Stop trying to ape the final paragraph of The Dead!

9.23.09 | | 12 comments

Many thanks to Mark Athitakis (@mathitak) of American Fiction Notes for bringing to my attention an excellent commentary on the contemporary American short story by John Barry at City Pages. In his commentary Dead End: Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?,” Barry complains that American short story writers focus too much on the, admittedly awesome, ending of “The Dead”* — the lovely, longish short story (almost novella) that concludes Joyce’s pitch perfect story collection Dubliners:

And I haven’t been to a class on the American short story that hasn’t involved a paen on the merits of “The Dead.” It’s the greased flagpole we’re all trying to climb, just because we know we can’t.

I know, because I’ve been in a few of those classes, and I’ve taught a few. And while I’m not going to say that it’s Joyce’s fault, I will say that our nation is full of aspiring writers, some better than others, swinging and often whiffing for that gentle melody that comes with the perfectly tuned final graph.

If he had ended there, Barry would have done modern American letters a great service just by calling out one of the problems. But it gets better. He lays his finger on exactly the thing that’s been bugging me about short stories of late (and that includes those published in the Mormon market):

If that’s what they’re after, the short story isn’t a story anymore. What we come out with now, too often, is an architectural feat, carefully layered to texture a feeling that is, not coincidentally, the sort of feeling you might get after teaching short-stories for years, while writing the occasional book review. It’s the kind of story not many people read anymore, unless they want to learn how to write a story. It’s a story that many people publish, some of them so that they can keep their jobs.

That last sentence is a little harsh. But this idea of the careful layers to “texture a feeling” really gets at the heart of the problem, I think. And, sadly, if my reading of contemporary science fiction and especially fantasy short stories is any guide, it’s a problem that is extends in to the well-written genre short stories. And, in turn, because fantasy is a great way to create texture and build precious architectures, we see literary writers borrowing from fantasy, as well. Now don’t get me wrong — I’m all for such cross-contamination. My favorite writers of fiction — Kafka, Bulgakov, G. Wolfe, S. Clarke — live in this space. But I think that Barry’s diagnosis is accurate. And I think that he may just have hit on something with his solution:

“The Dead” comes to life in the present: that viral, bastardized language stomping in galoshes across the landscape of the Irish imagination as Joyce wrote. And before the next army of young writers tries to create the next version of Gabriel Conroy, they should think about what’s happening in our own national landscape. “The Dead” was Dublin itself, the ultimate situation room. Everything happening in “The Dead” was happening around Joyce as he wrote, in the first decade of the 20th century: the rampant alcoholism, the faux nationalism, the dying generations, the shallow hospitality, the end of decency, the emergence of feminism, the reaction of the boneheads. It was about a beloved country turned suddenly strange, in a way that fascinated Joyce, and yet, which caused him to leave it.

What is interesting and exciting about this solution for Mormon short story writers, in particular (and let’s face it, for now, the market for Mormon literary fiction is dominated by the short story), is that we are well-positioned to engage in the national landscape. How do I put this inoffensively? I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to state that when it comes to overall percentages, American Mormons have benefited from the post-WWII meritocracy and the rise of the information age and have been able to “pass” in mainstream American society more than any other religious/ethnic minority. On the other hand, I think we’re reaching a stage where many of the elements that were working for us (educational opportunities, access to capital, the decline of WASP uniformity, the rise of the suburbs/exurbs, healthier living, etc.) are now passing us by (somewhat). Yes, there’s the rise in areligiosity and the movement toward gay marriage. But I think there may be something more than that. Perhaps we have tied our fortunes and most of our numbers to the exurbs. Or perhaps I’m just full of it. Certainly there are signs that younger Mormons are fairly adept at negotiating the digital world.

Whatever the case, what I keep coming back to is the thought that our outsider/insider status and how that specifically manifests itself in Mormonism puts us in a position where we can explore who we are, what it means to be an American and what’s wrong and right and painful and joyful with both the right and the left, the godly and the heathen, the materialist and the ascetic, the provincial and the cosmopolitan, the old and the young, etc.

* “The Dead” also is the subject of the single best film adaption of a work of literary fiction ever. That is John Huston’s The Dead.

12 comments: “Stop trying to ape the final paragraph of The Dead!

  1. Th.

    .

    I’m bringing that article and “The Dead” to my AP Lit kids to see what they say. Looking forward to it.

    I think it’s abominable, how antipopulist most short stories are. That’s when I find something like One Story I tell everyone to subscribe. They are publishing real and good and readable short fiction and that should be supported. The real reason most people don’t read short fiction is the same reason they don’t read poetry: We have forgotten such forms can speak to anyone other than snobs.

  2. Luisa Perkins

    This is so scarily accurate.

    I myself have publicly referred (on my blog) to the final paragraph of The Dead as perfection in short-form fiction. I wonder whether I have been subconsciously trying to climb that greased flag pole in my own stories. Must ponder.

    John Huston’s The Dead was the first film I saw upon moving to NYC. Sublime.

    The Dead was also recreated as a lovely opera by Glen Nelson and Murray Boren (just throwing a little Mormon arts trivia out there). I think they brilliantly captured Joyce’s melancholy, nostalgia, and sense of alienation.

  3. William Morris Post author

    :-) (yeah, me too)

    There is no doubt that it’s perfection. What I like about Barry’s analysis is that he brings in the galoshes bit — that perfect ending isn’t divorced from very current discourses and realities (and politics). When was the last time you read a Mormon short story and thought “Hmmm. I recognize that strain of Mormon thought. Oh and that one too. Oh, look at how the two interact.”

    It may happen with some stories, but my sense is that it isn’t the norm.

    Part of why I like Jonathan’s “No Going Back” so much is that he situates it in a specific time and place that captures the debate over gay marriage and Mormons and SSA in a way that’s interesting and useful. Go forward or backward in time and I’m sure you could still create some great narrative art, but I think Jonathan picked a good time/location considering the overall plot of the novel.

  4. Dallas Robbins

    what an excellent post. I really don’t know what to say, except you are onto some great ideas here. I never though the ending of The Dead was any better than the ending of any other great short story – but I can see it’s influence often. I would say that the last paragraph of The Dead is only perfect for The Dead – whereas the ending of The Overcoat is perfect for that story, etc, etc…

    I would also agree there are some plenty of stories, situations, news, ideas that are just getting the surface scratched in Mormon fiction. Eventually the literary ghetto will break down.

    Along with Dubliners, I would suggest Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories by Philip Roth for some possible ideas on how to approach religion in an American insider/outsider context, using the short story form.

  5. Th.

    .

    I was incredibly disappointed with The Dead’s lack of dead bodies so I immediately wrote a parody. I should dig that up and see if it’s publishable.

    And, apparently, I should reread The Dead. It’s been over a decade, after all.

  6. William Morris Post author

    I heart Gogol. He should have been included in the Kafka et. al. list in the post.

    Th:

    “Zombies were general all over Ireland.”?

    —-

    Also: I found on NPR the ending of The Dead

  7. Bradly Baird

    I must admit that I, too, was hoping for a bit of Irish gore the first time I picked up The Dubliners and polished off The Dead. However, I remember that the whole story just blew me away (being only 20 and somewhat naive), not just the ending. It always reminded me of the deeply flawed, but no less brilliant When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen.

    I echo your assessmment of the Mormon narrative and character, William. We are in a unique position to land on the stage.

  8. Th.

    .

    Luisa—now reading. Pointless until page 99, then it becomes worth reading, but it’s uneven. I’ll review it at Thutopia in the next week or so.

  9. Eugene

    It’s gotten so bad at this point that the final paragraph of “The Dead” reads like it’s aping the final paragraph of “The Dead.” Thanks to all the derivations, the original feels derived, though I suppose there could be no higher praise. (“It was a dark and stormy night” is a pretty good way to begin a story too.)

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