Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘bleeding gums murphy

Each of us, it would seem, orbits one another across ever-widening tracts of space. Is it that society, community, is what takes place in the furthest hinterland of our consciousness, or is it each one of us who is at the periphery of the larger narrative? Can writing, that adventure in solipsism, cope with the understanding that none of us was ever the story?

Even fiction, which has long since ceased to be based purely on the mythologies of Gods, Rulers and Heroes, can’t cope with absolute democracy. In any piece of fiction, characters will be central, secondary or peripheral. This even applies to stories told over several years, with dozens of characters engaged in hundreds of storylines: for a quarter of a century, on BBC TV’s Eastenders, whenever a major character has been called away to attend to a plot development, Tracey [played by Jane Slaughter, above] has covered for them on their stall or in their shift behind the bar of the Queen Vic. In NBC’s The West Wing, in a belt-and-braces expression of periphery, Renée Estevez – a member of the Sheen acting dynasty who wasn’t sent to assassinate Marlon Brando, wasn’t in The Breakfast Club and isn’t the internet’s own Charlie Sheen – held down, as “Nancy”, a desk job in the Whitehouse during seven seasons of the drama about the Presidency of Jed Bartlet, played by her father. She greeted members of the staff and guests going in and out of the Oval Office and had not one moment of plot devoted to her life or work. This was in a series in which there were fully-fledged peripheral characters (economic advisers Ed and Larry; personal assistants Carol, Bonnie and Ginger) who also had no plots of their own but they at least got to engage in significant dialogue and do the occasional trademark walk’n’talk scene with the lead actors. Nancy said “Good morning, Mr President” and opened doors, and that was it. As viewers, we follow the lights that shine most brightly but, as writers, if we look to the shadows, to the lives of the Traceys and the Nancys, that’s where we can find our narratives.

Writing in The Guardian in May about Tracey Emin
, Ali Smith – one of the key voices in contemporary short fiction – referenced a 1935 quote from Gertrude Stein in which she discussed how centuries of use in poetry had gradually sapped the “excitingness of pure being” from words which had once held tremendous resonance: “they were just rather stale literary words.” Narratives, too, grow stale and we need to pay attention to the ways in which storytellers will circumvent the glaring and the obvious. I’ve discussed the Simpsons Plot Detour previously, in reference to the way a typical Simpsons episode might embark on a narrative and then veer into a different story altogether after about five minutes. We can identify this as a device by the storytellers but it could also be a recognition of how the audience responds to narrative.

On our right, we have the 1947 painting, La Naissance de Vénus by the Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. It’s a depiction of an event, a happening, and therefore it’s a story. And, in keeping with the narratives that our ancestors used to define and order our societies, it’s a story about a Deity. We can recognise Venus from the positioning of her hands and the tilt of her head but even a quick glance to our left at Botticelli’s canonical Birth of Venus shows us that Delvaux is drawing our gaze elsewhere. Delvaux’s goddess is not centrally located and is foregrounded to such a degree, she almost acts like a pillar blocking our view of part of the action at a sports ground. Almost immediately, we start to look past her – to the expression of exquisite sorrow on the face of what seems to be the maid to the right, to the naked bathers, the figures in the middle distance, the ghosts of giant faces suggested in the rock in the far distance, the ship which appears to lack a crew but must be piloted by someone…I’m guessing it’s Tracey from Eastenders.

In this late age for storytelling, the most effective route to a story may be to look to the edge of the crowd. The sense of what makes the world has changed to such a degree in the past century, we now have no doubts that, in society as in literature, the margins can reinvigorate the main page. Evolution tells us we’re all part of one sequence of molecular oscillation so no one story carries a ‘better’ truth than any other. Short stories must recognise this, because they rise and fall with the momentary, the illusory, the peripheral and the incidental.

Here’s an exercise for you: the recent story about the legendary French actor, Gérard Depardieu, urinating onto a CityJet plane’s carpet when refused permission to use the toilets prior to takeoff, was never going to be struggling for narrative potential. Like the appearance of the legendary footballer, Paul Gascoigne, at the fatal seige of a serial killer last summer, the nexus of spectacular human drama and a particular category of larger-than-life celebrity figure, immediately appeals to the sense that this was exactly what we used to expect of the ‘silly season’ and exactly what we used to expect from celebrities. The initial act, and the subsequent manner in which the story has played out in the media, may titillate or outrage us as consumers but needn’t concern us as writers. A fellow passenger’s eyewitness account of Depardieu’s actions on being caught short, in which she explained that “it all happened with courtesy,” is far more encouraging to our peripheral vision…

Consider that mood of courtesy. Look past the embarrassed superstar, peeved cabin staff and bewildered passengers. Move down the aisle. Pause for a moment at the woman paying close attention to the scene, noting the levels of courtesy and preparing the statement she’ll make to reporters. Think about her spreading this observation back through the plane so that those, who were unable to see the kerfuffle or hear the splash into and out of an inadequately-sized Evian bottle, have acquired a sense of having been there, of having been privy to the courtesy, and part of the story. And then there’s one passenger for whom none of this has an impact. For this passenger, the famous man, his bladder, the plane’s carpet – that’s all the periphery. What is this passenger’s story?

The title of this post is a line spoken by an unwritten character in an unwritten story which as yet lacks a premise, plot and the basis for any sentences other than the one you can see. However, the subject of the line, the “guy”, has a definite identity. The line characterises the lyrical texture and – to exhaust my ability to get technical about saxophone playing – reed control in the solos of the post-war jazz alto saxophonist, Sonny Criss. I’ve reflected on, and indulged in a number of examples of, the music of Sonny Criss in a twin post over on The ‘Spill blog, where I hang out with music lovers of all denominations so that’s where to go for the sounds, but here in the word zone, I’d like to think about the call-and-response between music and writing, and what might inflect my relationship with a musician like Sonny Criss.

The lives of musicians lend themselves to storytelling and the stories of their lives can often form a path to their music. In recent years, reading about Judee Sill, hearing about Jackson C. Frank and being tipped off about Charles Bradley have led me to investigate their music and, in each case, become a fan. With Criss, the music came first, after buying an album of his through a process that was as near to random as makes no difference. I was reliant just on the story told in the sleevenotes; back in 1988, you wouldn’t hop straight to Google to learn more, and the history was fleshed out only by purchasing more albums and absorbing more sleevenotes.

There was a tragedy at the heart of this story – more than one, in fact – starting with the lack of appreciation and absence of decent gigs he experienced as a Los Angeles-based jazz musician, through the years (late 40s and through the 50s) when bebop was tearing up New York City and the East Coast. Criss would find solace and the joy of being treated as an artist during stays in Paris but, at home, he was reduced to studio session work at best and playing in the house band at strip joints – “sobbing yet another sinewy alto solo while a ropy stripper in the spotlight sobs her kit off,” as I wrote it in The Frank Sinatra Joke, published in 2004 but written six years earlier. In 1979, after a flurry of recognition and awards in the late 60s hadn’t consolidated his status in a changing jazz scene, he took his own life. The nature of his death satisfied the equation within the narrative, and the music also conformed. Like when Billie Holiday or Karen Carpenter sang, every phrase played by Criss – even in upbeat, ostensibly ‘happy’ numbers, felt as though it had been wrung out from the tears shed beforehand. When he played a forlorn blues, the sorrow was exquisitely unbearable.

More recently, I’ve discovered that Criss was suffering in the late 70s from stomach cancer, that his suicide was most likely a form of auto-euthanasia and by no means necessarily a thirty-year blue note of despair at his experiences in the music industry. There is, in this, of course a commentary to be made about the sensational perceptions that industry, media and fans trade when it comes to all creative artists, and to musicians, to notionally self-destructive jazzers and to Black Americans, shackled by prejudice even when not by actual shackles. We could debate whether the racism was part of what conspired to drain him of hope during the course of his career – a distended manslaughter-by-exclusion – or if, before his mother revealed the medical background, the way his death was written up, as stemming from the same predilection for anguish that coloured the music, was itself a symptom of a lazy and somewhat racist willingness to caricature brilliant Black artistry as a primal scream from a wrecked psyche.

Having acknowledged that, a further question takes shape: to what extent did the music write the narrative? A parallel might be provided by Michael Radford’s 1994 film, Il Postino. The tragic narrative here was well-known at the time: Massimo Troisi, the star, having collapsed on the first day of shooting, postponed surgery in order to complete the film and deteriorated throughout its making, dying from a heart attack hours after the final shoot was completed. Knowing of this when watching the film intensifies what is already a moving experience. I remember seeing Philippe Noiret, as Pablo Neruda, embrace Troisi as their characters said goodbye in the film and it was impossible not to imagine this having been Noiret’s last moment with his friend, regardless of the sequence of filming in relation to the chronology of the plot, regardless of contact that is bound to have taken place off-camera.

Yet such is the poignancy in the story and performance, we are prepared to believe that the artists’ emotions precisely mirrored our interpretation of their art. If Troisi had been working on a frothy comedy or big dumb action thriller, we might not experience the same blurring of sympathies; he himself might not have been so committed to making this one final artistic statement. So it may be with Criss. Had he not poured such humanity and passion into his phrasing, or rendered the lyrical with such delicacy and seeming vulnerability, or flowed with such a thrilling highwire trajectory, I might have been less suggestive to connections between the man and the music.

This reasoning, though, remains too binary. The sound of Sonny Criss and whatever facts we know about his life are available for anyone but the individual listener must get in the way of any objective judgement. So I am a factor in this discussion and, as far as Sonny Criss is concerned, so is my writing. I self-medicate with music. Its absence, in stressful situations, has the capacity to make me more stressed. Its presence, in neutral moments, invariably lead to the sense of having acquired a soundtrack which in turn starts to suggest a narrative. I’m highly conscious of this as an evolution of the way music used to influence my writing. Sonny Criss played his part in this. On one set of sleevenotes, I read a quote of his – “I am a jazz soloist, which is a full-time creative job” – and adapted it as an important watchword in my life. “I am a jazz writer, which is a full-time creative job” was a mantra that held back the politics of despair and strengthened the resolve to define myself when I might just have been labelled a “dole-ite” but it also galvanised a writing approach. I aimed to do with my writing what jazz soloists did with their instruments and this would shape my beginnings as a performance poet, channelling the Last Poets and constructing lyrical runs as giddy as those of Criss’s alto.

Over time, I have come to recognise that the aspiration to connect with a reader in the way Sonny Criss connects with me is not about the way you sound but about the emotional truth sought by and expressed through your work. Criss remains my favourite voice in jazz for no reason other than that his voice is mine. The appreciation of it, my relationship with it, belongs to me; it speaks to my sense of who I am; and, when I write, I can detect ways in which his music has sculpted my language. Could there be a better aspiration for art than that it feels bespoke to the person who reads, sees or hears it? I’ll commend you to the music over on this post’s twin playlist and turn my final question out to anyone who’d like to contribute: when was the last time you read something that felt as if it was written especially for you?

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In the Wikipedia entry for the season 6 episode of The Simpsons entitled “‘Round Springfield”, the plot summary begins thus:

Bart gets a stomachache after accidentally eating a jagged metal Krusty-O with his breakfast cereal. Lisa is the only one who believes him, however, and Homer and Marge send him to school. Bart struggles through the test, and after finally convincing Mrs. Krabappel that he is actually ill, she lets him go and see the nurse. Bart collapses on the medical room floor, and is taken to Springfield General Hospital where he undergoes surgery from Dr. Hibbert and Dr. Nick, as it emerges he has appendicitis. While visiting Bart in the hospital, Lisa meets her hero, jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy, in a bed in another ward.

This was a notable episode. Bleeding Gums Murphy became the first recurring character to be killed off in The Simpsons, just one of an untold number of demonstrations the show has given over the years of its capacity to transgress expectations, not only of what we expect from cartoon animation but also within the conventions of storytelling. What is typical about the above plot set-up for “‘Round Springfield” (the title makes oblique reference to the Thelonious Monk composition, ‘Round Midnight) is that the main narrative in the episode is only signalled by the final sentence of the paragraph.

This device – “The Simpsons Plot Detour” – has not, to my knowledge, been given due acknowledgement in critical texts about structure in fiction so I have no idea if anyone has given a name to the device. If you know of any writing on this subject, I’d be grateful to hear about it; if not, I’m calling it for The Simpsons Plot Detour (SPD). The SPD will allow us to become involved in a storyline – here, the box of cereal, the metal Krusty-O and Bart’s hospitalisation – through regular functions of linear narrative: establishing the setting (home) and central characters (Bart and the family); introducing the motor for the plot (the cereal); and engaging our emotions in the plot developments that follow (Lisa standing up for Bart; Bart’s struggle with the school test; the anxiety of the operation). At this point, the detour occurs and Lisa’s wander down the hospital corridor takes us to the bedside of Bleeding Gums. The story that will unfold for the remainder of the episode is now one in which the story dynamic is the relationship between Lisa and Bleeding Gums, his mentorship of her, even from beyond the grave, and her advocacy to keep his memory alive. It’s a disruption of narrative convention but we’ve learned to accept it because it’s The Simpsons and that’s the way they tell stories.

As it happens, the misdirection of Bart’s encounter with the metal Krusty O isn’t completely discarded. He goes on to earn compensation money, which helps Lisa to purchase Bleeding Gums’ only LP, and so that eventual sub-plot manages to serve the main narrative. In the same way, Bleeding Gums’ celestial reappearance to Lisa has resonance with the story that is the main reason for this post. Nevertheless, I bring up the structural device of the SPD solely as a means of arriving at this instructive point: the decisions you make about the structure of your story are as important as the idea for the story itself.

This week, the short story specialists, Comma Press, have been pushing their call for submissions to their next anthology, The Reveal. Previous anthologies, drawn from open submissions, have presented an over-arching theme within which the writer needed to work. Although largely commissioned, some of the stories in the 2009 anthology, Re-Berth, including my piece, Scent, came from a submission process. The theme was “Cities On The Edge”, itself the theme of a civic, commercial and cultural partnership between the six European port cities represented in the book. So writing the story involved first solving a puzzle as to how to make this a Liverpool story, a story about being “on the edge”, being marginalised in some way, and a story that I would be able to tell. The remits from publishers and competitions can appear daunting or irksome but they can often provide the pinch of sugar needed to activate the yeast. An idea or even a whole draft that may not quite have been coming to life can, with the introduction of this new imperative, suddenly start to breathe. Rather than a theme, the publishers here are building their anthology around a structural device: the “reveal” of a disguised narrative (not a surprise twist) at the denouement of a story. What Comma has recognised is the role of structure in making a story work.

Structure is about how you organise the storytelling and this, in turn, encompasses factors such as the chronology of the narrative and the Point of View. When he emerged in the 1990s. one of the aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s film-making that showed off his cineaste credentials was his approach to structure: the three-card trick of shuffling the heist movie plot strands in Reservoir Dogs so that the heist itself was never shown; the even more radical liberties taken with linear structure in Pulp Fiction (whereby John Travolta could be killed off a third of the way through and then reappear in a different, earlier episode placed at the end of the film); and, in Dusk Till Dawn, for which he wrote the screenplay, the near-Simpsons Plot Detour of a road movie turning into a vampire flick halfway through.

Making the audience or readers think about how the story is being told freshens the information you present to them. The “it was all a dream” ending Comma outlaws, on the other hand, can make previously fresh narratives seem tired, as can the structure of “thing that’s happening now – extended flashback to explain in a wholly linear fashion what has happened before now – back to the now to end with a platitude about what has been learned from the experience” that should make readers weep with rage if they encounter it from a professional writer.

Point Of View (POV), similarly, can coax unexpected depths from material that might otherwise belong on charity shop bookshelves next to hastily-discarded paperbacks by breakfast TV presenters-turned-authors. It’s important to think about POV not simply as the voice chosen to tell the story. In relation to the way the story’s information is structured for the reader’s absorption, it’s also about the level of knowledge about events in the story and life beyond it, and the emotional and intellectual perspective from which it’s told.

I know every inch of Christina’s body and mind, each sensation, each mood. I know every one of her likes and dislikes, her favourite band, the place on her neck where she likes to be touched when a man is kissing her. I know the exact strength she likes her coffee and the words her grandmother whispered to her in the hospital just before she died. I also know the effect the handful of bitter pills will have on her physiology after she swallows them. I know every name of every chemical Christina will synthesise as each complex molecule of each pill starts to bond with receptors in her weary, stricken brain.

In Hari Kunzru’s Deus Ex Machina, a young woman named Christina attempts to kill herself after an unhappy affair with a man named Robert. She doesn’t die, though: a man named Yukio chances upon her just in time and this signals a future, far happier romance. Told from Christina’s POV, this might have been a darker Bridget Jones but the POV Kunzru brings in lifts it – I’m tempted to say, literally – into a different realm. The narrator is Christina’s Guardian Angel, which allows Kunzru to indulge in a comedic, metaphysical preamble which skewers some and confirms other myths that have built up over centuries about such beings:

Yes, we angels do dance on pinheads, and the usual number we fit on is one-hundred and seventy six for a standard gauge pin. This is not because of some restriction in size. As I say, we are entirely immaterial. It’s just that for pin-head dancing, one-seven-six just feels like the right number. Call it tradition.

There are parallels with Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Wings Of Desire and its tender images of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander resting their heads on the shoulders of Berlin residents and thereby hearing their thoughts, in the loving devotion, the “almost luminous love”, our narrator has to Christina. The contrivance of the Angel’s POV – and the further contrivances this then works into the plot – allows Kunzru to make a distinctive statement about a woman like Christina, whose low self-esteem, poor body image and weepy vulnerability to awful men would make her a Chick-lit cliché. She is beautiful. There are no qualifying remarks to add to that fact. Kunzru uses the trappings of religious imagery to lead us to this understanding but the fundamental device here is literary – the title is, of course, the name of a literary device.

This is a story that puts us back in touch with the core of our humanity. Christina’s redemption is from the mediated ideologies that distract and diminish us. It shows how love is the tool we’ve found and named for the impulse to save, preserve and celebrate our lives.

And it’s a message that gets across because the story structure, for all its transcendental flourishes, shines a true spotlight on the moments that we can recognise from our real lives.

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