The Loneliness of the Short Fiction Instructor (Part 2)
What James looked for more than just about anything in his students’ work was neatness and precision. What he hated was mess, sloppiness, and disorder. This was why he considered the bulk of his writing, published and unpublished, a failure. He wanted writing you could eat off of. In life, love, and work, he aspired to the order, simplicity, and elegance of a Mondrian painting. A semester spent at Oxford and a love of British pop music had turned him into an unrepentant Anglophile, but lately he thought the Scandinavians, Hamlet, Lars von Trier, and the Vikings excepted, might have it right.
On the rare occasions when he had excess cash he bought Swedish furniture, which he considered the Platonic idea of furniture, both functional and elegant. The Passion of Joan of Arc was one of his favorite films. Well, he said it was. The only art prints he had in his one bedroom apartment were a Vermeer and a Mondrian; Rembrant was too fleshy.
All these mildly eccentric predilections were, in large part, why he found Cor’s writing unbearable. James thought the little scenes they had together, he playing the straight man to Cor’s flamboyant jokester, were funnier and more trenchant than anything Cor would ever come up with. The dialogue was sharp and subtle, the themes (the uses of art, clarity vs. abstraction, the teaching of writing) were relevant, the characters well drawn and clearly defined. They were a tad predictable as James inevitably and gallantly struggled to make sense of whatever sprouted from Cor’s fertile brain and to find a nice way to tell him that his playem 1) didn’t make sense. 2) wasn’t any good. 3) didn’t even qualify, at some level, as literature. Fitzpatrick for point.
Cor would expertly pick up his cue and launch into a somewhat tedious, somewhat colorful monologue involving lots of hand motions and references to college writing courses, especially one Professor Gill, the madman who had inspired Cor at whatever hippie liberal arts college with no majors it was that he went to. Arthur for counterpoint.
“Personally, I think the idea of character is out of date. Gill would agree with me.” Gill can suck it, James thought bitterly. Without knowing him, he hated this man, this Svengali, this wicked literary sorcerer who had released his demented protege into James’s heretofore quiet class.
“I mean it’s sour milk. So that’s why I chose shapes. Everyone’s taken geometry, right? So it’s elemental and there are shapes all around us, but we don’t think about them. What if shapes talked, thought, interacted, copulated…”
James cut him off. “But doesn’t giving them human qualities, giving them thoughts and speech, make them, in some sense, characters? Like talking furniture in Disney movies.”
Cor smiled broadly, as if James had walked into a perfectly constructed intellectual trap, the kind involving springs, pulleys, marbles going down ramps, and chickens laying eggs. “You’d think so. You would. And that’s exactly the point!” He was only slightly less excited at this point than the discoverers of the Rosetta Stone.
“The reader thinks these are characters in a “play,” but he’ll be constantly reminded that their shapes. They can’t be characters! They’re shapes! It’s a categorical impossibility.” Sort of like you being a good writer, James almost retorted.
Instead he said, as he often did, “Interesting.” James leaned back in his chair and put his pen down while he thought of something else to say. Such a useful, beautifully vague, all purpose, completely unrevealing word for a teacher. When in doubt, it was always the safest, most noncommittal thing to say. After all, it was interesting in a way.
“Now do you plan on staging this and, if so, how do you, um, envision it? I guess I don’t see much point to drama that isn’t performed.”
“The magazine I write for, The Elephant Guard, is starting a weekly series of readings and stagings. It’ll be very communal, a happening. We’re not really gonna plan it. And what I envision, to borrow your word, is cut out shapes on stage… I have a sculptor friend who could do it. Then actors or non-actors, rather, as I think the idea of the actor is a bit hierarchal. Maybe we’ll just have it on a tape playing, which would be a bit surreal because it’s not really voices, more like an echo. I want people to think differently about drama. It’ll be like nothing else.”
Cor blimey. James was amazed at the car wreck mix of early century Euro avant-garde, American beat, and trendy university lit speak, all delivered with the spunk of a precocious and medicated 5th grader.
“I’m sure it will be like, um, nothing else. But you realize, Cor, that tension is the engine of good drama. And this is not so much a criticism as an observation…” Like hell it wasn’t. “Your playem, as you call it, lack tension, lacks conflict. Granted, it’s hard to offer an informed opinion as this is very short. I suppose I’m curious as to whom you’re directing this piece. Maybe this sounds pedestrian, but who is your audience?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s a legitimate query. That’s why I take this course, why I jibe what you’re saying because you don’t pull punches. A sculptor’s not gentle with clay. He hits it around, you know?”
James didn’t entirely like the direction of this analogy. He had little desire to imagine Cor as clay in his hands.
“So it’s good for me to get this feedback, to expand my thoughts about this project. I know I need a dash more focus.” He still hadn’t answered James’s original question, so he posed a new one.
“I think anytime you make something, whether it be table or a bridge or poem, you need to first figure out what it is and what it’s meant to do. What do you want your piece to do? What’s it function?”
Cor smiled broadly and then jerked his head back a little, as if an invisible hand smacked him. “Wow. I hadn’t thought of it that way. You’re sure asking the big questions tonight, chief.”
“Right. Well to be frank, Cor, I don’t quite understand your play.” Cor almost winced at this word. “I know we’ve debated the virtues of abstractions, of writing that requires effort to make sense of, but it’ such a fine line between complexity and meaningless abstraction. Are you with me?”
Cor nodded and looked to be hanging on James’s every word. He’d keep laying it on.
“What you want to stage, although original, is a dramatic impossibility. It’s not dramatic, for one thing. Do you really think there’ll be an audience for a bunch of shapes sitting on a stage? It’s more of an installation than theater.”
“You’re blowing my mind a bit. That’s good. I don’t really want it to be easily classifiable though. To be anything other than what it is. It’s is-ness is what it’s about.”
“Well, that is. What you might want to work on is trimming some of the verbal hedges, as it were. The dialogue, if you want to call it that, is, well, a little hard to understand. It would probably lose an average or even above average theater-goer. Your vocabulary is impressive; lots of striking, evocative words. ‘Concupiscence.’ Haven’t heard that in a while.” He chuckled, took his glasses off, and rubbed his eyes. Cor nodded and bit the end of his pen.
“I get what you’re saying, but simultaneously I mean for it to be dense. It’s like a commentary on language, on the futility of meaning, the arbitrariness of words. I mean, think about it, what are words? Why table for table?” He gave the table a swift whack. “Why not scissors or cervix? And I hope my playem brings out the contradictions, the randomness of language. And that’s why I have shapes. It’s absurd, right? They can’t even really communicate, can they? Circle’s trapped in circle and rhombus or whatever is trapped in rhombus. Essentially, we are too. Or we think we aren’t, but really communication is just like signals and chemicals, isn’t it? A relic of like a logocentric, patriarchal time, like religion and
James didn’t know how much more of this he could take. He admired Cor’s tenacity, to a certain extent. If this were a duel, James would have long since impaled himself on his sword or any other nearby sharp object. Nonetheless, James, dutifully pressed on.
“Be careful of wide sweeping generalizations Cor,” James admonished. He paused to let this sink in. “Don’t you think art is a form, one of the greatest forms, of communication that humanity has?”
“Yeah, exactly! That makes the failure of communication, of art really, all the more poignant!” His arms were now at full flail, like some kind of epileptic octopus. “We’re all trapped, just like the shapes! Cone can’t stop being cone, can it? It can only be cone! Not a cylinder or a…a trapezoid.” Cor stopped flailing and said in a hushed, conspiratorial voice, “And we’re just like that cone. The cone is us. That’s what I’m saying.”
James nodded slightly and looked at the window, wondering what the damage would be if he jumped out it. They were on the second story and there were bushes below.
“Well, it’s admirable, to be sure. Your, um, conviction, that is, but…”
The door opened slowly and James had a brief, piercing vision of Willamette Dell, his lost lamb, returning-all in black and impossibly hot-to the fold, Instead, Ralph Barron shuffled in. James never thought he’d be so glad to see him, that he would assume the role of the proverbial cavalry.
“Hello Ralph,” he said warmly.
“Hey Ralph,” Cor said, seeming a little despondent that he and James’s tete a tete was at an end.
Ralph, dressed in his usual baggy cords, long sleeved shirt, and fedora (despite the heat), looked around for moment, as if addressed by invisible or very small men. “Yes, greetings. Sorry that I’m tardy. I had some bus problems. That number 12. So sorry.” He stood and silently debated between two chairs. James noticed he was sans his ancient, voluminous briefcase.
“Well, this might be an opportune time to take a shirt break. Thank you Cor. Ralph, we’ll discuss your piece when we return.” James flashed a smile and rapidly exited before either had a chance to respond.
Pulling out a silk handkerchief, monogrammed with his brother’s initials (W.A.F.), James wiped his face and went downstairs. Also in the building tonight were an essay class (The Art of the Personal Essay, which James had taught twice), a sewing class, a yoga class, a self assertion class called Take Control!, and the church choir, whom James heard rehearsing as he walked by the sanctuary.
Outside on the steps, he took a cigarette from a silver case (a gift from Chloe, an ex-girlfriend) and lit it. Maximizing (or exploiting) break time was something at which James had become particularly skilled. Cigarette (3-4 minutes), walk to CVS to buy something to drink and eat (5-7 minutes), bathroom (2-4 minutes), banter with students (1-5 minutes). It was necessary time and cigarettes were the MVP. Before teaching, he had quit smoking for the eighth time since college. If permitted, he would chain smoke in class, concealing his boredom and deficiencies as a teacher behind a thick curtain of smoke. Ideally, he’d hold class in a small bar, with a couple pitchers at a corner booth. Perhaps they’d get their picture or caricatures on the wall; The Brookline Adult Ed Round Table.
James stubbed his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe and deposited the butt in a thoughtfully positioned ashcan. After a stop in the bathroom to wash his face and hands, he returned to class. Cor was chewing on a grape and Ralph was studying what looked like an ATM receipt. It was silent. It wasn’t that Cor and Ralph didn’t get along, but, rather, that Ralph was not the easiest person to talk to, always a bit out of step, like a poorly dubbed movie. He worked in some Cambridge research lab and was writing an elephantine, byzantine novel about, among other things, technology, the 1950s, the space race, urban sprawl, the minutia of kitchen design, and a dyslexic boy with Communist leaning named Sal. It was, at last count, 327 pages. Ralph had been writing it “here and there” for five years. And, according to him, the bulk of what he’d written was “prelude.”
The outline alone was longer than most short stories. Usually Ralph arrived at class with a briefcase that wouldn’t fit into conventional airline overhead bins. Part of class was invariably eaten up by him searching for the section he wanted to read. It was always with him, a brick of paper crisscrossed by rubber bands and tattooed with multi-colored post it notes. It looked less like a draft and more like a conceptual art piece about the futility of writing. Sisyphus gets time off from pushing the stone to write a novel.
“Do you want an organic grape?” Cor asked.
“No, thanks, I’m off purple fruits. Looks good though.”
“Well, Ralph, what do you have for us tonight?”
“Yes. My apologies. The lateness. My car is old, it has problems. I couldn’t drive it. So I had to take the bus. The bus schedule is very confusing. I took the wrong one. Then I realized I left my briefcase, my manuscript.”
This was beginning to sound like a not too shabby plot for a short story: eccentric older man trapped on bus, loses only copy of massive work in progress.
“I left it. It was already late. If I went back, I’d miss class entirely. Besides, I might not have been able to get back in the building. So I’m sorry to say I have nothing tonight.”
“Oh.” This was an unexpected blessing. What was the GRE vocab word? Windfall. “Did you get a chance to read Cor’s?”
Ralph seemed puzzled. “No. No, I didn’t. I must not have received it.” Ralph was notorious for his failure to read and critique his peers’ work. “But. But I did want to ask one thing.” He pulled out the ATM slip. “I scribbled a few notes on the way over. Let’s see. Yes, what if Sal’s father was in the John Birch Society? To contrast with Sal’s leftist bent.”
James shrugged. “Sure.”
“Good. And what if, then, Sal’s growth parallels the spread of television. And maybe his problems with reading are partly due to that. After all, television is anti-book at heart. I’ve been researching, independently, the development of TV.”
“Great. Well, I hate to cheat you, but that’s about it. Unless there’s anything else?”
“How many weeks do we left?” Cor asked.
James knew exactly, but pretended to check the syllabus. “Here we go. Two more. It has flown by. So please e-mail me your pieces and I’ll try to return your stuff from the other week with some additional comments.”
James paused and looked at his students. And then there were two.
“I’ll have that new chapter for you by next week. It’s a dream sequence,” Ralph said.
“Right. I’ll see you next week then.”
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Portland Fiction Project
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