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Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1990.

This collection of essays, originally presented at the 1990 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, constitutes a helpful addition to the debate about how Faulkner's short stories are to be read in the context of his brilliance as a novelist and his preference for the latter genre. Indeed, given the nature of his writing--with its emphasis on accumulating nuances of meaning, repetition, and embedding events and their implications within ever broader contexts--one feels even greater appreciation for the achievement of his finest short stories, which are so intricately crafted. Additional focus on the context within which his short stories were written and the implications of their form for the subjects they address is of great interest to all who teach Faulkner's texts.

The collection begins, quite appropriately, with a consideration of the terms in which Faulkner himself spoke of his writing of short stories. John Matthews emphasizes Faulkner's ongoing concern with the financial pressures that led him to write short stories, while simultaneously and repeatedly expressing frustration that writing novels had to be postponed until he had "bought time" by selling his stories to magazines. Whatever his opinion of the literary caliber of various contemporary magazines, Faulkner thought first about the money they would each pay for his stories and made his choices on that basis. Matthews's essay addresses how a number of Faulkner's stories reflect his awareness of the need to curtail his work to make it acceptable to the consumer market represented by the mass-circulation magazines. Whereas all of Faulkner's writing, as Matthews phrases it, "tirelessly interrogates the premises of fictionmaking" (p. 7), his short stories, in particular, incorporate allusions to the need of accommodating his stories to the expectations and desires of a magazine-reading public. His "Spotted Horses," for example, enacts "the commodification and eroticization of the cultural product" (p. 16) in its portrayal of the farmers' desire for the "flashy uselessness" embodied in the ponies (p. 18).

The most provocative part of Matthews's essay, however, is his consideration of how the very brevity implicit in the short-story form may account for Faulkner's foregrounding in his stories of aspects of Southern experience normally subsumed within the wider mythical and historical contexts of his novels. The intricate dynamics of a relentlessly acquisitive society, the consequences of individuals' marginality within a community, capitalism's separation of one's labor from one's value as a human being--each of these themes receives fuller articulation in the short stories in part because their form forces the author to "disrupt [the] accepted structures of explanation" (p. 34) provided by the novels and to see the incidents detached and isolated from the wider narratives that, in the novels, contain them. Thus, Faulkner's economic need to write the stories may have led him to explore more immediate and compelling dimensions of his contemporary culture than he tended to do in many of his novels.

James Carothers continues this consideration of the terms in which Faulkner himself spoke of his short-story writing by looking at his use of the images of prostitution--closely linked, of course, to the economic pressures in his life, but adding the dimension of his resentment at needing to please others with his work. The fact that so many of his stories either came from longer work or were later incorporated into it suggests that Faulkner continued to see his novels as the authentic art, whereas his short stories seemed like "whoring" (p. 38). The situation, as Carothers notes, is a complex one because short fiction--including his finest stories--played such an extended and persistent role in his writing throughout his career. But the implication of debasement was always implicit in Faulkner's use of this image for his writing, and Carothers points out that if "the stories were Faulkner's tricks, and if writing short stories made Faulkner the whore, then ... [o]ur role as readers, in the casting, becomes alarmingly clear." We become the "impotent and perverse Popeye, panting and drooling in fascination and envy above an act of degradation in which [we] cannot otherwise participate" (p. 60). It is little wonder, then, that Faulkner has such fun with voyeurism and "ogling" in his stories; he is contemplating his audience.

Several of the essays in Faulkner and the Short Story focus upon Go Down, Moses, one of the more interesting collections of Faulknerian stories because its definition as a novel, a collection loosely woven around a general theme, or a carefully integrated short-story cycle has continued to be disputed; Faulkner contributed to this situation by offering his own variant definitions at different times. The present collection includes essays by Robert Brinkmeyer on various forms of asceticism that appear to clarify some of the premises underlying Isaac McCaslin's decision to renounce his inheritance and by Philip Weinstein on how the three different narrative contexts in which Faulkner created Lucas Beauchamp led to differences in his characterization of this pivotal figure. It also features an especially persuasive essay by Susan Donaldson suggesting that critics have focused wrongly in their insistence on looking for the unity of the collection's seven stories. Rather, she argues, we should acknowledge the "disruptions and contradictions" (p. 129) built into the text that cause us, whenever we isolate some organizing principle for the stories as a whole, to realize almost immediately in how many respects it does not "work." Donaldson's suggestion is that we read the book as "a site of struggle between the seven individual stories and that all-encompassing and all-binding |master narrative' of the McCaslins, which in turn is bound to the narrative of mastery defining Southern history . . ." (p. 129). This master narrative of patriarchal power is so compelling that characters in the stories who try to resist it are typically forced to confront the degree to which they are imprisoned in its categories or, as with Ike McCaslin's offer of money to Roth Edmonds's discarded mistress in "Delta Autumn," they "inadvertently repeat past patterns" (p. 138) dispossessing blacks and women. Just as Rider's story is ultimately contained and submerged by the deputy's stereotyped, racist narrative in "Pantaloon in Black," the other stories in Go Down, Moses, too, reflect the difficulty of establishing one's own story in the face of the compelling presence of the wider Southern narrative. As Donaldson writes, understanding this pervasive tension in the collection allows us to see "Faulkner's modernist suspicions of narrative in general, his yearnings to escape its bonds, and his sad, implicit acknowledgement that those bonds often prove to be unyielding" (p. 129).

In an entirely different vein, John Irwin has contributed a fascinating essay on how Faulkner manipulates and varies several conventions associated with the detective story, particularly as Poe conceived the genre in his Dupin stories. In his 1946 story, "An Error in Chemistry," Faulkner plays with two types of detective plot, the "hidden object" and the "locked room," that embody "the very mechanism of logical inclusion/exclusion on which rational analysis is based" (p. 151). His use of them creates a twist in which what had appeared to be a "locked-room puzzle" turns out to be, instead, a "hidden-object problem" (p. 157), in itself ingenious, but Irwin goes on to show that Faulkner sidesteps some of the traditional dilemmas of the detective-story writer by not accepting the narrative challenge of rationally explaining some of the events in the story. Faulkner is better, Irwin suggests, when he applies such devices as the imagery of a chess game and the convention of the detective's having some special motive for becoming involved in a case to materials closer to those Faulkner knows best, the Oedipal challenges between father (surrogate) and son, for example. Irwin's reading of "Knight's Gambit" in these terms is masterful.

The collection also includes worthwhile essays on the reception--and perception--of Faulkner's short stories in the USSR and in China, particularly interesting in their discussion of the implications of the myriad political changes that have taken place in the past half century. Author Joan Williams reminds us of some advice that Faulkner gave her as a young writer, in the course of which he noted their earlier agreement that "|next to poetry, [the short story] is the hardest art form'" (p. 259.

While most of us would agree with David Minter, who writes in this volume that the novel was Faulkner's "proper form because it is of all forms the most commodious" (p. 100), this collection suggests a variety of reasons for believing that the short-story form led Faulkner into areas of creative experiment--and achievement--that ultimately enhance our understanding of the workings of his imagination. My review of recent work on the theory of the short story leads me to conclude that a good deal of thought about the genre in general and Faulkner's employment of it, in particular, remains to be undertaken; the most provocative essays in this collection, however, have already earned a secure place in such an effort.
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Author:Mortimer, Gail L.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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Next Article:Yoknapatawpha: The Function of Geographical and Historical Facts in William Faulkner's Fictional Picture of the Deep South.

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