Saturday, December 17, 2011

Collin reads actual literature

The lovely Carol is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in—no, not computer programming or mathematics (the latter especially being a very Fine Art)—Creative Writing. Consequently, new books appear on our shelves and in our travel bags. One of these books, a short story collection by Andre Dubus, caught my attention (actually, the lovely Carol may have asked my opinion about one of the stories) and WOW! I read every one of them.

Todd Field wrote the preface to this collection, named after his 2001 film In the Bedroom, which was based upon Dubus’s story Killings. Field’s title does not mean what you think; according to this wikipedia article, the rear compartment of a lobster trap is called the "bedroom," and if two males and one female are together in it, one male will kill the other. Killings, the first story in the collection, is superbly crafted, the story of a moral failure following a tragedy I hope never to experience; if it happens, I pray I have the strength to do what Jesus would have me do.

Yet the story drew me in, and convinced me of how a man might murder his son's killer and feel the inevitability of his own crime, and paradoxically also remorse.

Dubus’s writing is accessible; if literature must be abstruse, opaque, ponderous, difficult, painful reading, then this isn't it. But these stories are filled with deep insights expressed in beautiful language. Here's Dubus in Rose:

Rose and Jim... could not see a single act of renunciation or affirmation of a belief, a way of life. No. They had neither a religion nor a philosophy; like most people I know, their philosophies were simply their accumulated reactions to their daily circumstances, their lives as they lived them from one hour to the next. They were not driven, guided, by either passionate belief or strong resolve. And for that I pity them both, as I pity the others who move through life like scraps of paper in the wind.
Rose, from In the Bedroom, Andre Dubus
(Vintage Contemporaries, 2002), p. 65
Rose is also a tragedy. I do not like tragedies, but the insight Dubus brings to the tale makes it a gem—no, an X-ray, exposing the human condition with its faults: living without thought, without courage, without taking responsibility for our careless words and actions. There is an awakening and a repentance and a victory, and perhaps it isn't really a tragedy after all.

So what do I find so captivating? Besides the beauty of the language—the expertise he brings to the craft—is the deep thought behind the insight evident in these stories. Field writes in the preface that Dubus desired from a young age “to understand how my two sisters had to live in the world compared with the way I had to live as a boy.” (op. cit., page x)

The other thing is that I have come late in life to an understanding that just as "A gallon of good California red in the kitchen closet will do more for your cooking than all the books in the world" (The Supper of the Lamb, p.33) so this book of short stories will do more for a person's soul than all the math and computer science books in the world.

And there is the pleasure, particularly in the last story of the collection, titled All the Time in the World:

"I want a home with love in it, with a woman and children."

"My God," she said, and smiled, nearly laughing, her hands moving up from the table. "I don't think I've ever heard those words from the mouth of a man."

"I love the way you talk with your hands." (146)

and near the end of that story:
And this time love was taking her into pain, yes, quarrels and loneliness and burning rage; but this time there was no time, and love was taking her as far as she would go, as long as she would live, taking her strongly and bravely with this Ted Briggs holding his pretty cane; this man who was frightened by what had happened to him but was not frightened by the madness she knew he was feeling now. (148)
Why that story in particular? I guess I'm a sucker for a feel-good story, and as the father of daughters it pleases me to read about a young woman discovering the truth about herself (on p. 142 I read that "[s]he wanted love, but she did not want her search for it to begin in someone’s bed.") and then taking a step toward the life she actually does want.

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