Adventures in Reading

Live Poetry: Ray McNiece
September 23, 2008, 11:39 am
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , ,

It has been too long since I’ve been to a reading but last week I had the great fortune of experiencing Ray McNiece. A poet, musician, and performance artist, McNiece is a phenomenal example of how poetry thrives and survives and can infect us all.

Revisted: Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning

I’m trying to think of why I first read Nelson Algren and of all the books, especially when considering the more popular The Man With the Golden Arm, I stumbled across Never Come Morning. But this is my second time reading it and it was no less emotional, heart wrenching, and brilliant than the first time around. It is such a powerful book and always encourages me to reconsider books such as The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath as social commentary-lite or at least a more acceptable version prepared for society (granted, I understand the stir both of these books have caused in their lifetime). Because where Updike and Steinbeck provide the reader with the idea of hope at the end of their novels, Algren punches you in the gut and leaves you teary eyed and gasping for breath.

Never Come Morning is a book of boxing. It is a book about prostitution. It is a book about Poles on the North West side of Chicago. It is a book about the division between citizen and cop. It is a book of the indignities of the righteous man. It is a book about survival and that if for no other reason the idea, ambition, and ability to survive in the world should be respected. It’s a book of desires unfulfilled.

As a social commentary, Algren describes it best when saying “I felt that if we did not understand what was happening to men and women who shared all the horrors but none of the privileges of our civilization, then we did not know what was happening to ourselves.” It is also interesting in the history of social commentaries that Algren is not attempting to create the noble peasant or the noble worker, but is trying to squarely represent the result of dehumanizing people in our society. “Algren said in effect, ‘Hey—an awful lot of these people you hearts are bleeding for are really mean and stupid. That’s just a fact. Did you know that?’” But this brutally realistic observation of society doesn’t impede him from opening Never Come Morning with a Whitman quote: “I feel I am of them—/I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself—/And henceforth I will not deny them—/For how can I deny myself?”

I also found it interesting that Never Come Morning includes in expanded form Algren’s short story “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” as the middle of the novel. Like Murakami’s “A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which later became a novel by the same name, it’s been interesting to find novels starting as the tightly packed and complex short story that sprawl out into novels.

Anton Chekhov on the short story
“Your works lack the compactness that makes short things alive.” From a letter written by Anton Chekhov to E.M. Sh—, Nov. 17, 1895.

I have dipped once into an Anton Chekhov story “The Lady With the Little Dog” from My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead collection edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. I recall enjoying it at the time and I was pleased to stumble across Chekhov again in What is the short story?. A few excerpts from letters further expand on, well, short storiness.

“But you must give the reader no chance to recover: he must always be kept in surprise. … Long, detailed works have their own peculiar aims, which require a most careful execution regardless of the total impression. But in short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, –because– I don’t know why! …” (a letter from 1888) For anyone who writes, fiction or nonfiction, I am sure it is reassuring that even Chekhov occasionally cannot find the words to express himself. But it’s true. Some short stories due seem to be missing information and I shy away from using the word fragmented but there you are. However, it’s fragmented with purpose.

Seven years later it seems that Chekhov perhaps found a response for his “because” when he explains “When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Chekhov is saying this specifically in regards to his lack of combining “art and sermon,” but I also interpret it as applying to the previous statement. Short stories, like poetry, demand that the reader fills in the gaps. It’s easy to say that a short story writer may limit information as a result of space but saying not enough engages the reader in a certain manner. It’s a tool, not a casual convention.

This tactic is explored in novels but the novel will at some point resolve and fill in these gaps. Short stories often beg the reader to take their own account of the situation and define the story for herself. I suppose the short story could be considered a fill-in-the-blank parable where the reader provides her own moral stimulus.