Antonya Nelson is one of my favorite short story writers. One of my favorite writers, period. She has always managed to get the peculiar into the ordinary in the most unexpected ways. And then there’s her phrasing, in both her exposition and her dialogue. Take the opening of her most recent story, “Chapter Two,” from a recent New Yorker.
Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor. It had been a peculiar week. “So she comes to my house a few nights ago,” Hil began, “like around nine, bing-bong, drunk as a skunk, as usual, right in the middle of this show my roommate and I are watching. I go to the door and there she is, fifty-something, a totally naked lady standing under the porch light.” At the time, it had seemed designed to charm, her coy drunken neighbor sporting a plaid porkpie hat and holding a toothbrush like a flag or a flower or a torch. Choreographed, at least, and embarrassing to behold. Bergeron Love, grande dame in her own mind and all around the block.
There’s a lot going on here, more than in most stories, it strikes me. There’s the whole meta telling-within-the-telling, which Nelson locates at A.A., an homage to David Foster Wallace, no doubt, though Nelson denies it was intentional. (Which makes it even more important, as far as I’m concerned.) But what strikes me is the textuality of the graph–that “bing-bong,” the lingo of the character, tells us more about Hil than anything else. And that last fragmented sentence, as if it’s a roadside billboard or a card passed out at a cocktail party (not that Bergeron Love would have a card). In other words, as Nelson almost spells out, it’s a coming together of “in her own mind” (Hil’s, that is, the storyteller’s) and “all around the block.” The character in the world. Bing-bong, indeed.
Well, today I read an interview with Antonya and something she says at the end strikes me, here in the shadow of “Chapter Two.” Like many brilliant things, it’s at once so obvious and so smart. It’s about impulse and character–how impulse plays into the creation of character, and, by extension, how character becomes situated in the world (see above)
I almost think I would be well served by trying to make a collection in which the same sort of images or tropes or motifs occur, and then I play with them and emphasize one at a given time and one at another time […] where it’s the same circumstances, same situation, and then each story is a re-envisioning of those elements. It’s hard to explain, but I know that it’s something that I have to hide and on the other hand, explore, because clearly it means something to me.
The most recent one is: single mother of teenage boy reckoning with the fact that he’s going to be leaving her soon, leaving her home, and thereby, leaving her solitary. My own kids just recently left home. It makes perfect sense to me that I’m writing about this, and I’m putting a character like myself in extreme situations: no longer with a husband, no longer with something tangible in the world to hang onto, and usually on the verge of something self-destructive. It’s like all of these impulses within me are faint, and within my characters, they’re much more exaggerated. I do have to beware of certain things being repetitious, but on the other hand, until I’m done exploring that particular situation, until I’m bored with it, until I do feel like I’m repeating myself, that’s going to be my material. That’s been true since the beginning.
It’s that character-in-extremis that gets me, slipping away from the world, adrift without anything tangible, on the verge–of self-destruction, yeah, but also something else… change, perhaps. Because all fiction–all story–is about change, deep down, isn’t it? Change or the lack of change, which is a kind of change, as long as it’s put into language. The telling itself is change, how the writer filters her impulses into the larger canvas of narrative. Character, though, not plot.
Maybe it’s because it’s something I’ve thought about, without ever having formulated–without knowing how to formulate it, admittedly. I mean, people always ask writers where characters come from. Is Patrick Bateman based on anyone you knew growing up, Mr. Ellis? Is Ahab your father or an old boss, Mr. Melville? That kind of thing. And the answers are almost uniformly the same: characters are characters and people are people, and sure, bits and pieces of people get all mashed up in a character, and sometimes the writer intends this and sometimes the writer doesn’t intend this. The final alchemy that goes into creating a memorable character is almost always beyond what the writer does or doesn’t intend. That’s what I’d argue, at least. Because otherwise it’s reportage or journalism or (bastardly phraseology) “creative nonfiction.” And it’s best, it seems to me to go without saying, when the writer isn’t in full control of what makes a character. The best books and stories and characters and paragraphs and sentences should arrive through some extraterrestrial mathematics which is, when boiled down to its essense, largely dependant on surprise. Otherwise why read, right? I mean: otherwise why write … right?
In any case: Impulse. Character. Fuck yeah, Antonya Nelson.