"The line was endless." So begins Tobias Wolff's story, "Bullet in the Brain." I heard the story on the New Yorker fiction podcast and laughed myself right through my cardio workout for the day. No small feat: I am intensely bored by the gym and have taken to podcasting my way through. But even when listening to fiction, it needs to grab me in some way--either through language use, or palette, strangeness of tone, or narrative, voice, character. Given that the New Yorker offers a steady stream of narrative you can guess what offerings I usually have queued up on my iPod. But complicated feelings about narrative and fiction aside it is not without some pleasure. While I can in some way agree with Mary Burger's essay "All New Yorker Stories..." I don't completely.
But back to Wolff, known to many for the film version of his memoir This Boy's Life, perhaps more than anything, but also as editor of one of the most depressing collections of short fiction ever. I used it in a short fiction course a while back and it wasn't just that the stories were depressing, it was the sameness: confessional narratives, often centering around domestic abuse, child abuse, or abuse abuse. The publisher describes it as: "representing a reaction to the postmodern, self-conscious fictional attitude emerging from the Sixties. Realistic and convincing, these voices of the past decade and a half create a sense of kinship that remains with readers as insistently as do their own memories."
I understand, I was there in the 80s and yes, there was a need to pop that bubble of denial, but what a boat load of it we got. And the experience of reading so many in a row? It sort of dulls the impact of a story like Dorothy Allison's "River of Names." Not that there aren't some good stories in the mix, just all in a row like that, ack. The only worse compilation has to be Richard Ford's anthology of Best American fiction for Granta (though Denise Chong's anthology of Canadian women's fiction is also very thick, dark and syrupy). In any case, tainted as Wolff is for me after the latter experience, I wasn't having to read Wolff I was hearing T. C. Boyle read Wolff, and since I know Boyle to have some edges (okay, not real edges, but sort of edges), and humour, I was interested to see what he has chosen for his reading. (That's the trick, it's one writer choosing another writer that they love, or a story that they love, which is ALWAYS a good idea no matter how many times one wants to eloquently argue for the negative position).
The story features a critic caught in a bank robbery and it unfolds in two stages. The first starts and ends so quickly you can't quite believe it's over. Our critic, Anders, who has just walked into the bank, is a piece of work: sarcastic, miserable, critiquing everything that appears before his gaze. He is standing in line when a few robbers appear on the scene and begin to enact their "robbery." They aren't the sharpest bunch and Anders can't believe the cliched language they are using. Neither can he stop himself from commenting on it, "Did you hear that?" Anders said. "'Bright boy.' Right out of 'The Killers.'" You can imagine what happens when we get to the, "Something funny?" And "You laughing at me?" For Anders there is no longer any separation from his critical role and his life, but worse, there are no nuances in his critical stance either, it is all-negative, all-sarcasm, all-the-time. And of course, since he can't stop himself from critiquing the robber he gets a bullet in the brain.
But the story doesn't end there, rather it slows down. Once the bullet enters the brain Wolff shows us what he remembers and what he doesn't remember eking out a more subtle character, one that was perhaps even excited about the literature he has come to constantly deride. It's heavy-handed yes, but brilliant too. It has the pace and lightness of a George Saunders story--it just keeps unraveling and the nuances of the critics engagement with the world, the complex reaction to the details of youth and exuberance come back. It's those complex moments that offer us the richness in life, and when we come to anything ready to simply critique, or slot it in, we barely scan the surface of that which we encounter. Critical judgment must come swift and harsh, I heard someone quoting David Solway recently. Really?