A story doesn’t really need more than atmosphere and detail

productimage-picture-the-human-comedy-352Now that I’ve gone through Edith Wharton and Henry James, I decided to venture into the Continent, so I started reading this Balzac short story collection. What I appreciate about Balzac is that he’s one of the first authors to really pay attention to the specifics of things. For instance, in the very first short story, the narrator gets invited to the wedding of the cousin of the woman who cleans his apartment, and he notes that the wedding was on the second floor of a wine distributor’s warehouse, and that it consisted of about 80 people, and then he noted the decorations and the entertainment. That is really interesting stuff, but most authors of that period wouldn’t tell you about it. They’d just be like…it was a wedding.

Balzac, famously, thought it was his mission to capture the entirety of contemporary society, so there are entire stories here whose purpose is just to capture some sort of phenomena. For instance, the second story is just an account of an evening at a Paris salon during the Restoration era. One attendee tells a story about how he became disillusioned when his first love cheated on him. Another goes into an extended inquisition on the nature of modern womanhood. A third riffs about the character of Napoleon. And a fourth tells a dark, Gothic tale. And I loved it! For the first time I felt like I really understood what the appeal of a salon was. It was to be daring, and to shock your contemporaries, but not by arguing with them–the point is to be both elevated and light at the same time.

And I was impressed. There was story, of course. And there was theme and character. But more than anything there was atmosphere and detail. And I feel like that by itself is a pretty worthwhile reason to write a story.

Trunked twenty stories today

59962_9189I’ve submitted to science fiction and fantasy magazines year ten years now, but I only recently started submitting to literary journals as well. Anyway, the main difference between literary journals and SF magazines is that the former accept simultaneous submissions: you can send one piece to as many journals as you want. This meant that my submissions volume immediately went way up: for awhile, in February, I had more than 100 submissions out.

However, most of those submissions were of just five or so stories: the ones that I went the best about. The rest were mostly science fiction stories that had mostly gone through the best markets. I liked them, and I still felt good about them (or I wouldn’t have been submitting them), but I was no longer particularly excited by them. A good number of them were written during the last year before I started my MFA program (before I really started writing novels, when I was a very productive writer).

Anyway, for the past few months, my submissions fervor has fallen. And I feel as though part of the problem was just those old stories. I’d look at them and they weren’t doing anything for me. They got in the way of me sending out submissions, and they made me depressed about the prospect of revising and sending out new work. I’ve gone a long time without an exciting short story sale, which has, to a certain extent, killed my interest in writing and submitting short stories.

But no more! I finally went through my spreadsheet and culled all the stories I’m less happy with. Now I’m down to ten stories that I’m still actively submitting and another ten that still need revising. And that all feels much more manageable to me.

You would think that _knowing_ you’re going to feel bad would somehow inoculate you against feeling bad

th_BadStoryDroWhen I was in the final stages of writing the first draft of the novel, I was feeling so good that I knew the feeling couldn’t last. When you’re in a good mood, it’s impossible to fathom a bad mood coming. But I knew it was on its way! I had no idea what I was going to feel unhappy about, because there’s really nothing in my life that is particularly bad, but I knew it was coming.

And here it is.

Now that the semester has started, I need to write some short stories for workshop, and it is proving to be extremely slow going. Last semester, I was on fire, producing much more than I needed to for workshop. This semester, not so much. The world simply seems drained of meaning. I can imagine all kinds of stories, but they don’t seem interesting. It’s hard for me to imagine what a person could care about or why they would bother.

It’s not a depressed mood, so much as a mild anhedonia.

Still, when I was in this mood last year, I produced at least one extremely good story, so we’ll see. There are only two ways to write when you’re in this mood: the first is to go deeper inside and try to pin down the thing that you need right at this moment; and the second is to get further from yourself and immerse yourself in the richness and specificity of the world.

I am alternating between doing the two.

Writing requires a lot of faith. When you’re working on a story, you need to have faith that it’ll come together (even though there’s a very good chance that it won’t). And when you’re between stories, you need to have faith that something will come along. Without that faith, you end up spending way too much time chasing down every mirage because the act of writing a bad story so much like the act of writing a good one that, as long as you don’t allow yourself to slow down and think, you can very easily convince yourself that you’re doing the latter instead of the former.

Been phenomenally productive this month

The new focus on hours of writing rather than output in terms of words has led to some odd results. For instance, I just spent 2.5 hours writing 900 words. A year ago, this would’ve been an unproductive day. But now, it was actually super productive! I mean, who cares how many words you write, if the words you do write end up being the last third of a story! I’m spending a lot more time thinking about sentences and things like that. But I’m also pretty productive (five stories completed in the month of September).

What changed is that I am no longer doing the drafting style that is heavy on rewrites. That was obviously a style that I developed so that I could get a lot of wordcount in while still taking my time. And that was fine and even had a number of upsides (the stories didn’t look like they’d been edited–they hung together in a more internally consistent way), but it was also tedious and prevented me from getting any momentum.

The only thing that’s a bit depressing is that all the stories I’ve written lately are literary stories (like, there is literally nothing speculative in them…not even a single teeny, tiny robot!) and all my reputation in the SF world isn’t really going to help me in selling lit stories. But oh well.

Spent an hour today organizing the stories that I’ve banished from active submission

Once upon a time, I kept all my stories in one folder. Then, I wrote more stories and got tired of some of the earlier stories, so I began to banish those stories to another folder that I called “Trunked Stories”. Like everything in my writing life, the whole filing system became more and more complicated (there are now folders for “Revisions”, “Completed Stories”, “Unfinished Stories”, and “Fragments”). The most recent innovation was giving each story its own file folder. This became a necessity after I started doing multiple drafts of each story (sometimes as many as 15 or 20 of them). Oftentimes, the story’s name changed during the drafting process, and it started to become a chore to go back and rename all the files. Now I just create a folder for the story and rename that whenever the story changes name. Furthermore, I drop the story folder into the different sub-folders as it changes status.

I’ve been doing that for my in-progress stories for a few weeks now, but today I decided to go back and apply the organizational method to my old stories–the ones that I no longer submit. There are a lot of these (99 of them, to be exact). That’s more than half the stories I’ve ever written. Altogether, my ‘trunked’ stories have accrued 694 rejections: an average of 7 each. There are no hard and fast rules for when I take a story out of submission. Basically, I usually retire it at the point when I would be ashamed to send it to an editor with whom I had a good relationship.

As you can see, there are ten years worth of stories in this folder. All of them are pretty bad. And yet I submitted the vast majority of them to editors at some time or another. I can still remember the joy and hope that I felt when I wrote many of these stories. Nor are these stories some impossibly distant part of my life. Many of them were written in 2011, which is also a year in which I wrote a number of stories that ended up selling to fairly decent places–stories that I still think aren’t too bad.

Whatever, I feel no shame. I read slush. I rejected over 900 stories. That’s roughly equal to the number of rejections I’ve gotten in my life. So I’ve been on both ends of this. And I have to say: bad stories are a fact of life. Some people treat bad art like it’s some kind of crime against humanity. To that I say…art is not serious business. There are plenty of things in life that are serious business: marriage and war and fatherhood and poverty and our present system of industrial manufacture are all pretty serious things; if you screw them up, then people suffer. Art is not like them. Bad art hurts no one.

Looking at all these trunked stories, I just have to say, I am a bit astonished that I kept at it. There is roughly a five year period here, from maybe 2003 to 2008, when I got almost no encouragement. Even until about 2010, good news was pretty rare. If I’d really thought about this, I probably should’ve concluded that my talents didn’t lie in this direction. There are very few writers who’ve received as many rejections as me. I don’t think I’ve ever even been a workshop star (you know the kind of thing I’m talking about–the workshop where the instructor loves you to death). I mean, being a workshop star is utterly meaningless, but when you’re not yet publishing, it does mean a lot to you.

Life will never again be the way it was in 2008. Not because I don’t get rejected (I’ve gotten 114 short story rejections this year). But because I don’t really care about rejection as much. Back then, rejection was painful because I thought that selling a story meant something. Now I know that it really doesn’t. It doesn’t make you particularly happy and it doesn’t materially improve your life, so it’s not really something that’s worth getting that worked up about.

Been having a much easier time writing short stories lately

All of last year, I was finding short story writing to be very difficult. I’d go through so many drafts and discard so many ideas before I found something that was at all worth pursuing. And then even when that was done, I’d eventually sort of start to lose interest. I didn’t consciously intend this, but the upshot was that from February until basically the end of August, I didn’t write any short stories. However, now I am back on the short story wagon. I’ve written three in the last few weeks and I’ll probably finish another tomorrow.

The secret is that they’ve all been super bizarre (and perhaps not even recognizably what someone would call a short story). Not sure what this augurs for the future of my short story writing. To a certain extent, I feel really reprogrammed by Mrs Dalloway. After reading that novel, I just feel like I need to write stories that are a bit less artificial and have a bit more reality. This has nothing to do with the divide between realism and speculative fiction, because (to my mind) most realist work is incredibly artificial. Raymond Carver’s world is not the real world. It is a very Carvery world with its own very Carvery rules.

Of course, what I end up producing will be just as fantastic as anyone’s stuff, but at least it’ll be a fantasy that is, in some way, more satisfying to me.

I totally understand why people quit writing short stories.

calvin-and-hobbes-on-writing-3 I’ve only written three stories this year (and it’s half over; also, one of those stories was only 700 words long)! The last story I completed was finished on February 17th. This year I’ve almost exclusively done novel-related stuff: drafting and revising Enter Title Here¸ revising This Beautiful Fever, and, this summer, working on the first draft of a different novel.

Not only have I not been writing stories, I haven’t even been revising them. I have seventeen unrevised stories, with some of them dating back to January of 2012. Normally I take a month or two at the beginning of the year to revise my backlog. I didn’t do that this time. And my submissions pile is showing the damage. Half my stories aren’t out right now, because I don’t really have anywhere exciting to show them. If I had new stuff coming in, then I might retire old stuff, but that’s not really happening.

It’s a bit disappointing. I like to always be in a place where someone could email me with good news RIGHT NOW. And that’s not really where I am at the moment. The effort-to-reward time for a short story is really good. You can get good news within a few months of writing the story. For a novel, it’s very bad. I wrote the first draft of This Beautiful Fever two years ago, and I’m still not in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Actually, right now, there’s no chance of good news happening on that novel, since I am sitting on a second round of edits from the agent. Good edits. Sound edits. But as long as they’re hanging over me, the novel isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully I can get them done before I go to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, but if I can’t, then I won’t be able to get them done until maybe mid-August. And the it’ll take him a month to read them. So, best case scenario, the novel doesn’t even go on submission until, like, mid-September–ten weeks from now!

And that’s for something I wrote two years ago.

The stuff I am writing now is even further from being in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Not actually clear how long their journey is, since I’ve only ever taken one novel from first-draft to submission, and that novel still hasn’t completed its revision lifecycle.

But, on the other hand, the prospect of writing more short stories is not too exciting. Firstly, because the last few stories I’ve been super excited about have gotten nothing but rejection. And, secondly, because the potential reward is so limited. I mean, I like reading short stories and I like writing them. But I also like getting readers and getting paid. And novels are where it’s at for that stuff.

And even though I’m a pretty fast writer, it does take a noticeable change in gears to switch over and write short stories, and I just haven’t felt like taking the effort.

The result is that I am in a different place nowadays, mentally. In some ways, it’s relaxing. I’m not worrying as much about submissions. I’m not tracking them obsessively. I’m not staying up at night wondering if some magazine is going to like my story. But I am also deprived of the pleasure of that kind of hope.

Sometimes I do think, “Wow, actually, the odds of an agented manuscript selling are much better than the odds of a story being accepted by Clarkesworld. So it’s not at all unlikely that something good could actually happen to me.”

But that prospect seems so remote. Any success that is further away than POSSIBLY RIGHT NOW is just too far into the mists of time for me.

Three pretty good short stories that were published in March 2012

This month, I read the March original fiction output of Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld.

I really didn’t want to like my favorite story of the month. In fact, I positively resisted it. I read it with the utmost disinterest for about a third of its length until I finally gave in–against my own will and political instincts–and admitted to myself that it was awesome.

“The Bells of Subsidence” by Michael John Grist (Clarkesworld) – A young girl leaves a young boy–her very best friend–behind on a desert world. She goes up into a galaxy-trawling spaceship in order to perform the complex mental gymnastics that keep it moving through time and space. The ship moves without guidance or purpose. It is the remnant of an ancient empire that populated the galaxy and then subsided. Now it takes a hundred children from every world that it visits and then it slowly chews them up with its intense mental demands. But the girl remembers her boy. Even as she forgets everything else, she remembers his name. She remembers that the name is important. She resists the crack-up, and retains her mind, and becomes captain of the ship, and searches the galaxy for the answer to a question that she cannot remember.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re groaning right now. Really? Love conquers all? You can become a spaceship captain and travel the galaxy, but what really matters is the boy you left at home? It’s horrifying, and until the very last sentence, I kept hoping that the story would subvert the trope. But it didn’t, and I guess that’s okay. In a way, I suppose the story is a subversion of all the stories in which people are so anxious to get into space that they are willing to take any risk and undergo any kind of physical or mental trauma. In this story, a woman is given the galaxy, and she turns it down, in favor of the comforts of home.

The story is great. Its portrait of an empire that continues to propagate itself mechanically is awe-inspiring. I loved the Bells–the spaceships–and the lost, confused Bell-captains. I loved the strange planets. I loved the way that each third of the book feels different in tone and setting, as if this was three different stories. It’s a beautiful, suspenseful story, and it’s definitely my favorite out of all the ones that I read this month.

Alarms by S. L. Gilbow (Lightspeed) – I think we’ve all met someone whose personal problems made his presence kind of alarming. A person who has made us say to ourselves, “Umm, this guy has way too much going on right now. I’m just going to stay away until his issues sort themselves out”. In this story, a woman finds that her presence sets off all the mechanical and electronic alarms in her vicinity.

It’s kind of a metaphor for the woman’s mental problems, but it’s also a problem that’s treated seriously within the text in that interesting way that genre-fantasy (as opposed to allegorical fantasy) sometimes does things. She can’t go into any building because she’ll set off smoke detectors. She can’t go too close to parked cars because she’ll set off their car alarms. She can’t work. She’s isolated herself. She’s slowly falling apart.

What drives the story is a very spritely voice. Even when things are going to shit, the protagonist remains committed to examining her own life and trying to figure things out. And I really admired the last third: the ending deft and thoughtful. The story takes its premise as a starting point and goes farther than most stories would.

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by Claire Humphrey (Strange Horizons) – A contemporary fantasy story told as a letter by a grown woman to her (female) childhood friend. She describes an incident from when they were young. Her friend was about to be enslaved by a fairy queen, but the protagonist claimed her as her beloved and, thus, saved her (or perhaps not–it is implied that the friend’s true desire might have been to go and live with the fairy queen). In return, the protagonist agreed to take no other lovers and to, someday, spend a hundred years in the service of the queen. But now they’ve grown up, and the two friends are not together. Her friend is married to a man and has a child, and the protagonist is left alone with her unrequited love. And the protagonist is wondering whether she should break her deal.

I loved this story. It’s very tragic, but it’s also kind of creepy. The protagonist feels, somewhere deep inside, that she has some kind of claim over her friend, and she can’t stop begging her friend to honor that claim. If this was a straight guy writing to a lesbian girl, it would be super creepy*. As it is, the lesbian girl to straight woman version is just sort of creepy. We’ll know we’ve achieved equal rights when we consider the lesbian version to be just as creepy as the straight version.

At the same time, whatever. We’ve all experienced unrequited love. It’s creepy and it’s quite distasteful, but it’s a real feeling and it deserves a place in our stories. I loved the internal tension in the protagonist. She knows the beautiful–and perhaps the most honorable–thing would be to continue to hold to her bargain and to throw her life away in service to this love, but she also cannot help but struggle against that fate.

 

*It’s kind of hard to imagine a version of this story in which a gay man writes to a straight man, not because it’s impossible for a gay man to have an unrequited crush on a straight man, but because it’d be hard for such a letter to contain a similar allusion to the possibility that the straight man might turn and choose to be with the gay man after all. Rightly or wrongly, men are not thought to be so fluid.

Four pretty good short stories that were published last month

Longtime blog readers may perhaps remember that in December 2010, I promised that I was going to read the top online SF/F markets every month and find nice things to say about at least three stories (in order to combat the pernicious feelings of envy that had been [and still are] assailing me). Well….my bad. I only did it once. Okay, but now it’s a new year, and I’m trying again.

I just finished reading the combined output January 2012 output of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and Strange Horizons….err…except for the reprints*. I chose four stories this month, and they are below.

“Scattered Along The River Of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) – This story is simultaneously about a woman leading a rebellion against an interstellar colonizer and about her granddaughter coming to an exile community to witness her heroic grandmother’s funeral. While I was reading this story, I thought, “Hmm, this is pretty good…but I’m not sure it’s going to be one of the ones that I blog about.” The story is beautifully written, and there is something very delicate about the very carefully calibrated narrative distance from which it’s told. However, the plot seemed banal. And then I got to the end. It has a great ending. A perfect ending. The ending ties up every strand in the story in one arresting image, and manages to comment powerfully on exile and assimilation.

“How Many Miles To Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed) – Okay, so sometimes I read a story, and even though it seems pretty good, I keep thinking, “What’s the point of this story? Why does it exist? What makes this story original?” and then, other times, I read a story and I think, “Holy crap, this story is awesome”. This story is one of the latter ones. It’s a man and a woman driving across a perpetually-darkened Earth, and perpetually under attack from these devilish pseudo-Biblical creatures. It’s full of arresting images: a civilization subsumed by rotting, leafless trees; a town on fire, with skeletal figures writing in the sky above…

But, do you see the problem? None of that stuff is exactly new. The hellish landscape is a mélange of Hieronymous Bosch, Hellboy, South Park, and everyone else who’s ever treated the subject. And the central plot of two survivors making a line-drive through a hostile environment to the supposed safety of some last redoubt has also been done a large number of times. And yet, I don’t care. I still really like this story. It’s weird biblical-horror tone and intense pace was enough for me. This makes me wonder whether I actually dislike stories for their unoriginality or whether I find them unoriginal because I dislike them.

“The Five Elements Of The Heart Mind” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) – Sometimes I forget that there is such a thing as a science fiction story which hinges upon some interesting scientific concept. Most SF stories don’t have too much to do with science. They’re either about playing around with mythopeic tropes (aliens, robots, generation ships, immortality, etc) or they’re about gadgetry and futurismic speculation. This story is about an interstellar traveler who is marooned on a planet that happens to contain a long-lost colony that has regressed, technologically, into the Iron Age. There, she falls in love with a local villager. Now, that would be a pretty dull story (although it is very engagingly written), if it didn’t have a super amazing scientific speculation at its heart. I don’t even want to tell you what the speculation is, for fear that it will ruin the story. And what’s more impressive, the scientific speculation provides new vigor to the castaway plot. The whole thing really works. I was very impressed.

“The Chastisement Of Your Peace” by Tracy Canfield (Strange Horizons) – Okay, so this one is pure jealousy. Astute fans of mine might perhaps have noticed that doubling is one of my themes. I’ve written about office-slave clones (“Ted Agonistes”); a British Navy staffed entirely by parallel universe versions of Admiral Nelson (“Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast”); a society created by the discarded nanotech replicas of one man (“The Association Of The Dead”); and a tiny cockroach that gives birth to replicas of itself (“What Everyone Remembers”). I don’t know why, okay. I just love doubles. And I have so many more unpublished stories and story ideas that involve doubles. If I published them all, I could literally populate a whole collection of doubles stories. And when I read Tracy’s story about a world populated entirely by parallel universe versions of Jenny Sirico (just one random woman), I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d witten this one.” It’s not only an idea that I love, but it’s treated in exactly the manner that I love. It’s full of all these fun little flourishes that give the Jenny-world the illusion of being as rigorously logical as (we hope) the real world is. And I like the direction that the actual story went, too. Everything about the story really clicks. It feels like, given this setting, the story used the exact right character and told the exact right story.

*I’m sure that some people enjoy reading the reprints, but I am not one of those people. I kind of feel like the only reason to read a monthly fiction magazine is to get a glimpse of what’s new…these stories are literally the latest thing that is happening in the SF/F world. The reprints are probably pretty good, but they’re just not new, and hence they’re hard for me to get excited about. Whenever I want to read reprinted short stories, I prefer to read them in a Year’s Best or single-author collection.

Dear Richard Yates, where are the goddamned epiphanies that I paid for?

I don’t like bookstores much. I like libraries. I like to check out a dozen books at a time and then read only three of them, and renew the rest again and again and check them out year after year, until I finally (maybe someday) gain the maturity to realize that I will never, ever read Ulysses and release it back into the world to torment other self-conscious bibliophiles. Whereas buying a book is something else. I’m shackled to the books I buy. I’ll probably have to lug them through the rest of my whole damn life. And even when I box books up for sale, or pulping, or just to rot in my parents’ garage – I still have to leave this niggling few out. Because I haven’t read it yet.

But sometimes the library’s closed. And other times I have $150 in fines and a blocked account, and I’m feeling like hell and rooting around for ways to feel better and I know I could just go home and watch Law and Order. But it won’t be comforting this time, it’ll just leave me feeling kind of gorged and sick. And I’ll try to sleep and won’t be able to. And the only thing for situations like this is a really laxative reading experience. But it has to be just right. It has to be just heavy enough that as I  get further into the book, I lose more and more of my intellectual and emotional capacity, but not so heavy that I just stop reading and start watching Law and Order. And the problem is that the balance is different each time. I don’t just need a book, I need the right book. Which means browsing. Which means the bookstore.

When you’ve read as little as me — and browsed Wikipedia as much — you’ve already heard of all the authors. You heard of them from book reviews, from the dinnertable chat by the characters in other books you’ve read, from summer reading lists, from the bits of English you didn’t sleep through, from the lips of sophisticated movie characters, from quiz show categories named “famous first lines”, from interviews where hot young authors describe the transformative reading experience they had in the basement of their Brooklyn tenements, from seeing them on the spines of books you checked out of the library months ago and allowed to gather dust and fines, and from the first paragraph of the A- paper you wrote after finally returning the book to the library and pulling the relevant quotes up from Amazon.com text search.

And when you know already know the names of the authors, walking into the bookstore is an adventure. But not the good kind of adventure, the heroic quest through unknown lands. More like the kind where you trudge off into the forbidden forest looking for firewood and wondering whether it’s going to be the centaurs that finally get you, or the griffins.

So there I was, prowling through Barnes and Nobles for a book. I passed over the shelves again and again, letting things catch my eye. I came back to Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories again and again. Wasn’t he so cynical and amusing with his little vignettes? Wasn’t some postmodernism what I needed right now? On a previous quest I’d been saved when I opened Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Its opening, a second-person narrative about a man in a bookstore looking for a book to buy, had struck me as trite the first time I’d read it, when I fished out my library copy from under my bed in my college dorm (in the Seannune, if that means anything to anyone), and the second-time, standing in my local indie bookstore Politics and Prose. But that latest time, those same few first pages filled me with peace.

Barthelme had been a strong contender that time. I’d clearly known what I wanted was whimsy, and I’d almost bought this collection (which had also bored me when I rented it sophomore year). But now its moment had passed. The first page was just words to me, and I finally put it back. Maybe its time will come again. I don’t know, I’ve never had two peaks of affection for a book. Either my regard increases, or it decreases. I haven’t lived long enough to know if my feelings towards some books might be sine curves, albeit ones with a period of years, that constantly cross the x-axis of personal toleration, plunging into the positive realm of affection or the negative realm of boredom over and over again.

Leaping past the shelves, I headed for my two chick-lit W’s, Weiner and Weisberger. I’d found and rejoiced in Good in Bed some months while moping around my house (I’m pretty sure it belonged to my dad), and dreamt that I might too be a good-looking movie star’s way of keeping it real. And there’s no funny story to go with The Devil Wears Prada…it’s just an awesome book and a better movie. But one look at the sequel to Good in Bed and I put it down. Too cloying. David Foster Wallace was also out. I’d already read everything he ever wrote, except his first novel, and I only had to glance at it to know tonight was not going to be its night.

Keep in mind, this whole process took an hour and a half. The certainty I’ve distilled down to you in a sentence was not certain at all to me at the time. I even took detours into the science fiction section, but was repelled by the massive wall of wrong. I didn’t have the energy to read a once-favorite author’s latest squirt of four books a year drivel (I’m looking at you Orson Scott Card). I even took a detour to Thomas Pynchon who I’ve always hoped I’d someday love and Jane Austen, who wrote the very first assigned-for-class book that I ever stopped reading halfway through (Pride and Prejudice in the 10th grade) and who had kept me up all night reading Emma last summer.

Finally my eyes drifted down from the Ws to Richard Yates – the very epitome of an author I’d only heard of. An author who I’d constantly seen mentioned, usually at the tail end of a list starting with two out of the crew of Carver, Cheever, and Updike, followed by someone marginally less famous but still respected, like Sherwood Anderson or Isaac Bashevis Singer, and then someone totally obscure, like Bernard Malamud or Grace Paley– as if there’s some sort of rhythmic law of name-dropping authors — as one the “great” short story writers, usually accompanied by absolutely no mention of the actual content of his work (or any of their) work.*

And he was the author of Revolutionary Road, too, eck. This is the Leonardo DiCaprio / Kate Winslet film whose trailer I was subjected to at least 13 times in the Fall of 2008, which was accompanied on at least four occasions by me leaning over to my brother and saying, “I am never, ever going to see that movie”.

I stood there, looking at his The Collected Short Stories Of (I wasn’t even going to consider Revolutionary Road), thinking “Dammit, I just read Unaccustomed Earth. Haven’t I totally read enough of these whole suburban-lives-of-quiet-desperation books to last me a year?”

On the other hand, I was standing in a downtown Barnes and Nobles at ten o’clock on a Tuesday wearing a jacket and tie, trying not to catch the eye of the attractive women sitting reading in their haphazardly placed plush chairs as I kept unwittingly circling them on my way from ‘B’ to ‘W’ and back again. I picked up the book, read the first page, bought it, got home at ten o’clock, and went to sleep.

The next day, I’d only gotten to the second story before I realized I’d been taken for a ride. See, I’d recently read my friend [bookelfe’s]** commentary on how much she hated epiphany stories. So epiphanies were clearly on my mind. But let me tell you, I love epiphanies. Epiphanies are the greatest endings ever. James Joyce deserves to be put on currency for having invented the epiphany ending. I want to write a story called “Epiphany” about a man who is addicted to a pill called E, or Epiphany, that only lasts for a few seconds, but each time, he experiences a shattering epiphany. And the story progresses with him having epiphanies about lightbulbs and the elevator and traffic and his secretary’s hair while his life falls completely to pieces around him (Actually, I think they already have that drug. It’s DMT, and the people who are fascinated by it are adorable and terrifying.)

And everything about Yates’ stories screamed out that they were epiphany stories. I mean, the second story, “The Best of Everything” is about a woman getting married to a man she barely knows and she gets all dressed up in her flimsiest, sexiest nightwear and decides to have sex with him for the first time, the night before they’re going to take the train down to her parents’ place for the wedding and her husband walks in, a little drunk, his face all wild and gleamy and tells about how all his friends threw this amazing surprise party for him and isn’t it great they cared and they bought him the suitcase he’d wanted to buy so he’d have something nice to take down but he couldn’t afford it and they bought it for him, except he doesn’t say any of that, he just thinks it. All he says to her is how he promised the guys he’d be right back, real soon, and all she says is “Can’t they wait” and he doesn’t even notice how she’s dressed and he really wants to get back, it’s the best thing he ever wanted in life, it’s the whole reason he’s getting married, and the story closes with:

She smiled tiredly and opened the door for him, “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be there”

Now that is not an epiphany. I mean, at first I thought I might just be confused. That maybe we were just seeing an epiphany from the outside. Like it was a kind of technique, maybe demonstrating the alienation of epiphany. But then I remembered one of my favorite last lines ever, from a story whose title, author, content, and first line I don’t remember. At the end, the family all sits down to dinner, just like they always do, and the narrator says:

And that was the first of our many reunions

And I looked up the last line of one of the Lahiri stories I read last week and really enjoyed. It was:

She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing in the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other

Now those are arresting images. What possible worth did “The Best of Everything” have if it didn’t end with a nice, crunchy epiphany? Who cares about these character’s banal little lives if they can’t be elevated above them for just one moment by a glorious epiphany, if the story is just “woman with husband she is afraid might be terrible gets a little disappointed when husband turns to be kind of terrible”?

And this happened over and over. Understand, I wasn’t actively made angry by the lack of epiphany. More I was just puzzled. Because the stories were good. Really good. His characters are not people living lives of quiet desperation at all, but faintly ridiculous dreamers. Like a steel worker who quits his wellpaid union job to be a writer at a shitty labor rag because he dreams of having people pay attention to his words. And then he tries to hijack a little gossip column he gets and turn it into this big deal “Musings” column and gets fired by the editor. And then the story just ends. When the protagonist, his former coworker, tries to get him a job at another paper, the dreamer’s wife just brushes him off for condescending to her husband.

Just vivid, beautifully written story after story of cracked dreams that limp into endings. And I loved it. I’ve always kind of distrusted epiphanies. Because epiphanies are a cheap cop-out. Oh, they’re always so sad. And your mind’s eye is panning out over his tear-stained face, out onto the ravaged, rotted trees, and the violin music is playing in the background. But you know what? Violin music is beautiful. And epiphanies are moments of ecstasy.

The gambler who’s just lost all his money, the deed to his house, even the plane ticket home, on a bad roll of dice…in that moment he doesn’t feel sad. He’s ecstatic. He’s just lost everything, sunk lower than even he thought he could ever go. Nothing in his life will ever again be the same. He’s transformed himself through the force of his own will. Every epiphany is beautiful. In a world where we just drift through life, not really feeling or absorbed much (not that it’s the fault of the world, really), that once shocked moment of stillness and understanding transcends tragedy. It doesn’t make the tragedy worthwhile, it makes you feel like you live in a world where tragedy has no meaning. Heaven is an epiphany.

That’s why I’ve never really “gotten” the horror genre. Horror novels always end on a note of sinister malice that is profoundly exhilarating. If I discovered there were secrets that man was not meant to know, I would not be terrified, I’d be relieved. If there was a middle-American town where people were mysteriously, randomly, and methodically stoned to death every year, I’d thank heaven that it existed. And if a girl methodically killed her entire high school class and lit a town on fire with her supernatural powers…well, you get the picture. None of that is scary. Not even living through it would be scary.

For a long time, I wanted to write a bunch of short stories called “After The Epiphany” where the character wakes up the next morning and is like “Now what?” And the answer is…”Then you keep on living and nothing changes at all.” Because you know what would be scary? Having to wake up the day after seeing your colleague at Miskatonic University get blasted into madness by the Necronomicon and seeing the ungraded term papers lying on your desk.

Epiphanies are a cop-out. They capitalize on our distance from the protagonist to leave you standing at that moment of shocked, glorious recognition following a tragedy…but you never have to live the moment after that, or after that. You don’t have to wake up in the morning with that epiphany just a dim hungover memory and say, “Well, what now?” The moments after the epiphany would be the scary part. If Heaven is the ultimate epiphany, then Hell is the moment after it, and the one after that, and after that.

So as I read, I cheered Yates on. I applauded his middlepiphanies. The moment in the middle where his characters are balanced at the apex of their dreaming (no closer to their goal than ever, not really), but the moment when the dream seems most real to them. And then nothing happens. They don’t commit some act of epic hubris. They don’t have a stunning flash of insight. The story just keeps going, and we realize that they never had a shot in the first place. She was never going to become an actress, he was never going to run away and escape from it all. It was all a glorious, flawed delusion. And even that, what does that mean? Nothing! They just keep on living their lives, doing the same thing they always did, only that crazy dream is gone. But the real fool was always the reader, who at the beginning of the story believed, because stories have told us to believe, that this person is important by mere virtue of the fact that they have a dream. And that something will happen, whether it  be positive or negative, joyous or sad, in service of that dream.

And we need Richard Yates to puncture that expectation in us, to operate on the needle edge of every story we’ve ever read, and play along so kindly and so deftly until we realize we’ve been had.

Except…I while reading I kept thinking about Gone With The Mind. A novel I loved for many reasons, and a novel that’s also about dreaming big and failing in the end. And one of the things I best remember about Gone With The End is the final page. Two pages earlier she’s told Rhett Butler she loves him, and he’s replied with some version of his famous line. But then she says:

“I won’t think of it now,”  she said again, aloud, trying to push her misery to the back of her mind, trying to find some bulwark against the rising tide of pain. “I’ll—why I’ll go back to Tara to-morrow,” and her spirits lifted faintly

She had gone back to Tara once in fear and defeat and she had emerged from its sheltering walls strong and armed for victory. What she had done once – please, God – she could do again! How, she did not know. She did not want to think of that now. All she wanted was a breathing space in which to hurt, a quiet place to lick her wounds, a haven in which to plan her campaign.

And there’s a little voice in me saying, “What are you doing bringing out Gone With The Wind – that’s some consolatory garbage – Richard Yates is just telling it like it is, man! These people aren’t heroes. There’s no Tara for them.”

And maybe he is. But I think that on that morning after the epiphany, or on some morning after that, or maybe a year later or two, there is another peak. There is a lightening of spirits. Maybe nothing is ever the same again, and maybe it’s never as good. But you still need to keep living. There’s still some goal, some dream.

And as I plowed further and further in Yates’ collected stories, I started to hate him a little. Oh, I know it’s wrong to identify an author with his works. Maybe Yates was a sweet, optimistic man who always gave change to panhandlers on the street and made room when people were trying to change lanes in packed traffic. But when you’re reading someone’s collected works, that’s the output of a lifetime spread before you. And it’s hard not see some vast, malevolent intelligence, some guiding impulse behind these stories. So let’s just say that I started to hate that thing in Yates that caused these stories to exist.

And that feeling built and built until it finally came to a head on page 200 or so, with the second story, “A Natural Girl”, of his second collection, “Liars in Love,” which has one of the greatest opening paragraphs I’ve ever read:
[In the spring of her sophomore year when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she did not love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years.]

While the first sentence was great, I loved the sheer fuddled melancholy of the last sentence in the paragraph. The story goes on to paint an engaging portrait of the father, Dr. Andrews and how much he loves his daughters and how bewildered and shattered he was by Susan’s rejection. The daughter, who’s the main focus of the story, goes off and marries her college English professor for whom she totally dissed her dad to get him off her back. And a bunch of stuff happens, and then she leaves the professor, etc, and while she’s taking her kid to their new life in California, she stops by her parents’ house, where Dr. Andrews begins to muse on his aging wife, and I encountered these two sentences:

[There wasn’t much left in her once-lustrous hair except what the hairdresser could salvage and primp; her body was bloated in some places and sagging in others. She looked like what she was: a woman who’d been called Mother in shrill, hungering voices for most of her life.]

And for some reason, upon coming this passage, I took the black ballpoint pen in my hand (yes, I annotate my books now, 7 years too late to get extra credit in high school English), put brackets around those sentences and scratched the word “EVIL” into the margin.

After that, I raced through the remaining two hundred pages of the book without particularly strong emotion. There are good stories in the second half, but by then I felt jaded.

And the next morning, I woke up feeling great.

*Seriously, google three of those names at random. Also, to prove my point re: knowing the names, I have not yet completed a book by any of these authors.

**I know that anonymity is a valuable commodity on the internet (I know I wish some of the UseNet postings I made when I was twelve were slightly more anonymous), but I don’t think I’ll ever get over how ridiculous it feels to call someone by their made-up internet handle.