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Authors: William H. Gass

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BOOK: Finding a Form
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So “Flowering Judas” is written in a thick present, a present made of a deep past. It lingers like an odor in a closed room, and does not dissipate but intensifies with time. This present becomes the story, and its choice, at first surprising, is thoroughly justified. Minimalists don’t use the habitual tenses much, however. They like little that is thick. Not carpets. Not cream. Not prose. Thinness is chic.

Our self is split as our pronouns are, and you and I are each and every one of them. There is, first of all, Freud’s darkly demonic and anonymous id, or “it,” the force to which we grimly appeal when we say, “It drove me to it.” Then there is the ego, of course, that most Roman of numerals, Number One, the subjective “I,” a consciousness conscious of itself. This inner life has its objective
counterpart, the public “me,” but “me” is always an “I” turned inside out; otherwise we use “he” or “she.” For multiple personalities, “they” and “them” will do nicely, but what about “you”—the faceless, nameless anybody who is almost a thinglike image of the urgent id? When we address ourselves as “you,” it is usually to accuse: “Now you’ve really gone and done it.” When we see ourselves as others see us, we become, for a moment, a “me,” and when we look back at our imperial “I” from the vantage point of “me,” we say, sometimes irreverently, “Hey, you!” The geometry can be confusing. My “me,” when observed by another “I,” is a “he.” And each of the points of view these pronouns name has its own time. The time “I” spent mopping the floor felt like an eternity, whereas for “me” it was five minutes, give or take a tick.

You have told your husband, the sloth, about the leak, about how often the kitchen floor needs to be mopped, but he never comes into the kitchen; it’s “Get me a beer, will you?” or a chicken wing. The sloth shifts one haunch, then another. Your time with the TV has become mop time. Flop. Flop. This marriage is a joke. I didn’t expect to be fucked by a cliché. Not me. I was expecting a cock of some kind, of course, but not a sloth’s dickie. We never wake up in time. We think we are different, and won’t make the mistakes other people make. They play the fool. That’s the rule. But what about you, now? Now you are as wet and stringy as your mop. Flop. I thought I’d never be one of them, one of those sagtitted, muss-haired, mum-dumb broads. Well, baby, you was wrong. You is in a flat fix. So what shall I do, since I’m Catholic and all? Mope and mop? Flop and sob? Is that it? Yup. Jig’s up.

Our fledgling writers, aspiring professionals whose machines beep about their spellings, will make a careful study, naturally enough, of the function of the pronoun, the psychological and ontological import of each, examining such contemporary classics as Juan Goytisolo’s
Makbara
, which is almost a textbook of pronoun significance and use. Sure they will. Or their instructors will require them to. Sure they will. When, their mentors rhetorically
inquire, do we normally find this brutal “Hey, you?” fastened to the present tense like a horse to a lawnmower?

Well, sometimes it happens when “me” says to “I”: “You are such a jerk!” Otherwise, it occurs when, as an actor, for instance, we ask the director what we are to do next. “You” becomes the first word of an order—a command or directive. My hubby, let’s suppose, has told me to do something with my life, so I leave my place in front of the TV, my place beside him on the sofa, and come into the kitchen. What then? “You imagine a lot of water has leaked on the floor from beneath the fridge, and you mop it up.” It may be simpler managing the second-person present in Spanish, but even so, Carlos Fuentes’s
Aura
remains a rare tour de force, with its central character utterly in the power of a mysterious, historically determined fate that speaks almost over the shoulder of the writer himself.

You’re reading the advertisement: an offer like this isn’t made every day. You read it and reread it. It seems to be addressed to you and nobody else. You don’t even notice when the ash from your cigarette falls into the cup of tea you ordered in this cheap, dirty café.

Under such an aura, you mop the floor as in a dream; you wonder what is on TV now; you think that your husband is a ten-toed sloth. So forceful is this tense and person, it is as if the café had been commanded to be cheap and dirty. You mop. You think: I wish Roberto Rossellini had thawed me out. Then I could be like this fridge. Aleak. Alas, alack, you are only a frump, a sloth’s frump at that.

My survey brings me now to the third-person present, also a favorite of the young. However, the masterwork in this mode is Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” which is written in a series of paragraphs or “screens.” We might think of them as windows through which we peep, as indeed plenty of peeping occurs in the story. What is seen in each screen or window is reported to the reader the way Helen’s husband—the ten-toed sloth—describes
the expression of the slapped face on his set, although we can’t expect his language to be lyrical, even when lyricism is called for.

He loves her. She loves him. They whirl airily, stirring a light breeze, through a magical landscape of rose and emerald and deep blue. Her light brown hair coils and wisps softly in the breeze, and the soft folds of her white gown tug at her body and then float away. He smiles in a pulsing crescendo of sincerity and song.

Now, perhaps (now?), we have been given a clue to the popularity of the present. Not only is the present brief, like a small bun to be swallowed on the run; those who live in the present, as we imagine cattle do, expect little from the future and remember nothing of the past. Any sense of continuity is quickly lost, for one present follows hard upon another the way a hard rain falls, and all those things that thicken the present with their reflective weight, that highlight (I hope I’ve mastered the word) one aspect and darken another, are omitted, because in the thin present what remains of the world is in the center ring, in full focus.

“He loves her. She loves him.” How simple it sounds. How simpleminded it is. Not only is love itself complex; it never arrives unaccompanied, but brings its whole village, like a wagon of refugees. Even if we reduce love to a gesture, a look, a kiss, any bald statement of the case risks a smile if not a laugh. “He kisses her. She kisses him.” To be exact: he French-kisses her; she fish-kisses him.

If the third-person present has the effect of a narrated film, or the antics of a woman in a window as described by Peeping Tom to Peepless Jerry (“What’s she doing now?” “She’s still mopping”), the first person is perfect for those who like to imagine themselves in a movie: see me mop. As in a daydream, the “I” projects its “me” into an unsuspecting world.

If you are really passionate about the present tense, you can get it to play every temporal tune. Here is the way Raymond Carver starts a naturally brief piece called “Gazebo.”

That morning she pours Teachers over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.

I go, “Holly, this can’t continue. This has got to stop.”

It is easy to understand how a snappy beginning like this would appeal to the students. “You should read R. Carver,” they’d say at those times when past their workshops I’d drift. So I did, and I was amused and edified. “Let me recommend Proust,” I’d say, just to share enthusiasms. Sure. “You should read T. Wolff,” they’d say—“where it’s at.” “Is that the brother of G. Wolff?” I’d wonder. “Dunno,” they’d say, “but T is tops.” Okay. And I was honestly edified and genuinely amused. Why imitate Proust? “Try R. Musil, won’t you?” I’d suggest. Sure thing. Someday. “Don’t miss J. McInerney. On all night.”

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

The advantage to writing this slack is that the writer can’t hang himself with any length of it.

What’s happening? “Me” is doing the talking. This is how it goes: “I” asks “me,” “What am I doing now?” and “me” answers, “You are seeing a pink in the linoleum you’ve never seen before, since the linoleum has never come this clean beneath your repeated mop.” I need never leave home. I am in heaven, in holy narcissism, in my present tense. I try again: “How about Colette?” “Hey, you’ve got to be—aren’t you?—kidding.” And the writing students hand me a list of a hundred authors each named Ann (or Anne) (or Mary Ann or Barbara Anne or Annie Ann). (Mann’s name has an Ann in it, I want to answer.) My enthusiasm wanes—for Musil, for Proust, for Literature. Number 42 of the
Mississippi Review
has been edited by David Leavitt. Called “These Young People Today,” it has some stuff in the present tense, of course. After all,
it’s today. So I read the collection as part of my researches. Reading it is like walking through a cemetery before they’ve put in any graves.

Some say the movies are to blame, if blame there be. But movies are at best a once-a-week thing, and we all went when we were kids, and ate licorice gummies from a sack and shouted early warnings at Errol Flynn; but when we went to write, we did as the painters did when photos first complexed the scene: we carefully avoided imitating them. (I go too far: there are significant exceptions, John Dos Passos among them, but the students will not have read him; they will read Doctorow instead.) Writers were released from popularity (in a commercial culture, no small thing); they were freed from the tyranny of story and all the trappings of the tale, if they chose to throw them off. Movies may melt the mind down, and they certainly lured many a talent onto the scotchy rocks with their money; however, there was no particular fondness for the present tense until television (and now the VCR) upped our exposure to pictures from two hours a week to six or ten a day, and magazines lay down in a litter of images as though their pages had been blown about in the street.

This fondness for the present tense … well, what could be expected from the teenybop scream-jean population: that’s what is usually said. Aren’t they all—the young—into drugs and thugs, into strobes and films (as that sexist preposition puts it)? Aren’t they into video and vibes and cars that go varoom, as well as words like “varoom” from their favorite cartoon balloons? And aren’t they into skimpy swimmies and other visuals? And don’t they wear brand names on their tops, bottoms, and bumpers, as if they had themselves been manufactured or, like a billboard, rented out? They are definitely not into vocabulary or the pleasures of verbalization; they only like ideas after they have been drawn, and one of their ideas, the idea of history, is exclusively concerned with the passing of fads and crazes, and the instantaneous illumination or extinction of stars.

We should wonder, rather, at the return of the tough guy in this
minimalist guise, the guy of few words, of laconic eyes and ears, with a heart of candy, although it is a sweet by this time both stale and hard, cynical in a sentimental sense, weary from the word “go” and half gone, who doesn’t defile his feelings with ideas or talk them to destruction. His silences, therefore, are strong. His enemies are no longer red Indians or fierce bulls, nor does he go to war in exotic landscapes. Now his enemies are simply daily life and women. At the same time that we note his triumphant return (as part of a widespread political phenomenon), we should count the number of women, more foul-mouthed and macho than Mailer, who, though sweetly released like pigeons from their cages, have decided to fly like eagles and feed on mice.

The same current that carries Clark Gable and Gary Cooper past Sam Spade and Black Mask dick flicks into our own gun-cocked, blood-spill movies continues through minimalism into cyberpunk and other fashionable celebrations of street life, trash talk, and pop mechanics, until it puddles now in the technofuck film.

The style of these terse, present-tense tales, then, is soft tough. They are stories shorn, not only of adjectives and adverbs, but of words themselves, almost as if their authors didn’t know any. Some warriors arm themselves for battle, but these warriors, like wrestlers, strip. They write in strips, too. Sentences are invariably short, declarative, and as factual as a string of fish. Images are out. It is fraudulent to poeticize. I cannot compare myself to my fridge as I mop. Kept simple, quick, direct, like a punch, the sentences avoid subordination, qualification, subtlety. Subordination requires judgment, evaluation; it creates complexity, demands definition. Henry James and William Faulkner had the temerity to put long sentences in their short stories, and these now-old masters thought carefully about the relation of technique to reality, about relative weights of meaning and shifts of points of view, accreditation and authority, pacing and scene shaping, among many other issues, so that even if one seemed to toss one’s words into a wordless void, as Samuel Beckett does, those words as they fell would form constellations, and the mind they had been thrown from would have considered
them with the same close concern it would give, say, to suicide.

It is obviously much easier to teach the composition of short fiction than that of the novel, so students customarily bring episodes to class—vignettes, shorties, bits written over a weekend or a week. These “stories” are criticized by the teacher, of course, who is often gentle with the psyches of the students, and always looking for a way to say, pleasantly, unpleasant things. The writer’s colleagues are under no such compunctions, however. They can be cruel, viciously competitive, clever, and strategic. They can play favorites, form cliques, sandbag like seasoned poker players, use praise to seduce. In short, the students write largely in fear of the disfavor of their peers.

The students do not imitate the faculty; teachers cannot be accused of turning out copies of themselves. The students, instead, write like one another. The teacher is nothing but a future recommendation. Nor do the instructors push their students much. No one is required to do exercises on the practice fields of fiction. No one is asked to write against the little grain they’ve got. Relations grow personal before they grow professional. And the community perceives each poet as a poet, each writer as a writer, making them members in this social sense, although they may not have written a worthy word. Here they hide from academic requirements and from intellectual challenge. There are always shining exceptions, of course, but on the whole the students show little interest in literature. They are interested in writing instead … in expressing a self as shallow as a saucer.

BOOK: Finding a Form
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