Home

Feelin’ Crabby

July 23, 2017

Wilderness House Literary ReviewPartly because my family was on vacation but more because I’m oblivious, I didn’t notice when a new story of mine was published in early July: “Crabs,” in Wilderness House Literary Review. If you’re feeling crabby in the summer heat, you may want to check it out. Thanks to the editors of WHLR!

Our vacation was to the island I call Mosquitoland USA, and the central image in this story comes from an event during our stay in the same place last year. Usually truth doesn’t make for good fiction (imagine a novel about Donald Trump—would you have the slightest inclination to read it?), but in this case the real incident, which lives up to the adage about truth being stranger than, may amount to a decent metaphor. Or it may make you queasy about seafood. Feel free to let me know.

In the meantime, watch out for the Trumpsquito, whose bite will make you itch uncontrollably for four years.

curiouscoverI’ve been meaning to write about a book I read last year, A Curious Land (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015; paperback, 2016), a volume of fiction by Susan Muaddi Darraj set in Tel al-Hilou, a Palestinian village near Ramallah. This task has lingered on my to-do list for a while, but a couple of recent developments have spurred me to it: the paranoid and mean-spirited attempts by the White House to cleanse the USA of immigrants, and the president’s openness to a Mideast “one-state solution,” a phrase I’ve never understood because a solution is supposed to solve something—and what in the world (even our distorted Twitterworld) would this one solve?

As American politics becomes curiouser and curiouser, it’s a good time to ground ourselves with some fine fiction. A Curious Land consists of connected short stories, a form Muaddi Darraj has made very much her own. Her previous book of fiction, The Inheritance of Exile, also made up of linked stories, focused on young Palestinian American women growing up in South Philly. (I wrote about it in July 2010.) The new book takes us to Palestine itself, tracing the lives of fairly ordinary people through several generations, across most of the twentieth century. A Curious Land won the Grace Paley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the American (no qualifier) Book Award, and yet I feel it’s underappreciated.

I should say, first of all, that I’m not interested in A Curious Land merely because liberals like me who believe in diversity love to promote books about foreign or minority cultures. In fact, my reading preferences tend toward old white folks, both those who are dead and those who might as well be. And when I see an author who represents “diversity” being lauded despite sloppy or sentimental writing, I get annoyed (as well as jealous). So, yes, I think Muaddi Darraj’s work can promote a better understanding of Palestinian communities—an understanding we sorely need at the moment—but I wouldn’t focus on it for that reason alone.

The most important reason to discuss A Curious Land is that Muaddi Darraj is an excellent writer, with a precise yet moving and poetic style, an eye attuned to nuances of feeling and an ability to create well-fleshed characters. I’ll quote a bit from the long final story, “Christmas in Palestine,” one of a few pieces in the book that venture far from Tel al-Hilou. Adlah, a young woman from the village, has gone to the USA to study, has married there and now (1998) is struggling to get pregnant, torturing herself with injections and suppositories prescribed by her fertility guru. She hasn’t returned home in a decade, even skipping her father’s funeral last year because of the baby-making routine. Now, though, she’s offered a chance to visit Tel al-Hilou as a translator for an archeological team, and she accepts, to her husband’s dismay. Shortly before she leaves comes this scene:

The 18th was their eight-year wedding anniversary, and they ate dinner at the small French place in Midtown where he’d proposed. It used to be their annual tradition, but they’d not dined there in some time, and Adlah could see that the décor was changed—new, sparkly chandeliers and long curtains, but she didn’t mention it to Ken. He was too angry, and had barely spoken to her on the drive over. He’d spent the last two weeks sulking, since she told him about the assignment. Strangely—and it scared her—she didn’t care. It was too tiring to muster up some indignation or mount a counter-argument. Now, as they sat and sipped their drinks—he had some Pinot Grigio and she sparkling water—he barely looked at her, just hunched over his menu.

“It’s almost like you’re not trying,” he said finally.

“I am.” She felt sick at how he was beginning. “In 45 minutes, I have to go to the bathroom for the 7 p.m. injection.”

“I know.”

“Christ, Ken.”

“But this trip—you don’t need to do this.”

She didn’t answer, not sure how to explain it to him. For two years, her life had been consumed by this thing. Two years of solid failure. Everything on hold, don’t change the house, don’t buy new furniture, keep the same car. Their lives were frozen in place, awaiting a blue line on a white stick, the symbol of success. Her arms, her stomach were blue from needle marks. And when her father died eighteen months ago, she didn’t go because they’d just done an embryo transfer. It had made her sick, to grieve alone—here in New York, while everyone back home comforted each other. She’d consoled herself with the idea that, if it were a boy, she’d name him Muneer [after her father], and Ken agreed easily, trying to help her deal with the injustice of it. She’d even convinced herself that her father would bless her from heaven, and make things right, make that cycle “the one.” And, like a cruel prank, it hadn’t worked.

“I’m not leaving till after the transfer on Thursday.”

“Flying can’t be good—”

“There’s no proof of that.”

After their plates were slid onto their table and their drinks refreshed, when they’d eaten in near-silence, she ordered a glass of wine, her eyes locked on Ken, daring him to oppose it. He sighed and raised his glass, clinking it gently against hers. The stem looked so fragile, like an icicle in his large hands.

“Happy anniversary,” he said softly. “I love you,” he added, and the words stung her because he sighed as he spoke them, like it was an exertion of effort.

Tears sprang to her eyes, and without even taking a sip, she stood and picked up her purse.

“Well—what’s … what is it?”

“Seven o’clock. I’ll be right back.” She walked quickly to the restroom, sliding between tables of couples too engrossed in one another to notice her.

Though I might quibble with small stylistic points, such as the multiple uses of “barely” and “some” in the first paragraph and the fact that Adlah feels “sick” twice in a short span, I admire the quick flashes of emotion, the undertones of anger and frustration revealed in the way a person looks at a menu or gets up from the table. The story then takes Adlah “home” to Palestine, where Ken’s absence doesn’t automatically make her heart grow fonder. Her marriage is tested when she meets a handsome, wealthy, educated Palestinian who comes on to her, but the tale doesn’t turn out as expected; this author won’t settle for a simplistic, “one-state” answer to Adlah’s quandary.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a role in these stories—how could it not?—Muaddi Darraj doesn’t stress political divisions, or religious ones for that matter, though the villagers are Christian in a Muslim and Jewish land. Rather, she’s interested in the everyday lives of her characters. Whatever the political situation, people have to live with it. They fall in and out of love, quarrel, engage in family feuds, leave the village and come back. They get sick or get well. They change as they age, or they fail to change. Characters we knew as young people show up in later stories as elders, as memories or as village legends. The links are important, but so are the breaks between stories; as one reviewer put it, the use of separate, connected pieces creates a “sense of contingency within the unfolding narratives. There are few definite endings or neat resolutions—or if there are, we hear about them tangentially, decades later, as an aside” (Sarah Irving, “Memory, Home and Belonging in ‘A Curious Land,’” The Electronic Intifada, June 13, 2016).

This effective use of the connected-story form is another reason I wanted to discuss A Curious Land. Other contemporary examples of linked stories include Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Orla McAlinden’s The Accidental Wife, now a hit in Northern Ireland though mostly ignored in the USA. The form goes way back, of course; any English major will think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All of these books have a unity of place—centering on a small geographical area—and characters that reappear in multiple tales, allowing us different perspectives on their personalities and behavior. In all of them the links among the stories deepen and enrich the book’s impact. None, though, is as tightly structured as a traditional novel.

To me, and I suspect to many others as well, this looser form feels more appropriate for our era of fragmentation and uncertainty than a novel with a firm central plot intersected by one or more carefully angled subplots. Of course, the novel itself has always been an extremely flexible form, allowing for organizations as loose as that of Moby-Dick (clear main plot with hundreds of pages of non-narrative essays that do little to advance the story) and 2066, Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth posthumous work whose multiple plots and semi-random incidents seem to explode outward, sending tracers disappearing into space. Still, most readers who pick up a book called a “novel” will expect to find, in some sense, a unified arc of events, and writers facing the chaos of our world may be reluctant to offer that neatness.

Generally the linked-story approach has been well accepted by critics. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two others who’ve won praise for it. Too often, though, publishers have been eager to label such efforts “novels in stories,” a promotional ploy that leads the reader to expect more cohesion and unity than actually exist. This marketing trend provoked novelist and editor William Giraldi to pen a stern diatribe against the so-called novel in stories (“The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories,” The Rumpus, May 27, 2011):

Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one. To say you’ve fashioned a novel from stories is to say you’ve fashioned an adult by standing one child on the shoulders of another.…

This cannot be stated enough: a novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: they both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity.

Giraldi agrees that part of the blame for “novels in stories” lies with publishers:

the concept was cooked up by the nonliterary minds in New York marketing who, on the one hand, wanted to sign young writers fresh from the M.F.A. mill and, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel.

He goes on to assign blame as well to Americans’ inability to appreciate the short story for its own merits, as “a form perfectly suited to modernity’s fundamentally Freudian method of accessing phenomena: in segments”—and a form, he also argues, that American writers have mastered far more than the novel.

Hugo van der Goes, THE PORTINARI ALTAR, late 1400s (from Wikimedia Commons)

I accept much of what he says. Yet, in this essay at least, he seems unwilling to grant that the connections among related stories can be valuable enough to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In a book like A Curious Land the stories interact with the same grace and subtlety as the panels of a Renaissance triptych. Each piece benefits from the others. Muaddi Darraj even throws in a little surprise at the end (hinted at on the cover) to loop the tales together.

Those who’ve read my own book The Shame of What We Are may suppose it falls into this category. I do see it as a novel, however: unlike most books of linked stories, it has a single protagonist, a single point of view and a steady chronological progression; moreover, the gaps between stories are used deliberately and strategically to reinforce the themes. When I had to label the book for publication, though, I felt the phrase “novel in stories” had been discredited by publishers’ dishonesty, so I chose “a novel in pieces,” a phrase I hoped would offer a clue about the content as well as the structure.

I consider the other books discussed here as something different, related stories that support each other but do not constitute a novel and should not be shoehorned into that category. It’s really an insult to the writers to pretend such works are novels or to talk as if they should be. The linked-story collection is a form in itself, and if we’re seeing a genuine trend toward it, perhaps we should come up with a catchier name. “Storvel” sounds like an eccentric wading bird, so my best suggestion at the moment is “story cycle” or “story sequence.”

Whatever we call it, A Curious Land is a fine exemplar, and if it serves a socially important purpose as well, all the more reason to read it.

Later note: On March 3, 2017, Michael Knight’s article in Publishers Weekly recommended “The 10 Best Interlinked Story Collections.” Though I hate top-ten lists, his is a good introduction to the form that he, too—despite having published such a collection himself—doesn’t know what to call.

Dogs Welcome

January 26, 2017

It should be obvious from the picture at the top that dogs are already welcome on this blog—in fact, they run our operation, compensated with the occasional biscuit—but the heading of this post refers to a story of mine, “Dogs Welcome,” that has just been published at Change Seven.

Here’s a link directly to the story. I’m billing the piece as a useful escape, totally irrelevant to contemporary political concerns. It never once mentions President Twitterman. On the other hand, it features a character who shows a bit of compassion for others, so perhaps that’s not untimely.

Thanks to editor Sheryl Monks and other members of the Change Seven staff, and also to members of the Working Writers Group, who helped me see what was wrong (a lot!) in an earlier draft of the story.

The magazine invites contributors to do a guest blog post on the subject of change, and mine will be up soon. In the meantime, check out Katrina Denza’s post called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”—a reflection on the Women’s March in DC.

 

authortalkimage

The ambitious editors of Superstition Review have been assembling a massive collection of audio and video clips by their authors, and they invited me to add to it. Hence I’ve recorded a brief audio segment discussing my story “Ranger Ringo” that the magazine published in 2008. Originally I titled the clip “The Role of Memory in Autobiographical Fiction,” and it’s basically a guide to writing about your childhood when you can’t remember your childhood. Here are a couple of links that take you to the clip:

http://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2016/12/13/authors-talk-sam-gridley/ (This includes the editor’s intro., a link to the original story, and a picture of my late dog Simon—who is obviously the best part of the enterprise.)

https://clyp.it/dutuwwzm (the audio clip only)

Please don’t tell Fergus (the guy grinning out at you from the top of this blog) about his predecessor. He thinks he’s an only child.

The Genuine Article

September 7, 2016

A new story of mine, “The Genuine Article,” has appeared in Hawai‘i Review as the winner of the 2016 Ian MacMillan Award for Fiction.

I haven’t yet read the work in its published form. During this political season I’m preserving deniability. So if something’s wrong with the piece, please blame that guy with the flowing orange hair.

I want to thank quite a few people:

  • Paul Lyons, the contest judge, for selecting the story
  • Ian MacMillan himself, for creating the literary legacy that inspired the magazine to honor him in this way
  • Rebecca Pyle, whose artwork—much handsomer than the story—appears as an illustration (of which you can see just a slice in the image here)
  • All the members of the Working Writers Group in Philadelphia, whose comments helped mightily to improve the piece
  • Chris Carter, the semi-legendary compiler of home runs and strikeouts who has nothing to do with the story but nevertheless is mentioned in passing

Sorry, Donald and Hillary, I’m not thanking you, but if America still exists after November, I will indeed be grateful to those who helped preserve our contentious union.

To read the story online, click on the image above or right here.

The Ordinary and the Weird

August 22, 2016

AbundanceCoverLate in this summer of dismal news, I welcome a chance to leave off my political screeds (four of the last five posts, I’m ashamed to say) to discuss a new book of stories by a friend of mine, Larry Loebell’s The Abundance League.

First, let me say what the book is not. Loebell is old enough to have lived through decades when American fiction has aimed to dazzle readers with stylistic flourishes, inveigle them into literary puzzles, or transport them to fantastic or dystopian worlds that have never existed. There’s none of that here. The book is stubbornly grounded on the earth that we know.

Second, it’s important to state that these stories pull no punches. Don’t let the plain black wrapper fool you. This book is sometimes shocking. That may seem an odd thing to say about contemporary fiction—what could possibly shock today’s reader? Well, how about a disabled woman, a quadriplegic with no feeling below her chest, describing in detail how she pleasures her lover—and insisting that, despite her lack of sensation, it’s fully consensual, not a horrid form of sexual exploitation? If you’re a resolutely PC person, prepare to be scandalized on occasion, not because the author is illiberal but because he’s willing to explore beyond the boundaries where our culture tells us to stop looking and stop talking.

Many of the characters, like the author himself, are close observers, giving lots of attention to small details, the “stuff” of our lives. One, an aspiring choreographer, even creates a dance piece from the movements and sounds of people in airports: “she noticed people parting around a slow moving janitor in a kind of parabola, their speed of movement a contrast of determination to languor, of progress to indolence, travelers heading toward their destinations and a laborer stuck in the routines of boring work.” Similarly, an advertising executive who calls himself “a visual guy” sees a resort’s beach bar as resembling “a Noel Coward play, a tableau of spot-lit gestures, glasses, and cigarettes.” With all the details, these tend to be talky pieces, the opposite of compressed vignettes. Yet the accumulation of particulars fleshes out the author’s rich and unsentimental vision of the way we live in the world.

A number of the protagonists are casual about their relationships, unwilling to be tied down. As the choreographer puts it, “It’s a hook-up world out there. That’s the world I run in.” Another woman, once married and now involved with a married man, “refused to desire or consider more, and she did not miss what she did not have.” Correspondingly, those who experience genuine and lasting affection find themselves obstructed or marginalized by others. They get dumped, discouraged, ignored, and in fact their love often follows paths one might consider weird: profound attachment to a dog, to an ancient carousel in the park, to an ex-partner unseen for decades.

The romantic outlook isn’t 100 percent dismal, though. The title story gives us two characters who do succeed in both physical and emotional commitment: a supermarket butcher and a produce worker. These are ordinary schlubs with no career ambitions, no grand expectations. They agree to a marriage of convenience that over time becomes a union of love. Likewise, the final story describes a slow-moving but ultimately hopeful relationship between two characters in small-town Alaska who have escaped collapsed lives in the lower 48. This story, with the impossible and wonderful title “How We Failed to Stop the War and Other Consequences of the Adolphus, Alaska, Peace March, February 2003,” offers a vision of community and mutual support in sharp contrast to the acquisitive striving of earlier pieces.

Engrossed with our material world and critical of it, focused both on the ordinary and on the weird that lies just below the surface of the ordinary, these are fascinating and unique stories, unlike those I’ve seen from any other contemporary writer.

In the Season of Mud

March 21, 2016

A story of mine, “How I Found God in the Laundromat,” has just been posted at Mud Season Review:

http://mudseasonreview.com/2016/03/fiction-issue-18/

Many thanks to the editors there. And if you follow the link to look at my story, check out this month’s featured poetry, nonfiction, and art as well. The vagueness of the setting in my piece (an anonymous suburb) can be countered by the vivid Colorado landscape in Gretchen Comcowich’s nonfiction, “Garbage Heap Wonderland.”

I guess my story and its venue are both appropriate for the season, for these reasons:

  • The tale’s about a Bar Mitzvah boy bucking and moaning through his ritual ascension to “manhood.” It’s appropriate for Passover, coming up next month, when Jews tend to muse on what their religious identification means to themselves and to others.
  • We’re right in the middle of mud season, as my wife reminds me with curt emails about the clods my shoes have left on the rugs. And the boy in the story can be seen as trying to climb out of the mud he has created for himself.
  • Mud Season Review, an outgrowth of the Burlington Writers Workshop, lies in the heart of Bernieland, so I’ll dedicate this story to the Grumpy Grandpa who has energized the Democratic primaries this year.