Camille Todaro and the tone of marital discord in Hanif Kureischi’s “Intimacy”

The author explores marital discord, and all its entanglements as to what brings a previously happy couple to a state of unrecognizable discontent. The tone of this piece makes it very believable, and raw. In its presentation, it is not amplified or overly dramatic, but rather dry and placid. There is a marriage; it is broken, is how it reads. Written from the disillusioned husband’s perspective, we are made aware of his impending departure from the family. He wallows pensively in his final night at home with his wife Susan and two young sons. The two are very much in their own worlds, with Susan’s being largely defined by the kids, and his more or less marked by a kind of neglectful existence, left to fend for his own emotional stability and sexual needs. The characterization in this piece is what evokes such a strong message of unhappiness, and how binding obligations of home and a desire to hunt for our own personal happiness makes for a revolting life issue.

In his lecture about Lightness, Italo Calvino says, “The best designs are always simple and free of weightiness. Much like writing, certain words evoke a feeling or imagery of weight” (Calvino, 8). Hanif Kureischi accomplishes this with his refined style of writing, painting the protagonist’s impending exit as a quietly somber one. There is no knock-down, drag out fight, no profanities, just the protagonist realizing that he doesn’t fit in the very life in which he has created for himself. But the reader can feel the weight of the protagonist’s dilemma—the pain, the guilt involved (on part of his kids).

The protagonist’s wife, Susan is depicted as somewhat of a neo-feminist, strong willed about her opinions and self-assured, able to maintain composure, while the protagonist assumes a more passive exterior. “When we really talk, it is about them—something they said or did” (Kureishi 362). The scene at the dinner table really speaks volumes to the palpable void within their marriage. Susan flips on the television and he reads the newspaper. When the two attempt to converse, it becomes nothing more than a trivial tit-for-tat where Susan picks at every little thing he does. “Sometimes I go along with what Susan wants, but in an absurd parodic way, hoping she will see how foolish I find her” (Kureishi 365). The author succeeds at illustrating the protagonist’s apathetic stance with regard to Susan’s maladjusted treatment of him. While he doesn’t necessarily play the victim role, we can see that he is indeed disconnected. His actions are somewhat robotic, where he does things, but there lacks feeling behind it. If he feels anything at all, it is for his two sons, of whom he is about to leave. At the closing there is good illustration of the struggle he feels, as he kisses the one good night for the last time in a long while until he will be united with them again, and solemnly walks out the door.

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Loreena Stanga talks lightness in Hanna Al Shaykh’s “The Keeper of the Virgins”

Hanna Al Shaykh’s, “The Keeper of the Virgins” follows an unnamed dwarf in a world that pities or scoffs at him. The dwarf meanders about his life, immersed in study, reflection and writing. Each day, he leaves his family home afoot and makes the two-hour trip to the convent with the hope of catching a glimpse of Georgette, a woman from whom he had developed a keen sense of companionship that lived within its walls. In desperation to live within the walls of the convent, where the “pure ones” live, the dwarf rushes past the gates to seize his opportunity while the Lord Bishop is paying his annual visit. The dwarf is well known to the nuns as they too observed the dwarf during his daily dedicated vigil outside the gates. To his surprise, upon his first introduction to the Lord Bishop and the convent, they accept the dwarf and offer him the position of Watchman. The dwarf’s family, who had previously only lent him grudging acceptance, realizes he does not return home. With the family fearing the worse, the brother travels to the convent in search of him. The dwarf speaks to his brother once, and only to confirm that he is well, even satisfied and welcomed. Inside the convent, he is accepted and given the unconditional manifestations of love from the nuns, which the outside world has never experienced.

The themes that Al Shaykh’s uses in this story deal with obsession and unconditional acceptance. After the dwarf’s entrance into the convent, the mother and brother begin to worry about his absence. They lament about how badly they had personally treated the dwarf, and the brother races to the convent in search of him. The new contrast, between the brother and the dwarf, is a parable-like conversion of worth. To his family, the dwarf was a burden, an embarrassment to his brother and his mother. Inside the walls, he finds his divine calling. He is successful in his endeavors to support the nuns in their devotion to Jesus, and this new purpose takes place of his previous obsession on the outside of the wall. Now he is fulfilled by an overwhelming sense of acceptance by his new family, the nuns. Inside the convent, his new life has brilliant color and divine purpose, something the dwarf was missing in the outside world.

Outside the gates of the convent, his family dwells near the gate in the same manner the dwarf did before. To stay within the confines of the convent, the dwarf must ignore the pleas of his family. His new fervent obsession with the nuns allows him to grow “used to the obligatory link being severed.” Italo Calvino argues the opposition between lightness and weight in his lecture series called Six Memos for the next Millennium. Calvino says, “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structures of the stories.” This is a technique Al- Shaykh has accomplished with the disconnection of the dwarf from his family. Initially, the separation from his family was difficult, but the dwarf was able to recognize the darkness of the outside world. This world did not accept his ideas or his place in it without pity. This theme of acceptance is solidified further after the dwarf is shown the rotting corpse of someone unidentified in the story, but whom I believe is Georgette. His infatuation with Georgette moved him to travel to the convent each day. The realization of her death was softening by the senior nun’s reassurance that the dwarf had a divine purpose. Although the focal point of his obsession was lost forever, his new niche as the watchman provided him a sense of contentment of loving acceptance. The eerie transfer of obsession from the dwarf to his family allows the reader to have a sense of justification for the dedicated dwarf.

Matt Stiglbauer talks pacing and Calvino’s quickness in “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” by Angela Carter

Angela Carter’s The Courtship of Mr. Lyon tells the story of a down-on-his-luck lawyer whose car breaks down in the snow during Christmastime. He does not have the money to buy his daughter the one thing she asked for: a single white rose. He walks to get help after his car dies and comes upon a mysterious house, upon the gate of which is a single white rose. He enters the house through a door that opens on his own and a dog ushers him to a phone, beside which is the number for a mechanic, who tells the man that the house’s master has taken care of all expenses. As he is leaving the house the man takes the white rose and is accosted by its master, a lion-like man who angrily reprimands him. The master listens to the man’s explanation, that he took the rose for his daughter, and agrees to let the man leave if he brings back his daughter, Beauty, for dinner. The dinner is short and the man leaves his daughter with the master and leaves for London. Time passes and the daughter grows close to the master. Her father calls and she visits him in London, but she promises that she will return by Winter’s end. She doesn’t and his dog visits her in London to bring her back. She returns to the master’s house to find him on his death bed. She rushes to his side and he tells her he is dying, but she kisses his paw and tells him she’ll be his forever if he stays alive. The moment she kisses him he turns into a man and says that he thinks he can stomach some food. The story ends with a sentence in present tense as Mr. and Mrs. Lyon walk together with the dog.

Angela Carter’s story is a somewhat unique take on the Beauty and the Beast storyline, narrated by an omniscient narrator who doesn’t have a specific personality or stake in the story. Carter’s use of the 3rd person is deft: she is able to convey rich details without being overbearing or making the narrator too much of a character. For example the sentence “There was an air of exhaustion, of despair in the house and, worse, a kind of physical disillusion, as if its glamour had been sustained by a cheap conjuring trick and now the conjurer, having failed to pull the crowds, had departed to try his luck elsewhere” (144). By getting into the head of the character we are following and describing the scene from what is essential their perspective, Carter is able to vividly describe the scene as the narrator without making the narrator into a character.

In his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino talks about the concept of quickness. He gives a plethora of examples of what he considers quickness to be, and specifically mentions that his own personal motto since childhood has been Festina lente, or “hurry slowly.” He explains that the concept is intriguing to him because of its emblems, and the potential which utilization of the concept unlocks. Angela Carter utilizes the concept of Festina lente in The Courtship of Mr. Lyon. The wealthy lion and his “agate eyes” are contrasted with the helpless, down-on-their-luck family of Beauty and the lawyer. The story itself is short considering the amount of action that happens in the plot and the time that passes, but there is grand attention to detail in many places, such as the quote in the paragraph above. The author writes a plot that must either move very quickly or become stagnant, and fills each sentence with detail, cleverly getting in to the head of each character via the narrator (as mentioned above) to avoid becoming sluggish. 

“Language as It Ought to Be” — Kandace Taylor looks at exactitude in Juno Diaz’s “Ysrael”

Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael” is the story of brothers Yunior and Rafa who are spending a typical summer just outside the town of Ocoa in the Dominican Republic. This particular summer becomes a lot more interesting when the boys go on a mission to discover what lies beneath the mask of a local boy named Ysrael, who was horribly disfigured when a pig ate away at his face when he was a baby. This story is told in the first person, with the character Yunior recounting his and his brother’s experience during this summer that ends up making a deep impression on nine-year-old Yunior.

Diaz’s use of the first person creates a unified narrative because “Ysrael” is an uninterrupted retelling of these events from Yunior’s perspective. The reader gets the sense that Yunior is a trustworthy narrator because even though he’s telling the story years after it happened, his retelling is not colored too much by his maturity or by the benefit of hindsight. The way he tells the story is the way his nine-year-old self would have interpreted the events happening around him at the time. This choice on the part of Diaz creates a compelling narrative because the reader isn’t told what to think or what value to assign to Yunior and Rafa’s actions. Such value judgments become irrelevant because older Yunior is not telling the story in order to illustrate a moral or theme, he is just recounting a story from his life. This story shows that life, when it’s being lived in the moment, and even when it’s looked at in hindsight, doesn’t necessarily unfold into larger themes or easily discernible lessons. Sometimes what happened is just what happened, and it makes an impression on the individuals living it and that impression is all they can take away from it. The end of “Ysrael” exemplifies this:

“Ysrael will be OK, I said.

Don’t bet on it.

They’re going to fix him.

A muscle fluttered between [Rafa’s] jaw bone and his ear. Yunior, he said tiredly, They aren’t going to do shit to him.

How do you know?

I know, he said.”

The older Yunior who is telling the story knows why Ysrael won’t get the treatment he needs. Nine-year-old Yunior though, did not understand what Rafa was saying. By not interjecting his present knowledge into the story, older Yunior allows the reader to experience the same ambiguity that nine-year-old Yunior experiences at the end of this story and by doing so communicates more clearly the tragedy of Ysrael. Notes of tragedy underscore this story and the narrator allows them to shine through by not explicitly stating them. That way the reader experiences them the way younger Yunior does: as flashes, as something that is buried in the mind and the heart but every so often darts to the surface. Examples of this are when Yunior does things that remind Rafa of their dad. The following quote occurs when Yunior asks Ysrael about his kite:

“Where did you get that? I asked.

Nueva York, he said. From my father.

No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted.

I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. Our father only sent us letters and an occasional shirt or pair of jeans at Christmas.”

The implications here are that Rafa and Yunior’s father is not only away in the U.S., it’s as if he has forgotten about them. In this moment Ysrael, a disfigured pariah of a small town in the Dominican Republic, is in a better place than Rafa and Yunior, because his father sends him good gifts. And that pisses Rafa off. Older Yunior doesn’t say any of that though, and it is because Junot Diaz made the choice for the first-person narrator to keep his opinion out of the recounting of the story that “Ysrael” can resonate with the reader in such a visceral way.

 

In regard to Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Junot Diaz’s narrator helps the story achieve the third component, Calvino’s definition of “exactitude” that Calvino mentions in the chapter of the same name. This component says that exactitude is exemplified by “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” The language of the narrator in “Ysrael” achieves this precision through what he leaves unexplained and unqualified. By so doing he expressed the “subtleties of thought and imagination.” For example, older Yunior describes how Rafa would describe in explicit detail his exploits with the local girls. At the end of the passage older Yunior describes that at nine years old, “I was too young to understand most of what he said, but I listened to him anyway, in case these things might be useful in future.” Rafa telling him this information he can’t use (information which might not even be true, considering Rafa is a twelve-year-old boy with nothing to do) is ironically a time during which Yunior feels like his brother is treating him almost like an equal. This is a time of bonding for them. The narrator’s word choices are precise in that older Yunior is able to reproduce the way in which his nine-year-old would have described what was happening. In the simple, straightforward and slang-laden language of a nine-year-old, the narrator is still able to communicate the complexity beneath the seemingly mundane events of the story.   

Michael Lanham talks Multiplicity in “The Immortals” by Martin Amis

The short story I chose for my craft analysis is The Immortals, by Martin Amis. The story is centered around a nameless individual who we know only as the Immortal, an individual who recounts the history of the world, and to a lesser degree the history of mankind, through the lens of his immortal “life”. Ultimately, he is resigned in that his only good company throughout history will soon be extinct.

The setting in which the story takes place is post nuclear war and the world is in sad shape. The humans, or what there is left of them, are in dire circumstances. They are mad with delusions, unable to bear viable offspring, and lack the physical immunity to survive in a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust.

The character of the Immortal is by his very nature, and because of his unique situation, utterly alone and suicidal. He sees the end of humanity drawing near. We can surmise that the main struggle of the protagonist is the isolation and inherent loneliness which is the bane of those who live forever. The one sentence which resonates the most and clarifies the theme of the story comes when the narrator laments “Soon all the people will be gone and I will be alone forever.” In this sentence the author encapsulates the mood of the narrator and the tone of the story throughout.

The aspect of the writing which I seek to analyze, and which is necessary for the foundation of the piece, is point of view. By utilizing the narrator in the way that he does the author is able to draw the reader into his world and character. It is if as the reader and the narrator are speaking with each other conversationally. This works because the narrator is so desperate for companionship that even if the narrator were alone, we, as the reader, get the sense that the narrator would nevertheless speak in this manner. If any stranger were to approach him, a reader could assume his story would be told in the same informal manner. One almost has to question if in fact the Immortal spends his time reliving the past, and his existence, over and over like a continual loop.

This brings us to another element of that serves the story well. Multiplicity. Italian author Italo Calvino defines this aspect of storytelling as the “multiplication of possibilities.” Indeed, throughout the story, the narrator presents us with “a combination of experiences, information, and things imagined” that is the trademark of a multiplicitous writing style. Indeed, if multiplicity includes telling the story from more than one perspective, as Calvino suggests, then the author accomplishes this towards the end of the story. In passing, the Immortal mentions that he too suffers from the delusions of the last, insane, dying humans. As the narrator says “Sometimes I have this weird idea that I am just a second rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now noisily dying of solar radiation along with everyone else.” Now, we as readers, are not really sure who the Immortal really is. The possibilities have been multiplied. The story can now be interpreted in different ways, from the perspective of an ageless “god” or that of a raving lunatic. Different experiences give us different perspectives. This is multiplicity. And it is, in part, why the Immortals is a story that worked so well for this reader.

As the narrator says “Sometimes I have this weird idea that I am just a second rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now noisily dying of solar radiation along with everyone else.” Now, we as readers, are not really sure who the Immortal really is. The possibilities have been multiplied.

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