Thursday, December 31, 2015

On “A Room With Many Small Beds” by Kathy Fish (877 words) ****

Kathy Fish tends to focus on the small. She’s one of those elegant crafters of flash fiction, so I was curious what she would do with this slightly longer piece—ten moments placed side by side and merged into a bit of a story. Here, a girl spends time with the father’s girlfriend, with all the attendant mixed feelings over the loss of her mother. Read the story here in ThreadCount.

On “Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys” by Dave Barry ***

Once upon a time I was a huge Dave Barry fan. This time was when I was about sixteen to about age twenty. I was introduced to him by my high school English teacher or by my high school journalism teacher (they were the same person), most likely in journalism. The teacher read an essay about grammar to us, and I was bowled over. I had to read more. And that I did, eventually.

I bought several of Barry's how-to books (Claw Your Way to the Top came first, a book on business) and his first book of columns, Bad Habits. And I laughed a lot. By age twenty, however, when I read a book of his on home improvement, the love affair was ending. His second book of columns did not seem so funny, and his book on U.S. history only moderately redeemed his more recent work for me. And now, over twenty years have passed since I last picked up one of his works.

This book I got for free from the Little Library in our neighborhood. I figured I'd give Barry a try again. It looked entertaining and funny, and it proved a great book for the light reading needed while on family vacation, since much of that vacation was spent corralling little boys at a water park and did not lend itself to deep reading on the philosophical underpinnings of why humans gather themselves into urban civilizations. Having not read reading quite so light in a long while, I now know how and why some people can manage to get through books so quickly: large print and easy to read equals short time.

The book itself, however, was something of a disappointment. Barry is a humorist. This means that his main objective is to tell jokes. There wasn't a lot to glean here other than laughs. And as I've gotten older, making me laugh has gotten relatively tougher to do. Far Side cartoons, which in my late teens were hilarious, now stir mostly a nod from me. Barry likewise might occasionally make me smile, but only one hard laugh was generated in its two hundred plus pages.

The book is about guys, as opposed to men. Here, Barry is onto something, which he does a good job of laying out in his first chapter. Guys go with the flow. They do not generally accomplish important things with their lives. They do stupid stuff. They avoid work as possible. They are not particularly moral or immoral. They are, essentially, like grown-up kids.

What follows are a number of chapters full of cliches about male behavior, some of them gleaned from personal life, some from news stories, and a number of them common ideas that have lingered in the air for generations. All's well and fine, I suppose, to make fun of males--Barry after all is one--but at some level it becomes a bit tedious and insulting. A guy's idea of housework is . . . A guy's concept of a relationship is . . . And so on. To some extent, I wonder how many of such insights are even true. My wife, indeed, is pickier about cleaning bathrooms than I am, and I have to admit that from my second apartment on as a single man, I largely avoided decorating and eschewed furniture as much as possible, though not for the reasons that Barry might pose. I did not find such stuff necessary and didn't want it weighing me down, as opposed to simply not thinking about it (I had, in fact, made an effort with my first apartment and decided I would not do so again until I owned a place and was certain to stay put). And as for relationships, I can attest to being slow to commit, but again, it was not because I never even thought about them with girls I may have gone out with, and I can say the same of many of my male friends.

About the only set of criticisms that rang true for me were those on home improvement and the feelings of inadequacy I feel as compared to “men.” I am one of those guys who wants desperately to fix up the house but who often feels overwhelmed by a set of skills I never learned or was taught and who does feel somewhat less manly because of that lack.

But of course, Barry isn't looking to tell the truth or to make great insights. He's trying to make us laugh. However, it might just be that with more life experience, I find myself less likely to laugh a stereotypes and more likely to laugh at things that do provide true insights. After all, if laughter is at least in part a reaction to surprise and discomfort, it takes some revelation of truth, perhaps previously unknown, to elicit it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On "The Brother" by Robert Coover (13:36 minutes) *****

My favorite section from Coover's "Seven Exemplary Fictions" involves a retelling of the story of Noah's flood. In this case, a brother has been hired to help Noah build the boat. He works on it until it is done, thinking Noah mostly just a crazy man. Noah gives no real explanation for his actions, so when the brother finds that it is beginning to rain and that everything is disappearing under water, there's a rather grim pity we feel for him.

I could not help but think of the biblical story itself. Noah is regarded as a prophet in the scriptures, so my understanding is that his boat building was accompanied by warnings to those around and by preaching. The real tragedy in Coover's tale is that the brother is clueless--that there is no warning about what is about to happen. But then I think of how we are today surrounded by "prophets" who name an end date for the world that comes and goes. I have to think that one some level, people in Noah's day would have had a similar issue. Was Noah merely one of many predicting the world's end? Which person do we listen to, or should we just ignor them all? Is a proliferation of warnings, many of them false, any better than no warning at all? We live in a sad and pitiable world.

You can listen to Coover himself read the story here.

On "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" by Mario Vargas Llosa *****

Vargas Llosa, along with Manuel Puig, is one of those South American authors I've long intended to get around to reading (like for more than two decades long). It finally happened, and I'm glad to have finally gotten around to this book, as it was an immense pleasure. As with Puig, Vargas Llosa seems to be writing from a different tradition than many of the fantastic realists, but there is a touch of fantasy in this work, if only in the alternate chapters.

What are alternate chapters? Vargas Llosa's book is divided essentially into two parts. Odd chapters focus on the main story; even chapters focus on short stories. The main story involves an eighteen-year-old man in law school who has a job as a radio newsman in Lima, Peru. This young man falls in love with his Bolivian aunt Julia, who is in her early thirties and newly divorced. (The two are unrelated by blood, the aunt being the sister to the wife of the young man's uncle by blood.) As might be imagined, this creates a scandal. The book recounts how the two fall for one another and how they attempt to keep the relationship secret.

But it also recounts the life of another radio employee, who works for a different radio station with the same owners. This other radio station focuses not on news but on entertainment, notably soap operas. The Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter, is the brain behind these operas. Earlier, the station had depended on imported Cuban scripts, but the Bolivian Camacho is an artist and a perfectionist whose devotion to his craft creates an equal devotion among radio listeners. Audiences grow huge.

It is summaries of the scripts for the stories that Camacho's writes that forge the alternative chapters. These stories are on their own very interesting, and I wish I could find one on the Net to share, but alas, it eluded me. The best stories come toward the front of the book. The very first focuses on a man in love with a woman, but the woman has opted to marry another man, one not really befitting her station--because, as it turns out, she has gotten pregnant by her brother, with whom she is in love. These seems appropriate for soap operas, but it's told with a high literary voice that appeals to someone like me. And true to form, the story ends, not with a conclusion, but with a series of questions about what will happen next. Later chapters focus on a seeming alien arrested by a police officer who has qualms about actually shooting the innocent creature, despite orders; and the rape and attempted murder of the owners of a hotel by one of its boarders. As the stories continue, they became less interesting to me, especially as I got more involved in the main story. But they also devolve naturally, as Vargas Llosa explains in the main text. Character names begin to be repeated between stories (even though they are not the same character) or changed midstory. And then, eventually, all the characters are killed off. Pedro Camacho works himself so hard that he has a meltdown.

Meanwhile, the narrator and his aunt are found out and ordered to stop. Instead, the narrator seeks out a means to get married, which is difficult, given that he is technically a minor under Peruvian law. The tale becomes a love story, as the two try to stay together against overwhelming odds.

And for what? The family is concerned because Aunt Julia is a divorcee and so much older. The narrator is so young and not finished with school. He's condemning himself to a life of hardship. I can understand the family's concern.

But the fortunes of people are not always what they seem likely to become. Camacho goes insane and loses all. The narrator, living for love, seems to come out all right in the end. So too does another radio employee who is largely considered an oaf, while another such employee struggles on along a similar path that he's always been on. Life is a soap opera.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On "The Balloon" by Donald Barthelme (1767 words) ****

One of many of Barthelme's stories available on the Web, this one is about a balloon that engulfs a city and the reactions of various people to it. Or so it seems. It's really about art and how people react to it and why it gets written in the first place, for these external presentations are often simply, as Barthelme puts it, "spontaneous autobiographic disclore[s]." Read the story here.

On "Sixty Stories" by Donald Barthelme ***

Once, a long time ago, I was tasked to write up a bio and summary of criticism on Frederick and Steven Barthelme. I wrote up one on Donald, having been initially given the wrong name. A couple of years after that, I read Donald Barthelme's Snow White. It was absurd and fun and funny. I read it in the Fort Worth Central Library, in one sitting, as I had no means to check out books from that library, living literally a few hundred yards out of town. It's been nearly twenty years. Now I'm finally back to Barthelme. Why? He kept coming up in discussions about experimental fiction. And he showed up as the author of a story taught alongside a story by another author I know. I figured it was time to try Barthelme's short pieces.

Overall, I found the collection fun and intriguing, by as I find with that genius Faulkner's novels, it didn't feel like much of anything added up. These are stories that often just drop off, without any kind of epiphany. Barthelme, I'm sure, was eschewing that element of the form, an element that in its ubiquity almost seems trite. And yet, I find a story without some kind of gravitas ending to be, well, an anecdote. It doesn't tend to stick with me, no matter how clever or absurd the premise and execution.

My favorite stories of this collection generally managed to do something that thing that was clever or absurd, and they were often funny in a smile sort of way. Others were hard to stick to. Among the one that were hardest to stick with, for me, were those that consisted wholly of dialogues. Not only was it difficult sometimes to follow the conversations (often with non sequiturs) but the conversations often didn't seem to go much of anywhere. Now, if I managed to become engaged in the topic of the conversation, and sometimes I did, the dialogue could be quite funny in the smile sort of way. A masterpiece of this form was "The Farewell," which consisted of two people talking about getting into an exclusive institution--only it's not so exclusive as it once was. We see a good deal of awkward and mean competition between two "friends."

My favorite piece in the collection by far was one drawn from what I believe to be one of Barthelme's novels. It was called "A Manual for Sons." It is essentially a summation of fatherhood--what "father" means. I don't know exactly what it is that Barthelme does here that makes the piece so intriguing. It's simply an definition essay on fathers, but the way that he goes about setting out that definition, with its specificity and, many times, ridiculous appeals to history or anecdote fascinates like poetry.

Characteristic of the collection is the very first story, "Margins," which is about two men discussing character and handwriting analysis. If handwriting shows who we are, why bother reforming ourselves--instead, reform our handwriting. The story is an exploration on inner versus outer, surface versus depth--the margins. How can or does one reflect the other? And yet, Barthelme seems to provide no real answer--there's just a lot of talk. And one is left nodding the head, saying, Interesting. Maybe even beautiful. But so what?