Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?
National literatures each tell their own stories. The American short story is, I think it's fair to say, formed in the American university system. It's where writers are born, it's where they teach, and it's how they survive. Many of them teach undergraduates about the short story. And most of those anthologies they use contain "The Dead." And I haven't been to a class on the American short story that hasn't involved a paen on the merits of "The Dead." It's the greased flagpole we're all trying to climb, just because we know we can't.
I know, because I've been in a few of those classes, and I've taught a few. And while I'm not going to say that it's Joyce's fault, I will say that our nation is full of aspiring writers, some better than others, swinging and often whiffing for that gentle melody that comes with the perfectly tuned final graph.
Don't get me wrong. "The Dead" deserves a close read in any class. But is that last paragraph really the story aspiring writers of American fiction should be trying to tell?
Let's recapitulate what goes on in that last paragraph. Gabriel Conroy, a college professor in his 30s, looks out the window at the snow falling softly over Ireland and the Bog of Allen, thinking wistfully about the fact that even though his wife isn't sleeping with another man, she wishes she was. She's just told him about her first love, Michael Furey, who died at 17. Generous tears fill his eyes. There's a keen sense of dissolution. Gabriel has coined a phrase for the aesthetic effect: distant music.
Right this moment, there are armies of writers going through workshops, getting their work ruthlessly dissected as they try to create that lyrical effect of waning poignancy. Students labor day and night trying to imagine themselves as Gabriel Conroy, looking out onto the snow-covered wasteland. Adjunct professors, desperately trying to squeeze into the Kenyon Review, are trying to imagine their careers as the Bog of Allen, their aging parents as relics of a bygone day, their own spouse wanting more from them than they're willing-or able-to give. Michael Furey is the ghost of their aspirations. The distant music of their thought-tormented lives is the rattling piano of an aging piano teacher.
If that's what they're after, the short story isn't a story anymore. What we come out with now, too often, is an architectural feat, carefully layered to texture a feeling that is, not coincidentally, the sort of feeling you might get after teaching short-stories for years, while writing the occasional book review. It's the kind of story not many people read anymore, unless they want to learn how to write a story. It's a story that many people publish, some of them so that they can keep their jobs.
Maybe there is something American writers can learn from "The Dead"-but it's not in that last paragraph. There's a strange little quote that pops out a few pages into the story: "Goloshes! said Mrs Conroy. That's the latest."
For the next four paragraphs, characters stand at the foot of the stairs, wondering what the hell "goloshes" are all about. Goloshes had been introduced to the continent a few decades ago; finally, they've made their way to the Irish hinterlands. The word gets repeated four times, until it turns into a strange foreign word with which these Irish men and women are trying to come to terms.
And throughout "The Dead," these people are trying to come to terms with who they are and how they're supposed to talk. An hour or so later, Gabriel Conroy finds himself in an awkward little spat with Miss Molly Ivors, another professor, about the Gaelic revival. Ivors calls Conroy a "West Briton," a code name for an English sympathizer, because he published a book review in an English journal. Conroy thinks she's an idiot for jumping on the Gaelic bandwagon. Their friendly discussion of politics turns ugly and, although we don't know why, Ivors leaves early.
Let me offer a few disclaimers. I don't write short stories. I read a lot of them, but I don't read enough of them to make serious generalizations that can't be shot down. But after my last non-scientific survey, I can say that there's definitely something wrong with the American short story: People don't read it for pleasure, and they don't read it to figure out where we are or who we've become. When newspaper writers need to come up with something literary that says it all-let's say after an act of terrorism, or after a pissy political summer-they head to Yeats (you know, the part about the center not holding), not the contemporary American short story.
Why not? Our imagination is crazier and more feverish than it's ever been. Hawthorne and Poe would have had field days. But, and this may just be me, when I read short stories, it is usually before I go to bed. But when I want a story that pisses me off or causes me to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country and where we're going to go and whether we have a national voice to begin with, I check out CNN's Situation Room. And I turn it right off because I can't handle it. But I stay up all night thinking about the characters: the nut cases, the red-faced pundits shouting one another down, the American soul as an indecisive salted worm.
"The Dead" comes to life in the present: that viral, bastardized language stomping in galoshes across the landscape of the Irish imagination as Joyce wrote. And before the next army of young writers tries to create the next version of Gabriel Conroy, they should think about what's happening in our own national landscape. "The Dead" was Dublin itself, the ultimate situation room. Everything happening in "The Dead" was happening around Joyce as he wrote, in the first decade of the 20th century: the rampant alcoholism, the faux nationalism, the dying generations, the shallow hospitality, the end of decency, the emergence of feminism, the reaction of the boneheads. It was about a beloved country turned suddenly strange, in a way that fascinated Joyce, and yet, which caused him to leave it.
Here at the beginning of the academic year, a wealth of talented writers are about to enter the system. They've got more to work with than ever. They should be thinking about what Joyce's characters were thinking when they started repeating the word "galoshes": about the weirdness that is currently seeping into our lives from all angles in a country that appears to have lost touch with itself. They should check out CNN and wonder what's going on as our national discussions turn into bizarre rants. They should assume that 50 years from now, people will read stories to figure out who we are, not what we feel when we wish we could have been something else. That's what Joyce was doing in 1914 when Dubliners was published. That's why people still read it. That's what young Americans writers should be trying to do every time they start clicking away. But they shouldn't try to rob from the dead, because there isn't anything there left to steal.
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