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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Today, the Missouri Review presents our seventh installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by David Zane Mairowitz, whose story “Greek Tragedy” appeared in our Spring 2016 issue.
Efficiency: Short Story Meets Radio Drama
This summer will mark fifty years since I went permanently transatlantic (west-east) on the SS United States, (most likely crossing the specters of my Polish families coming in the opposite direction some fifty years earlier), carrying precious little in my cultural baggage–at most, peanut butter, baseball, the short story. With great suffering, in my self-willed exile, I might learn to fend without the first two, but never the third.
I have always earned my living from my writing but would be willing to starve and do little else but create stories and be remunerated in crumbs, if that were the case. I simply lack the craft or the staying power to go the whole hog into novel territory, but I’m comfortable and fully at home in the short form. To extend one of my opening points into metaphor, I’m not a long-ball hitter and get quickly winded rounding the bases, but over the years I’ve taught myself to perfect and execute the bunt.
Some thirty years ago, however, I stumbled on a literary form which I’ve managed to turn into my central occupation, one which will probably seem odd and almost science fictional to most Americans–the radio drama. Yes, this peculiar breed, once also a staple of U.S. broadcasting, then rendered defunct (with some erratic exceptions) first in the days of the blacklist and then television, still thrives in many European countries, chiefly Germany, but also England, Switzerland, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, etc. We’re talking about millions of listeners, literally, not an esoteric minority. I write and direct radio dramas in all these countries.
Which brings me full circle to the short story. Although a radio drama (average length these days forty-five to sixty minutes) is meant to be as comprehensive as a full-length stage play or feature movie, telling a coherent story from start to finish, the constraints of radio bring it closer for me to the size and outlook of the short story.
Writing for radio brings the toughest lessons in economy I know. Because there is no image to distract the listener and allow his brain to wander, thereby relaxing and extending his subjective time, and because the listener’s mind is called on to do half the mental work (the creation of images provoked by sound), everything which happens in radio is in real time and exceedingly swift. You cannot (dare not) overextend the capacity for listening with excess or the listener will literally switch off. There is an old tendency in many countries to equate radio drama with theatre, but the former simply does not have the luxury of time squandering, and is a much closer cousin to the cinema in its rapidity of sequence and editing.
And this is where it meets the short story. Neither of these forms is “limited” for me, while I consider a “short short story” or a fifteen-minute radio drama (not to be equated with a one-act play, by the way) anecdotal. These are clever tactical maneuvers with their own parameters, if you like, squeeze bunts with no more than sacrificial intention. On the other hand, a radio drama of fifty minutes, like a fair-sized short story, encompasses an entire narrative universe and requires only structural, but not substance-related compromises. Like a successful short story, it relies on efficiency and swiftness to produce an emotional power overstepping its short structural boundaries.
The key to this is what is called dramaturgy. If the compactness of radio drama has taught me anything over the years, it is that a lot of contemporary fiction, many fine movies and a great deal of drama are lacking in… drama. This is not to drop a value judgment here, but just to re-recognize that storytelling without strong dramaturgy, without twists and turns, without surprise and, above all, dramatic deception is somehow missing an essential cylinder.
I’ve managed, over the years, to adapt quite a few of my short stories into radio plays, where the fit in terms of size, i.e., internal time, is usually perfect. A limited number of characters (in radio, overstep this restraint at your peril!), although not a reduced geography (in comparison to theatre, the sky’s the limit), a psychological perspective which fifty minutes can accommodate. In contrast, I’ve adapted Melville, Kafka, Camus novels for radio, but these require much more radio time (usually in serial form) and always lose something essential in the squeezing down. Of course, radio also relies on a modicum of narration which helps the transition from prose, but (for me) there’s nothing more boring than soundwork which talks endlessly without sufficient acoustic change, and (private value judgment!) I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone (aside from a blind person, for obvious reasons) would want to lend his ears to what is politely known as an “audiobook.”
By far the most successful radio form (with the public, including downloads) is what the Germans call Der Krimi, the French le polar, the detective/criminal/thriller drama. My own version has had a (so far) ten-year run on the German radio circuit and concerns Detective Marlov, the only private gumshoe tolerated in the former Soviet Union. With openhearted homage to R. Chandler, for me personally teacher-supreme in both the art of economy and dramaturgy. And whose dialogue as well as narration sound as if they were written in the era of (which they were) and for (which they weren’t in the first instance) radio.
David Zane Mairowitz is an author/ playwright/ radio director. He lives currently in Berlin and in Avignon in the south of France. He is the most produced author of radio dramas in Europe. His short story “Hector Composes a Circular Letter to His Friends to Announce His Survival of an Earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter Scale” won a Pushcart Prize for the Missouri Review.
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
I love to wander and walk. I love the anonymity that cities provide. But I don’t love crowds and I hate being jostled. I like looking, mostly through a camera lens, at landscapes that bewilder and intrigue me. And I’m drawn to characters who function in their fictional worlds in similar ways, who watch and scrutinize and meander and collect and document their surroundings. I don’t need a lot of plot from the novels I read; I’m often distrustful of a page-turner. But give me an astute observer, perhaps not always trustworthy, and I’m hooked.
The flaneur might be the most recognizable, even romantic, observer/wanderer in literature. Thanks to Walter Benjamin, we know how Baudelaire crafted this figure in his poetry. We might recognize him as Frederik in Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, as Isherwood’s alter-ego in Goodbye to Berlin, and as Sasha or Sally, the female flaneurs in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. The flaneur, historically male, made his presence felt in early nineteenth century literature as a figure who stood apart from the city, even as he appeared to fuse with it. He contemplated the city’s fragmented parts from the vantage point of his own isolation in order to form an intellectual understanding of the whole. To the flaneur, the city—its architecture, its alleyways and city blocks, its anonymous faces and disparate sounds – becomes layered with meaning. The flaneur arrives at a city in flux, where rapid changes in technology and development have created estrangement between individuals and their environment. The flaneur attempts to bring intellectual clarity to the dynamism and variety of the urban society he observes.
The flaneur, we might imagine, is detached, at ease in the crowd, a roaming camera who stands in for the author. He uses his own anonymity to blend into the crowd, but he illuminates his own individuality through sharp perceptions and smart interpretations, making meaning out of the fragments of his observations. But some critics argue that the flaneur isn’t as free or self-determining as he appears. He sees and yet does not see; he knows and yet does not know. There is a chasm between his inner reality and the world of action that surrounds him. Nietzsche described his type as a “strolling spectator of historical events which leave him essentially untouched.” The contradiction seems important – is the flaneur an active observer who illuminates meaning and is thereby changed by it, or is he a passive watcher who remains isolated and untouched by the changing world around him?
One version of the flaneur belongs to the same social and moral universe as the spy and detective; both all seeing and invisible – he can assume a variety of disguises while he retains his unique identity and vigor that match the activity of the crowd. In contrast, the more passive flaneur absorbs and is absorbed by the flux of urban life. He is a man of the crowd rather than being set off from the crowd, and the city becomes the means by which he can escape from himself. This is a character of melancholy despair (and in his contemporary form, ironic detachment). The anxiety that the flaneur illuminates is of an evolving(?) city that, as a result of complex social changes, no longer has any true citizens or individuals, but only a blur of undifferentiated inhabitants. In his late 19th century incarnation, the flaneur often found himself wandering through European streets, concerned with a localized space in flux. Though this early flaneur is a cosmopolitan subject in many cases – an intellectual, a traveler, a man of the world – he is also a national construction; his identity is fused to the city and nation he observes.
While the figure of the flaneur is associated with the European novels of the 19th and early 20th century, and most particularly a figure of Paris, there has been a resurgence of this character in recent novels, though in a slightly altered form. W.G. Sebald’s novels often have a flaneur figure at their center, who is usually searching the geography of the city to locate both personal meaning and collective history. More recently, Teju Cole’s Open City uses a wandering, traveling, flaneur figure to observe and comment on contemporary urban life. In these novels, a permeating ennui, a persistent disassociation seems to have entrapped the flaneurs at the center of the book. For Sebald’s characters, the ghostly traces of the Holocaust haunt their perambulations through the cities they find themselves in. But the anxieties of Cole’s flaneur seems less defined, the causes of his melancholy and passivity a bit trickier to locate. A more amorphous, more seeping global anxiety preoccupies him.
Open City is a book that transforms and reinterprets the 19th century flaneur into a contemporary figure who uses the geography of the city (in this case New York City and Brussels) to illuminate both personal and public meaning out of a network of connections across place and time. To Cole’s flaneur Julius, the city’s geography – its architecture and art, its momentarily illuminated individuals, its rivers and neighborhood blocks – reveal the ghostly traces of the past as they collide with the present. He uses the city’s stories to reflect on his own; by consuming himself in the city’s networked narratives, he triggers his own memories. In this way, he emulates the traditional flaneur’s detective approach to looking; he observes the city from an engaged and interested distance, and in doing so, makes meaning out of the city’s fragmented histories as well as his own.
Unlike the earlier flaneur figures – like Flaubert’s Frederik – who became a lens through which to see the localized changes to a contemporary French society, Cole’s flaneur Julius has a more global gaze. Julius himself was born in Nigeria to a German mother and Nigerian father; he moves to New York to pursue his studies and travels to Belgium in order to locate his maternal grandmother. But like the earlier flaneur, he is an intellectual, a cosmopolitan subject who easily blends in with an urban crowd while at the same time is separate from it, casting his meticulous, educated eye on the landscape before him. Julius is a reticent narrator; we only learn about him through the ways in which he sees the city, through the music he appreciates, the art that moves him, the monuments that make him pause. All the while, though, we sense his deep melancholia, his nursing of old wounds, his disassociation from his own past. In fact, the entire novel seems to be a tug of war between Julius’s active looking and his melancholic solitude and disappearance into the facts and histories of the worlds he encounters.
While Julius contemplates the mundane busyness of universal city life, most of his prolonged inquiries focus on sites of trauma – the cordoned off spaces of ground zero, a monument documenting the slave trade, a photography exhibit connected to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Even in more localized spaces, Julius weaves together a network of geographic and historical linkages, fusing the present to the past, the here to the there. Just after he passes the ruins of the World Trade Center, a “metonym of its disaster,” Julius approaches Hudson River, contemplating both the history of immigration and the slave trade. The specter of 9/11 hovers over New York, but Julius refuses to see this event in isolation. Later, when he visits Brussels, Julius will debate with Moroccan immigrants the global nature of 9/11 and the links between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda that travel across national boundaries throughout the world. As he contemplates Brussels from the plane and once he’s landed, Julius thinks of the traumas of World War II, his friend Professor Seito’s imprisonment in the American internment camps, the conflicts during Nigeria’s civil war, the atrocities inflicted by the Belgian kings on the Congo, as well as the present reality of Europe being a place where “borders were flexible.” In another section of the novel, Julius will reflect on his friends’ anxiety about global climate change and environmental disasters. This flaneur is not contemplating a localized anxiety, but a series of global anxieties that might be triggered by a local trace but become networked in a series of threads across place and history.
Cole isn’t the only contemporary writer who reinterprets the flaneur figure as a lens to investigate the changing nature of cities and their interconnectedness (through terrorism, climate change, economic recessions, and immigration tensions, to name a few global links). In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s infuriatingly passive but smart and astute American poet in Madrid witnesses the 2004 train bombings. Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room uses a misanthropic traveler to reflect on the Gulf War, the aftermath of apartheid, and elections in Tanzania. In Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis’s reclusive Tatania, a Mexican Jew living in Berlin, wanders the city, interacting with almost no one, but observing Germany’s present-day hate crimes against the remaining shadows of the Holocaust.
I realize I’m making these novels sound like real downers. But for all of the melancholy and angst and anxiety in these narratives, there is also the energetic intelligence, insight, and wit of the flaneur narrators. They make recognizable passageways unfamiliar, and they reveal the footsteps of the travelers who have come before them. Not so different from detective novels or even ghost stories, flaneur novels expose the mysteries, the buried histories, and the darkened alleys of place and memory.
Joanna Luloff is the author of the story collection The Beach at Galle Road (Algonquin, 2012), a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. She is a fiction editor for the journals Memorious and Copper Nickel, and is an assistant professor of English at University of Colorado Denver.
Over a decade ago, my brother and I packed up our binders filled with Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and various sports trading cards and set them in my mother’s basement, where they would go untouched and forgotten amid shelves of once beloved puzzles, board games, and even a coffee tin filled with the gel pens and colored pencils that were a staple of my junior high doodling phase. Although I live over a hundred miles away from my adolescent home, giving in to the hype by downloading Pokemon Go felt like picking at this scab that healed over during my childhood; a sort of reopening of the binders that are stocked with too few Mewtwo cards and too populous Magikarps.
These trading cards gave my brother and me the ability—at least for a couple of hours at a time—to become Pokemon masters in our own fictional versions of our Midwestern realities. Pokemon Go has only continued my ongoing exploration of the narratives I’ve grown up loving: fictional stories, despite how far-off they may be, that effectively cloak me into worlds which thrill me as I explore them for the time being.
This summer, I thrust myself into the horrific yet entertaining world Lee Ki-ho creates in At Least We Can Apologize. This novel follows the lives of Jin-man and Si-bong, two men who are forced to make a living by using one of the few skills they acquired while imprisoned: forcing people to find guilt within themselves in order for an apology to be given on their behalf. Many of the appalling lengths that Jin-man and Si-bong go to survive are hard to stomach, but the apologies are presented in a satirical tone, which surprisingly makes for a juxtaposition that works. With the introduction of Pokemon Go and my continual tendency to read for pleasure, this has been a summer where I have engulfed myself more and more in fictional worlds amid my Midwestern reality.
Sherell Barbee has just completed her second semester of the internship program at the Missouri Review, where she works on the social media team and as our contest assistant.
As with every summer, I have a long reading list waiting which I will never even make a dent in. It is full of unread classics like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as science fiction must-reads like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I know I’ll read less than half of them before the summer is done, but I pile up my list just the same, adding more and more novels as I visit bookstores and hear titles from friends throughout the summer.
Currently I am reading a book that wasn’t even on my list originally—The Passage by Justin Cronin. It is a science fiction story of Stephen-King proportions recommended to me by my father, who has already devoured both sequels. With vampires who share a lot in common with zombies, a corrupt government manipulating the monsters, and a six-year-old girl caught up in it all, the novel is a thrilling read.
I have also started reading Alexander Chee’s novel Queen of the Night, about an opera singer with a complicated past. I was lucky enough to attend Chee’s master class at Northwestern University, where he discussed writing techniques and his first (and wonderful) novel Edinburgh.
After these, I plan to pick up another of my father’s recommendations, Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, the first in a long series of detective novels. These take place in the American Southwest and explore the culture of the area, something I am immensely fascinated by.
Libby Peterson interned at the Missouri Review this summer and is a student at Northwestern University majoring in Anthropology. She also plans to apply for the Creative Writing major.
Today, in our viProse section, the Missouri Review features Seth Fried’s mind-bending story “The Evil Tyrant of Ten-Kurk,” which originally appeared in TMR 36:4. Fried’s story illustrates evil and its manifestations with originality and skill. Here TMR summer interns Libby Peterson, Elana Williams, and Steven Zokal weigh in on what intrigued them about the story.
“The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk,” from our Winter 2013 issue, was Seth Fried’s third appearance in TMR. The story is a dark commentary on morality and human nature. You can read the story here.
As the title suggests, “The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk” focuses on an unnamed tyrant ruling over the mythical country of Ten Kurk. The story has an objective tone and experimental structure that reminded us of a textbook, featuring headings such as “The Tyrant’s Dungeon” and “Defending the Tyrant.” Each section discusses a separate aspect of the tyrant, his nature, and his country; and each expands the definitions of good and evil themselves.
Right off the bat, as readers, we become aware that it is not the narrative we should be concerned with; rather, it’s the moral substance. What truly differentiates the tyrant from the masses he controls? What makes him more evil than the next person? How is “evil” even defined?
One section, titled “The Tyrant on the Subject of Evil,” quotes the despot’s manifesto:
“‘Many claim to know what evil is,’ the tyrant writes in his Meditations, ‘but their thoughts on the matter are always far from rigorous. This is because the distinction itself is irrational. At best, the recognition of evil is an expression of emotion.’”
The piece at times convinces us the tyrant is evil beyond doubt: “The tyrant is fascinated by torture despite the fact that he has no appetite for the resulting gore. He is enthralled by every inch of the pendulum’s descent but becomes visibly bored once the prisoner’s torso is split,” Fried writes.
At other points, such as the story’s opening, where the tyrant is sitting bored in his throne room, readers are forced to grapple with a reality that humanizes him. This was very intentional on Fried’s part, as he explained to us: “We never see Darth Vader sit on the edge of a couch and rub his own feet at the end of the day,” Fried said of the piece’s first scene. “It’s as if his whole existence is just spent in really tense meetings where he’s threatening to choke everybody with his mind. So I thought it’d be fun to see a purely evil person in a moment of repose. The descriptions I came up with ended up evolving into an examination of what it would mean for a leader to be absolutely evil, what it would be like to live under that, and what the word ‘evil’ even means.”
Today, The Missouri Review presents the ninth installment of its Summer Reading series, designed to provide recommendations for summer reads from authors and Missouri Review staff members. This week’s installment comes from two authors whose writing is featured in the Summer 2016 issue. Charles Harmon, a newcomer, makes his fiction debut with the comic story “Somewhere Else,” and Peter Cooley, whose poetry we first published in 1978, has work in our pages for the fifth time in thirty-eight years.
I teach drama history for a living, and I am scheduled to teach three new courses next year, so I’ve been plowing through a lot of plays from the early twentieth century these past few weeks. One that
I am recommending to people–it’s not forgotten, exactly, but lots of
people haven’t heard of it–is Rachel, a Play in Three Acts by Angelina Weld Grimké. It was written in 1916, and it’s about a family that has moved north in the aftermath of having the father of the family lynched. As they try to put their lives back together, they struggle to maintain psychological barriers between themselves and the new, urban world around them, which, although it provides a greater measure of physical safety to them than they knew in the south, still does its best to grind down their self-esteem in a million little ways. I think it’s great. What’s not so great is how relevant to the contemporary US the play still is.
Once I get my courses all set, and in a completely different vein, I’m going to read the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. That’ll be my reward for being such a responsible citizen and getting all ready for the next school year!
For my poetry reading I have been looking at Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis, the first a stunning first book by a twenty-eight year old, the second a posthumous collection by a visionary poet I have loved for years.
For fiction I have been reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III,a volume which is four novellas under one cover.
I have always loved the novella form, and these characters of Dubus really stand up and walk off the page and stay with you, haunting you after the book is done.
Charles Harmon was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1962 and grew up in Mountain Home, Arkansas. He attended Hendrix College, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and The Ohio State University. He lives in Chicago and works as a lecturer in the Theatre Department at Northwestern University. “Somewhere Else” is his first published piece of fiction.
A native of the Midwest and a graduate of the Writers’ Work- shop at the University of Iowa, Peter Cooley has lived over half his life in New Orleans, where he is a professor of English, direc- tor of the creative writing program, and Senior Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane University. Married and the father of three children, he has published nine books, eight of them with Carnegie Mellon. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Nation, the New Republic, and in over one hundred anthologies. Cooley has been the recipient of an ATLAS grant from the state of Louisiana and of the Marble Faun Poetry Award from the Faulkner Society in New Orleans. He is the poetry editor of Christianity and Literature and Louisiana poet laureate.
Peter Cooley’s latest book of poetry is entitled Night Bus to the Afterlife and is another excellent summer reading choice.