Monday, December 19, 2011

Peter Markus: Kafka’s Axe for the Frozen Sea (or How I Came to Be the Writer I Have Come to Be)

In the 50th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Peter Markus, author of We Make Mud (Dzanc Books), compares reading a short story collection to listening to a record.

In college, I was drawn to two books of stories written by writers, both dead, whose origins, like mine, were decidedly of the Midwest: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Nick Adams Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Both writers, both under the influence of another now-favorite of mine, Gertrude Stein, wrote about the particulars of small-town middle American landscapes in such a way that they seemed to give me permission to turn my own fictional attentions on my own small town backdrop that has, for anyone familiar with my work, a muddy river always running through it: a town and a river where boys—no, brothers—and sometimes men—most of them called Bob— spend the bulk of their time fishing for the river’s fish. 

But it was two other books at that time, too, by writers who at the time were both still alive and living, that really ran their nail of influence through me, their own river of words, mentor-works of fiction that made me want to write and to try to find a way to write the stories that would become my own, my own voice, my own particular landscape in the bigger landscape of American short fiction. The first of these two books was Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a book whose title alone, not so much its suggested subject matter—love and its failings—but the patterns of its lingual phrasing, its sense of stripped-down musicality and repetition, that made its way to my ears and eventually drove a nail right through to my writer’s heart. I remember opening up the Carver collection at random to find the story “Viewfinder,” a story that I teach at the beginning of every fiction workshop I now teach, a story about a man who has steel hooks for hands, a man who is in a way hand-less, and I remember the feeling that I was holding in my own hands stories whose sentences, like the characters themselves, had been stripped down to the rawest of bones.

Borders Book Shop, Ann Arbor, Mich.
A couple of years later, as I was about to graduate and leave Ann Arbor with the self-knowing that I was going to become, one way or another, a writer, I discovered that second of books that would change the way I not only wrote, but it changed the way that I experienced language both as a reader and a writer. That book, The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard, did violence to the way that I saw what a story was or what a story could be and the way that the sentence itself is the foundation and the source of fiction’s ultimate power. It’s a book that, as Kafka makes the bold point, was the axe that cut in half, that freed, the frozen sea inside of me.

I remember how The Ice at the Bottom of the World found its way to me, much like a fish that leapt up out of the river and slapped me in the face as if to say, Hey, look over here! I’d read a review of it in The New York Times Book Review, a review that talked about Richard’s hard-scrabble characters, fathers and sons, sailors newly home from sea, drunken uncles—get the picture?— stories, too, that, like both Hemingway and Anderson, had driving behind them and anchoring them to the page a strong sense of place (Mark Richard’s place being the American south). I surrendered from my tight fist a twenty dollar bill to the bald but bearded bookseller at the Ann Arbor Borders Books—the headquarter store of the now sunken chain—the sort of frivolous purchase that I rarely ever participated in back then when I was a lowly English major whose first job out of college would be working for five bucks under the table at a used bookstore in Detroit. I took The Ice at the Bottom of the World back home with me to my one-room efficiency on North Ingalls Street with the hope of spending the day with a book that I believed would speak and sing to me.

A day later I was back at Borders to ask for my money back. As I told the bookseller who asked why I was returning the book: “This book,” I sneered, “is unreadable!” The problem, needless to say, wasn’t the book, wasn’t the author, wasn’t the stories themselves. The problem was that I, as its reader, didn’t know how to read a writer whose stories demanded that they be read on their own terms: under their own lingual conditions. I wasn’t ready to read a book that was written not so much in English or the English that I was comfortably familiar with. No, this was a book written in one writer’s singular vision and reinvention of what language can become when we speak it and shape the particulars of our speech onto the page.

A few years later I picked up the book again, this time from a used bookstore for two bucks, but this time I was ready for, I was open to, its rhythms and recursive ways of sentencing a work of fiction. Richard forced me, in the words of the great poet Jack Gilbert, to “unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” I learned, in short, to read Mark Richard the way that Mark Richard demanded to be read: one word, one sound, at a time, taking it slow, savoring every beat, every syllabic bite. It changed the way I read and the way that I wrote and the way that I now write: one word, one sound, at a time. It’s my hope that the mud that I’m now making, with my own words, might also be read, and eaten, in much the same way. I hope you enjoy the taste.