (4918 words) ***

Lerner's "Childhood" is a flight of fancy, which in a sense is something that childhood is filled with. The story involves a single mother attempting to deal with a distraught toddler. In the course of this, she gives in to the child's whims and agrees to purchase for the kid a miniature pony. "Is it possible for her to be a good parent without becoming a child herself?" the mother asks. The answer, apparently, is no. Find out what other fanciful stuff happens here at Swink.

On "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov *****

Pnin was my introduction to Nabokov, in an interpretation of fiction class my freshman year of college. I enjoyed the book enough that I would, over the course of the next six years or so, read many more books by him. (Alas, I don't as often read books by the same author now, unless I set out a plan to do so--something that in certain cases, like Nabokov, is a bit of a sad thing.) At the time, I must have been amazed by his command of the English language. It's something that I still am amazed at. Yes, at times his prose can be purple, but mostly, he's a true commander of the perfect adjective, which is unusual. Most strong writers I know really work at the verbs and nouns, but somehow Nabokov was able to make his nouns sing with the odd adjectival addition. I remain jealous.

I remember not picking up on something in this novel that seem utterly obvious now. Perhaps it was my age; perhaps it was the fact that I was coming to this book for a second time and so knew what to look for. That something was the identity of the narrator--or certain details about the narrator's life. For Pnin is an incredible example of the use of the unreliable narrator. This is a man who is a known liar, a man who apparently gets most of his story about Pnin's life from an acquaintance who spends time imitating Pnin for laughs, a man who drives Pnin's future wife to near suicide, a former lover of Pnin's future wife, a man who gets his jollies from belittling others. As such, Pnin, at the heart of the tail, comes off much like a fool--but a pitiful and sad one, one we feel for on not just the level of plot, of discovering Pnin's poor life, but on the level of the telling of that plot. By the end of the book, we detest what the narrator has done to Pnin, not just in action but in the telling.

Made of seven chapters, some of the chapters in this text are brilliant little stories of their own. In fact, I would not say that this is a book heavy on rising conflict--it is more episodic. I much like chapter 6, about Pnin's hosting of a party, just before a terrible knowledge is about to be pushed onto him. But my favorite chapter is almost certain the second. It is the story of Pnin's former wife coming to visit him. Excited by the prospect of seeing her again, he sets about elaborate preparations only to be sacked with a request that seems unfathomably ridiculous. And yet, Pnin, dutiful man that he is, we come to believe, will likely go about fulfilling it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On "Eirene" by Robert Wexelblatt (8271 words) ***

This tale is strangely mesmerizing. I kept thinking--and I'm sure there's a deliberate connection here (I just haven't read the play in too long a time)--of Ibsen's The Doll House. Only this is a tale about a girl whose father leaves and who is left with her mom and brother and what she does with the doll house she's been given by her dad. But really, that's just the start. This is a story about a play. It's a story about sex. It's a story about literature and philosophy. Wexelblatt throws everything at the reader, and perhaps that's how he keeps the reader reading on with such enthusiasm even on a screen. There's a voice here. And there's education. I said Ibsen, but when I got to the end of the story, I was really thinking more about Kundera, one of those writers whose education runs across the tales he tells, whose story is as much a philosophical query and a literary meditation as any kind of romp. Read the story here at Tryst.

On "Pause and Effect" by M. B. Parkes ***

When I told certain friends and acquaintances that I was reading a book on the history of punctuation, most reacted with a statement along the lines of, "Why?" In other words, the subject seemed utterly dry and dull to them. The lone holdout was a recent doctor of philosophy, whose reaction was more along the lines of, "Tell me more."

I, of course, had been interested in the subject for some time. A popular book on the subject has yet to be published, however, so I had to settle for this--what is a very esoteric book on the topic. In fact, it was so esoteric in looks that I considered not bothering to read it at all. The book isn't aided at all by its design: large pages with a single, very wide column of type. In other words, even by its looks, it is dense and difficult to read.

But I'm glad that I did. Parkes, once I got into reading that first page, isn't a bad writer. The introduction, in fact, was quite fascinating, and the history overall is too. That said, Parkes is one for detail, and it is in those details that the book gets bogged down and boring.

The gist of the history goes something along the lines of this. Once upon a time, written language didn't involve punctuation. Writing was largely for the purpose of setting down thoughts for orators or lectors (professional readers). It was only when reading switched from being a public activity to a silent and private one that punctuation began to take a more consistent hold. I'd read this part before, but I'd been a bit skeptical. Parkes has made me a believer. Perhaps there is something to sharing so many details.

The shift the silent reading coincided with a move toward studying works in monasteries and such. But even before this, lectors and orators were known to mark up their private copies of manuscripts with personal punctuation--all kinds of marks, such as 7 or /--to show where pauses were to take place. One early lector says in a work that when asked to read something unfamiliar he had to turn the opportunity down: he didn't know enough about the work to be able to pause in the right spots.

Punctuation can have a great influence on the meaning of a passage, and so as the shift toward private reading in monasteries occurred, the Church also had an interest in ensuring that manuscripts were marked--punctuated--properly. Hence, some standardization began to sneak in then.

Most of this early punctuation was for the purpose of marking pauses in speaking, in reading aloud. That too would change--but much later.

The true standardizing came about, however, after the invention of the printing press. Now, typesetters were involved, and at times they had only certain marks to work with. Also, not just one copy of a manuscript was being produced by hundreds, so that readers and other printers became used to seeing certain kinds of marks, and subsequent copies then bore those marks also.

The study of grammar became something of interest to medieval scholars. They began naming out the parts of speech, studying how language itself worked. This too would have its effect on punctuation, as some punctuators would shift from simply using marks to denote pauses to using such marks to denote grammatical elements--complete ideas. In fact, there came to be a kind of debate between two schools: those who thought of punctuation largely as a means to denote pauses in speaking and those who thought of punctuation as a means to denote the logic (the complete thoughts) of a passage. It's a debate that to an extent carries into our day. The logic argument would find full force in the work of John Locke, who pushed prescriptive, instead of descriptive, grammar. Language should have rules, he believed, because this aided logic and reason, and so punctuation fell into that same lot.

Other punctuation marks, like quote marks and apostrophes, arose later. In Spain, the Royal Academy actually ruled that interrogative sentences should begin with the upside down question mark for clarity, but most such languages aren't regulated that way. Apostrophes first came into being so show missing vowels. Various marks were used for dialogue (if any were used at all) before quote marks became the norm in English.

And so it goes: the history of the comma, the period, the semicolon. Fascinating, in the big picture, if not so much in the little details.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On "Alone in a Small, Small World" by Dean Marshall Tuck (928 words) ****

Tuck's piece revolves around one central conundrum: how to not be lonely versus how to be unique. It's an interesting thought, one I hadn't really given much attention to previously. If we really are the only ones who think a certain thought, then how are we identify with others? Conversely, if our thoughts are not unique, in what way can they ever be wholly ours? Back up this central theme up with a few good--and unique--thoughts, and one has the making for a grand thought piece. Read it here at Fringe Magazine.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On "Lucky" by Danila Botha (1906 words) ***

Botha's "Lucky" ventures into typical teen territory and moves beyond it in ways that are disturbing. What's working here is the voice, which focuses on a child who is at war with her parents, a child on the way to becoming an adult but who thinks she already is one. The parents insist that she go to church, that she refrain from drugs and drinking and sex and many other things inappropriate for a fifteen-year-old. When her parents ban her boyfriend, however, real trouble ensues. Perhaps the girl's maturity--or lack thereof--is showcased most in her emotions, or lack thereof. Read the story here at Trailer Park Quarterly.

On "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom" by William and Ellen Craft ***

The transvesticism in this nineteenth-century slave-escape narrative is what drew me toward reading it. I tend of think of gender reversals as a twentieth-century phenomenon, so I'm often intrigued by such events taking place hundreds of years ago, though I suppose I shouldn't be. Such practices go back to the ancients.

In this tale, two slaves--and man and wife--make their way to the North and freedom by posing as an ill gentleman and his aid. The aid is the husband, and the gentlemen is the wife, whose color is light enough that she can pass for white. Hence, she passes, in this tale, as both a man and as a Caucasian (though, of course, that definition is itself fraught with problems, since she would have been Caucasian in the Caribbean).

The events described in the book would make for a great movie, but the execution of those events as described within the book does not do them much justice. This isn't a nail biter. We know what's going to happen, and there's little in the way of conflict.

This wasn't written, however, primarily to be sensational but rather to evince certain feelings in the reader. The Crafts begin their narrative (though it is William who does most of the writing), not with their own story, but with a summary of the evils of slavery, both in law and in practice. Some of these short anecdotes at the start of the book, I found more interesting than the narrative itself. Craft tells of a German girl taken from her family and sold into slavery (in other words, cases of whites absconded with at a young age and then sold as "blacks"). He also tells of free blacks reintroduced into slavery through fraud (in one case, a family released from slavery by one man's will was subsequently placed under another man's authority when that other man claimed to be a relative with say-so regarding whether the will could be legitimate).

Next comes the Craft narrative itself, which in some ways seems much tamer than the stories that preceded it. However, the tale also makes clear how difficult it was for a black person to make it in the antebellum South or even the North. William has no place to lay his head, while his wife, posing as a white, does quite well. But even so, not having papers to prove their identity, they run into a few snags along the way. And later, in the North, they are often denied places to stay because of their race; they get around this by having Ellen ask for a room, and then, after the deal has been struck, sneaking William in, to landlord's surprise.

The story ends with a long screed on the injustice of the American system and on the irony that in Britain the Crafts are actually able to find more freedom than in the land where the Patriots earlier fought to gain freedom from Britain.

The book is old enough to be in the public domain and can be found here among other places.