BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Gustavo Duarte’s (2014) Monster & Other Stories

6 September 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

The perils of collections (of stories), not just in Duarte’s book, but music as well. As I say at the end of this—no apologies for giving it away!—thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more. This itself stands to help artists (myself or others) to aspire to greater things.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[2] Monster & Other Stories

For some reason, it seems you may already find the entire (87-page) book <href=”#v=onepage&q=Gustavo%20Duarte%20Monsters%20and%20other%20stories&f=false”>here. That way, you may decide for yourself if I illiterately read graphic novels or not.

English usage gives several senses for “nonplussed”, usually pointing to something like “confused” or “perplexed”. In its more fully etymological origin, we see that, but how it points also to “speechless” (i.e., left speechless), specifically when there remains nothing left to say:

nonplus (v.) “to bring to a nonplus, to perplex,” 1590s, from the noun (1580s), properly “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,” from Latin non plus “no more, no further” (see plus). Related: Nonplussed (from here).

I feel this way about Duarte’s book, which (it would seem) compiles three pieces of his (earlier) work. I won’t fault the book for making less sense as a compilation; the pieces collected here clearly have no apparent intention by sitting proximate to one another. Nor do they amplify one another in any particular way.

Again, I have no pointed objection to this. The major “aesthetic” that seems generally to govern collections (of short stories in particular) involve some measure of (perceived) “quality”. For “new” authors, they may attempt to get as much of their “best work” together as they can. For retrospectives of established authors, the economics of market reach and popularity seem to very often govern what stories appear in a collection, often annoyingly; trying, for instance, to find a complete collection of Chekhov’s stories (or Flannery O’Connor’s), to name only two authors, often involves running into several of the same stories over and over in different compilations. In still other cases, like Stephen King’s (1983)[3] Different Seasons, he simply piles together works that resulted (as he describes it) from leftover authorial inspiration following the completion of other novels.

Of course, this economic or authorial desire simply to pack works into a volume doesn’t mean you have to ignore the opportunity to create a deliberate sequence out of them.[4] Joyce’s (1914)[5] Dubliners, although stand-alone short stories (and one encounters “Araby” all over the place), nevertheless more resembles a “novel of separate narratives” that reads both as an intentional sequence (i.e., like a novel) and as a series of sometimes self-referential short stories. Faulkner’s (1942)[6] Go Down, Moses, while “merely collecting” previous material nonetheless still very deliberately and intentionally places the texts in a mutually informing sequence. And, more recently, at least two collections by Ellen Gilchrist, her (1981)[7] In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and (1984)[8] Victory over Japan take a similar, mosaic-like approach, but up the ante of the gesture one step further by creating “sub-collections” within those books that nevertheless tenuously and tantalizingly refer (or seem to refer) to one another. My own (1988) Endnotes takes this strategy as well.

Successes presuppose non-successes as well. William Faulkner’s (1939)[9] If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally published under the title The Wild Palms) interlards two narratives in a way clearly intended to make a coherent sequence out of two juxtaposed narration. More specifically, he combines what seem two novellas or very long short stories (“The Wild Palms” and “The Old Man”), and attempts to make a novel of this. Dobbs (2001)[10] assures us:

Overshadowed by his four masterpieces of the late 1920s and 1930s (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!), Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (first published as The Wild Palms in 1939) has never garnered the sustained critical attention bestowed upon these Depression-era heavyweights. However, the novel has recently begun to attract scholars, as if we’d caught up with Faulkner at last. One of the features of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem that deserves a closer look is its odd double narrative, in which Faulkner crystallizes the central themes of his earlier major works and raises the stakes of his representations of an anguished South. As in the earlier novels, modernist preoccupations are central: the slippery relationships among memory, history, and myth; the agonizing yet aesthetically energizing task of constructing a narrative of history and self in a world where objectivity is clearly impossible and the grounds of subjectivity are always in question; and the problem, given cultural and psychological anxieties about race, gender, and sexuality, of articulating an embodied identity. Alongside other modernist writers, Faulkner was grappling with these philosophical, psychological, sociopolitical, and aesthetic issues, as well as with a growing sense of the underlying radical flux of experience itself. Throughout his work, this terrifying yet fascinating flux is represented in gendered terms—as an excessive fluidity associated with the feminine. In If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, in particular, Faulkner explores his culture’s fear of radical fluidity in ways that connect women’s bodies (as powerful sites of origin, seduction, and contamination) to both a radically feminized landscape and a dangerously volatile free-market economy. I will argue that every aspect of early-twentieth-century American culture some might wish to consider stable—gender, geography, the logic of capitalism—proves, in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, to be a source of profound chaos (811).

My point, however, doesn’t hinge on the general quality of Faulkner’s writing, which remains excellent of course,[11] or problematic in terms of the thematics Dobbs identifies, but simply on whether or not he succeeds at pulling off its structural conceit, which puts claims to weld these two separate narratives together in a necessary or convincing way. And just to avoid scepticism, I promise you that the most banal and conventional reading of this book accepts[12] that the book intends the narratives should read as intertwined:

Each story is five chapters long and they offer a significant interplay between narrative plots. The Wild Palms tells the story of Harry and Charlotte, who meet, fall in forbidden love, travel the country together for work, and, ultimately, experience tragedy when the abortion Harry performs on Charlotte kills her. Old Man is the story of a convict who, while being forced to help victims of a flood, rescues a pregnant woman. They are swept away downstream by the flooding Mississippi, and she gives birth to a baby. He eventually gets both himself and the woman to safety and then turns himself in, returning to prison (from here, emphasis added).

Except for the sentence I italicised above, I don’t dispute this plot summary. I would simply suggest that part of the reason this book remained overshadowed by others arises from a “failure” of this diptych (two-part narrative) structure.

Certainly, it didn’t help that readers of the novel, then originally called “The Wild Palms” after one of the narratives in the book, might have felt confused by this—why, if both narratives matter, does the book title refer only to one of them, for instance? At the same time, one can hardly miss that the actual story told in the “Wild Palms” section will tend to have much greater emotional resonance, if only because it relies on much more “sentimental” material. Here, not only does Charlotte “brutally” choose to leave her well-to-do-husband and children to enter into a liaison that she knows, from the beginning, dooms her (in proper Faulknerian fashion), but her husband also very poignantly refuses to stand in the way, recognising that her love (however doomed, however ill-advised) has more reality for her than anything he has offered. By contrast, a convict and pregnant woman floating around on a river don’t have as much immediate resonance.[13]

At root, it remains difficult to shake the impression that Faulkner accidentally wound up with two short stories that became too long to remain short stories but didn’t have enough material to get worked into novels; in other words, then languished on the shore of that now-most-impossible of literary forms, the novella. And while the novella used to remain viable as a publishable genre—Dostoevsky’s “short” stories (like “The Double,” or “White Nights” or, arguably, even his “novel” Notes from the Underground) all would never have seen the light of day if publishers had no outlet for novellas—those days have long past. King already makes this point bluntly enough thirty years ago in his introduction to Different Seasons.

The stranglehold of publication that makes novellas unpublishable (and these days, even collections of short stories seem an endangered species) had not completely taken root in Faulkner’s time; he managed to publish his story “The Bear” on its own, first in a considerably shorter version in Saturday Evening Post in 1942, then later in his collection Go Down Moses, and also in a stand-alone format in 1958.[14] This complicated publication history—that tracks the inadequacy of the short story as a form, at least as far as the story Faulkner had to tell in “The Bear” and the difficulties of getting the not-quite-novel-length, but adequate version, published—may similarly have some influence on “The Wild Palms”/”Old Man” juxtaposition.

Nor do I claim that we must kowtow to authorial intention simply because an author intends something. If critics find a thematics of interplay between the two narratives of Faulkner’s book, they surely adduce whatever good reasons they have for doing so. That this assumes one must or should read the novel this way seems merely orthodox to me; I surely do not find anything nearly so necessarily interconnected in the narratives as critics tend to assume. Like Joyce, Faulkner warrants not just close reading but more “respect” accorded to their intentions, but at the same time, this needn’t mean that any “sudden” inspiration Faulkner had—that the two narratives could “inform” one another—means that he set out with malice aforethought to do so.

Whatever this case, what seems not much addressed about this book involves the more general literary strategy of the divided narrative, i.e., a narrative that cuts back and forth in particular between two narratives intended to have some kind of parallel structure or impression.

Of course, on the one hand, the divided narrative (described only in these terms) would seem one of the most elemental features of the novel, or its nineteenth century examples at least. So many novels consist, precisely, of shifting zones of focus—tracking at one point the goings-on of one set of characters or a sub-plot and then switching to another. But I would propose we may identify not just a quantitative difference—i.e., that two or more plot lines get drawn into a novel and followed—but also a specifically qualitative difference that what I call the “divided narrative” offers.

Here and now does not lend itself to any sort of full exposition of this idea, especially since Duarte’s book serves as the central jumping off point for this post. However, I think I can draw together the themes or issues I have raised here in a way that relates back to that book and the others referred to here.

One of the most integral parts of what I would call a “divided narrative” involves a deliberate authorial contrast between the two narratives presented.[15] One might immediately think of any number of books—especially in the swords and sorcery genre, e.g., above all Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—but also movies that pull together many different strands of narrative; Tarantino’s (1994) Pulp Fiction certainly articulated this sort of thing (however well or poorly one wants to argue it did) but Kasdan’s (1991) Grand Canyon similarly tracks multiple strands of disparate narrative.

However—and we might debate this point for quite some time before nailing down the distinguishing description—the intention I wish to point to in the divided narrative specifically requires an overt authorial contrast between the (two) narratives presented. With Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, we do at least find ourselves confronted by a man and a pregnant woman and the steps they take in light of that circumstance, but I must say, at the very least, that this doesn’t yet supply enough interconnection to convince me that I should read them as parallel narratives. Similarly, we may imagine that the man and woman sowing chaos in the diner in Pulp Fiction have some intended contrast or thematic relationship with the boxer and his girlfriend, but this hardly as yet seems necessarily deliberate (on Tarantino’s part) yet.

Of course, critics and viewers (we all become critics at some point) may or can or will read such contrasts in, and at that point the author may simply have to stand aside. But I would still like to separate or acknowledge as distinct those works where the author deliberately and with malice aforethought establishes this kind of contrast as opposed to works where we do the greater bulk of that work. This distinction, at the very least, will not only help to differentiate “mere collections of stories” (Duarte’s, King’s, &c) from works that aspire to a sort of “sum greater than the parts” (Joyce’s, Gilchrist’s, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, my Endnotes, &c).

Again, I suggest that the divided narrative in particular hinges especially on two contrasting narratives, and in this respect Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides an excellent example of the form, on the assumption that he wrote it with malice aforethought and did not, simply after the fact, realize the two stories could sit next to one another. In this sense, the divided narrative represents a sub-genre of the novel, which—as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace—may roam in abundance over any number of narratives (along with essays on the nature of history). However, even Tolstoy’s monumental novel still has a centre: for all that people may read it for the love story, Tolstoy intended Pierre as the central figure, as Prokofiev did not miss that point when he composed his opera based on the book.

By contrast, a divided narrative has no such centre; rather, we have something more (literally) like an ellipse, formed of two foci. And, again, Faulkner’s book provides this kind of experience, even if I still question how deliberately he meant it.[16]

For books like Joyce’s Dubliners, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and Gilchrist’s In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory Over Japan, these do in fact have centres, i.e., all of the material gets organised toward making some kind of “unified artistic point”. Critics have expressed this regarding Joyce’s book that he has made Dublin its main character, and this point resonates with what “the South” means in Faulkner’s collection.

To honour at least the two of Gilchrist’s books mentioned, I have to say that the sense of a centre comes across more obliquely if at all. In Dubliners or Go Down, Moses, once one finishes reading these books, an invitation from both feels offered to the reader to make a kind of coherent sense of the whole, to somehow relate all of the stories into a “larger message”. In both books by Gilchrist, however, she collects the various stories into sub-groups—groups which, in themselves, already seem to reflect, refer to, pointing, or simply reprise other stories. On the one hand, it sometimes seems—rather like Flannery O’Connor’s stories but in a radically different way—that Gilchrist only has one story to tell, except that she has still curiously “distributed” it not just through different stories, but different groups of stories, and this (at the very least) suggests the presences, ultimately, of multiple centres.

Or, again, as in Joyce who only has one setting in Dubliners (Dublin) and Faulkner has only one setting (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County), with Gilchrist “place” comes out as plural, whether Arkansas or elsewhere, even when the stories themselves seem very similar.

Of course, a divided narrative—as I attempt to characterise it here—seems incompatible with any collection of short stories in the first place, if I would insist that two narratives makes for a crucial feature. One could write a short story that did this, although a general rule of short story writing insists on keeping a pretty intense focus on a single line of narrative. The short story form doesn’t well lend itself (the doxa goes) to the kind of rambling multiplicity that the longer form of the novel allows. Nonetheless, while Joyce and Faulkner give us two fine examples of collections that pull together their material into a “centred” meta-short-story of fiction, Gilchrist’s two books show us that even a collection can offer something more like a dual-centred work. Of course, most collections don’t bother with any “centring” at all, but simply provide a disparate collection of pieces.

In popular music, we could say that the sort of thing that Faulkner and Joyce accomplished in their books shows up as the “concept album” as compared to most albums that simply consist of a disparate selection of music (however unified by the personality of the songwriter). Thus, something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Quadrophenia, which explicitly offer albums centred on “concepts” contrast with Animals or Who’s Next, respectively, however much both of these latter albums bear the imprint of Roger Waters and Pete Townshend.[17]

However, I can think of very little in music that resembles the sort of seemingly multi-centred work that Gilchrist offers.

But I have to say first: why do I bother with making this distinction at all? And what does this have to do with Duarte’s book?

For one thing, as a reply to his book, I may say nothing about it in fact. As I use the word, a “reply” amounts to a “response that would not have occurred without the input of the book (or work) in question)”. Duarte’s book does not offer a divided narrative, no. The way it resembles Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem involves extra-literary concerns, I assert. Faulkner had two works, both of which would have faced publications challenges (despite his fame—just as King had trouble finding outlets for the novellas in Different Seasons, despite his fame), and so he took the tack of glomming the two pieces together to at least make it into a “novel”. He then also would have provided (or not) a justification for this move, stating that the pieces inter-illuminated one another.[18]

I suggest this simply as a way to think about the book, not as a proven fact. And as a template for thinking about Duarte’s book, he provides us three narratives, one of which runs longer than the first two combined—and this in a book only 87 pages long. More briefly, it feels like even the first two narratives provided acts as little more than filler to justify publishing the book at all. Certainly a “less noble” impulse than in Faulkner’s case, since he self-evidently felt that both of the stories he’d written were essential things, worthy on their own.

Second, the existence of something like Dubliners, Go Down Moses, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and Victory Over Japan—as also concept albums—shows us explicitly that heaps of disparate artistic elements (short stories, songs) may get arranged into “larger statements” even when those disparate elements were not necessarily originally intended to go together.

If you’ve followed what I’ve written, you could accuse me of speaking inaccurately. Yes. It seems likely that Joyce either set out to write a “concept album” (in literary form), or he discovered that he could along the way and made the necessary adjustments prior to publication. So also with The Wall or Quadrophenia—Pink Floyd and the Who set out from the beginning (it would seem) to write albums “centred” on a concept. By contrast, Go Down Moses and Gilchrist’s short stories seem more post-hoc artistic statements, taking a heap of pre-existing material and then sculpting or moulding them into “centred” artistic statements—with the caveat that Gilchrist’s sub-collections make for a sense of “multiple centres”.

Thus, on the one hand, we may say that Duarte had no vision of artistic unity, like Joyce or Pink Floyd, (between the three pieces he presents) when he set out to assemble this book and seems not to have made an particular effort after the fact, like Faulkner or Gilchrist, when offering these pieces together. I don’t fault him much for the first failing, but his inattention to the second possibility seems more culpable. Or, to put it even more simply, the only reason these three stories occur together boils down to economic reasons.

However, his laziness does not mean readers can’t or won’t try to make a coherent meta-narrative out of the offering. Fine. But let us not erroneously place credit then: we should compliment the genius (or daftness) of the reader rather than the non-craftsmanship of Duarte.

Having said at least partly how all of this relates back to (the failings) of Duarte’s book, and how those failings (which leave me nonplussed with respect to saying anything about the content or aesthetics of it) lead me to “reply” about divided narratives instead, I still feel curious to try to locate a musical example of a “divided narrative”—itself as part of the attempt to identify divided narrative (as a genre) per se.

Two albums come to mind: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and Kansas’ Song for America. What makes me think of these concerns how they seem like something more than just a collection of individual songs without, at the same time, overtly suggesting “concept albums”. More precisely, one might readily or easily accuse these of offering concept albums, but what those concepts might consist of seems tricky to identify.

Wherever this might lead, I will leave for future posts. Thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics, pp. 1–87.

[3] King, S. (1983). Different seasons: Penguin.

[4] I imply that no thought goes into such sequencing—obviously, not necessarily so. King may have sequenced his novellas according to their chronological age, but that does not mean even then that the choice of sequence remains completely arbitrary or random.

[5] Joyce, J. (2001). Dubliners: Oxford University Press.

[6] Faulkner, W. (2011). Go Down, Moses: Random House LLC

[7] Gilchrist, E. (2013a). In the land of dreamy dreams: Diversion Books.

[8] Gilchrist, E. (2013b). Victory Over Japan: Diversion Books

[9] Faulkner, W. (2011). The Wild Palms:[If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]: Random House LLC

[10] Dobbs, C. (2001). Flood: The Excesses of Geography, Gender, and Capitalism in Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. American Literature, 73(4), 811-835.

[11] Or at least I’ll say so; he remains my favourite US writer.

[12] (thanks, I think, to what critical reception we do have, if not Faulkner’s own claims, even as he often made up stories about his own stories)

[13] Again, I mean this simply on the level of plot. Faulkner’s writing does not flag or droop simply because he writes about less emotionally obvious material. If anything, “convict” “woman” and “river” permit him to delve even more deeply into “archetypal” language.

[14] Faulkner, W., & Fussell, P. (1958). The bear: Schöningh

[15] Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a tri-part divided narrative, but I might also, at least at this point, insist that a divided narrative may only ever consist of two.

[16] My insistent criticism merely questions how deliberately he did this. For if, on extra-literary grounds, he chose to place the stories together, then any “interplay” that results comes from our reading of the novel as such. More specifically, we actually create and write-in the interplay ourselves, in our attempts to “make sense” of the narrative as Faulkner gives it to us. This simply shifts where credit goes (to the reader, not the writer).

[17] And, of course, one might continue the comparison from more formal classical music, placing on the one hand the opera or the musical (as analogous to the novel) and the musical revue (as a collection of short stories). Thus, for any given concert performance, one might create a performance list designed to aim for more of a “total statement” of some kind, and this would more resemble a concept album, &c (or the sort of collection of stories that Joyce, Faulkner, and Gilchrist) have treated us to.

[18] I suggest all of this as a hypothesis; I do not know what justifications in advance or afterward Faulkner gave for structuring the book as he did. Whatever part laziness (on my part plays) also has in mind how Faulkner regularly misrepresented the intentions of his fiction in the press, so (unfortunately) simply to appeal to his statements or authority on the matter does not necessarily provide any sort of definitive window to answer the question.

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