Ashley Gilbertson’s photo essay, “Shell Shock,” on post-traumatic stress disorder among American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan matters; this is an important story, one that demands attention. And it starts strongly, as Gilbertson turns the same eye that created “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which was so sensitive to the aftermath of loss, on the suicides of returning soldiers.
It’s unfortunate that he then chooses to devote several frames to the sites of murders committed by soldiers suffering from PTSD. Although he does wrap it up with two survivors, the emphasis is on violence. The soldier with PTSD, we are warned, is a ticking bomb. If he doesn’t kill himself, he might kill you.
It’s a cheap and worthless world we live in if the only way to convince people of the importance of a problem is by appealing to the fear of becoming a random murder victim. Gilbertson here rolls back the clock to the 1980s, when the prevalent image of PTSD was the crazed Vietnam Vet, sniping from a clock tower with his deer rifle.
This is not the reality of PTSD. Reality, for the most part, is people suffering in silence: people who prize courage, now debilitated by fear, living in a culture that discourages one to admit a problem. And accompanying the startle reactions, the intrusive memories, and the anger, is the terrifying feeling that you’re no longer in control of yourself. These people need help and understanding. They don’t need to be stereotyped as killers who can’t leave killing behind.
Gilbertson does much better with “On The Line,” a story on the people who man the phones at the Veterans’ Affairs crisis line. Here, the story is told through their voices, and the picture that emerges is far more moving. Gilbertson is extraordinarily skilled at evoking what is absent, but he fails in “Shell Shock,” where we have no contact with PTSD itself. The absent voices of the callers in “On The Line” bring the reality home.
I came rolling into town the other night (town being Edmonton), down Whyte Avenue with Bob Dylan, Las Vegas NV 2001-08-24 as my soundtrack, only to see Megatunes plastered with signs proclaiming 75% off. Closing.
I first found Megatunes about five years ago, on a previous trip to Edmonton. I stopped in just to check it out and was stunned by their selection. I was playing a lot of bluegrass at the time, and I was hunting for Tony Rice. I don’t remember what I bought that day, but I know that I passed up a copy of The Pizza Tapes (Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice) to get it. I could have spent my way right out of a marriage that day, easily.
Last time I dropped in, earlier this year, the selection was much less impressive.
I suppose time wounds all heels. The march of progress never ceases. You don’t have to hunt down The Pizza Tapes anymore; you just go on iTunes and buy it when the mood strikes you. And I suppose that this is a good thing. This is, after all, how I got a copy.
But I sure am going to miss serendipity.
Quill & Quire has now posted Claire Cameron’s full review of Combat Camera, for your reading pleasure. That is, if that sort of thing gives you pleasure.
Guess I’m gonna have to retract that excuse about it not being online.
Hey, don’t blame me for that title—she’s the one that said it. In an interview with The Tyee, on the topic of how she writes men so well: “I thought of a woman, and added a penis.” I’m just repeating it, as one of my usual desperate attempts to attract inappropriate traffic.
She’s riffing on one of my favorite movie lines, as Melvin Udall, the misanthropic romance author of As Good as It Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) responds to a fan’s gushing question as to how he writes women so well: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
(Because we are a society of half-wits, this line is usually attributed to Nicholson, instead of to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, who wrote the frigging screenplay. Because who’s ever heard of them?)
The facetious part of her answer attracts all the attention, but I’d rather look at what else she said: “I don’t know. I don’t think intellect is gendered in any way. I don’t think with my vagina, I have a brain.”
This recalls a remark by Jim Harrison on the question of male writers writing women:
I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.
Both writers hit what I think is the essential point: the secret of writing the other sex is to discard the idea that it is really so alien. It’s in that idea that we find the dessicated, wooden cliches of gender: men are from Mars, women do not reason, etc. These will not lead you to a rounded, human character.
Harrison’s further remarks aren’t entirely accurate, I think; it’s not “female chauvinism” that insists men can’t understand women, but a widespread assumption embedded in our culture. Men have been, until recently, encouraged not to understand women. You’re supposed to stand around in the garage, wiping your hands on an oily rag while you tweak the valvy thing connected to what you hope is the carburetor of your 1966 Mustang convertible, and say, “Women. I’ll never understand them.”
Whereupon your buddy is supposed to say, “Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.” Then you both swig your Labatt Blue, from the bottle, and the subject turns to hockey.
This attitude is, for obvious reasons, something of a roadblock for the male writer: you can’t write people who you insist you’ll never understand.
We make the opposite assumption about men: men are supposed to say what they mean, and to have internal lives no more complicated than, say, empty inkwells. So we encourage women to think they understand men all too perfectly, which to the female writer is an obstacle of its own: you can’t make a compelling character out of something that permits complete understanding.
I like to compare this gender question with racial research of the Philippe Rushton kind: in our rush to define differences, we ignore variations. Not all men, or all women, think the same way. We are more alike than we are different; as Lyon has it, intellect is not gendered.
More on this topic anon.
Today I ran into this piece at n + 1 on the state of American fiction, which is four years old (thus demonstrating how badly I keep up), but worth a read. It begins with a thought-provoking premise:
…the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus….
Let us not delve too deeply into the historico-philosophical dialectic; the natural general principle that will subsume this case may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon.* Let’s just accept that the conditions that created the golden age of the short story, the golden age of the magazine in which we had no television, no longer exist, and inquire as to what does sustain the short story as a form.
That would be creative writing programs, and the little magazines that are inseparable from them. The large number of story collections published here in Canada surely reflect not so much the excellence of the Canadian short story as the large number of MFA grads with pockets full of published stories, looking to get a book out before they write their novels.
In short, the short story is stumbling around like a zombie, its dead flesh reanimated by MFA tuition payments. Which reminds me of something the movies never quite explain: after they eat us all, what will the zombies do next?
It’s a fascinating question—I mean whether the short story today is an unnatural creature, not my little aside about the living dead—that one could argue either way. Unfortunately, the n + 1 piece quickly goes off the rails, crashes through a stand of red pine, and tumbles down a steep embankment until it comes to rest in a small, rocky creek, into which it spills its entire load of carbon tetrachloride, thus wiping out an entire generation of salmon and unwittingly demonstrating the importance of variability in the life histories of migratory fish. It transpires that the author simply doesn’t like short things; 19th century Russian novels are the only way to go.
Consider the rather disingenuous complaint about opening sentences:
“The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.
Really? Several minutes? That sounds like a literacy problem to me.
That the contemporary short story begins in medias res is a trivial complaint. What about big problems? Jim Harrison, who never misses a chance to bash MFA programs, complains of the “teeny” poems and “little” stories that result. Harrison’s instinct is expansive; he continually risks sentimentality, insisting that the work has to matter, has to deal with the stuff of human desire.
This sprang to mind recently as I read Patricia Young’s story collection, Airstream, and Annabel Lyon’s first book, Oxygen. Every story in Oxygen is brilliantly written, but brilliant writing can’t rescue the weaker stories in the collection from their essential lack of substance. “Sexy Rex,” for example, is an empty exercise: a couple has a dog, dog gets lost, dog comes home. The writing is precise and rich with detail, but none of the characters ever takes on any genuine humanity.
In Airstream, on the other hand, every story surrounds, without needing to resolve, some human crisis. Every story touches on something vital, without ever tipping over into sentimentality or backing off into the kind of ironic posturing we adopt when we fear tipping our hand. This is what short stories should be.
It’s not enough that stories make pleasing word patterns. They should ask us, also, to give a shit. When I consider what I too often read in our little magazines—formal innovation for its own sake, big conceits overlying empty characters, etc.—I don’t.
* If you thought that phrase meant something, you were in error; it is computer-generated bafflegab courtesy of the Chomskybot.
I’m surprised to find I didn’t blog this before, but here are two videos on/by the Canadian photographer Larry Towell. He lives in southwestern Ontario, so I’ve always thought of him as a kind of local hero.
Towell works exclusively in black and white, and says he isn’t interested in digital photography, a luxury you can afford when you’re Larry Towell. I’ve always been drawn to the wonderful, luminous quality of his photos, which is apparent in the second video.
I received a fresh, crisp copy of Quill & Quire today, which I chopped up to make a salad, but only after reading the reviews. Included was a review of Combat Camera by Claire Cameron, which, unfortunately, is not available online. I guess if they put all the reviews online so that people like me could link to them, there’d be much less incentive to buy the magazine. Anyway, I can’t link to it, but it says things like this:
A book about a wounded alcoholic and a battered porn star might sound like a grim read, and in some ways that is just what Combat Camera is. Full of violence, both domestic and international, the story is gritty and raw. But Somerset draws connections between disparate places to uncover universal truths about our reactions to violence; in one instance, a smashed mirror in a run-down Toronto apartment seamlessly segues into a broken window in Sarajevo … Ultimately, Zane is a rambling, tragic, and surprisingly funny figure, and his tragic circumstances take on a strange kind of beauty.
If you buy a copy of Quill & Quire, you can read the whole thing. And hey, while you’re at it, why not order a copy of the book? Or two—in case you leave the first on an airplane or something like that. I mean, while you’re in the bookstore … I’m just saying….