The Essence Has Not Become Present
Allow us the broadest of generalisations. If many a classical short story gives us a surprise ending, numerous modern short stories are more interested in what James Joyce would call the epiphany, a moment of heightened significance described in Stephen Hero thus: By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. The difference between Maupassant and Chekhov rests partly on this point. Though loosely contemporaries (Maupassant was born in 1850; Chekhov 1860), the French writer still often offered brilliant twists in stories like 'The Necklace' and 'The Graveyard Sisterhood', while Chekhov's stories were based more on the inevitability of time passing and the realisation that comes out of this. It is Chekhov rather than Maupassant who is thus described as the father of the modern short story. This does not mean great modern writers don't use twists (Flannery O'Connor's 'Good Country People' or Julio Cortazar's 'A Continuity of Parks'), but this is less to surprise the reader than shock us with the morally troublesome or the formally reckless.
Yet we might wonder what to make of the perforated story we find in Raymond Carver or Roberto Bolano - Bolano stories like 'The Grub' and 'Days of 1978', or Carver's 'Are These Actual Miles?' This is where there is nothing resembling a twist, nor much that could pass for an epiphany. Instead, the emphasis is on a pregnant lacunae, a gap in knowledge that suggests a certain type of void. In 'Are These Actual Miles?' Leo is in a long-term relationship with Toni and they've got themselves in debt. They need quickly to sell the big convertible otherwise the court will take it. They need to sell the car that night and so Toni gets all dressed up and out she goes, determined to make money off the damn thing no matter what. Told in the third person but focusing on Leo's perspective, the story leaves us wondering with Leo at exactly what is happening in another part of town as she sells the car. At one moment she phones the house and he asks where she is. At a restaurant, she says, "downtown someplace...I think it's New Jimmy's." "Excuse me", she asks someone off the line "Is this place New Jimmy's? This is New Jimmy's Leo". She is there with a man who wants to buy the car, has also told him everything about Toni and Leo's predicament, and the man informs her that "personally he'd rather be classified a robber or a rapist rather than a bankrupt. He is nice enough, though." Then she dashes off the phone. A few minutes later he calls New Jimmy's and a man tells him New Jimmy's has been closed for the evening. The night passes, and Leo half-mad with jealousy, failure and a drink habit waits. It is near dawn before Toni returns. They grapple a little, she looks as if she is sedated, while the word she keeps throwing at him is "Bankrupt." A bit later a man turns up driving the convertible - Toni's left her makeup bag. After he drops it off on the porch, Leo asks for a word but doesn't really have much to say, and the man drives off after asking "are these actual miles?" on the clock.
What interest us is the story's capacity for perforation, for creating holes in the narrative that we can muse over but not readily comprehend, and to help us understand Carver's precision we might usefully quote his remarks in an interview Paris Review, but also think of comments by Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari and Tsvetan Todorov on Henry James. In Paris Review, Carver would describe how he would construct his tales. "If the first draft of the story is forty pages long, it'll usually be half that by the time I'm finished with it. And it's not just a question of taking out or bringing it down. I take out a lot, but I also add things and then add some more and take out some more. It's something I love to do, putting words in and taking words out." Discussing the James story 'In the Cage', Deleuze and Guattari say that James is no longer interested in the secret, what interests him is "is the form of the secret; the matter no longer even has to be discovered...In relation to this man, directly with him, the young telegrapher develops a strange passional complicity; a whole intense molecular life that does not enter into rivalry with her fiance." (A Thousand Plateaus) The story is about a telegrapher who realises that a wealthy man has a secret and is in danger. She is in a settled relationship and James shows another possible world that is not simply imaginary on the woman's part. It is another self that is activated within the broader, given self of her daily existence. The point doesn't rely on the revelation of the secret, the "twist", but in the perceptual faculties accessed and the void that can be hinted at. Todorov says, commenting on the same story, "there is no truth, there is no certainty - we are left with "something bad". Once the tale is finished, we cannot say that we know who Captain Everhard [the rich man] was; we are simply a little less ignorant about him than when the tale began. The essence has not become present." (Poetics of Prose)
In stories with a twist, even stories offering an epiphany, the essence does become present. The twist categorically reveals what the story has hitherto hidden, while the epiphany is a sudden illumination that reveals an aspect of the subject. Indeed Carver has written the occasional epiphanic story himself, with 'Cathedral' leading a man with a few prejudices to see more clearly when in the company of a blind person. Our purpose isn't to elevate one category over another, even if it is usually more conservative fiction that would now offer twists, and the more experimentally inclined to search out the perforated. This perforated fiction might not quite be the same thing as a fourth and common category we can invoke: the sub-textual, a story form especially favoured by Hemingway and exemplified in his remark that "if it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story." (Paris Review)
There is the idea that Hemingway knows not only everything that goes into the story, but all the thing that aren't in it too. Yet if someone were to ask Carver exactly what happened on the other side of town between Toni and the buyer of the car, we might not think he was derelict in his creative duty in having no idea whether an assignation took place, whether they just got drunk and talked, or any other hypothesis available. Carver might well have had a fully worked out absent narrative, but the story wouldn't be any stronger for it, necessarily. It could even be argued quite the opposite: that by knowing exactly what happened between Toni and the man, the writer is interested in what he is withholding rather than working with absences that can't possibly be known. The question one supposes is the difference between sub-text, where we can safely assume what is missing from the story, and the perforated, which indicates a void that cannot be known or filled because what matters is the space created not the assumption made. It is as though what happens on the other side of town isn't an arena of speculation, but a catalyst for a certain type of devastation.
This is a secret that cannot be revealed because it cannot be expressed: it is a secret as secretion, as a means by which to explore a mode of being that cannot find an outlet in what we would usually call life, but neither can it be accomplished by good technique. Few writers seemed to have understood or wished to explore this more than Maurice Blanchot, who said of Kafka, "let us admit that for Kafka writing was not a matter of aesthetics; he did not have the creation of a valid literary work in mind, but his salvation, the accomplishment of the message that is his life." (The Work of Fire) This is partly what Todorov sees in James' work: that its purpose is "never to show in broad daylight the object of perception, which provokes all the efforts of the characters is nothing but a new manifestation of the general idea by which the narrative expressed the quest for an absolute and absent cause." (Poetics of Prose)
Carver may or may not say that he knows exactly what happens off the page in his stories, but if we regard them as quite different from Hemingway's, it rests on the notion that Carver is searching out not the subtext that can be comprehended with great attention applied, but the void to which no comprehension is possible. Or rather that the comprehension is the void. Speculation on whether or not something took place elsewhere would be secondary to an awareness that a space has opened up within Leo. Indeed even to talk of Leo could be a bit too assertively psychological. It might be enough to say a space has opened. This helps explain the differences between the twist, the epiphany, the sub-text and the secret. The first unequivocally takes place in the world, the second frequently in the mind of a character, the third can be fished out by the reader, while the fourth dissolves the certitude of the first three into the enigma of being.
We aren't saying this is simply a historical progression, though modern writing is more inclined to create the space for that enigma than classical fiction. It is partly why we include James, and Deleuze/Guattari's and Todorov's analysis of his work. in Poetics of Prose, Todorov explores the famed Jamesian technique, seeing in his debt to Flaubert an interest in synecdoche. This is where the writer works on small details to conjure up the figure, rather than immediately giving the character whole. Comparing The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Madame Bovary, Todorov quotes Victor Hugo first. "The broad-shouldered, brown-skinned priest, hitherto condemned to the austere chastity of the cloister, shivered and seethed at this love scene occurring in voluptuous darkness before his eyes." The priest is observing a young couple making love, and the priest's desire and jealousy is described. In the second passage from Flaubert, Todorov quotes, "she noticed his nails, which were longer than was usual in Yonville. The clerk spent a great deal of time caring for them: he kept a special penknife in his desk for the purpose..." We see the broad sweep giving way to the small details, but Todorov suggests that James wanted to go further, throwing the synecdochal detail in doubt and making it an interpretive arena. Instead of employing the small detail as a means, Todorov sees that James has made it the "constructive principle of his oeuvre. "We can see only appearances, and their interpretation remains suspect; only the pursuit of the truth can be present; truth itself, though it provokes the entire movement, remains absent (as in the case of 'In the Cage')." What happens is that the small detail no longer signifies the whole, it functions to stop us having access to the whole. Yet Deleuze sees in this elliptical approach a certain type of revelation. "The molecular relation between the telegraphist and the telegraph sender [ in 'In the Cage'] dissolved in the form of the secret - because nothing happened. Each of them is propelled toward a rigid segmentarity: he will marry the now-widowed lady; she will marry her fiance. And yet everything has changed."
It is this idea of everything having changed without the signs of transformation that can indicate the secret. A space has opened up but it is not clear what that space happens to be, or how we might explain it. The insistence on an explanation would be barbaric; it is what we ask of everyday language when we need clarity. Yet should literature belong to the everyday? Blanchot thinks not. "Literature is language turning into ambiguity. Ordinary language is not necessarily clear, it does not always say what it says; misunderstanding is also one of its paths." But Blanchot notes that "ordinary language limits equivocation. It solidly encloses the absence in a presence, it puts a term to understanding, to the indefinite movement of comprehension; understanding is limited, but misunderstanding is limited too." Blanchot sees that in literature, though, "ambiguity is in some sense abandoned to its excesses by the opportunities it finds and exhausted by the extent of the abuses it can commit." ('Literature and the Right to Death'). Literature, we might assume in Blanchot's formulation, does not offer simply the secretive, which would be the limiting of the secret because it would give too clear contours for the disclosable. If the artist can reveal what they have chosen to hide, we might wonder how far into the possibility of disclosure they happened to have gone, or whether we should take seriously their claim to withhold the revelation of which they are cognizant. If Carver were to tell us that of course Toni slept with the man buying the car, this doesn't really add anything to the story. It is not in the same epistemological register as an Agatha Christie tale that we find with the last couple of pages missing, and someone who has read the whole story elling us later how it turned out: who the killer happened to be. Of course, a thriller novel written that withholds the killer's name might possess something of the secret as we are choosing to explore it, but it would have to earn its non-revelation by achieving this different epistemological register from the generic work.
This is not quite the same thing as only reading the book once and then insisting the experience is over. Indeed, In Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco discusses an Agatha Christie book that demands re-reading. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we find out at the end the narrator is the killer, and Eco reckons "the narrator, therefore, invites his readers to read the book again from the beginning because, he states, if they had been perceptive, they would have realized that he had never lied. At most, he had been reticent..." The whole point of the book though is to be secretive, even if one would need to re-read it to find out all the clues along the way. Both James and Christie are very technical writers, but the techniques applied serve quite different purposes. Christie's is to play hide and seek with the reader, making sure that they do not guess too early who the killer might be. James wishes instead to create not just the withholding of plot but, by carefully delineating point of view, generating numerous porous questions about character and situation. The whodunnit of Christie becomes the manifold questioning of James. Hence, Todorov's remarks about the Jamesian sentence. His style "has always been said to be too complex, obscure, pointlessly difficult. In fact...James surrounds the "truth", the event itself (which the main proposition often epitomizes) with many subordinate clauses which are, in each case, simple in themselves but whose accumulation produces the effect of complexity." (Poetics of Prose)
James' purpose is to see signs constantly, to generate the synecdoche as possible meaning rather than categorical response. This is tantalising stuff in the sense that we are constantly kept out of reach of what we desire, yet this is an ongoing and constant suspension of meaning rather than the narrative suspension common to most works of fiction. While we have the theoretical notion of retardation to explain how writers withhold information early in a story, all the better to reveal it to us as later as we rapidly turn the page hoping for more plot info, the Jamesian style as Todorov sees it wants to create an ongoing sense of mystery that is much greater than revealing the story. Todorov quotes this sentence from 'In the Cage': "There were time when all the wires in the country seemed to start from the little hole-in-the-corner where she plied for a livelihood and where, in the shuffle of feet, the flutter of 'forms', the straying of stamps and the ring of change over the counter, the people she had fallen into the habit of remembering and fitting together with others, and of having her theories and interpretations of, kept up before her their long procession and rotation." Todorov adds that he believes the "complexity of James' style derives entirely from the principle of construction and not from a referential (for instance, psychological) complexity." This is where we are inclined to disagree with Todorov, seeing in very different styles (Carver's and James) a similar approach to a problem. If the problem lay in the style, this would suggest that the mystery resides in the sentence structure rather than in what we might call an absent substance. Yet if we can find it in writers as stylistically dissimilar as Carver and James, does this not indicate it lies elsewhere than in the sentences themselves? The notion of a secret might be vague, but it has the advantage of being broad. We don't look narrowly at a writer's style to find it; we attend more generally to a writer's sensibility.
Yet this needn't mean we ignore style; instead we attend to the particular to reveal the means by which the writer explores the secret. When Todorov discusses how James take further the Flaubertian approach to synecdoche, so we might see how Carver draws on the taciturn in Hemingway but for the purposes of pushing further into the mysterious nature of the void. While Todorov sees in the Jamesian sentence the subordinate clauses of no less significance than the main clause all the better to indicate the mystery at work, Carver moves in the opposite direction and suggests mystery through the subordinate clause's very absence: evident in sentences like "Toni has been two hours on her hair and face. Leo stands in the bedroom doorway and taps his lips with his knuckles, watching." Imagine a Jamesian equivalent, which might go something like this. Watching by the bedroom door as Toni applied to her face rouge and face powder, Leo, all the while musing over what might be the consequences of this facial redecoration, a decorative display he had not been witness to for some years, as he knew she would be going out to sell a car but also to meet a man, a man she did not know, that he would perhaps never meet, and to whom their debt enslaved them as she would try to sell their car and perhaps a small quantity of her soul, fretted." The Jamesian sentence can often seem to drift off into infinity, into the ever subtler registering of thought and feeling evident in the famous claim by T. S, Eliot: that "James's mind was so fine that no idea could violate it." Carver, on the other hand, offers a mind so hesitant that no subordinate clause can explain it. "He sits. He gets up. In the bathroom he brushes his teeth very carefully. Then he uses dental floss." If James was the master of the hypotactical sentence, Carver pushed ever further into parataxis. If James suggests a sentence's infinite possibilities; Carver indicates instead the universe that is beyond the sentence itself.
Now while Richard Ohmann admits that showing how Hemingway's short sentences create a certain effect quite at odds with Woolf's, Joyce's and Faulkner's doesn't alone distinguish differences, he does make clear that by retaining the content, and by altering the form, much that passes for the Hemingwayesque gets lost. He also notes that it "is interesting, and promising, that a stylistic difference so huge as that between...Faulkner and Hemingway passages can largely be explained on the basis of so little grammatical apparatus." ('Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style') Yet for our purposes, Hemingway is quite a different writer from Carver, even if there are ostensibly similarities in their style. A story like 'Indian Camp' has a clearer point than Carver's 'Are These Actual Miles?', as if the unsaid isn't the void that we peer into but a masculinity we have to learn to understand: that Nick Adams gets to see how tough the world happens to be. Carver's masculinity is fragile because the world is fragile, indicating that the operative word isn't masculinity as we find in Hemingway, but fragility. His characters are drinkers too, yet their alcohol intake suggests a void they cannot reach rather than a condition they cannot attain. They are losers more than failed winners, as if the ego has never quite entered the competition of life. There seems to us an assumption underpinning Hemingway's work that matches the image he creates of the iceberg, and this is consistent with another remark Hemingway makes. "Anything you can omit that you know you still have in the writing and its quality will show. When a writer omits things he does not know, they show like holes in his writing." (Paris Review). Hemingway is talking about the craft that shows the writer knows what he is doing. If someone were to ask whether the central character had a happy childhood he could explain why that was or wasn't so. Did the characters' parents get divorced? What is their favourite colour; favourite food; favourite book? The writer could perhaps answer all these questions because they are central to the 7/8ths that never make it into the final work. Perhaps many hundreds of pages are written, but only the essential two hundred are in the final novel, even if all this other material is available but eschewed.
Let us call this positive apprehension. But what about negative apprehension? This might have no iceberg effect as mapped out material, even if the writer would be able to answer instinctively many of the questions that a writer of positive apprehension would offer as researched fact. Someone might ask the writer what the lead character's favourite colour happens to be and reply they have no idea, but if someone were to claim that the favourite colour is yellow the writer might insist that they wouldn't think so, and then find themselves explaining why. This wouldn't at all be because the character's favourite colour has been mentioned as blue in the material that never made it into the final book, but instead because of material that is in the book. The writer notices that yellow is only mentioned a couple of times in the first-person novel while blue is mentioned eight times, green six and red nine. The writer doesn't know what the favourite colour of the character happens to be, but there would be little evidence suggesting it would be yellow, while the other three would all be possibilities. The writer (or for that matter the critic) might then look at these three colours and see how they are utilised within the story. If the references to red and blue concern clothes that the other characters are wearing, while green seems to be the colour of the clothing the narrator wears, then we might say with some confidence that the narrator's favourite colour is probably green. We aren't reliant at all on background information about the novel, the notes the writer has taken (the 7/8ths) but instead the material in the final novel itself. This is where computational analysis could trump biographical information. As one theorist says: "for my book Nabokov's Favourite Word Is Mauve, I created a computer program to sort through thousands of books by the most revered and popular authors to find out their "cinnamon words" - relatively rare words that a particular writer uses often. Obviously, every author used function words such as "the" and "from" at a high rate, and basic adjectives like "big" or "fast", but cinnamon words are the words that each author uses disproportionately compared with other writers." Now running the material through the computer doesn't make for theoretical inroads, but it can be a useful starting point to counter the biographical insistence. Someone might believe that a writer's favourite colour is red but what matters is how often and in which way red would function in the novels under discussion.
What interests us chiefly, however, is the difference between the positive apprehension that means a writer could explain the details of a character's life that aren't on the page, as opposed to the writer who has no idea what isn't in the story until someone makes claims that the writer insists are invalid. Just say a reader believes that a character has been sexually violated as a teenager, claiming that the character's attitude to sex indicates an abuse in the past, perhaps the writer would then think that actually no it wasn't an act of abuse but instead an act of sexual assertiveness on the character's part that gave her an attitude towards sex that the book then explores. The reader would seem right to intuit an event, but it wasn't until the reader insisted on the nature of this absent, past experience that the writer, in turn, insists that the nature of the past action took place one way rather than the other. They would then argue on the basis of what is actually on the page why they reckon this would be the case. A critic could do likewise. The problem with working from the biographical, from notes and backstory eschewed, is that the production is pedestalled, and the intentional fallacy evident. This is partly what much criticism of the fifties and sixties wanted to call into question, whether it was the New Criticism that demanded close readings, or the post-structuralists like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault arguing for freer interpretive possibilities once the author's privileged status had been undermined.
Our interest here, however, isn't only to suggest that we must question the author's status, and generate greater freedom in the reader, but to indicate how the writing generates the secret, finds the means by which to indicate the ineffable that is far removed from the sub-textual. How does a writer create the space to suggest the inviolable secret as opposed to the violable? How far into the secretive is a writer willing to go? If a thriller writer like Christie sees the secret as a narrative revelation, and if Hemingway would seem to see it as a sub-textual suppression, then what we see in certain stories by James, Carver, Bolano and others is the exploration of narrative perspective which makes it impossible to apprehend the tale, because the apprehension is of a different order. We have also ascertained that the void is not a technical or linguistic question in itself even if certain techniques would seem to lend themselves to its appearance. We could, after all, imagine a thriller writer adopting the restricted third-person method utilised by Carver in 'Are These Actual Miles?' There Leo is waiting at home wondering what his wife is up to across town. If the story put the emphasis on the absence, turning it into a mystery to be resolved, rather than a secret that cannot be expressed, we would have the thriller aspect which turns so many of life's mysteries into the categorical. By analogy, it is a bit like the difference between the before and after in the famous Schroedinger experiment. Is the cat in the box or not: before opening it we cannot know for sure; the moment it is opened the cat, is so to speak, out of the bag. The purpose of most suspense narratives is to let the cat out of the bag but not too soon. The notion of the secret as we are defining it is to keep the cat in the bag: a sort of suspension aesthetics. "The experiment can be interpreted to mean that while the box is closed, the system simultaneously exists in a superposition of the states decayed nucleus/dead cat and undecayed nucleus/living cat, and that only when the box is opened and an observation performed does the wave function collapse into one of the two states. (Wikipedia) In the thriller narrative no matter how many options are made available, a categorical conclusion will eventually be drawn, and part of our purpose in the process of reading the material is to work with the available hypotheses. In the Carver story, we instead work with symptoms, trying to find in the tale what tensions there are within the marriage, within Leo, within the society out of which Leo and Toni are a part. We are no more inclined to wonder what will happen next, than to muse over what has happened before. This gives the work the necessary tension of the unresolvable, as the temporal is not mono-directional but bi-directional. If we invoke Schroedinger's cat we do so to emphasise the impossible tension of the unknowable. Once the box is opened the conclusion can be drawn, but until that moment we have the unknown, the world remains a possible one rather than an actual one. By leaving the events that take place across town unknowable, Carver creates the secret that cannot be resolved.
We might muse over how this is done technically, how does Carver make us aware of the untoward taking place elsewhere, and this where the question of ambiguity becomes at the same time the partially certain. When Toni tells Leo that she is in the restaurant we cannot know for sure whether she is, partly because the means by which she makes her claim is through the telephone. It is a wonderful device for the partial lie as Toni seems to ask a member of staff if this is New Jimmy's, and she says they say it is. Yet while the telephone can hide the truth, on the next occasion it can expose it as Leo phones the place himself and finds out that the restaurant is closed. There is no chance that she had been phoning from the place she has claimed to be. We don't know where she has been; we merely know where she hasn't been. The categorical manifests itself not as a presence but as an absence. Out of this awareness, Leo's anxiety grows, and with it a sense in which he is both ignorant and complicit. When near the end of the story she tells him he is a bankrupt, we know why she is angry with him, emotionally, but less certain about exactly what has happened. Of course, many a reader will insist we don't need to know, and we wouldn't disagree: what 'happened' has happened to Leo and not to Toni. A reader disappointed with the conclusion, feeling that they haven't been given a proper ending, might be someone who hasn't read the story properly. While a story that offers a clear answer at its end merely needs to attend to the details that can lead to this conclusion, the writer seeking to show the nature of a secret must put every word into a state of tension rather than a number of them into a state of suspense. If, for example, a writer wishes to explore a crime that has been committed then certain events in the story will be more important than others: the crime committed, the suspects involved, the motives behind the action. The detective getting some lunch, the car he drives, the weather over the period of the story, his relationship with his family if he has one, will be subordinate. Even if some of these details do become pertinent (the car's breaks have been tampered with, his food poisoned, his dog run over) they will become only narratively pertinent - in other words out of all the possible descriptions available in the tale, some will prove of much more important than others, even if while we are reading we don't exactly know which ones will prove relevant. Yet in the reading, there is often a cued sense of what matters, and even if a few of these details prove red herrings, false leads, then the thriller nevertheless doesn't insist that all details are equal. If a great deal is made of the detective getting in the car, detailing each street he turns down and round, driving very fast and taking a few reckless bends, we will probably be wondering what will be about to happen. When we reread the story all the details we notice have gone into building the suspense.
With tension, something else seems to be happening; especially in a story that wishes to explore a secret that cannot be revealed, only its contours countenanced. When a dog is run over in Carver's story this isn't a moment of suspense, it instead suggests the chaos of a couple's life as they try to buy their way out of trouble and get themselves into hopeless debt. "The portable air conditioner and the appliances, new washer and dryer...they gorged on food, He figures thousands on luxury items alone. Even a pedigreed terrier named Ginger. He paid two hundred and found her run over in the street a week later." If the thriller expects us to turn the page with anticipation, the sort of story we are talking about is more likely to have us turning the pages back, trying to find in the entire content of the tale the secret that it refuses to yield. When the driver turns up at Leo and Toni's door, he is there to drop off Toni's make-up bag, a magnanimous gesture perhaps, but both a risky venture and an intrusive action. If Leo doesn't know how to take it, it rests in the manifold possibilities surrounding the delivery. A sub-textual story would be inclined to make the bag implicit rather than explicit. Hemingway brilliantly offered sub-text in the briefest of his stories. "For Sale: Baby's Shoes. Never worn." That is the entire story, and few will be in any doubt that the explicit meaning of the tale is that a baby has died. The implicit meaning rests in selling the shoes and we can work out exactly why. It is an astonishing piece of what would now be called flash fiction, and a marvellous example of implication over explication. Yet the story would contain no secret as we are choosing to define it. The implicit meaning is clear.
By contrast, very brief stories by Borges, Kelman, Kafka and Carver contain the implicit within the unknowable, as if they seek not the underpinning meaning that can be fished out, but the indeterminate that cannot be asserted. In Kelman's thirteen line story 'Acid', a young man in a factory in the north of England falls in a vat of acid and everybody hearing the young man's horrible screams cannot move. The only one who moves into action is the father, who also works in the factory, and takes a large pole and pushes the remaining part of the young man further into the acid, the lad's head and his shoulders. What is the meaning of this story? We know the meaning of Hemingway's - we just don't have it stated. Yet 'Acid' asks us to muse over a number of things without offering us anything we might call categorical. Is the father the foreman as well as the dad; is it his purpose to make sure a job is well done: that his son is finally an accident at work? Instead of grieving his child he automatically moves into practical mode? We cannot say what the story is about, only what it makes us speculate upon.
This is also evident in Carver's tale, 'The Father'. What is the sub-text evident in the story that we can say is so clearly apparent in Hemingway's? The story seems less implicit than investigatory: it appears more to be asking a question rather than answering it abstractly. What happens is that various characters are musing over who the baby in the sitting room looks like. Various comparisons are made, and the father hears all this from the next room. Then someone asks who the father looks like and nobody can come up with any similarities with others in the family. The story ends with the father turning white, turning towards them as they look at him in the kitchen. The only one looking down is the grandmother, unable it would seem to look at her son. We have no idea why, and no hypothesis would seem to quite fit. Has he been adopted; did she have an affair? What is the shame she feels, if it is shame at all as she looks down? We cannot easily know, yet we might feel a quiet devastation as the story finishes, with the father's body intact but his identity quietly shattered. Like Kelman's story this is a family tale, but the question of family is displaced, thrown into the void.
In different ways, Borges' 'Borges and I' and Kafka's 'Bachelor's Ill Luck', are stories that in the loosest of formulations could be called autobiographical. In the former, the narrator says "I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me." In the latter, the story starts "it seems so dreadful to stay a bachelor, to become an old man struggling to keep one's dignity while begging for an invitation" and ends "that's how it will be, except that, in reality, both today and later, one will stand there with a palpable body and a real head, a real forehead, that is, for smoting on with one's hand." Yet Borges and Kafka don't so much avoid the autobiographical as void it, making it somehow irrelevant to another issue that turns the story into an impossible question that we cannot expect to answer but whose question hangs over an epistemological abyss. As Blanchot says of Kafka: "Perhaps Kafka wanted to destroy his works, since they seemed to him condemned to increase universal misunderstanding. When we see the disorder in which the work reaches us...when we see his silent work invaded by the chatter of commentaries, these unpublishable books made the subject of endless publications, this timeless creation changed into a footnote to history, we begin to ask ourselves if Kafka himself had foreseen such a disaster in such a triumph." (The Work of Fire) Blanchot is here playing fair to the enigma of the work and the void it generates. Much of Kafka's fiction, like Borges' story, doesn't create meaning, it acknowledges a basic absence in 'meaning'. Like Carver's 'The Father' and Kelman's 'Acid', they are recklessly brief, as if each one acknowledges the irrelevance of length and narrative development to state so obviously an absence. This, of course, doesn't mean a lengthy work cannot contain within it the absence these stories reveal, but it is also certainly the case that because the question lies not in the generation of the meaningful, but the constant threat of the meaningless, why elaborate when it can so immediately be captured?
We shall end with a writer we mentioned in passing initially but who throughout this piece we have thus far ignored: Roberto Bolano. Was Bolano just a literary fashion, someone who died at the right time and whose prolific output gave publishers the opportunity to make a killing out of an early death, and with the writer no longer around to make too many demands on how the work should be put out into the world? If we think not, it doesn't only rest on books so big that they would impress us on a set of scales, it also resides in short stories that manage to generate a mystery that is greater than the content they focus upon. Mystery and suspense are easily generated in mechanical form. A murder has been committed: who is responsible? There might be some skill involved in the logic of the story unfolding, but not especially in the set-up. Equally, suspense can be offered even in our daily life as we play a trick on someone. Did you see what is behind that corner you say to a friend while you are out walking and come across a disused farmhouse. The light is fading, nobody else is around and there you are. You tell them to go ahead and look. You will watch their back. They walk slowly trepidatiously, and you disappear around the other side of the house and surprise them: that 'somebody' is you tricking them. They scream in half-shock and half-relief. Catharsis is achieved.
To achieve the shock is thus not difficult, but to achieve the resonant within terror is rather more demanding, and to expand it into a cosmic fear is something else again. Does Bolano achieve this in a story that the narrator all but acknowledges is banal? In 'The Phonecall', B falls in love with X. X finishes the relationship and B suffers but in time seems to recover. Years pass and B contacts X again. They meet up, sleep together and he falls back in love; she becomes aloof. In time she is murdered and B is one of the suspects: he would call her at night silently. They find the killer. Someone who harassed her with anonymous phone calls. Rather like 'The Father', the story ends on a void, but how can we describe its contours? Perhaps by emphasising the passage "I'm disappearing thinks B. She's rubbing me out and she knows what she's doing." If B loves X more than X loves B, then B likes himself much more than X likes X. When the brother says after her death and after the police regard him as a suspect, "you've always been unlucky, haven't you," he thinks this a little odd. After all, the sister is dead; he is alive. B's misfortune would seem to reside in falling in love with X. X's misfortune is being X. There may often be a thin line between self and other in love that the narrator emphasises at the beginning of the story when he says, "there was time in his life when B would have done anything for X, as people generally say and think when they are in love." But a gap is still evident. By the end of the story X is dead and B feels he doesn't exist as the story manages to suggest somehow that whether it is death, being weakened by love, or the void, they all occupy a similar space. The story's achievement is to acknowledge the banalities of the affair while emphasising the significance of the event contained within. This is partly formal (the third person narrator using the present tense and the abstracted names), but it finally rests on the capacity to ask a question that the story cannot close down. It takes fiction to the edge, as if beyond sub-text and beyond the epiphanic. It is the void of being in the contours of literary creation. There are numerous other stories of course that achieve this, and sometimes by writers we might not generally believe are interested in this question; others who can't leave it alone. These would include 'The Twins' by Muriel Spark, a story by William Trevor, 'In at The Birth', and one by Miguel de Unamuno, 'Saint Emmanuel, the Good Martyr'. They are often modern stories but not necessarily so; it is just the presence of the void has become a contemporary fascination in literature even if it is, of course, an ever-present facet of our being. It is the secret that has no name, but whose contours can nevertheless be explored within a certain preoccupation.
© Tony McKibbin