Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ben Greenman on Karmic Boomerangs and Sad-Sack Slapstick

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ben Greenman, author of What He's Poised to Do (Harper Perennial), discusses influences and mind control.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
It’s hard to pick a representative story, in part because the stories are all so different from one another, and my affection for them fluctuates. Depending on my mood, stories can feel lugubrious, or mannered, or glib. The one story that somehow remains in good standing is “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy For Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” It’s the story of a factory that manufactures a novelty called the Karmic Boomerang (normal old boomerangs packaged with moral or ethical questions), but beneath that it’s the story of two friends, and how they deal with disappointments, romantic and otherwise.

My fondness for this story comes from the fact that it takes up some of the questions that I think are always present in literary fiction (How do we process sadness? How do we endure change? Are we ever really brave enough to say true things to the people we love without worrying over the consequences of those disclosures?) and shows how they can be simultaneously addressed and evaded. It has the feel, at times, of a serious inquiry into these moral and ethical issues, and it’s also an exercise in mechanical comedy—it’s Sad-Sack Slapstick, which might not be an official genre, but should be.

Maybe I am doing a bad job describing it. It takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, on the imaginary border between Australia and India. It is printed on paper the same width and height as the other stories. Some stories, when I reread them, seem transparent. This one seems reflective, like a mirror with an inscription over it, and I think the inscription is this, which is stolen (let’s say borrowed) from Baudrillard: “The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence.”

What book made you want to become a writer?
First, Where the Red Fern Grows. You could express feelings on paper and not be embarrassed? Who knew? Then Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures. I was always a reader. Books, and the stories in them, not only helped me cultivate an internal world but also helped me avoid actual people. It was a win-win. But many stories seemed limited—or maybe it’s more precise to say that they respected limits. Then I read the first novella in Searches and Seizures, “The Making of Ashenden,” which blew up the entire notion of what a story was or could be. Without giving too much away, it’s the story of a young man of good breeding that electrically parodies nearly everything that has ever been written about young men: rags-to-riches tales, patrician fictions, bildungsromans, confessions, all of it.

I’ll only say two things about it. First, the narrator, Brewster Ashenden, is the son of the man who invented the slogan “Close cover before striking” for matchbooks. Second, he eventually has sex with a bear. I read the story, and reread it, and reread it again after that; it was the first time that I felt the energy of the writer coming through the page, at least in the sense that Elkin knew that he was performing a high-wire act. He knew there were risks, and he took them because the process of taking them pleased him. My work has sometimes been as experimental and strange, but even when it’s been more traditional, I have tried to remember that fiction, done right, is inherently subversive—it subverts reality—and that by only by undermining and overthrowing can we keep the rules honest.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.
When I was a graduate student, I noticed a strange phenomenon. If I gave students a short story to interpret, they would, and with lots of variation. Some would see it as a parable. Others would read the tone as blackly comic. But if I gave students a story with a few italic lines of introduction, their responses were narrowly restricted. If the introduction said it was written in response to the death of a parent, then it was. That flabbergasted me. It seemed to defy physics: How could a few little lines lift and turn the entire story? In previous collections, I’ve used this device more overtly. There’s an early story called “Getting Nearer to Nearism” that’s written in the form of an interview with an artist I invented, and it has a deadpan introduction that tells you how to handle the rest. What He’s Poised To Do returns to this site, but with slightly different equipment: It’s about letters and letter writing, so those questions of authority over text and meaning are built into every story, every narrator, and every plot.