In the 31st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, David Means, author of The Spot (Faber & Faber), reconnects with "The Dead" at 35,000 feet.
When I’m writing a first draft I try not to think too much about what the story might, in the end, be like. I go in as hard and tight as I can—writing usually by hand—and feel myself digging—as Seamus Heaney said in his great poem—with my pen. There’s a profound feeling creating a story, a sense of honing in on a missive, a single impulse—a cohesion of vision—heading toward the final page, up ahead, not too far. I’ve heard it said that characters are what count, that plot matters most, that there has to be an arc—rising action and all of that. But really, the form is much more mysterious than that and magically open to whatever it decides it needs to be, in the end, after intense revision, in order to draw the reader through a very particular experience to that final line, which then radiates out into an infinite space of the reader’s eternal imagination while, at the same time, throwing them back in a retroactive examination of what came before; that’s the beautiful thing about a great story, and the dangerous aspect—Frank O’Connor said that a story can easily end up a complete fiasco—involved.
On a flight home from Ireland a few days ago, after a quick visit to Dublin, where my wife and I stayed—accidentally—at the Gresham Hotel, the same hotel where the final scene from “The Dead” took place, I reread Joyce’s great masterpiece and felt, once again, the beautiful enigmatic sensation of that final gorgeous scene—pondering the whole thing with the actual hotel in mind, with a sense of what it might’ve been like to go up to that room on a cold, snowy night. The beautiful, sad lamentation of that moment, and the complexity of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, the dead memory of a boy named Michael Fury, in relation to the way time moves—“He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death”—could only work in relation to what had followed, earlier, in the story, to produce one single thing—again, an impulse—that, when held in my mind, threw me forward into the infinite future of my imagination and made me sit there, on the plane, in tears.
Maybe I’m being romantic, or an old fashion modernist, but on the plane I felt again the deep power of the short story form. It was a feeling that made me want to get home and to write again.