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Author Archives: Ashley

A Perfect Day for Bananafish — by J.D. Salinger — first published in the New Yorker, January 1948

photo by Serge Meiki

photo by Serge Meiki

What story could be so perfect that The New Yorker would offer a contract of first refusal to an unknown young writer? On receiving this submission, the New Yorker turned around to Salinger and demanded that they have the right to see any other short story Salinger wrote before anyone else could look at it. Well, that might be true, but the story, Bananafish they accepted still had to undergo a year of revisions before it came out in its final form. It was this story however that introduced as Salinger as a writer that couldn’t be ignored.
By the way, if you’re frantically browsing a fishing website trying to work out what a bananafish actually is, you’ll have to rely on the description given in the story by Seymour, a soldier returned from World War II. According to him, they are “very ordinary-looking fish” but when they swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas, they act like pigs and eat them all. So all you can do is trust him that such things exist.
Thousands of young men left for World War II and more than a few were broken on return. Bananafish is a short, short story, and starts with Muriel speaking to her mother long distance from a hotel. She and Seymour, her husband back from the war, are spending time on the coast. Muriel’s mother is concerned, a number of incidents are alluded to, such as Seymour driving a car at the trees on the side of the road, but since the pair have left Muriel’s parents house, there have been no more incidents, and Seymour just spends his time lying on the beach.
Outside, Seymour is lying on the sand. A five year old girl staying at the hotel comes up, and the two go out into the ocean. He speaks of the peculiar bananafish, and the girl is convinced she sees one swimming by in the ocean. At this stage, it’s probably better you go out and find a copy and read the ending. It does end with an intensity that Salinger exhibits in his other work.
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate an artist from his or her back story. Would Vincent Van Gogh capture the imagination as much if he lived to 80 in a small house in the French countryside? If he hadn’t cut off his ear, but had a wife and six children? Salinger’s output was slight. He was hailed as a genius after the release of Catcher in the Rye, one that he only exacerbated by the bizarre lengths he took to avoid the spotlight. He provided the public the definition of a reclusive author, and the more he did to avoid his fans and reporters, the more he intrigued them.
Salinger himself went to war, and whatever underlying anxieties he had were not helped by having to see action at the front. The alienation he felt on return is apparent through this story. Seymour can no longer relate to normal society. But if the character is anything like Salinger, he couldn’t relate to begin with. It is fascinating to see a literate, intelligent, young man express through his writing his inner world, one that comes across in his writings far better than any clinical description of how he might be feeling.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Burning Chrome – by William Gibson – from the collection: Burning Chrome

servers by hisperati

servers by hisperati

I remember back in my computer studies class in high school, my teacher repeatedly showed us the movie, Sneakers starring Robert Redford and River Phoenix. Perhaps she was hoping to inspire one of us to try and hack into the Pentagon, get caught and get our small country town on the 6 o’clock news. As far as I know, none of my classmates managed to force their way into a high security system. That movie however has always remained with me, so when I was reading Burning Chrome, all the images of cracking systems came flowing back.
Burning Chrome is famous, at least in sci fi circles for introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ into the lexicon. I would think that it would be one of the greatest achievements of a writer to create a phrase that enters popular parlance, but Gibson seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards the term. I guess the problem is that writers don’t get to pick and chose what is remembered of theirs, he describes it as a term that is ‘evocative and essentially meaningless’. Since he coined it however, much has been made of the phrase.
In the short story, Burning Chrome, two computer hackers, Bobby and Automatic Jack are going for one last big score, one that can net them enough money to allow at least Bobby, to retire. They hope to intercept the electronic transfers of Chrome, a hacker who works for the mafia and launders their finances. To do so, Automatic Jack uses a stolen Russian military code breaker and the two of them go into the matrix and penetrate the defences of Chrome’s computer systems.
There is a subplot about Rikki, a girl that Bobby is seeing but Automatic Jack secretly loves, and it gives the story weight and poignancy. But what I love about the tale is the description of the physical space of the internet. The two hackers being immersed in a world of the cyber attack. They flow through walls of encryption and ward off deadly online attacks, in order to slip inside the defences of the network. The story is an evocative travelogue through pillars of information and computer networks. Part of it is the imagining of a future that is still distant, but one that still holds probability.
If there ever been a popular and well received movie made from a William Gibson novel, I’m sure we would have watched that also in my computer studies class. Unfortunately, any attempts to adapt his works into film seemed to have been doomed to failure, a la Johnny Mnemonic. However, Gibson will be remembered for his contributions to science fiction, even if people who use the term cyberspace, have no idea where it comes from.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Handsomest Drowned Man In the World – by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – published in 1968

Aran Islands cliffs by Tiara Scott

photo by Tiara Scott

Finally a Gabriel Garcia Marquez post! I have been searching for the right story to put up here for some time. My local libraries have shelves groaning with books by Garcia Marquez but they are only his novels. I had been trying to find a story for this blog, when I was speaking to an individual whose opinion I greatly respect, who out of the blue, told me that The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World was his favourite short story – ever.  This from an individual who can quote literature in an everyday conversation like he was talking about the football scores on the weekend.

“Ever” is a statement that holds weight. I wouldn’t be able to state my favourite short story ever, this blog has so many of my favourites I couldn’t elevated one over the others. Yet, I certainly have a favourite album (Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles) that always stands out, so I can understand that someone can have a favourite something. (On a side note, if you, gentle reader have a favourite short story – ever, can you let me know in the comments below? I’d be curious to know if someone else had a favourite short story that could never be surmounted.)

I raced out and located a copy of The Handsomest Drowned Man In the World. I wasn’t disappointed, as it was the kind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez story that I was looking for. One that seemed to characterise the blending of fictitious reality with a hint of the supernatural. It is a particularly beautiful story though and quite inspiring.

A drowned body washes up on the beach on the coast near a small fishing village. The dead man is not known to anyone in the village of 20 houses, so the men go off to the neighbouring villages to see if anyone is missing. Meanwhile the women ready the man for a proper sea burial. They find the man is massive, taller than anyone in the village. No shirt will fit him, nor no trousers so they have to sew him clothes. Even in death he is the handsomest man they have even seen. They dub him Esteban.

When it is time to take him into the sea, the women try to disrupt the process to keep the drowned man with the village as long as possible. The men of the village are confused, but when the man’s face is revealed they do realise how special the drowned man is to them.

The village holds a splendid funeral for Esteban and adopt him into the collective memory of the village.  They plant flowers on the cliff where they threw the body from, and it becomes a sight to all sea farers going past.

The short story is a pageant to beauty, timeless against the ravages of the earth. It is mystical in a way that can’t be prescribed to some existing fairy tale tradition or religion. A story where the hero begins dead but manages to outlast everyone else.  This story is a type of poetry.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in Garcia Marquez, Gabriel

 

The Sentinel – by Arthur C. Clarke – originally published in 1951

mysterious pyramids of rotterdam by PK

Wow, I’ve just finished reading this and have just put it down. (Yes, I’m sitting in Starbucks, and yes, I’m drinking a latte, but you could have probably guessed that part anyway). I want to write about this story immediately. It’s amazing.

Okay, I know my last post was in defence of the New Yorker and I adore that publication and the short stories it promotes, but I wanted to read around and see what else the short story offered, over brutal, grinding realism. Eons ago, short stories once roamed the Earth in pulp sci-fi publications. These were often a way for writers to make money, but that didn’t mean those writers didn’t also fiercely believe in the validity of what they were writing as well. Perhaps with the rise of e-publishing, we’ll see a return to the short story form.

I have to admit I’ve always shied away from reading science fiction in the past. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I find it would be too easy for me to lock the door to my apartment, buy a pair of Vulcan ears and play online multi-players until I’m featured as a cautionary tale on a Current Affairs program.   The nearest I let myself approach sci fi normally is watching Matt Groening’s Futurama.

But to broaden my horizons I trekked to the science fiction store in downtown Melbourne only to find that most of their stock had been moved to a comic festival on at the same time on the other side of town.  Still, the guy behind the counter pointed me in the direction of Arthur C. Clarke if I wanted to read some amazing science fiction.

The Sentinel is a story about the loneliness of existence. It is set on the moon in 1996, let’s say 2096. An astronaut geologist on an exploration team is exploring a huge barren tract of the moon. Daylight lasts for a week. The team are exploring a wasteland. The explorers’ days are dictated by routine, at the end of every 16 hours, they retire for eight hours, wake, cook breakfast. One day, the geologist spots the sunlight glinting off something in the distant mountains. It’s not uncommon for the sun to glint off a rock face there, but the geologist wishes to investigate, despite the fact that everyone thinks he is wasting his time and that he will be the laughing stock of the mission.

He convinces the team to go though, and having climbed the mountain, he finds at its top, a shining pyramid twice the height of a man.

The pyramid is returned to Earth. It takes twenty more years to take it apart and reach the machine within the walls. The geologist realises they have taken apart a beacon placed by another intelligent civilization that had been left on the hope that life would form on Earth. Now that the beacon has been moved, its signal will have been sent to whatever was detecting it. As the geologist concludes, ‘we have set off the fire-alarm, and have nothing to do but to wait.’

Clarke explores the vastness of the universe and correlates it to the loneliness we have as an intelligent species. The loneliness of the aliens, whoever or whatever they are, is also felt. The civilization that has scattered thousands of the pyramid sentinels near every planet that could support life around the galaxy.

This story was expanded to become the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, but I have seen Space Odyssey and though that was a great film, I wouldn’t want to compare or contrast it with this story. They are entirely different. The Sentinel should be read as it is, but I can see how it gripped the imagination of that great film maker, as it is bound to impress anyone who reads it.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2011 in Clarke, Arthur C

 

An Annoynmous Island – by Yi Mun-Yol, (translated from the Korean by Heinz Insu Fenkl) – published in Sept 12 2011 New Yorker

photo by HominiA very kind individual that I know has recently packaged up all the New Yorker magazines she’s received over the past six months and sent them down to me in Melbourne. The New Yorker is such a treat, but with so many suddenly at my impoverished disposal, I find myself opening up each magazine and flicking though to the story. After reading the story, I cast the rest away. I feel like I’m after the cashew nut dangling at the bottom of a huge fruit. The New Yorker as a whole is an excellent magazine, but it’s that deliciously sweet, tasty nut that I’m really after.

I am always in two minds about whether I should rely so heavily on what the New Yorker publishes. Surely it is only one perspective on literature. By relying too heavily on one volume, aren’t I heavily narrowing my range of experience? But then I read something like An Annoynmous Island and can understand the importance of this literary magazine. For the New Yorker seems to be aware of its mandate as well, and makes sure source stories from other cultures. It’s not just about Updike and Dorothy Parker.

I was interested in Yi Mun-Yol’s story. I didn’t know much about the author. In this age of Wikipedia though, not knowing something about something is a sin that can quickly be remedied. Yi Mun-Yol is one of South Korea’s leading writers with scores of novels, novellas and short story collections under his belt, yet if it wasn’t for the New Yorker, he probably wouldn’t have registered on my radar.

There is no physical island in the story, it takes place in a small village, surrounded by mountains. There is only one road into the village, and only one other leading out. Like an island though, the residents have close familiar ties. The narrator is a young school teacher on her first assignment. There is however, one other outsider in the village, Ggaecheol, who by common consensus is considered the village idiot. Only he may well not be. The forty year old man lives off the charity of the villagers but is ungrateful for it, yet the young teacher can see no reason why the village would care for an outsider when he has no connection or relation to the village community.

Slowly though, the teacher realises that is precisely why he is tolerated by the villagers. She finds and even experiences herself, how the dishevelled man visits the young women of the village. He is an unspoken mechanism the village has accepted to combat adultery and incest between cousins. The men are aware that their wives are being visited, but agree to ignore the fact. It is a mask which allows for the outward preservation of moral chastity of the women. Sexuality can’t be conquered, even in a small community, but everyone can have a collective pretence of the fact, and that loose morals is a problem of the cities, not the rural communities.

A very interesting story, and I particularly enjoyed how it functioned within the concepts of another culture’s values, although sexuality is still something not honestly addressed culture. I need only look at the debate going on around in my country about gay marriage. I always had the idea that the New Yorker was intent on creating a genre of short story, but recently, reading the work of writers in other cultures, I realise the New Yorker does much to bring authors to the attention of the western populace.

This isn’t a link to the story, but it is a link to an interview with the translator and his experience of translating the story

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in Mun Yoi, Yi

 

A Shinagawa Monkey, translated by Philip Gabriel – by Haruki Murakami – from the collection: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Japanese monkey by NakaeThis story is the definition of a curveball, you think it is a tale about a woman who works as a secretary in a car dealership, only for the story to end with a talking monkey that lives in the sewers. Still, the talking monkey seems to be a better psychologist than the counsellor the woman sees every Wednesday.

Welcome to the world of Murakami. A world where fish falling out of the sky is a normal weather phenomenon. I had read a number of other stories in the collection first, and they hinted at the paranormal, but nothing quite prepared me for this story.

It starts perfectly naturally, Mizuki has a problem that she is forgetting her name, is it the start of early onset alzeihmers?  The doctor she sees doesn’t think so, he believes it’s the manifestation of some underlying psychological issue, and as such she’ll have to pay for the treatment of it herself with a psychologist, something she can’t afford. Fortunately, the local council opens a discounted clinic for workers to attend. Mizuki rearranges her schedule so she gets Wednesday’s off, and attends the clinic where the price of 2000 Yen is affordable for her.

Mrs. Sakaki is her councillor who asks her to think of anything in her past to do with a name. Mizaki remembers a time back at high school where a girl asked Mizaki to look after her nametag when she went back home to attend the funeral of a relative. However, there was no relative and the girl kills herself in the woods. One would think that is the answer right there. Not so. Because the girl asks Mizaki to hold the name badge as she does not want ‘a monkey to run off with it.’ Yes, a literal monkey who steals names.

I liked the story, though I was certainly not ready for the direction it went in. It started like a slice of life story, about a downtrodden lower middle class woman going through life in Toyko. And I guess the story still is. But with a talking monkey in it as well. It’s good to see the fires of magical realism are still burning.  It’s a lovely genre. Where the unreality is there to make for an interesting story and also to heighten and examine the issues of the characters. In the end, it is not the fact there is a talking monkey, but what that talking monkey is able to reveal about Mizaki that is the point.

There’s some lovely stories in the collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Just don’t expect that you can guess the ending of a story from its opening pages.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Murakami, Haruki

 

Artists and Models – by Anais Nin – from the collection: Delta of Venus

Photo by Valetina ManjarrezAhh, sex. A good signal that a blogger has looked at his site stats, and wants the fastest method to bring readers back. Oh, and Mum, if you’re reading this post, STOP NOW.

I’m being frivolous of course, (except about the Mum part, I said stop reading) although it is true that Anais Nin originally wrote the pieces in the collection Delta of Venus as pornography. I guess it would be the 1940’s equivalent of writing for Penthouse Letters. But Nin was an artist and couldn’t help herself making her work literary, despite her client’s demand to ‘leave out the poetry and descriptions of anything but sex.’

There is a reason that the stories in the collection are important, and there’s a good reason why I could find the book on the shelf of my local library and not the X-rated video shop four doors up from it (yes, I live in strange neighbourhood.)  The stories examine the sexuality of women in a way that seems as much honest study as titillation.

The story in the collection that most drew me in, was Artists and Models. It is told by a young artist’s model in New York’s Greenwich Village. She poses for Millard, an old sculpture who tells her sexually charged stories from the community of artists he used to live in back in Montparnasse.  The model starts to attend parties in Greenwich Village and she meets John, a successful singer who is married. She begins an affair with him, but he insists she stops modelling. Millard won’t allow her to, and she remains modelling for the old artist. Eventually, she begins an affair too with Millard, the two secret relationships become difficult for her to manage, but she admits she enjoys the danger and the intensity of the situation.

There is freedom in Nin’s stories, a liberation, particularly in the stories Millard tells of Montparnasse. It seems at the same time rules such as fidelity are being broken down, even older rules are being enforced, such as men’s ownership of women. Nin is exploring ideas in a world that is so heavily stigmatised that even if she found any type of answer, it would be shouted down. In a lot of ways, we have progressed only marginally from the time in which Nin was writing. In an era of explicit rap videos and advertising, where sex is constantly flashed in front of us, we are still no nearer to understanding what true sexuality is or means.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Nin, Anais