“Reply All,” by Robin Hemley

11 Feb

This story rests on what may be the best gimmick I’ve ever come across. I wish I’d thought of it first, but had I I doubt I’d have taken such perfect advantage of it. At any rate, it’s a hoot and well worth discussing in terms of point of view. Please respond to these discussion questions below, or with new questions or comments.

If this story follows a traditional plot, which email represents the conflict, the crisis, and the resolution?

How is pace controlled? Or to put it another way, how does the author delay the crisis while adding to the suspense and anticipation?

Along those same lines, how does the author give the sense of movement, that we’re going somewhere throughout the story and not just repeating the same joke over and over?

Two characters are attacked in the early part of this story. How well do they defend themselves?

What role do the minor characters play?

Function of Mikey’s “I’m” email?

In what ways is Mikey an unreliable “narrator”? What do you make of his apology?

Finally, what is “twee” and is Mikey and “his paramour” it?

“Boys,” by Rick Moody

9 Feb

One needn’t read too far into “Boys” to see why it would appear in a class devoted to the formal aspects of fiction. And yet, a fairly traditional story–coming of age–emerges from the technical smoke and mirrors here. Please consider the following questions and discuss.

What’s the most apparent–to you–formal oddity of this story? How does this unusual feature affect the basic narrative? What’s its narrative function?

Moody likes to alter prose rhythm by varying sentence lengths and patterns. He writes longer sentences than most contemporary American writers. Find a long sentence, dissect it, and tell us what you think.

At what point do the twins start to distinguish themselves from one another? Can you briefly describe the basic difference between the two?

What “happens” in the story? Try to pinpoint each moment of change. Does the story have a conventional “plot”? If not, how would you describe the shape?

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis

26 Apr

For the lighter side of life in the shadows, we’ve been reading this odd and wonderful road trip novel. About halfway into the book, we’ve got a lot going on. Midge is now in Belize (called British Honduras in those days), where he’s met a new cast of wacky characters, and apparently someone’s even seen Dupree. The plot thickens, as the saying goes. Consider the following questions:

How would you characterize the Dix book? On the surface, of course, it’s a simple salesman’s guide, but of course Dr. Symes treats it more like a sacred text. Is Symes onto something, in his strange way?

The detective story has continued to unfold. What “plot points” have we uncovered so far, and what do you make of them?

We’ve come upon a slowly developing, subtle theme of mysticism. Has that continued through these middle chapters? To what end?

What do we learn about Midge through Meemaw?

Finally, consider the religious “argument” between Meemaw (and Melba) and Midge. How seriously can we take it? Compare it to the religious argument between the Catholic and Protestant missionaries in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. 

“Call at Corazon” and “Under the Sky” by Paul Bowles

5 Apr

Here we have two stories set in Mexico or thereabouts. Though the setting is quite removed from Morocco, we see some of Bowles’ main preoccupations–the intellect trying to overrule the emotions; the inscrutability of the other; the violence of the oppressed. Let’s consider the following questions:

How does the setting affect the characters and actions of these stories? How would they be different if they were in northern Africa?

How is “Call at Corazon” a love story? How does it go beyond a traditional love story?

What do each of the two main characters in “Corazon” want? What are they after?

What does the monkey signify? How is this “motif” repeated, and to what effect?

If this is a battle of the sexes, who wins? What happens next? Is the young wife in any way justified in what she does? Is her “punishment” fair, considering her “crime”?

Briefly describe these two characters. What attracts them to each other?

How does the author work with the “noble savage” trope in “Under the Sky”?

What kind of person is the unnamed main character in this story? Can we understand his motivations and faulty reasoning? It is possible to pity him?

Why does he start weeping at the end? And why does Bowles take us out of his point of view at that strange moment?

At Play in the Fields of the Lord: Chapters 13-15

15 Mar

In these three chapters, we are treated to an up-close view of the Niaruna, through the lens of Lewis Moon, now Kisu-Mu, some kind of jungle spirit to the Niaruna. I have three questions about these chapters. The first concerns Moon. In an early chapter, he calls himself a “Hollywood Indian,” and even earlier, other native Americans call him a “professional Indian.” Is there something artificial–or at least theatrical–about his descent into the Niaruna camp, and his impersonation of a god? Are there other actions that strike you as overly dramatic about Moon’s behavior in these chapters?

We are introduced to the Niaruna here, whereas before, we only heard about them through the missionaries. As we move from the Niaruna as a single being, a people, to meeting them as individuals, what about them has surprised you? What kind of diversity of personality and motives do you see in this group of people?

Finally, we get to know a fair amount of the Niaruna religion in these pages. How is it different and how is it similar to the religions we are more accustomed to, especially the forms of Christianity practiced by the missionaries?

I’m interested in your answers, especially if they are backed up by specific lines and moments in the chapters.

Image

Amazon Forest

15 Mar

Amazon Forest

Rain Forest

Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

23 Nov

I just read several of these early Carver stories and I wonder what others have to say about them. Here are some questions about each:

“The Bath”: This story is about communication, or rather, how bad we are at it, and yet how important it seems to be. Track the various attempts to communicate and their outcomes. What sort of failures can you find, and what are the consequences? How might things have been different if everyone was able to express themselves more effectively? The baker example is the obvious one. I’m interested in more subtle exchanges.

“Tell the Women We’re Going”: This is an unusually violent Carver story; at least, the violence more directly concerns the main characters. What else is comparatively odd about this story, in terms of point of view, characterization, use of time, and so on?

“After the Denim” is subtle compared to the other stories mentioned above. And yet, one of the characters is clearly facing serious medical problems. Is there any relief for the bad luck of these rather sympathetic characters? Seems to me there is, but is it enough?

“So Much Water So Close to Home”: Here is a story that might be compared to “Tell the Women…” The main male character here is not a murderer, of course, but he’s cold, and it seems the point of view character is suddenly seeing that men in general are threatening, are all potential monsters. How can you explain the sudden turn at the very end of the story? Why does the wife react to her husband’s advance like this?

“The Third Thing that Killed My Father Off”: If men can be evil, this story seems to suggest, so can women.My question about this story is about narration. The object of the story, Dummy, doesn’t get to tell his own story. The father, who also is part of the story, doesn’t either. Dummy’s wife certainly has no say in things, or the narrator’s mother. So why is the kid, Jack, telling this story, which really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with him? What affect might the story have on Jack? What does it say about him that he apparently needs to tell this story?

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis

2 May

For the lighter side of life in the shadows, we’ve been reading this odd and wonderful road trip novel. At this point in the novel, chapters 7-10, we’ve got a lot going on. Midge is now in Belize (called British Honduras in those days), where he’s met a new cast of wacky characters, and he’s finally found Dupree–though he hasn’t seen Norma yet. Aside from these plot developments, we’ve also come upon a number of motifs and themes*, such as:

Race, ethnicity, and nationality–How are Mexicans, Belizians, Americans, Canadians, Mayans, and the British represented? What do you make of Webster Spooner as a character? How about Ruth? Is Meemaw a colonialist missionary like those we’ve seen in At Play? Or is her mission different in some way?

Writing, or metafiction–We know at this point that the character, Midge, has actually written what we are reading, not as a novel but as a kind of memoir. Discuss Midge as a writer, and as a reader. What is his purpose for writing? What are his preferences in terms of books?

Religion and the supernatural–Midge is certainly not an unusually religious man, but we’re beginning to see more and more references to the metaphysical. How does this fit with the rest of the novel thus far? It strikes me that Dix is taken as a kind of holy man. What do you make of that?

*Both themes and motifs can be thought of as recurring elements in the narrative that take on symbolic value, and there is much overlap between these terms. The difference is that motifs are concrete, like the recurring presence of grifters, or broken-down cars, and themes abstract, like Midge’s frequent exclamation: “maintenance!”

Paul Bowles: Under the Sky

4 Apr

Here’s a nasty little story from the native’s perspective. So much for the noble savage. A couple of quick questions:

Is this guy supposed to represent his “people”? How would you characterize him?

Why does he start weeping at the end? And why does Bowles keep us out of his point of view when he does?

Paul Bowles: Call at Corazon

4 Apr

Here we have a Bowles story set in Latin America, probably Mexico, unlike his usual settings in northern Africa. How does the change of place effect the story? Or does the setting even matter?

Here we have a story that concerns a relationship between a man and woman, on their honeymoon. What does the setting say about the relationship? In other words, what kind of couple would choose to honeymoon like this?

What does the monkey signify? How is this “motif” repeated, and to what effect?

If this is a battle of the sexes, who wins? What happens next? Is the young wife in any way justified in what she does? Is her “punishment” fair, considering her “crime”?

Briefly describe these two characters. Can you imagine what attracts them to each other?