“Keith,” by Ron Carlson

13 Feb

Here we have a story that combines–to unusual effect–lightness of tone and heart-wrenching pathos. It’s quite funny throughout and, finally, sad as hell. Taken in the context of our textbook chapter on revision, please consider the following questions.

How does “chemistry” function in this story, both metaphorically and practically? To put it another way, how would the story change if they’d met in, say, history, or English, or whatever? Surely any of those other classes might assign students to be partners.

How has the author prepared us for Barbara, against most common sense, actually going out with Keith in the first place? Why does she do it?

Do you feel sorry for Brian? Why or why not?

What role does Trish play? Why is she vital to the story? (Or is she?)

Usually stories are either funny or sad. Not too many of them are both. Why is this, and how has the author managed to have it both ways in this story?

Look at the earlier draft of “Keith” in your text, and read the penultimate section. In the earlier version it takes place while Keith is washing his truck. The final version is set in the airport. Why did Carlson make this change?


“Father Returns from the Mountain,” by Luis Alberto Urrea

12 Feb

Here we have a lyrical, genre-blending story/essay/prose poem. A lot going on here, formally. And underneath it all rests an ancient story about a son losing his father. Consider the questions below.

Having just read Rick Moody’s “Boys,” we can’t help but see some similarities, as well as important differences. Please compare these two stories.

Surely we have a conflict here. Father has died, and the son is shocked, wounded, and must deal with the death, both physically, intellectually, and spiritually. But is there a crisis, or climax? If so, identify it.

How does the metaphor of truth being a broken mirror work for this story? What is its message?

In your opinion, did the writer get away with turning his father into a ghost? What’s your criteria for making this judgement.

Is this more a story, poem, or essay? Surely it blends all three, but does one genre carry most of the weight?

“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.