Monthly Archives: March 2008

Gary Lutz, “Waking Hours”

A guy takes a job teaching middles managers how to give out awards. Or something.

(from Stories in the Worst Way)

This one’s kinda murky, and besides, it’s hard to concentrate right now. My captor — whose attempt to force me read a Henry James story was thwarted by the fact that book was smelly and yellowy, with really small type — is asleep after her fourth consecutive night drinking to excess. As usual, her bedtime ritual included rum, ginger beer and incessant and pointless listmaking, insisting I assess the day’s events and encounters. Now, as she slumbers, I plot my escape.

Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener"

An eccentric clerk would rather not do anything that he’s told to do.

(from 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology)

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I now believe my captor to be forcing me to adhere to some pre-planned regimen of what can best be described as Clerk Fiction. While I enjoyed this story quite a bit, I fear what lies ahead for me. How many rumorous, claustrophobic tales of politeness and bureaucracy will be subjected to? What happens when this subgenre has exhausted itself? What will my captor — who, as I type this, is spinning through her iPod, declaring one song her favorite of all time, then another, though few are allowed to reach the one minute mark — what will she do next?

Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat"

A poor, picked-on clerk needs a new coat.

(from The Art of the Short Story)

So, in a certain department serves a certain official—not a very prominent official, it must be allowed—short of stature, somewhat pockmarked, rather red-haired, rather blind, judging from appearances, with a small bald spot on his forehead, with wrinkles on his cheeks, with a complexion of the sort called sanguine. … How could he help it? The Petersburg climate was responsible for that. As for his rank—for with us the rank must be stated first of all—he was what is called a perpetual titular councillor, over which, as is well known, some writers make merry and crack their jokes, as they have the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back.

I am being held against my will in a comfortable apartment in St. Louis and being forced to read stories and listen to the same Fake Project song again and again. (This is much better than my captor’s DMX phase, to which I awoke yesterday.) On top of the indignity of required reading while on vacation, I am being forced to state in no uncertain terms that this story is brilliant, from the tiniest phrase to the overarching plot, and moreover I’m being coerced into affirming the brilliance of the recommendation as well. Thank you wise captor for making me read a story you know to be so excellent that I dare not disagree. This story is all over the web. If you too are being forced to read it, go Google Gogol.

Steven Millhauser, "The Room in the Attic"

A boy strikes up a friendship with a girl who lives in total darkness.

(from Dangerous Laughter)

Kick ass. This was long and crazy one. The main guy isn’t an unreliable narrator in the more common sense, that you can’t count on his judgments. No, this kid is just a bad reporter. Ask some question, man! Do some investigating. Tell us what you mean when you say confusing things. No, don’t. The story’s better this way, maybe? No. I wanna know.

Read this one on the plane to St. Louis.

Desmond Warzel, "Wikihistory"

Time travelers report back on their missions to kill and unkill Hitler.

(from Abyss and Apex)

At 18:06:59, BigChill wrote:
Take it easy on the kid, SilverFox316; everybody kills Hitler on their first trip. I did. It always gets fixed within a few minutes, what’s the harm?

This story is hilarious and a little bit brilliant. Seriously.Read it here.

Jhumpa Lahiri, "Hell-Heaven"

When Pranab Kaku stops visiting, it’s tough on the the family.

(from Unaccustomed Earth)

I remember vividly the sound of his exuberant laughter and the sight of his lanky body slouched or sprawled on the dull, mismatched furniture that had come with our apartment. He had a striking face, with a high forehead and a thick mustache, and overgrown, untamed hair that my mother said made him look like the American hippies who were everywhere in those days. His long legs jiggled rapidly up and down wherever he sat, and his elegant hands trembled when he held a cigarette between his fingers, tapping the ashes into a teacup that my mother began to set aside for this exclusive purpose. Though he was a scientist by training, there was nothing rigid or predictable or orderly about him. He always seemed to be starving, walking through the door and announcing that he hadn’t had lunch, and then he would eat ravenously, reaching behind my mother to steal cutlets as she was frying them, before she had a chance to set them properly on a plate with red-onion salad. In private, my parents remarked that he was a brilliant student, a star at Jadavpur who had come to M.I.T. with an impressive assistantship, but Pranab Kaku was cavalier about his classes, skipping them with frequency. “These Americans are learning equations I knew at Usha’s age,” he would complain. He was stunned that my second-grade teacher didn’t assign any homework, and that at the age of seven I hadn’t yet been taught square roots or the concept of pi.

Beautiful and insightful story. Read it here.

William H. Gass, "A Little History of Modern Music"

A professor gives a whimsical and winding lecture that’s supposedly about music.

(from O. Henry Prize Stories 2008)

What a nutty, wild ride. Smart yes, but also really insane. But plausibly so, perhaps. It’s funny that the first sentence is the only real exposition, a little scene setting, and it’s fairly useless. The most boring sentence in the piece, but maybe that’s because most of these sentences are hilariously entwined vines, marvelous for their organic and structures. I think I’ll be thinking about this story for a while.
You can actually listen to the author read some of the story

Kevin Brockmeier, "A Fable With a Photograph of a Glass Mobile on the Wall"

A guy enjoys a peaceful life making wooden furniture until a magazine article draws unwanted attention.

(from The View from the Seventh Layer)

So, yeah,
after the article is published the phone won’t stop ringing, everybody either wants in on his action or wants to buy furniture. He can’t concentrate. So he takes a four-month job teaching a class on woodworking and the house he stays in has pictures of a boy that can see him. I guess this is a fable because it’s told simply and gently, not because there’s any kind of lesson to be learned here. That’s fine.

Donald Ray Pollock, "Dynamite Hole"

A boy dodges the draft by hiding out in a rural wasteland.

(from Knockemstiff)

As sick and uncomfortable as this story was, it was also kind of entertaining. The narrator is a horrible bastard, not of the love-to-hate variety, but it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He’s a reliable narrator and an amoral ignorant monster.

Tobias Wolff, "That Room"

A high school kid is proud of his first real adult job baling hay.

(from Our Story Begins)

Our older narrator knows things that he, as the young protagonist, was still to green to figure out. This takes a steady hand, storytelling-wise, and of course Wolff has that. I particularly enjoyed the way the narrative screeched to a halt for a detour into something more poetic and far-reaching. This story reminded me of Paul F. Tompkins rant on how people who go berry picking are ripping off his idea for a migrant worker fantasy camp. It’s really funny, and thematically similar to “That Room” in that there are the people for whom the job is necessary and people who need it. It’s a story about understanding privilege.