Apr 182010
 

Scott Russell Sanders

I would like to add the following as a general rule: a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other pre-existing forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, “silenced.” All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes its appearance not in order to express new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness. (Theory of Prose p20)

I start with this quote from Shklovsky not because it necessarily says anything specifically craft-related that I hadn’t already heard this semester, but because it reinforced a couple of truths I think I’ve been subconsciously evading for the last couple of months: 1) that the strength of a non-fiction story doesn’t come only from the events and people themselves but from the formal choices I choose in telling (writing) them, and 2) I can see these formal choices in just about everything I read, if I read pieces for form rather than content. In other words, both my writing and my reading have been focusing on finding the “aboutness” of a piece or an experience, attaching myself to writing and events that have some verisimilitude for me, at the expense of focusing, as an artist, on the formal patterns other artists employ. Doug’s been telling me this from the start, but it’s taken awhile to sink in (and of course still is).

I chose to write critically about Scott Russell Sanders‘s “Under the Influence” because I found it so similar in structure and content to what I was attempting with the creative work I submitted last month. Some of these similarities include the central conflict of understanding the father, the thematic framing of addiction (though I think we differ in our final verdict), and perhaps most importantly the way he juxtaposes the past he remembers so vividly with his present self, a self that seems so removed from that past but still finds bits of it in him. One way he frames the past and present that resonates with me is the juxtaposition of addiction with biblical imagery.

The essay, as implied by the title, is a meditation on alcoholism, primarily his father’s. But it also delves into the nature of addiction, indicting his own obsession with work that prompts his daughter to label him a workaholic, and delving into the influence Sanders’s father had on his siblings’ and his own habits, hence the first two interpretations of the title I found. A third possible interpretation is the influence of the Bible, as a source of mythology, an instruction book for living, and, because of this perhaps most importantly, as a source of shame for Sanders at his father’s miserable failure at living up to these instructions.

As it turns out I had to rethink and revise my work to get to what Sanders was doing formally. I initially chose to write critically about it because I found the people, themes, and events in the essay immediately recognizable, and similar to some of the people and themes I’m writing about in my own work. Because of this, in my first critical essay, I focused primarily on those elements that I connected most to my work thematically and explained how they connected. The next time out, though, I focused on just one section of “Under the Influence” (on pp737-739 of The Art of the Personal Essay) only in terms of its structural patterns, specifically the parallelism of biblical passages and parables with events in Sanders’ family, and tried to discern how these patterns work. This is what I came up with.

Sanders’s intent in this section is to juxtapose his adult understanding of his father as an alcoholic with his childhood understanding of his father as a sinner, which he sets up in the first paragraph of the section:

While growing up on the back roads and in the country schools and cramped Methodist churches of Ohio and Tennessee, I never heard the world alcoholism, never happened across it in books or magazines. In the nearby towns, there were no addiction treatment programs, no community mental health centers, no Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, no therapists. Left alone with our grievous secret, we has no way of understanding Father’s drinking except as an act of will, a deliberate folly or cruelty, a moral weakness, a sin.

This juxtaposition is important because it contrasts Sanders’ adult authorial voice, for whom the phrase “under the influence” in relation to his father’s alcoholism has the commonly accepted connotation of addiction, with his child-presence, for whom the “influence” in the same phrase is far more sinister, mysterious and frightening. One of the most commonly voiced concerns I’ve heard (and voiced myself) is the difficulty, in writing of childhood, of balancing the child-awareness with the adult authorial presence. This mingling of the biblical with the clinical is how Sanders balances the two.

The following three paragraphs give a sweeping panorama of biblical allusions he remembers being used by his church to scare the bejesus out of him, of a different ilk for each paragraph, giving his adult-voice recollection of the connections he made between them and his father. The first one has three proclamations by the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and an anonymous seer of the Book of Proverbs:

  • “The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused with wine, they err in vision, they stumble in giving judgment. For all the table are full of vomit, no place is without filthiness” – he remembers “fouled tables at the truckstop where the notorious boozers hung out, our father occasionally among them.”
  • “Wine and new wine take away the understanding” – his father, fairly astute at math, was unable to even help with fourth grade math when he was drinking.
  • “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things” – Here his adult voice is in full command, with an authoritatively ironic “Woe, Woe” dismissively concluding the prophets’ passages.

Sanders then in the next short paragraph, his authorial presence subtly lurking,  summarizes the Old Testament cautionary tales of Noah and Lot, in which both violated their parental boundaries when drinking, and Sanders concludes in his adult voice, “The sins of the fathers set their children’s teeth on edge.” And in the last of these three paragraphs Sanders takes his church’s ministers themselves to task, noting their prudish assurance of the children that they were drinking grape juice, not wine, at the Last Supper, and finally noting the implication of the “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not drink.”

The final three paragraphs of the section go even deeper into the dichotomy of addiction as possession, with “the scariest and most illuminating Bible story apropos of drunkards,” the New Testament parable of the drunkard and the swine. He spends most of the first paragraph summarizing the story of Jesus finding the lifetime drunk of a village, seeing immediately that the man is simply possessed, and sending the demons into a group of swine “conveniently rooting nearby.” The poor hogs go crazy and jump off a cliff, and the now-former drunk “bathed himself and put on clothes and calmly sat at the feet of Jesus, restored – so the Bible said – to his ‘right mind.’”

Sanders begins the next paragraph with, “When drunk, our father was clearly in his wrong mind.” Then, he sets out, in his adult voice, at explaining the connections he made as a child to the story. He says he saw his father as this lunatic, both “quick tempered, explosive” and “maudlin and weepy,” and notes the support he received for his theory from the local church, which referred to liquor as “spirits” and “demon drink,” and local newspapers with their reports of driving “under the influence” (interestingly, the paper probably meant it in the clinical sense, but as a child he took the influence as demonic). And finally, in the last paragraph, he asks four questions in succession in the confused, pleading voice of the child he was:

If my father was indeed possessed, who could exorcise him? If he was a sinner, who could save him? If he was ill, who could cure him? If he suffered, who could ease his pain?

And then he answers them in the sad, regretful voice of the adult who sees beyond the time and place:

Not ministers and doctors, for we could not bring ourselves to confide in them; not the neighbors, for we pretended they had never seen him drunk; not Mother, who fussed and pleaded but could not budge him; not my brother and sister, who were only kids. That left me. It did not matter that I, too, was only a child, and a bewildered one at that. I could not excuse myself.

Interestingly, even as an adult, the answers he gives are not really answers, but ironic justifications of the answers he gave as a child. The effect is chilling, but also endears him to the reader – he still is questioning, and even the answers just bring in more questions. This seems central to the voice of the personal essayist – not the desire the answer the questions, but to raise them, bringing the reader into the story, with his or her own questions, and his or her own answers.

–John Proctor

For a further discussion of aboutness, verisimilitude, and patterns, see dg’s essay “The Novel is a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son.

Apr 182010
 

Aleksander Hemon‘s story, ”The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,”  works as a list story.  Alphonse Kauders is a Zelig like character with access to some of the past century’s worst men.  Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Tito and Gavrilo Princip all have direct contact with Kauders.   Kauders  even impregnates Eva Braun.  The story basically involves a series of philosophical musings about Kauders likes and dislikes, about his predilections for pornography, about his fascination with fire, and about his hatred of watches and horses.

Like other list stories I’ve read, Hemon uses repeated images and patterns to substitute for traditional structural devices.  There were many memorable lines from this story:

One of Alphonse Kauder’s seven wives had a tumor as big as a three-year old child.

Alphonse Kauders was a Virgin in his horoscope.  And in his horoscope only.

Alphonse Kauders  said to Eva Braun: “Money isn’t everything.  There is some gold too.”

“Since the day I was born, I have been waiting for Judgement Day.  And the Judgement Day is never coming.  And, as I live, it is becoming all to clear to me.  I was born after the Judgement Day.”

The strange, perplexing part of this story comes at the end.  There are a series of explanatory ‘Notes’ at the end of the story.  In these notes, the author (apparently directly) gives historical context and commentary on some of the real people who figured in the story as well as on various books and historical events.  I’m not sure what to make of these notes.  Are they supposed to represent some kind of ironic statement about the story?  Is the author of the notes Hemon?  Is the author of the notes someone else (in the sense of the original story, say an absent narrator?)  The strange thing for me was how the notes (which take up almost 4 pages) seem to be really outside the formal construction of the story.   Yet when you read the notes, they seem straight forward and un-stylized.  Here’s an example:

Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy in Tokyo, undercover as a journalist, eventually becoming a press attaché in the German embasssy.  He informed Stalin that Hitler was going to attack the Motherland, but Stalin trusted Hitler and disregarded the information.  The first time I read about Sorge I was ten and, not even having reached the end of the book, decided to become a spy.  At the age of sixteen, I wrote a poem about Sorge entitled “The Loneliest Man in the World.”  The first verse: “Tokyo is breathing and I am not.”

Is the ‘I’ of this note Hemon, commenting directly on this historical figure (who also appears in the story) or is it something else?  Part of my dilemma with this is that the notes seem obvious and basic, while the story is strange.  Does the reader really need an explanation of the Yalta Conference?

It would be interesting to see how Hemon approaches the story for a reading.  Does he read the notes too?  Anyway, this has plagued me now for a few days.

—Richard Farrell

Apr 162010
 

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Donald Breckenridge to these pages. He’s an old friend and supporter, the fiction editor at The Brooklyn Rail, editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. He’s written a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein and two novels, 6/2/95 and YOU ARE HERE.

The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel This Young Girl Passing (Autonomedia, 2011). A while ago I read the ms. and wrote the following: This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.

from This Young Girl Passing

 

Monday April 19, 1976

Bill had kept Sarah after the bell to find out why she was failing his class.  She dutifully asked him to recommend a senior who would be willing to tutor her. He wrote a name and number down on a scrap of orange paper then offered her a ride home.

“And the photographs,” Sarah glanced at Bill, “you should see them,” as they continued along the narrow path, “the models are wearing casts and some of them even have black eyes,” they walked by a cluster of bluebells as she concluded, “it’s like pornography only worse.” A chipmunk scurried across a large rock then disappeared into a pile of leaves. “Women being beaten by groups of men in suits… How could anyone find that beautiful?” Bill stepped over a tree trunk that had fallen over the trail, “I know I don’t,” turned to her and held out his right hand. The cloudless sky was teeming with dozens of songbirds in flight. She placed her left hand in his, “it’s like the feminist movement never happened,” and stepped over the trunk. The plaster cast on Sarah’s right arm extended from her elbow to her wrist. He stepped on a brittle weed and a cluster of brown thistles clung to the cuff of his pant leg. Her best friend Laura had covered the cast in tiny red hearts and flowers with fingernail polish. When a blossoming willow caught Bill’s eye he stopped walking, “I think they’ve run out of supposedly wholesome ways,” and pointed it out to her, “to sell expensive clothes to wealthy women.” The willow’s flowering limbs swayed as the breeze cast off a shower of yellow petals. “What does that say about the way society treats women?” A multitude of bees, undeterred by the breeze, pollinated the tree. Bill realized that he was still holding her hand, “but the models are just well paid mannequins.” She frowned, “What does that mean?” “It isn’t that complicated Sarah,” beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, “the people behind the camera simply script fantasy roles for women and those roles have little or nothing to do with reality.” The air around them was enriched by the scent of the blooming tree. “Well,” she looked at him closely, “don’t you think it says a lot about the kind of people who buy them?” and noticed the faint outline of her reflection in his brown eyes. “I suppose,” he nodded, “but aren’t most of those designers gay?” A robin in a nearby tree began to sing. They saw each other in class, their last class of the day, five-days a week, and yet she never looked the same. He was almost twice her age, “I mean, that really doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it does seem strange that you would get so worked up about advertisements in fashion magazines.” She smiled tentatively at her reflection while asking, “How is it not complicated?” Bill had been married for three years, “things like that are very temporal,” and he was as bored by his wife’s passionless lovemaking as he was repulsed by the middle-class existence that pacified her. He was as embarrassed by his wife’s ideals, “next year they’ll find something else,” as he was resigned to them. “Like what?” “Who knows,” Bill shrugged, “maybe next year they’ll use vivisection to peddle their dresses.” Sarah let go of his hand, “that’s very funny,” and began walking away. He watched her hips sway beneath her blue jeans, “Can I ask you something?” She turned around, “you just did.” He stepped toward her, “Why does that bother you so much?” She lowered her eyes, “I really thought you were different,” and scratched at the rash above her cast, “So, why make jokes about something you obviously don’t understand?” Her fingernails left faint whitish trails around the rash. “I was being ironic, Sarah.” A bee hovered above a cluster of dandelions just inches away from the tips of her sandals. “You’re being an asshole.”

Read the rest!

Apr 132010
 

I can do no better than repeat what I said when I introduced David’s translation of the Chekhov story “About Love,” published earlier on these pages. David Helwig is an old friend, a prolific novelist, story writer, translator, and poet, and a mighty gray eminence on the Canadian literary scene. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. He is also a very graceful human being as evidenced by his comments on Numéro Cinq.

I had my choice of new Helwig poems to post here, but I picked this one because I really like it. The last stanza alone is worth the trip. It’s a rare poet who can make you feel the fever and mystery of  life in as few words.

Unfortunately, the poem is written in Canadian, so I’ll have to translate a few of the words for my American and Mexican readers. Lower Canada College is a venerable Montreal private school, Lower Canada being the former name for what became the province of Quebec. There is an Upper Canada College in Toronto, another venerable private school (not a college in the American sense, a grade school and high school). Upper Canada is what we used to call Ontario. Upper Canada and Lower Canada as designations don’t make a lot of sense intuitively to Americans since they are actually east-west neighbours. But in the days when the St. Lawrence River was the major highway east and west, Ontario was upriver and Quebec was downriver.

Hugh MacLennan was a great Canadian novelist, whose book Two Solitudes invented the myth or metaphor that, for decades, defined the way we thought about relations between the French and English sides of the nation. His other fine novel, Barometer Rising, about the Halifax Explosion of 1917 I gave to my son Jacob when I took him to Halifax for his freshman year at the University of King’s College last September. MacLennan taught at Lower Canada College and later McGill University.

The rest you can figure out for yourselves.

dg

La Rentréé

The dignity of a considered rhythm: today
the school year begins. Across the dappled green lawn
of Lower Canada College children of privilege
kick a soccer ball, foregather in little groups;

by the fence a red-head and her friend exchange news.
The ghost of Hugh MacLennan in his teaching days
observes from the shade of a tall tree. He can hear
the plock of tennis balls from further up the street,

the sacred precincts of the Monkland Tennis Club.
A seasonable invention, all these memorable
hours, a cherishing of slowness, as eyes might observe
the infinite seconds of fine craftsmanship,

afforded to some in their best bargain with time,
the finely grained and cut and carved, its artifice
emulating the splendour of the eternal,
the existential calm of the elegiac.

Then turn the wrong corner. A house has disappeared.
As if entrapped in the suicide’s murderous mistake
or the muddle and depletion of dementia,
you come upon maddened wasps in all the cities,

sea giants, monsters, dragon, roc, sphinx, mermaid,
a phoenix tattoo paints resurrection on a pale skin.
Retrace your steps toward the pragmatics of freedom
in the grace of the familiar, that shape of our being,

the chosen hour of the chosen day, though the lost
slip from the slender thread of their living, yet first
and last the taut and shining wire vibrates
with tunefulness, proposes such fine music.

–David Helwig

Apr 132010
 

(Please Note:  The opinions expressed in the following long essay do not represent the views of Numéro Cinq or any of its founding partners (dogs, cats, etc. included.)  I wrote this last semester, and Doug has not seen it, so any death threats should be sent directly to me. )

 

 

Dancing Amidst Despair: From Cosmology to Counterpointed Characterization.

 

We begin adrift, as an idea hovering above a blank page, as two cells floating in the miasma of fallopian tubes.  Our stories and our lives begin as little-things, as truly, almost nothing.  And from the void emerges a word, a unified cell; and thus begins the story, begins the life.  How much does an idea weigh?  Certainly even less than a single cell, if such weights were quantifiable, yet all things are built upon these foundations of lightness.  A creation begins with the merest thing.  The idea, like the cell, must gain by accretion.  It lives only with connections to other ideas—without those connections, it vanishes.  And with variability, with diversity, with contrast, the stories and characters become rich and layered.

Pattiann Rogers opens her essay, Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation, with this thought: “I’m very curious about the grid upon which we mentally place ourselves in time and space.  There must be a grid of some kind there for each of us, a visual scaffolding, for balance, for orientation.”  I think of that grid as a story, as the details which define the particular world of imagined lives captured on a page.  I think of that grid as the small, Pennsylvania college town where Lorrie Moore’s unnamed narrator has gone for an evening to meet up with her old friend, Cal, in the short story “Dance In America.”  I’d like to dwell on that grid awhile, to see if it can provide some clue what it’s all about.

Moore opens with an evocative, almost lyrical passage about dance.  Yet absent in this opening is character.  The unnamed narrator speaks in abstractions to an undefined audience, albeit with carefully crafted words.

I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.  I tell them it’s the body’s reaching, bringing air into itself.  I tell them it’s the heart’s triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self.  It is life flipping death the bird.

I make this stuff up.

Despite the power of the language, the story suffers because we don’t have a grid yet, we don’t have a context for what’s happening, until the second paragraph, that is.  Until the narrator bursts in and says, “I make this stuff up.”  That short sentence brings life in.  It opens up the story so that a character speaks honestly about herself.  It reveals instantly a penetrating and close narrative voice.  The rest is slight by comparison—beautiful phrases destined for posters hanging in a dance studio.  Without the dancer, the words mean almost nothing.  Character must be present to contextualize the abstraction.

Later, the narrator and Cal are out walking his dog, and talking about the past.  “He’d been exaggerating his interest in dance.  ‘I didn’t get it,’ he admitted.  ‘I kept trying to figure out the story.’” Dance continues to remain abstract here, a concept not yet alive.  Cal as much as tells us this.  There is also a distinct coolness between these two old friends so far.  “I’m determined to be agreeable,” the narrator says at one point; “I must be nice,” she says just a paragraph later.  They talk about paint colors and trade witticisms about Snickerdoodles, but all of this is surface clutter.  There is not enough contrast or conflict between the narrator and Cal.  At one point on the walk, they even think the same thoughts.  “Up in the sky, Venus and the thinnest pairing of sickle moon, like a cup and saucer, like a nose and mouth, have made the Turkish flag in the sky,” thinks the narrator.  “‘Wow,’ Cal says.  ‘The Turkish flag.’”  Were this to continue, I would argue that these two characters would not generate much dramatic spark.  Such energy-providing contrast comes from what Charles Baxter calls counterpointed characterization.  This will come in a minute, but first, back to the cosmos.

Rogers quotes Bertrand Russell when she says, “The point of departure must be ‘unyielding despair.’  We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.”  This despair emerges from a modern cosmology, a historically recent understanding of the universe and our almost imperceptible presence in it.  Rogers says:

The Sun is tiny compared to the size of the solar system, the solar system to the size of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way to the size of the Andromeda galaxy, which is twice as big, containing 400 billion stars.  And yet the Andromeda galaxy is tiny compared to the universe, which contains billions of other galaxies.  All of that, up there, going on at this moment.

The point of departure Rogers refers to is the act of creation within the vast coldness of an indifferent cosmos.  In the past, such creation had a single source and a single destination: the divine and it’s manifestation of a destiny—a revealed plan for man.  For a long time in the West, art, history, politics and society served and glorified God, with a capital G.   Modern thinking, however, must contend with a much different perception of reality.  Rogers says: “As a result of this cosmology all of us, I would venture to say, have seen ourselves at some moment or other as ‘mankind aimlessly adrift in a meaningless universe.’”  We begin adrift. This awareness of our diminished role in the cosmos leads directly to a sense of unyielding despair.  What can we do, specks of dust on a piece of rock floating in an unfathomable, endless universe? How can we create something of value in a universe devoid of meaning?  Rogers turns not to science’s reductive approach of cutting and measuring (which she also defends and respects) but by seeking an artistic interconnectedness in things.  “The creative person, whether scientist or artist,…is that person who imagines new, different connections, broadening our conception of the universe and its interconnectedness as a whole.”   Charles Baxter echoes this too, although more narrowly, when he talks of the “incompatibility of passion and gentility” in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”  The artist seeks to illuminate the human condition in the darkness of an unfathomable universe.  Creation, in its highest forms, begins as an act of passion.  “Passion knocks decency right off the stage,” Baxter says.  The soul’s habitation is constructed on this grid, against this backdrop of cold, endless despair, filled with quotidian formality, gentility, struggles and structures, but in the hearth, a fire surely burns.

In order to render such passion in fiction, characters must be brought into contrast.  Baxter says, “Plot often develops out of the tension between characters, and in order to get that tension, a writer sometimes has to be something of a matchmaker, creating characters who counterpoint one another.”  Baxter says that characters are designed to rub up against each other, to create friction of sort, or even warmth, but that it is the connections between the characters that make the story.  “Certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other.  A latent energy rises to the surface.”  It can’t be done with beautiful prose alone, at least not in a sustainable way.  Without the characters, the prose energy cools quickly. With counterpointed characters, the energy levels rise even more quickly.  In “Dance In America,” Lorrie Moore works to heat up her story with the introduction of a seven year-old boy named Eugene.

Eugene, the son of Cal and his wife, Simone, has cystic fibrosis and his “whole life is a race with medical research.”  Moore never says so directly, but we gather that the boy is dying.  “Already, Cal says, Eugene has degenerated, grown worse, too much liquid in his lungs.  ‘Stickiness,’ he calls it. ‘If he were three instead of seven, there’d be more hope.’”  Enter the backdrop of despair. Yet in spite of his condition, a condition which makes him labor for breath, Eugene steals this story, crashing into it with life and verve.  Notice the verbs Moore uses with respect to Eugene:  shouts, slides, chases, races, grabs, and smiles.  Eugene roars with life, overcoming his parents, the narrator and even our own despair.  Before he even enters the story directly, his presence pulsates with energy.  Talking to the narrator, Cal says:

‘It’s not that I’m not for the arts’, says Cal.  ‘You’re here; money for the arts brought you here.  That’s wonderful.  It’s wonderful to see you after all these years.  It’s wonderful to fund the arts.  The arts are so nice and wonderful.  But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.’

Notice the contrast here.  The repetitive use of wonderful and the clichéd language in relationship to abstract things, and in relation to the narrator’s visit, builds to an almost ecstatic outpouring for Eugene, who has yet to appear but whose illness has been introduced.  Moore uses the word fuck two times in this story, and both times (I will examine the second use below) the energy and force of that most un-genteel word strike exactly the right tone.  There is no vulgarity here, only passion.  The last sentence of this paragraph works like a prayer, like a devotion to the modern god, Science, driven by the most desperate yearning of the human spirit.

Eugene works as the counterpointed character to the adults in the story.  With only Cal, Simone and the narrator, the story would fall flat.  Eugene reminds the other characters what life is supposed to be about.  In talking about counterpointed characters, Baxter says:

A third element is born when these characters meet.  This element is not just drama, the force of conflicting desires.  It is a kind of invisible presence whose identity is generated by the proximity of these…characters, and this presence in not moral or simple.

Eugene shakes up this story when he arrives.  The adult lives are turned completely around.  The story becomes exciting during Eugene’s time on stage.  Notice the changes in the voice of the narrator especially—gone is the cynicism and ironic detachment from her voice.  “He huddles close, cold in the drafty house, and I extend my long sweater around him like a shawl.”  “He watches, rapt.  His brown hair hangs in strings in his face, and he chews it.”  With Eugene present, the narrator is dancing for the first time.  Through his suffering, Eugene teaches the narrator (and presumably, hopefully, the reader) to celebrate life. After dinner, they actually go and dance in Cal’s living room.  The narrator takes the hand of the “amazing Eugene” and loses herself to the music of Kenny Loggins.  “We make a phalanx and march, strut, slide to the music.  We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.  We’re aiming to create the mildew, resinous sweat smell of dance.”

This story works with no real direct conflict in it, other than the unyielding despair of an indifferent universe that would besiege a seven year-old boy with cystic fibrosis.  What drives this story is the contrast between the adult word of sophistication and social codes and the free, more open world of Eugene.   It’s Baxter’s passion knocking decency off the stage again.  “Counterpointing substitutes for conflict, or displaces it,” Baxter says.  Were Eugene not present, some other motive force would have to drive this story forward.  Instead, Eugene’s vibrancy works to shake the characters loose of their doldrums.  It’s managed carefully, however.  Moore is hardly preaching and hardly providing a caricature of morality.  In one telling scene, Eugene practically begs the narrator to visit his classroom the next day, when she stops by his school to conduct a dance workshop for older kids.  “‘Sure,’ I say, not knowing that, in a rush, I will forget, and that I’ll be on a plane home already, leafing through some inane airline magazine before I remember that I forgot to do it.”  Moore uses prolepsis here to underscore this scene’s importance, and she shows us how easy it is to forget the sublime in place of the mundane.  The use of the airline magazine works to underscore this point.  Just because Eugene’s presence shines like a beacon in this story, Moore is a careful enough artist to render reality’s often cold indifference to the light.

Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering, we press forward.   Rogers puts it this way:  “And here’s a miracle that must be constantly celebrated: In spite of the moments of the soul’s desperation, we do proceed.”  Moore paints this picture vividly in the story, again using the sharp contrasts between Eugene and the adults.   After he is called to dinner, Eugene must take a regimen of pills for his illness.  Notice the verbs and how they contrast between the characters.

‘Coming!’ shouts Eugene, and he leaps off the couch and slides into the dining room, falling sideways into her chair.  ‘Whoo,’ he says, out of breath.  ‘I almost didn’t make it.’

‘Here,’ says Cal.  He places a goblet of pills at Eugene’s place setting.

Eugene makes a face, but in the chair, he gets up on his knees, leans forward, glass of water in one hand, and begins the arduous activity of taking all the pills.

I sit in the chair opposite him and place my napkin in my lap.

In this short example, we have despair and miraculous procession.  The illness hovers always over Eugene.  Like the universe, it is a dark, relentless presence that cannot be escaped.  Yet Eugene perseveres, undaunted by the magnitude of it.  Notice also the counterpointing to create this effect: Cal, placing the pills, the narrator placing the napkin, while Eugene shouts, leaps, slides and falls into his chair.  And though out of breath, he finds the strength to speak while the adults watch in near silence.  As readers, we feel the emotional weight of Eugene through the adult consciousness of the story, but it is Eugene, not the adults, who instructs us how to live under the cold universe.  Rogers says that “we continue to build the soul’s habitation” by “expressing the awe and thrill and gratitude we feel at the mystery and beauty of the universe.”

The final scene in “Dance in America” seems to capture this feeling of awe perfectly.  The characters are dancing in the living room but Eugene tires due to his illness. He is “determined not to cough until the end,” and the narrator then goes to him.  Notice the change in language from the opening.

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn.  This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven?  What do you fucking think?

This passage is the narrator’s direct answer to the cosmos; it’s her defiant answer to the question, What’s it all about, down here?  In spite of the flaws and terrible fates awaiting them, these characters are dancing.  They are staring into the unfathomable emptiness of infinity and “flipping death the bird.”   Moore’s narrator has reclaimed the language of her opening, by rubbing up against Eugene, and has taken the “latent energy ris(ing) to the surface” and burst it over the top.  By achieving a harmonious balance between very different characters, Moore has crafted both a simple story and a profoundly moving one, one that seeks to find a grid, a location to construct the human soul’s rightful habitation in the universe.

Works Cited

Baxter, Charles.  Burning Down the House.  (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1997)

Moore, Lorrie.  “Dance in America.”  In Birds of America. (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)

Rogers, Pattiann.  “Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation.”  In Writing it Down for James, edited by Kurt Brown.  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995)