[Camille Todaro and the tone of marital discord in HanifKureischi's "Intimacy"]

The author explores marital discord, and all its entanglements as to what brings a previously happy couple to a state of unrecognizable discontent. The tone of this piece makes it very believable, and raw. In its presentation, it is not amplified or overly dramatic, but rather dry and placid. There is a marriage; it is broken, is how it reads. Written from the disillusioned husband’s perspective, we are made aware of his impending departure from the family. He wallows pensively in his final night at home with his wife Susan and two young sons. The two are very much in their own worlds, with Susan’s being largely defined by the kids, and his more or less marked by a kind of neglectful existence, left to fend for his own emotional stability and sexual needs. The characterization in this piece is what evokes such a strong message of unhappiness, and how binding obligations of home and a desire to hunt for our own personal happiness makes for a revolting life issue.

In his lecture about Lightness, Italo Calvino says, “The best designs are always simple and free of weightiness. Much like writing, certain words evoke a feeling or imagery of weight” (Calvino, 8). Hanif Kureischi accomplishes this with his refined style of writing, painting the protagonist’s impending exit as a quietly somber one. There is no knock-down, drag out fight, no profanities, just the protagonist realizing that he doesn’t fit in the very life in which he has created for himself. But the reader can feel the weight of the protagonist’s dilemma—the pain, the guilt involved (on part of his kids).

The protagonist’s wife, Susan is depicted as somewhat of a neo-feminist, strong willed about her opinions and self-assured, able to maintain composure, while the protagonist assumes a more passive exterior. “When we really talk, it is about them—something they said or did” (Kureishi 362). The scene at the dinner table really speaks volumes to the palpable void within their marriage. Susan flips on the television and he reads the newspaper. When the two attempt to converse, it becomes nothing more than a trivial tit-for-tat where Susan picks at every little thing he does. “Sometimes I go along with what Susan wants, but in an absurd parodic way, hoping she will see how foolish I find her” (Kureishi 365). The author succeeds at illustrating the protagonist’s apathetic stance with regard to Susan’s maladjusted treatment of him. While he doesn’t necessarily play the victim role, we can see that he is indeed disconnected. His actions are somewhat robotic, where he does things, but there lacks feeling behind it. If he feels anything at all, it is for his two sons, of whom he is about to leave. At the closing there is good illustration of the struggle he feels, as he kisses the one good night for the last time in a long while until he will be united with them again, and solemnly walks out the door.

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[Loreena Stanga talks lightness in Hanna Al Shaykh’s “The Keeper of the Virgins”]

Hanna Al Shaykh’s, “The Keeper of the Virgins” follows an unnamed dwarf in a world that pities or scoffs at him. The dwarf meanders about his life, immersed in study, reflection and writing. Each day, he leaves his family home afoot and makes the two-hour trip to the convent with the hope of catching a glimpse of Georgette, a woman from whom he had developed a keen sense of companionship that lived within its walls. In desperation to live within the walls of the convent, where the “pure ones” live, the dwarf rushes past the gates to seize his opportunity while the Lord Bishop is paying his annual visit. The dwarf is well known to the nuns as they too observed the dwarf during his daily dedicated vigil outside the gates. To his surprise, upon his first introduction to the Lord Bishop and the convent, they accept the dwarf and offer him the position of Watchman. The dwarf’s family, who had previously only lent him grudging acceptance, realizes he does not return home. With the family fearing the worse, the brother travels to the convent in search of him. The dwarf speaks to his brother once, and only to confirm that he is well, even satisfied and welcomed. Inside the convent, he is accepted and given the unconditional manifestations of love from the nuns, which the outside world has never experienced.

The themes that Al Shaykh’s uses in this story deal with obsession and unconditional acceptance. After the dwarf’s entrance into the convent, the mother and brother begin to worry about his absence. They lament about how badly they had personally treated the dwarf, and the brother races to the convent in search of him. The new contrast, between the brother and the dwarf, is a parable-like conversion of worth. To his family, the dwarf was a burden, an embarrassment to his brother and his mother. Inside the walls, he finds his divine calling. He is successful in his endeavors to support the nuns in their devotion to Jesus, and this new purpose takes place of his previous obsession on the outside of the wall. Now he is fulfilled by an overwhelming sense of acceptance by his new family, the nuns. Inside the convent, his new life has brilliant color and divine purpose, something the dwarf was missing in the outside world.

Outside the gates of the convent, his family dwells near the gate in the same manner the dwarf did before. To stay within the confines of the convent, the dwarf must ignore the pleas of his family. His new fervent obsession with the nuns allows him to grow “used to the obligatory link being severed.” Italo Calvino argues the opposition between lightness and weight in his lecture series called Six Memos for the next Millennium. Calvino says, “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structures of the stories.” This is a technique Al- Shaykh has accomplished with the disconnection of the dwarf from his family. Initially, the separation from his family was difficult, but the dwarf was able to recognize the darkness of the outside world. This world did not accept his ideas or his place in it without pity. This theme of acceptance is solidified further after the dwarf is shown the rotting corpse of someone unidentified in the story, but whom I believe is Georgette. His infatuation with Georgette moved him to travel to the convent each day. The realization of her death was softening by the senior nun’s reassurance that the dwarf had a divine purpose. Although the focal point of his obsession was lost forever, his new niche as the watchman provided him a sense of contentment of loving acceptance. The eerie transfer of obsession from the dwarf to his family allows the reader to have a sense of justification for the dedicated dwarf.

Matt Stiglbauer talks pacing and Calvino's quickness in "The Courtshipof 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. 

"Language as It Ought to Be" — Kandace Taylor looks at exactitude in Juno Diaz’s

Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael” is the story of brothers Yunior and Rafa who are spending a typical summer just outside the town of Ocoa in the Dominican Republic. This particular summer becomes a lot more interesting when the boys go on a mission to discover what lies beneath the mask of a local boy named Ysrael, who was horribly disfigured when a pig ate away at his face when he was a baby. This story is told in the first person, with the character Yunior recounting his and his brother’s experience during this summer that ends up making a deep impression on nine-year-old Yunior.

Diaz’s use of the first person creates a unified narrative because “Ysrael” is an uninterrupted retelling of these events from Yunior’s perspective. The reader gets the sense that Yunior is a trustworthy narrator because even though he’s telling the story years after it happened, his retelling is not colored too much by his maturity or by the benefit of hindsight. The way he tells the story is the way his nine-year-old self would have interpreted the events happening around him at the time. This choice on the part of Diaz creates a compelling narrative because the reader isn’t told what to think or what value to assign to Yunior and Rafa’s actions. Such value judgments become irrelevant because older Yunior is not telling the story in order to illustrate a moral or theme, he is just recounting a story from his life. This story shows that life, when it’s being lived in the moment, and even when it’s looked at in hindsight, doesn’t necessarily unfold into larger themes or easily discernible lessons. Sometimes what happened is just what happened, and it makes an impression on the individuals living it and that impression is all they can take away from it. The end of “Ysrael” exemplifies this:

“Ysrael will be OK, I said.

Don’t bet on it.

They’re going to fix him.

A muscle fluttered between [Rafa’s] jaw bone and his ear. Yunior, he said tiredly, They aren’t going to do shit to him.

How do you know?

I know, he said.”

The older Yunior who is telling the story knows why Ysrael won’t get the treatment he needs. Nine-year-old Yunior though, did not understand what Rafa was saying. By not interjecting his present knowledge into the story, older Yunior allows the reader to experience the same ambiguity that nine-year-old Yunior experiences at the end of this story and by doing so communicates more clearly the tragedy of Ysrael. Notes of tragedy underscore this story and the narrator allows them to shine through by not explicitly stating them. That way the reader experiences them the way younger Yunior does: as flashes, as something that is buried in the mind and the heart but every so often darts to the surface. Examples of this are when Yunior does things that remind Rafa of their dad. The following quote occurs when Yunior asks Ysrael about his kite:

“Where did you get that? I asked.

Nueva York, he said. From my father.

No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted.

I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. Our father only sent us letters and an occasional shirt or pair of jeans at Christmas.”

The implications here are that Rafa and Yunior’s father is not only away in the U.S., it’s as if he has forgotten about them. In this moment Ysrael, a disfigured pariah of a small town in the Dominican Republic, is in a better place than Rafa and Yunior, because his father sends him good gifts. And that pisses Rafa off. Older Yunior doesn’t say any of that though, and it is because Junot Diaz made the choice for the first-person narrator to keep his opinion out of the recounting of the story that “Ysrael” can resonate with the reader in such a visceral way.

 

In regard to Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Junot Diaz’s narrator helps the story achieve the third component, Calvino’s definition of “exactitude” that Calvino mentions in the chapter of the same name. This component says that exactitude is exemplified by “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” The language of the narrator in “Ysrael” achieves this precision through what he leaves unexplained and unqualified. By so doing he expressed the “subtleties of thought and imagination.” For example, older Yunior describes how Rafa would describe in explicit detail his exploits with the local girls. At the end of the passage older Yunior describes that at nine years old, “I was too young to understand most of what he said, but I listened to him anyway, in case these things might be useful in future.” Rafa telling him this information he can’t use (information which might not even be true, considering Rafa is a twelve-year-old boy with nothing to do) is ironically a time during which Yunior feels like his brother is treating him almost like an equal. This is a time of bonding for them. The narrator’s word choices are precise in that older Yunior is able to reproduce the way in which his nine-year-old would have described what was happening. In the simple, straightforward and slang-laden language of a nine-year-old, the narrator is still able to communicate the complexity beneath the seemingly mundane events of the story.

Michael Lanham talks Multiplicity in “The Immortals” by Martin Amis

The short story I chose for my craft analysis is The Immortals, by Martin Amis. The story is centered around a nameless individual who we know only as the Immortal, an individual who recounts the history of the world, and to a lesser degree the history of mankind, through the lens of his immortal “life”. Ultimately, he is resigned in that his only good company throughout history will soon be extinct.

The setting in which the story takes place is post nuclear war and the world is in sad shape. The humans, or what there is left of them, are in dire circumstances. They are mad with delusions, unable to bear viable offspring, and lack the physical immunity to survive in a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust.

The character of the Immortal is by his very nature, and because of his unique situation, utterly alone and suicidal. He sees the end of humanity drawing near. We can surmise that the main struggle of the protagonist is the isolation and inherent loneliness which is the bane of those who live forever. The one sentence which resonates the most and clarifies the theme of the story comes when the narrator laments “Soon all the people will be gone and I will be alone forever.” In this sentence the author encapsulates the mood of the narrator and the tone of the story throughout.

The aspect of the writing which I seek to analyze, and which is necessary for the foundation of the piece, is point of view. By utilizing the narrator in the way that he does the author is able to draw the reader into his world and character. It is if as the reader and the narrator are speaking with each other conversationally. This works because the narrator is so desperate for companionship that even if the narrator were alone, we, as the reader, get the sense that the narrator would nevertheless speak in this manner. If any stranger were to approach him, a reader could assume his story would be told in the same informal manner. One almost has to question if in fact the Immortal spends his time reliving the past, and his existence, over and over like a continual loop.

This brings us to another element of that serves the story well. Multiplicity. Italian author Italo Calvino defines this aspect of storytelling as the “multiplication of possibilities.” Indeed, throughout the story, the narrator presents us with “a combination of experiences, information, and things imagined” that is the trademark of a multiplicitous writing style. Indeed, if multiplicity includes telling the story from more than one perspective, as Calvino suggests, then the author accomplishes this towards the end of the story. In passing, the Immortal mentions that he too suffers from the delusions of the last, insane, dying humans. As the narrator says “Sometimes I have this weird idea that I am just a second rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now noisily dying of solar radiation along with everyone else.” Now, we as readers, are not really sure who the Immortal really is. The possibilities have been multiplied. The story can now be interpreted in different ways, from the perspective of an ageless “god” or that of a raving lunatic. Different experiences give us different perspectives. This is multiplicity. And it is, in part, why the Immortals is a story that worked so well for this reader.

As the narrator says “Sometimes I have this weird idea that I am just a second rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now noisily dying of solar radiation along with everyone else.” Now, we as readers, are not really sure who the Immortal really is. The possibilities have been multiplied.

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.

Hurley Winkler and exactitude in Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles?”

Raymond Carver’s short story “Are These Actual Miles?” follows the journey of Toni, an independent woman with all the power as she sells a car, as her husband, Leo, sits at home, trying to configure his wife’s progress throughout the night. Carver tells the story with a slant toward Leo’s point of view, heavily expressing Leo’s rough anticipation toward Toni’s phone calls in regards to her progress, and long, ranting bits of narration through Leo’s train of thought, which give light into Leo’s anxieties. Leo’s nerves revolve around his lack of money and the bold gestures he and his wife have taken in the past to attempt to patch that hole—Carver’s narration delves into Leo’s neurotic listing of the material things he shares with Toni. This sort of obsessive-compulsive list on Leo’s behalf occurs the moment Toni leaves the house and Leo pours himself a drink. Carver’s insistent narrative slant toward Leo allows the anxieties between this couple to grow more heavily as the story progresses, and with more relentlessness on Carver’s behalf. Carver utilizes Leo’s point of view to juxtapose Toni with their car they are trying to sell, ending with Leo’s memories of the car and of Toni as he traces the “roads” of her stretch marks on her hip as they lie in bed.

In his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes a chapter on “Exactitude,” which I find to be the most compelling section of his book. Calvino expresses the importance of preciseness in literature, that the writing he prefers is that which he can edit and explore from sentence to sentence until the moment when he finds satisfaction in his words. Furthermore, Calvino states with great distress how much it bothers him that “…language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner” (Calvino 56).

Carl Rosen on the repetition of optimism in Richard Ford’s “The Optimist”

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.

Lindsey Pittman considers self-importance in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Mark of Satan”

          I would like to discuss how, in Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Mark of Satan,” the author crafts the main character’s sense of self worth by his continual act of placing himself as the protagonist of the story.

          From the very start, the main character, Harvey, attempts to place himself in the center of the narrative. “A woman had come to save his soul” (466). The word choice in this sentence is intentional: to Harvey, this woman had come specifically for him. And it isn’t just that she came for him, but that God sent her to him. “An angel of God sent special delivery to him.” Harvey’s sense of self worth is married to his feeling like the center of the universe.

As soon as Thelma removes the Bible from her bag and begins to get down to the business of saving his soul, Harvey’s heart sinks. Why, when this is surely what he expected? Indeed, he knows in the first sentence that the woman is here to offer him salvation. It is because he realizes that once she opens that Bible, the focus will move off of him and God will become the center of attention. He cannot pay attention to all this God-talk unless it is centered around him. When Thelma announces that God does indeed love him, a “genuine blush” darkens Harvey’s face (468). As Thelma speaks, lost in her theological fervor, Harvey begins to lose importance. The narrator says of Harvey that, normally, “the gin coursing through his veins … buoyed him up like debris riding the crest of a flood” (472). The alcohol elevates him, but only to the point of debris: something fragmented and dirty; the debris is destined to be lost among the great vastness of the flood.

Harvey looks for any chance to gain a reaction from Thelma, any chance to have her attention focused not on God, but on him. When she asks him if he has been baptized—a fairly innocuous question, considering his personal salvation is indeed the subject of the discussion in the first place—Harvey reacts with indignation. He breaks the illusion of cordiality and startles her into apologizing. “Such passion [of her apology] quickened the air between them. Flash felt a stab of excitement” (472).

When it is clear that Thelma is going to leave and that Harvey’s plan is going to fail and he is going to once again slip into obscurity, his entire sense of self importance disintegrates. “He could not believe the woman was escaping so easily. That his thing was no thing of his at all” (473).

In a desperate attempt to retain her attention, Harvey seeks to deride Thelma for her faith. He says, “You’re a joke, people like you! You’re tragic victims of ignorance and superstition! You don’t belong in the twentieth century with the rest of us! You’re the losers of the world! You can’t cope! You need salvation!” (474). Ironically, Harvey seems to have summed up his own personal problems in his attempt to insult Thelma McCord, or was it McCrae. Right after he says this, Harvey has a single  moment of clarity about Thelma: he sees “the dignity in her body, the high-held head, and the very arch of the backbone” (474). Suddenly, he is the one who is a joke, who can’t cope, who needs salvation. At this realization, he feels the fear that Thelma so bafflingly lacks. “He was screaming, terrified. He perceived that his life was of no more substance than a cicada’s shriek” (474). He claims that Satan is with him in a last attempt to gain Thelma’s attention. He begs her to save him, begs “for mercy, for help, for Christ’s love,” and for the kind of redemption that only the hero of the story can achieve (474). At the climax of the story, as she prays over him, Thelma and Harvey “were locked in ecstasy as in the most intimate of embraces in the fierce heat of the sun” (474). Harvey is only able to feel that he is worth something by making himself the protagonist of the tale and by following the hero’s journey to redemption. And it seems clear that he thinks he has achieved this redemption and achieved the status of the hero. “In a frenzy of self-abnegation he ground his bare knees in the gravel and shattered glass, deep and deeper into the pain so that he might bleed more freely, bleeding all impurity from him or at least mutilating his flesh, so that in the arid stretch of years before him that would constitute the reminder of his life he would possess a living memory of this hour, scars he might touch, read like Braille” (475). The way he scars himself in order to remember this day, this experience, for the rest of his life, implies that Harvey feels like he is at the end of his tale. It implies that he feels like the hero at the end of his epic, looking forward to a life of monotony and self-satisfied reflection of his adventure this day. He gains self worth, ultimately, by casting himself in the hero in what he would see as an epic tale.

However, how reliable is Harvey’s account of his epic? Calvino, in his lecture on Lightness, says, “As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight.” The melancholy of our hero, Harvey, is exaggerated by his neuroses, but once his sister, Gracie Shuttle, enters the scene, the reader can see that he is acting fairly ridiculous. She talks about his tendency towards “crying jags” and speaks of his hunched posture on the toilet seat as he picks glass out of his knees (475). Through her eyes, Harvey is reduced to a self-centered child. His sadness has achieved the lightness that Calvino talks about by observing him through another’s point of view. And, so, too, his constant quest for the protagonist’s spot in this story is made light and ridiculous. The shift of focus to Gracie Shuttle emphasizes that no one character can be the hero or the protagonist because every character is his or her own protagonist. Calvino says, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification” (7). And, for this story, that is certainly true: the weightiness of Harvey’s experience is all removed when we view him from his sister’s eyes. It is all a matter of point of view.

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