Hello out there and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I reviewed the major lessons that we can surmise from Jack London’s best works. Now I have pivoted to a short-story mindset in the hopes of gaining similar wisdom from the greats. To that end, my wife generously bought me Neil Gaiman’s 2006 story collection Fragile Things.
This collection contains mainly work the great comic/children’s book/fiction/mythology writer has published elsewhere, in other fantasy mixings or places like the liner notes of a Tori Amos CD. I must admit my love for the world of comic books is intensified when it comes to this man’s contributions, and while I’ve barely begun the epic Sandman series in its entirety, it probably should be a goal of mine to finish next year (I plan on mixing this experiment up a bit if we survive until then, spoiler alert, etc.)
All of that being said, I found it rather difficult to get into some of these tales. But before I get to my moronic griping about this iconic figure, let’s take a look at the major lessons from these stories.
Story within a story. Gaiman uses this in a few collaborative and commissioned pieces, and while I’m not sure I would ever want to use the technique it is very interesting. One story he considered a first attempt at The Graveyard Book, but is introduced in a completely different way. Another begins as a stranger’s tale in a club, and one that begins with the narrator meeting a former acquaintance in a diner. And the final novella takes place entirely in a whole other Gaiman-verse.
Writing for your audience. This is obviously a gigantic talent of Gaiman, and while I was encountering certain genres (such as gothic) here for the first time since I’ve read Poe, I can see how he knows how to write a certain type of story. Despite his massive success over in the States for decades, most of these tales still remain firmly in British territory in terms of style and language. Once I deduced this, it was actually easier to like these stories, as in general the Brits seem to outpace us quite well in many literary ways (yeah, I said it).
Some of my favorites from the collection were: “Bitter Grounds,” “Harlequin Valentine,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Goliath,” and the American Gods inspired novella Monarch of the Glen. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t recommend this entire book to anyone looking to hone their short story writing skills.
While I’ve since learned to overcome my initial hesitation to some of these stories/genres (not to mention Gaiman’s wonderful poetry throughout has singlehandedly made me that much more interested in that type of writing) and did enjoy this book, some of these tales didn’t work for me. I’ll take one example: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” While this is generally considered one of his best, I found myself unable to believe that even a kid at that age wouldn’t respond to the fantastic dialogue being spun. But could that be that I once again cannot wrestle with the fact that this is a writer deliberately leaving many things in his worlds unresolved? I find myself too inexperienced (and too enamored with this man’s great skill in creating art) to fully argue this point, and will leave it there.
Up next I will travel a few different directions in this vein. I hope to be able to post another example short story (or two) to the blog soon. I am also going to plunge head first into some other masters of the form: Hemingway, Twain, Chopin, Dahl, and a few more. And as always feel free to toss me some recommendations if you have ‘em. Thanks for reading!
I’ve been struggling for the better part of this week to put something, anything, down to words regarding the recent tragedy in Charlottesville.
First, if you haven’t watched the VICE News documentary HBO posted online, please do so. You really can’t understand a lot of this without witnessing it. And since we’re supposed to put “trigger warnings” on stuff now, there are some incredibly disturbing and violent images within that doc, but again I would strongly recommend every American watch it. Those of you gazing at the angry fulminations emanating from my social media platforms will know how I feel about this. But what does this actually mean?
Next, I feel some basic things about this event must be stated, and repeatedly. A group of white supremacists/nationalists and neo-Nazis marched across a college campus with torches chanting “You/Jews will not replace us,” and finding their rallying base around a statue of a Confederate war general. This happened in America in 2017. The next day, during clashes at a protest people were injured, and after police ordered everyone to disburse a car driven by a supremacist sympathizer rammed over several dozen peaceful protestors, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer. The President of the United States has still been unable to issue any kind of statement making it clear where the majority of the violence on this tragic day was to be found. As of this writing, a week after this all happened, while almost everyone he brought with him to the White House is gone, he still has not issued any kind of statement to correct the record. This is how the President of the United States thinks, in 2017.
Third, these things are all irrefutable. And yet I find myself immersed in social media discussions in which many people out there cannot seem to understand, let alone morally grasp, the terms of this “debate.” This is rather unnerving because we Americans take it as a point of major pride that we helped Russia triumph over the Nazi menace during the Second World War. And yet even that type of speech is now considered by some people to deserve equal footing with anti-racist slogans and agendas. How did this decoupling of morality and consequence occur? Well, it sure didn’t happen one week ago.
We live in an age right now in which we are asking gigantic questions about society that seemed solidly in place even years prior. But many of these changes were accelerating in the first part of the great “War on Terror” with Dubya. This is a time that a lot of young people have no memory of, or if they do remember it’s filled with war. It bears repeating that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for longer than any other war in its history. The lies came fast and furious after 9/11, and many precedents for Trump were set right here. “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “reality-based community.” Just three examples of words twisted beyond recognition by an administration bent on war and reaffirming the supposed world order of things by any means. And of course there were other egregious cases, such as pretending a great southern city (New Orleans) didn’t really exist in its time of most dire need. These are all things that are barely a decade past us.
Obama came, but we saw very little change in substance when it came to the militarization of our populace. While the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President got a lot of great press for supposedly winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reality our nation got ever more enmeshed in the Middle East during his tenure, and Obama became known as the “Drone President” for how much he shifted military reliance on this technology. But the twisting of language didn’t stop under this man, as words like “imminent threat” became used to justify the preemptive assassination of American citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorism.
And there’s that word again. The word that has lost all meaning to today’s populace. The acts of James Alex Fields were certainly those of terrorism, especially as the media loves to define it today (car being driven over multiple pedestrians). And yet never more was the establishment media at pains to describe this as exactly what it was: an act of terrorism, perpetrated by a domestic terrorist. This debate has been worn out in the years after 9/11, but it’s hard to pretend as if most people don’t see it precisely this way: “terrorism” is stuff done by “those” people (i.e. anyone not white, but mostly Muslims). Again, the terms of the debate shifted steadily under the Bush II administration, but Obama did very little to quell this. And the GOP was literally using their racist bases’ impulse to go against that president through groups like the TEA Party.
This all leads us to where we stand now. Everyone wants to bemoan the state of “polarization” in our politics today, but very few seem to grasp the roots of our outrage. Could it be because:
The United States has never been forced through a truth and reconciliation process over any part of its horrifying racist past? Talking about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, KKK, the list goes on. There is a reason why somebody born after 9/11 could still be indoctrinated in this type of evil mindset. Because generations before never had to be fully confronted with the malice of their deeds. And the rest of us were apparently OK with this for our generations.
Most of our US populace has become inherently deadened by the Neoliberal regime initiated by Reagan and Thatcher in the 80’s and was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the 2008 financial crash to be the largest financial swindle in history. This pernicious ideology has led vast swathes to view the entire world as a transactable thing, and leaves little room for other considerations. This alone has led to pain and suffering throughout the world that has the convenient excuse (still today!) of pretending as if it is an unchallengeable ideology (it isn’t). For more on this topic, I’d highly recommend Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
Or perhaps it’s just a simple lack of education, with our elite betters exploiting it against us at every turn. Millions of people turned up in the streets to protest the Iraq War, but it still happened. Thousands of leftist, anti-racist and antifa organizers turned up at the Charlottesville protest, but somebody still got murdered. And the President sided with the murderers. Hard to think of a more concise example of the stark terms of the situation.
So yeah, this is war. In some ways it’s a war that never got resolved, much in the way the Korean peninsula situation threatens to spiral out of control because the war fought there by our nation a half-century ago led to much death and destruction but very little verdict. These things occur, and then pass us by as our populace becomes more and more inured to the catastrophic future awaiting us through climate change and political instability.
All of these things being predicate, how did we get here in 2017? I have no idea if the concepts I’m laying out here do justice to that question. But, as with the Boston Marathon bombing four years ago, these types of terrorist attacks have a large piece of context that never quite gets discussed in the media even when they happen.
Surely there is a reason these types of attacks are occurring on what appears to be a daily basis. Why is it so easy for most of us to throw around the “terrorism” label when it’s happening over there, and yet have such an inability to realize that it is our own foreign policy providing large amounts of “terror” to the world population? This kind of cognitive dissonance was a large part of what Trump was able to exploit to “win” the election, and continues to balance on moronic statements like “both sides.” It becomes apparent that this is racist balderdash is what the President truly thinks, and why wouldn’t he if his chief news sources are Fox News and Alex Jones? Our cherished belief to insulate ourselves in filter bubbles is only making these problems worse, and for those already massively uninformed, downright dangerous.
That’s essentially what we saw in Charlottesville: a large group of amazingly uninformed people acting on those beliefs in a violent way. Now, one could argue that’s the general thrust of American politics (as Tina Fey pointed out recently on Weekend Update, it was actually us who stole all of this land, another convenient fact to forget), but that is leaving off the hook those other problems I mentioned. And until that type of stuff is resolved, this all is only going to get worse.
The Right wants to paint all of this as “political correctness” gone awry, and while there is a grain of truth to some of that argument, I would argue that the statement of murdering a young woman in cold blood for no reason kinda of puts a lot of that to the side. Doesn’t mean we should go after these people with violence, but I’m finding it very hard to feel bad for some of these guys who are so internet savvy on the alt-Right but didn’t think about how a public doxing of their own might ostracize them from their communities. There should never be a single law against any type of speech in this country, but many courts have rightly made exceptions regarding violence to others. Again, some of this becomes blurry in our age of American insanity, but if the next rallies get worse be prepared to watch all of this take on a larger significance.
For those reading this, I wish I could come to a better conclusion than this. But there are solutions to many of the problems plaguing the nation. Single-payer healthcare, massive investments in alternative energy and basic infrastructure, and gigantic tax increases on the wealthy would significantly help a lot of what ails our country and the planet. But we cannot get there until we wrangle ourselves together as a populace who wants to make things better. The way some of the discussion has tilted in the wake of Charlottesville, I don’t think we are remotely there yet. But there is still time left (not in climate change terms, as we’ve now reached decade zero).
And it is time to get angry. For people like me, who stupidly didn’t understand the current electorate and the powers that seek to manipulate it, and for people who weren’t angry enough even after the bigot-in-chief was sworn in. People are now literally dying in the streets for these principles. It is incumbent upon all of us who reject white supremacist ideology to make our feelings known, online and in letters/calls to our representatives, and especially in the streets and through activism.
Because all of this, I fear, is only the beginning.
Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I finished exploring Under the Dome, and after took the plunge back to an author I hadn’t read since school: Jack London. Specifically, The Call of the Wild. But I was in luck, as the copy I purchased also included some of this man’s best short stories. After I got through them I decided to read White Fang as well, and was richly rewarded. I’m assuming most of you are familiar with this author and his works, so I’ll go directly to the lessons I gained from reading these classics.
Use of language. This was London’s speciality, and I would argue he was Hemingway-esque before it was cool. London’s language through all these works is simple, easy to follow, and grimly detailed. Despite the stories being largely similar and no gigantic words to be found, the novels about the Wild and its impact upon creatures as well as the short stories carry heavy messages and are deeply impactful on many levels. You don’t have to be experimental in your language if you know what you want to show the audience.
A broad perspective. As is well known, the two novels are essentially allegories about nature and the meaning of the Wild. London is quite deft and noticing when his creatures are compelled to act by forces beyond their control (such as instinct) and expressing the importance of this to their survival. He also ruminates quite heavily on the nature of “gods” and how humans and animals might consider such a thing; while humans can never be sure theirs exist, animals’ are all around them, proving their might. It’s worth contemplating how large a perspective you want to have as you explore this in your own writing.
To Build a Fire. While my collection included some of London’s other famous short stories (including the devious “Batard” and the hilarious “That Spot”), I want to take a minute to look at what I consider the best one I’ve read in some time. “To Build a Fire” is the tale of an inexperienced man who ignores advice of an old-timer and ends up paying for it with his frozen corpse out in the wilderness. This was a haunting story, and kept me on the edge of my seat as London’s perfect use of language built up the environment and character. I can’t think of a single other story I could recommend as a finer example of the type. This one hits all of the previous themes and also remains an incredibly powerful parable about the dominance of nature over man.
I also want to recommend White Fang. For some stupid reason I always thought of this as a “lesser” work to The Call of the Wild, and I can’t express enough how wrong-headed that is. This is truly a masterpiece all on its own, and I would argue that London shows great growth as a writer from one to the other - not just in thematic elements but in overall storytelling ability. I would go as far as to say you can’t read one without the other, thinking of them as two parts of a larger whole.
I hope it’s pretty obvious that I emphatically enjoyed returning to this author, as I feel he has a much deserved place in whatever is considered the “canon” these days. While Hemingway would refine this type of writing, it was Jack London who paved the way in some regards. I would totally advise you to pick up any of this man’s books, as not only will you enjoy them, but will gain your own insights even from those I outlined.
Up next, I’m segueing into more short story collections (including a vacation gift from my wife - Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things) and continuing to write more of my own. I’m less concerned about publishing at this time and more about doing them well, and hope to be able to craft a similar post about lessons learned from reading the masters of the form. After that it will be back to novels to close out the rest of AYOF. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.