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     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
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     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 to extremes.
     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 bed.
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     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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