Thursday, January 3, 2013

L. Annette Binder: Five Passages I Wish I’d Written (and a Poem)

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, L. Annette Binder, author of Rise (Sarabande Books), offers some of her favorite quotes.

Sometimes when I’m hard at work on a piece of fiction, I can’t read other prose. I’ll read magazines, foreign language dictionaries, camping gear catalogues, anything around the house that won’t encroach on my work. This can go on for weeks at a time.

Then I’ll finish my story or my chapter and resurface for a little while. I’ll read five or ten novels or story collections in quick succession, and I’ll be struck again by how many wonderful writers are out there, and even as I’m reading I’ll want to get back to work.

Here are a few fiction excerpts—some recent and some not, some only a sentence, some a little longer—that I return to time and again.

Number One:
“He was too excited to eat and afraid to go home. He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.”
– Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
Sometimes restraint leaves too many questions unanswered, as if the writer were undecided about the story and the characters and decides to cover for the undercooked narrative by withholding. Other times, as here, it opens entire worlds in a single paragraph.

Number Two:
“This is suffering’s lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize.”
– Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
Crystalline prose that describes—and transcends—the effects of serious illness on the body and the self. By the time Manguso gets to her final observation (just a few lines after this excerpt), it stops me still. It wrecks me every time I read it.

Number Three:
 “The overcoat was a trademark of his. It was an impermeable thrift-shop special with a plaid flannel lining and wide lapels, and it looked as though it had been trying for many years to keep the rain off the stooped shoulders of a long series of hard cases, drifters, and ordinary bums. It emitted an odor of bus station so desolate that just standing next to him you could feel your luck changing for the worse.”
– Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Large-hearted, funny, with wonderfully precise and ornate prose. A lesson in how to linger in a moment and how description can create character, and a reminder that stories don’t have to be dark to have great power.

Number Four:
“He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ”
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Astonishing. This novel is one of the most remarkable things written in the English language and one of the truest and most moving uses of first person I’ve read. Every time I see the moon I think of this passage.

Number Five:
“With a guide and a handful of children Maria walked through the chambers, stared at the turbines in the vast glittering gallery, at the deep still water with the hidden intakes sucking all the while, even as she watched; clung to the railings, leaned out, stood finally on a platform over the pipe that carried the river beneath the dam. The platform quivered. Her ears roared. She wanted to stay in the dam, lie on the pipe itself, but reticence saved her from asking.”
– Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
A key moment in the novel, in Didion’s distinctive prose. Reticence brought Maria to this terrible place, and reticence saved her, too. This novel taught me that a character can be passive and still be compelling. It showed me, too, how prose rhythm can heighten the reader’s experience of the characters’ alienation.

And the Poem:
The warning that reiterates across
The water: there might someday be fog
(They will be lost), there might very well
Be fog someday, and you will have nothing
But remembrance, and you will have to learn
To be grateful.
– Sarah Hannah, “For the Foghorn When There is No Fog” (full poem)
When a new journal comes to my house, I always read the poems first. They are a tuning fork and a comfort and this lovely poem by Sarah Hannah is one I return to often, for the perfection of its form and its soulfulness.

Remembrance and gratitude, these are two things that writing has taught me. Look around at the world, take it in, and be grateful for the chance to write your story and for the interruptions, too. You could have two hundred years to write and it wouldn’t be enough.