Chelsea Cornell talks storyweaving in Ian McEwan’s “Pornography”

The heart of this story is a sex shop, in the Soho market in Brewer Street. The owner of this shop is Harold, a short, introverted younger brother who wears his self confidence in a crisp leather jacket. Harold is brother to main character and employee O’Byrne. O’Byrne refers to his brother as, “Little Runt,” and helps him man the sex store while also holding up the point of a love triangle, and soaking in the fresh news of testing positive to the clap. O’Byrne fulfills his relationship needs by feeding off the opposing personalities of two nurses who work the psych ward. Trainee Nurse Pauline Shepherd, the quiet, shy, and pushover type, wants nothing more but to shower O’Byrne in her love. Pauline nurtures O’Byrne by feeding him, cleaning his dank clothes, and simply serving as a warm body to lie next to at night. Pauline does not ask for much from O’Byrne in return, and allows herself to be a victim of his mood swings, and unresponsiveness. Sitting in the right hand corner of the love triangle is Sister Lucy Drew. Lucy displays dominance in not only her occupation, but also relationship with O’Byrne. Lucy lives out every man’s fantasy by displaying dominance and control in their sexual relationship. Lucy is the older of the two women, and most favored of O’Byrne. O’Byrne uses both of these women to his complete disposal after he fulfills his initial priorities of helping Harold enhance their sex shop by “going All American,” and getting piss drunk with his mates.

This dark comedy is told in third person narrative through the words of Ian McEwan. His tone is very fluid and steady paced throughout, and he sprinkles the story with bits of comedy and just enough detail to capture the shallow aspects of O’Byrne’s pathetic life. McEwan has a way with character dialogue, and is able to provide the minimal amount, while painting such a wide-ranged picture in the readers mind. McEwan uses the relationship of Harold and O’Byrne and their expansion of the sex shop, as an outlet for the love triangle and inner struggles of O’Byrne. The dialogue portrayed between these two characters is the thread woven through the conflict of O’Byrne and the two nurses as seen in this section:

“Minutes later, when they were passing a pub, Harold steered O’Byrne into the dank, deserted public house saying, ‘Since you got the clap I’ll buy you a drink.’ The publican heard the remark and regarded O’Byrne with interest. They drank three scotches apiece, and as O’Byrne was paying for the fourth round Harold said, ‘Oh yeah, one of those two nurses you’ve been knocking around with phoned.’ O’Byrne nodded and wiped his lips. After a pause Harold said, ‘You’re well in there . . .’ O’Byrne nodded again. ‘Yep.’ Harold’s jacket shone. When he reached for his drink it creaked. O’Bryne was not going to tell him anything. He banged his hands together. ‘Yep,’ he said once more, and stared over his brother’s head at the empty bar. Harold tried again. ‘She wanted to know where you’d been . . .’ ‘I bet she did,’ O’Byrne muttered, and then smiled.”

Italio Calvino’s, “Six Memos For The Next Millennium,” explores the talent of weaving multiple situations, and conflicts through a sequence of events that seem completely unrelated. Italio Calvino illustrates why stories work for readers by using the ancient legend Charlemagne, “Let me try to explain why such a story can be so fascinating to us. What we have us a series of totally abnormal events linked together: the love for an old man for a young girl, a necrophiliac obsession and homosexual impulse, while in the end everything subsides into melancholy contemplation, with the old king staring in rapture at the lake” (Calvino, 32) which is exactly what is seen in “Pornography” through the love for two women, a sex shop going All American, two brothers, and a sexually transmitted disease. Calvino continues, “To hold this chain of events together, there is a verbal link, the word “love” or “passion,” which establishes a continuity between different forms of attraction. There is also a narrative link, the magic ring that establishes a logical relationship of cause and effect between the various episodes” (Calvino, 32).

The narrative link in “Pornography” is not only present Harold and O’Byrne, but also O’Byrne and Lucy and O’Bryne and Pauline. McEwan is very talented at weaving imagery and minimal dialogue so the reader can capture the awkward interaction between characters, without being drowned in unnecessary amounts of dialogue. These contrasting passages display the contrast in not only the two women, but the two relationships O’Byrne keeps going:

“Pauline lay on her back and O’Byrne, having undressed quickly, lay beside her. She did not acknowledge him in her usual way, she did not move. O’Byrne raised his arm to stroke her shoulder, but instead let his hand fall back heavily against the sheet. They both lay on their backs in mounting silence, until O’Byrne decided to give her one last chance and with naked grunts hauled himself onto his elbow and arranged his face over hers. Her eyes, thick with tears, started past him. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said in resignatory sing-song. The eyes budged a fraction and fixed into his own. ‘You,’ she said simply. O’Byrne returned to his side of the bed, and after a moment said threateningly, ‘I see.’ Then he was up, and top of her and then past her and on the far side of the room. ‘All right then . . .’ he said.

“O’Byrne lay on his back on the clean white sheets, and Lucy eased herself onto his belly like a vast nesting bird. She would have it no other way, from the beginning she had said, ‘I’m in charge.’ O’Byrne had replied, ‘We’ll see about that.’ He was horrified, sickened, that he could enjoy being overwhelmed, like one of those cripples in his brother’s magazines. Lucy had spoken briskly, the kind of voice she used for difficult patients. ‘If you don’t like it then don’t come back. ‘Imperceptibly O’Byrne was initiated into Lucy’s wants. It was not simply that she wished to squat on him. She did not want him to move. ‘If you move again,’ she warned him once, ‘you’ve had it.’”

Calvino explores the usage of two separate paths in his writing, and says, “I continually switch back and forth between these two paths, and when I have fully explored the possibility of one, I rush across to the other and visa versa” (Calvino, 75). In “Pornography,” McEwan uses the two women and their separate paths, to describe the voids in O’Byrne’s personality, and enhances the vision of sex, as his giant failure in life. Calvino goes on to say, “I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface” (Calvino, 77).

In conclusion, O’Byrne’s two women get the ultimate revenge on him for playing with both of their emotions simultaneously. This dramatic, ending is portrayed in a black-humor way so as a reader, you are rooting for the two women but also suffer severely for O’Byrne even as a woman reader. Lucy uses her dominance to lure O’Byrne into her home, convincing him to be completely submissive and allowing her to tie him down to her bed. Lucy also uses Pauline’s lack of power to her advantage, and convinces her to help sterilize, numb, and then castrate O’Byrne for his lies and spread of disease. Calvino argues that, “the proper use of language, for me personally, is one that enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words,” (Calvino, 77). In “Pornography,” McEwan uses this present conflict of sexual dysfunction in arousal, relationship, and disease to communicate with very little dialogue and sense of place the sadness of O’Byrne despite his disrespect toward women and sex and in the end, the reader is left with feelings for him.


Hurley Winkler and exactitude in Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles?”

Raymond Carver’s short story “Are These Actual Miles?” follows the journey of Toni, an independent woman with all the power as she sells a car, as her husband, Leo, sits at home, trying to configure his wife’s progress throughout the night. Carver tells the story with a slant toward Leo’s point of view, heavily expressing Leo’s rough anticipation toward Toni’s phone calls in regards to her progress, and long, ranting bits of narration through Leo’s train of thought, which give light into Leo’s anxieties. Leo’s nerves revolve around his lack of money and the bold gestures he and his wife have taken in the past to attempt to patch that hole—Carver’s narration delves into Leo’s neurotic listing of the material things he shares with Toni. This sort of obsessive-compulsive list on Leo’s behalf occurs the moment Toni leaves the house and Leo pours himself a drink. Carver’s insistent narrative slant toward Leo allows the anxieties between this couple to grow more heavily as the story progresses, and with more relentlessness on Carver’s behalf. Carver utilizes Leo’s point of view to juxtapose Toni with their car they are trying to sell, ending with Leo’s memories of the car and of Toni as he traces the “roads” of her stretch marks on her hip as they lie in bed.

In his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes a chapter on “Exactitude,” which I find to be the most compelling section of his book. Calvino expresses the importance of preciseness in literature, that the writing he prefers is that which he can edit and explore from sentence to sentence until the moment when he finds satisfaction in his words. Furthermore, Calvino states with great distress how much it bothers him that “…language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner” (Calvino 56).

Carl Rosen on the repetition of optimism in Richard Ford’s “The Optimists”

           Richard Ford’s “The Optimists” is a narrative based on the retelling of a pivotal event in the story’s protagonist’s life. The protagonist is the narrator and he retells a story about his youth as an adult. I’d like to focus on three techniques presented in the story that all add up to equal one major technique that is explored throughout: Ford uses repetition, the title of the story, and Calvino’s “quickness” to emphasize the character reversal of each of the protagonist’s family members in “The Optimists.” Despite there being three different methods under observation, I will be weaving all three of them together throughout this essay, because in reality they all do the same thing, but just have different names. The focus will be how the mother, father, and protagonist begin the story with how they end.

            Ford begins with introducing the narrator as an adult and prefacing the story with, “All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back” (279). In this excerpt we are presented with a mode of foreshadowing to let the reader know what they are getting into. It is at this juncture where I would like to introduce Calvino’s principle of quickness in fiction. Throughout the story, Ford only tells explosive events of progression, which come to define the story’s protagonist, but what’s important is what he leaves out. He doesn’t mention what happens when the protagonist goes to the Army, or any events in between one dreadful evening and the resurgence of the mother into the protagonists’ adult life at the end of the story. All events in-between, though, aren’t explored or mentioned. The focus of the author is to bounce in-between the specific night and the protagonists’ adult presence as a narrator. This bouncing back and forth between two specific times gives the story Calvino’s sense of quickness, because time becomes complicated and, at times, nonexistent in the fiction. It is almost as if time has no sense of place, because the story is a retelling, and the story isn’t finished yet. Calvino describes the legend of Charlemagne and a magical ring in his chapter on quickness, but in Ford’s story it is the presence of the narration, which acts as an object similar to the magical ring that captivates the reader and manipulates them as such. The narration can take the reader to any time and any place, and hold the complete power of the story. What becomes even more complicated is whether or not the reader can trust this narrator?

            The next technique combines the other two aforementioned in this essay: the title and repetition. The title “The Optimists” alludes to the narrator’s family being optimistic before the night described in the text, and not so much thereafter. There are several instances where optimism and naïveté become blatantly obvious for an effect of repetition, as well as making the title a motif throughout. One example of this repetition of optimistic statements is when the family bails the father out from prison after he just killed a man with a single punch in front of them. On the car ride home the father says, “’I want us to be happy here now,’ my father said. ‘I want us to enjoy life. I don’t hold anything against anybody. Do you believe that?’ ‘I believe that,’ I said” (286). Here we saw how optimistic the narrator once was, and we even see how fool-heartedly optimistic the father is. And what eventually happens is that the father goes to jail, becomes divorced, and is never heard from again; the son disappears from his family and goes into the Army; and the mother becomes a divorcee and clings onto other men for support. Every character has a quote or moment in the story that is naive and unfounded, and then every character ends up relatively hopeless, which then brings us back to the title: These people truly were “Optimists.” They were a family of previously optimistic people, who essentially have their worldview shattered by one night of harsh reality, and Ford shows this by using three techniques that highlight what’s really going on in this retelling. 

Lindsey Pittman considers self-importance in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Mark of Satan”

          I would like to discuss how, in Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Mark of Satan,” the author crafts the main character’s sense of self worth by his continual act of placing himself as the protagonist of the story.

          From the very start, the main character, Harvey, attempts to place himself in the center of the narrative. “A woman had come to save his soul” (466). The word choice in this sentence is intentional: to Harvey, this woman had come specifically for him. And it isn’t just that she came for him, but that God sent her to him. “An angel of God sent special delivery to him.” Harvey’s sense of self worth is married to his feeling like the center of the universe.

          As soon as Thelma removes the Bible from her bag and begins to get down to the business of saving his soul, Harvey’s heart sinks. Why, when this is surely what he expected? Indeed, he knows in the first sentence that the woman is here to offer him salvation. It is because he realizes that once she opens that Bible, the focus will move off of him and God will become the center of attention. He cannot pay attention to all this God-talk unless it is centered around him. When Thelma announces that God does indeed love him, a “genuine blush” darkens Harvey’s face (468). As Thelma speaks, lost in her theological fervor, Harvey begins to lose importance. The narrator says of Harvey that, normally, “the gin coursing through his veins … buoyed him up like debris riding the crest of a flood” (472). The alcohol elevates him, but only to the point of debris: something fragmented and dirty; the debris is destined to be lost among the great vastness of the flood.

            Harvey looks for any chance to gain a reaction from Thelma, any chance to have her attention focused not on God, but on him. When she asks him if he has been baptized—a fairly innocuous question, considering his personal salvation is indeed the subject of the discussion in the first place—Harvey reacts with indignation. He breaks the illusion of cordiality and startles her into apologizing. “Such passion [of her apology] quickened the air between them. Flash felt a stab of excitement” (472).

            When it is clear that Thelma is going to leave and that Harvey’s plan is going to fail and he is going to once again slip into obscurity, his entire sense of self importance disintegrates. “He could not believe the woman was escaping so easily. That his thing was no thing of his at all” (473).

            In a desperate attempt to retain her attention, Harvey seeks to deride Thelma for her faith. He says, “You’re a joke, people like you! You’re tragic victims of ignorance and superstition! You don’t belong in the twentieth century with the rest of us! You’re the losers of the world! You can’t cope! You need salvation!” (474). Ironically, Harvey seems to have summed up his own personal problems in his attempt to insult Thelma McCord, or was it McCrae. Right after he says this, Harvey has a single  moment of clarity about Thelma: he sees “the dignity in her body, the high-held head, and the very arch of the backbone” (474). Suddenly, he is the one who is a joke, who can’t cope, who needs salvation. At this realization, he feels the fear that Thelma so bafflingly lacks. “He was screaming, terrified. He perceived that his life was of no more substance than a cicada’s shriek” (474). He claims that Satan is with him in a last attempt to gain Thelma’s attention. He begs her to save him, begs “for mercy, for help, for Christ’s love,” and for the kind of redemption that only the hero of the story can achieve (474). At the climax of the story, as she prays over him, Thelma and Harvey “were locked in ecstasy as in the most intimate of embraces in the fierce heat of the sun” (474). Harvey is only able to feel that he is worth something by making himself the protagonist of the tale and by following the hero’s journey to redemption. And it seems clear that he thinks he has achieved this redemption and achieved the status of the hero. “In a frenzy of self-abnegation he ground his bare knees in the gravel and shattered glass, deep and deeper into the pain so that he might bleed more freely, bleeding all impurity from him or at least mutilating his flesh, so that in the arid stretch of years before him that would constitute the reminder of his life he would possess a living memory of this hour, scars he might touch, read like Braille” (475). The way he scars himself in order to remember this day, this experience, for the rest of his life, implies that Harvey feels like he is at the end of his tale. It implies that he feels like the hero at the end of his epic, looking forward to a life of monotony and self-satisfied reflection of his adventure this day. He gains self worth, ultimately, by casting himself in the hero in what he would see as an epic tale.

            However, how reliable is Harvey’s account of his epic? Calvino, in his lecture on Lightness, says, “As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight.” The melancholy of our hero, Harvey, is exaggerated by his neuroses, but once his sister, Gracie Shuttle, enters the scene, the reader can see that he is acting fairly ridiculous. She talks about his tendency towards “crying jags” and speaks of his hunched posture on the toilet seat as he picks glass out of his knees (475). Through her eyes, Harvey is reduced to a self-centered child. His sadness has achieved the lightness that Calvino talks about by observing him through another’s point of view. And, so, too, his constant quest for the protagonist’s spot in this story is made light and ridiculous. The shift of focus to Gracie Shuttle emphasizes that no one character can be the hero or the protagonist because every character is his or her own protagonist. Calvino says, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification” (7). And, for this story, that is certainly true: the weightiness of Harvey’s experience is all removed when we view him from his sister’s eyes. It is all a matter of point of view.

Veronica Zuniga talks point of view and theme rhyme in Can Xue’s “The Child who Raised Poisonous Snakes”

              Can Xue’s “The Child who Raised Poisonous Snakes,” deals with mysterious child Sha-yuan, who raises baby snakes in a paranormal way his parents and the narrator find hard to understand. The story implies that bad health comes from the lack of acceptance of the unordinary—Sha-yuan’s mother looks wan and sallow, and almost bald, and his father looks old and can’t stop blinking one eye, whenever they struggle to restrain their son’s odd behavior, such as raising baby snakes in the shelter.

             The story is written in first person peripheral point of view—in which the narrator is only a supporting character who introduces the protagonist. Therefore, the story’s point of view invites us to observe the protagonist Sha-yuan—his gestures, his attitude, his behavior, the situations around him—without insight on the narrator’s life. We never find out who the narrator is; from his visits and observations we get the idea that he may be a child psychologist. Even if he expresses what’s in his mind, his thoughts only revolve around the protagonist. “I did not believe the matter was as simple as that. I felt vaguely the falseness in Sha-yuan’s smile,” comments the narrator after the fact that Sha-yuan agrees with his mother’s act of killing snakes. “Listening to them, I became perplexed also,” says the narrator after the mother questions Sha-yuan’s real existence, “what was Sha-yuan, after all? I pondered hard…” As we can see, this point of view limits the narrator’s perception to the matter of Sha-yuan’s existence.

First person peripheral point of view works for this story because the effect is to hold the audience in speculation next to the narrator. We don’t know anything about Sha-yuan’s existence, all we can do is to observe him and speculate about him together with the narrator. “On the one hand, he seemed to pity those little snakes, but on the other hand, he instigated his parents to slaughter them. Nobody can figure out such contradictions,” ponders the narrator. Conversely, third person point of view—limited or omniscient—would be able to answer this question and reveal the protagonist’s secrets; therefore, ruin the purpose of the story which is to make Sha-yuan a mysterious character.

                On another note, I would like to talk about the story’s structure: it’s much like that of oral tradition in its repetition of situations. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino argues that oral narration “leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition” (35). Can Xue’s short story employs the repetition of various situations: the mother’s repetitive killing of the snakes, the constant visits to the air-raid shelter, the decay of Sha-yuan’s parents’ health (first they look ill—old and worn out, then they look healthy—young and happy, and then at the end of the story they have a decease called cardiac arteriosclerosis) and lastly, Sha-yuan’s physical appearance (first he looks slender, then rounder, then thin again). In this way the narrative follows a rhythmical pattern. Calvino says that “just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme” (35). The events in Can Xue’s story rhyme like the patterns of the waves—they arise and disappear to later reappear. 

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