Narrative techniques in creative nonfiction—whether
essay, memoir, or profile—translate well from fiction (Crane was, and Wolff
is, adept in both). From the world of fiction, one modernist influence
on narrative that we often trace from Hemingway, and through Raymond Carver,
for me comes more explicitly from James Joyce, and especially from the
stories in Dubliners. The meaning of these stories depends
greatly on what is understated, elliptical, or withheld. This concept
of an absence that complements the remaining form is essential to a full
appreciation of Dubliners. Throughout the stories, the shadows
of things that are present highlight corresponding things that are absent.
The visible tip of an iceberg alerts the reader to an unseen mass.
It seems that part of Joyce's design in Dubliners
is to lodge a question in the reader's mind, a question which carries more
weight than any overt statement by the author. Joyce learned from
Yeats that "insinuation could be more forceful than the statement of fact"
(Magalaner and Kain 27). The narrator in “The Sisters,” for instance,
quotes “old Cotter” talking about the priest who has died: “—No, I wouldn’t
say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was
something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion,” Cotter says—and
then goes quiet (1, Joyce’s ellipses). He puffs his pipe, “no doubt
arranging his opinion in his mind. —I have my own theory about it,
he said. I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases . . . But
it’s hard to say. . . .” (1,2 Joyce’s ellipses). Cotter never
does venture an opinion about the priest, yet his oblique remarks accumulate
with those of other characters, forming an implicit question about the
man’s character. Through pointed yet incomplete reference Joyce plants
questions, leaving the reader to speculate, as the stories’ inhabitants
do: Did he . . . ? Joyce's elliptical prose emphasizes the
withheld elements. This matter of understatement, of challenging
the reader to interpret or resolve matters, coincides with Joyce's aesthetic
theory, as expressed by his alter ego, Stephen Daedelus: ideally, the artist
“like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above
his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring
his fingernails” (Joyce, A Portrait 215).
Joyce focuses on a given scene or event, but
claims no omniscience; he goes no further than the barest inference, and
sidesteps definitive comment. Instead he lets actions and events
speak for themselves, leaving it to readers to make sense of events.
Richard Ellman says that Joyce's elliptical style “claims importance by
claiming nothing; it seeks a presentation so sharp that comment by the
author would be an interference” (James Joyce 88).9
It might seem odd to follow Joyce with James Thurber,
but running close beneath the surface of Thurber’s humor is a serious moral,
humanism that shares much with Joyce. It’s difficult to write humor,
and it may be just as difficult to write critically about humor.
Here is a cautionary example of what can happen to those who write about
Thurber: “We laugh . . . to find release from tension created by the mind.
The word mind is amorphous, but I mean by it . . .” (Tobias 85).
I don’t fault the writer so much as his predicament, the corner he’s backed
into; go on at length about humor and eventually it may seem appropriate
to define the mind. Another commentator claims that “Thurber’s work
is the result of a systematic study of chaos, delineating the structure
of disorder” (Kenney 4). Can’t you just picture Thurber in his study,
with one hand correlating the data on “the car we had to push,” and with
the other checking a footnote in that weighty volume, Things That Go
Bump in the Night.10 The danger of analyzing Thurber’s
work is that it can lead to the very extremes he parodied, taking his work
and your own too seriously. He was skeptical about taking reason
But you can speak of humor if you’re careful;
Thurber did. He referred to humor as “chaos recollected in tranquility”
and to his own work as the “anatomy of confusion” (Kenney, 4). Among
the motifs in Thurber’s work are trivial or domestic difficulties, linguistic
confusion, men versus women (I hesitate to say “gender” difficulties because
the word has taken on such weight), and his reservations about the power
of reason over instinct, and finally what I’ll call the skeptical debunking
of over-seriousness or decorum. Literature seems filled—from the
epic to the novel to the short story—with grave problems, severe dilemmas,
moral conundrums, and such, but the character in a Thurber story is more
likely afflicted with vague doubts, or problems “with his digestion, the
rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six
or eight persons . . .” (Thurber 175). I think part of Thurber’s
appeal is that readers recognize themselves in his stories: the everyday
problems of most readers come closer to digestion and rear axles than to
the fate of the nation. Thurber also had the knack of pushing familiar
circumstances just slightly over the top, to the absurd. A man and
wife in bed: familiar; the man doubting that she has heard a noise: utterly
familiar; “All right, have it your way—you heard a seal bark”: absurd.
But there’s the seal, looking as if it belongs there at the head of the
9 Joyce’s renouncing overt comment,
however, obscures the fact that his selection of details, itself, amounts
to a kind of inference. Despite his claim of “God . . . paring his
fingernails,” Joyce does comment; his stories do have rhetorical content,
understated though it may be. Selecting two particular men from among
the mass of Dubliners, for instance, and labeling them "gallants"—in clear
contradiction of their acts—is an unequivocal judgment.
10 One page later this same writer
is comparing King Lear’s final moments with “Walter Mitty’s mumbling about
puppy biscuits [that] somehow underscores our horror at his wasted life.”
I think this writer needs a double scotch and a vacation.
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