The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

October 27, 2011

This collection was sent to me as a review copy.

E. Thomas Finan tends to look inward and does so in affecting ways. His protagonists have uneasy relationships with the world and, therefore, the stories are unsettling for everyone. He writes achingly realistic fiction that speaks eloquently through the clipped or choked dialogue of its suffering characters. Broken relationships feature prominently, but not exclusively. The broken relationships are often deep in the rearview, though closer to the heart than they initially appear.

Among the stories, there is one that appears almost like a writing exercise. Finan made the courageous (foolhardy?) choice to re-write Hemingway’s most famous short story and include it in this collection. Finan’s is titled: “Dunes Like White Elephants.

Nearly as enigmatic as Hemingway’s, the story approaches its subject obliquely. As in its famous predecessor, the intersection of a pregnancy and a relationship create the understated, but intense, drama. Where Hemingway showed a man pushing a woman to abort her pregnancy, in Finan’s take, the man is pressing for marriage. I actually think Finan pulled this off without creating a disaster which, frankly, is what I expected despite the talent displayed in the earlier stories.

Review copy.

Finan’s female lead is as reluctant as Hemingway’s and Finan’s potential father has the same binary view of the world as did his forebearer: the couple must either abort the pregnancy or marry and raise the child. The relationship in Finan’s work is a new one and, at least partly for that reason, the woman is very uncertain about turning this unplanned pregnancy into a shotgun wedding. The man believes the conclusion is foregone, despite his questioning tone. So many elements are mirrored, this was quite a risky story to publish.

I like what Finan has done to twist Hemingway’s stereotyped roles in interesting ways. He did not simply re-write the story into the modern age or reverse the poles. Rather, he bent and twisted the classic into something new and provacative. Finan certainly does not surpass Hemingway, but he gets points for shocking this reader into a closer analysis of the original. Kudos to Finan for his gutsy decisions.

My favorite story in the collection is “Motley Black.” The narrator, “Jay”, is taking a bus ride across country to escape the geography of his most recent relationship. A wiseass (“My friends call me Foley.”…..“So what should I call you?”) and introvert, Jay tries to avoid a seatmate only to end up with the talkative and otherwise annoying Foley at his side. While Foley snores, Jay broods:

One can always find the loneliness within life. It is always there. Conviviality, conversational relish, the glibness of society – all are signs of the struggle to ignore that loneliness, always lingering at your shoulder like an unwelcome stranger, one that we know too well. Perhaps, for many people, the only thing worse than a stranger is someone we know inside and out; despite all that knowledge, that patina of familiarity, there remains the hollow core of ignorance. What was a friend? Someone to unburden your heart to? Well, what would telling do? I did not need any more of projected narcissism, which constitutes the heart and soul of common friendship.

This dark moodiness is typical of the stories in the collection, though humor peeks* through in places. In “Motley Black”, for instance, Jay’s wit leavens things until the main action hits. The story bends towards absurdity, I thought it had snapped at one point, but finds its way to a satisfying conclusion. You can find an extended excerpt here.

Finan writes with impressive confidence (as his cribbing from a Hemingway story suggests he would). He usually delivers. Even if every story is not seasoned to my taste, Finan achieves what it is he sets out to do. Impressive.

[**Edited 11-4-2011: Not mountain “peaks”, of course.]

Various Authors by Various Authors (edited by Rob Redman)

September 20, 2011

This anthology of never-before-published short stories is comprised of stories by, as the name suggests, various authors. The Fiction Desk published in April this volume of twelve stories from authors new and established (though mostly new). On September 30, 2011, The Fiction Desk will be releasing the second anthology in what is planned to be a continuing series. “The main thrust of the anthology series is to showcase a variety of writers and writing.” (From The Fiction Desk Newsletter, September 2011.)

You should know, though I have never met him, I consider Rob a friend. We have exchanged e-mail, he’s on my blogroll, he has always been gracious and generous with respect to my blog. In other words, I do not want to mislead you that I am completely disinterested in whether Rob’s publishing venture is a success. I am rooting for him. Still, given this first volume, I am sure he will do fine no matter what I say below.

After three stories, you know that this is going to be an eclectic collection. “How to Fall in Love with an Air Hostess” is a guide on how to fall in love with an air hostess. The second story, “Crannock House”, is set in a private boarding school in the mid-1980s. In the third, a husband finds his wife frolicking with a man in a dog costume…and she seems to believe the man is an actual dog…and her husband keeps paying the guy to come back. The Fiction Desk has definitely managed variety of subject matter and genre.

I will not discuss all twelve of the stories, though there is something in each to appreciate. In “Celia and Harold”, a man stops in a small, strange town, Midwick, to switch trains. In the pub, he is accosted by a barfly who warns him to leave Midwick as soon as he can:

”You’ve not seen her,” he said. “Pray you never do.”

“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said, patting my laptop and nodding in the direction of the window. “I have to get this work done before the train to Dymthrop arrives.”

The barfly snorted. “Forget Dymthrop. All that matters is that you get out of Midwick – and fast. Or you’ll be as doomed as the rest of us.”

The barfly is Harold and the woman he warns about is Celia. I won’t ruin the story, but it feels like something Stephen King might write. The idea is a good one and the execution is splendid. The reader, like the narrator, only gradually grasps the situation. To say too much more might give away the game, so I will just say that Patrick Whittaker’s story is one of the nicer gems.

Another I really liked was Ben Lyle’s “Crannock House”, a deeply affecting story about a prep school boy’s relationship with his math teacher. It has something of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent in it, and maybe a dash of Edith Wharton. I was just now, after writing the above, looking up some biographical information on Mr. Lyle at The Fiction Desk to see if there was anything I should include. It turns out that my favorite story from the anthology was also the winner of the “Various Authors Prize”, that is, a cash award to the story judged best by the contributors to the volume. Three stories tied among the contributors, so John Self of The Asylum stepped in and chose “Crannock House.” He had this to say:

I liked it because it surprises the reader’s expectations and doesn’t explain everything, and despite its short length, it manages to be a complex and affecting portrayal of two characters covering a long period of time without seeming rushed.

We learn early in the story that Crannock House School is a “progressive” school.

There were no compulsory lessons: learning was considered a contract between teachers and pupils. The idea was that children knew what was best for them. My parents thought I’d do well in an environment of joy and discovery, rather than set texts, exams and school uniforms. That’s what my dad wrote in his articles for The Guardian anyway.

The story is narrated by James, a student at Crannock House School. He is thirteen when a new math teacher, Mervyn, arrives with wildly unkempt hair and a suit and tie. His attire is what most immediately marks him for an odd ball. The students soon realize that, consistent with his teacher-like neckwear, he actually intends to teach them math. James is an excellent student and he quickly wins the stern affections of Mervyn.

While James and Mervyn are both misfits in the wider world, they are misfits within the school of misfits too. Unlike most of the students, James, as the quote above hints, is from a reasonably wealthy and connected family. They could afford to send him to a better school but do not. The fact that James received an explanation for his being at this particular school from his dad’s Guardian articles suggests a parental distance later borne out in the text. Mervyn, meanwhile, believes in conventional learning. At least, he does not subscribe to the soft-headedness of Crannock House’s progressive approach to collaborative learning. Yet, as his wild hair and presence at Crannock House suggest, he also has failed to find his place on the outside.

What is most affecting about the book is the “complex and affecting portrayal” of the relationship between James and Mervyn. James needs a father figure and a friend, Mervyn needs a friend. The ending is emotionally wrenching without giving itself over to melodrama or cliché. Ben Lyle writes with economy, but sneaks in the occasional flourish of imagery:

He wiped his snub nose, adding to the silver spindles on his sweat-shirted forearm.

This is a fine effort by a fine writer. I understand that Ben Lyle is coming out with a first novel soon. I will be watching out for it.

As for Various Authors, the eclecticism and the quality continue. Charles Lambert’s “All I Want”, with its exploration of hopeless longing, was another highlight for me. By the close, each of the stories sticks in the mind for one reason or another. The Fiction Desk is off to a good start and I look forward to the next in the series.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

June 1, 2010

***This review is part of a TLC Book Tour. A copy of the book reviewed was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.***

I had this class once with Grace Paley in which she told us that every line in fiction has to be true. It has to be a distillation of experience, more true to a person’s life than any moment he or she has actually lived. So this book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.

This quote from David Vann is from an interview included at the end of his story collection, Legend of a Suicide. The truth in these stories is not the truth of his father’s life, but the truth of David Vann’s own life. The motivations of his father in these re-imagined events, all bearing some resemblance to the author’s own experiences with his father and in the aftermath of his father’s suicide, do not always ring coherent.

As we spent those years in California leading steadily more circumscribed lives, my father ranged farther and farther up in Alaska, and everything he did seemed to lack sense.

Of course, when describing someone suffering from debilitating depression and/or pain and/or emptiness, coherence would seem a lie. Vann does not appear to be trying to understand his father, as much as he is plumbing his own emotions. The truth of these stories is in the psychological toll taken on the son by the father’s life and death. The nonchalant violence perpetrated against the reader’s emotions is neither gratuitous nor pointless. Vann takes the reader to through his journey from boyhood to manhood. The arc of the stories is a satisfying success.

David Vann has a fascination with fish. Given the treatment they receive in nearly all of the stories, it appears at first glance to be a hate-hate relationship. A single example will suffice to illustrate:

The halibut themselves lay flat, like gray-green dogs on the white deck of the boat, their large brown eyes looking up at me hopefully until I whacked them with a hammer.

There plenty of other, well-written descriptions of fish taking blows, often creatively delivered, but Vann’s characters are most brutal to the ones they love. Vann’s offenses against fish belie an affection echoed in the son’s feelings toward his father.

In the first story, Ichthyology, the son wins a couple of goldfish at a county fair. A cat kills them. His mother buys a proper aquarium and stocks it. Dead fish are, at first, buried “in elaborate ceremonies”. Mother and son tire of this quickly, dropping the ceremony in favor of a flush. They do replace the departed with new varieties.

Review Copy provided by the publisher.

At one point, the new fish they buy are “two new silver dollars.” The silver dollars survey their new bowlmates and, almost immediately, suck out the eyes of the “badly misnamed” iridescent shark. The shark is left blind and bumbling. The boy’s mother scoops out the silver dollars and flushes them.

In the background, his parents divorce, he and his mother move to California from Alaska, and his father becomes a commercial fisherman. The father is clearly struggling, not unlike the eyeless “shark”. He blasts a hole in his head just as Vann’s real-life father did. Where the father could not cope, the fish does. Vann has indicated in an interview (which I read after writing the foregoing), that the shark was symbolic of his father and its survival eyeless was a sort of redemption for the father. I took David for the fly shot out of the air by an archer fish, another stand-in for his father.

[T]here was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.

I may be reading too much into this fishy imagery, but, as I said, the stories are so very much about the son. The father is a man grieving for a wasted life, a lonely future. Nothing the father does in any of these stories turns out successfully. And in each, in some way, he kills a piece of his son. No matter at whom the father points the gun, it is the son who is injured.

At the center of the book is a novella rather than a short story. In real life, David Vann turned down the chance to spend a year in Alaska with his father. Shortly after that refusal, his father killed himself. In the novella, Vann’s fictional self, Roy Fenn, reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. This alternative reality is no less painful. Rather than spending four nights on a hotel room floor listening in the dark to his father weep, as did David, Roy has months in a cabin. In the novella, as in the stories surrounding it, James Edwin Fenn is feckless. He plans poorly, usually messes up whatever he attempts, and is wholly unable to connect in meaningful ways with the people around him. We do not get far beyond this image of the father, however, before the drama at the center of the novella unfolds.

Even in scenes where James is alone, we learn more about David/Roy and his feelings toward the father than we do about the possible motivations and emotions of the father. In short, I found this book to be fictional primarily as it relates to facts. It felt to me as entirely autobiographical with respect to emotions, the emotions of David/Roy. I do not mean to suggest that David was the troubled youth of “A Legend of Good Men” or the troubled adult in “Ketchikan”. But the emotions in these stories feel raw. For instance, after dropping the fingerlings over the cliff in one memorable scene, thirty year-old Roy imagines the tiny fish on the pavement:

Waiting, then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

By the end of this linked collection, the reader has some insight into Roy, the boy placed in many different stories, always with the tragedy of suicide either looming in the present or just behind in the past. In this, the book is a success. The effect of examining suicide from so many closely-related perspectives is quite interesting. This structural technique is conceptually related to what J. M. Coetzee does in Summertime. Where Coetzee has something to say about his alter ego, the nature of memory and perception, and the business of storytelling, the scope of Vann’s work seems more limited. He captures in close detail the feelings of despair, rage, and confusion of a son abandoned by a father, but the project does not seem as layered or as broadly ambitious. This is not a fault, merely a difference.

This collection also brings to mind Afterwards by Gina Berriault. The subject of Ms. Berriault’s novel (novella almost) is also the aftermath of a suicide. Berriault, to my mind, demonstrates how beautifully an accomplished author can use a suicide to dig deeply not only into the emotional consequences of such an act, but also into some fundamental philosophical and psychological questions. My point is not that Vann’s work is not as good as Berriault’s or Coetzee’s, but to highlight their different purposes.

Vann’s work is very focused on the emotional toll of a father’s suicide on a son. Even in the one story where the father survives, it is clear the story is about David/Roy more than the father. The book feels like it must have been a cathartic experience for David Vann. And we are fortunate he chose this method. While his work is not as ambitious in some respects as Summertime and Afterwards, it achieves its own aims in beautiful prose.

I will be interested to see how David Vann moves on from what is, in many ways, a memoir of emotions to more pure fiction. In this hope and expectation, David Vann reminds me of Dave Eggers. While I have not read everything Eggers has written since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my impression is that he has not yet made the jump from his own “semi-autobiographical” fiction detailing the emotional consequences of his own tragic youth to fully realized and accomplished fiction. And, yet, Eggers certainly has a successful writing career. Whether Vann follows the Eggers path or, more likely, makes a trail uniquely his own, I look forward to the further successes of David Vann.

[some typos fixed 6-2-10]