Communist

26/05/2024

Richard Ford’s 'Communist' is a story with a brutal foreground and a dysfunctional background, as if using the explicit to make us half-forget the implicit messiness behind the foregrounded tale. “… A minimalist figure's life is not shaped by a series of dramatic events” Zoltan Abadi-Nagy says. “If it is, these events are not dramatized. What is more, the exact nature and the full details of what, in a classical sense of plot, could be regarded as the traumatic events often remain obscure.” (‘Plot vs. Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary American Minimalist Fiction’) It would seem that Ford’s story has dramatised an important event, with the narrator now in his forties looking back at a moment when he was sixteen and saying of the geese he and his mother’s lover Glen Baxter have been shooting at: “Five thousand white geese all in the air around you, making a noise like you have never heard before. And I thought to myself then: This is something I will never see again. I will never forget this. And I was right.” 

          But we should note that Abadi-Nagy isn’t saying that there will be nothing happening in the present of the story; just that other potentially more dramatic and certainly more traumatic things will have preceded and possibly followed it. Little is made in the story of the youthfulness of the mother as a pregnant woman. Instead, the tale emphasises her youthfulness to the teen narrator. His mother is 31 at the beginning of the piece and he notices how young she seems, and hears Glen commenting on her looks: “your mother’s a beautiful woman, but she’s not the only beautiful woman in Montana.” But this beautiful woman who will presumably be younger than his peers’ mothers would also have been underage when pregnant. If she is thirty-one and the narrator sixteen, it doesn’t take too much arithmetic to feel a mild shock. A teenage pregnancy is a story of greater significance than going off shooting geese, and no less important would be the one about his father. If we assume the father was a similar age to his mother, the narrator’s dad has died at a young age indeed - they are living off his life insurance while his mother also does some part-time waitressing. What is the story of the father’s death we may ask, but that doesn’t mean we can find an answer. Then there is the conclusion where the narrator says “…and I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.” Has the mother gone the way of the father; have they fallen out or just not talked for quite a while? Here we have an underage pregnancy, a father’s death at perhaps a young age, or an older age that would make the underage pregnancy even more problematic, and a possible fallout between the narrator and his mother, or her death, all contained within a story about a goose shoot. 

        In Paris Review, Ford says, “today I think of characters—actual and literary characters— as being rather unfixed. I think of them as changeable, provisional, unpredictable, decidedly unwhole. Partly this owes to the act of writing characters and of succeeding somewhat in making them seem believable and morally provoking. As I write them they are provisional, changeable, and so forth, right on through and beyond the process of being made. I can change them at will, and do.” One way of looking at this is to see that the foreground might be fixed but that the background is moveable, malleable and interpretable. The reader knows for sure that Glen Baxter takes Les and his mum out of town to see and shoot the geese, but much else in the story can be seen from different perspectives according to how we interpret information that is very partially offered. We might wonder if the narrator has himself been in Vietnam when he talks about Glen having been there before meeting Les’s mum: “We did not know what Vietnam was then, and Glen, when he talked about that, referred to it only as ‘the far east’. I think now he must have been in the CIA and been disillusioned by something he saw or found out about and had been thrown out, but that kind of thing did not matter to us.” 

      If Les was sixteen in 1961 he would have been by the late sixties at an age where conscription was possible, and all the more so if someone was without money or wasn’t at college. When the narrator tells us that a year after the goose shoot, “I had somehow been pushed out into the world, into the real-life then, the one I hadn’t lived yet”, he also tells us clearly that further education wasn’t the path. “In a year I was gone to hardrock mining and no-paycheck jobs and not college” — which would at least have offered deferment. Is this what he means when he says “we did not know what Vietnam was then” as if he were to find out in his own good time? And we know that at sixteen, Les was already a pretty good shot: he kills two geese and misses one in between. And what about his father; might he have been in Korea, or WWII, or just someone who liked hunting? “Hunt, kill, maim? Your father did that too”, his mother says.  

          Our purpose isn’t to read into the story what might not be there, but to say that in leaving out what might usually be expected in a story the writer allows plenty room for speculating over potentially important events that have been allusively offered. If someone says to us you never know what happened to me yesterday, we are unlikely to think it was a third off a loaf of bread before the supermarket closed. Fiction can less obviously generate curiosity about events that seem more significant than the banal, and we are likely to wonder why the narrator hasn’t been in contact with his mother for a very long time; how she became pregnant so young and whether it came about with a fellow from school or someone older. 

         If the writer were to tell us that his mum had him when she was fifteen and it caused a scandal because the man was ten years older, a wealthy man in the town who had left them with a house (which we are told), died young of a disease, and that years later Les fell out with his mother because she developed a drink problem and always had useless men around (allusively offered), this wouldn’t necessarily make it a bad story but it would have made it a different one. The story wouldn’t be creating an incidental foreground to keep the background indeterminate. It would be giving us various details all the better perhaps to find the givens of the story that needs all the details for us to understand the history it describes, rather than the history it allows us to glimpse. 

     There are great pieces of fiction that are closer to case histories rather than subtextual stories, they offer a categorical surface that demands the frequentative, that cover often years in a character's life. What accumulates is less space hidden than time accumulated as the story examines a person’s existential reality rather than a situation which contains numerous threads of potential meaning. In 'Communist', we have three characters — Glen, Les and Les’s mother, Aileen — but none of them become what we could call temporally developed. Glen disappears from the piece, the mother becomes no longer part of Les’s life, and Les himself leaps from sixteen to forty-one with very little said about his existence in between. In contrast, in stories like 'The Habit of Loving', 'The Fat Girl' and 'Here to Learn', the stories move through years of a person’s life as they explore a given existence. The stories are, if you like, diegetic rather than mimetic: they tell rather than show and this needn’t be seen as a failure but as an option. It risks a weaker suppositional texture for a greater look at the span of the person’s life so that the author can register the shifts of an age internally and externally. A great example over a whole novel is Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which works like an external biography. It is a book that covers more or less Ernaux’s life but focuses on the various external events including the end of the war, the 68 protests, the election of Mitterand and so on, and turns the narrator into a minor character in the flow of larger historical forces. It becomes less a case history than a personalised history, or an impersonal autobiography. It is a wonderful example of the diegetic form. 

        But this isn’t what Ford seeks, and perhaps he wishes to keep historical events elliptical by offering us a narrator who is potentially too young in the first instance to comprehend what he is witnessing as a teenager, and too reticent as an older person to divulge much about the intervening years. Maybe Ford wishes to keep people as mysterious to themselves and others rather than predictable given the history they have accumulated. “I certainly think we have histories. And based on them we can purport to have characters—invent or allege character, in a sense. And sometimes histories predict what people will do. Though often not.” (Paris Review) In 'The Habit of Loving', Doris Lessing presents her central character as a womanising man of the theatre who is no longer so young, who gets terribly hurt by a break-up he would have done too little to prevent, and that WWII intruded upon, and finds himself so tenderised that he falls for a much younger woman years later with whom he as little in common and who has stronger feelings for others than for him. Lessing tells much about George’s past and covers the post-war years with a new generation supplanting his own. In contrast, in 'Communis't, we have little knowledge of Les beyond the day when he went shooting with his mother’s lover, even though the story insists on suggesting a missing twenty-five years as we are informed the narrator is now forty-one. Those are years a diegetic story might wish to fill in, telling us about Les’s years in Vietnam, his disillusionment afterwards, his involvement in anti-war movements, his acceptance or rejection of Reaganite jingoism. But no, the story insists on focusing on the present of the past even if there is an enormous period of time invoked. 

        One might insist this is just good writing, that any writer worth their salt needn’t pepper their material with details that remove the subtext. Perhaps, but better to see it in the context of Abadi-Nagy’s claims, that many minimalist writers wish often to pay attention to the minor events all the better to leave the bigger ones in the background. As he mentions Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, Tobias Woolf and, of course, Ford, he says, “one of the several kinds of minimalist characters produced in this way is what I call the consequential self. One who is a consequence: a product of a crisis, a trauma, of a former decision. What remain are internal (always relevant) and especially external (often irrelevant) mechanisms of a suffering, paralyzed, hollow, indifferent, drifting etc. character.” (‘Plot vs. Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary American Minimalist Fiction’) Les would seem to be such an individual, with a few hints that he is traumatised, potentially,  emotionally paralysed and someone suffering and angry. He speaks of love being seen as a reliable commodity “and even that is not always true, as I have found out”. He speaks too of wishing to hit Glen hard in the face and seeing how scared Glen was: “…I had never seen a grown man scared before — though I have seen one since…” We know so little about those intervening twenty-five years but if we assume a man who has been emotionally hurt by a woman and who has physically hurt a man, we wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.  As Ford says, “ I think I wrote about sixteen-year-old boys in part because I had sympathy from my own past”, adding, “readers may conclude otherwise, but I feel stories are sold short by insisting on how much they supposedly do or don’t rely on or reveal the writer’s life.” (Paris Review) Yet what is interesting about a lot of minimalist writing is that it doesn’t even reveal that much about the characters' lives either. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Communist

Richard Ford's 'Communist' is a story with a brutal foreground and a dysfunctional background, as if using the explicit to make us half-forget the implicit messiness behind the foregrounded tale. "... A minimalist figure's life is not shaped by a series of dramatic events" Zoltan Abadi-Nagy says. "If it is, these events are not dramatized. What is more, the exact nature and the full details of what, in a classical sense of plot, could be regarded as the traumatic events often remain obscure." ('Plot vs. Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary American Minimalist Fiction') It would seem that Ford's story has dramatised an important event, with the narrator now in his forties looking back at a moment when he was sixteen and saying of the geese he and his mother's lover Glen Baxter have been shooting at: "Five thousand white geese all in the air around you, making a noise like you have never heard before. And I thought to myself then: This is something I will never see again. I will never forget this. And I was right."

But we should note that Abadi-Nagy isn't saying that there will be nothing happening in the present of the story; just that other potentially more dramatic and certainly more traumatic things will have preceded and possibly followed it. Little is made in the story of the youthfulness of the mother as a pregnant woman. Instead, the tale emphasises her youthfulness to the teen narrator. His mother is 31 at the beginning of the piece and he notices how young she seems, and hears Glen commenting on her looks: "your mother's a beautiful woman, but she's not the only beautiful woman in Montana." But this beautiful woman who will presumably be younger than his peers' mothers would also have been underage when pregnant. If she is thirty-one and the narrator sixteen, it doesn't take too much arithmetic to feel a mild shock. A teenage pregnancy is a story of greater significance than going off shooting geese, and no less important would be the one about his father. If we assume the father was a similar age to his mother, the narrator's dad has died at a young age indeed - they are living off his life insurance while his mother also does some part-time waitressing. What is the story of the father's death we may ask, but that doesn't mean we can find an answer. Then there is the conclusion where the narrator says "...and I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time." Has the mother gone the way of the father; have they fallen out or just not talked for quite a while? Here we have an underage pregnancy, a father's death at perhaps a young age, or an older age that would make the underage pregnancy even more problematic, and a possible fallout between the narrator and his mother, or her death, all contained within a story about a goose shoot.

In Paris Review, Ford says, "today I think of charactersactual and literary characters as being rather unfixed. I think of them as changeable, provisional, unpredictable, decidedly unwhole. Partly this owes to the act of writing characters and of succeeding somewhat in making them seem believable and morally provoking. As I write them they are provisional, changeable, and so forth, right on through and beyond the process of being made. I can change them at will, and do." One way of looking at this is to see that the foreground might be fixed but that the background is moveable, malleable and interpretable. The reader knows for sure that Glen Baxter takes Les and his mum out of town to see and shoot the geese, but much else in the story can be seen from different perspectives according to how we interpret information that is very partially offered. We might wonder if the narrator has himself been in Vietnam when he talks about Glen having been there before meeting Les's mum: "We did not know what Vietnam was then, and Glen, when he talked about that, referred to it only as 'the far east'. I think now he must have been in the CIA and been disillusioned by something he saw or found out about and had been thrown out, but that kind of thing did not matter to us."

If Les was sixteen in 1961 he would have been by the late sixties at an age where conscription was possible, and all the more so if someone was without money or wasn't at college. When the narrator tells us that a year after the goose shoot, "I had somehow been pushed out into the world, into the real-life then, the one I hadn't lived yet", he also tells us clearly that further education wasn't the path. "In a year I was gone to hardrock mining and no-paycheck jobs and not college" which would at least have offered deferment. Is this what he means when he says "we did not know what Vietnam was then" as if he were to find out in his own good time? And we know that at sixteen, Les was already a pretty good shot: he kills two geese and misses one in between. And what about his father; might he have been in Korea, or WWII, or just someone who liked hunting? "Hunt, kill, maim? Your father did that too", his mother says.

Our purpose isn't to read into the story what might not be there, but to say that in leaving out what might usually be expected in a story the writer allows plenty room for speculating over potentially important events that have been allusively offered. If someone says to us you never know what happened to me yesterday, we are unlikely to think it was a third off a loaf of bread before the supermarket closed. Fiction can less obviously generate curiosity about events that seem more significant than the banal, and we are likely to wonder why the narrator hasn't been in contact with his mother for a very long time; how she became pregnant so young and whether it came about with a fellow from school or someone older.

If the writer were to tell us that his mum had him when she was fifteen and it caused a scandal because the man was ten years older, a wealthy man in the town who had left them with a house (which we are told), died young of a disease, and that years later Les fell out with his mother because she developed a drink problem and always had useless men around (allusively offered), this wouldn't necessarily make it a bad story but it would have made it a different one. The story wouldn't be creating an incidental foreground to keep the background indeterminate. It would be giving us various details all the better perhaps to find the givens of the story that needs all the details for us to understand the history it describes, rather than the history it allows us to glimpse.

There are great pieces of fiction that are closer to case histories rather than subtextual stories, they offer a categorical surface that demands the frequentative, that cover often years in a character's life. What accumulates is less space hidden than time accumulated as the story examines a person's existential reality rather than a situation which contains numerous threads of potential meaning. In 'Communist', we have three characters Glen, Les and Les's mother, Aileen but none of them become what we could call temporally developed. Glen disappears from the piece, the mother becomes no longer part of Les's life, and Les himself leaps from sixteen to forty-one with very little said about his existence in between. In contrast, in stories like 'The Habit of Loving', 'The Fat Girl' and 'Here to Learn', the stories move through years of a person's life as they explore a given existence. The stories are, if you like, diegetic rather than mimetic: they tell rather than show and this needn't be seen as a failure but as an option. It risks a weaker suppositional texture for a greater look at the span of the person's life so that the author can register the shifts of an age internally and externally. A great example over a whole novel is Annie Ernaux's The Years, which works like an external biography. It is a book that covers more or less Ernaux's life but focuses on the various external events including the end of the war, the 68 protests, the election of Mitterand and so on, and turns the narrator into a minor character in the flow of larger historical forces. It becomes less a case history than a personalised history, or an impersonal autobiography. It is a wonderful example of the diegetic form.

But this isn't what Ford seeks, and perhaps he wishes to keep historical events elliptical by offering us a narrator who is potentially too young in the first instance to comprehend what he is witnessing as a teenager, and too reticent as an older person to divulge much about the intervening years. Maybe Ford wishes to keep people as mysterious to themselves and others rather than predictable given the history they have accumulated. "I certainly think we have histories. And based on them we can purport to have charactersinvent or allege character, in a sense. And sometimes histories predict what people will do. Though often not." (Paris Review) In 'The Habit of Loving', Doris Lessing presents her central character as a womanising man of the theatre who is no longer so young, who gets terribly hurt by a break-up he would have done too little to prevent, and that WWII intruded upon, and finds himself so tenderised that he falls for a much younger woman years later with whom he as little in common and who has stronger feelings for others than for him. Lessing tells much about George's past and covers the post-war years with a new generation supplanting his own. In contrast, in 'Communis't, we have little knowledge of Les beyond the day when he went shooting with his mother's lover, even though the story insists on suggesting a missing twenty-five years as we are informed the narrator is now forty-one. Those are years a diegetic story might wish to fill in, telling us about Les's years in Vietnam, his disillusionment afterwards, his involvement in anti-war movements, his acceptance or rejection of Reaganite jingoism. But no, the story insists on focusing on the present of the past even if there is an enormous period of time invoked.

One might insist this is just good writing, that any writer worth their salt needn't pepper their material with details that remove the subtext. Perhaps, but better to see it in the context of Abadi-Nagy's claims, that many minimalist writers wish often to pay attention to the minor events all the better to leave the bigger ones in the background. As he mentions Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, Tobias Woolf and, of course, Ford, he says, "one of the several kinds of minimalist characters produced in this way is what I call the consequential self. One who is a consequence: a product of a crisis, a trauma, of a former decision. What remain are internal (always relevant) and especially external (often irrelevant) mechanisms of a suffering, paralyzed, hollow, indifferent, drifting etc. character." ('Plot vs. Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary American Minimalist Fiction') Les would seem to be such an individual, with a few hints that he is traumatised, potentially, emotionally paralysed and someone suffering and angry. He speaks of love being seen as a reliable commodity "and even that is not always true, as I have found out". He speaks too of wishing to hit Glen hard in the face and seeing how scared Glen was: "...I had never seen a grown man scared before though I have seen one since..." We know so little about those intervening twenty-five years but if we assume a man who has been emotionally hurt by a woman and who has physically hurt a man, we wouldn't necessarily be wrong. As Ford says, " I think I wrote about sixteen-year-old boys in part because I had sympathy from my own past", adding, "readers may conclude otherwise, but I feel stories are sold short by insisting on how much they supposedly do or don't rely on or reveal the writer's life." (Paris Review) Yet what is interesting about a lot of minimalist writing is that it doesn't even reveal that much about the characters' lives either.


© Tony McKibbin