Thursday, September 6, 2007


A fellow Vermont College alumna recommended Diane Schoemperlen to me as an example of someone who writes stories in collage form. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, and the only book of hers they had on the shelf was this one, a novel about a writer who is going through her daily routine, minding her own business, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appears in her living room and asks if she can spend a couple of weeks at her place, resting up for her busy season. (The month of May is dedicated to Mary.) The unnamed first-person narrator, being a well mannered woman, though not Catholic, said yes. She escorted her to the guest room, showed her where the bathroom and laundry facilities were, and asked her if she'd like some lunch. Things went on more or less in that vein for the entire time Mary spent with the narrator, without too much excitement beyond trips to the grocery store and the occasional walk around the block. Interspersed between the chapters that described what went on, what they talked about, and what the narrator thought about later were chapters titled History (1), History (2), etc., which consisted mostly of extensive lists of the Virgin Mary's apparitions, from Biblical times to the present. These included well known appearances such as Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe, as well as many more obscure incidents. I had been expecting a satirical novel, and ended up with what appeared to be a testament of faith. It was interesting in its way, but too much Virgin Mary for me. There was one section worth quoting, though--

"…As a writer, I have always known there is no such thing as a simple story.
"Much as I know better, still sometimes I find myself longing and trying to do just that: to write a simple story composed entirely of simple sentences about simple things.
"I write: A dog barked in his sleep.
"This start seems as promising as any other so I continue: A woman stood by the window.
"I have no idea where this is going but I like it. I write some more: A car passed. The rain fell.
"I think I’m really getting somewhere now. I stop and read over what I have written so far. This is my first mistake.
"Now I cannot resist my own inclination to elaborate, embroider, and explain. I cannot let that sleeping dog lie. I decide to make him an arthritic old black Lab named Jet. His bark is plaintive and directed, in this instance, at a dream cat he is chasing down a dream blind alley. He is sleeping on a braided rug under the kitchen table. On the table are four empty containers of Chinese food.
"Before all this came up, that amorphous dog was any color, all colors. But having gone ahead and made the dog black, he is no longer yellow, brown, or white. Having made him a Labrador retriever, he is no longer a German shepherd, a Saint Bernard, or a Lhasa apso.
"My simple story quickly gets out of hand. The next thing you know, the woman is a thirty-two-year-old hairdresser named Annette, the window is in the kitchen of her third-floor bachelor apartment, the car passing in the street below is red and going too fast, the rain is falling heavily, it is April, it is Friday, it is eight o’clock. The next thing you know, Annette will be pulling her fortune out of a cookie and reading it aloud to Jet. The next thing you know, there will be a knock at the door and the lives of Annette and Jet will be changed forever.
"I already know how stories are made. (pp. 170-172)"


angelle said...

Interesting quote. I like to believe that the best stories are actually inherently very simple. Of course, the turn of the plot often requires complexity, intrigue, blah blah blah. And truth to be told, nothing is ever REALLY simple. Humans are complex creatures. But I think sometimes what makes something great is an inherent simplicity in the truth of a story --- that showcases the complexity of humanity. Does that make any sense at all? I think back to Cormac's [much loved] The Road: the story is a simple one, and often the most touching parts are the simplest. Not because the emotions or situations are devoid of complexity, maybe, but because what it boils down to so basic that it's what makes it powerful.

Does that make sense, or am I just smoking too much of something? [more like lack of sleep]

Vivian said...

I like simplicity, too, of the Hemingway/Carver variety. It does seem to be out of fashion, though--or at least that's the impression I got while I was in the MFA program.

BTW, angelle, how do you get your book covers to look so nice? The ones on my posts are lame.

angelle said...

I don't use amazon. I use barnes. and i use the big "more views" version. :)