Short Story Month, Day 19: "Against Specificity"
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from author Kyle Minor.
I just finished reading Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite, newly published in trade paperback from BOA Editions. “Against Specificity,” the first story in the collection, is among the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever read. It begins like this: “The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.”
This is as good a distillation of general Americanness as I can imagine, and it’s also the bare bones set-up that fuels 90% of all American fiction. The standard advice offered to fiction writers — concrete, not abstract; specific, not general — is advice Watson ignores. But he ignores in the way that is almost always the most generative of something new: He pushes against the good advice as hard and as far in the opposite direction as he can, until what would otherwise be ill-advised becomes better than what could possibly have been merely good.
The reader is reminded, in “Against Specificity,” of the thought experiment David Foster Wallace offered in his paired half-stories titled “Adult World.” In the first half, Wallace offers a set-up of no small domestic trouble between a man and a woman, and he writes in a low-key register the movements through the cause-and-effect chain. But at the halfway point, he abandons the prose in favor of a schematic outline of the second half of the story, in which he shows each of the beats the story will cycle past, and offers notes about what they’ll mean for the characters, what everyone will want, what will be withheld from everyone, and how everyone will feel about all of it. The reader gets the sense of a writer wrestling with himself, at first abandoning the realist prose in order to ridicule its conventions by showing the machinery that lies beneath them, but then, as the writer moves through the machinery, there is a growing sense that the writer is nonetheless moved by what the machinery is offering up in the lives of the man and the woman. The reader is moved, too. It is a shock to feel such an emotional response to an outline meant to undermine the emotional response that the story would otherwise provoke. Ultimately, Wallace seems to be showing the reader how the machine itself is as much a thing of beauty as the lives of the characters who are animated by it, and the reader or writer who admires formal experiments away from the realist/domestic wing of American fiction might also be forced to consider, because of Wallace’s recontextualization, the beauty of the form that underlies even the dominant kind of story against which the reader or writer might be rebelling, and the things that character-driven fiction might yet have to offer literature in the hands of a writer whose restlessness might animate it yet again.
That’s the kind of recontextualization “Against Specificity” serves up, as well, except instead of stripping away the prose, as Wallace did, Watson strips away the names of everything — characters, objects of desire, the settings in which the psychodramas of want are played out — and replaces them with variables (Thing A, Thing B, Thing C, Thing D) and unspecific grounds of action (the Thing Exchange.)
At the same time, Watson lards his metaphors with specifics. The longed-for Thing A “shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus,” and if “joy itself were sugar maple, Thing A would be the syrup joy gave.”
The Thing Exchange itself is a Kafkaesque maze of procedures. Wanters of Things must take numbers and wait in lines, even though there might be no one else waiting. Maybe the clerk who forces the waiters to wait might be reading a book titled Against Specificity, and if you ask how the book is, the reply might be: I really can’t describe it.
Halfway through the story there is a run of dialogue among “you,” the silence, the disembodied voice, and the person, in which a great many people say the word “Nothing” in a row, but each iteration of Nothing seems to mean something different, which the reader will know by context, and the segment ends with this line: “The silence is great with child.”
By time the reader gets to the story’s ending, the reader might feel indicted (the fact that the story is written in second person probably contributes to this feeling), and who among us hasn’t been burdened with this trouble of being stuck with Thing B but wanting Thing A, fighting hard to get Thing A, offloading Thing B, and then living with the trouble of not knowing whether it was the right thing to offload Thing B for Thing A?
The story’s ending is worth quoting in full:
“About this truth: It is not that you wish you had held on to Thing B–you don’t. Nor do you foresee diminishing returns from your possession and observation of Thing A. You have not suddenly found allegorical meaning in your life, or for that matter in your mother’s. Indeed, this truth has nothing to do with your mother. Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents. The truth that roars now in your mind the way a furnace roars in the dead heart of winter has nothing to do with the Thing Exchange or any of its employees, not even your neighbor. It does not in any way involve circus clowns, scurvy, oranges, or out-of-work magistrates. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the road to hell, down which you are by no means walking, your hands in your pockets, your feet scuffing the hides of the well-intentioned, your mind turning over and over the question of which you prefer: the little that is or the nothing that will be. There is no one to help you decide.”
Kyle Minor’s second collection of short fiction, Praying Drunk, will be published by Sarabande Books in February 2014. His recent work appears in Iowa Review, Forty Stories: New Voices from HarperPerennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Photo by Jen Percy. To learn more, visit Kyle at www.kyleminor.com.