After epiphany: American stories in the postmodern age.
To what, then, could I have aspired in my craft? Certainly to small things, having seen that the possibility of great ones was historically precluded.
To talk about short stories as small things is to risk a return to that lowest of common story denominators: a short story is a story that is short. I want to begin there, nevertheless, by positing some connections between the petits recits, the circumstantiated struggles, the perishing trajectories of love and thought--the materials and occasions of postmodern culture--and some American stories of our time. In these stories, small figures large. It disfigures teleology, displaces universal truths and eternal verities, and eventually the epiphany itself, that point of contact with meaning or wholeness, which has stood so long at the center of our understanding of the genre.
To make such a claim, to suggest that contemporary stories do not inevitably advance toward and can no longer be read in terms of epiphany, is to challenge short-story theory at the point of greatest consensus. The epiphany is, even among critics of widely divergent opinion on other matters, almost a given. "Short stories often work towards a single moment of revelation . . . an epiphany, or instant of radiant insight," Valerie Shaw observes in her volume on the story. "Suddenly the fundamental secret of things is made accessible and ordinary circumstances are transfused with significance" (193). In his widely cited essay on "The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction," Charles E. May writes: "The short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality" (329). Mary Rohrberger suggests, likewise, that the story is metaphysical in its orientation and that it represents "the author's probing of the nature of the real." "As in the metaphysical view," she writes, "reality lies beyond the ordinary world of appearances, so in the short story, meaning lies beneath the surface of the narrative. The framework of the narrative embodies symbols which function to question the world of appearances and to point to a reality beyond the facts of the extensional world" ("Short" 81). And in his very recent essay on the genre, Allan H. Pasco concludes that the movement of the story is toward "the essential truth or idea or image which rises above time" (420).
Such views essentialize, I would suggest, what is arguably modern. "I shall call modern," Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, "the art which devotes its 'little technical expertise' . . . to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible" (78). Shaw's concluding description of the short story as a genre is strikingly similar to Lyotard's account of the modern. "The short story's success," she writes, "often lies in conveying a sense of the unwritten, or even unwriteable things" (264). Rohrberger, too, finds "at the very base of the short story" the unpresentable, "the that that is unsaid but somehow manages to be said" ("Between" 43). This assimilation of modernist epistemology into definitions of the genre is doubly problematic for the critic of the contemporary story, in which essentialist notions have given way and metanarratives--whether of cosmic truth, self-knowledge, or, in Eudora Welty's words, "emotions which are eternally the same in all of us" (108)--are increasingly met with what Lyotard terms "incredulity" (xxiv).
Thomas M. Leitch is the only critic to date who has vigorously challenged the claim that "all short stories proceed to a revelation that establishes a teleology, a retrospective sense of design" (131). Leitch finds already in early modern American fiction a movement by means of a "special use of antithesis" from "a false sense of certainty to a more authentic sense of uncertainty" (133). A great many American stories, he contends, citing examples from Crane and Melville, Hemingway and James, move away from the known toward disillusionment rather than revelation and reintegration.
Leitch's argument is a compelling one, but I would like to extend it somewhat, suggesting that in the stories of our time his antithetical rhythm (in which, it must be noted, the unpresentable still hovers, if only as "existential suspicion") has itself been displaced, that the failures of closure and disclosure he observes in the short story are both more pervasive and differently narrated here, that they are reckoned less in movement than in moment, less in linear than in configurational terms.
The insufficiency of modernist approaches and essentialist definitions to a great many contemporary stories will be well known to readers of those texts. In the face of epiphanic expectations and teleological impulses these stories seem at best recalcitrant--obstructive, in ways Austin M. Wright has described in illuminating detail, on the way to a discoverable form and meaning. At worst and more often, they seem mute, inert, inchoate. Writing about stories by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Amy Hempel, among others, John Aldridge complains that "Memory is given nothing to retain, no form in which the harmonious relation of part to part creates a pattern on which the mind is able to construct a memory." Aldridge goes on to add, "There is no evidence that these experiences are meant to coalesce into drama or so arrange themselves as to produce some climactic insight into a truth about the human condition" (35).
Coming to terms with the contemporary American short story and articulating new reading strategies adequate to it will, I think, involve a shift from teleological and metaphoric modes of understanding to paralogical and metonymic ones. It will involve, in other words, a redefinition of the short story in its postmodern context. Such a redefinition will necessitate a refocusing and an extension of current discussion about postmodernism, which has been addressed primarily to the visual arts and the novel. And it will require a reconsideration of the remarkably stable boundaries between the experimental short fiction of writers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover--in which disruption, improbability, and modal discontinuity are prominent--and mainstream or neorealist stories in which disruption and dislocation are less visible to the naked eye.
Despite its vitality and diversity in the last several decades and despite its extremely interesting situation at the boundary of high culture and popular culture, the story has been given little critical attention outside the narrow domain of short-story criticism. One reason for this is that even very recent writers have tended to work within a realist tradition, accepting conventions of plausibility and verisimilitude, which have been called into question by poststructuralist critics and postmodern novelists. These story writers have worked more toward the evocation of place--"Fiction must have a local address" is Eudora Welty's widely accepted adage--and situation, the expression of a moment, and a certain unity (after Poe) of effect. Despite their open-endedness and their capacity for indeterminacy, most contemporary short stories present readable, unified characters who seem at first to be untouched by the cultural and critical instabilities of their century.
I do not think they are untouched. While the term "neorealism" and similar terms like "dirty realism" and "K-Mart realism" do a certain rough justice to the surfaces of many contemporary stories, they obscure important destabilizations and realignments within. Differently situated with respect to time--the short story is a story which is short--short fiction presents different challenges than the novel's (particularly the long "historiographic metafictions," which Linda Hutcheon sees as the fullest expression of postmodern disruption |105-23~) to established ideas of closure causality, teleology, and subjectivity.
Leitch, along with John Gerlach and others, has argued persuasively that the challenges to conventional expectations about causality and closure are among the American short story's most important contributions to twentieth-century fiction. The disruption of teleological thinking, however, represents a significant disruption of our ways of reading, our sense both of what a story is and of what it does. When the fragments and wanderings that are the stories of our time are no longer oriented to, or disoriented with respect to, epiphany, they become something else altogether. Fragmentation and alienation, both essential concepts in our understanding of the modern story, are no longer viable ways of talking about the subject, the speaking and the spoken self. What replaces the modernist subject and the teleology--whether of insight or alienation, redemption or disillusionment--that renders it intelligible is a subjectivity situated in language. The little narratives of neorealism must be approached, then, on wholly different--and, I would suggest, postmodern--terms.
I would like to propose here several specific ways in which the American story explores linguistically, after epiphany, the problematics of selfhood and meaning. I want to address, by looking at some stories and some kinds of stories, the way the genre operates within the force field of postmodernism. And I want to consider what happens following the disappearance or disruption of the "moment of truth," which Mary Louise Pratt believes is widely regarded as "the canonic form of the modern short story" (182).
There are stories that move, as Raymond Carver's do, with centripetal force, collapsing into a minimal selfhood linguistically determined even as it is linguistically isolated. Here silence has to do not with the ineffable but with language itself: the broken conversation, the insufficient word, the incommensurability of languages even within marriage. Denis Donoghue remarks acutely that in Carver's stories, "It is not safe to form a sentence or even to speak a name" (qtd. in Carver, What We Talk About n.p.). I would go further to argue that Carver's characters are unable to sustain the multivocality, the heteroglossia of the world and, not coincidentally, of novelistic discourse as Bakhtin defines it. Carver's narratives seem, on that account, bound to be short stories. The very sources of narrative, and hence of the self, are choked off by the fear, the impossibility of communication.
That the survival of the fictive psyche depends on language is nowhere more evident than at the end of Carver's story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Here language is danger and encroachment but silence is effacement. At night, on the streets of his hometown, Ralph Wyman is assaulted by a barrage of words and voices: lurid graffiti, cars of yelling teenagers, threats, suggestions. The language of his wife's betrayal rings in his ears over and over again until he believes he will vomit. "Yes, there was a great evil pushing at the world, he thought, and it only needed a little slipway, a little opening" (239). At home Ralph Wyman barricades himself in the bathroom of his house, begging his wife and children for quiet; there he searches the mirror, peers at his own face, as if for proof of his existence. "He made faces at himself," Carver writes, "He tried many expressions. Then he gave it up. He turned away from the mirror and sat down on the edge of the bathtub, began unlacing his shoes" (248).
Silence does not issue in insight, here; exile does not open the way to knowledge. A few Carver stories, relatively late and frequently anthologized pieces including "Cathedral" and "A Small, Good Thing," do move by way of talk toward revelation. I think that these are best understood as limited ventures (as Carver himself moved into the literary establishment) into the short story as it is practiced by Joyce and Chekhov, Porter and Hemingway; that these stories are so widely read signifies, perhaps, their readability along modernist lines. Compelling enough on their own terms, such stories remain exceptions to Carver's explorations, early and late, of monologic and paralogic possibilities.
Much more often in Carver's work, an interior, essential self is desperately protected but cannot exist in the safety of silence. Grace Paley's characters, on the other hand, live at ease in language. They make few and very casual claims about identity and personal history. Their worlds run on contingency, not design. We know them by their voices, narrating or overheard, diverse, intermingled and interrupted, none more privileged than another, though some louder. Paley's stories move, almost to a one, by centrifugal force, dispersing self into language and the play of voices.
"The Long Distance Runner" offers good illustration. "One day, before or after forty-two, I became a long distance runner," its narrator Faith begins. "Though I was stout and in many ways inadequate to this desire, I wanted to go far and fast" (179). Running, she moves though the suburbs, past the beach, back into the neighborhood she grew up in, now inhabited mostly by blacks. The landscape which makes the most powerful claims on our attention is one of voices: Jewish, Black, and Irish; male and female; young and old and middle-aged. There are no interior and exterior worlds, only the one landscape of language, of dialect and diatribe. Where there is change, it has to do with telling rather than knowing; Paley's characters are resolutely not metaphysical in their ways of thinking about the world and experience. Back from her three-week sojourn in the old neighborhood, Faith tells and retells her story, making it simple but never mythic. At the end of another story another Faith remarks that events have "turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling" (99-100).
In Paley's stories living, like telling, is situated wholly in language. So it is in Carver's work, though differently situated, and in the work of some younger neorealists--Richard Ford, Susan Minot, Kent Nelson, Jayne Anne Phillips--whose strategies and dilemmas resemble Carver's. And so it is, though still differently, in another group of contemporary writers including Elizabeth Spencer, Deborah Eisenberg, Margaret Atwood, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. In their stories, incredulity toward metanarratives is explicit; the absence of epiphany and the failure of eternal, social, and ontological verities is marked. I use Richard Rorty's pragmatic sense of the word irony to suggest how the epiphanic moments that have previously given meaning and coherence to stories are replaced by moments of self-redescription, how metaphors of discovery give way to metaphors of self-recreation. In these moments, contingent and successive, rather than teleological, the contemporary short story expresses its post-modernness most fully.
In Elizabeth Spencer's story "I, Maureen," the narrator has a moment of vertigo thinking about black holes in space where "matter collapses of its own gravity, ceases to exist in any form that we know of as existence." "Yet some existence must continue," she muses, "Was this myself, turned inside-out like a sleeve, whirled counterclockwise to a vacuum point, when I disappeared would I (Maureen) know it?" (347). The problematics of "myself" persist for Maureen; her sense of identity is deranged (for which she is sent to a psychiatrist), her movement toward epiphany disappointed. "At a still center, waiting for loved ones' faces to appear through a radiance of outer sunlight, I stared at nothing," she says (346). She divorces, casting off her identity as wife and mother and getting rid of a name, Partham, whose very syllables of "part" and "am" suggest a stable identity in relation to something whole or larger. Her metaphysical sense of selfhood gives place painfully to an ironic one, her expectation of a "real self" to a succession of selves.
The narrator of Deborah Eisenberg's "Days" begins her story--a loosely organized series of journal entries--like this: "I had never known what I was
like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay for it. When the haze cleared over the charred landscape, the person I had always assumed to be behind the smoke was revealed to be a tinny weights-and-balances apparatus, rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen" (117). By degrees, by days, she finds not an essential but an habitual self, one defined not by what she is but by what she does: I swim, I run, I take a vacation. "With ever increasing frequency and rapidity I think of what I would like to do and I do it," she remarks near the end of her account. "The days just clutter up with things I feel like doing and then do. One after another, I fill up and dispatch dayfuls of things" (146-47).
In Margaret Atwood's stories, too, selfhood is almost always treated ironically. Describing a period of unrequited love, the narrator of "Hair Jewellry" remarks coolly, "At that time I believed in metaphysics. My Platonic version of myself resembled an Egyptian mummy, a mysteriously wrapped object that might or might not fall into dust if uncovered" (Dancing 104). The selves which occupy the "I," the "she," the given name in Atwood's work are regularly broken with, discarded, displaced.
Often this happens by acts of will, by decisive, even forcible ruptures with the past. Kat, of the story "Hairball," has gone from "romanticized Katherine" of grade school to "bouncy, round-faced Kathy" to "blunt and no-bullshit" Kath to "economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail" Kat. Finally, as an editor of an avant-garde English magazine called the razor's edge, she begins to transform not only herself but others. "She had become a creator," Atwood writes, "she created total looks. After a while she could walk down the street in Soho or stand in the lobby at openings and witness her handiwork incarnate, strolling around in outfits she'd put together, spouting her warmed-over pronouncements. It was like being God, only God had never got around to off-the-rack lines" (Wilderness 36-37). Atwood does not mistake the magazine makeover for more powerful and difficult varieties of self-redescription but the proximity of outfits to selves is both comic and revealing.
As the language of selfhood shifts from metaphysical to ironic in these stories, the absence of epiphany is sometimes palpable. The protagonist of Alice Munro's recent story "Carried Away" feels, after what can only be called a collision of worlds, as if she has "gone under a wave, which nobody else had noticed." It was, Munro writes, "anarchy she was up against--a devouring muddle. Sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations" (46). Spencer's Maureen thinks for a moment that the world has spoken to her by means of a minor event, a bit of blue-green glass flying through the air. "It was a nothing point," she later tells her psychiatrist, "an illusion, but an illusion that happened to me, if there is such a thing" (344).
In stories such as these, I think, the language of epiphany is less telling than the language of the labyrinth. "Who was I?" asks Borges's Ramon Bonavena, giving eloquent voice to the ontological questions that Brian McHale argues compellingly are the dominant ones in postmodern fiction. "Today's self bewildered, yesterday's forgotten; tomorrow's unpredictable? What could be more unattainable than the mind?" (28). These questions have more to do with identity and meaning in recent short fiction than has yet been reckoned with; and they are what American stories, in small ways and little narratives, give place and places, voice and voices to.
Like every contemporary genre, the short story is subject to the commodifying, homogenizing forces of consumer culture and corporate capitalism; precisely how those forces are articulated with, or set against, the story's inscriptions of the small, the local, the heterogeneous, the plural, is another matter, perhaps the most compelling in the field of story theory at the present time. The importance of mass circulation magazines as venues (declining from the midcentury to the present) for short fiction and the rising stock of stories in the book market over the last decade suggest the indispensability of cultural studies in genre criticism and story theory.
For the moment, however, it is clear that the crisis of legitimation and the failure of metanarrative, which for Lyotard precipitate and define the postmodern, are attended, in Fredric Jameson's words, by a revival of "storytelling knowledge" and a renewed sense of "the vitality of small narrative units" (xi). That vitality eludes epiphany and slips the nets of truth and moment. Having escaped, even disabled, the old ways, the short story at the end of the twentieth century insists on new ways of reading as it inscribes new ways of knowing and telling.
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Atwood, Margaret. Dancing Girls and Other Stories. New York: Simon, 1977.
-----. Wilderness Tips. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
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-----. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Random, 1989.
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-----. "The Short Story: A Proposed Definition." Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976. 80-82.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
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Wright, Austin M. "Recalcitrance in the Short Story." Lohafer and Clary 115-29.
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|Title Annotation:||The Short Story: Theory and Practice|
|Author:||Clark, Miriam Marty|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
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