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. 


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.

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. 

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