When you start reading In Another Country, it’s the precision of David Constantine’s prose that gets you first. His descriptions, his dialogue—it’s all so unnervingly exact, dropping you into scenes that are both immediately recognizable and profoundly unsettling. And one consequence of this exactitude is that you simply can’t skim a Constantine story. There’s that school of thought that every detail in a short story should be an essential detail, but actual stories live up to that theory to varying degrees—the point being that Constantine’s best work, as represented in this career-spanning collection (which includes stories from the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award-winning Tea at the Midland), hits that mark with riveting consistency. In this guest post, he explains the purpose behind this careful approach to language, a literary purpose that’s equal parts aesthetic and philosophical.
The phrase is Lawrence’s: “The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention.” So does fiction. And, doing it, poems and stories ask us to do the same: attend better. I associate that demand with Lear’s shocked utterance when he is evicted out of kingship onto the heath and begins to notice that the poor have a hard time of it: “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this …” We all take too little care. Fiction and poetry jolt us into caring more. They widen our sympathy.
In practice the new effort of attention will most often have a polemical edge because it will alert us to the state we are in. The declaration that citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be un-declared. So, alerted, paying attention, we look around us and see, at best, that the aspiration has been very imperfectly realized, and, at worst, that much has been done to make its realization unlikely or downright impossible.
Fiction and poetry continually remind us that we do not (are not permitted to, don’t try hard enough to) live as connectedly, wholly, humanely as we might. They help us imagine a livelier life.They do this intrinsically first by practising the autonomy without which no artistic creation is possible. That autonomy contradicts and challenges the unfreedom which in various forms (some more obvious than others) reduces our lives in society. And secondly, a poem or story unsettles us by its own truth and beauty because it confronts us with that famous pairing all too often in circumstances of very great ugliness and mendacity (trashed environment, debased public discourse and conduct, for example). Fiction and poetry by their intrinsic workings urge us not to give up the hope of freedom, truth and beauty. In fact, they incite us to revolt.
14 June 2015 | selling shorts |
photo: Maggie Shipstead
“One of the themes I find myself returning to again and again in my fiction is faith,” Kirstin Valdez Quade says at the beginning of this guest post; indeed, one of the first things you’ll notice as you read the stories in Night at the Fiestas is the strong presence of religion, and religious pageantry, in her characters’ lives. So it’s not unexpected that she might turn to Flannery O’Connor when asked about the short story writers who’ve been an influence or inspiration to her—but it’s a delightful surprise to see that she’s singled out one of my favorite O’Connor stories to discuss.
One of the themes I find myself returning to again and again in my fiction is faith. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my very devout grandmother and great-grandmother, and I went to mass regularly. Northern New Mexico Catholicism is full of petitions and processions, home altars and lit candles and plaster saints on the mantle. It’s also the Catholicism of agonized depictions of Christ, His wounds gaping and bloody.
The Catholicism in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is similarly gory. She specializes in petty, flawed characters, characters who nonetheless are drawn to transcend themselves. When they’re lucky, these characters, however unpleasant and undeserving they might be, are granted grace—though usually when grace comes, it’s violent and at the last minute. My favorite O’Connor story is perhaps “Parker’s Back,” one of the two pieces she was working on when she died. I love the story for its occasionally cruel humor, but also for its depiction of a faith that is ugly, uncomfortable, and deeply necessary.
O.E. Parker is a flawed man. He lives wildly, selfishly, likes his drink and likes his women. Parker repeatedly runs away from what he most needs—to be truly seen, by himself and by God. He can’t even bear to admit to his full name (Obadiah Elihue! Who could bear it?).
Yet Parker longs to transform himself and transcend himself. He covers himself from head to toe in tattoos, always seeking “a single intricate design of brilliant color…an arabesque.” Still, every tattoo disappoints, and that unity of self eludes him. His anxiety only increases, until there is only one place left uncovered: his back.
Inevitably, “dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo,” and he takes off once again for the city, in search of the tattoo that will unify him.
15 February 2015 | selling shorts |