Monday, April 8, 2013

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" by Julie Orringer, Plus "Misery" by Anton Chekhov

"But perhaps by then we will love ourselves less fiercely." (Orringer, 45)

     "Iona looks at his fare and moves his lips... Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes out but a sniff. 
     "What?" inquires the officer. 
     "Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: "My son..., er... my son died this week, sir."  (Chekhov)

These two stories don't go together. It's just that I read them at the same time. Also, I'm feeling erudite and studious enough to attempt a connection

Guys, I had an insight. Who knows how long it will last, but it feels monumental.

I have been thinking intently about truth as a motivation for writing, and as a source of conflict. In my own writing, I always struggle with figuring out what has to happen to a character over the course of a story to bring that character, or the reader, some deeper understanding. It feels like a plotting problem. When I re-plot, when I think I've got something figured out because it makes sense the way the plot of an episode of Law & Order makes sense, I'm so proud of myself for a minute. Then I try to write it, and half way through, it fails. I'm not saying what I mean to say. 

It occurred to me this week, as the plot problem happened again, and I thought I'd solved it, that it is not a plot problem I have at all. I have a vision problem. I have a problem understanding what I think the ultimate stake is in any conflict and in knowing what, for me, starts the fires of tension and conflict raging in the first place. 

As soon as I knew I had the problem, I had the answer, too. To me, it's always a character's inability to say what she really means to say, always his inability to hold onto the little kernel of truth he knows, that sets any conflict going. 

And it is our inability to tell and believe any static truth, the encounter with knowing that as soon as we put words to something it's bullshit, it's never the whole picture, that is the reason I write. All we have are different changeable versions of stories, but having to change them all the time, having to admit their truth and their falsity, their inevitable inadequacy and their inevitable beauty all at the same time-- that is the most dramatic thing in the world. 

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" and "Misery" were the first two stories I read after my realization. They are test cases for the questions, "Is this really how I see all stories?" and "Is this the most helpful, clarifying, propulsive way of seeing my own stories?" I think it is, for my own stories at least, and I think, even if I am reading things into other stories by applying my theory, that the activity will teach me more about craft than will going in with the same stale set of tools I'm carrying now. 

I am so excited to have something fresh. (Can you tell?)

I was re-reading Orringer's story because I'm teaching it in class, and it's perfect and engaging for high-school seniors. I was surprised at how much I still like the story, and pleased that my ideas about truth being the source of conflict helped me understand the events of the story in a new way. 

 Mira, the twenty-year-old art student who tells the story, is caught firmly in a static and opposing vision of herself-- fat, smug, never good enough-- and her younger cousin, Aïda-- thin, beautiful, miraculous. Her problems, her perceived conflicts and tensions, all stem from this problematic, but comfortable vision of herself and who she is in the world. It's opposed to her vision of Aïda, sure. There's enough conflict around this version of truth to keep things interesting before Mira's version of the truth breaks down. Everything that happens confirms Mira's vision of things until she is literally injured by her cousin's lies. After she breaks her ankle, her vision of Aïda breaks, too. In a moment when they're both vulnerable, Aïda is able to say what she is afraid of, and Mira is able to believe her.

This isn't where it ends though. There's true connection here, some kind of new understanding, but even when it gets good for Mira at the end, when she's sold a painting and her cousin is gone, there's never the empty promise that she and Aïda will understand each other for good now. It's only that the possibility is there, where at the beginning the only possibility for Mira was to stick with the same old story, the one version of truth it's safe to believe because everyone confirms it. 
After I read Orringer, I read Chekhov because I was thinking last night about the encroachment of the body and nature, and because the Big Daddy of the short story, the one who makes me cry in just a few pages, seemed like an important test. The first Chekhov I came across in my classroom, a Constance Garnett translation in a textbook, was “Misery,” not my favorite, but I at least like all of his stories, so I read it.

Misery” exemplifies another way that truth and our inability to tell it is at the root of conflict. Here, Iona, the cab driver, doesn't have a version of truth that is de-stabilized in the action of the story itself. It's been de-stabilized before we meet him; his son has died quickly and senselessly after three days in the hospital. His struggle is how to say the new truth and how impossible it is to say at all, let alone to an inhospitable world that won't listen. “He feels it is no good to appeal to people,” Chekhov writes. And it is no absolute, permanent, completely fulfilling good. It will be imperfect and go away. But telling stories, sharing that incompleteness is all we have.
He cannot think about his son when he is alone... To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish...”


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