Steven Millhauser: A Voice in the Night

Deal Me In – Week 35

2♥  2♥  2♥  2♥  2♥  2♥  2♥  2♥

The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration.  Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night.  When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

17165886

It’s Week 35 and I’ve drawn my third wild card for my Deal Me In 2015 project and I’ve kept with my pattern so far this year of reading a story by Steven Millhauser for my wild cards.  A thanks goes out to Katherine at The Writerly Reader for introducing me to Millhauser last year. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in the 2013 edition of The Best American Short Stories.

Of the handful of Millhauser stories I’ve read, “A Voice in the Night” is my favorite. Millhauser always seems to accompany his stories with an unusual structure, but a structure that he makes work – a structure with which lesser authors would fumble.

“A Voice in the Night” rotates three parts numerous times over the course of the story.  With Part 1, Millhauser retells the Old Testament story of the prophet Samuel, as a boy, being called by God in the night.  Part 2 brings the reader to another boy in Stratford, Connecticut in 1950 – also thinking he might get called by God in spite of the naysaying of his secular Jewish father.  Part 3 blends everything together as the boy is now a 68 year-old man looking back on his childhood, his career as a writer and his faith or perhaps lack thereof.

I say “perhaps” a lack of faith because that was the puzzling part of the story.  Did the writer believe in God or not? Evidence that he didn’t might be found in the story; however, it’s not a cold, hard evidence. He talks about God and to God and it could be highly possible that his talk to God is simply a way of saying “I don’t believe in you”. If the writer waited for a call he didn’t get as a boy and thus became a writer, evidence does exist in the story that writing was his calling – but it was a calling that didn’t mesh with faith – or did it?

The writer ends with a sort of conclusion:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled with a book in my mind more than Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman.  With all of the controversy surrounding it’s publication and the novel’s subsequent revelations, I finally came to the conclusion that I’m glad it was published.

24817626

During the first 100 pages, I couldn’t help but wonder what all of the fuss was about.  It’s as well-written as Lee’s first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird and it contains the return of Jean Louise (Scout) as an adult to Maycomb, Alabama and a lot of wonderful musings and flashbacks that don’t really have a plot.

The reader discovers the intelligent, independent and quirky woman Scout has become “…living in sin in New York City” as she puts it.  One minute she gives a quaint picture of her home town:

…Maycomb’s proportion of professional people ran high: one went to Maycomb to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his mules vetted, his soul saved, his mortgage extended.

The next minute she gives the reader both cynical and sentimental all blended together when she describes her visit to church:

There’s nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home, thought Jean Louise.  Any sense of isolation she may have had withered and died in the presence of some two hundred sinners earnestly requesting to be plunged beneath a red, redeeming flood. While offering to the Lord the results of Mr. Cowpers’s hallucination, or declaring that it was Love that lifted her, Jean Louise shared the warmness that prevails among diverse individuals who find themselves in the same boat for one hour each week.

But getting to see Jean Louise all grown up comes at the cost of tarnishing the sterling reputation of one of American Literatures greatest father figures, Atticus Finch.  Believe it or not, I seriously considered Atticus as the name for one of my kids (it didn’t happen). My instinct tells me that Harper Lee always intended for Scout to be the heroine of this story. As much of a let-down it may be for readers to discover that Atticus has views that could be less than noble, for me it was worth the read to discover that Jean Louise is just as disappointed.

For all that it’s worth, I think that I can still consider To Kill A Mockingbird as a work that stands alone and consider Go Set A Watchman as simply a work that this literature and history buff finds intriguing.

Ann Beattie: Janus

Deal Me In – Week 34

J♦  J♦  J♦  J♦  J♦  J♦  J♦  J♦

In Ann Beattie’s short story “Janus”, Andrea is infatuated with a bowl.  As a real estate agent, she takes her bowl with her when she shows a house, placing it strategically as though it belonged to the owners.  She credits some of her success as a realtor to the bowl. There is nothing supernatural with the bowl. It simply is unique and gives character to a room when placed there:

She had a very profitable year selling real estate.  Word spread, and she had more clients than she felt comfortable with.  She had the foolish thought that if only the bowl were an animate object she could thank it.

I have to hand it to Beattie for telling a larger story with a short amount of words and minute details.  As the reader finishes the story, they understand the bowl came from Andrea’s lover that was not her husband.  Much of the information I read about this story places the relationship with the lover during the same time in which Andrea is married.  It’s possible I could have missed something but I didn’t see any evidence of that.  Andrea’s marriage does not appear to have major problems, either, with the exception of perhaps – the bowl.

131146

The title of the story also warranted some research.  According to Wikipedia, Janus is the Roman god of transition represented by bridges, doorways, staircases – and I guess in the case of this story – a bowl.  Usually Janus is represented by a man with two faces, one looking forward and one looking back. It’s not difficult to apply the title to Andrea’s situation.

I read this nice, but odd, little story when I selected the Jack of Diamonds for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.

Redeployment by Phil Klay

18114068

There’s a perversity in me that, when I talk to conservatives, makes me want to bash the war and, when I talk to liberals, defend it.

The above quotation from the narrator of the short story “Psychological Operations” included in Phil Klay’s National Book Award winning short story collection Redeployment can sum up much of the tone in all of these stories.  Klay, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, gives his military characters the determination to do the jobs they are assigned to do without hesitation. It’s the aftermath, the deeper why’s and why not’s, that constitute the struggles in these stories.

As with most short story collections, some of them are better than others.  Klay deftly uses humor in “After Action Report” as a soldier takes credit for killing the first enemy at the request of the soldier who actually did it. Trying to pretend he is in the head of his buddy, the “imposter” goes through counseling and discussions with a priest in order to honor his friend’s request.

The Marine verteran narrator in “Unless It’s A Sucking Chest Wound” ponders his reasons for going into public service as a lawyer instead of becoming a corporate lawyer in a large firm.  Through flashbacks, his experiences in Iraq weigh in on his decisions as well as those back home who have difficulty understanding what he experienced.

Klay’s accomplishment stems from being able to make his characters’ struggles universal while always keeping the men and women he writes about firmly military. The connection between Marine and civilian makes it’s best appearance when describing the return home of a fallen soldier in the book’s final paragraph:

And as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still, just as we had in Fallujah.  And they would have put it on a C-130 to Kuwait.  And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait.  And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base.  Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.

Bradbury of the Month: August – The Exiles

For the August edition of Bradbury of the Month, I read another of Bradbury’s literature-laced stories, “The Exiles”.  I first heard of this story from Jay over at Bibliophilopolis.

In the year 2120, horror stories have been banned and most books destroyed. This includes the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. These authors, along with their imaginary creations, live in exile on Mars.  As a rocket ship from Earth travels toward Mars, the three witches from MacBeth attempt to prevent it’s arrival.  Poe takes center stage in the group of authors as he discusses the possibility of no longer existing.

I enjoyed the touch of humor as Dickens continuously insists he is not a writer of horror stories even if ghosts occasionally showed up in his writing.

50014

As I’ve come to expect, Bradbury writes incredible descriptions expecially of Poe, himself:

He was like a satan of some lost, dark cause, a general arrived from a derelict invasion.  His silky, soft black mustache was worn away by his musing lips.

As the battle to live takes on epic proportions, the reader begins to see where Bradbury sees true horror:

And there were hating serpents and angry demons and fiery bronze dragons and spitting vipers and trembling witches like the barbs and nettles and thorns and all the vile flotsam and jetsam of the retreating sea of imagination, left on the melancholy shore, whining and frothing and spitting.

As Jay mentioned in his post, it’s easy to see in “The Exiles” the beginnings of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.

James Thurber: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Deal Me In – Week 33

4♣  4♣  4♣  4♣  4♣  4♣  4♣  4♣

pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep

So goes one of the machines in Walter Mitty’s daydreams from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, a story that I feel as though I’m the last person in the world to read.  I selected it for Week 33 of my Deal Me In Short Story project when I drew the Four of Clubs. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

18992152

Poor Mrs. Mitty – she is cursed with a husband who has an imagination. Walter’s mind wanders all over the place while he is running errands or doing other mundane but necessary daily tasks. I’m not sure of Walter Mitty’s age; however, he has to be too old to be pretending in the manner that he does.

I feel a strong sense of sympathy and respect for Walter Mitty.

I’ve read more of Kurt Vonnegut’s work than I have of James Thurber’s (as of right now anyway) but I can’t help but compare the two authors.  They both tend to look at and make sense of the world with eyes that are different than most people and at the same time make most people think “He’s got a point”.

And, of course, in a classic and timeless manner, both authors are very funny.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

In Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters get paid to kill people in 1850’s California.  Eli, the novel’s narrator, wonders if he can’t get something better out of life.  Charlie, on the other hand, remains savvy and shrewd knowing this is what they are supposed to do.

From the beginning, I kept thinking that this would be the perfect movie for Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s hilarious and dark at the same time and very violent.  I even checked IMDb just to make sure they weren’t and as far as I could tell, they’re not.

12155981

Eli’s comtemplative narration keeps the reader wondering how the inner conflict within himsef and the outer conflict with Charlie will be resolved.  As they travel from Oregon to California for their latest assignment, the gunslinging-every-man-for-himself-shoot-’em-up-wild-west philosophy contrasts nicely with Eli’s concern for his injured horse Tub:

Despite Tub’s eye wound he never so much as stumbled, and I felt for the first time that we knew and understood each other; I sensed in him a desire to improve himself, which perhaps was whimsy or wishful thinking on my part, but such are the musings of the traveling man.

The story’s conclusion makes for a potentially divisive reading audience as it ends nothing like I imagined it would.  While the intense violence continues to the end of the story, the conflict between the brothers ends differently. This ending could potentially seem flat to those enthralled with the American Western ideals; however, I found it to be a pleasant surprise.

The West’s rugged individualism turns into Eli’s determination to be both himself and a true brother to Charlie:

Looking back at the camp I thought, I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one and neither do I want to be led.  I thought: I want to lead only myself.