Mark Chiusano: A Year of “Moral Disorder”

Mark Chiusano
ohoto: Charlotte Alter

Though the initial stories in Marine Park are focused on a boy and his brother growing up in the far end of Brooklyn, near the park that gives the collection its name, Mark Chiusano has plenty of other characters to introduce us to, like the couple whose romance rises and falls in the shadow of the Manhattan Project, or the chain of people linked by their sexual histories in 1970s New York City, or the old man who’s called upon to make one last smuggling run in the waters just off the outer boroughs. A few of these stories hint at the expansive time frames Chiusano talks about taking on in this essay—which discusses how to fit a great deal of time into a relatively small amount of prose.

For my day job I work at Vintage Books, where I’ve been working recently on a new project called Vintage Shorts, a program that pulls small sections from our old books for timely anniversaries or events in order to introduce readers to books they might have missed. Working on the project has had the side effect of introducing me to plenty of books I’ve missed. Two of them are Margaret Atwood’s story collection Moral Disorder and Geoffrey C. Ward’s biography of FDR, A First-Class Temperament. At the time I’d been trying to train myself in my own writing to lengthen out the time-frame in stories—many of the stories in Marine Park take place over days or hours, and I’d been experimenting with widening that scope. Reading A First-Class Temperament was an ideal way to increase my stamina, as it were.

Ward’s book is one of those fantastic, monumental, expansive and all-encompassing portraits of a historical figure—First-Class gets particularly close to Roosevelt as he struggles with polio, outlining the painstaking details of learning to “walk” again (he never would). Ward himself suffered from polio as a child and the attention to physical detail in his writing is palpable. In one of my favorite chapters from the book, Ward describes the two years in which Roosevelt goes from being a hermetic cripple to a political player once again, bookended on one side by his failed attempt to crutch himself into his old law office, and on the other by his journey down the aisle at the 1924 Democratic Convention to deliver the fabled Happy Warrior speech in support of Al Smith (“happy warrior,” a phrase from Wordsworth, wasn’t FDR’s idea, by the way: he thought it was far too poetic).

The chapter has the arc of a short story, with the repetition of attempts to walk at beginning and end, supported by a middle section in which FDR escapes on his houseboat Laroco for a spring cruise off the coast of Florida, a change of scenery that allows the reader to learn more about Roosevelt’s state of mind at the time (though Roosevelt hid it well from his houseboat guests, he sometimes couldn’t bring himself to leave his bed until noon) before the climactic events of the ending. Simple temporal section-openers like “At around eleven o’clock on Monday morning,” and “In February 1923, Franklin received from an old friend in England an elixir,” or “At around two-thirty in the afternoon of Monday, February 4, the Laroco anchored off St. Augustine,” are the bare-bones of nonfiction, but became useful in my fiction to help stories cover months and years.

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28 July 2014 | selling shorts |

Sean Ennis: An Unsettling “Orientation”

Sean Ennis
photo: Claire Mischker

The Philadelphia of Sean Ennis’s Chase Us is a surreal, violent territory, one that the narrator navigates precariously from one story to the next. The collection isn’t so much a novel in stories, I think, as a series of variations on a theme; although the setting and the characters carry over from one story to the next, it doesn’t seem—at least initially—that a linear narrative carries over with them.) Once you’ve read a few of Ennis’s stories, you might be able to see what drew him to the Daniel Orozco story he’s written about in this guest essay…

I’ve always liked stories about work. Not only is it the place where most of us spend the majority of our time, but for a fiction writer, it seems like the ideal setting to create drama. Unless you’re very lucky, work is a place where you are often forced to interact with people you’d otherwise avoid.

Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation” takes the form of a dramatic monologue given by a middle manager introducing a new employee to the company. The specific work that this office engages in is never really mentioned, but we quickly get the sense that the audience for this speech has not exactly landed the ideal job.

In a lesser writer’s hands, it is easy to imagine this piece functioning as a one-note gag, riffing on the banal idea that office life is alienating and unfulfilling. No doubt, that idea is in Orozco’s story, but he’s mainly done with it after the first page. Instead, what follows is a list of an increasingly terrifying cast of characters who inhabit this particular office, brutally dissected by the narrator who speaks of the rules of the coffee pool and the sadomasochistic habits of his coworkers with an equally detached tone.

What I love and admire about this story is the way that both form and content are working in tandem. First, form. As a dramatic monologue, it places the reader in the position of the new hire being oriented, evaluating his/her new job for the first time. By the end it leaves the reader with a choice—decide to return for the second day on the job or run away screaming. I’m not suggesting that the story is so immersive that the reader actually forgets where they really stand—this isn’t a Disney ride. But it does mimic the question lots of people have about their job when they leave it for the day: will I come back tomorrow? While most great stories pose a question to the reader on some level, this seems much more explicit.

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8 June 2014 | selling shorts |

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