September 2007

Mark Edmund Doten

fiction

One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies by Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth

JOY WILLIAMS ONCE OBSERVED THAT

Jane Bowles’ characters “think continuously, obsessively, but have no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.” This formulation is turned inside out in McSweeney’s three-volume, 289-page release, One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box, which brings together collections of short-short fiction by Dave Eggers (How the Water Feels to the Fishes), Sarah Manguso (Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape) and Deb Olin Unferth (Minor Robberies). Here the obsessive nature of the narrative voices is more often than not a straight jacket, positioning the characters so firmly in their particular worlds that the struggle to live and to feel something, anything more than what life now provides them, is doomed from the outset, or in any case radically circumscribed by their modes of thought.

THE desire to feel something

is frequently played out in these stories through attempts to build and maintain relationships with boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, horses, birds. And the concomitant analyses of these relationships, by means of which the characters attempt to determine how and why things went wrong, or how and why they’re going wrong, or will, soon enough, go wrong.

LYDIA DAVIS RULES THE ROOST, SOMETIMES (1)

Eggers notes in his acknowledgements that several of his stories “might generously be called homages” to Davis. Fair enough; Davis’s shadow falls heavily on all three volumes in the box. Lydia Davis is, of course, a wonderfully various author -- which is, as Eggers suggests, half his debt to her; she reminds writers “what a piece of prose is and is not obligated to do, and at what length.” But Davis is most clearly evident not so much in her variety as in her singularity: her devotion to very short prose works that track a line of thought clinically, obsessively, leaving us, in spite of the apparent logic of the sentence-to-sentence connections, in a world far weirder than the one we set out from, or thought we were setting out from, often a space of sadness and psychic collapse, or in the dead-end (and refuge) of terminal forgetting. Is this some sort of a trick? Did we have to end up so sadly? Well, maybe yes and probably yes, 145 Stories instructs us, with wit and style and -- because this is McSweeney’s and we’re all human and doing our best, at times -- a reasonable smattering of hope.

LYDIA DAVIS RULES THE ROOST, SOMETIMES (2)

Eggers’ “Older Than” is one of many bulletins sent from Davis’s linguistic prison house. The story begins, “When you have a sibling and that sibling is older than you, often, when you are a boy and wanting to break into the world and put it in your pocket, you want to be older than this sibling.” The nine sentences that make up the balance of the story examine this statement, first the impossibility of being older than, then it’s inevitability, and the lethality of such a wish.

SHORT-SHORT STORIES: A GREAT VEHICLE FOR ENTERING INTO DIALOG WITH THE OLD DEAD

Manguso condenses several dozen pages of Proust’s thoughts on subjectivity and the weirdness of waking into a paragraph about some guys named Nick and Mike. Unferth condenses several hundred pages of Proust’s thoughts on subjectivity and his love for Albertine into a two-page story about cigarettes. Eggers trims the Inferno to a paragraph that digs deep beneath the earth’s crust: “Next to the stone and the fire are the heroes who would not listen. Below them are the heroes who listened too much. Then there is a layer of oil and diamonds and silver, and a series of pockets where they keep the women who shook their babies and told no one and then ran.” There are other, deeper layers.

THE SLIP CASE OF 145 STORIES (MUSICIANS AND SMOKE AND A WILDERNESS STATION) IS SO BEAUTIFUL THAT

this guy I know said he wished it was as big as a house. Then he’d live in it.

OBSESSIVE THINKING

Obsessive thinking, for all three authors, can be a reaction to a life over which the narrator has no control; but quite often it comes out the other side, and, like the serial killer in The Man Without Qualities, the narrators here repeatedly come to the horrified conclusion that their words or thoughts of minor rituals control the world. In Manguso, the germ of a killing is contained in a grade-school joke: “it is delightful fun to pretend Annie and my grandfather are the same age, as they have the same birthday, March 28, though Annie was born in 1974 and my grandfather in 1914.” When the grandfather passes away, Annie follows fast on his heels, and the narrator blames herself and her bit of “delightful fun.” The title of the Eggers story, “On Making Him a Good Man by Calling Him a Good Man,” encapsulates another such dilemma -- can a few off-handed words really transform another’s personality? and if so, why the hell is my life so hard? And, finally, in Unferth, the mere thought of a story about an ax explodes into a multiplicity of possibilities: murder and romance and racial hatred, etc. That’s what you get for thinking about axes.

HARD TO ADMIT AND HARDER TO ESCAPE IS COMPRISED OF 81 NUMBERED PARAGRAPHS

All are narrated by an “I” that seems to be more or less consistent; taken together they could easily be a novel, the story of a woman moving from childhood to early adulthood. The narrator is precocious, scared of the dark, gets cold easily, and constantly judges people (“One girl embodies all the qualities I most hate: stupidity, lassitude, cruelty and ugliness”). Her scheme to get back at a bully backfire, as does her scheme to get back at her best friend. Her teachers are more or less terrible. Of a science teacher she concludes: “I have nothing charitable to say about the man. Perhaps he’s dead.”

Elsewhere she says: “I find myself among unhappy people.”

Manguso’s collection is the kindest and most assured of the three. After everything, she remains more or less good-natured, and the wide-open spaces between the stories are friendly.

MY FAVORITE MANGUSO STORY IS #15

I gobble my pancake and clean my plate before our friend’s mother returns from the kitchen with the next one. When she reappears and asks who needs a pancake, I raise my hand again. The ruse works! The pancake is deposited on my plate, and I eat it hungrily. Some of my friends, seated in front of their empty plates, notice and look at me, not understanding what has made me take a second pancake before anyone else gets even one. I don’t understand it either. Since then I have come up with the following explanations: My parents never taught me proper manners; I was an only child and therefore unused to sharing; I wasn’t fed enough at home; I was a gluttonous child; I didn’t think life would bring anything better than those pancakes and was doing what anyone would do if presented with the greatest possible pleasure.

DEB OLIN UNFERTH IS FRIGHTENINGLY GOOD AT THE FOLLOWING TYPES OF STORIES:

Vacation stories, moving stories, boyfriend-in-another-city stories and home-for-the-holidays stories, among others. In general, the narrator has a sister and/or a boyfriend. These narrators and their sisters and/or boyfriends go many places for many reasons. In unnamed foreign locales, or in big tents set up in the living rooms of neighbors, bad things happen, and they’re funny. People feel bad, and treat each other badly. They are robbed frequently and multiply, or a passport goes missing. The missing passport, like the ax mentioned above, unleashes a seemingly endless series of possibilities (Unferth is a believer in the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics): “It was not robbed from her hotel room along with everything else. Or not her hotel room, but her person on the train. Or not the train, but the locked box or the bag. Or it happened in the hallway, or on the stairs. Or she never received it in the first place and had to call after it like a lost dog.” etc.

In another story, during a bike ride, several distinct pasts and futures overlap with the present.

In another story, she has an impossible number of boyfriends -- dozens, at least -- and “There is no one she loves more than another.”

In another story, she declares: “No law applies to us. No decision has been made about our destiny. We do not complete sentences here… We are a process, an action, a movement, a verb (not a noun), a subjunctive (not a preterit).” In other words, we could repeat after Beckett, that “all I saw was a big pale blur, just another big pale blur.” But the language is so precise! All three collections are marked by the use of precise language to captures the imprecisions of memory and relationships, and the imprecision with which we integrate these memories and relationships into our lives.

HEISENBERG

Any attempt to pin things down definitely -- geography or relationships or the self -- is a trap (this is true for all three authors). As the boyfriend in Unferth’s “There, There” observes: “If there’s any authority on here and there she [the narrator] would be it.” The narrator replies that she “only knows what it is like for her here, not what it is like for him there. He is he and she is she and she can’t be him to know his there. And besides, he’s talking to her in a tone she hasn’t heard before so there’s even more the here and there and her and him than just that space between then.” The story goes on like that.

Is this why the characters in Minor Robberies are always on the go? To escape these lives they can’t make sense of, in which any final understanding is endlessly complicated and deferred? Or is it something else altogether? In his first letter to Milena Jesenká, Kafka wrote: “do you perhaps enjoy foreignness for its own sake? (Which might be a bad sign by the way, a sign that such enjoyment should not exist.)”

“DEB OLIN UNFERTH” BY DEB OLIN UNFERTH

begins, “No one in Wyoming thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup.” Then: “No one in Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, or Kentucky thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup. Nobody in Morocco, Hungary, or anywhere in the Sahara thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup. Nobody in Mexico.” Etc.

It may be a cliché of book reviewing to say “I haven’t laughed so hard since…” but in this case it’s true. Prior to this story, I hadn’t laughed so hard – or, more precisely, giggled so heinously – at a piece of writing since this.

LINES FROM ELIZABETH BISHOP THAT I BET UNFERTH LIKES AND SOMETIMES THINKS ABOUT

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

THERE’S THE “ZINGER”!

Eggers has several “punch line” stories. This is a risky form, exerting a gravitational tug toward the arch and misanthropic (Raymond Carver’s shortest, worst story, “Popular Mechanics,” was of this sort, a shrill yawp of a thing yoked to an unforgivably glib last line about the maiming or killing of a baby); happily, Eggers is a natural vaudevillian -- a song and dance man, to quote Bob Dylan -- with a well-lubricated sense of comic timing and more than enough empathy to make the jokes fly, mostly. No good quoting -- from the ones that work, anyhow -- it’d just give away the game. Suffice it to say that the perfidy of birds, the anger of horses and the mysteries of analog sound reproduction are all summarily dealt with (rim shot, rim shot, rim shot). The story that doesn’t come off here, “The Bounty,” deals in a paragraph with a woman reflecting on the quantity and variety of foodstuffs on her counter, the everyday luxuries afforded to the average American consumer. The story ends: “She does not deserve this, she thought. It really isn’t fair, she thought. You’re correct, God said, and then struck dead 65,000 Malaysians.” This story could serve as a mini-indictment of the whole 145 Stories project -- who gives a shit about these navel-gazing westerners and their neuroses when people somewhere else are dying! at a precipitous rate, you jerks! -- but the 145 Stories is so good that one is quick to forgive it for what it takes on. Not that I should feel compelled to run around offering moral absolution to works of fiction, but is demanding some sort of response here by raising an issue that the box is otherwise ducks (even Unferth, for all her travels, only deals with this sort of thing in a pretend sense). Enough, enough. My back-of-the-envelope Moral Calculus™ indicates that Eggers has built up sufficient ethico-literary geopolitical capital with the astonishing What is the What to cover such losses until at least the year 2013.

(Manguso and Unferth also have punch line stories.)

LYDIA DAVIS RULES THE ROOST, SOMETIMES (3)

There is much in Eggers (and the others, but let’s stick with him) that echoes Davis, but the sensibility is his, and thus more hopeful and yearning and silly. The title story of Davis’s collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, runs, in its entirety: “That Scotland has so few trees.” This is very funny and very bleak and also something of FUCK YOU to the reader. Which is fine. Readers need a good FUCK YOU every once in while. But Eggers is not a FUCK YOU author, and if there is a key to his volume of the box it is perhaps to be found in his title story, “How the Water Feels to the Fishes”:

At night, when it’s very very cold, the water is like cracked glass. Or honey. Or forgiveness, the say, ha ha. When the fishes answer these questions -- which they are happy to do -- they also ask why. They are curious, fish are, and thus they ask, Why? Why do you want to know what the water feels like to the fishes?

The fishes turn the question back on the human questioner: “What does the air feel like to you?”

For all my earlier talk of “linguistic straightjackets” and etc., here the play of language affords us not only pleasure but hope: that connection is possible, that our feelings can be communicated, that we are not alone, at all, ever.

FORGETTING

Everyone is forgetting in these books all the time.

Eggers: “Tell me you secrets, she tells her friends. Tell me anything, she says, because I will forget it all.”

Unferth: “We were already in South America for another reason, which we had forgotten.”

Manguso: “When we finally graduate, I gratefully stop telling jokes and forget most of my repertoire.”

Eggers: “She could not remember where she ate dinner the night before, or whom she had met last week in that walnut-paneled room.”

Unferth: “It’s odd which times she remembers, and which she does not.”

Manguso: “It isn’t until I read the pages that I remember it’s true.”

IN WHICH CONSCIOUSNESS MAKES LARRY DAVIDS OF US ALL

145 Stories is scary, but more than it’s scary, it’s funny. A number of stories read like mini-episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. You know the formula: initial mistake. Attempt to ameliorate said mistake, which creates more problems. Attempts to fix these problems, and etc. Here’s the start of a Manguso story -- # 72 -- that I love:

“I feel uneasy around a certain acquaintance and decide to solve the problem by spending more time with him. It doesn’t help. I initiate a lunch date, then a dinner date. We meet for drinks a few times, but even being drunk doesn’t seem to put either of us at ease. By now it’s obvious we have a real problem on our hands. We begin sleeping together, but even that doesn’t feel right. We move in together.” And etc.

“HIS NAME IS GUNTHER AND HIS FACE LOOKS LIKE SAMMY DAVIS, JR., IF SDJ WERE WHITE AND LESS HANDSOME”

That’s from Egger’s “Sooner.” Awesome.

UNFERTH SUMS THINGS UP:

“And then the younger said the elder really was so awful and wasn’t it awful to be such an awful person and to have to be with oneself all the time. And then the sisters sat, not speaking, for the rest of the meal. The waiter came around and cleared their plates of barracuda and rice.”

THE LAST MULTI-VOLUME SLIP-CASED RELEASE FROM MCSWEENEY’S WAS

William T Volmann’s 7-volume, 3,299 page, Rising Up and Rising Down.

Isn’t that cool?

One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies by Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth
McSweeney's
ISBN: 193241682X