It’s All in the Details

The Things They Carriedby Mariner Books

            In the short story “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien, the narrator, recites the common items soldiers carried in the jungles of Vietnam: “P-39 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations and two or three canteens of water” (2). The list is long, varied, and includes items specific to the military, such as Military Payment Certificates and C rations and items specific to the jungle environment the soldiers under Lt. Cross find themselves in—salt tablets and mosquito repellant. O’Brien starts to immerse the reader into the world of jungle warfare from the foot soldier’s point of view by reciting specific lists of items the men must carry. What really makes this list effective is the specific detail.

The soldiers also carry mental weight; the members of Alpha Company “carried the all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (20). O’Brien adds another layer to his characters by delving into the psyches and revealing his characters inner burdens. By being specific, O’Brien is able to take what should be intangibles and give them their “own mass and specific gravity”; i.e. “tangible weight” (20). Some of the intangibles given weight are “shameful memories…common secret of cowardice barely restrained, their reputations…and the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing” (20).  O’Brien brings the reader into his characters’ minds and their mental weights shift to the reader.

Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners that a fiction writer “appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions” (67). In O’Brien’s writing, he appeals to the senses with concrete details and draws the reader into the terror that was Vietnam.

Work Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: First Mariner Books 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus, &Giroux 1969. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

Young, Gifted, and Baldwin

By Liat Faver

This essay addresses sections of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, chiefly because these chapters are literary magnificence. Baldwin’s ability to deliver clearer than daylight settings and characters, in intricately woven words, and the emotion he conveys, make him irresistible.

In the title chapter, Baldwin, a young man of color in 1940s New York City, struggles with his identity. He takes us to the Harlem streets and we see, hear, and smell the neighborhood where “on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow” (100). He battles feelings of outrage at the many injustices visited upon blacks, describing “the ‘race’ men, who spoke ceaselessly of being revenged,” and the “directionless, hopeless bitterness, as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed” (101), in himself and his countrymen. In a restaurant, Baldwin’s storm overcomes him and in the wake of a violent outburst he begins “to feel that there was another me trapped in my skull like a jack-in-the-box who might escape my control at any moment and fill the air with screaming” (102). Although I am a white woman who wasn’t alive when this was written, I have felt the “jack-in-the-box” inside myself. The repression of women has often motivated my tempests. Black or white, male or female, unfair is unfair, wrong is wrong, and Baldwin knows it well.

Equal in Paris takes us to the grimy side of the City of Light, where Baldwin lives in “a ludicrously grim hotel on the rue du Bac, one of those enormous dark, cold, and hideous establishments in which Paris abounds that seem to breathe forth an odor of gentility long long dead” (138). This passage reminds me of the many vivid descriptions in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a tale set in dreary Parisian shadows, of a man consumed with self-loathing, in denial of his homosexuality. I recognize much of Baldwin’s inspiration for Giovanni’s Room in his Parisian excursions. Baldwin goes there with very little money, and devotes considerable attention to French culture, that is “nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal” (140). The young Baldwin is beginning to understand what generates a society, and his views are fair and balanced. In Paris he discovers new reasons to be afraid, and being black is among the least of them.

Baldwin continues exploring the manifestations of identity in his final chapter, Stranger in the Village, comparing white and black men and a “battle by no means finished, the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity” (173). As opposed to individuality and self-awareness, the notion of identity as a preservation of one’s history and as adaptation to a confused, alien culture and its leaders, I am impressed with how uniquely, and utterly “it remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice.”

Notes ends with less pain and anger than its beginnings, and Baldwin’s travels reveal a man who has learned to define himself. He is stronger, wiser, and freer in a world that is “white no longer, and it will never be white again” (175).

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press. 1955. Print.

Pedophiles are People Too: Making Characters Human in Lolita

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert’s obsession and relationship with the young girl Dolores Haze, and what makes the novel a classic is the way Nabokov makes the reader care about Humbert. It is certainly no easy task to make the average reader sympathize with a pedophile, and I’m sure many readers would not enjoy Lolita based on first glance. By making Humbert a full, human character and by making his desires understandable (even if they are still deplorable) Nabokov makes the reader sympathetic to Humbert to some degree.

Humbert Humbert is an obsessive pervert, and I would not want to meet a person like him. But he is still an interesting character. There are many pulp fiction novels where the pedophile is the villain, but the pedophile caricature (lurking around playgrounds, driving windowless vans, Stranger Danger is out to get your kids!) can’t work in a serious novel like Lolita. Of course a main character may be unlikable, but they must also be human. Their desires, hopes, and fears must all be understandable (even if they aren’t rational or immediately evident). For me, one of the main things that makes Humbert a human character is that he understands what he craves is wrong. He is aware that he is a pedophile, and he struggles with it. “While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea,” (18). I would have difficulty believing that a major character in a serious novel would simply accept being a pedophile (it could be possible, but only if the writer went to great lengths to show why the character felt that way), but by presenting Humbert’s struggles with his attraction to nymphets Navokov makes Humbert a believable character.

But it is not only that Humbert is believable which makes him an engaging character. He also has a sense of humor. This is an important characteristic for Humbert to possess. Humor is one of the easiest ways to endear a reader to a character in my opinion, whether or not the reader actually finds the jokes funny. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” I don’t find Julian’s mother’s racist humor to be particularly funny, but the fact that she tries is endearing (it feels condescending to type that, but it’s true). Humbert has a clear sense of humor, made easily visible by Nabokov’s use of the first person, and he is even able to poke fun at himself. “…while I derived a not exclusively economic kick from such roadside signs as Timber Hotel, Children under 14 free,” (147). A sense of humor, even if off key or muted, is an important part of any realistic character, and Humbert’s makes it easier to accept that the protagonist is a pedophile.

Lolita is a classic because it tells a painfully realistic love story using beautiful language. The fact that Humbert Humbert loves twelve year old Dolores Haze in no way detracts from the heart of the story. It is not an easy task to take such a reviled type of person and make them human and sympathetic, but Nabokov pulls it off in Lolita.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Assonance Like a Whip

by Gabrielle Freeman

Flagellant is one of the first terms that came to my mind after reading Jill Alexander Essbaum’s chapbook The Devastation. The speaker in the poem offers a prayer that is also a confession; a huge, gut-wrenching, guilty ball of confession. In the end, the speaker even admits to taking control of the devil.

Let me first state that while I was raised with a good understanding of the Bible; Baptist elementary school, Lutheran catechism, Catholic neighbors, even a stint in the Latter Day Saints; I found myself having to look things up as I read through this poem. On page 17, Essbaum writes “And the asp is on my breast.” This image tickled my memory, and not in a particularly pleasant way (asp/breast), so I had to find its source. Intriguing writing, writing that works, will make the reader seek understanding and clarity. What I found was the quote from Isaiah  that reads something like this, depending on your translation “…the suckling child will play on the hole of the asp.” I’ll admit, not an altogether reassuring image. However, when further examined, this image is meant to be extremely reassuring. The prophet writes that after the Messiah comes, the child will be able to play near a hidden asp and not be harmed. Essbaum twists this to the dark side.

If I continue looking at the prophets, namely Isaiah and Jeremiah, to understand this poem, I come to Jeremiah’s explanation of the devastation of Jerusalem in Lamentations. The devastation he describes was brought upon themselves. Essbaum’s speaker blames herself for her own devastation in this confession. “Never rely on desire to tell you the truth. / I told the truth on a regular basis. / I was the saddest I knew. / You were the sadist I knew. / And the distance between the two” (16). The wordplay between “saddest” and “sadist” shows the culpability of the speaker. On the next page, Essbaum writes “But the lamb is in the cabin. / And the jasper is in your grasp. / And the asp is on my breast. / I confess: / MAY I BE TORMENTED WHEREVER I AM” (17-18). The speaker is not saved by the lamb from poisoning; in fact, the asp is on her breast. This not only recalls the “suckling child” in Isaiah, but it replaces the child’s innocent nursing with the asp in a disturbingly erotic manner, and this the very thing that the Messiah is supposed to protect the child from. The speaker calls down her own punishment in Dante-esque fashion because of this.

In what are perhaps the lines most indicative of self-flagellation deal with the Beast. The speaker actually takes control of the Beast in the following lines: “Oh Beast, I put thy mark upon me.[…] Oh Beast, I betrothe my woe to the rosette guilloche / of your palace. / Oh Beast, I proffer my soul to the mould / into which you have poured me. / (Poor me.)” (23). Essbaum’s use of assonance lashes the reader like a whip; it cuts the guilty flesh.

The guilt and desire for punishment in this long poem are palpable. Essbaum’s use of twisted Biblical ideas, wordplay, and poetic devices make it work. In the end, the “you” in the poem, the “sadist,” the “Beast,” is the speaker’s obsession and her doom. “And I will dive from the very trestle. / That will be the last of all I ever do. / Except cry out for you” (24-25).

For the Love of Letters

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For Christmas I received a set of decorative cards and envelopes from a student. She did not know about my love of beautiful stationery or the promise I made before the holiday to write my mother more often. My mother’s letters are one of my treasures because she is much more intimate on paper and because she has lovely handwriting and a lyrical writing voice.

In 2007, Lakshmi Pratury, founder of Ixoraa Media, implored an audience of thousands to continue the art of letter writing via a TED talk. In her talk she shared the impact of the letters her father wrote to her before he died. She asked her audience not to abandon letter writing for emails because of the legacy a handwritten letter leaves behind. She said, “The same letter that touched his hand, is now in mine.”

In 2012, Hannah Brencher, a recent college graduate, gave a TED talk on the same stage sharing her experience writing over four hundred handwritten love letters to strangers to give advice or encouragement. Today if you log on to Brencher’s website, moreloveletters.com, you too can pick a stranger to write a love letter to for Valentine’s Day.

Brencher’s love letter campaign and its effects seems revolutionary in these days and times, but when Franz Kappus published his ten letters from Rainer Maria Rilke in 1929, I am sure he had no idea how many aspiring writers, whom he would never meet, would be impacted by them.

What was most interesting to me about Letters to a Young Poet, is that although Rilke and Kappus never met, the letters are very personal and more and more become like meditations or journals to the writer himself than letters to Kappus.   Rilke seems to be reminding himself of what a writer needs in order to strengthen his own resolve.  He seems to be telling himself that he needs to be courageous, patient, and alone. In his eighth letter, he writes,  “Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure.  His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours.  If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words” (97).

The author makes revelations about things he has learned about life, love and solitude. Revelations that he may have hoped someone had shared with him. At first he clings to his belief that “no one can truly give advice to another.”  Yet, he begins to find pleasure and purpose in imparting his wisdom to a younger version of his “solitary and courageous” self that is struggling “in a rugged reality.”

Pratury and Brencher’s attempts to save the art and intimacy of the hand written letter seems futile against the rise of electronic devices, but I think it is a worthy cause. I believe letter writing helped to shape me into a more open and honest nonfiction writer. And I believe it can benefit all writers to lay their hand to real paper and place their best words on a page that will travel to meet another.   I say to all, write a beautiful letter to a stranger on beautiful stationery for Valentines’s Day. Write something worth waiting for and leave your mark on someone’s soul.

Work Cited

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Regional Universality in Given Ground

by Rhonda Browning White

Ann Pancake’s Given Ground consists of twelve short stories that strike me as the author’s search for truth, for an uncovering of life’s harshest realities, a means of baring them to the light, so that we can all learn from them. Pancake uses dialect common to many rural parts of West Virginia in a way that is conversely harsh and poetic, but is nonetheless true to what I know, having lived twenty-four years in those same mountains. It is more than regional vernacular that causes Pancake’s stories to resonate long after readers close the book’s covers, as the subjects she writes about (such as teen pregnancy, natural disasters, dysfunctional families), affect people from all areas, social classes and levels of education.  

Though the topics of Pancake’s stories reference the human condition, the cadence of the writing and the unpretentious lyricism is what makes these stories unique. Most sentences in the collection are carefully crafted so that each reveals something important—character depth, fresh sensory description, realistic setting—so that the reader’s time is never wasted. For example, in “Crow Season,” Pancake’s narrator describes the family farm from where he sits in the bed of a pickup truck: “The way the land lays in here looks more like a human body than any land I’ve ever seen, pictures or real. And I often wonder if that’s the reason for the hold it has on us” (116). This kind of setting description does more than depict mountain farmland; it reveals the narrator’s inner battle with his home, his sense of place. We understand that he has the desire to move on, to get out, but is unable to leave the place behind.

Narrator Lindy learns, in Pancake’s “Revival,” that even when we physically leave a place behind, we can’t always get away from it. “Closed up in her head, the odor of anonymous sweat that had hit her when she walked in comes to her as familiar as the snow smell did. It is family sweat. The smell of how her mother sweats. Of how Lindy herself sweats. . . . For several minutes, Lindy has never left out of here at all” (19). This is the sense of place each of us, Appalachian or not, takes with us, and Pancake makes the reader acknowledge that no matter how far we travel, our history follows  us.     

Likewise, Pancake reveals complexity in her characters not only through dialogue, but through the character’s internal thought and self-assessment, also demonstrated in “Crow Season” when the narrator discusses how he looks like his late father: “I keep no mirrors in my place. I tell what I look like in others’ faces, me make-them-gasp identical. I know that I’ve grown into a ghost. Carrying in my face, in how my body’s hung together, I how I speak and move, the man who died and made me take over the looks of him. But I’m used to my outsides. What scares me is if it’s printed on my insides, too” (119). The phrases, “how my body’s hung together,” and “the man who died and made me take over the looks of him,” are easily recognizable as regional dialect, but instead of coming across as words from someone plain and ill-bred, phrases like this reflect the poetic language of people who experience visceral emotion—and that is each of us.

These common emotions expressed in uncommonly metrical dialect are what unites the regionally unique characters with universal readers. It is a lesson to writers to ensure that, though our stories may be precisely set in any particular region and may utilize the local vernacular, it is important that they address desires, fears and emotions felt universally, in order to be effective. It is these naked truths of the human condition that, when illuminated as in Pancake’s writing, make stories successful across regions and years.

 Work Cited

Pancake, Ann. Given Ground. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001. Print.