Look back upstream
— John McPhee on structure in The New Yorker
Look back upstream
— John McPhee on structure in The New Yorker
I started this project out a year ago with Flannery O’Connor — and just muddled my way through without a teacher’s guidance. Now, I’m wishing I knew to ask Jim Shepard about the story!
[via The Atlantic, thanks to Michael Maren for posting the link on Facebook]
The title story in Tim Winton’s collection is haunting and dark. But I love it. I found it more immediate and urgent than “Aquifier,” partly, I’m sure, due to the strength of the protagonist, Raelene. She is the beating heart of this story and her emotions—even the ones she’s trying to ignore—are so vivid on the page.
Her small pleasures are heartbreaking given what’s really going on in her life:
Sunshine felt pure and silky on her skin; it took her mind off the chipped tooth and the throbbing lip.
There is suspense in this piece, as Raelene befriends Sherry and Dan. She idolizes them and then comes to a point where she’s not sure of their real intentions. This intrigue works, as does each of the small turns of the plot, but it’s Raelene, all Raelene, that drives the story. I’d be happy to watch her for many more pages still, although I shudder to think what that would mean for her fate.
The thing I’ll remember about this story is that you don’t need a sweeping stage to create momentum and unforgettable characters. You can find high drama in a caravan park, even if just in the torturous pages spent waiting for Max to reappear.
You can root for a character even when you think she’s being stupid. You can feel for her and even be in awe of her in certain ways. If you get inside the head of a character, and show us how she reacts to crisis, you’re on the right track.
For its bleakness, this is an emotional story. I was in tears at the end of it (inevitable, but still shocking). Even though we hate seeing Raelene go through hell, I never pitied her. And that’s a testament to Winton’s writing, his creation of her.
Raelene at the end of the story has reached a state of grace. And, as we say in workshops, she’s earned it.
I’ve been mulling over why Aquifier left me unsettled and why I couldn’t find a thread or side of the narrator to relate to and I think it all comes back to why this story works so well.
The unsettled feeling comes from the quiet horror of the story. The theme of blood and bones in groundwater, the power of the swamp. The narrator’s parents “talked of quicksand and tiger snakes, wild roots and submerged logs,” as they forbade the kids to go down there, but it turns out that the swamp has a much more sinister danger.
Winton laces the story with foreboding lines about the swamp long before we get to the line that so impressed Pam Houston—”My neighbor had gotten into everything; he was artesian.”
My favorite examples are when Winton describes nature with metaphors from inside the house (a world the narrator knows much better than the murky mystery of the swamp):
“The bush rolled and twisted like an unmade bed.”
“Reeds bristled like venetian blinds in the breeze. Black water bled from the ground with a linoleum gleam.”
But it’s not just language that creates the sense of tension in this story. Everything is geared towards discomfort—the narrator witnessing his neighbor run over his kids toes with the lawn mower, the smell of wet sheets as the Catholic kids press in around him, the emptiness of the calls to the 1194 man who robotically recites the time.
There are no moments of joy in this story and what confounds that is that we never really learn much about the narrator’s personality, besides the way this time of his life shaped him and still haunts him. We get to know him, alright, but not via any dialog or inner thoughts about his job, his wife, what he loves about life. Maybe there is nothing to love?
I’m intrigued by the way Winton has created such a full-feeling story, a story of weight, without giving us very much detail about his character. The detail is all in the setting of the scene instead. Descriptions of the suburb, the land, the houses, the swamp—the quirks of the neighbors. Through these details, we grow to understand how the narrator sees the world, without him actually ever telling us. (Rejoice, workshop leaders! It’s a classic example of show don’t tell!)
It took a few reads—and ample time in between—for me to see what Pam was talking about when she said this story is like a Swiss watch, every metaphor finely made, but I agree with her that it never feels mechanical.
I’m blown away by the power of this story. I can’t see myself ever writing something so detailed and evocative, but I know I’ll be returning to it again and again to study the pacing, and not just what’s on the page, but what’s not.
It took me awhile to dive into these two stories, for various reasons. One was that I had a trip to Australia on the horizon and thought it might be appropriate to read Winton on my way there or while I was in the country. To soak in the authenticity of it all. However, I wasn’t going to Western Australia, where Winton’s tales are set, and I didn’t get time to crack the Kindle during my brief sojourn. Instead, I read ‘Aquifier’ and ‘The Turning’ on the plane coming home. So the Aussieness of Winton’s voice reverberated in a way it might not have had I read it immersed in my life in the U.S.
Other than that… my unfiltered emotional response to the stories was this: ‘Aquifier’ left me feeling uncomfortable—as I read and when I was finished the story. I couldn’t find much to align myself with in the narrator’s life. But I was still affected by the voice and the telling of the story. Being unsettled by a story has to mean it succeeded, no?
As for ‘The Turning,’ I had an uncanny feeling that I knew this character. That maybe I had even read this story before. But I knew I hadn’t because I didn’t know what was coming next. I found myself rooting for Raelene and pitying her. Wanting to shake the shit out of her and wanting to give her a hug. The latter third of the story was nail-biting—powerful. I realized that it wasn’t that I’d read this story before but that Raelene was similar to another of Winton’s female characters. I’m still not sure which one, but perhaps I’ll find her when I continue through this collection (or maybe she’s in another book altogether). Raelene is a fully fleshed-out, vivid character. But it speaks to Winton’s inimitable style that she reminded me of another woman conjured from his imagination. I recognized her. Not from real life, but from the page.
More lucid reactions and notes soon…
I love my local library. (Latest @MFAProject assignment on top)
Next up on my teacher-directed reading list: The Turning and Aquifer, two stories that appear in Tim Winton’s collection, The Turning.
Here’s Pam Houston on why she chose these two pieces for me to read:
I first discovered Tim Winton in the Beacon Best of Anthology. The story was Aquifer, and I was so impressed with the marriage of technical prowess and deep emotional resonance it pulls off. The story is designed like a Swiss watch, every metaphor finely made, and then returned to the exact right number of times, and yet nothing about the story feels mechanical. Form following function and vice versa, every step of the way. When he says, “Alan Mannering had gotten into everything. He was artesian,” it is such a perfect completion of the aquifer metaphor without being in any way heavy handed…it takes my breath away, even to remember it now.
I wanted to accompany this story with The Turning because it succeeds on entirely different terms than Aquifer. If Aquifer is a Swiss watch then The Turning is an alpine avalanche of a story, driven by big emotions, ever gaining speed toward its staggeringly risky conclusion. The two stories are, I believe, Winton’s finest, and yet they succeed on entirely different terms. You may want to read the whole collection. There are plenty of other good stories in it, and the collection as a whole works together in very interesting ways, but I’m interested especially in what you have to say about these two. Happy reading.
photo credit: Adam Karsten
One of my goals in starting The MFA Project was to create the ideal reading list—and motivate myself to read more often and to read closely. Another was to curate my own little faculty of dream teachers. So I am honored to announce that my second teacher is Pam Houston.
I’ve been a fan of Houston’s writing for years—I started with Cowboys Are My Weakness and thought that the stories were the most authentic depictions of modern relationships I’d ever read. (By that, I mean they showed men and women being messy, enthralled, intoxicated, soul-deflating and painfully honest.)
Next, I was wooed by Sight Hound and Houston’s poignant, vivid-right-down-to-the-feel-of-the fur descriptions of Irish wolfhounds.
I daydreamed of heading to one of the many retreats Houston teaches around the world, but never got around to it.
Last month, I read her latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, and this time I was wowed by Houston’s ability to bring far-flung corners of the world to the page so viscerally. As I wrote on Twitter, as soon as I’d put the book down:
In short, Houston writes about the things I love, in one of the clearest, most distinctive and hilarious voices in fiction today. I’m so glad she said yes to being part of this project.
Houston teaches in the graduate writing program at University of California, Davis and also makes regular appearances at workshops and conferences around the world. You should totally sign up to one of them. I’ll probably see you there.
Stay tuned this week to find out what Houston assigned for my MFA Project reading…
I’m starting to approach some of my favorite writers to see if they’ll become one of my MFA Project teachers. Perhaps you’re interested, too?
It’s really quite simple. Just click on the Teach Me! tab above for a rundown on how it works.
Easy peasy, right? Now you’re convinced, all you have to do to make your valuable contribution to the MFA Project is email me and we’ll get things rolling.