During the last writing workshop I took, almost all the writers had an obsession with smooth reading. If you submitted a story, you were guaranteed a few comments about “I really had to slow down during this section,” or “I read too fast and got confused about X.” I tried to temper that type of criticism in my own feedback… mostly out of self-interest. If I get harsh in the below critiques (and I will), know that I have committed graver writing sins for far less interesting stories.
The readers in that workshop wanted fast-paced, uncomplicated prose. I like uncomplicated prose. I also like, on occasion, to take my time with a story, study the language, let my brain work a little against the hypnotism of literature instead of always submitting to it. And I got that sensation with “A Dispatch from Mt. Moriah,” “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Tunnels.”
This second cluster of stories in the Glimmer Train Spring/Summer 2015 issue require examination, patience, and more than a few trips to the dictionary. At least, for me they did. Bare in mind that complex doesn’t always mean smart… and the shorten form of “density” is “dense,” dense like that high school freshman who claimed to understand Nietzsche. Let me show you what I mean with our first story…
I’M UP TOO LATE
“A Dispatch From Mt. Moriah,” by Daniel Torday
“A Dispatch From Mt. Moriah” keeps the right things clear. The beginning paragraph gives a lot of information on the story’s context, providing multi-layered backstory on medical histories and European tours before we even learn a character’s name. Once you get over that first, condensed, yet intriguing hurdle, you get a clear sense of the players. Our narrator is Jacob, a mild-mannered Jew developing a crush on classmate Rachel. Rachel suffers from a mysterious illness that leaves her screaming in pain on occasion. She remains tough and autonomous, but after her past medical exams turned up nothing, “at some point an Ashkenazi girl with a cracked bowel is simply dismissed as neurotic,” (Torday, 43). Jacob’s a mere observer witnessing the story’s real focus: the relationship between Rachel and her brilliant, driven, orthodox, astrophysicist father. When I think about this story, I sometimes forget the title and label it in my mind as “The Astrophysicist’s Daughter.” That doesn’t surprise me.
More than anything, astrophysics defines the language of this story. The narrator uses some Jewish terms that Goyim like me need an Internet connection to figure out. All the important emotional concepts, however, use accessible science metaphors. The astrophysicist compares faith in God to the study of undetectable dark matter. Chatting intellectuals give off the glow of starlight. The air in a Manhattan evening “was light as if somehow it held less mass than usual. The atoms were too far from each other,” (Torday, 55). This is a nice strategy to reward the readers giving difficult sentences a chance: make them feel smart. Repeated themes and metaphors keep booklovers on the same wavelength as your story. Judaism invites a lot of different opinions (a fair amount of them ugly), yet everyone has vibrant, personal fantasies on what living amongst the stars is like.
Us and Them
Combine that strategy with solid tension, surprising character development, and a fantastic final conversation between Jacob and the astrophysicist. If anyone asks why I like reading ‘tough’ stories, I’ll just point them to “A Dispatch from Mt. Moriah.” I’m not the only one who likes Torday’s writing, as the ridiculous list of praise on his website shows. My reading list got a bit bigger.
“Norwegian for Troll,” by Caitlin Horrocks
Sometimes, you don’t need melodramatic flourishes, like mysterious diseases or strict fathers, to tell a detailed story. During the majority of “Norwegian for Troll,” protagonist Annika tries to be a good host for her cousins, who traveled from Norway to U.P. Michigan. The story’s insights capture the feeling of entertaining distant guests. Annika’s limited by her self-consciousness, feels inferior next to relatives with ‘better culture,’ and keeps considering the familial history of errors that led her here. For delicate emotions like that, it’s worth the wait to take matters slow. I doubt the last visit to your in-laws was a thrill-a-minute extravaganza anyways.
I could use some clear indicators for each scene’s focus. Like with “A Dispatch from Mt. Moriah,” I had trouble getting into this tale at first. Unlike Torday’s work, however, “Norwegian for Troll” has weird… camera angles? That’s the best word I can think up of. Here, the first two sentences of the story show what I mean:
“The car arrived late, crunching into the gravel drive and jolting Annika awake on the couch. The small wooden house sat hunkered in a clearing, and outside she found the cousins posed like miniatures in an out-of-scale diorama, heads tilted back to admire the bright channel of stars above the encroaching trees.” –Horrocks, pg. 61
“Late” implies someone keeping track of time, so already the third-person limited view seems a bit jarring. But let’s consider that a bad assumption on my part. The two sentences present, in our mind’s eye, in order: a car pulling in, a woman on a couch, a small house, two cousins far away enough to seem small, and stars viewed through trees. Five different, almost unconnected, images, in two sentences. Not all of “Norwegian for Troll” is like this. But enough jumping around, combined with more languid and elongated sentences, creates a sort of literary vertigo.
Caitlin Horrocks seems crazy accomplished, with her own story collection out and a featured piece in the New Yorker. A part of me can see why. There’s richness in the content of “Norwegian for Troll”; combined with the lavish writing style, however, and it’s easy to get a little sick.
“Tunnels,” by Michael Conforti
Take the jumpiness of the last story and remove any sense of personal connection: “Tunnels” results. I’m not gonna front here. I did not care for this one. Maybe the last two Glimmer Train offerings burned me out and I wanted to move on to a simple activity, like reading Hemingway. But that’ll come later, foreshadowing foreshadowing obvious foreshadowing.
So the narrator of “Tunnels” tells the story from many moons ago, when his older brother Ubie took him down to the subway for some strange adventure. Or, at least, to see a weird Crucifixion mural. There are some dangers to be had down below… but remember, the protagonist did survive to tell this tale. He may be older and wiser now, but the kid version of him seems unreasonably smart for a little boy (though that could be the older brother in me talking). Somehow, the narrator, as a kid, could come up with 4 escape plans in an instant and knew the words “Nexus of tumult,” (Conforti, 90). Even after all this time reflecting, and while clearly intelligent both then and now, the narrator doesn’t know why big brother Ubie took him to the tunnels. Neither do I.
“Tunnels” appears aimless, in general. I guess it recounts experiences with a troubled brother in a broken family before the two siblings finally part. Everything about this story gets filtered through the overdone speaking style. “Electric torches glowed weakly upon the walls and ceiling, but only occasionally, almost randomly, either form bad planning or careful maintenance,” (Conforti, 83) muses our narrator. In setting a scene, our protagonist spends 12 of 21 words second-guessing and speculating on his own memories. That kind of recurrence is not a nitpick; it has a subtle effect. I like reading prose that slows me down, even the prose that makes me say, ‘The fuck am I reading?’ I’m less enthused about thinking, ‘What, exactly, is happening?’
The Black Eyed Peas
I couldn’t find much info about Conforti online. The bio in the issue tells me the author has an MFA, and that this was his first story accepted for publication. So next comes the part of the review where I sum up my opinion with some final thoughts. But that requires me to care to think about this story. So, “Tunnels.” Just… just don’t.
I’m Dying Up Here
How Do You Best Utilize Dense Sentences In Stories?
Here’s my takeaway from these three stories:
- Use repetition to your advantage. Have a clear linguistic follow-line for your audience.
- Mind your “camera eye”: note how senses and details get presented in your story.
- Have a clear purpose. Don’t ramble to seem more thoughtful. Chances are, you writer of literary fiction, that you’re plenty thoughtful. That’s not always what your story needs.
These stories form a nice, clear order of quality: from “great!” to “ok” to “sucks.” To grow as a writer, I’ll need helpings from all three types of fiction. When I read fiction I hate, I start to see my own writing habits inside them. Maybe I’ll get some more great stories later in this issue… or maybe I still have a lot to learn.
Interested in these stories? Buy them and many others here!