Posts Tagged ‘William maxwell’

An Empty Room by Mu Xin

January 18, 2012

I’ve been having a hard time deciding how to talk about An Empty Room.  On the one hand, they remind me of a current crop of stories I’ve read by William Maxwell called Billie Dyer and other stories. They have the same vaguely autobiographical nature, a similar meandering spoken wordiness to them that made me think of kneeling on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen as she cooked lunch and talked about when a raccoon was cornered up in the Petry’s barn and they took a dog up on a leash to help flush it out, only to have the coon take off, the dog get overly excited and snap the leash and follow the coon right out the hay loft’s window. Miraculously, the dog was unharmed, though a bit leery of barns afterward.

I would almost call the stories parables. The first story, The Moment Childhood Vanished, recounts a visit to a temple by a boy and his mother, how the boy has a favorite rice bowl, but forgets it at the temple after they have already descended all of the steps and are about to leave. The mother has someone run all the way back to the temple, and fetch bowl, only for the boy to accidentally drop it into the river and watch it sink out of sight. Rather than be angry, the mother simply tells him to come get some tea…that “such things won’t be rare occurrences in the future.” The narrator confesses that this doesn’t become a rare occurrence, and that many things in his life have become lost, and occasionally broken. While this ending doesn’t exactly come out of the blue, if it isn’t hinted at directly in the text, there is a palpable darkness to the story that foreshadows the dark advice of the child’s mother, the ending does pop out in such a way that says, “this is important!”

Eighteen Passangers on a Bus runs a similar path.  The narrator talks about how the place he worked had two vehicles and one driver, Li Shan . He talks about how he wasn’t thrilled with his job and that his wife suggested he get another job. It’s mentioned that the narrator got driving lessons from Li Shan. The bulk of the story is taken with Li Shan being late to drive everyone to a business function. when he shows up, everyone on the bus hassles him, and the narrator eventually defends him, only to be targeted himself. Then Li Shan turns on him, kicks him off the bus, physically knocking him from the side of the vehicle. The narrator watches the bus careen off a cliff, and it ends with the narrator letting us know that it wasn’t one thing, but an accumulation of things that had pushed Li Shan over the edge towards killing everyone on the bus.  Li Shan driving everyone off the highway and sending everyone in the bus to their death is part of the story, but what it dovetails with is the earlier unhappiness felt by the narrator over his own life. Knowing that it wasn’t just one thing, but an accumulation of things, that finally pushed Li Shan to desperation, we are reminded of the vague unhappiness the narrator was suffering from earlier.

I think it’s significant that this isn’t really a standalone collection of stories, but apparently some form of a collection that the author picked from three earlier volumes of short stories. Despite this, it still reads as a coherent whole, it doesn’t read like a random “Best Of” collection, but a group of stories chosen to explore a theme, idea or form.  I find it similar to Billie Dyer and Other Stories by William Maxwell, or, as I said earlier, a collection of parables. The fact that the collection begins with an allusion to childhood and ends with a cemetery lends to the biographical air of the collection, and to the idea that it could also be a collection roughly documenting the arc of life.  On impulse, near the physical center of the book (the collection stretchs roughly 145 pages, this story began on page 75), there is a story about a young man spending a summer with an aunt and uncle who get along, but who have never really talked about an event earlier in their marriage, though each has their suppositions. However, the lack of communication has tainted their marriage for years. I don’t think it is an accident that this comes roughly in the center of the collection, with a younger person being shown mistakes to avoid in the second half of his life.

Alright, this has gotten a bit rambly, so I’m just going to cut it off here. I think the areas of interest for me are how the stories resemble parables, the collection roughly mirroring the course of a life, and how the main characters in a number of the stories are impacted by events, but aren’t necessarily the main actors, and aren’t always sure why the events transpiring around them are taking place.

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So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – Review

June 3, 2010

Washington Post Book Club says of Maxwell’s work that “few books are more convincing rebukes to the seemingly never-ending age of the memoir and all its attendant cults of authenticity” this is as good a way of entry as any into So Long, See You Tomorrow. From a single moment passing, in the hall of a new school, a friend made over one summer Maxwell unfurls  a long carpet of America.

From this moment, Maxwell talks about class, about social status, about how men and women interact with each other and the various types of power at play in every situation. Over the course of its slender 135 pages, So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unflinching, almost cruel examination of a moment that has clearly come to haunt a man throughout his life.

And it is such a small moment.

To transpose some of my personal feelings onto this, I want to say this is an argument for how important the little things are in life -especially in retrospect. Being kind to this once friend in a school hallway would have taken the smallest of acts, it would have taken a hello, a how are you. Though, as the narrator often laments, it’s not always as easy as it appears and even in his old age he wonders if he could have done anything different in that moment other than what he had done; if he would have the emotional and social dexterity to pull anything else off.

Going back over the book, So Long, See You Tomorrow is almost like a middle aged man’s equivalent of catcher in the Rye. The selfish melodramas that surrounded Caulfield’s thoughts are gone, replaced by a meloncholiac nostalgia and a horrible knowledge of the weight of happenstance and the weight of the burden of youth and the mistakes made.

This is a pretty uncritical blog entry. I haven’t been looking for themes explored in the work or tying them to other authors, other works.  There is a solitude to all of the characters that is numbing in its truth. Nearly everything that happens seems to come as an extension of a desperation to not be trapped within such solitude, to step out and make a connection, any connection with someone else. then there is the tragedy that this desperation can cause.  It’s strange, but the only time anyone seems to be truly happy in the novel, contend with the companionship they have found, is when the two boys are playing in the half finished home. There is a more feverish contentment between the adulterers, one where the woman reaps a horrible wrath on her husband for not giving her a divorce, but it lacks the ease of the relationship between the two boys, their lack of pretense, of shame.

I can’t remember where I heard it, but I remember hear that loneliness is the death of all men and, in this story, loneliness seems to be slowly killing everyone and the need to escape it is the motivator for much of the action. Then, it is the narrators refusal to attempt to break solitude that causes him the most anguish in his life, remembering years later how he hadn’t been able to say hello, wondering if his once friend ever got over all that had happened to him.

I think there is probably more to say about the time of day when much of the story seems to take place. It feels as if much of it was during that time of day when the sun was either just rising or just starting to set, that time when light is odd and the world looks different. And that the most violent aspects of the book were always carried out under lamp light, light created by man. Really, though, it’s just a wonderful read. Maxwell’s book takes you places.