Jim Shepard's talk on craft

The discussion was on structure in fiction, and the text discussed was Denis Johnson's "Emergency." Two handouts were passed around. The first one had divided the story into 17 sections, which he named and gave page references for (from that tattered little copy of Jesus' Son you have), and which showed the story's chronological progress. The second one identified which character was most in need of "helping" for each section and charted out four categories on a double axis: the x axis divides the dream reality on the left and the reality on the right, and the y axis divides Georgie and Fuckhead.

He began by saying he's been telling students for years that patterns are useful in comprehending aesthetics and the world. The NYT, he said, reports on WMD in Iran now. That's a pattern ("Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times -- disband the paper"). Now the NYT has discovered a possible gap between the administration's rhetoric on education and its actions in that regard. This got a good laugh. Patterns are discoverable where you least expect them.

"Emergency" is a good model for discussing structure because it seems so disorganized, haphazard, drug-addled -- even to its fans. There are thematic patterns; DJ has been compared to Flannery O'Connor and Robert Stone. Stone has written about down-and-outers, but DJ's make them seem like secretaries of state. DJ's characters are marginal in the extreme, truants from life. "They would be barflies in a dry town. If they got themselves together, they could achieve squalor." (Laughs) They are mystified by their own troubles. When writers think of structure, he said, they say, 'Well, I started at the beach ... I'm gonna end at the beach.' And even DJ himself, his persona, is kind of cheerful about ambiguity. 'I dunno, man, I just write it."

(JS has a way of adopting voices, impersonating writers or characters [he did it often in el workshop especial] that really assists his points and is also entertaining.)

He wondered what pulls together the sprawl of "Emergency." One thing is the tyranny of chronology. The story marches relentlessly forward in time, and we piece together meaning by following the scenes in order. He noticed a change after section 12, beginning on page 84, when Fuckhead says, "Or maybe that wasn't the time ... What's important to remember now..." At this point, DJ breaks the chronology and reveals the narrator as explicitly unreliable, as opposed to merely high and rambling. This is the first violation of the chronological lockstep. The story has jumped ahead to some future Fuckhead pondering it all. Then it goes briefly back to the "present time" and then jumps ahead again in the final three sections.

In section 15 (p. 86) the narrator reveals that he has forgotten to tell us something crucial. ("Before that, Georgie had said something that explained everything..."). And this leads into differentiating between Georgie and Fuckhead, the issue of "helping" -- who helps (neither), who doesn't (both), who tries or remembers to try (Georgie), who doesn't (Fuckhead). This helping theme has been there from the beginning, when Fuckhead is "wandering around" the hospital and finds Georgie, high and mopping blood that only he can see. "You think," said JS, "these guys are not going to help anybody." In a mix of "compassion and self-interest," Fuckhead rifles his friend's pockets for the pills he knows he has stolen from the cabinet. "He doesn't even try to identify them before chewing them up," said JS. "For this guy, any drug is going to mean improvement."

On Georgie's famous appearance holding the hunting knife he's pulled from Terence Weber's face, JS said, "Here, even inadvertent imbecility starts looking like decisiveness." I'm rushing through here ... Georgie and Fuckhead are trying to save themselves, but instead they create more victims (the bunnies) in "a ghastly parody of rescue but with some of the real impulses of rescue inside it." He then points out that the mama bunny is hit in the middle of a conversation, which I had forgotten. And Fuckhead's inability to focus on helping anything is revealed when Georgie holds up the baby bunnies and Fuckhead says, "No way I'm eating those." (It's then four pages before the bunnies are mentioned again. "Leaving things out has ethical implications," said JS. ) Geogie's criticism of Fuckhead for smashing the bunnies is the crisis that occasions that first break in chronology, when Fuckhead recalls that Georgie had said something before that "explains everything." "You think, really?" said JS. "That's what matters?"

When Hardee shows up, note that he's somebody Fuckhead once lived with. "Man, once you live with me," said JS in his Fuckhead voice, "I'll pick you out of a crowd every time." Then note that because of the chronological break, you "are encouraged" to neglect the fact that, back in the brief action scene, it's revealed that they do not in fact take the AWOL Hardee to Canada. They don't help him. "I save lives" -- chronological structure says otherwise. It's their resolution -- yes, we will help you -- that is their high point, that reveals their characters. The fact that they don't actually help him is kind of buried in the text. Georgie doesn't save lives, but at least he has the impulse. Fuckhead doesn't even have that. Fuckhead is "the non-Samaritan." He strips himself of agency when he goes on about "That world..." on page 88. In general, Fuckhead and Georgie's use of drugs, as in all of DJ's work, is "not altogether bad." Drugs allow them to "tap into the numinous" and enhance "the utter mysteriousness of human compassion."

Then there was question time, which he announced by saying, "Marilynne has announced that she will answer any questions..." (Laughs).

Q: When do we as writers start paying attention to structure?

JS: We make a mess, then confront it. But "Emergency" remember is a made thing. However he did it, he did build that story. That's why DJ is a great topic for structural discussions, because, as JS said (as DJ), "Stuff happens and I write it down, man, and then there are stories that you envy." On some level, DJ knew that putting Hardee last lets him romanticize Georgie, allowing the uncareful reader to miss the real facts (that Georgie doesn't help Hardee). JS then mentioned a time when he, DJ, and Robert Stone appeared together at the NYU medical school to have their work psychoanalyzed. Said DJ reminded them at one point, "Don't forget, when this is over you have to let us out."

Thisbe spoke up to remark that DJ perserves a sense of magic and excitement that doesn't happen in a lot of contemporary fiction.

JS: DJ's work preserves the sense that anything can happen -- without violating naturalism (though the Terence Weber knife in the face scene could be taken either way). He's very open to play, and that makes his work exhilirating. How much of DJ is calculated? Not much -- but he's certainly conscious.

Ethan noted that the DJ's method of structuring neatly reveals what's important to him, that it almost feels subconscious.

JS: And his subtle way of encouraging the reader to overlook things also happens in "his other masterpiece": "Car Crash While Hitchiking."

Q: Surprised that the final story of Jesus' Son is optimistic...

JS: Yeah, but you come through DJ's fire "hideously burned." "You never say, 'Man, I wish I was that guy'."

Marilynne -- yes, Marilynne -- spoke up then, saying that "using drugs in the story throws everything into consciousness, and that consciousness does structure." She said the dreamlike quality comes from that "primary consciousness." (This was thrilling -- just imagining M. Robinson reading Dennis Johnson gives me shivers of pleasure.)

JS: Yeah, DJ's ability to say, "Hey, a baby's on fire -- but look at the blue of the sky!!!" DJ plugs into passion, and therefore he really feels. With Denis Johnson, you can never say that not enough is at stake.


Pete said...

Wow. Shep rocks it like babies cry.

I just taught that story in my creative writing class. I'm going to encourage my students to read this post.

Pete said...

Also- his hypothetical (a baby in flames) is telling. Have we invaded his unconscious? Is it a subtle jab at the job we've done fireproofing infants? Or is it an homage?

Whatever it is, God knows it CAN'T be a coincidence.

SER said...

My favorite part (from my seat in the hallway) was when both Marilynne and Ethan spoke up to try to make "Emergency" fit their different philosophies of writing. Perhaps this is cynical of me. Oh, but it was hilarious!

MSF said...

excellent reporting! you covered basically everything, and you didn't even seem to be writing that fast...i liked the talk today a lot. the fact that he got marilynne to talk killed me; the fact that he got marilynne to laugh during the part of his reading last night where he talked about someone taking a dump on a picnic table almost made the world implode.

Hurricane Earle said...

I have not told Shepard about BAF. I'll ask him about it now, though.

Shepard's "Krakatau" is useful for teaching structure for the same sorts of reasons, I think. So is Ron Hansen's "Wickedness." Draw a diagram of that motherfucker - it'll knock your socks off.

Hurricane Earle said...

I can't pull off the word "motherfucker." What was I thinking?

SER said...

Does everyone see that one of us has changed his/her "handle"? Upping the ol' incognito factor, eh?

Anyway, one thing I was able to hear JS say was "occluded," perhaps indicating that Earle's partiality to the word began in Williamstown, Mass., mmmm?

Brando said...

I would just like to give a heartfelt "Word!" to the embedded workshop reporters. The write-ups have been highly illuminating and skillfully done. So skillful that, if I bash my ears with my desktop speakers while reading, I actually hallucinate that I'm there instead of my fabric-walled gerbil cage/office.

PJKM said...

Weird: I just re-read 'Emergency' last night. (Am I receiving signals from my former home state?) I love it when the bunnies die.

I've used "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri for dramatic structure, and this semester used Munro's "Runaway". But with Grendel's thorough crib sheet here, I'm switching to DJ in the fall.

MSF said...

one might suspect that i'm just jealous of such enigmatic handles as SER and PJKM, and one would be mostly correct. but in truth, the switch was prompted by the arrival on earthgoats of michelle and robert, and i wanted to avoid potential confusion. i heard they had a kid, and they deserve something to make up for the lack of sleep, right?

pen name mcgraw said...

How about a little dissent (/descent) so this comment thread doesn't look quite so much like a Bush town hall meeting. Snap. This reporter was also embedded at the craft talk, and she had some questions about the discovery of structure where it was least suspected. For instance, do you really call a bullet-pointed list of who was sort of the one who needed help on each page, so that the list was like "Georgie, Georgie, Fuckhead, Nurse, Bunnies" etc--a structure? What are our parameters for structure? How about if a novel has two characters who alternate sections of 1st person narrative? Does that qualify? Or a Borges story where everything is blue on one page, and red on the next? I guess that's a kind of structure, kind of. But this reporter thought what the man was talking about was actually *theme*--the central theme of Emergency is one of helping (and the delusions of grandeur, and the futility, that often accompany it). The story is absolutely, totalutely NOT an intricately (or even interestingly) structured piece, like, say, Spring in Fialta by Nabokov, or to a lesser extent The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser. What's great about the piece is exactly its amorphous structure--as Marilynne was saying: it approaches the 'dream logic' of deep human consciousness, and not the rigid awake logic of the surface-level one. What makes the piece work, and what makes it cohesive, is the strength of the themes that ribbon through it--not the artful ordering of scenes.

Where I come from, when a man yells Eureka just to get fellas to gather, folks is liable to get their apple carts upset.