The Detective Story by Jorge Luis Borges

I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful (Borges 134).

While flipping through Borges’ book, On Writing, his essay The Detective Story caught my eye as, admittedly, I have little experience with the genre. That struck me as strange, since it seems like exactly the sort of thing I’d be all over. Anyways, I’m not sure that I would attribute this lack of experience to the “disdain” he mentions in the above quote.

I do believe I know what he’s referring to, but I wouldn’t say the detective novel is unique in this regard, as most genre fiction deals with it to some extent. Taking fantasy and science fiction, two of my favorite genres, we can see that both have been so heavily influenced by just a handful of authors that many of their conventions are continually repeated over the years.

I say this, for example, with J.R.R. Tolkien and his seminal The Lord of the Rings trilogy in mind. How many fantasy novels have had tall, elegant elves with pointy ears and gruff, ax-wielding dwarves since then? Or some mystical embodiment of pure evil laying dormant for centuries before needing to be vanquished by some unexpected hero?

Borges dedicates the greater part of his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, who, as it turns out, is credited for being the father of the detective story. I don’t know if that’s common knowledge, but I had no idea! I find it odd that I knew that he almost certainly suffered from crippling depression, that he had married his wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, when he was 27 and she was 13 (whoa, dude – different time, different custom, I guess), and that the cause of his death is a matter of debate… but I didn’t know he founded an entire genre!

Borges’ praise is mixed though, as you can see in the quote below:

Now, Poe was a man who, as we know, lived an unhappy life. He died at the age of forty, given over to alcohol, melancholy, and neurosis. We have no reason to enter into the details of the neurosis; we need only know that Poe was a very unfortunate man who lived predestined for misfortune. To free himself from it, he took to ostentatiously displaying and perhaps exaggerating his intellectual virtues (Borges 127).

JEEZ, Jorge. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you.

Anyways, one such case of this, according to Borges, is Charles Auguste Dupin, a creation of Poe’s and the first detective in literature. He very pointedly mentions that Dupin, the genius detective, is who Poe believes himself to be, and that Dupin being French is just Poe (kind of) covering his tracks.

When Borges isn’t roasting Poe, though, he shares a couple of the most prominent traditions detective stories:

  1. The detective is always highly intelligent, and the case is solved as a function of that, and not more realistic reasons, like informants or carelessness on the part of the criminals.
  2. The narrator is usually said detective’s friend and is quite a bit less intelligent, presumably to bridge the gap between readers and the detective.

He also leaves us with five detective stories by Poe, along with other notable entries. I’ll be making a point of reading all of these during my challenge.

By Poe:

  • Thou Art the Man 
  • The Purloined Letter
  • The Mystery of Marie Roget
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

By others:

  • The Invisible Man by G.K. Chesterton
  • Death and the Compass by – well, look what we have here – Jorge Luis Borges

All in all, The Detective Story is an essay that makes a few interesting points but wanders in subject far too much to really drive those points home. I had to read it twice through because I wasn’t quite sure what exactly his point is. I’m convinced I’ve yet dialed in on it, but I don’t think I’ll be giving this one a third read. Onwards!

Once More to the Lake by E.B. White

Of the three essays I’ve read so far, this one is the most open to interpretation. Once More to the Lake is a deeply personal piece about a lake in Maine that White’s father had taken him to as a child and that he too had taken his own son. White speaks of the permanence of the lake and by extension, life. On returning to the lake, it strikes him that while people come and go, the roles and relationships they fill stay largely the same. He sees in himself the father he once had, and he sees in his son the boy he once was. The longer he stays at the lake, though, he begins to see that it’s not quite that simple and clean. Certain things have changed, like the technology and culture that surrounds them.

It seems at first that these changes bother him. And I can understand that. They mar an otherwise simplistic view of life. But White seems to accept these changes, just as he accepts that the cyclical nature of life that had so entranced him also signals his inevitable death.

Reading this essay, it occurs to me how tempting it must be, as a parent, to see the path your children walk as one and the same as your own. In its broad strokes, I see the truth in that sentiment. Not all parents, however, see much further than that, and therein lies the source of a rift so commonly experienced between parents and their children. E.B. White does not seem to fall into that trap, though, as he notes that despite his initial inclinations, there is more to his son’s life than what he himself has already experienced.

This is a piece I will need to revisit if I ever have kids of my own. Considering my, uh, current lack of funds, however, I hope that does not happen anytime soon. (I prefer pets myself.)

It’s all I have to bring today by Emily Dickinson

It’s all I have to bring today—
This, and my heart beside—
This, and my heart, and all the fields—
And all the meadows wide—
Be sure you count—should I forget
Some one the sum could tell—
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

I remember reading a bit of Dickinson for a freshman English class in college. I recall there was quite a bit of head scratching involved. I may have also said some… unsavory things about her as I struggled to get her meaning. Well, I’m just a bit more mature than I was back then. Still scratching my head though.

I do want to share something other than another long winded post basically saying, “I have no idea what I just read”. So, I’m going to cheat a little bit and read up on this poem online. Hopefully, this will give me some ideas on what to look for in poems moving forward.

From what I’m reading, this poem has an A B C B rhyme. Okay. I can see that. And I must concede that it’s nice. Reciting this poem aloud, the words just roll off the tongue. It’s pleasant and lyrical. Some people seem to think this poem is about death. Others disagree and say it’s a poem about a lover and what she has to offer. I don’t have an opinion myself, and somehow I don’t think Emily will be clarifying her meaning on this anytime soon.

It occurs to me that perhaps there’s some significance to the word “Clover” as it’s capitalized. What that significance is, however, I couldn’t say. I’m also considering the possibility that this poem is supposed to be ironic, as the narrator first says she only has two things to bring, but then it turns out there’s actually three – no wait, now four. Is this poem about a woman who can’t settle on what to bring with her to vacation and ends up bringing way too much stuff?

I have no idea what I just read.

Strawberry Spring by Stephen King

Strawberry Spring is a short story I found in King’s collection of horror stories titled Night Shift. It’s a gruesome tale where murder, mystery, and supernatural forces coalesce at New Sharon Teachers’ College in New England during the winter of 1968. Springheel Jack, they called him, the killer who comes and goes with the fog leaving mutilated bodies in his wake. Like most of King’s work, this story is not for the faint of heart. If you’re feeling bold, however, by all means carry on: this is Stephen King doing what he does best.

The most remarkable thing about Strawberry Spring isn’t the shock value. It’s not the visceral description or the characterization either. It’s the fact that many readers could likely predict the ending a page or two into the story, but still be horrified when their fears are confirmed. There’s a lesson in this story, and it’s this: you don’t need to shock your reader to scare the fuck out of them.

So if it isn’t shock value that gets the job done, how does King do it? How does he instill fear in a reader who can sense where the story is going? Well, I have a theory, but I can’t really give you my thoughts without revealing more than I’d like about the ending. In consideration of all who plan on reading this story, I’ll be writing out these next thoughts in white, so you can either highlight the next few lines or come back to this later. It seems to me that we often place more value in the what of a story than in the why, when really, they’re equally significant. I believe that the horror of Strawberry Spring doesn’t arise from the events that transpire, but in the explanation for them. Or rather, the lack of one. I think — and I’m certainly guilty of this myself — that writers sometimes get caught up in the events that drive our story and assume that these events need to make sense for the reader to buy them, when in truth, the story can have more impact when there is nothing for the reader to buy. 

Before I get to whether or not this story is worth your time, I want to note a passage as I usually do. 

Twilight came and the fog with it, drifting up the tree-lined avenues slowly, almost thoughtfully, blotting out the buildings one by one. It was soft, insubstantial stuff, but somehow implacable and frightening. Springheel Jack was a man, no one seemed to doubt that, but the fog was his accomplice and it was female…or so it seemed to me. It was as if our little school was caught between them, squeezed in some crazy lovers’ embrace, part of a marriage that had been consummated in blood (King 277).

I have no reason for picking this paragraph apart from the fact that I think it’s pretty, simple as that.

Anyways, would I recommend Strawberry Spring? I wouldn’t consider it a new favorite of mine, but I do think it’ll be worth the ten to fifteen minutes of your time that it’ll take. It won’t leave you with any startling revelations about life, no deep questions to ponder, but it’s a thrilling piece and there’s a lot here to unpack if you’re hoping to learn horror storytelling from a master.

The Spike by George Orwell

Ennui – noun. A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

The Spike is an essay Orwell wrote back in 1931 when he was living out a nomadic lifestyle out and about in London. This was all part of a social experiment he was doing, and according to Wikipedia (what, you think I just know these things?), this adventure became the subject of his first book. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s called Down and Out in Paris and London. “The Spike” is a colloquial term for an English workhouse, a place where people down on their luck could find room and board and opportunities for employment. This essay is about a weekend Orwell had spent in the Spike.

Um, wow. Not really sure what to say. After reading about the abject conditions Orwell had to endure with his fellow tramps, I almost feel filthy myself. There’s no way to truly know an experience without having gone through it oneself. With language, a writer can bridge that gap in understanding, but never all the way, I think. With The Spike, Orwell gets as close as one can get. The next time someone complains about mess, I’m going to direct them to this essay. Here is what I consider to be the most disgusting paragraph I might have ever read:

It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed; the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together by dirt. The room became a press of steaming nudity, the sweaty odours of the tramps competing with the sickly, sub-faecal stench native to the spike. Some of the men refused the bath, and washed only their ‘toe-rags’, the horrid, greasy little clouts which tramps bind round their feet. Each of us had three minutes in which to bathe himself. Six greasy, slippery roller towels had to serve for the lot of us.

Jesus, George! I don’t know what I’m more impressed with, his dedication to his nomadic experiment or his ability to evoke pure revulsion in his readers.

Our late companions were scattering north, south, cast and west, like bugs into a mattress.

Here’s another notable quote. Throughout the essay, Orwell is incredibly persistent in maintaining this filthy imagery. Yet it doesn’t come off as heavy handed. I’ll have to think on this some more, but I suspect this has to do with how the substance of the essay is well matched with the description of it. In other words, he’s not just describing things in a disgusting way. With concrete details, he’s able to establish that this is all part of the reality of the experience. The repulsiveness in his figurative language therefore seems justified.

The essay is a powerful and intimate look into the lives of the homeless in 1930’s England. It’s fascinating in an absolutely horrible way. While I don’t believe I could ever understand homelessness without experiencing it myself, I come out of this piece with more of an appreciation for how difficult it was and still is. The most striking aspect in this piece is Orwell’s description of how people tend to dehumanize the homeless, to treat them as if they had done something irredeemably wrong in simply being in the circumstance they’re in. It’s so strange to me that even to this day, we act like the homeless are somehow less deserving of the basic things the average person gets to enjoy.

This is an essay that remains relevant today. Orwell makes some very interesting observations not just about homelessness, but about people in general. Scroll up to the top and you’ll find a link to the essay, kindly provided by Project Gutenberg. Read it. But just be warned, this is not something you’ll want to read between bites of supper. If you’re hoping to keep that supper down, that is.

Mockingbirds by Mary Oliver

I should really get myself a few poem books (is that what they’re called? “Poem books”?). So far, I’ve just been plugging in variations of “short poem” into Google and picking out the first one that catches my eye. I’ll add that to the list of things to buy when I’m not broke. Anyways, here’s Mockingbirds:

This morning

two mockingbirds

in the green field

were spinning and tossing

 

the white ribbons

of their songs

into the air.

I had nothing

 

better to do

than listen.

Alright, as a novice of poetry, I have quite a few questions. I’m wondering why Oliver chose to break up her lines this way, and why she chose to have two stanzas of four lines followed by one of two. Does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason. Maybe the appeal of poetry is that you can do whatever the fuck you want and you don’t need a reason because your readers will make them up for you. If I had to guess though, I suspect she may have wanted to draw attention to the act of listening by abruptly halving the number of lines in that stanza.

I think part of my struggle with poetry comes from the somewhat mechanical way I approach things. I have a tendency to expect a purpose in every word and a reason behind every decision. I get frustrated when I don’t have ready access to these things. That frustration, I believe, is a distraction from the aspects of a poem I can appreciate. Like the word choice in describing this birdsong: “spinning and tossing the white ribbons of their songs into the air”. It’s pretty. Not only that, I think it’s clever how she describes a song with completely visual terms. I’m going to have to try that myself.

This poem seems particularly appropriate for me. It’s like Mary Oliver is telling me, “Shut up. Stop thinking so much. Just listen to the beauty in front of you.”

Noted, Mary. No need to be a dick about it. I got it.

 

Good Boys Deserve Favors by Neil Gaiman

It’s day 2 of the Ray Bradbury Challenge, and I’m mixing things up with a little bit of Gaiman. I found this short story in his anthology, Fragile ThingsI’ll be honest: I’ve read this story before and remember enjoying it, but I could not for the life of me remember what it was about. My initial thought was that it must not have been a very good story then.

So with low expectations, I gave it another read, and about five minutes later (it’s quite a short one), I remembered why I liked it. This is a very different sort of story from The Euphio Question by Kurt Vonnegut, which I read yesterday. It seems to me that they offer entirely different things. In The Euphio Question, Vonnegut had something he wanted impress upon the reader. He put forth a perspective on the nature of happiness and left the reader to puzzle over philosophical matters, like whether or not happiness can ever be excessive. Good Boys Deserve Favors, on the other hand, doesn’t probe into any such matters. It’s quick and light and inconsequential. It doesn’t say as much, and the substance of the story doesn’t make as strong an impact on me as a reader, but in giving those things up, Gaiman gives it this pleasant mixture of authenticity and realism. It feels less like a story one might find in a book and more like an amusing experience one friend might recount to another over a few beers.

I’m going to skip the summary this time. It’s such a quick read that any concrete details I share will just ruin the fun for you. I’m still figuring out how exactly I’d like to structure these posts. Or if I want any sort of consistent structure at all. We’ll see.

Here’s a passage that I want to share:

“He had never married. Good double bass players, he told me, were men who made poor husbands. He had many such observations. There were no great male cellists – that’s one I remember. And his opinion of viola players, of either sex, was scarcely repeatable” (Gaiman 128).

It sounds simple now that I’m writing it, but it occurs to me that a reader can learn a lot, very quickly, about a character through the advice that he or she gives. Just the same, a storyteller can share a great deal of information about a character in their reaction to that advice. This is particularly useful to me because I tend to be rather hamfisted with the way I describe my characters to my readers. It’s a good way to characterize people without telegraphing to the reader that you’re, well, characterizing people.

Aside from that, if there’s one thing I’d like to take away from this read, it would be this: a story doesn’t need to have profound messages or complex plots to be worth the reader’s time. Sometimes, a story without much substance to it can stand on the merits of its voice. To me, that’s just as impressive.

Anyways, would I recommend this story? Absolutely. It’ll take you 5 minutes and while it won’t leave you with any meaty questions to ponder over for the rest of the day, it’ll definitely leave you with a smile.

You Fit Into Me by Margaret Atwood

Poetry. Ugh. I have never been the greatest fan of poems. To be honest, I often considered myself to be a bit lacking in the necessary subtlety to enjoy them as much as other forms of art. Embarrassingly often, I would get to the end of the poem and think, “Wait, what? What the fuck did I just read?”

Well, I’ve got many, many poems ahead of me, so I’m going to ease myself into this part of the challenge with a short one. A very short one. Here it is:

You fit into me

Like a hook into an eye

A fish hook

An open eye

Upon reading the title, I admit I rolled my eyes a bit. Four lines later (I know, I’m a bit slow), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this isn’t an overly gratuitous piece on love. In fact, it reads more like a diss than anything else. Like something Atwood would say to a lover before splashing a glass of wine in his face. I appreciate how she dedicates the second half of the poem clarifying that it’s a fish hook and that the eye is open, just in case said lover is thinking she’s absolutely smitten with him.

 

On Expressionism by Jorge Luis Borges

About seven years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of On Writing by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. No more excuses. Let’s see what this Borges fellow has to say.

Today’s pick is his essay titled On Expressionism. If you didn’t already know (I didn’t), expressionism was a movement in which artists aimed to convey emotional experience over physical reality. An example of this would be Edvard Munch’s The Scream (I know, yikes). According to Borges, expressionism was born in the reaction to World War II, a time of seemingly random destruction and pain and fear. In the spirit of these intense emotions, artists set aside perfection and instead opted to stir powerful feelings in their audiences, even if they had to warp reality to do so.

I’ll close this post with a quote. “In the best expressionist poems there is the vigorous imperfection of a mutiny.”

 

The Euphio Question by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s The Euphio Question is a short story I found in his anthology entitled Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s funny, but in perfect Vonnegut fashion it’s also profound in its take on human happiness. The story is told in the form of the unnamed narrator’s testimony to the Federal Communications Commission. He, along with Lew Harrison and Dr. Fred Bockman (a radio announcer and physicist respectively), inadvertently invent a gadget that induces a peace of mind the likes of which man has never known. It is essentially a radio transmitter that amplifies and broadcasts signals from far off heavenly bodies. Anyone within range, they soon learn, gets hit with an irresistible wave of contentedness. They decide to test it out on themselves and their families (great idea, right?), and the rest, I shall leave to you to find out.

A Notable Quote

There’s one phrase that stuck out as particularly funny: “…the rest of us lay draped around the room, whimpering about hunger, cold, and thirst…” (Vonnegut 202). I just love the use of the word “draped”. I had never thought to describe people the way one might describe a soggy curtain. The imagery is fucking hilarious.

A Trick for My Writer’s Toolkit

There’s something Vonnegut did that I’m going to experiment with myself. I’m hoping you take the time to read this short story, so I’ll leave out the details. Essentially, Vonnegut would open a scene by establishing something that a character does not want. And then he’d show us a situation in which the same character concedes that very thing. It’s a simple, but effective way of highlighting the influence of the particular situation they are in.

My Verdict

I’d say I’m starting this challenge right. Of course, Vonnegut is a rather safe pick. I don’t remember ever not enjoying something he wrote. (Well, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Galapagos, but even then, I had to admit it was well written). The Euphio Question is absolutely worth your time. It’s a short read, but it’s full of laughs and it still manages to give the reader something to think about.