Saturday, November 16, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "The Beginning of the Story" (on a reading by Lydia Davis)



the beginning of the story

Reading by Lydia Davis / at the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater (Redcat) in the Disney Center on November 13, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

I can’t recall when I first met Lydia Davis. I like to think it was with Paul Auster, to whom she was once married, but I also remember that when I once stayed overnight at Paul’s Brooklyn apartment, they had obviously already been separated and, perhaps, divorced, since I remember talking to Paul’s second wife, Siri Hustvedt, about Charles Dickens, on whom she had written her PhD dissertation—so clearly Lydia was not there!
     In any event, I have known her, if nothing else indirectly, for about 28 years. I published one of her short tales, “Meat, My Husband,” in my cookbook, The Sun & Moon Guide to Eating Through Literature & Art. And I have kept vaguely in touch with her through these long years, reading most of her short collections and her longer fiction, The End of the Story, after discussing the work with Davis’ close friend, Rae Armantrout.
    

     I was delighted, therefore, when my friend Deborah Meadows suggested that we attend Lydia Davis’ reading together.
     I have been enchanted with Davis’ so called “mirco-fictions” for the many years that I’ve been reading her—having myself written a book also of very short fictions. Her works, which are very much about language, are, however, not as poetically self-referential as my works, but give the pretense of a narrative thrust that even Scheherazade might envy. But I rediscovered, listening to her works of the other night—stories from a new collection that she gathered under various related processes and topics: dream stories, letters of complaint, very short, almost maxim-like comedies, and, what one might describe as somewhat acerbic reactions to criticisms of her work (one hilariously describing her as a lazy author for using contractions such as “can’t and won’t”). Since she had also just spoken to a classroom of students at Cal Arts, Davis punctuated her excellent readings with statements of her own techniques and approaches, including the relationship of these very short pieces with her, often, very long translations, such as Proust’s Swann’s Way.
      What I realized, however, in hearing her stories (I have no actual texts available to me, since this represents a soon-to-be-published book) is that, unlike her one longer fiction, which speaks of “ending” the tale, most of her works of fiction function more as “beginnings” with ironic closure that stories with a beginning, middle, and end. One of Davis’ remarkable eccentricities (and I say that word to suggest only its positive connotations) is that her tales are almost finished before they have begun, shutting down at the very moment when a writer of lesser talent and linguistic assuredness, might just started. And in that sense, Davis relies on the reader more than most writers to imagine and involve him or herself in the tale in order to finish it. If she were a comedian, she might write (and, at times, almost does) something like “A minister and a rabbi come into a bar...,” stopping even before the punch line, or finishing it more like the “standard” comic line: “the bartender says, what is this some kind of joke?” Davis’ works are pared down to the refined of linguistic punch-lines, so eloquently expressed (she talks about how most of her revisions are in the arrangement of the words) that we have to rethink the tale in order understand, or, put another way, we have to work our way again through her terse language in order to perceive the profoundness of her nearly deconstructed story.
     When we do finally “get the message”—although there are no true messages in Davis’ work, only questions that basically remain unanswered—the superficial irony of the tale has almost been lost as we sink into the deeper meanings behind her lurch into narrative.
     In the longer pieces, Davis explores the meaning of things, as in her brilliantly satiric letter of complaint to a company who has sent her a letter of award for Woman of the Year, chosen by a mysterious 10,000 judges—if only she might pay $149 for a plain letter of award or $249 for a laminated edition. Beyond that they have spelled her name wrong! The question boils down to whether she is actually stupid or purposefully deluded by the meaningless award. Bit by bit, the author explores all the logical and illogical avenues of such the absurd “logic” of such a pontification.
     But throughout, Davis’ marvelous tales are not at an “end of the story,” but merely a beginning, a salvo into the dark silence of the white page. Like Beckett, Davis’ work, ultimately, is about “won’t and can’t,” shifting always into I “will,” I “must” go on. That “going on” is the marvel of her nascent creations. “Did I ever tell you,” Davis might as well begin, without entirely ever finishing what she might want to tell us. We must, in joy and delight, complete her “endings.”

Los Angeles, November 15, 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Bodies That Howl and Insult and Grope" (on José Donoso's Hell Has No Limits)



bodies that howl and insult and grope

José Donoso Hell Has No Limits, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995/ Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999).

After having watched Arturo Ripstein’s interesting, if not entirely successful, filming of José Donoso’s Hell without Limits, I determined to reread my 1995 republication of the translation of Donoso’s novel, Hell Has No Limits, much of which I brought into my review of the film. I must say the rereading was extremely revelatory, as I realized the marvelous significance and, at times, brilliant insights of Donoso’s 1966 work.
      Of course we have come, so we believe, a long ways from the backwoods world of the small Chilean community of Esatción El Olivo, controlled by the local wealthy landowner and wine-grower Don Alejo, who has attempted to develop the community because of a new highway which, as in hundreds of such constructions throughout the world, passed by the village, foiling the Don’s aspirations. What remains is a basically abandoned adobe village, whose major businesses and individuals have abandoned it except for the most stubborn and poverty-stricken folk, including the strong-minded owner of a local whorehouse, Japonesita, the daughter of a strong-willed whore and a weakling drag-queen, La Manuela, whom she had seduced in order to win a bet with Don Alejo, granting her possession of the whorehouse. The mother, Japonesa (so named because of her eyes and smile), has died, leaving the odd pairing of a flamenco-dancing queer and his hard-headed business-oriented daughter, with little sexual talent, to continue the business. Together these two “ridiculous failures,” along with their fat whore Lucy and the elderly Cloty, and inducements of the wine they procure from the dangerously “beneficent” Don, offer the town’s only enjoyments and pleasures—a kind of remnant version of what once existed.
     What is amazing about Donoso’s story is how this failing couple, father and daughter, still can draw the desperate truck drivers such as Pablo and even his brother-in-law Octavio, to their doors. From the beginning, we realize that their insubstantial attraction is both a wonder and a damnation, a condition that can only continue to cast them into the hells of their own lives.
      The essential battle of this fiction is played out between the tired and bedraggled fag, La Manuela, pretending feminine beauty and talent where little exists, the brutally vibrant but sexually confused Pablo, and the older Don, determined to buy back the town and all its properties to tear it down in order to create more space for his vineyards. Each of these three figures is fatally attracted to one other in a manner that can only end in their destruction. Don Alejo, who sought out Pablo as a son, forcing him to play with his daughter throughout her childhood before realizing that Pablo is also attracted to his daughter’s dolls, is now dying. Pablo, unhappily married to Octavio’s sister, traveling about the countryside in his red truck for which he has failed to pay the installments, and La Manuela, who attracts Pablo through her humor and sexual enticements, are all caught up in a kind of ménage-a-trois which they cannot even identify, let alone admit. Each pretends love, while hating one another enough to destroy them.
      In the end, although the poor, confused clown, La Manuela suffers a brutal beating and death, the others are also doomed to death and destruction, as Donoso brilliantly intertwines their internal realities: they are all aspects of one another, figures of delusion and hate, figures locked into the same uncircumscribed hell. Even the ancillary figures, Japanesita and the other whores, along with the up-and-coming Octavio are trapped in its remnants. But the saddest thing of all is how the central figures truly do actually love and desire one another without being able to properly express it. Don Alejo, as vile as he is, truly has loved his imaginary “son,” Pablo, kissing the “detestable” fag upon the lips, obviously does desire La Manuela, and La Manuela, would love to be even abused through his sexual acts. Despite the kind of open acceptance of this outsider community, however, their love is simply impermissible, a reminder perhaps of how even as we ourselves grow into a culture more embracing of gay and transgender individuals, how terrified we are all still of our emotions and open expressions of love.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "When Language Doesn't Mean | (on Welty's The Ponder Heart)


when language doesn’t mean
by Douglas Messerli
 
Eudora Welty The Ponder Heart (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954)

The first person narratior of Welty’s novella The Ponder Heart, Edna Earle Ponder, like many of the author’s first person narrator’s—in particular the voice of “Why I Live in the P.O.” and Katie Rainey in The Golden Apples—is a dialect speaker who is also somewhat mentally troubled or at least a bossy gossip, ready to sit down with a stranger and map out the whole town and everyone in it, while being careful to put herself in the best possible position. All three of these characters are humorous, their stories revealing more about their own natures than they perceive. In short, Edna Earle, is an ironic speaker, saying one thing while to the reader/listener revealing something other. Just as a satirist such as Jonathan Swift, Eudora Welty has her characters to say outrageous things without truly meaning it, and it is the ability to understand the difference between saying and meaning that is crucial to the satire.

     Many years back, when I taught my last freshman English course at Temple University, I perceived that irony no longer existed as a concept, as nearly all of my students expressed their outrage that Swift would advocate the eating of Irish children.

     Somewhat taken aback, I drew in a deep breath and attempted to explain to them that in just such statements lay the author’s humor, that he not intended that statement and others like it to be understood literally, but had meant it ironically. I even attempted to read through the passages with them, identifying the tonal shifts of the language which revealed the author’s exaggeration of events. My students stared back with intensely skeptical frowns upon their faces. “Why did he say that then?” one boldly asked.

     What struck me this time rereading Welty’s comic work is just how difficult it now might be to teach it today. Critics responding the original publication found it joyously rich, arguing as did New York Times reviewer V. S. Pritchett, for the author’s “technical skill” in creating “a sardonic comic brio.” While the work may have had its dark moments, accordingly, it was, as he put it, “one of Welty’s lighter works.” Perhaps young students have now regained their sense of humor and rediscovered the meaning of irony, but I somehow doubt it. And, I suggest that the garrulous scold that Edna Earle represents, including the possibility that she is about as “dotty” as the slightly mentally-retarded, but well-meaning and society-loving Uncle Daniel, might present problems for the more literally minded world in which we now exist.

     For Edna Earle, despite all of her seeming self-surety about the world around her, often speaks in a language which does mean what it says. In general, for example, the long tale she tells of her Uncle, on the surface seems a scolding story concerning her somewhat begrudging greediness, hinting that she is disturbed by the man’s tendency to give away everything he owns—a considerable fortune—to others. Yet it is clear despite her statements that she not only dearly loves her well-dressed Uncle—
 
                      You’d know it was Uncle Daniel the minute you saw him. He’s
                      unmistakable. He’s big and well known. He has the Ponder head—
                      large, of course, and well set, with short white hair over it thick
                      and curly, growing down his forehead like a little bib. He has
                      Grandpa’s complexion. And big, forget-me-not blues eyes like
                      mine, and puts on a sweet red bow tie every morning, and carries
                      a large-size Stetson in his hand—always just swept it off to
                     somebody. He dresses fit to kill, you know, in a snow-white suit.

—but, as we perceive throughout this work, she is utterly proud of him. And despite her put-down throughout of Uncle Daniel’s seventeen-year-old wife, Bonnie Dee and the entire Peacock family, we believe her when, late in the book, after Bonnie Dee’s accidental death,  she explains “I didn’t want any harm done to Bonnie Dee now!” Even if she once did wish her harm, Welty suggests, Edna Earle is not vengeful and has no intention of ruining the decedent’s reputation.

     Structurally, accordingly, Edna Earle’s general conversation seems to run in one direction—which V. S. Prtichett summarized as bossy, but also might be described as mean-spirited and selfish—while the actual meaning behind her words is contradicted, which saves the narrator from the audience’s wrath. Edna Earle may be “bossy” and a “scold,” but she is fun to listen to; presumably the visitor to her big Beulah Hotel, just as I would, joyfully waiting out her discombobulated story.

    However, there are numerous other occasions in which the narrator and other figures of Welty’s tale speak violent and racist sentiments that seem to require a kind of different response. Within the first few pages of tale, she seemingly threatens the hotel visitor with a sentence of some outrageousness: “And listen: if you read, you’ll put your eyes out. Let’s just talk.” Presumably, she means that the light is not bright enough for reading, but the way she suddenly shifts to the emphatic command from her story-telling, it is almost as she were declaring that she would out put his eyes if he dared to prefer reading over listening. And a few moments later, she again interrupts herself to tell him: “I like to size people up: I’m sizing you up now,” surely putting her listener once again in an uncomfortable position.

      Of her own father, who has evidently left his wife and daughter early on, Edna Earle makes clear the danger of even asking: “nobody ever makes the mistake of asking about him.” And Edna Earle continues to threaten her listener by placing him in the category of other hotel guests: “And it’s true that often the people that come in off the road and demand a room right this minute, or ask you ahead what you have for dinner, are not the people you’d care to spend the rest of your life with.”

      Soon after, her tale turns even darker, with an almost cannibalistic metaphor; speaking of Uncle Daniel she tells the traveler: “The sight of a stranger was always meat and drink to him,” continuing with a statement that unintentionally compares herself to the constant speaker: “The stranger don’t have to open his mouth. Uncle Daniel is ready to do all the talking.” Nearly as ghoulish is her remembrance of Miss Teacake Magee—the widow to whom she and her grandfather want Daniel to marry—and her former husband: “A passenger train hit him. That shows you how long ago his time was.” The gruesome death, followed immediately with a phrase beginning “That shows you,” seems to presume a relational cause and effect where clearly there is none. And an vampirish image is brought up in her description of the county fair where Uncle Daniel becomes enamored of the motorcycle racer, Intrepid Elsie Fleming: “So the only thing to be thankful for is he [Uncle Daniel] didn’t try to treat Intrepid Elsie Fleming—she might have bitten him.” As she responds upon first sighting Uncle Daniel’s wife, Bonnie Dee: “I could tell by her little coon eyes, she was shallow as they come.”

      The user of these somewhat dangerous challenges does not comprehend language as a method of inquiry (she allows no one else to speak) perceiving as she does nearly everything as a series of “directions.” As she puts it, she likes to read “directions,” how to do things, perceiving language as a series of commands rather than—despite her family name—of “ponderings” or questioning. As the events of Daniel’s unpredictable behavior grow out of hand, accordingly, so too does Edna Earle’s language grow darker and more frightening. Responding to her Black servant Narciss—who is invited to the farm where Uncle Daniel and Bonnie Dee plan to live—the narrator lashes out against Blacks in general “You can’t trust a one of them: A Negro we’d had her whole life long, older by far than I was, Grandma raised her from a child and brought her in and out of the field to the kitchen and taught her everything she knew.” Later, the gentle Welty even allows her character to use the word “nigger.” Yet, once more, it is not quite all there is to Edna Earle, who later, after the trial, rehires Narciss back at the Beulah, and who explains the woman’s fear of thunderstorms to the listener.

     She does not even totally blame Bonnie Dee leaving her uncle, the young girl having been, as she explains, “come up from up from the country—and before she knew it, she was right back in the country.” But a few sentences later, she hints at violence: “I don’t blame Bonnie Dee, don’t blame her for a minute. I could just beat her on the head, that’s all.”

     In a book in which dozens of these contradictory sentences are expressed, perhaps the most startling of her comments, and the one reveals that for Edna Earle what is said is not what is meant, is her completely placid testifying that before Bonnie Dee’s death, Uncle Daniel had uttered the sentence to his wife:  “I am going to kill you, if you don’t take me back.” The courtroom conversation is worth repeating:

                      “Have there been instances in your presence when Mr. Daniel
                      Ponder said those very words to Miss Bonnie Dee?”
                         “Plenty,” I says. “And with no results whatever. Or when
                      she said it to him either.’
                      ……
                         “But whatever and whenever the occasion for that remark,
                      it was a perfectly innocent remark? says De Yancey.
                         “I should hope so.”
                         “So that when Mr. Daniel Ponder sent word to Miss Bonnie
                      Dee that he was going to kill her if she didn’t take him back,
                      in your estimation it meant nothing like a real threat?”
                          “Meant he got it straight from Grandma,” I says. “That’s
                      what it means. She said ‘I’m going to kill you’ every other
                      breath to him—she raised him. Gentlest woman on the face
                      of the earth. ‘I’ll beat your brains out’—Mercy! How that
                      does bring Grandma back.’”

     This scene is at the heart of Edna Earle’s strange pattern of saying outrageous, violent, and racist comments. For she lives in just such a society, the 1950s Mississippi back country where behavior is not always reflected in the frightful language in which the small-town folk express themselves, a world unaware of its own hateful behavior because it cannot comprehend that language determines reality or, at least, that language has everything to do with acts. What Grandpa Ponder admits about his son, “When the brains were being handed around, my son Daniel was standing behind the door,” might be also said of Edna Earle. At the center of the Ponder world the heart, unthinking action, controls any possible thoughts. Language and meaning seldom meet, but that very misconnect is precisely what makes this tale so wonderfully humorous, even if, underlying our laughter, we perceive it as so very sad. The Ponder Heart is about murderers who destroy through their words rather than with their hands.

Los Angeles, April 22, 2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Horse Sense (on Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule)



horse sense

Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule (Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company, 2010)

 
The dark horse winner of the 2010 National Book Awards, Jaimy Gordon's sixth book of fiction, is, like most of her others, a brilliant piece of writing. One can only wonder how Gordon, a professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, has come up with so much information about the dirty world of cheap horse racing—where horses on their last legs are not just raced but may be claimed by others for a small price—that we totally believe in her credibility and her having captured these small-time gamblers' and mobsters' voices.
      The very list of characters, Medicine Ed, Kidstuff, lady "gyp" Deucey Gifford, Suitcase Smithers, Two-Tie, and Joe Dale Bigg, sounds right out of Damon Runyon. Yet, while Runyon's figures, all obvious stereotypes of street-smart hipsters, seem bigger than life, Gordon's characters seem relatively "real," and, in that respect, involve us emotionally. I felt real caring for the aging Medicine Ed, and was almost shocked at Two-Tie's murder, where he dies gently stroking his dog Elizabeth's fur. In part, it is Gordon's ability to capture the rhythms and patterns of their speech. Consider, for example, a paragraph from one of the numerous chapters written from the voice of Medicine Ed:

                       The way Medicine Ed hear it, Joe Dale Bigg run the horse off
                       and so he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's, wasn't nobody's
                       horse right now. A Speculation grandson and looking for a home!
                       Jesus put me wise. Now, what was the name of this boy? Medicine
                       Ed couldn't recall. For all his fancy blood he had an ankle almost as
                       big as he was, but that wasn't what cause him to lose his home. It
                       was Bigg, Joe Dale Bigg's boy, one day when Biggy was helping
                       Fletcher the dentist in the back of the horse's stall and the horse
                       pinned and about killed him. Biggy what you can simple, a gorilla-size
                       child-for-life, and now he was back from the industrial school from
                       Pruntytown. Joe Dale Big thought he better be shed of the animal
                       before something go down.

     It's all there in the Gertrude Stein-like reversals of logic ("he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's"), the localisms ("Jesus put me wise"), the exaggerated metaphors ("he had an ankle almost as big as he was"), and the colloquialisms ("before something go down"): real horse sense. Medicine Ed speaks like a true human being might in an original language (although I do keep hearing Walter Brennan behind my back) that Gordon has perfectly rendered.
     Into this dark underside of the gambling world come two relatively bright young figures, Tommy Hansel, an ex-car salesman, and his new girl, Maggie Koderer, who previously wrote on food for a small city newspaper. Neither seems to have much experience with horses, but Hansel, who has somehow gotten his hands on several horses, intends to enter them each in races, win quickly and get out before anyone has dreamed of claiming them. On the surface the animals look worn out and not worth much, but Hansel, in a slow descent into horse-racing madness, truly believes in luck. He is convincing enough that Maggie has gone along for the ride, intensely caring for the horses, mucking out their stalls, brushing, feeding, taping, and sleeping with them as if she has done it all her life. She's also a quick learner, and easily picks up methods from Medicine Ed and others on how to better care for them.
     The Lord of Misrule is organized around four races, each named after one of the central horses: Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule. Some win, some lose, some even tragically die, but the real heart of the fiction concerns how Maggie becomes increasingly woven into the lives of everyone around her. A frank and openly sexual woman, Maggie—the sister of Ursie, the central character in Gordon's previous work, Bogeywoman—discovers, both comically and somewhat tragically, that the individuals with whom she now shares her life embody simple humanity, comic stupidity, hate, madness, and finally, murderous passions that stir up a tornado of emotions while proving to the reader that Maggie has more courage and pluck than anyone else.
     Although, by book's end, Maggie returns to her absurd job of writing Menus by Margaret for the Winchester Mail, she remains in nearly everyone's memory; certainly she will never leave mine. Medicine Ed, perhaps Gordon's most memorable male figure in this fiction, again quietly sums it up:

                           Now that she was gone and out of his bidness, he had to give
                           this much to the frizzly hair girl, she must had did something
                           right with all that modern science she use to make it up as she
                           go along. Damn if Medicine Ed be caught petting and nursering
                           an animal like that, but he had taken sometimes to rubbing Pelter
                           up with cloths after he worked, like a young horse. Couldn't hurt,
                           and they had the time. The horse gone good for fifteen hundred,
                           and sometimes when they walking the shedrow like now eye-balling
                           each other like now, he was careful to remember into the horse that
                           the Mound has claimers at 1250 too. It's still another place left
                           for them two to go, even if it is down.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2011
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, Vol 20, no. 2 (Summer 2011).