Although David Means is one of our best writers of sentences, one would be hard-pressed to commit any of those sentences to memory. His lines unfold and refold upon themselves like animate origami, offering lush visual imagery and word choice as pointed as an awl. Take this fragment of description from “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”: “The way the road spread out of the vanishing point, exposing its mouth to the farm while, at the same time, tapering back into the quivers of heat in a manner that made it hard, and at times impossible, to watch.” That’s not some lyrical outburst in the stream of his stories. It’s closer to the median. The complexity of his sentences makes them virtually unmemorizable. They flit around you like the mating dance of a bird whose movements you’ll never afterward be able to retrace.
But the one David Means sentence I’ve never been able to forget comes midway through his collection Assorted Fire Events: “I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore.” By the time it arrives, Means’s stories have given us a distraught widower beaten and left to die in a train tunnel, a brother who drowns in an capsized canoe, a toddler plunging through her back lawn into a creek concealed by a shady construction company. A high school misfit has suffocated in a sandslide. The collection is a register of deaths that are exotic and pedestrian at once, arising from small miscalculations and unseen hazards. And it’s a bit grisly.
This line from Means shows up right in the middle of the collection, in a brief, lyric story—almost more of a prose poem—called “What I Hope For.” The first time I read it I dismissed it as a metafictional gimmick. I rushed past it in my hunt for more of the high-grade sentence work that makes his writing singular. But after finishing the collection, and in the years since, it’s hung onto me as one of the sincerest lines in literature.
I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore. The statement is an intention, but also a hope. It has the potential for failure. It acknowledges that Means, whose stories leap so acrobatically in time and point of view, may be powerless to realize that hope. The line is probably more heartbreaking for writers than for readers. We are the ones who have imagined our characters into existence, and their plights as well. Shouldn’t we be able to do better by them? I’ve wondered this as I try to write stories that don’t end with a character dying, or shaming himself, or giving up hope, or giving up art. What does it mean when I have a wholesome evening reading my kids Horton Hears a Who before bed, then retreat to the living room to write a story about the purposeful destruction of biodiversity?
One school of thought says the author is the master of the story. Nabokov likened his characters to galley slaves. A more popular school says the story is the master of the author. As Mario Vargas Llosa says, “It becomes apparent that the author cannot mold characters as he pleases, that they have a certain autonomy.” The line from “What I Hope For” posits an act of creation almost in line with Michelangelo’s predestined work of art: a work that cannot be changed at will but that might, with enough heart, be influenced.
“From here on out it has to be glorious life,” Means continues in “What I Hope For.” And what does it mean if it isn’t? Is that why those two lines ring with something like anguish? Why the fourth wall is ripped open so briefly but so bracingly? As dangerous as it is to psychoanalyze an author by his work, I do theorize that an author sometimes has to grapple with what it means when his imaginings all lead to those railroad incidents and drownings and sandslides. If he can’t prevent all that wreckage, maybe the wreckage is inside him.
Perhaps it is just a metafictional trick, of course. Means is adept at so many levels it’s hard to put anything past him. But I’ll choose to believe that he’s honestly contending with the direction of his art. That says more about me than it does about him, but I find myself asking sometimes as I walk down a supermarket aisle: Why, when I live a conventional and largely satisfied suburban life, do my stories tend toward dread and disaster? I ask myself the question my wife asks me—why can’t I write something with a happy ending?
I can only say that I’ve tried to nudge the rolling boulder out of the path of the character, but it is too heavy. Whatever the splinter is in me that drives my work to dark places, I have not been able to pluck it out. But I would not say that I’ve stopped trying.
In the years since I first read Assorted Fire Events, I forgot whether Means was able to accomplish his goal. Whether he had kept them alive. I reread it recently, hoping with the author that no one would die in the coming stories.
Here’s what I rediscovered in the second half of the collection: A homeless man is beaten to death after interrupting a wedding; a mean-spirited truck driver in a critical care unit dies of a heart attack a few days after yelling at the family of a young Israeli girl, who also dies; a man reflecting on the premature death of his son drives into a movie set, killing the director; a woodcutter takes his own life; and in the title story, the “Assorted Fire Events” include a man setting a live dog on fire and the narrator’s aunt immolating herself in her car.
So reading this collection can induce a certain amount of despair. A cynic might ask what the point is in adding to sum total despair in the world. A certain answer would be that those of us with that splinter of hopelessness lodged in our brains are helpless to do anything but share it. One could even say that immersing ourselves in such tragedies has its own logic. “The plot of fire is nebulous and serene,” Means writes in the title story, “wildly fanatic and calm at the same time, trailing up curtains and along the undersides of carpet padding, taking its own sweet time and then conversely becoming diametric, logarithmic.”
But I’ve come to believe there is a less cynical answer, and it comes from source of the despair in these stories, which is not the tragedies but the lives that precede them. The boy suffocated by a sandslide in “Sleeping Bear Lament” is remembered by a narrator who, in a moment of random adolescent cruelty, knocked out the boy’s front teeth with a trumpet mouthpiece. That’s a shame memory that won’t let the narrator go. Years later it becomes a lament, after the brief disappearance and reappearance of a friend, for the better person he could have been, the friend he wasn’t. Not exactly hopeful, I know, but it does something to keep the random death by sandslide from falling into the mouth of time. In “The Gesture Hunter,” the narrator’s ramming of the movie set could be comically absurd. The director dies as a result and the narrator, presumably from jail, does not have much ahead of him in life.
But he has the past, the parts of his life that did mean something—a gesture, a memory trigger, of his son fly fishing. And much, much further back, even this perfect memory of his baby son in the bath: “It seized me and sent me reeling, knowing full well that what I was seeing would never repeat itself and was certainly the most beautiful sight in the world. The water boiled up around his fist. The slick oily light slid off his skin. His smiling face looked up at me, and his tiny fleck of hair lay pasted to his scalp while my wife, behind me in the hall, softly folded a towel over her arm and outside the summer air moved, tainted with lavender.” That is where the story ends, though in the realm of emotional cause and effect, it’s more where the story begins.
Say we agree that these stories could not be otherwise. In that case, all the gymnastics Means does with time and memory and consciousness show us how attempting to make sense of them opens up all the beauty of the world. Tragedy exists in the world, but it is surrounded by meaning. Characters in our stories will die, even when we don’t want them to. Yet there is glorious life—even if sometimes, we have to look back in time to see it.
Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
My son Conor is fourteen months old, and my wife and I, like all new parents, marvel at his growth: he’s gone from a screaming little yam to a genuine person, with his own catalog of gestures, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Playtime is no longer a one-sided affair: we roll a ball back and forth, chase each other around, whack at a toy guitar. When exhaustion creeps in, we choose a book from his growing kiddie library; Conor sits rapt for a few seconds as we read, then crawls off to wreck something.
Aside from the trenchant Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, which I’d never before heard of, I tend to choose books that I remember loving: Caps For Sale, Ferdinand, anything with Curious George. And while Conor is off in the corner, headbutting the cat or tearing up a magazine, I keep reading, as much for myself as for him. One would think it a pleasure to return to one’s childhood favorites—and for a few nostalgia-stirring pages, it is. But as an adult, having developed the keen critical powers of a precocious kindergartner, I can’t help but find fault with nearly everything on his shelf. What I previously considered whimsical trifles now reveal themselves as other things entirely: thinly-veiled endorsements of chaos, malfeasance, naïveté. Here are five of the most flagrant offenders:
Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Caps For Sale tells the story of a Russian peddler whose entire stock of pageboy caps is stolen by a troop of insouciant monkeys. The man shakes his fists, making impotent demands (“You must give me back my caps!”) as the thieves grin down from their tree, taunting his frantic need. (“Tsz, tsz, tsz!”) They seem to know that they control him, can gut him as cleanly as Maggiorani in The Bicycle Thief. Ultimately, however, they lose their nerve and fling down the caps—and while this brings the incident to a close, it’s where the real trouble begins. The peddler balances his wares upon his head and returns to town, eager to unload caps that were just worn by monkeys. The steady spread of head lice and untold ape-mites throughout his drab little village seems a given: once again, craven business interests trump the health of unwitting consumers. He may have reclaimed his caps, but the peddler has lost his integrity—with his own neighbors paying a tragic price.
Interestingly, it’s now widely believed that Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman Ebola thriller, was at least partially inspired by Caps For Sale.
Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss
In a 2000 New York Times Magazine essay, A.O. Scott called Horton Hears a Who! “a response to the atom bomb,” and the book, written in 1954, carries a warm dedication to a “Great Friend” from Japan. These days, however, Seuss’ tale reads as an invitation to stateside revolt: if the residents of Who-ville will only scream loudly enough, their Nool Jungle overlords will have no choice but to recognize them. The Who-hero, Jo-Jo, lives “in the Fairfax Apartments”—presumably not far from the Fairfax County, VA bases of DynCorp, General Dynamics, and the CIA. Is his initial “shirking” merely subterfuge as he works to destroy the system from within?
While such brazen calls-to-arms might have energized me in my youth, I now know that in reality, the Wickersham Brothers would have co-opted the Whos’ rousing energy for political and marketing purposes, deflating their cause with poisonous efficiency. Their spirits crushed, the Whos would find themselves adrift near the bottom of the savage Nool hierarchy—their memories of Horton’s optimism haunting their dreams as they toss upon their pale orange thistle-tuft.
Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey
Blueberries For Sal follows a young girl and her mother as they pick blueberries, an activity that will allow them, somewhat disconcertingly, to “have food for winter.” (A sequel, Anemia For Sal, was rejected by Viking Press in 1951.) After a few pages of berry-picking antics, we learn that a hungry mother bear and her cub are on the opposite side of the hill. A storybook mix-up ensues, with Sal trailing the female bear and the cub following Sal’s mother. When the bear—and the woman—realize what’s happened, their reactions are bizarrely muted: “That is not my child”; “You are not little Sal.” And that’s that. Soon enough, each species is breezily reunited, with none of the lung-shredding gore that would ordinarily be expected.
When I was in my early twenties, I went for a solo hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park. As the sun descended, I worked my way into well-marked grizzly country, but I shrugged off the danger: after all, what could go wrong? About a mile in, I was nearly attacked by a fully-grown black bear, coming terrifyingly close to becoming a wet pile of organs. Whenever I’ve told the story, and been asked why I acted so stupidly, I’ve always kind of shrugged. But now I know why: I had absorbed the deadly lessons of Blueberries For Sal. Thanks a lot, McCloskey.
Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
I’m all for keeping kids as far away as possible from the world’s raging horror, but there’s a clear line between sensible protection and willful dubiousness—a line crossed in Blueberries For Sal, and again in Ferdinand. Ferdinand is a fey young bull who’d rather sit beneath a tree, listening to The xx, than scrap with his mates. It’s a nice portrait of youthful otherness, a bovine Freaks and Geeks. But after Ferdinand is carted to the Plaza de Toros—and he lazes in the center of the ring, too blithe to charge—he’s chauffered right back to his meadow, free to sniff the daisies and ponder Egon Schiele. I’ve been to a bullfight and seen what happens to those that survive the toreros: they’re dragged outside to have their throats slit. Perhaps Leaf could’ve avoided the bullfighting angle altogether, and simply jumped to the bulls’ 15-year high school reunion. There, his former peers, all of them now alcoholic financial advisers, mutter resentfully by the bar about Ferdinand’s thriving fruit-bouquet franchise.
Curious George Flies a Kite by Margret Rey
I don’t have any philosophical argument against Curious George Flies a Kite. My complaint is more basic: the book is unrepentantly, almost diabolically, boring; it’s the sort of thing Jigsaw might read to his victims as they writhe in a maggoty pit. This is the first book I read to Conor, choosing it out of lazy brand loyalty, I suppose—because what’s more fun than Curious George? As it turns out, there are a few things: being jabbed in the armpit with a rusty sewing needle. Vomiting wing sauce into a concert-lot Port-a-John. Watching Elizabethtown with a corpse on your lap. I’d eagerly choose any of these before again entering the episodic, joy-killing world of that insipid little chimp. I’d try to explain the plot, but that would only make me exhale sadly and rest my head against the wall.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go rescue the cat.
Todd Walters is a graduate student at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also co-authors the politics and culture blog Neither Property Nor StyleTonight, the roles of Socrates and Galileo will be played by Horton and the Mayor of Whoville, respectively.This past Friday night, I was dragged to see the new animated film Horton Hears a Who!, based on the well-known Dr. Seuss book published more than fifty years ago. Given my general antipathy to cartoons, I went in with low expectations. But despite my attitude and the lukewarm reviews that Horton has received, I realized that hiding just below the surface of this very simple tale about a well-meaning jungle elephant is a wonderful allegory about scientific and philosophical revolution, the dangers of autocracy, and the political implications of religious faith. Bear with me as I explain.While the screenplay augments the details of the original text, the overall plot remains fairly straightforward. Horton is a whimsical elephant residing in the Jungle of Nool, who one day notices a tiny, circular “speck” of dust floating around in the air. Being an elephant and all, Horton’s extra-large ears provide him with a super sense of hearing. Thus, he is the only one in the jungle who hears the high-pitched yelps emanating from the speck, which he eventually realizes are the voices of the tiny people of the tiny town of Whoville located therein. Horton manages to make contact, by way of a tuba-horn-amplified drain pipe, with the bewildered Mayor of the town, who has already surmised that Whoville is not alone in the universe. The action heightens as Horton and the Mayor disclose their findings to everyone around them, and the crux of the story turns on the persecution of both noble protagonists by their respective societies for espousing these unacceptable beliefs.The original book does not depict Whoville or its internal political and social dynamics in any detail, so this must have been the invention of the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, and it provides an apropos parallel to the events unfolding in the Jungle. There, children of various exotic species are already following in Horton’s footsteps by looking for their own inhabited, floating specks of dust. But their fun is spoiled by an authoritarian Kangaroo who will have none of this nonsense. She haughtily dismisses the existence of anything that cannot be touched, seen, or heard, a notion that would certainly register with any moviegoers (whether old or young) who have ever pondered the existence of a higher power or reflected on the debate between materialism and spiritualism. The Kangaroo even goes so far as to hire a hit-man (well, a hit-eagle, actually) to confront Horton and destroy his precious speck along with whatever fanciful worlds live inside it. When the eagle fails in his mission, the Kangaroo then leads an angry mob to imprison Horton to put an end to all the tomfoolery.It seems, then, that we have in Horton a hint of Socrates, a pariah who has broken free from the conventional thinking of his contemporaries by way of an exceptional skill to grasp a deeper reality that is, in fact, real, but that cannot be empirically demonstrated to the average citizen. He has become one of the fortunate few to break free of his chains and exit Plato’s cave, where the true nature of physical forms (in our case the speck of dust) can be understood for what they are, not merely for what they appear to be. Horton also stands accused, like Socrates before him, of corrupting society’s youth with his alternative vision of the natural world.Similarly, the Mayor, as the only inhabitant of Whoville who senses any danger and, for most of the story, the only one who has actually spoken to Horton, encounters the same kind of resistance. When Horton warns of the potential doom that awaits Whoville, the Mayor takes the bold and courageous step of warning the other Whovillians about the threat. Like Horton, he is asking his society to accept what he knows on faith alone. But when the Mayor goes before the town’s oligarchic council of elders, we see that he has no real power, but is a merely a puppet of this exalted body. In fact, when the Mayor suggests canceling an upcoming celebration that will honor the town’s uninterrupted history of utopian hedonism, the elders bring down a giant glass barrier – what I can only describe as a “cone of silence” to any fans of the old “Get Smart” television show – in order to prevent the audience, i.e. the attending townspeople, from being exposed to so ludicrous an opinion. So it appears that the Mayor is the story’s Galileo in having proven, through scientific instrument, the relation of his own world to the larger universe above and beyond. In other words, he has realized that the sun does not revolve around Whoville (with due acknowledgment to Copernicus).We see, then, in Whoville the dangers of autocratic rule, the secrecies it requires, its outright hostility to any sentiment that might disrupt the narrow party-line or the folkloric pillars on which it has been built. In short, the Council is putting Whoville at risk by not heeding the Mayor’s warning. Their commitment to maintaining the town’s utopian state of existence and their rejection of pluralism, though not conveyed by Dr. Seuss himself, nevertheless speak to the lessons that he may have been getting at in the post-World War II context in which he wrote – namely, the inevitable evils that lurk around the corner of any attempt to build a perfect society out of, in Kant’s words, the “crooked timber of humanity.”The events in Whoville also speak to the more general matter of authority and rebellion. A.O. Scott touched on this point in an insightful essay on Seuss called “Sense and Nonsense” in the New York Times Magazine back in 2000. “Seuss’s moralism,” he said, “was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be. World War II, part of which Seuss spent making propaganda films for the Army…honed his temperamental distrust of authority to a fine political edge.”The flip side of the autocratic regime, of course, is the dehumanization of the individual, and nothing defines Horton Hears a Who! if not its famous admonishment, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Scott commented on this dynamic, too, when he noted that, in Seuss’s body of work, “An overt concern with social justice resounds through the anti-Fascist allegory of Yertle the Turtle, the satire of racism in The Sneetches and the humanism of Horton Hears a Who!” It is exactly that – humanism – that is the central lesson of the Horton story, and this lesson, we shouldn’t have to be reminded, is worth teaching over and over and over again to both children and adults alike. The message was relevant when the book first came out in 1954 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (according to some accounts, the real target the author had in mind), and it remains relevant today for myriad reasons that should be obvious to all.As my brain generated this philosophical mumbo-jumbo while sitting in the movie theater, I had to constantly remind myself that, at the end of the day, for most viewers, Horton Hears a Who! will be nothing more than a colorful story about two imaginary worlds with a simple take-home lesson: Respect the rights of others regardless of their physical stature or societal position. So, despite the entertaining tale that it tells and the rich philosophical foundations on which it was built, I doubt that the film will garner a spot in the pantheon of great Western thinkers for either Dr. Seuss or the screenwriters of Horton. The latter, by the way, have also brought us the recently released movie College Road Trip, which I can only imagine must be an alternative take on Homer’s Odyssey.
I’ve never been a big fan of film adaptations of books. If I watch the movie version and then decide to read the book, as is currently the case with American Psycho, I can’t help but have an image of the actors in my head. If I read the book and then watch the film, I’m tempted to be that guy who says, “You know, the book is much better.”One time when I was interviewing a Hollywood screenwriter who had just published his first book, I asked him if he’d like to see a movie version of his novel someday. Absolutely not, he said, noting that having turned books into screenplays, he knows that by the end of the process one rarely looks like the other.But what bothers me most is when books for children are adapted for the big screen. I’m not talking about projecting Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! onto a movie screen. That’s fine with me. The book already has colorful pictures and isn’t considered a novel in the literary sense. Instead, my gripe is with, oh, say, the film version of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series.As a kid, one of the things I loved about reading was how I could create an image of what the characters looked like based on the author’s description. Sure, I suppose some of those books had pictures of characters on the cover, but that’s a far cry from seeing Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, on billboards and in commercials for the movies.Admittedly, I also am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, before seeing the movie, and I had no desire to find out what happened next.I acknowledge the movies probably have spurred thousands of children to read more than they had before, but it’s the kind of reading that concerns me. In the end, kids end up reading books about wildly imaginative characters while being denied the pleasure of imagining what those characters look like. That disappoints me.Who knows, maybe most kids can easily separate the Harry Potter books from the films, especially since some of the screen adaptations allow for some creative license. I just hope the movies haven’t stifled the literary imagination of young readers.