David Shield’s Critical Legerdemain

In my so-so review of Lydia Davis’ collection Varieties of Disturbance, I mentioned the claim of innovation levered at the book.

So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

This is profoundly about intellectual laziness, about the wish to write innovation into material that is derivative and second-rate without bothering to really engage the written work that actually exists. If we proclaim something innovative or new, we absolve ourselves from the responsibility of trying to understand what is, and has been writing so far, the shapes, traditions and context of past and present writing. This is such a transparent, such a cheap enterprise that it takes a nimble pen, a writer quick and flashy in his rhetoric, to pull it off. The most prominent and successful practioner of this is David Shields, who tends to sound perfectly dim in interviews. I will, within the next month, comment on his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but you can see his method of critical legerdemain at work in this new review of Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (my so-so review of an older book by Monson is here). His declaration therein

Memoir is dead. Long live the anti-memoir, built from scraps.

is a perfect example of the impoverished understanding of literature and genres inherent in his method.


Griddy Realism: Ander Monson’s “Other Electricities”

Monson, Ander (2005), Other Electricities: Stories, Sarabande Books
ISBN 1-932511-15-6

I have thought for a while about how to review Ander Monson’s collection of stories, Other Electricities. It is at the same time a very original work of fiction, and a book of stories that seems to add little to the postmodern American canon. If Lydia Davis’ collection of short prose, Varieties of Disturbance, has had little to say that has not already been said in past works of fiction, Monson’s work can be said to do the same, but drawing from a far smaller (in several ways) pool of sources. There are two distinct kinds of sources, though. One is the American short story in the vein of for example Richard Ford, who explores landscapes of desolation and the people in them, in a language that is as simple and fittingly rugged, as it is elevated and elegiac; the most important reference in this kind of source must be Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent Winesburg, Ohio, although, as far as quality is concerned, Monson never approaches either of those two writers (I’m not sure he wants to). The other source is the postmodern American story à la Barth and Barthelme, and especially its contemporary equivalent, Mark Z. Danielewski’s intellectually bland but thoroughly entertaining House of Leaves, a novel that attempts to enrich traditional storytelling by turning his book in a maze of ideas, a disquisition about storytelling that is as self-congratulatory as it is, ultimately, tiring. I’m sad to report that, with this description, much of this story collection is well and even sufficiently described.

Ander Monson’s stories are of varying length, but all of them short: none shorter than two pages and none longer than twenty. These stories are concerned with life in a provincial town (an explanatory section mentions Fargo as point of reference) and the loneliness and despair of its denizens. At the heart of these stories and the main motif that all the stories appear to come back to or at least circle, is a personal tale of loss. The stories are narrated by different characters and focus on different characters, too, characters which leave and return to the stage as Monson’s world turns around its sad center, the only first person narrator, named, in the table of contents, “Yr Protagonist”. This structure suggests that the omniscient narrator that relates most of the other stories and even the third person subjective narrators that relate some key episodes, are really “Yr Protagonist” as well, who is, in the titular story, suggested to be Ander Monson himself. In my notes, I have really obsessively applied the term “Other Electricities” to all sorts of elements and stories in the book, because the term so obviously asks to be read poetologically. In that vein, I’d suggest that the other stories, the other characters, those that do not concern “Yr Protagonist”, are other electricities, too, other voltages that transmit small mirror images of Yr Protagonist’s feeling of loss and desperation.

The titular story of Other Electricities, to which I assign so much significance, is a disjointed tale of familial alienation. After the loss of their mother, Yr Protagonist’s family drifts slowly apart, with all members embarking on a search of some kind. The father turns more and more to amateur radio, broadcasting at night. You have to “tune in right to listen”, “find his frequency”; even his sons are reduced to guesswork, printing out lists of names and frequencies. They do not search and find a single name, they allow for variations or completely different ones. These children who live under the same roof as their elusive father, search for him, for “the rhythms of his voice” in the air. Above, I have not equated the protagonist with Ander Monson, because, although the suggestion, by citing a list of possible names that are “Monson” or end in “-monson”, is clearly there, this story suggests a general indirection, a tropical way of speaking, not just in the way of names (If this was Pynchon, I think most reviewers would read this technique as an application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), but also in a broader sense:

On the radio, they speak in code. Words that are not words. Words that are words but not the words you think they are. That displace language. Shift it back and forth like light across a room as the day changes. Charge up the air. Charge right through it. Make it opaque.

Interestingly, although much of the story is concerned with the broadcasts, the title doesn’t, not overtly, anyway, refer to them. Instead it is about mysterious lights that just appear somewhere in Michigan, with “no power source, no explanation, no obvious cause”.

Lights appear and seem to rock back and forth. My brother had never been there before. This was another electricity, I told him. Watch that thing.

Most likely, Yr protagonist tells us, it’s “some anomaly along power lines”. This is very fitting in a story that explores the way that lonely people connect to each other over the radio, or, as in other stories in Other Electricities, in bars or in schools. The connection to Ford’s work is most significant here, in that Ford explores and even dissects damaged people and their failings, but not as anomalies. Instead, he proceeds to lift them onto a pedestal which allows him to comment upon the conditio humana. This tension between grimy particulars and elegiac generalities is important not just for his work but for many other writers in the same vein, whether they be called Updike, Anderson or Carver. Monson just states their ills, he makes no attempt to explain it or connect it to a general feeling or anything like that. Instead, he just looks at them, regarding them as inexplicable lights in the distance, in other words, as “other electricities”.

Formulated like that, the stories seem much more readable, more immediately enjoyable than they really are. Monson’s decision to not explore his characters or the community where everything takes place, is mirrored in a prose that clearly seeks to create the impression of sadness, of loneliness. The effort to create an impression, is often very annoying, very palpable, and it drains many stories of the subtleties they might have developed. The examples for the obvious and calculating writing of his are all over the stories, such as when, in a story called “Intermittence”, the third person objective narrator (aka “Yr Protagonist”?) talks about a bank robber who will be “sentenced to years in jail where at least he will not be in need or out of work anymore, or drunk, where at least he will be fed and -sort of- loved.” Other writers are also plain and obvious in their attempt to sadden the reader in compassion, but the level of overt calculation that Monson reaches is remarkable. What’s more, Monson does not possess a prose powerful enough to make up for his weaknesses. Monson’s writing is extraordinary in that it is unremarkable. It’s professional and functional, but bland, which makes the stabs at feeling stand out all the more especially when in some stories, after three pages of plodding prose, the reader is suddenly up against a poetical, no, a “poetical” passage.

And the stories in Other Electricities, (i.e. characters and plots) do their best not to let any surprises come up. There’s a story about a lonely woman driving a snow plow who is wearing a business suit because she will go to a job interview afterward, but her hopes are implicitly dashed by the pervasive pessimism and deterministic sadness that envelops her, her who drinks her coffee alone at bars. It’s not as if the narrator or narrators are caught in a certain point of time, and we can point to possible hope. No, the whole book describes events that have taken place awhile ago and the omniscient narrator frequently fast-forwards and tells us what could or will happen, “the future [is] approaching like a father with a belt.” What happiness we see is projected back. Sometimes Monson happens upon a nice idea to express this. One is the story “Piñata” in which a character who takes the plane back to his home town, has to think of a piñata at his “seventh birthday party”. It may be “unclear” to him why he’s thinking of piñatas just now, but for the reader it has a pleasurably gruesome imagery especially since the character is nicknamed Jelly. On the plane he meets a pretty woman and they proceed to lie to each other about their past while the plane flies them towards their homes. This whole brief story had, for me, strong overtones reminiscent of Stephen King’s work, especially sections like the first half of It. This also means that a good amount of not just the uncanny, but also the simply creepy and weird is associated in this story, but also in others.

So, any happiness in the stories is clearly marked as past happiness, and in most stories it is contrasted with a dire, inevitably dire, future, with all the people in the stories “becoming story, warning beacon.” That last phrase is important. While all the characters in the book are caught in a hopeless maze, future generation may perhaps evade this; not, incidentally, by doing some positively good work, but by “reducing your murderability index.” So what we have are cliché stories, featuring cliché characters in the most overtly manipulative writing possible, but they may not be what they seem. Like the “words that are not words”, these may be characters that are not characters and plots that are not plots. Yes, they may be, as I said above, extensions of Yr Protagonist’s depressed psyche, but reducing the book to that would mean selling the book short. The other function is, as we’ve seen just now, that of a “warning beacon”, and the whole book could be seen as a manual to good behavior and a manual of how to cope with loss, while disavowing any faith in actual manuals. Other Electricities contains a good many stories that either feature excerpts from manuals (from a teacher’s manual: “You students will die on you”) or are called manuals themselves. Those that are called manuals aren’t real manuals, they are basically stories just as corny and soggy as the others, which very lightly mimic the form of a manual, and the manuals that are cited are shown to not be very helpful. Thus, I suggest that Other Electricities is a manual that could succeed on account of it not being an actual manual, if you see what I mean.

It remains to be said that, however much we tweak and fiddle with our readings of the stories, the originality of Other Electricities is not in the stories themselves; the postmodern stories have been done, and far better, by Barthelme, and the more conventional stories far better by Ford and Anderson. Rather, it’s in the connections between them and especially in the mechanism Monson uses to connect the stories. Instead of a framework story or just a thematic continuity, Monson adds notes, tables, explanations and even an index to his book, as well as a series of depictions of electrical grids. His table of contents is a real table, containing all of four columns, rather like Ulysses‘ famous table. It tells us not just the titles of the stories and the pages where they can be found, but also provides us with a list of protagonists and themes for each story. Both of these are curiously incomplete. If we look at the ‘themes’ column as well as at the list and explanation of symbols he includes later, we can see at a glance that it is not meant to be helpful. In the themes especially the level of abstraction tends to be so high as to make it all rather meaningless. Perusing the symbols list, after finishing the book, can be confusing. If we read Other Electricities as a collection of stories and the notes and explanations as extraneous to the book’s ‘content’, the symbols’ explanations would need to be read as misreadings that project meanings onto the book that just are not there.

If, on the other hand, we view these materials as a framework story of sorts, we see that these ‘explanations’ are not elucidating meanings in the stories but instead they add meanings, meanings that need the context of the whole book, that would not be present of the stories were published separately (which they actually were…). And I can only begin to guess at the meanings of the electrical grids. There are dozens of them, schemes, in black and white, of different shapes and sizes. What’s certain is that storytelling is likened to such schemes, as the book not only contains a four column table of contents but also a huge diagram of “Characters and their relationship herein”. People and their stories are like the power lines in the titular story, producing regular narratives and, from time to time, anomalies, other electricities, which the book, in turn, presents and puts into a relationship to another. If people and their narratives are like electrical grids, can they also be repaired, controlled and analyzed like them? To be sure, there is much in this book that makes it worth reading, but, sadly, Monson does not have the writing to match it. He hits us with ideas, with people in strange situations, with potentialities, but follows up on too little of what he outlines.

In a way, his stories are what Sherwood Anderson called plot stories, cold, constructed stories that Anderson contrasted unfavorably with his own, which are “the result of a sudden passion.” And Monson does not have the chops to write good prose, and neither does he have the passion to make up for it. Instead we get a bunch of plot stories, drawn up on charts that we also get to see. Considering the searing pain that we sense in some stories, the loss that is described but not conveyed, the cold could be a protective mechanism, protecting “Yr Protagonist” from the devastation that surely awaits him. Some stories stand out, the titular story, for example, because they have several registers to work with, because they present some novel situations; the fact that the last story is one of them is the main reason why this book is, after all, as enjoyable as it is.