The Motel Life

Toward the end of her essay (sub. req’d) in the New York Review of Books on two of Joyce Carol Oates recent works of fiction—the novel Little Bird of Heaven and the story collection Dear HusbandCaroline Fraser cracks a joke. Describing a scene in Little Bird in which an adolescent girl is kidnapped by her father and taken to a Days Inn where a bloody standoff ensues, Fraser quips: “how that chain must love Joyce Carol Oates.”

Actually, as far as the miseries connected to rented rooms go, Oates isn’t especially brand-loyal. When it comes to imagining the appropriate backdrop for somebody’s emotional instability, any (to pick one of Oates’ favorite adjectives in this context) shabby inn will do. In her story “Mrs. Halifax and Rickie Swann: A Ballad” (in her 2004 collection, I Am No One You Know), a woman carries on an affair with a 15-year-old boy, and together they go on the Grand Tour of New Jersey motels and fast-food joints:

Rarely the same motel twice. Days Inn, Bide-a-Wee, Econo-Lodge, Sleep E Hollow, Holiday Inn (Rahway, Metuchen), Travellers Inn, Best Western. Mrs. Halifax and her teenaged son (Brian/Jason/Troy/Mark). Only Mrs. Halifax entered the hotel lobbies, but her adolescent son was sometimes glimpsed in the parking lot, or in the video arcade, or, if there was an indoor heated pool, there. Once they were safe inside their cozy locked room they luxuriated in their lovemaking, Jacuzzi bathing, take-out McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chinese and Italian food, giant Pepsis (for Rickie) and six-packs of beer (for Mrs. Halifax).

The exotic dancer/serial killer in her 1999 Rosamond Smith novel Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon stifles her resentment of the place a man has taken her in the novel’s early pages:

If “Starr Bright” was bitterly disappointed in the Paradise Motel, in Sparks, Nevada, having envisioned a first-rate casino hotel in Reno for the night, smelling beforehand the insecticide-odor of the shabby room, she gave not the slightest clue. She was not that kind of girl.

But Days Inn does seem to come in as a handy metaphor for rootlessness and despair. The alcoholic hero of her 1994 novel, What I Lived For, is unsettled when he checks in:

Waking in a shabby Days Inn at exit 14 of I-190 in a no-man’s-land of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motels, discount outlets approximately six miles north of the Union City limits where, the night before, that’s to say in the early hours of this morning, Corky’d taken a room for a rock-bottom twenty-nine dollars plus tax. Figuring no one would look for him in such a dump. No one who knew him.

Had to do it. Why?—don’t ask. Just a premonition. Couldn’t go home. That big echoing house, never really his. A mausoleum.

The Days Inn passage in Little Bird of Heaven gets at the fictional appeal of such places for Oates—they’re meaningful for the reader precisely because they represent meaninglessness for the people who are forced to stay there:

We were in a first-floor room at the far end of a two-storey stucco building of just discernible shabbiness and melancholy; something in the very jauntiness of the sign Days Inn Vacancies exuded this air of shabbiness and melancholy. In books there is said to be meaning, in our English class our teacher was reading poems by Robert Frost to us and it was astonishing to me, and a little scary, how the words fo a poem has such meaning, but in actual life, in places like the Days Inn motel there is not much meaning, it is just something that is.

I haven’t read enough of Oates’ books to know if occupying a motel room is a guarantee of a sad, bloody end, though it seems a relatively safe bet. Maybe there’s a kind of social commentary built into Oates’ interest in corpses in motel rooms. In ordinary homes, murder victims will likely first be found by a friend of family member; in a hotel the first witness may be a housekeeper or staffer—somebody who’s an outsider to the story in the same way we are as readers. A death in a home devastates loved ones; a death in a Days Inn announces itself to the wider world. In a home, a death can be private; in a hotel, we all have to look. Oates hints at that distinction in her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in which the protagonist, Rebecca, works as a chambermaid in a hotel where suicides and murders have occurred:

Suicide in hotel rooms was not uncommon, but murder was very rare. Rebecca had never heard of anyone killing a child in any hotel.

Why do they do it, why check into a hotel, Rebecca had asked someone, possibly Hrube himself at a time when they must’ve been on reasonably good terms, and Hrube had shrugged saying, “To fuck the rest of us up, why else d’you think?”

Links: Ain’t That America

Hilary Hamann on the title of her novel, Anthropology of an American Girl, a 2003 small-press book that has just been republished by Spiegel & Grau: “Cars and cliques and music and movies provide the architecture of the American experience. It would be impossible to describe a psychological coming of age without referring to these influences, because in America these things constitute all the missing pieces: family, religion, culture, history, political ideology.”

Is the last book you read important when it comes to serving on a jury?

Ronald Gottesman, a key editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, died earlier this month.

Dept. of Nonsense: “My real problem with New York is literary. Because the bulk of American literary agencies, publishing, and criticism occurs in New York, authors are rewarded for overindulging in New York as a setting. And when they set their novels in New York, it’s considered acceptable to geographically structure the work in such a way that non-native readers are punished.”

It’s old news now that Mark Twain‘s autobiography will be published earlier this year. But it’s worth noting that some people are excited about what it might reveal about Twain’s gambling habits.

The creators of the literary journal Electric Literature discuss how much hustle is involved in getting an new publication off the ground, especially if you want to include known authors. “Jim Shepherd was up in western Massachusetts, and I rented a car and drove 6 hours so I could buy him a cup of coffee and talk to him about it,” says coeditor Andy Hunter. “Because I knew if I sent him an email, I didn’t have a chance.”

Mary Gaitskill willingly talks trash about her story “An Old Virgin” in the video below. “It’s not bad line-by-line. It’s got some striking images in it. But I feel like mostly when people call my work turgid and dark, they’re really just not being fair or accurate—but, guilty as charged with that story. It’s turgid. It’s totally turgid.”

Bubble Fiction

Martha McPhee‘s forthcoming novel, Dear Money, is about a novelist in her late 30s who starts working as a Wall Street trader in the mid-aughts, when the housing bubble was at its most expansive. I have a review of the book scheduled to run soon, so I’ll hold off on registering an opinion here. But McPhee’s essay for Bloomberg Businessweek on how she came to write the book is interesting reading: Like the main character in the book, McPhee’s a novelist who was told by a trader that he could train her to do his job in 18 months. (McPhee declined; her character doesn’t.)

I’ve written a couple of times about what the fiction writer’s “job” is, and it’s a question McPhee had to wrestle with as the markets collapsed and her novel stalled. “What happened on Wall Street has happened before; it will happen again,” she writes. “My story isn’t an attempt to make tidy sense of the global financial system. That, of course, is not the novelist’s job.” What is? Well:

Having more—a bigger house, more deals, greater profits—had become an American right, a belief. I’ve come to understand how staggeringly much we know about the world of finance, manipulating numbers, creating products—derivatives, CDOs, and so forth—yet how little we know. As with medicine and deep-water oil exploration, we know so much and not enough. In between the extremes is our own hubris, to which, it seems, we will always be vulnerable. Locating that hubris, however, is a novelist’s job.

McPhee’s essay has a sidebar on the best novels about banking culture—though I don’t recall American Psycho teaching me a whole lot about banking.

Old-Fashioned Linking

A couple of commenters on my post Sunday about short stories took up the topic of “linked” collections, and how publishers and readers might favor them because they have a “unity” of tone and (sometimes) plot. I’m fine with the structure when it works—in, say Vincent Lam‘s Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures or the linked sets of stories in Amy Bloom‘s Where the God of Love Hangs Out—less so when it’s hokum like Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge. But it’s worth remembering that the linked collection isn’t a new concept that publishers have whipped up in the past few years. Ernest Hemingway‘s posthumous 1972 collection, The Nick Adams Stories, has just been translated into Hebrew, giving Israeli writer Uzi Weil an opportunity to expound in Haaretz on the book, which he calls “the most elusive book and the simplest book I have ever read.” Weil’s prose gets a little humid, but this passage gets at why the linked collection works for him:

Between one story and another there is so much that is unsaid. That doesn’t need to be said. But the stories themselves sparkle in the light of truth, leaving you no choice but to fill in with your imagination, with your own heart and soul, what is unsaid. And this act of completion is what makes reading the Nick Adams stories so very, very different. Because it appears to be a novel about the life of a man, from childhood to adulthood. But unlike any novel ever written, it depicts the points before and after the “important points.” It doesn’t tell you what happened to Nick and his wife. You fill that in yourself. It’s like he’s saying: What does it matter, just what happened exactly? That’s what you call “the tyranny of the plot.” Forget “the plot.” Come, let me tell you about a certain moment in a hotel, a year after his love died.

It’s been so long since I’ve read any Hemingway—and I recall reading only a handful of the Nick Adams stories—that I can’t comment on how successfully he pulled any of that off. For what it’s worth, at the time it was published, the New York Times didn’t seem to think much of this linked-stories business. Richard R. Lingeman concluded his review by writing: “Nick Adams unites them in name only and the best of the stories stand alone, not as links in a chain. ‘The Nick Adams Stories’ neither add nor detract from Hemingway’s memory, and it is good to have a collection of the good ones, but this present arrangement does not create any new synergism.”

Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?

Links: For Want of a Blurb…

Novelist Robert Girardi, author of Amelia’s Ghost Madeleine’s Ghost, has run into some bad luck of late and is now working janitorial and maintenance jobs in the D.C. area—though I can only work up so much sympathy for a guy who wound up in jail after “he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle [his wife] to the floor.” Girardi fumes that he’s been unfairly neglected by the Washington Post—“You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher”—but there are some problems even a book review can’t solve.

Independent publisher MacAdam/Cage, which seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, is apparently active again, sending out galleys and saying it plans to put out some of the books it had delayed. The MacAdam/Cage website suggests the revival is not yet complete—the homepage is still pushing Brendan Short‘s Dream City, which came out in 2008—but I’m hoping that Jack PendarvisShut Up, Ugly eventually hits shelves.

Southern Methodist University Press isn’t quite saved from the chopping block, but its existence now seems a bit more secure than it did a week ago. Ron Hogan has spent the past week at Beatrice catching up with some of the writers SMU Press publishes.

Annie Proulx sees a bit of her life in Wyoming in the wood sculptures of British artist David Nash.

Lionel Shriver values her life at around $20,000. “They have actually put a literal price on human life in [Britain]; it is worth $15,000 a year… I thought that was a little on the low side. If it were a matter of my life I might throw in an extra five grand.”

Julia Keller sounds a dissenting note about Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, advocating instead for Susan Fromberg Schaeffer‘s 1989 novel, Buffalo Afternoon.

John Waters has some suggestions for a high-school reading list; his heart is in the right place, though it’s doubtful he’d get much teaching work. “You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about ‘The Life of Benjamin Franklin’; I wanted to read ‘Naked Lunch.’

If Curtis Sittenfeld is going set a book in Wisconsin, shouldn’t she know better than to use a non-word like “Wisconsonian”?

John Updike‘s typewriter will be auctioned next month. A study of the ribbon reveals that he used the machine to inform his typist that “her services will no longer be needed because he purchased a word processor.”

“Why are you leaving?”

I’m not sure how I failed to hear about The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, a collection of author interviews edited by Daniel Alarcon—the book tour didn’t stray far from Alarcon’s home base in Oakland, for one thing. But if nothing else the book has a stellar lineup of interviewees: Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Jennifer Egan, and more. Last month McSweeney’s ran a few brief excerpts from the book, and I particularly liked Egan’s comments on the distractions of the internet:

A writer friend of mine, Lisa Fugard, once told me that she had a sign next to the door of her office that said, “Why are you leaving?” Many times she found herself walking through that door with no idea of why. Then she made herself sit down again and continue working. I try to have a mental sign that asks why I’m leaving when I find myself suddenly typing something into Google for no particular reason, as if I had nothing else to do.

Alarcon talks a little more about the book in an interview with Reuters, which also includes news that he’s finishing a second novel—a departure from his previous one, 2007’s excellent Lost City Radio: “My second book of stories in a sense had to do with politics in Latin America, but I found politics is a bit of a depressing thing to write about,” he says. “I am sort of obsessed by politics … although I am not sure how much it benefits my life so I am writing a different kind of book.”