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This, my post title, is not my question. I don’t think I would ask a question like that because I don’t suppose there’s an answer. But Julio Cortázar asks it in his essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” (taken from New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles May), and he can ask any question he pleases, and I will follow along to see what he says.

To find the answer, he says we can look to those stories that stick with us through the years: “[T]he years pass,” he says, “and we live, and forget everything else but those little, insignificant stories, those grains of sand in the immense sea of literature are still there, throbbing, pulsating inside us.”

He says we all have our own collections of unforgettable stories. Cortázar’s list includes work by Hemingway, Poe, Borges, Dinesen, and Tolstoy (but perhaps not the ones you’d suspect). “Why do they remain in my memory?” he asks. “Think of the stories you haven’t been able to forget and you will find that they have the same characteristic.”

Before I provide Cortázar’s answer, I want to pause and think of those stories that I can’t forget, and to see if I can identify that key characteristic that they share. In fact, this makes for a nice How-to-become-a-writer exercise:

What are those unforgettable stories that continue to throb and pulsate within you?

For me, hmm…

Herta Müller’s “Black Park,” “The Street Sweepers”
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “The Bucket Rider”
Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado”
NOT James Joyce’s “The Dead” (I feel like everyone cites this, and I just don’t love it or remember it at all.)
Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead” and “Dearth”
Alice Munro’s “Minesetung”
Maria Luisa Bombal’s “New Islands”
Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World”
Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
Yuri Olesha’s “Lyompa”
Veronique Tadjo’s “The Magician and the Girl”
Brock Clarke’s “Plowing the Secondaries”
Miranda July’s “Majesty”
and so on…

What is the common characteristic of those stories?

They’re all some version of anti-reality: magical realism, surrealism, absurdism. Many of them have lines that get stuck in my head like the refrain of a pop song. They all have unforgettable images: potato-kids, teeny-tiny woman, dying woman on the snow, giant insect, bucket rider. These images take hold, and hold, and don’t let go. They all kind of break my heart.

Which might have something to do with Cortázar‘s answer:

“They bring together a reality which is infinitely more vast than that of the simple anecdote.” (In the passage, he is primarily interested in subject matter, and how different subjects open up a story to larger meanings. So, there’s more to it, but this is the heart of his claim.)

Again, these are not necessarily the Greatest Stories in the World, but the unforgettable ones. Cortázar even uses the word ‘insignificant.’ Would you rather write a Great Story or an unforgettable one? C’est la differance?

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Here’s a review I recently posted of Darrin Doyle‘s novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo:

About midway through this smart, engaging, and utterly unique book, Audrey Mapes is accused of eating The Caboose, a restaurant in Kalamazoo. The judge of the case turns to Audrey and says, “‘If you won’t divulge how you did it, will you please tell the court why you did it?” This question — WHY Audrey ate Kalamazoo — is what this book is about, and the answer is heartbreaking, especially as it’s told by her ambivalent conspirator and sister, McKenna.

Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her father (who tells her, “‘I don’t hate you. I hate the idea of you'”) would rather spend time making Dr. Pepper shoes for his footless daughter than actually spending time with her. Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her “depressed mother…is warm to the skin but cold to the soul–a distant, distracted, touched-in-the-head mother.” Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her brother calls her a freak but obsesses on his own expanding body, and because her sister chews, regurgitates, and rechews her own food while feeding Audrey crayons and Playdoh and other nonfood. And because of Grandma Pencil. The author’s humor and the grandmother’s character are perfectly captured in this line by McKenna: “I’ve probably given you the impression that Grandma Pencil was some kind of ogre. If not, I’ve failed.”

This book dissects the contemporary American family and examines the connective tissue and (dys)function of each organ, with a focus on the broken heart. It’s hilarious, scary, uncomfortable, and all too accurate. Highly recommended.

Last night I was so very happy because the bands Yo La Tengo and Wilco came to the minor league stadium in my minor city and put on a major outdoor concert. Look, there’s Yo La Tengo now!

A few years ago I told myself I wanted to write a story that was like a Yo La Tengo song — melodic and dreamy and drony, with an edge of dissonance and a ripping anti-climactic climax.

I never wrote that story, which may be for the best, but these qualities have certainly shaped my stories and my thinking about narrative, which might be summed up along the lines of: style has substance; plot can be plodding, but there must be movement and modulation.

Wilco writes perfect short-story songs with sing-along lyrics and a catapulting climax. Yo La Tengo writes long, narrow poem songs with jabberwock words and few capital letters or punctuation marks.

All of this gets me thinking of how Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was influenced in form and content by Beethoven’s quartets:

Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, opus 135, provides a powerful musical motif for this novel. It was the last significant work that Beethoven composed — in October 1826, just five months before his death — and it was not premiered until a year after he was gone. Kundera refers mainly to the final movement of the four-part quartet.

As the narrator explains, Beethoven wrote some words in the manuscript to illuminate two of the musical motifs: “Muss is sein?” (must it be?) for the introductory slow chords of the fourth movement; and “Es muss sein!” (it must be) for the main theme.
[Taken from Book Drum by author David Loftus. Emphases are mine.]

So Beethoven was telling a story through his music. It works both ways.

When I was interviewed for my university job, the Vice Chancellor asked me a question I hadn’t answered since I filled out my last college application: If you could have dinner with any three people in history, who would you choose? I said the first three people that came to mind:

Virginia Woolf

1. Virginia Woolf
2. Jane Austen
3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived 2 miles and 150 years away from me in Cincinnati

“You know,” the Vice Chancellor said, surprised, “you’re the first person I’ve met who picked all women.” (I was probably also the first person to pick all writers, but he didn’t mention that.)

This anecdote is a reminder that men remain our (women’s and men’s) default mode. For everything.

Which is, in part, what the writer Leah Stewart addresses in her excellent guest post on literary sexism for Caroline Leavitt’s blog. Stewart argues that there remains the false perception that women write only about relationships and men write about Other Important Things. A reason for this, she says, is that “it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men.” Stewart says that the fact is, plenty of stories by and about men are ultimately about relationships, “but because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed.”

I got my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, and I finished the year Leah Stewart was hired, so I’ve never met her, which is a huge bummer because she’s dealing with the same things I dealt with and deal with and am sure to deal with times 1000 when my book of stories about suburban women comes out next year.

One of the ways I dealt with this issue as I worked on my dissertation was to write an article about Kathryn Davis’s amazing novel Hell, in which I argue that Davis reworks the Gothic women’s literary tradition to high literary and political ends. Davis’s narrator reads obsessively and reflects on her reading, especially of Wuthering Heights (“Nothing saves you from the grave, Cathy Earnshaw”). In my article, which is available online here at MP Journal, I explore the scholarship of women as readers, of women writers as readers, and of the female version of the “anxiety of influence”, and I move to an examination of how Davis positions the 1950s American suburb as a site of Gothic terror.

Along the way, I take on one of my esteemed professors who wrote a scathing review of the book in the Washington Post and who also happened to be on my dissertation committee (until he ended up out of the country during my defense). He criticized the book for being too self-consciously postmodern and for not taking on more important subject matter, like refugees. He admitted he might be “sensitive-adolescent challenged.”

Indeed.

I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, but the beauty of a blog (I’m starting to appreciate this strange form…) is that you can come back topics, elaborate, clarify, backtrack, and maybe get something right. So I’ll leave this post with a quote from Hell, which sums up Leah Stewart’s post perfectly:

Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience . . . with universal radiance. Faithless sons, wars and typhoons, fields of blood, greed and knives: our literature’s full of such stories. And yet suppose for an instant that it wasn’t the complacent father but his bored daughter who was the Prime Mover . . . . Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?

After two weeks in Prague, it was time to head to Berlin, which meant I needed some new reading material! I visited in Prague’s Big Ben Bookshop, where I bought a copy of Herta Müller’s The Appointment. I’d never read Müller, who is originally from Romania but has been living in Berlin for over 20 years, but ever since she became only the twelfth woman since 1901 to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ve wanted to learn more. I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Although I agree with Francine Prose from her Harper’s article years ago that the “scent of a woman’s ink” is a notion that is preposterous and misogynist, I must confess that after reading three books by (and about) Czech men, it felt, to read this book by (and about) a woman, like home.

The Appointment is lovely, dark and deep. Like Mrs. Dalloway — one day, swirling memories — but set within a socialist regime. And instead of buying flowers for a party, the main character is headed on a tram towards a “summons.” I adored especially the language: the lyrical, repeating and morphing images of colors and dreams and objects (the leaning apartment building, the woman with the braid, the motorcycle, the red poppies) and the ever-present dead (best friend, father, playmate, shoemaker).

Throughout, the book, the narrator asks big questions about how to live in a world that tries to make you mad:

I was wondering about the games that life plays, and on my way back from the shoemaker I went through all the possible ways of getting fed up with the world. The first and the best: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad, like most people. The second possibility: don’t get summoned, but do lose your mind, like the shoemaker’s wife and Frau Micu who lives downstairs by the main entrance. The third: do get summoned and do go mad, like the two women in the mental home. Or else the fourth: get summoned but don’t go mad like Paul and myself. Not particularly good, but in our case the best option. A squashed plum was lying on the pavement, the wasps were eating their fill, the newly hatched ones as well as the older wasps. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. The sun was being pulled out of the city into the fields. At first glance its makeup looked a little too garish, especially for the hour; at second glance it appeared to have been shot—red as a bed of poppies, Lilli’s officer had said. Yes, that’s the fifth possibility: to be very young, and unbelievably beautiful, and not insane, but dead. You don’t have to be named Lilli to be dead.

What a beautiful passage. I love how it moves through the four options and seems to settle more or less comfortably on the fourth. Then there’s the image of the plum on which an entire wasp family feeds. Then there’s the sun, being “pulled out of the city into the fields.” The sun looks, “at first glance…too garish” for so early in the day. At second glance, though, it “appeared to have been shot–red as a bed of poppies,” and now the narrator is thinking of the death of her best friend Lilli, and she comes to a haunting fifth possibility. Such delicate, poetic transitions from ideas to images and back.

Interestingly, although the narrator asks big and small questions (and big questions disguised as small ones) throughout the book, there are no question marks. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. This style (which reminded me of Gertrude Stein) conveys the futility of asking questions in a world where you can lose your job or your life for expressing disagreement or discontent with the authorities, where you can be framed by coworkers who hold petty grudges. You can ask the question so long as you accept that there is no answer, or that the answer is not available to you and couldn’t help you if it were. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum.

Check out this link at Red Pepper for more on her life and work.

And this link to her Nobel acceptance speech.

One nice thing about being in Prague is that I can find easily Czech books in English translations. So, while I visited Kafka’s museum and statues and bookshop (in the space where his father kept his shop), and even ate as the Franz Kafka Cafe, I also bought three new (to me) books by Czech authors — all beautifully made from Twisted Spoon Press.

I, City by Pavel Brycz

This book tells the episodic, meditative “story” of the city of Most in the Czech Republic through the voice of the city.

It reminds me of the dreamy, imagistic, sometimes overly earnest but utterly engaging voice(s) of Jean Toomer’s Cane.

From “an appearance, grave”:

Some appearances people would gladly forbear. I understand. No one wants to be buried alive. Luckily, the dead don’t seem to care. Or do they? Do they come back, dead among the living, perhaps even in an altered appearance, to carry out their cruel jokes? Do they return?

Yes, they do. I, city, saw a dead man, who came back twice, and in altered appearance, to interfere in the fate of his son.

Of Kids and Parents by Emil Hakl

A father and son walk through Prague, stop in pub after pub, and tell each otherstories of visits to the doctor, dead stepfathers, mistaking an ex-girlfriend’s daughter for the ex-girlfriend, drunken exploits at weddings, etc.

Aside from the sad view of women that the characters have (esp. the father), it’s an intimate and sweet book of their individual lives and shared relationship. And I adore the voice of the grumpy father who knows birds by their calls and debates with his son about models of aircraft.

And of course, this book of walking and talking reminds me of Ten Walks, Two Talks, a book I sort of dismissed out of hand a while ago, as it sounded like a dull project, but which has gotten all sorts of good press. Which means I was probably wrong, as usual.

from “Why the Crew of the Kursk Couldn’t Escape on its Own”:

‘Then there’s fish fillet,’ I said.

‘Ah, fish fillet!’ Father bellowed at the whole room, staring out at the clouds with a painful expression on his face, ‘but it should say what kind of fish…’

‘What kind of fish!’ I said under my breath, ‘the kind that swims in water!’

‘Ah, but it’s not that simple…’ Father smiled, ‘could be Alaskan cod or sea bass, could be hake, Merluccius merluccius, or seawolf, Anarhicas lupus…Oh well, never mind, it’ll probably be cod or haddock…’

‘Most likely.’

‘Well, don’t get upset, I’ll have the fish fillet.’

The Transformations of Mr. Hadliz by Ladislav Novak

A short, quirky surrealist text – brief episodes/interpretations of Novak’s own froissage art, made from crumpling a piece of paper and using the lines to create images. According to the info in the back of the book (I love that Twisted Spoon Press includes extensive contextual info), he made the images a couple decades ago and then more recently “interpreted” them. The images are printed in full color next to the corresponding text. Lovely.

from “Mr. Hadliz as a Plaything for Those Condemned to Death”:

We are all condemned to death. Mr. Hadliz is well aware of this. (Only we often don’t realize it; we forget…) Clowning and dissimulating, he invites us to have fun with him. To make our forgetting even more profound? To easily get us under his control? Under no circumstances should trust him too much.

As writers go, Franz Kafka is Prague’s favorite native son. You can tell by the museum in Mala Strana (see picture), the gift shop and bronze plaque where he was born, the restaurant around the corner in Josefov, and the other gift shop on Old Town Square where Kafka’s father had his business. You can tell by all the postcards that say Kafka, or reproduce photos of him, or that show an illustrated profile of a thin man in a suit and hat taking long strides on a cobbled lane. You can tell from the statue that features Kafka as one of his own characters on the shoulders of another character, as portrayed in his only distinctly Prague-based story, “Description of a Struggle” (see picture).

This is outside the Kafka Musuem: two men peeing into the Czech Republic. Their hips swivel.

He is buried in a cemetery just a few blocks from where I’m staying, but after two attempts I still haven’t found his grave. A Czech woman pointed me to Jan Palach’s grave, so I have pictures of the young man who set himself on fire to protest the 1968 Russian invasion. (His photo is on his tomb.) The woman also gestured much farther on when I asked about Kafka, but I didn’t realize how much farther she meant until I got trapped in the Russian cemetery (only one entrance!) on my next visit. And when I finally got to the Jewish cemetery, it was, in good Kafka form, just closed for the night.

He is evidently buried with his father and all the related ironies.

The Kafka Museum is a dark, watery labyrinth of reproductions of letters and photos and books. It’s informative and artistically apt with its black walls and black and white film clips of old Prague that bend and bleed as if under water. There are transparent walls with poster-sized photos and quotations, and near the end is a maze of office drawers, floor-to-ceiling, labeled with character names. They even turned some of Kafka’s simple but compelling drawings of stick figures into an animated video. But aside from a few first-edition books, there was, for me, too little of the “real.” Everything a facsimile, a copy, an artful and interpretive reproduction. Smoke, mirrors.

"And now--with a flourish, as though it were not the first time--I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot." - from Kafka, "Description of a Struggle"

It turns out I like the real stuff. I wanted, as in Charles Dickens’ London house, to be able to walk on Kafka’s floor, see his desk and writing implements, touch his dining room table, view the same scene through a window, and walk the thresholds between rooms. At the Kafka museum I thought, Couldn’t they at least have gotten a jacket that he wore? A hat? A pen that he held? He hasn’t been dead that long.

But Kafka has not been Kafka for so very long, so his stuff was probably not preserved. Prague’s authorities (first fascists then communists) ignored him for most of the century. His stories, it seems, were too close for comfort. The Soviets loosened up a bit in general in the 60s, and they allowed Kafka to surface in as far as his works seemed to critique the Nazis, from whom the Soviets had “liberated” Prague.

But it is democracy and capitalism that has turned Kafka into Kafka. Which is Kafkaesque indeed.