Rejected Story Ideas, Part 5

Something Greater than Nothing

A kitchen fire at the hospital on 3rd and Elm caught on quickly, so quickly that by the time it was put out it had burned through every room in the cancer ward, killing those patients, all except one at the very end of the hallway. Room 111. Mandy Carrigan, age 25, terminal colon cancer patient and now also victim of burns which were as equally life-threatening as her cancer. When the fire department had found and rescued Mandy, the flames had engulfed most of her room but had mysteriously halted just short of overtaking the side of the room where her bed was, as if the fire had decided to stop. Some have hypothesized that a water main break managed to slow the progress of the fire, giving the firemen time to reach Mandy’s room before it was obliterated. Others have said that it was a miracle from God. But in either case, when the firemen did reach Mandy’s room they found her out of her bed, torn from tubes which administered her chemotherapy, huddled in the corner. The firemen weren’t surprised by this. But Mandy’s doctors, those who were intimately familiar with her case history, were shocked. They argued amongst each other about whether or not even the most life threatening situation could provide the human body with enough adrenaline to accomplish what Mandy had, given her weakened state.

Mandy’s case wasn’t hopeful before the fire. Not even close. Chemotherapy had been more a symbolic gesture insisted upon by Mandy herself, even with warnings that it would decrease the quality of whatever short span of life she had left. And not only that. She also refused the pain killers her doctors recommended, taking only those that wouldn’t effect her decision-making such as ibuprofen, which was pretty negligible for someone in her position, because she was afraid that the stronger options would delude her mind.

But after the fire Mandy’s case was compounded by the the burns and damage done to her lungs from inhaling large amounts of smoke. She was being treated now around the clock by oncologists and world class burn specialists at a hospital in a different city, which was possible in part because of the money donated by the previous hospital and mounting public support for Mandy and her story. There were many national news reports but none showed pictures or videos because the images were so shocking that no managing editor or director could stomach to put them in print or on air, and ultimately none felt that showing them would sell more newspapers or clicks or views, anyway.

As a matter of course her doctors began giving her those strong pain medicines she had previously refused. That was the only way they could treat her in the beginning stages. But as time wore on, in her most lucid moments, Mandy clearly indicated that she didn’t want them. She typed on a small computer pad by her bedside with her one hand that could move only slightly. No pain meds. Her parents begged her to stay on them. The doctors too. But she typed it so many times, and even mounted her thoughts on the basis of a lawsuit against the hospital for failing to follow her wishes for her own medical care. At that, the doctors complied and took her off.

Mandy’s father and mother were very distressed. Before the pain meds completely wore off, they asked her why she didn’t want them, pleading with her to consider a different course. Why not accept just a little relief? Mandy gave the same answer she always did. Her mind was about all the had left, she said, and she didn’t want it tampered with even if that meant release from physical pain. She would navigate forward as best she could without them.

Mandy couldn’t type much after the meds. She gave yes or no answers to questions in the form of “n” or “y,” and even that at times seemed like more pain than she could handle. Her parents found that the trick was to get the temperature and humidity of the room just right, to allow the perfect conditions for Mandy to lay perfectly still by keeping her feeding tubes and life support out of the way, and to keep mental stimulus the focus of waking hours with television, audiobooks, and one-way conversation. If all this was done perfectly Mandy could sometimes avoid complete agony. This phase of her treatment was so bad that her father attempted to conspire with one doctor to sneak pain medicine into her drip, but when Mandy began to feel the effects and gain the ability to type more lengthy passages again, she told her father that if he didn’t stop the pain meds she would disown him as her father and bring charges against him. She ended her text string to him with get behind me, satan.

Mandy lasted longer than her doctors thought she would, and even became a private point of annoyance amongst them, since it was only a matter of time before her cancer would overtake her body, and all would end as it was originally planned. Many resources went into keeping her alive. And her parents too couldn’t stand to see their daughter suffer. That was the most painful thing. They couldn’t understand, month after month, why their daughter kept holding on when it would have been so much easier to let go, and they knew better than to ask her and force her to move her delicate fingers to craft a response.

One evening her parents came into her room and told her what they were going to do. They were going to tell the doctors that Mandy herself was requesting to be removed from life support. They couldn’t take watching their daughter suffer anymore. Not like this. In reponse Mandy was trying to lay very still as tears ran down her cheeks. It was very hard for her to type, but she managed pls no, almost passing out from the exhaustion of that one phrase. Her mother began weeping bitterly. It could not get any worse. She kissed Mandy on one very small portion of her typing hand which had been unburned, the one spot of original skin, and left the room for Richard to do the rest. Richard said he was very sorry but this was in everyone’s best interest. The suffering was too much. He then kissed her hand too and left the room.

The doctors were relieved when Richard and Barbara said that Mandy wanted finally to be taken off life support, and together they let out a collective sigh. They all felt like they had been through something together. Something horrible that none of them would ever forget. True, Mandy’s parents felt a sense of guilt for having lied their way to this solution and for ending Mandy’s life prematurely. But if they hadn’t intervened, how long would she have suffered? Surely they had lessened her overall pain. So even they began to feel a sense of relief after it had been done.

Most people had forgotten the news story, so when the report came out about Mandy’s death, it was a small one which only covered the necessary details. She’d decided to be taken off life support and who could blame her for that? The doctors interviewed said that Mandy had a peculiar and borderline supernatural will to live. Almost like a medieval saint or something. And her parents said they had no idea before Mandy was sick that this thing, this resilience, was anywhere inside of her.

While the doctors were unhooking everything from Mandy they pretended not to notice she was typing on her little computer screen. They knew what was happening. They’d treated Mandy a long time and didn’t believe for a second that she’d authorized it. None of them looked at what she typed. They unhooked her, pumped her full of drugs and eventually, days later, she died. Finally, one doctor thought, I can go back to my regular life and regular patients without news cameras and hassle and barbaric martyrdom. Although her mother knew Mandy must have typed something and made the mistake of looking at what it might be. Mandy’s last words were numbers.

1 > 0

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 3

Unfinished story:

Moon Town

‘Places, everyone!’ the Mayor of Moon Town said to the people in the crowded deli.

‘Rolling,’ Cameraman 1 said.

The Mayor leaned one elbow on the counter and made an inviting gesture to Camera 1.

‘On quiet evenings here in Moon Town it’s customary to head on down to the delicatessen for some Moon Town fine dining. Say there, Arnie. What’s on the menu tonight?’

‘Freeze dried protein paste,’ Arnie said.

‘Gee whiz, sounds good. Can I have a taste?’

‘Sure, Mayor.’

Arnie reached under the counter and brought out a prepared dish with tiny cubes of the paste and a garnish on the side. Normally the paste was eaten from a packet.

The Mayor ate a cube.

‘Mmm. This is really good, Arnie.’

‘Perfect,’ Cameraman 2 said. ‘Let’s cut straight to boy and Mayor casually sitting at counter.’

‘Come here, Tim,’ the Mayor said. A wide-eyed kid came forward through the crowd of extras. The Mayor helped him up onto the stool beside him at the counter. ‘Just like we practiced.’

‘Okay,’ Tim said.

‘Rolling.’

‘Moon Town is exciting. Don’t you think, Tim?’

Tim sat up straight.

‘Yes, Mayor.’

‘I don’t know about you, Tim, but I like taking long walks and watching the earthrise. What’s your favorite thing about Moon Town?’

‘I like moon rocks.’

‘Good man! I’m glad you mentioned moon rocks because I think our viewers would like to know that the moon rocks we harvest here in Moon Town are available at a major retailer near them.’ The camera panned and zoomed onto the Mayor’s face, who then puffed on a cigar. ‘And now a word from our sponsors.’

‘…And cut! Really great, guys,’ Cameraman 1 said. ‘We’ve got what we need for this scene.’

‘Delightful,’ the Mayor said. ‘Now get back to work everyone.’

 

 

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.

            “Today.”

            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.

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Joy Williams: Microfiction isn’t Easy Fiction

Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…

But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.

My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:

Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.

Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.

I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.

Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.

She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”

It made me shudder. It was beautiful.

“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”

My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.

Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:

“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”

But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.

I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.

She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.

Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.

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Louis CK & The Benefits of Self-Criticism

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Source: vulture.com

 

PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION to what you watch, read, and listen to is an important practice to cultivate. You can learn a lot about yourself and what you enjoy by doing more than passively consuming. Thinking seriously about how you stay informed and entertained usually leads to finding better sources of information and entertainment and can show you how and why you react to your favorite things the way you do.

The comedy of Louis CK is one of my favorite personal examples—my initial impression of Louis was very different from what I found underneath. His comedy feels like the spontaneous thoughts of a hopeless & depraved middle-aged man, ‘he fills in the latest details in the downward trajectory of his mortal existence…’And maybe that’s all his jokes are on one level. But once I started paying attention and listening to him talk about his process I found that what seems like spontaneity is actually grueling practice and intentional refinement. (Evan Puschak’s video How Louis CK Tells a Joke is powerfully demonstrative of this.)

But Louis CK’s content has always been more interesting to me than his methodology. One key I found to his content was hiding in plain sight the whole time—in an online interview at the Paley Center for Media he was talked about his show Louie and about the content of his creative process:

“[My comedy] isn’t trying to shine a light on other people who I think are bad. That’s boring to me. I’d rather take on the bad behavior and show it that way.”

This is why Louis gets away with what he gets away with—it’s refreshing in a world of finger pointers. He uses himself as the conduit and medium of expression, and in being the absolute butt of his own jokes he can explore topics other comics might avoid. This is where the real power in his jokes comes from. His self-deprecation isn’t a proxy critique of culture or a method to accrue pity points to get away with saying something bad about somebody else. It’s genuine. His self-criticism is relentless, his comedy is disturbingly confessional, and it seems like within this method, for Louis CK, there are basically no boundaries.

A QUICK LOOK AT Louis’ bit on road rage from his 2013 special Oh My God demonstrates this. It’s a short piece, about 3 minutes, and is one of my favorite examples of classic Louis CK self-flagellation:

There is so much to say about this bit. It’s true on the surface but is also a kind of obvious metaphor. He analyzes his own insufficiencies as a human being but also switches strategically from the first person singular ‘I’ and ‘me,’ to the first person plural ‘we,’ and even to the second person ‘you,’ when appropriate, to invite the audience into his critique:

I’ve wasted a lot of time being angry at people I don’t know. It’s amazing how nasty we can get as people, depending on the situation.

He uses ‘we’ as a non-threatening way to implicate the audience because he is still at the abstract level of his premise. It’s a generalization most people can go along with. But notice how the audience is dead silent during this portion of the joke. When the audience laughs—which almost sounds like a laughter of relief—at about 22 seconds in, it’s because the joke is going from abstract to tangible: When I’m in my car I have a different set of values. Immediately the audience can relate and begins to warm up to the concept.

Louis’ biggest laugh comes from the punchline which he reuses three times in the joke for variable effect. He delivers the punchline after the premise has been set on two levels—1) people are nasty in certain contexts 2) like in cars—when he introduces his own real life story of a guy who ‘sort of drifted into [his] lane for a second.’ This is when everything in the joke works to its greatest effect, when Louis transforms his premise into self-deprecation:

One time I was driving and there was a guy ahead of me and he kind of, I don’t know, he sort of drifted into my lane for a second and this came out of my mouth, I said, “Worthless piece of shit.”

Why is this punchline so effective? It’s easy to miss but notice how Louis genuinely downplays the role of the guy who drifted into his lane. This is the key to the joke. He does this because his punchline depends on it. He uses “kind of” and “sort of” to diffuse any real infringement made against him, and facial expressions and body language (shrugging, etc.) to show he is taking on the perspective of the guy who drifted into his lane so you sympathize with him instead of sympathizing with Louis.

The structure of Louis’ entire narrative and punchline completely hinges on effectively throwing himself under the bus. If he tried to defend himself at all, the joke wouldn’t work. This is what makes Louis’ comedy unique. He doesn’t just make fun of himself. Lots of comedians do that. He directly links the effectiveness of his punchlines to the dramatic tension his bad behavior causes so that the more effectively he critiques himself, the funnier he is.

LOUIS GOES FURTHER to concretize his point. He doubles down on the punchline by continuing to reach outside his own perspective, making himself look more and more ridiculous:

Worthless piece of shit? That’s somebody’s son

Louis pivots to make the bigger point, switching to the second person, and gets another big laugh.

If you were in an elevator…

He does this for a specific reason. He’s already told his own story. To make the broader point he paints a hypothetical and immediately the ridiculousness of saying horrible things to people in our cars becomes even more real. Then Louis does a subtle callback to get another laugh. He plugs in his real life story into his hypothetical, calling back his punchline, and balancing the general implication with his own personal guilt:

If you were in an elevator and you were like right next to a person’s body and, whatever, he liked leaned into you a little bit, would you ever turn right to their face and be like “Hey, fuck you!”? … “Worthless piece of shit.”

The last piece of the joke is the overall & sober takeaway:

I mean what am I capable of? I’d like to think that I’m a nice person. But I don’t know, man.

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‘Elevator’ the movie, Source: imdb.com

 

 

THE JOKE IMPLIES more than it says. Louis’ questioning his own goodness harks back to an old philosophical question: the problem of the self vs. civilization. Are people basically good or bad? And is society as a whole good or bad? This is the Hobbes vs. Rousseau problem. Thomas Hobbes, the most influential thinker of his time, thought that mankind in the state of nature is basically bad and it’s only because of society that we appear to act with decency—we would be savage if left to our own devices. Later on in the Enlightenment Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, no, people are good and Nature is the Idyllic Paradise that we gave up for collective societies, which, through mechanistic coercion and oppression, put undue pressure on the individual and cause bad behavior.

Louis CK doesn’t explicitly bring these problems up but is able to imply their significance via a 3-minute calculated self-scrutiny. Not every joke in his arsenal follows this formula but it is one of his most common: Embody a problem and then diagnose the problem in yourself instead of blaming another person or group. With regards to the problem of humanity, Louis seems to side with Hobbes. Modern times, with all its technological innovation, has created spaces where the state of nature is replicated, where we are isolated, and we tend to lash out at other people over the smallest infractions so long as we can remain anonymous. In our cars is one example. Social media is another. Imagining a similarly small infraction done in person, i.e., in society at large, and how different our reaction to it would be raises the question: What causes this difference? And who is the real you? The ‘you’ in the car? Or the ‘you’ in the elevator?

 


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Unexpectedness in Anne Carson’s 1=1

Photographer
Source: UCLA

Read “1=1” here in the New Yorker

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO NEATLY SUM up Anne Carson’s work. She’s written in a wide range of forms: poetry, essay, performance pieces, translations, and a genre invented by her called “short talks” which are hyper-condensed lyrical meditations on any number of scientific, historical, or anthropological topics. She pushes the boundaries of whatever form she’s in, often into the avant-garde. Sam Anderson wrote in his New York Times profile of Carson: ‘[she] gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved—phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project—in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.’

To put it as straightforwardly as possible: Anne Carson’s writing is weird. She plays with form, structure, and genre, which can disorient a reader expecting a conventional approach, but if you come to Carson’s work with an open mind, letting the words guide you ‘phrase by phrase, line by line,’ you will most likely be delighted.

SHORT STORIES ARE A NEW venture for Carson in form, she didn’t write any before 2016 when she published three: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “1=1,” and “Back the Way You Went,” in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and each one is uniquely masterful. If Faulkner’s old quote holds true that every short story writer is a failed poet, then Anne Carson’s short stories are a testament to what happens when a successful poet decides to turn to short stories, not out of necessity, but as a creative choice.

“1=1” especially embodies Carson’s strengths as a writer. It is lyrical but strict in its brevity with short punchy sentences like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the literary minimalists, but accomplishes a totally different effect, not a working class ho-hummy vibe—that is not who Anne Carson is as a writer—but as a means of legitimately condensing prose to only what is necessary, and, as Sam Anderson pointed out, usually in a direction ‘either extraterrestrial or ancient’.

Carson put it perfectly in an estimation of her own work at a recent Lannan Foundation event:

‘Somebody was talking to me about writing the other day. They said the good thing I did in my writing was to have every word resist the next word or resist the way it should go. I believe that’s accurate enough. It’s partly orneriness but it’s partly trying to make the words take you to a fresh place.

THE SENTENCES IN “1=1” are ornery but the plot is simple. A woman goes for a swim, reads the newspaper, and has an interaction with her neighbor. There isn’t a necessary causal link between these events, they happen in the same day but other than that it’s not obvious how the events work together. Although “1=1” feels like a coherent whole. The three main events: 1) swimming, 2) newspaper reading, and 3) neighbor interaction, happen in two acts.

Swimming takes up the entire first act. The first sentence is: She visits others. We don’t know who these others are. She swims and watches a man play fetch on the beach with his dog. As she swims and observes and has several interwoven revelations as the tense of the narration switches subtly from the beginning to the end of the first paragraph, from third person to second person, almost imperceptibly, pivoting from “she,” to “oneself,” to “you.” It becomes clear by the time we get to “you” that yes, swimming is a physical act this woman is performing in the story but it’s also a metaphor. In the middle of the paragraph, at the same time tense is about to change, so too does the act of swimming become something else:

People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet.

What does knowing beauty, hearing nightingales sing, grooms kissing brides, and clocking comets have to do with swimming? Nothing, except Carson already has us on the hook. She’s melded two concepts together without having to spell it out for the reader because she writes intuitively. As the woman gets in the water her mind wanders and we wander with her, as if the physical submersion she undergoes gives license for the prose to also become fluid. Swimming = the ambiguous resistance every person must learn to navigate, continuously:

Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.

THE SECOND ACT BEGINS with an ending: Her visit ends. Back at her home, she reads the newspaper. A story about migrants packed in a train, ‘filthy families and souls in despair…’ She considers her life (act 1) and theirs side-by-side, concluding: Words like “rationale” become, well, laughable. Nothing about this consideration is necessary to the plot but it illustrates further Anne Carson’s methodology. The main character faces the chasm between her and others—i.e. the isolation of selfhood—wherein no rationale is sufficiently explanatory; should this be framed as a question, [it] would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind…

Faced with this problem, She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it’s cooler there. She then has an encounter with her neighbor Chandler who is drawing pears with sidewalk chalk. She tries talking with him but he doesn’t answer because he’s focused on his drawing: His gaze is ahead and within.

The second act ends by tying things back to the beginning. Thwarted by her attempts to connect with Chandler, the main character goes back upstairs and thinks of capacity, both ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’:

Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance—why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them? 

The beauty in the writing I think is partly fueled by Carson’s obsession with avoiding ‘rationales,’ or overarching explanations that demystify experience. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here and that’s kind of wonderful. It’s mainly meant to be enjoyed. But, at the very minimum, Carson makes clear her basic metaphor that runs through “1=1”: water, again, is a kind of potential of circumstance. Empty, still, perfect. You could be anyone but you are just you. Why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?

Chandler rings the doorbell. Done with his drawing, he is reaching out to her. He wants to show her his drawing of a fox. She looks at it and feels its connection with her day. In the picture the fox is swimming. Earlier that day she was swimming. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive… The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.

What is significant about the fox’s not failing? It picks up where the question in act 1 left off: What does that mean, fail it. The question isn’t answered but it is addressed. The woman swam in act 1, the fox swims now. The fox is a work of art which is part of its perfection. But is the fox doing more? Does it have peace in its mouth? Is that perfection?

HAROLD BLOOM WROTE in How to Read and Why that basically all short stories are ‘either Chekhovian or Borgesian; only rarely are they both.’ What he meant was that short stories tend to either be realistic (following Anton Chekhov) in which the mundane is elevated by description; or they are fantastic (following Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka) whereby the fantastic is brought down to earth by being made tenable. Anne Carson’s “1=1” is this rare case that blurs the line. She’s able to do this by how she writes at the sentence level. Nothing supernatural happens in “1=1.” Nothing much happens at all. It isn’t a fairytale. It isn’t a straightforward myth. It’s basically realism but it’s by surprise that she captivates. The events in her stories do not fall in succession like dominoes but rhyme with symbol, metaphor, and intuition.

 


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