April 02, 2005
Posted by Matt
I had just written this entry when Firefox mysteriously crashed and I lost it. Part of it was an attempt at an excuse for not writing lately, in the form of uninteresting mumbling about what I've been up to. So anyhow, to the content:
Via SomaFM's "Indie Pop Rocks" radio station, I learned of a band called Loquat. I think it was their cover of the Smiths song "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" that first caught my attention, because now when that song gets stuck in my head, it's always the Loquat version. They're a pop band from San Francisco, apparently with electronic roots. I don't know exactly what to compare them to, but I like them. (I've seen the word "trip-pop" used to describe their sound somewhere on the web, but I don't quite see what it means.) Kylee Swenson's vocals are pleasant, and the band's sound is upbeat and pop-py in a good way. They have some MP3s available on their website, as well as at download.com. Listen (start with "Swingset Chain," probably). Read this article about them, in which they talk about mapping out songs on a whiteboard "like physics equations." (Charming, no? Maybe it's just me.) Anyhow, they apparently have a full length album, It's Yours to Keep, being released on April 19. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.
Also, last weekend while taking the bus to New York (where I wandered a bit on the way to and from a friend's birthday party in New Haven), I read Haruki Murakami's after the quake, which made good bus reading. It's a nice book of short stories, some of which are rather surreal, and some of which are just nice little vignettes with an attention to detail and to realistic interactions that I like. I'm not a very frequent reader of short stories, but for some reason good short stories always seem very similar to me, even when they're different in style and substance. Why is that? It's like there's some platonic ideal of literary short stories that people try to write, so that anything that gets within epsilon of it feels familiar even if they approach it from different directions. Or maybe I'm just not making sense. I think I would have to revisit various stories to articulate what this sense of commonality really is, and I'm not sure I'll get around to that anytime soon, so I'll just throw that idea out there. Posted by Matt at April 2, 2005 11:12 PM
All short stories the same? I'd be interested in hearing more...the one Murakami short story I read was in the New Yorker, and there is the backlash against the "New Yorker Short Story", but I'm not sure that's what you're talking about that. I have a hard time seeing Borges (say, in Pierre Menard) as having much in common with what I imagine as the prototypical great short story. I could dig more other experimental seeming stuff, but would feel less comfortable holding that up as great. So, can you fit Borges in your scheme?
Funny you should mention that: in my original version of this post that vanished when Firefox crashed, I had singled out Borges as different. I'll try to consider more what it is I'm trying to say about short stories. But Borges doesn't fit.
I could just be that I'm waking up from a longish nap, but I'm all sad feeling that Borges doesn't fit. Because I would then imagine that any number of more "experimental" short story writers wouldn't fit, and that we're really just getting at the "New Yorker Short Story," and forgetting about, say, the McSweeney's Stories (http://slate.msn.com/id/2081102/, since tags don't seem to work down here...okay, now I'm shaking my head, because I try manually to add tags, and fail, and type it in without tags and it gets autolinked for me)
Here you go and make me actually think hard about my off-the-cuff nonsense. Hmm. As I said in the post, it's hard to articulate what I'm getting at, and as an infrequent reader of short stories my stock of things to draw on is diluted by my faded memories of stories I read several years ago. But somehow what I'm getting at is a gestalt, the sort of feeling I'm left with after reading a short story, and I'm not sure it's so terribly different in the "New Yorker" vs. "McSweeney's" story.
Part of my trouble is probably that most of my sense of what "McSweeney's" is all about comes from the web site, and I've read the New Yorker only rarely. But from the article you link, I gather that the prototypical McSweeney's story is disjointed, incoherent, nihilistic. And some of this might apply to Murakami in places. At least "nihilistic" does for some of the stories.
So what characterizes the New Yorker short story? I guess I tend to think of the era of the modern short story as starting with Dubliners. Or maybe not starting there, but reaching maturity there. Is that a fair assessment at all? O. Henry's gimmicky endings belong to a different era and I have nothing to say about that. But starting somewhere around the time of Joyce, there's a phase transition (there I go using that phrase again, Susan called me a dork for saying my opinion of the Shins underwent a phase transition recently).
So, I'm not sure, but maybe a tentative first attempt at expressing what I'm getting at is that the Joycean story with a coherent plot and some sort of "epiphany" and the more contemporary story with disjointed plot and overarching sense of meaninglessness leave me with the same feeling in the pit of my stomach. Somehow epiphanies seem empty to me, in the end. Like a cognitive shift that comes from realizing something isn't what you thought is not so far from realizing that something isn't meaningful at all. So that these different types of stories are ending up in the same place, at some level of visceral reaction in the reader. Or at least in me.
I don't know, tell me if this makes any sense at all. I should probably try to pick some stories and substantiate more, although I gave away my copy of "after the quake" and I left a couple of short-story anthologies in Louisville at some point, so I'll either have to dig through what I have in my apartment or pick up some things in the library or bookstore to really get into it.
Here you go and make me actually think hard about my off-the-cuff nonsense.
I have found that mathematicians (or maybe just is just me) have a tendency to do that. So much worrying in our work about getting things just right, of making sure everything follows, that we can't give it up easily in more social situations, and so someone says something a little too strong and we grab it between our teeth and shake it around until the stuffing falls out. All of this is just saying: don't worry too much, because while I am interested, I'm also being something of annoying brat. I've been rather fascinated recently by how geeky, technical arguments can completely grating one moment and completely engrossing the next, depending on my mood.
Joyce too sits in my mind as being important in this - must be some nugget lodged in my head from English 101. And yeah, the epiphany seems rather central to the "New Yorker Short Story" to me.
You ARE a dork for saying the Shins underwent a phase transition. I am dork for not really having listened to the Shins.
Anyway, I buy your argument now, enough to save you from toiling over it, at least. Though I kind of want to argue in reverse - that if it's going to be worthwhile as a story, that the meaningless/nihilism what have you becomes sort of an epiphany. Or something.