Archive for the March ’09 Packet. Category

March Critical Essay.

Posted in March '09 Packet., VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on March 31, 2009 by Richard Farrell

Invisible Walls:  Structure and Form in Anne Carson’s Short Talks


In Anne Carson’s Short Talks, a nearly invisible cast of characters peeks from behind the curtain of a disconnected narrative to tell the story of “three old women…bending in the fields.”  Traditional forms of fiction are stretched and broken, yet the story still resonates in the absence of form.  Carson turns the story into a poetic expression that is ambiguous and challenging, but effectively leaves images glowing on the page long after the final word.  But this work suggests problematic questions too, especially if it is examined for its effectiveness and craft.  Is it appropriate to label this writing a ‘story’?  Can fiction exist without formal boundaries of plot, character and setting?  Does the illumination such writing provides justify the complete disruption of the traditional form of a story? 

From the opening, the scenes in Short Talks are broken by subject titles that appear diverse and thematically indifferent.  On a closer examination, the reader can begin to observe Carson pushing the story by subtle, threadbare connections.  Citing Aristotle, she hints that the reader should be paying attention to these thin veins which connect her writing.  “Everything that happens is pushed by something else.”  One goal, then, is to decipher the hidden code of this story by looking at the thematic and imagistic patterns which exist.  If this represents plot, it does so only in the most glancing way.

When a reader approaches such a non-traditional piece of fiction, the effect can be jarring.  There is none of John Gardner’s ‘vivid, continuous, waking dream’ motif here; each paragraph yanks the reader out of the story and into a search for comprehension.  So if the flow of the story is so disruptive, what is the author’s intent in creating such a turbulent piece?  Carson herself provides a few clues.  “I emphasize this.  I will do anything to avoid boredom.  It is the task of a lifetime.”  Thus the narrator begins to “construct an instant of nature gradually, without the boredom of a story.”  By shaking the traditional tree of fiction, she hopes to drop enough fruit to sustain her audience.  Obviously, such a technique can only be accomplished by a profound strength. 

Carson demonstrates this force by an encyclopedic knowledge of art, both modern and classical.  This alone may not be enough to sustain the piece, unless this disruptive style represents the transcendence of the traditional forms.  Carson makes this case by her frequent allusions to artists of the past.  She references no less than fifteen artists, from Ovid to Sylvia Plath, from George Braque to Dostoevsky, and even personifies some.  The ladies from the field appear to have had direct contact with both Seurat and Sylvia Plath’s mother. Ovid listens to a radio while he composes poetry.  She seems to be inviting her audience to be affected by the prose on a deeper level, something perhaps even indecipherable.  It is through her allusions to artists of the past, men and women who pushed the boundaries in their time that she indicates this story is attempting to do the same. 

This leads to an obvious question:  Why has Carson driven the characters off the page?  Character development in this story is almost non-existent and the reader might fairly ask if any actual character even exists in the story.  This absence represents the most troubling aspect of the piece.  Who is telling this story?  What is the subject?  Even in a post-modern piece of writing, character should still matter.  In Short Talks, the narrator appears only twice: in the introduction and possibly in the section titled “On Reading.”  “I glimpsed the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary.”  Who then, is the story about?   The most obvious answer is that this narrator is interviewing the three women, but because the characters are intentionally hidden, no names, no physical description, no age, no place, no time, it becomes impossible to discern what the subject is.  Can narrative fiction exist without a subject? 

Other fictional elements are also clearly absent.   The plot resembles a jigsaw puzzle, if there even is a plot.  The setting recognizes no time or place, though memories and intellectual connections abound.  Where conflict exists, it circulates around abstractions and fragments.  A good example occurs in the section labeled On Defloration:  “And when you dishonored me, I saw that dishonor is an action.”  While this line is powerful, arcing toward story, with character and embedded tension, it falls away into nothingness.  Who is being dishonored and why?  We never find out.  Yet despite the abstractions and the formless shape, the fragments of this story yield an emotional whole, an actualized work of art, an enduring example of the power of language to bring life to the page in the absence of traditional forms.  The problem for analysis though, is not what has been wrought emotionally after reading, but what this piece is.

In the end, no objective standard should define art.  Art grows in time, place, and in the imagination of the artist and it changes over time.  Yet to call Short Talks a story would seem to redefine what a story is.  Perhaps that redefining is valid.  But shouldn’t a story retain elements of form the way something labeled a ‘painting’ should involve paint?  Taken to a logical conclusion, the absence of form leads to nothingness, to obliteration.

  Carson calls the world “the most famous experimental prison of its time.  Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing.  Yet he could see.”  This metaphor seems fitting.  The artist strains to see beyond the walls of the prison, to seek freedom, to validate existence.  Removing barriers, shuffling form, moving outward from the restrictions, these things abide in art.  Carson closes with these words:  “I am writing this to be as wrong as possible to you.  Replace the door when you leave it says.  Now you tell me how wrong that is, how long it glows.  Tell me.”  She tells us that the story is wrong, but asks if it glows.  The effectiveness of this writing is undeniable.  It glows for sure.  It lingers, it challenges us, and moves us out of boredom.  It creates doubt.  Perhaps this is enough, and that defining it as a story or as a poem or something else only moves us back closer to the prison walls which we long to see past.   Perhaps it was intended to exist without form. It stands naked to remind us how form restricts, how it limits.  It asks us to see beyond the torture stakes. 



Carson, Anne.  Short Talks.  From:  The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.  Edited by Ben Marcus.  (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2004)