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A Sequence on Sequence, Part 4: Nathan Huffstutter


[A guest post from Nathan Huffstutter. Nathan Huffstutter’s work can be found at The Nervous Breakdown, The Collagist, and Emprise Review.]

Most of what I know I picked up on my feet. Restaurant work: dish pits and service patterns and then back behind the bar, where pretty much everything goes.

“You need to put something of yourself in the post,” Gabriel tells me. “I’m not interested in abstract thoughts or balloons of hot air floating above the surface.”

Though I’m somewhere in every word I don’t typically like talking about myself – unless I’m talking about myself, in which case I love talking about myself. But I had no intention of talking about myself here, here I wanted a subject with a little more get-up-and-go, here I wanted to cut loose and wax on about the magical waggle connecting the inner-ear to the central-nervous to the bass-end of the alimentary. Here, I wanted to talk about rhythm.

“Think of this as a prompt,” Gabriel suggests. “Your personal recipe for organization.”

Organization? Writing is, for me, entirely a process of giving order. Disassociated thoughts collect across notepads, snippets of dialogue or image or trait, and when all those scraps have gotten completely under my skin, I throw out the notepads, toss more balls in the air than I can possibly account for, and set about creating form. Words come out in the wrong order and need to be rearranged into sentences that sound right. Sentences come out in the wrong order and need to be rearranged into paragraphs that sound right. And so on, and so on, until there is a story, then stories, which in turn come out in the wrong order and need to be rearranged into a manuscript that sounds right.

Recipes? Never use ‘em.

On my feet, I soaked up how a sommelier composes a tasting: pairings, each successive bottle in conversation with the vintage or varietal that came before, all staged in a linear build that allows peaks and preferences within a greater progression. On my feet, I dug into the way a chef composes a new plate: something salty, something sweet, something decadent, something acidic, something mysterious, something classic, something crispy, something smooth, something colorful, something hot, all those contrasting elements assembled into a dish that can get forked from any direction. On my feet, I absorbed how a bartender composes a line of bullshit: play an angle and pour heavy.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself – or behind. The question at hand is the sequencing of individual stories into book form, and I’ve been informed that instinct, hot air, that magical waggle in your inner-ear, these aren’t enough to go on. And so – music. Make what you will of my own backstory, the sequential, the juxtaposed, the cocksure B.S., moving onward I’ve chosen three categories – The Debut Album, The Master Showman’s Set, and The Concept Album – which can be applied to a number of record and story collections. Why albums? Though music is often sold by its most consumable unit, the overall shelf-life of the stuff depends on jiggering a burpless relationship between Tupperware and tupped. And in terms of sequencing, music defies all frontal-lobed systems of order. Chronology alone can make a dull, dutiful listen of Curtis Mayfield. Taxonomy? Sure, some may choke on Swordfishtrombones and prefer their Waits boxed up in Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards: the same insensates who request sauce on the side, who segregate protein, starch, and green in a brisk squeak of cutlery, who pluck the Gruyere crisp from atop their dish and crunch into it like a fucking Dorito. We have a name for those people – it’s not complimentary.

But enough digressions – without further ado…

THE DEBUT ALBUM: Sharon Van Etten vs Amy Hempel

Because I Was In Love (11 songs) – Ordering Principle: Alternation/Linear.

Reasons To Live (15 stories) – Ordering Principle: Monomythic.

“I wish, I knew – what to do with you.
But the truth is… I ain’t got a clue.”

So begins Sharon Van Etten’s first official release, an album showcasing two primary song types: A) her naked soprano foregrounded over a campfire strum and B) multi-tracked vocals augmented with washes of percussion and instrumentation. In presenting The Debut Album, sequencing is no simple matter: the assemblage is often more a function of having sufficient quantity to assemble than pre-existing unity, and for the sake of first impressions, there’s the added pressure of not putting any wrong feet forward.

To establish rhythmic continuity, Because I Was In Love alternates its two song types in a repeating AB pattern, the call and response accentuated by alternating themes of seeking and recrimination: the opening melanchollabye, “I Wish I Knew,” leads directly into the dynamic, declamatory “Consolation Prize”: “The moral of the story is, don’t lie to me again…” Melodic highpoints are then tent-poled throughout the album (tracks #2, 6, 10), a sequencing that emphasizes twin linear progressions: narrative (from despair to determination) and tonal (from sparseness to fullness), each parallel building to the final cut (“Holding Out”) and its enduring refrain: “I’ll be holding out, holding out, holding out, holding out… for you.”

Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or the first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are,” said the very-groovy Hempel, and Reasons To Live opens on a skipped-beat: “My heart – I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God.” Like Van Etten, Hempel begins her debut in existential crisis – the narrator of “In A Tub” searching for the surest sound of her own heartbeat. From those bare, spare first pages, the stories are sequenced to maintain certain rhythmic separations: short-shorts (under two pages) are evenly staggered (#1, 5, 11), and with a dozen stories told first-person, third-person entries are also deliberately spaced (#3, 13, 15, a pattern abetted by the collection’s lone, male-voiced story being placed at #8).

Predominantly, though, Reasons To Live is sequenced along a master narrative: opening with the Call To Adventure (a summoning from the mundane frequently coupled with the terminology of conception) and landing in The Belly Of The Whale (“San Francisco,” an earthquake and its aftershocks); crossing The Road of Trials (“In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Was Buried” – the collection’s “strongest” story conspicuously placed at #6 ) to The Temptress (gender-bent in “Pool Night” with the swoony lifeguard: “I knew girls who saved his chewed gum”) to The Ultimate Boon (the pearl of wisdom from “The Man In Bogata”: “he wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good”); finally, the over-narrative resolves in The Freedom To Live – “Today Will Be A Quiet Day,” returning to normalcy in a day with both palpable loss and the enduring perseverance to carry on.

THE MASTER SHOWMAN’S SET: Public Enemy vs Barry Hannah

Fear of a Black Planet (20 Songs) – Ordering Principle: Ali Fight Videos

Airships (20 Stories) – Ordering Principle: Hyperpyretic Heterotaxis

No existential perplexity here – the Master Showman is on top and taking on all comers. Think James Brown, Live At The Apollo – “Are you ready for Star-Time!” Think Muhammad Ali, circling, throwing bolos, proclaiming greatness before pounding it into the other guy’s head.

Flying high off Do The Right Thing and It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, Public Enemy groove into Fear of a Black Planet in no (bum)rush to present a proper song: the opening sonic collage pumps their own hype and presses Fear’s hot-buttons, zig-zagging between anticipation and paranoia until, POW – that filthy Prince lick of “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” Straight in the chops and it’s on. From there, in addition to the continuous rhythmic backbone of “The Funky Drummer,” Fear is sequenced in “rounds”: intervals rung by the smarmy talk-radio voice in tracks #1, 4, 8, 12, 16. While those interludes control pace and personify opposition, P.E. keep a powerful core balance by striking in combinations: the straight jab (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” “Who Stole The Soul,” and “War At  33 1/3” at #2, 11, 18) the comic hook (“9-1-1 Is A Joke,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man at #3, 9, 14) the testing cross (“Pollywanacraka” and “Reggie Jax” at #7, 15) and the massive uppercut (“Welcome To The Terrordome, “Power To The People,” Fight The Power” at #5, 10, 20).

Everything’s a failure, when you compare it to music,” Barry Hannah once said, and with two novels under his belt, he opens Airships with his own brand of unhurried swagger: “Water Liars,” whistling Dixie through Farte jokes, big fish stories, and male fellowship, the old and new South sharing a hip flask over the messies of intercourse until, POW – “Love Too Long.” Straight in the kisser: “I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out. Some nights she lets me lick her ears and knees.” Forget fancy footwork or the sweet science, Hannah bulrushes, windmilling hard-cocked haymakers and snorting through the next five gonzo stories.

Even with berserker unpredictability as a method, Airships still has pluckable anatomy: POV’s collect in clusters and individual stories are mirrored in imbalance: “Love Too Long”(#2) has an atrophied duplicate in “Constant Pain In Tuscaloosa” (#18), while “Testimony Of Pilot” (#3) exults in the exact unspoiled boyish genius that hits a rut in the fatigued rallies of “Return To Return” (#7). Meanwhile, columnar order is maintained by the spacing of both Civil War narratives (#5, 13, 17) and dystopian grotesques (#6, 11,15).

Out of sheer exertion, Fear and Airships each sag down the home-stretch: P.E. lose the snap on their punches between tracks #12-17, rope-a-doping until they’re in position for the knockout finale, “Fight The Power,” and with Hannah, it’s difficult to say whether he gasses himself out or whether the material remains sharp and it’s the reader who’s pummeled into submission – probably a combination of the two. Still, after the big beating heart of “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet” (#9), the back end of Airships buys time until it can land with the epic finish, “Mother Rooney Unscrolls The Hurt” (#20).

THE CONCEPT ALBUM: Okkervil River vs Alan Heathcock

Black Sheep Boy (11 Songs) – Ordering Principle: Recursive/Rhythmic

Volt (8 Stories) – Ordering Principle: Thematic/Synergistic

In 2003, Okkervil River loosed an album (Down The River Of Golden Dreams) brimming with heady themes and diverse instrumentation, a release that featured a pair of truly great songs – songs situated back-to-back and dead-center, the end result being a pretty-good but ultimately diffuse record, slow out of the gate and meandering at the close.

Lesson learned. For 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, with only one great song in pocket (“So Come Back, I Am Waiting”), Okkervil River narrowed on an angle and sequenced a career-launching album. Few schools of thought would suggest leading off a record with a faithful, seventy-five second folkie cover, but the opening rendition of Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” nails the conceptual foundation, providing the basis for recursions to prodigality, self-destruction, and faithful persistence. How much Hardin really resides in the subsequent words and music? Doesn’t matter – Will Sheff sings with Absolut Conviction and each successive song gains potency by being shot through with Hardin’s real life descent into fatal addiction. Rhythmically, the sequencing careens from highs to lows: the raucous bender of “For Real” (#3) comes to in the abject hangover of “In A Radio Song” (#4: “we’re fucked… we’re fucked… we’re fucked…”) and the horny-goat bounce of “Black” (#4) descends into the weary cuckold’s shuffle of “Get Big” (#5). Every number of Black Sheep Boy works in concert, peaking with the volcanic “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” (#10), which gives sinister play to the gypsy horns of “A King And A Queen” (#6), taunts the posturing power chords of “For Real,” and hurls the titular “unowned boy” and all his hoofed brethren to their climactic return.

I feel I often take songs into the process with me,” Alan Heathcock said, and with echoes of Uncle Tupelo’s “Criminals”, The Felice’s Frankie’s Gun, and no small amount of St. Bob (“Mama, take this badge off of me…”), Volt goes from zero to Cormac in barely half-a-page, by which time a plowman has accidentally pulverized his own son beneath the tiller-blades. Few schools of thought would suggest opening a fiction collection with a 40 page descent into savagery, but Heathcock is all in, backing whiskey with White Lightning: after opener “The Staying Freight” hammers home the thin line separating civilization and barbarity, Heathcock trails with “Smoke,” a grim march where a mortally-wounded father enlists his son for the disposal of a corpse, the fatality resulting from two law-abiding men in an intractable situation: “Once things change they don’t never turn back.”

Scorching through eight stories and at least as many plagues, Volt’s narratives are of a piece: the same third-person voice, the same (brims)tone, the same town (timeless Krafton, even as stories #2 and #5 take place decades before the others). Like Black Sheep Boy, Volt draws its cumulative strength via sequencing. The Biblical flood of “Peacekeeper” (#3) testifies to the way buried bodies inevitably bob back to the surface, and immediately following, “Furlough” (#4) is stalked by dread, the threat rising not merely from the narrative of a young soldier walking an acquaintance into a potential ambush, but from the brutal precedent of the preceding stories. The same tension crackles through “Fort Apache” (#5), as teen vandals descend on a deserted main drag with a truckload of stolen bowling balls: shit just has to go bad. Woven throughout, major characters return as minor characters only to return again as major characters, and rather than a mythic narrative (in this heartland The Freedom To Live is a broken promise), the stories and suffering revolve around the Pastor’s words from “Lazarus” (#7): “Every day’s a new batch of crosses, all of us taking our turn.”

“You do what you do because of what is prior,” Amy Hempel said in that same Paris Review interview, which pulls us from the hot air and back to firm ground, back to that precipitating conversation with Gabriel about ordering in manuscripts. Back to myself. I’m somewhere in every word and I choose them deliberately – the stories I write, generally I spend 3-4 months completing a first draft, week after week of pre-dawn sessions, all trying to stay true to a particular voice. Towards the end of that span, the challenge becomes not only finishing the story but also holding the next voice at bay, which by then is clamoring to barge in. Because of what has come prior, that subsequent story is inevitably a conscious or unconscious reaction to the one that came before, I’m bursting to inhabit something – anything – completely different, resulting in an organic contrast of genders, methods, and styles.

“I’m not sure I have anything worthwhile to say about my own work,” I complained, full of excuses. “Not to oversimplify, but for my current project, I started with stories that already belonged together, I had natural beginning, middle, and end pieces, and I filled out the in-betweens based on my own sense of rhythm.”

“Right there – that’s the beginnings of a great post” Gabriel replied. “I’m just sayin’…”

And so here we are, in agreement on the basic ingredients. But how can there be any real talk of recipes, when where one sees the perfect beginning, the other sees the perfect end?

[Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 here. Do you have something to offer on the subject of order? A description? A plan? Even just another set of questions? If you’d like to contribute your thoughts on ordering short fiction, please get in touch: Gabriel [@] gabrielblackwell dot com.]

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