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George Saunders

The first paragraph of “Puppy” by George Saunders feels very self-aware. It uses the phrase, “the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn” in repetition, but each time uses less of it until it is transformed into “the brilliance of the etc. etc.”

I got bored around the time the video game the Noble Baker was being used as a metaphor, if that’s what it was. They are on a road trip, I think? Words like “gosh” and “wow” do something to me, when I read them, like “gee willikers” which does not occur in this story, have a kind of backwards, outdated effect. Like, corny.

I kind of started hating the haha’s because I don’t like overt humor. Or being told that something is supposed to be funny because then it usually is not. And maybe intentionally saying haha ironically. “Marie realized… that what this really was, was deeply sad.”

The story seemed to stumble into poignancy reluctantly. “Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful.” Maybe the reader is supposed to hate Marie who brushes aside her only attempt at sympathy with “blah blah blah — that was all bullshit.”

And then at the end, focusing back on the woman selling the puppy and the thoughts she was having about love, turning the story over to what it should have been all along. This was the first time the story was interesting to me, this final 500-word section.

One of the questions Tao Lin poses for his class is the motive of the author for writing the story. And, to me, it almost seems like George Saunders didn’t want to write this story at all. I haven’t read many of his stories, so I don’t know if this is stylistic, but he seems to be writing an anti-story, a story that is set against itself.

It is not just the plot which is unremarkable or the characters who are unadmirable, but the prose itself which seems to undermine its own commemoration.

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339382_10151905688102481_1749687214_oHere’s a little map Tao made for his class. Should prove helpful.

Haruki Murakami

“…this is because the hypertransparency of the water interferes with the perception of distance.”

This sentence reminds me of Tao Lin.

“Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish’s gut,” reminds me of Richard Brautigan, but possibly primarily because of the fish.

I’ve only been able to successfully finish a Murakami short story. I’ve never read any of his novels. But I wrote a story in which the main character becomes obsessed with reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I thought of that story, my story, over and over as I read “The Second Bakery Attack.”

In my story, the character is attracted to a bookstore clerk and drinks a lot of pineapple juice. I felt like I really tapped into Murakami without needing to have read him. I skipped right over it, straight to understanding. “We talked about the relationship of bread to Wagner for days after that,” Murakami wrote in the bakery story. The pinapple juice in my story, I felt, was related in some way to the bread in the bakery story, as they both were related to some other thing that stands obscurely and askewly off from it.

I kept having these deep stirrings reading this story which was funny about robbing a McDonald’s, and I thought about Ofelia Hunt and about the connection of something very serious, like violence or a serious writing style, to something not very serious, like jokes or common vernacular.

Todd Hasak-Lowy

This is the last post before the end of the Mayan calendar.

 

I felt a little insulted reading this story. Because I thought the first sentence was really funny: “Just before the world came to an end once and for all, Larry lost his wallet.” First of all, this doesn’t turn out to be true, which is disappointing. I’d like to read a story in which someone actually loses his wallet just before the world actually ends. Maybe it would be a predictable end too. Like some definite time limit which renders the loss and searching for the wallet a desperate and futile act. That would be hilarious.

And then, two, Todd Hasak-Lowy pops up, himself, interjecting himself in his own story to talk about this story as it is happening, saying about the sentence that made me want to read the story in the first place: “I find myself starting out with the phrase ‘Just before the world came to an end once and for all,’ this, in fact being the phrase and idea through which the story first emerged. Is that just my transcription of an Independence Day narrative strategy? I really want to believe it’s not, but I am scared it will be read that way, as cheap, callous, arrogant, and worst of all, lazy. So much so that here it is, a self-conscious aside, motivated truly and really by my urge to communicate to you the reader that I realize this whole story is pretty questionable.” Was I responding to a strategy? But then again, aren’t all first lines strategies? The author wants the reader to move further into the story and any MFA or Writing 101 course will tell you that a killer first sentence is crucial. But not many stories call that winning first sentence into question.

Let’s go and address this new aspect, the author popping his head into the story and admitting to flaws within the story. Does that indicate intention, thereby mitigating the flaws? Can you purposely write a flawed story and by pointing out the flaws, correct those flaws? Is pointing out a flaw better than not having a flaw in the first place? And what does it all mean that we now don’t know whether the story is even flawed or not? I think it might be lazy. I think pointing out possible laziness is actually lazier than what he feared he’d been lazy about in the first place. Or, what if it wasn’t lazy or flawed at all to begin with, but always intentional? And suggesting laziness and/or flawedness wasn’t an admission at all but a tactical strategy itself, not to redirect our attention away from the “actual flaw” but for some other reason.

Which brings me to what seemed to be a plot tack on. The Mediocre Food business angle. Maybe THL had just read the Malcolm Gladwell article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” which I recommend and was published the year before The Task of This Translator (the collection of stories in which this story appears) was published. When I first read the story, this whole tangent into the ketchup business did not feel organic to the plot. Sometimes, reading THL’s stories, I got the impression that he started with a cool idea and just kept writing until he got to “short story length” and then stopped. I felt his endings were weaker than his beginnings, and the plots were peppered with these filler type things that I couldn’t quite understand why they were there. Like in “How Keith’s Dad Died,” Keith’s dad’s brother’s baseball career didn’t seem important at all except to fill out a character. But here, what I thought was just extra might actually have a function, and I think its function is the inverse of the Independence Day strategy. “The concept behind the line is this: Buy generic foods – ketchup, salad dressing, tomato paste, mayonnaise, and the like – directly from the generic-foods distributor, repackage them in these eye-catching bottles, cans, jars, and labels with highly ironic names that the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old educated, urban middle class will be unable to resist.” There are eight types of mustard for every ketchup (the Gladwell article will tell you why), but what Mediocre Foods does is point out its own flaws, or better yet, it takes an unflawed but mediocre product and by labeling it as flawed, it somehow makes it better.

Everything you might have said about this story, the author says for you, stripping your power of critique away, which makes me think there is something else going on, or that he wants us to think there is something else going on. Something further inside the nesting doll. “The truth is, the ultimate focus of this piece, at least that strand of intertwined narrative concerned with nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, is the mediation, indeed emplotment, of this event by the American media, in particular the television media –” I believe that revelation itself is, as is stated later, “a pretext for some other idea.” In other words, I never know when the curtain has truly been pulled back, as there is always another curtain behind it.

I actually really liked the collection of stories in The Task of This Translator. I liked telling other people about them, their plots at least, and thinking about them and laughing, because they are, for the most part, funny. But I think they are funny or entertaining on a surface level. I guess that’s where entertainment usually sits. But the more I delved into the stories, the less sure I was of anything. And maybe that’s what THL wanted, as a reflection of reality, or something. There is this illusion of substance, hints of some hidden other real thing that might be discovered if you just keep looking for it. Or if you give up looking for it, like how Larry eventually finds his wallet.

James Purdy

“Short Papa” uses the same symbolism to indicate the passage of time and conection to past generations that Pulp Fiction uses: the gift of a watch. The same thing happens in “Short Papa” as in Pulp Fiction, the watch is lost and there is the search for the watch. The search for lost time is just one brief vignette in both collections of stories.

I liked this story even though it was fairly simple with a traditional metaphor. I think James Purdy created enough texture in his story that the use of the watch metaphor wasn’t trite or cliched. The simplicity of the story is deceptive.

Short Papa is given his name because of the short stints he serves in jail. It also can stand for the short stretch in his son Lester’s life in which he is a presence.

“I felt for the first time I was connected with somebody, or something,” Lester says after having received the watch. The missing watch stands in for the missing father, the father who exhanges his own presence in the boy’s life with a present that represents the passage of time, the ineluctable march of time that only goes in one direction. This exchange is irreversible. The fortune teller, the seer of futures, tells Lester that, although he will find his lost watch, his father has died. “I hoped and prayed she was wrong, that she had lied, and that I would not find the watch, for if that part of the fortune was not true, neither would be the other part about the hand of the bestower.”

Although the watch is a reminder that time is short for us all, that it is ticking down the moments until our deaths, it also runs backwards into the past, reminding Lester of his ancestors, and now his father.

I think what this story teaches, as far as craft goes, is that the use of metaphor is a tool. You can use a standard tool to achieve intricate detail. Although the watch is a main feature of the story, maybe a macguffin, it is used to tell the story of Short Papa and Lester.

Questions for the class: What other things are in this story besides the watch? How is the story different by focusing on a young boy as opposed to Pulp Fiction’s adult?

Next week’s story is “The End of Larry’s Wallet” by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Lydia Davis

This week, I’ve decided to live-tweet reading the entire Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is a cute brick of a book. There is something impressive in just holding it.
  • The first story is called “Story.” I like that. I feel calm and like everything has a kind of sense.
  • “And then I go to write, in the third person and the past tense…” Writing stories, if not for LD at least for her character, is about reauthoring.
  • 1/2 closed venetian blinds = metaphor?
  • “Maybe the truth does not matter…” Fiction writers seem interested in the truth.
  • The story, “Story,” is my favorite story so far.
  • The first few stories aren’t long but seem long, knowing that some of LD’s stories are a single sentence.
  • This book seems like a book I’d want to own because then I could dip into it at leisure, not read it all straight through in one headlong rush.

I decided that, since I don’t actually have a Twitter account, there wasn’t much of a point of me continuing to read any more of the stories. So I started reading This Means This This Means That about semiotics, and it had this to say: “Truth and falsity are sufficiently curious that they cannot always be determined. This is particularly so in the world of fiction.”

Deb Olin Unferth

What is a minor robbery? A major robbery could be from Fort Knox or of the Statue of Liberty. Moderate robberies are the ones that usually happen, boring: banks, homes, pockets. Minor robberies are of a smaller scale then: lint from belly buttons, stealing a single wheat penny, pizza. The theme music for this story should be obviously played by Minor Threat.

This story won’t be taught by Tao Lin because it is too short.

There is a discrepancy, confusion, robbery. Am I being robbed? Is this a robbery? Highway robbery either takes place on a highway (61, e.g.) or is a robbery of the highway itself. Which would not be minor.

What’s the difference between  robbery and burglary? I’m not even going to look it up.

I read the book Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth. “Minor Robberies” is published in Agni. That seems pretty impressive. Am I impressed by this story?

“And there were the other robberies, elsewhere, the ones in books and on TV. The ones imagined. The ones in dreams.” What’s the best DOU story ever?

It says she founded the lit mag Parakeet, but when I try to find it, all I find are mags about actual parakeets. Was it stolen? Her Passport got stolen.

How do you get people’s attention? I wanted to get back to basics and follow Tao Lin’s protocol. To learn what I could from stories. To pass on things I learned. But I am not good at it. So I’ll do this instead. Just whatever this is.

Sometimes I imagine getting robbed when I am out walking around. Someone in a mask holds a gun and says “give me your money, please.” And what do I do. Shrug. “Shoot me,” I tell the robber. I transform the robber into a murderer by my refusal to hold up my end of the definition.

Nothing is real, or it’s only real to a certain degree, in “Minor Robberies.” Minor Robberies is also the name of her collection of short stories. What makes something real, to think about it? I just read the book Camera by Jean-Phillippe Toussaint and he suggests not pitting yourself against reality. Reality will wear you down like fork tines on an olive.