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Monday, August 24, 2009

Kevin Canty: Master of the American Short Story

They appear out of thin air, it seems. You see them at social gatherings and parties. You know enough to avoid them, but eventually you are drawn into their conversation. They are easy to identify, not just because they are loud (they want everyone to hear what they are saying), but because they have "knowledge to impart." These are the pseudo-intellectuals... the know-it-alls who aim to impress by turning a catchy phrase and throwing it around like it's the newest thing to come out of that vastness of stale ideas that is their little brains. One of these phrases (and I have heard it more than once) thrown around, and one that really kills me (literally and figuratively) is "the American short story is dead." They do sound like college professors, and might actually impress the bar fly hanging on their every word, but the statement is plain false and downright idiotic. If you want evidence that the American short story is alive and well TODAY, all you have to do is read Kevin Canty's "Where the Money Went." Kevin Canty proves mastery of the form both thematically (subject matter) and in terms of technique.

Hitting upon this treasure of short stories has been an eye opening event for me. I've never been resistant to the literary trends (for better or worse), and even "chick lit" (a term I find repulsive) begins to show its value eventually.... after it has been "milked" of all of its commercial and marketing capital. Kevin Canty writes insightfully and with realism about the lives of men in contemporary American society. "Where the Money Went" is a tour-de-force of American existentialism and its relation to men of all social classes; the questions it asks and answers through its vivid characters explore the dark and light comedy that is being a man in America today. Consider this "chick lit" for men, or "dude lit" if you really have to draw a marketing ploy to corner the contemporary fiction share. But Canty does not need that sort of help, not from you, or me for that matter. Rather than summarizing the stories, I will share some of the passages from the stories that 1) shocked me for the depth of their artful mastery, and 2) enlightened me to my own reality as an American male.

In the title piece, Canty displays a great amount of technique (I am not sure if he would be insulted if I called it stream of consciousness). Braxton, the protagonist, engages in a sort of Gregorian chant or litany on precisely where the money went after the divorce. The story is brief, but it packs an amazing amount of detail. For example, there are pauses of beautiful imagery that pop out in the middle of the long list of where the money went: "He watched her topple slowly backward into the water, watched her dress bloom around her in the underwater light like some bright colorful flower and in that moment he had not disliked her." I can't think of a more beautifully composed and artfully constructed sentence in the middle of the acutely painful meditation by the protagonist.

In "The Emperor of Ice Cream" we again meet a character opening up so clearly and agonizingly it bleeds real humanity; I can think of numerous moments of introspection similar to this one: "These were the moments where he felt cut off and stuck inside himself, looking out at the grinning, shouting crowd, smoking and drinking, dancing and flirting away a summer night. Lander thought they looked stupid. This was how he knew how fucked up he was; when happy looked stupid." There's no fault either technically or skillfully in making a character have a philosophical moment; the bad writers over do it... masters like Canty know exactly how to use subtlety, making the reader feel like he is gliding over the surface without realizing he is deep, deep within the character's psyche. Again, this is a matter of technique and art, and Canty possesses both.

Canty pushes the limits of emotion, characterization and just plain humanity in "In the Burn." Just like in "The Emperor of Ice Cream," it is subtlety that makes the complex almost emotionally painful. When I read the following passage, I again felt like all this universality of feelings is both universal and strictly personal. "I'll land on my own two feet, I know it. I was all alone and lonely and sexually deprived when I met her. I can do it again. But just the thought of my little apartment with my little clothes in it sends a willie down my back. One more night of TV, one more night of wondering where I'm supposed to be in this world." When I read this passage to a friend of mine, he pointed out the last eight words as sounding like a broken record; I quickly pointed out that it is the amount of detail that conveys the feeling of both awkwardness and quiet desperation... again, a masterfully written passage both in terms of skill and technique. This is really, without hyperbole, brilliant writing.

I can't recommend this book enough. If you read to explore human questions, of if you read to appreciate good writing, or both, Kevin Canty's "Where the Money Went" is what you need to be reading today. This book should please both readers and readers who read like writers. I recommend it without reserve.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

More Umberto Eco: Serendipities, Language and Lunacy

I know that perhaps I drove some of you crazy with my entries on Eco's "Kant and the Platypus," but I can't help it when I find another slim volume by the Italian master of semiotics. "Serendipities: Language and Lunacy" offers more of the challenges that linguistics, semantics and semiotics in general present. I find that Eco covers a great deal (with much more humor, too) more on this short book regarding (to be put simply) "why things are what they are and how they become what they are." So, historical events, for example, can in fact change the course of humanity by virtue of a small "mistake" or "coincidence." Eco begins with Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the New World by what can indeed be considered happerstance. "Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right--thanks to serendipity." The challenge to understand the difference between an error and simply being "wrong," and certainty and the belief of being "right" becomes topsy-turvy. The New World was there even without Columbus stumbling into it; yet, the Heideggerian idea of "Being" again shows its ugly face little by little. If a massive piece of land sits there and no one is there to stumble upon it, does it exist?

Eco and his fascination with the Medieval occult (as explored in "Foucault's Pendulum") is in display here once again. Serendipity, while not entirely responsible for the vast conspiracy of the Jewish Protocols (Elders of Zion, etc.), might be connected to the idea that the protocol conspiracy as it developed from a work of fiction (Rodolphe de Gerolstein's "Les Mysteres de Paris"). And if you think that's enough, consider that this was all the plan of Jesuits and the ever-present evil-mindedness of the, you guessed it, the Rosicrucians, the Jacobins, and (amazingly enough) Cagliostro! This is the reason (over-simplified presently because there are many, many reasons) why I think Umberto Eco is a genius... his capacity for research and historical connections is amazing, and, to make it all readable and enjoyable is an added task in and of itself. Read this book if you want to be both entertained and challenged.

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