Monday, October 26, 2015

The Thing About Carson McCullers


So I’ve been thinking about Carson McCullers, as I do from time to time. I’d be interested to take a poll of writers working in the United States today, and ask if they’d been influenced by the work of this insightful author. I’ve written about her before in this space, here, about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her novel that I’d place in my top five favorite books. But I want to tell you about her stories. Recently, I read this collection and while some stories struck familiar chords, most were entirely new to me. I picked up the book mostly because I’d been wanting to re-read ”The Member of the Wedding,” which is included in this edition along with “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” And there are nineteen of McCullers’s shorter stories, each a vivid, encompassing world, each worth your reading time.

Critics talk about the themes of McCullers’s work and certainly, you’ll find tropes if you read straight through her work. Wounded adolescence, lonely relationships, longing, thwarted dreams, etc. If you read her in school, you heard much about her portrayal of the American South, about McCullers as a agent of the grotesque and southern Gothic. Certainly, all of these things give her writing the distinct flavor that remains long after putting down the pages. But I’ve been thinking a lot about her writing and it seems to me that what really defines her work (and, actually, any great work of fiction) is her gift with writing characters.

We meet people a variety of ways, don’t we? Sometimes we come upon a new person, entirely unexpected, say, at a party. We are thrown together, perhaps at the appetizer table, and our impressions of this new human are precisely that—what we take in with our senses from the moment we gain proximity. Appearance, gestures, the sound of their voice. The things they communicate, with words and otherwise. Then we filter their declarations through our own judgment.

Sometimes we are given a bit of an introduction from someone else. You’ll love her, your friend tells you. She’s so funny and generous, a real character. And so you have a bit of a head start, as far as impressions go, because now you’re prejudiced, one way or the other, by what your friend has said. You come to the meeting armed with some preconceptions, not only because of what your friend has told you, but because of all the interactions of your life up to that point. Prior relationships, situations that were similar, people you may have known in the past who come to mind when you meet this new someone. And the interesting thing about meeting, and knowing people, is that sometimes our preconceptions are right and very often, they turn out to be wrong or incomplete. Most importantly, if we’re lucky (and/or skilled at doing so), we’ll experience some empathy in each interaction with another person.

A truly great writer will give the reader the space to experience a character on their own terms, much like when you meet someone in person. The reading experience should mimic life in this way. In each of the stories in this collection, the thing that pulls you in and keeps you engaged, the overwhelming strength of each piece, is the feeling that you are reading about real people, people who can frustrate and surprise our expectations, or go ahead and do what we knew they’d do all along.

Usually, the beginning of a McCullers story is very straightforward, such as this opening to “The Jockey”:

“The jockey came to the doorway of the dining room, then after a moment stepped to one side and stood motionless, with his back to the wall.”

Right away, expertly and simplistically, we are drawn in. Who is the jockey? Why a jockey? Why does he hesitate?

Occasionally, McCullers will open with some description, but almost always it is simple and evocative of something larger, as in this first sentence of “Art and Mr. Mahoney”:

“He was a large man, a contractor, and he was the husband of the small, sharp Mrs. Mahoney who was so active in club and cultural affairs.”

Doesn’t your mind begin to work with that short description? Already we can picture the practical, lumbering husband, the vocal, well-dressed wife. Some sort of conflict is certain to follow.

“The Haunted Boy” starts with a very simple opening:

“Hugh looked for his mother at the corner, but she was not in the yard.”

 A seemingly innocuous start, and yet the story builds from this simple premise—a boy missing his mother—and we follow this character as he becomes more and more anxious, and the reasons for his fear are slowly revealed. In hindsight, this simple first sentence sets the scene for the entire piece.

And for a final example that many of us can relate to, the start of her story “Who Has Seen the Wind?”:

All afternoon Ken Harris had been sitting before a blank page of the typewriter.”

Although we may make assumptions about this pitiable character based on what we know about blocked writers, the story holds many surprises.

And what to say about “The Member of the Wedding,” the story that may have some of the most memorable characters of all time? The obsequious youngster John Henry West, the prophetic housekeeper Berenice, and of course, the most unlovable character that I’ve ever fiercely loved, twelve-year-old Frankie. Anyone wanting to know anything about how to write characters should start with this story. And like all of McCullers’s characters, these folks will reward and frustrate you in equal measure. As people do.

I imagine that writers far and wide will continue to be influenced by the work of Carson McCullers. I have returned to her work, time and again, for many years, and always find something new, some inspiration. Which is about all you can ask of a writer, I’d say.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka