In “Collaborating with Surveillance: Wolfgang Hilbig’s East German Fiction” (see below), Angela Woodward highlights, among other things, Hilbig’s tendency in his fiction to privilege objects over persons:
A dozen or so people, maybe even more than twenty people, know that I write stories. That’s not important, everyone writes stories or has written stories, I suspect, particularly people visiting this blog. But as a self-described story writer—and maybe you can relate to this—I sometimes get envious of certain writers. Maybe envious isn’t exactly the right word, because I really admire said writers and revel in reading their work, it’s just I wish that somehow I could be writing things at their level of imagination. And it’s not just that I want to equal them talent-wise, it’s that if I could I would steal their stories away as my own. As in (and this is how the barter takes place in my head), I would gladly give up whatever semblance of “promise” my own talents might hold, whatever minor individuality inherent in my own work, wholesale, in trade for their work. I would give up myself for them, the stories are that good.
This is what I’m thinking when I’m reading Rob Walsh’s debut story collection, Troublers.
I don’t know why I think this way. Others have to do this too occasionally, right? And, honestly, I don’t feel this way all too often. I read a lot of good and sometimes great stories, but I’m pretty happy writing my own little weird things—it makes me happy enough, keeps my head and my hands busy. Sometimes I’ll read something great and I’ll think, This is great, but maybe if I wrote it I would write it this way. Or sometimes I’ll read something and it will give me an idea for doing something else altogether, barely related at all. Or most of the time I will just appreciate whatever it is and think, This is good, and that will be that. But when I’m reading something like Troublers, where every sentence feels so perfectly set, where the inventiveness from paragraph to paragraph feels so effortlessly and unassumingly distinct, and where the weirdness vibrating within every story hits that perfect pitch, I wonder if I should just stop writing and reread Troublers again and again while I wait for whatever Rob Walsh will be doing next. (It’s never too late to stop writing, I always tell myself.)
I’ll give one example, because all the stories are examples:
In “A Hole,” for instance, Walsh writes about a hole. His first sentence is, “The woman had spent four shovels and two years digging the hole.” Pretty simple, though undeniably exciting (at least to me). From here we could go anywhere, really. And that’s the beauty if it: we do. We go everywhere. Now I don’t claim to be well read (meaning I shouldn’t really be making these kinds of statements), but I can’t imagine much of a better hole being written into the ground than what Walsh writes here. It’s the quintessential literary hole in the ground.
After finishing the hole, the woman invites some friends over to look at the hole. They muse:
A friend suggested the hole could be used as a bunker. The woman could collect surplus items and attach a lid to the hole’s entrance, such that if danger approached, or if the woman had reason to believe danger would soon be approaching, she could dash into the hole, secure the lid.
A different friend suggested the hole be a trap. When danger approached, the woman could defend herself with offense: conceal the hole with a collapsible layer of sticks and leaves, the friend instructed, then bait yourself on the far side.
With little effort, the hole could be finessed into a crater. If she only reduced the depth, the hole would resemble the impact of a fallen meteor.
Or the lair of an animal! The hole could invite a wild animal, a bear or wolverine, if she added tunnels and made the entrance steep and gaping.
It would need a bridge sooner or later. As with any expanse, people would eventually demand to span it.
Or if she built cells, lined the bottom with hay, rats and bones, it could be a dungeon.
By reaching an agreement with the state, it could be a prison, the first of its kind.
Or if many people died in the hole, after fighting an important battle, then plaques and statues should fill the hole in memoriam.
Had she come across any cultural artifacts while digging? If so, a friend had a relative in archeology who could make an excavation site of the hole.
We all like trees, but underappreciate them. We’ll make it an arboretum for the trees that don’t require light and dedicate ourselves to preservation.
We like birds, underappreciated birds. We’d prefer to study birds nesting in a tree than a tree itself. It will become an aviary for nocturnal species.
Or an homage: we could identify an artist we all admire and incorporate a characteristic of his or her style into the hole.
If she only dug a little deeper, she could probably get away with calling it a chasm.
And if she dug deeper still, for a few more years, it might even be considered an abyss.
The woman had not thought about doing things to the hole. She had wanted the hole for its own sake. A hole appended is no longer a hole but something defiled. The woman told her friends their ideas did not suit her current needs, insofar as they ruined everything.
If only we all could have such friends! (I feel like that last line is inspired by certain journal’s rejection letters.) And so the story continues, turning into something else altogether, all the while maintaining the eponymous hole. I’m not trying to get at anything specific here, only that Troublers is awe-inspiringly hilarious, bizarre, and highly recommended.
I finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse more than a year ago, as part of an ongoing effort to read more of the great American crime writers, and the story has lingered with me since then. The book is not Hammett’s best—the plot does some conspicuous zigging and zagging and lacks the single-minded focus of Red Harvest. But The Dain Curse stands out among Hammett’s other works for the attention Hammett gives to storytelling throughout the novel.
Not every member of the Pinkertons could have become the writer that Hammett is, but The Dain Curse suggests that Hammett’s experience as an investigator shaped his sensibility as a storyteller even before he turned his attention to fiction. For Hammett’s hero, the Continental Op, every crime scene presents the raw materials of a story. Narratives are introduced, then amended or dismissed, until the Op arrives at a persuasive explanation. We could say this about most detective novels (or films or TV shows)—that the protagonist is, if not a fabulist, than at least a storyteller. What distinguishes The Dain Curse is the presence of Fitzstephan, an acquaintance of the Op and an actual writer.
Fitzstephan is an undisguised hack, vain, affected, and—as we see by the book’s end—mentally unsound. The Continental Op, meanwhile, is a no-nonsense, self-possessed dude, a man who follows his feats of imagination with feats of action. An obvious reading emerges out of the contrast between the two characters: Hammett is dramatizing a genuine ambivalence about the merits of the life he once led as a P.I. vs. the writer’s life he later chose. And for all I know, this is true. But if the Continental Op’s relationship with Fitzstephan were only that, a binary based in old stereotypes and hard-man clichés, The Dain Curse would not be a very interesting book. The novel’s Fitzstephan scenes are memorable because his presence gives the Op a chance to talk about storytelling, and the contrast between the Op and Fitzstephan means these conversations often take the form of an argument. It’s a stretch, maybe, to call The Dain Curse a stealth Hammett-on-writing text, but the book at least examines the problems of writing more closely than the rest Hammett’s fiction.
Take this exchange between the Continental Op and Fitzstephan. The Op knows the difference between a story that neatly follows a formula—that satisfies in the moment—and a story with deeper resonance. He is a good detective in part because he’s not content without details that suggest the oddness of lived experience or the presence of a larger, unseen world. The Op begins the excerpt, questioning an account of a recent crime:
‘…he was sure of her treachery; and, up to his neck now, decided to kill her.’
‘His wife?’ Fitzstephan asked.
‘Yeah, but what difference does that make? It might as well have been anybody else for all the sense it makes. I hope you’re not trying to keep this nonsense straight in your mind. You know damned well all this didn’t happen.’
‘Then what,’ he asked, looking puzzled, ‘did happen?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. … To fit in with what I saw, most of it must have happened very neatly as I’ve told you. If you what to believe that it did, all right. I don’t. I’d rather believe I saw things that weren’t there.’
‘Not now,’ he pleaded. ‘Later, after you’ve finished the story, you can attach your ifs and buts to it, distorting and twisting it, making it as cloudy and confusing and generally hopeless as you like. But please finish it first, so I’ll see it at least once in its original state before you start improving on it.’
The Dain Curse has more exchanges like this one, and the crux of the book—which I won’t describe in detail, for the reader who has made it this far without a working knowledge of Hammett’s novel—layers multiple narratives atop one another. And—whether this is evidence of Hammett’s vocational ambivalence or not—it closes by implying that the stories we tell sometimes tell us things we don’t want to know.
Welcome back, my friends, to lucky #13. My good friend and publisher, Debra Di Blasi, speaks best for herself.
Seems everybody has a memoir these days. Seems I’ve been trying to have one for years. Like an egg that won’t drop. A stuck turd. The opposite of purgation. Ah, yes, shit. Indeed, allow me to remain scatological for a few words longer.
I’m not constipated about my past, my many lives lived large. No remorse, no regrets. Neither the drugs nor the booze, neither sex nor abortions, neither mobsters nor terrorist(s), neither poverty nor wealth, disease nor health, Jesus nor Buddha nor nothing that cannot be and everything than might… Failure to complete a memoir – four memoirs, to be exact – is for me a failure to apologize. Failure to apologize is a failure to demand revision. Continue reading