Real Time Short Stories

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You go weeks, a couple of months, without blogging about a short story so, when you do, you tell yourself it’s got to be a story that gets you right there, between the ribs. It’s got to be a story that walks the planet like an ambassador for everything you believe about writing. And you know the story you want to use. But it’s not your story, not really. It should be the story that first made you understand, made you believe. But the truth is you had no idea it existed until some guy put you onto it a year ago. You hope they won’t notice. But they’ll notice.

So – full disclosure: if this post encourages you to track down Until Gwen, by the writer whose novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island, were made into acclaimed movies, credit must go to my colleague, John Sayle, at Liverpool John Moores University. John introduced the story to first year creative writers in a lecture ostensibly discussing dialogue technique. Certainly, Lehane has a fine ear for the dialogue within Americana’s underbelly, a comfortable fit within a tradition that links Damon Runyan with the likes of Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino and George Pelacanos, joined lately and from a more northerly point by D.W. Wilson. Beyond that, though, the characters come across like you’re watching them in HD after finally jettisoning the old 16″ black & white – you witness them in pungent, raw flesh to the point where it becomes lurid – and Lehane’s dislocated 2nd person narrative propels you into a plot whose most brutal turns are disclosed to you like an opponent’s poker hand.

In quite other ways, and the area I wish to consider here, Until Gwen tells us a story about the writing process that should be instructive to would-be authors grappling with the distinction between having the ideas and making the writing. Dennis Lehane has said that he’d had the opening sentence of Until Gwen long before he had conceived of any of the characters, their relationships or what might happen to them. It’s no wonder, having come up with this line, Lehane knew that someday he’d have to build a story around it:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.

The one guarantee is that, having read this, your reader is going to move on to the second sentence, which is also pretty good:

Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time.

We must steer the Dodge Neon around any prospective spoilers but there is no jeopardy in noting that, below its carnival transgressive veneer, this opening contains the lead-weighted certainties of the thriller: when even the hooker is only part-time, nothing is quite what it first seems; we may be driving away from the prison, but it’s still there in our wonky eyeline; the orchestrator of the goody bag of petty crime presented to the central character on leaving prison is introduced to us as “Your father”; and even though we, the reader, have all of this shoved onto our lap, we have no idea who our proxy, “you”, is.

Through the remainder of the story, we discover the endgame from the four years’ thinking, forgetting and remembering time afforded to the young man, whom we later discover, as memory returns, was called “Bobby” by his lover, Gwen, conspicuous by her absence from the welcome party mentioned above. The thriller is played out between son and father, while Bobby’s memories of Gwen reveal a further great strength in Lehane’s prose, his facility for articulating male yearning. Gwen is typical of Lehane’s small town, big-hearted women who recognise something approaching nobility in nihilists like Bobby, who in turn represent hope, escape and salvation and whose relationships invariably collapse with the burden of this representation:

You find yourself standing in a Nebraska wheat field. You’re seventeen years old. You learned to drive five years earlier. You were in school once, for two months when you were eight, but you read well and you can multiply three-digit numbers in your head faster than a calculator, and you’ve seen the country with the old man. You’ve learned people aren’t that smart. You’ve learned how to pull lottery-ticket scams and asphalt-paving scams and get free meals with a slight upturn of your brown eyes. You’ve learned that if you hold ten dollars in front of a stranger, he’ll pay twenty to get his hands on it if you play him right. You’ve learned that every good lie is threaded with truth and every accepted truth leaks lies.

You’re seventeen years old in that wheat field. The night breeze smells of wood smoke and feels like dry fingers as it lifts your bangs off your forehead. You remember everything about that night because it is the night you met Gwen. You are two years away from prison, and you feel like someone has finally given you permission to live.

Until Gwen ends the way it does because it began the way it did. Lehane’s premise of bad men and botched heists delivers an operatic crescendo within the short story format. He has written through the ideas sparked by that opening line and, along the way, found this narrative. The methodology enables the characters and situations to take shape amidst a series of tropes with which Lehane is comfortable. The peculiar and deadly sprinkling of diamonds holding the small town in thrall equates to the child murders in Mystic River or the epidemic of stray dogs in Lehane’s long short story, Running Out Of Dog, which also features a woman as potential salvation-figure, as does another short story, Gone Down To Corpus. Meanwhile, Bobby’s quest for his own identity resonates with the story about identity suicide, ICU, for which Paul Auster’s City of Glass is also a touchstone.

All this expansion, from an anonymous beginning to the process whereby the story becomes embedded within the writer’s broader preoccupations, is significant. The story’s performative narrative plays itself out by resolving its central struggle but there is plenty left unresolved, deferring as it does to life’s natural messiness. I’ve seen readers speculate and debate about the morality of the main characters and the fates of those around them but a fascinating titbit about Until Gwen is that Dennis Lehane came away from the story every bit as curious about the characters as his readers were. The characters, he has written, “kept walking around in my head, telling me that we weren’t done yet, that there were more things to say about the entangled currents that made up their bloodlines and their fate.”

The result, the other prompt for which was a challenge to write a theatrical part for his actor brother, which would allow him to play (against type) a morally irredeemable character, was a short play, Coronado. To go into too many details about the additions and alterations made to the story would once more risk spoilers since the play ties up several of the story’s loose ends. It does so with elegance and in a way that suggests Lehane has created a new puzzle for himself with his first act, and resolved it in the second.

Coronado, the script providing the title for a collection otherwise comprising of Lehane’s short stories, stands alone impressively as a play, the strong-arm poetry of the 2nd person narrative in Gwen sculpted to a somewhat less naturalistic set of voices, emphasising perhaps the operatic strains I picked up from the story and very much at home in the American theatre of Arthur Miller or David Mamet. Yet it couldn’t have come about without the ellipses in the short story – had Lehane been fully aware of his characters’ fates, he might not have written the play, might have left them in the short story and that might, perhaps, have become a novel. This makes me wonder about the ethics of leaving matters unexplained. Do we owe our characters (never our readers, who can never be allowed to override our creative controls) answers? For all that they share storylines and sections of text, I am not sure it’s helpful to place Until Gwen and Coronado too close together in our imaginations, lest one text overpowers the other.

An alternative companion piece to Until Gwen might be Vincent Gallo’s brilliant 1998 auteur effort, Buffalo ’66. There are shades of Bobby’s parole disorientation in the opening scenes of Gallo’s petty criminal, newly released from prison with a full bladder and nowhere to relieve it, eventually kidnapping a young tap-dancer (Christina Ricci) in his frustration (although, if Gallo has a fictional role model here, it may be Patrick Dewaere’s superbly jittery shambles Franck, central to a disastrous heist and the most downbeat lovers-on-the-lam scenario imaginable in the 1979 French film Série noire). Whilst a different type of antagonist to the father in the Lehane story, Ben Gazzara’s Jimmy, the father of Gallo’s character, offers a complementary montage of charm and menace.

Julian Barnes, in a recent Guardian article, ahead of the reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for which he has written the introduction, discusses how Ford’s quartet of novels has come to be regarded as a tetralogy, with the final novel, Last Post, widely derided and commonly discarded. Indeed, save for a motif of a couple of logs of cedar wood thrown on the fire, Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed adaptation of Ford’s novels for BBC/HBO, which prompted the re-print, brings the parade to an end at the climax of book three. Barnes makes a persuasive case for Last Post but, in doing so, relates Graham Greene’s decision to dispose of the volume in an edition he edited in the 1960s. Greene accused the final book of clearing up the earlier volumes’ “valuable ambiguities.” I find Coronado a soulful re-imagining of Until Gwen, the more fascinating because the author has, in a way, re-interpreted his own work. But Greene’s phrase reminds us that ambiguity is a defining strength of the short story. Whether Lehane had done anything else with them or not, the success of his and many other short stories is that the characters might step out from the text, valuable ambiguities intact, and wander around the reader’s minds for years to come, insisting that we aren’t done yet.

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There’s no let-up here from the tinittus jangle of sleighbells and Chris Rea: our series on the short story in cinema continues with a Christmas special. As with Graham Greene in an earlier post, this is a case of the story’s author, Paul Auster, adapting his own work for the screen. Whereas Greene’s screenplay for The Fallen Idol was reasonably faithful to the structure, if not the ending, of his source, The Basement Room, Auster’s little Christmas fable from 1990 snowballed into plots and characters big enough for two movies, both of which were directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1995.

As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.

Auster wrote Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story as a short story commission for the New York Times. As a novelist who doesn’t particularly deal in the regulation sentiments of Christmas, he was finding the commission something of a poisoned chalice. We know this because, in the course of telling the story, Auster tells us about his difficulties. The story he ended up with, and the means by which he came about it, forms the conclusion of Smoke, which stars William Hurt as “Paul”, a writer living and working in Brooklyn. Knowing his friend and loyal customer is stuck for a good idea for his commission, the proprietor of Paul’s neighbourhood cigar store, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), offers to tell him “the best Christmas story you ever heard” which concerns an episode from Auggie’s own past. He takes Paul for lunch and tells him the story and then we see Paul’s typewriter set to work.

The layering of stories upon stories, the act of writing commenting on the act of writing, is a common feature in Auster’s work. Influenced as a young writer by hardboiled detective fiction, Samuel Becket and existentialism, and passionate about his home borough of Brooklyn, Auster spins out narratives that revolve around mystery, mortality and the simple, social act of telling a story. This is the meaning of life and death as chewed over with a guy in a bar. Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is possibly a true story given to Auster by his friend, to whom he’s given the name Auggie to protect his identity; it’s possibly a complete fabrication by Auggie; and it’s possibly Auster’s invention from start to finish. Like the story itself, it’s all about which story you want to believe.

In Smoke, and its companion piece, Blue In The Face – a largely ad hoc sequel made because everyone was having such a great time making the initial feature (or is that another story we’d like to believe?) – Auggie is given that name for keeps, and also given a life, a set of regulars at the cigar store, and a past, all of which meanders into view to be observed by Paul, the writer. Both films, whether through Auster’s facility with character or Wang and his cast’s unapologetically loving treatment of the script, deal with the idea of story as a thing experienced. We learn about the characters by spending time with them, just as Auggie learns about the characters who pass his storefront by taking a photograph of the same view every morning at the same time. This way, the short story’s mannerism of being a narrative stumbled upon or picked up from somewhere or someone is maintained. While some of Auster’s tales – Leviathan, The Brooklyn Follies, Mr Vertigo – are driven by compulsive page-turning narratives, others are more entwined in the storytelling act. It’s this latter Auster that’s in charge here.

Auggie’s story is told twice in Smoke. There’s the straight re-telling in the diner that replicates the exchange in the original story, down to Auggie’s enigmatic smile at the end to sow doubt in Paul’s mind as to the veracity of what he’s just been told. Then, after we see the first moments of the typescript that will end up in the New York Times, we are taken back to a silent, monochrome 1972, where Keitel’s Auggie (wearing a hairpiece that conjures up more 70s memories of Dick Emery’s idiot bovver boy character, Gaylord), is shown in montage chasing a young shoplifter and finding the boy’s wallet containing the address of his blind Granny Ethel. Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream rumbles, rasps and soars over the images of Ethel feeling Auggie’s face and choosing to recognise him as her wayward grandson; Auggie playing along with the role and sharing Christmas dinner with the old lady in a soft-hearted deception similar to that of the narrator’s mother in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep; and then stealing one of the stolen cameras that the grandson has stashed in Ethel’s apartment.

Although handled with love, Auster’s original short story is not treated with excessive care in its expansion and adaptation for the cinema. It works on the basis that to read is to re-tell and to hear a story is to steal that story and pass it off, in some dimension, as your own – so it’s natural than an adaptation will embellish, and improvise upon, the original material. It also understands that even the truest story is a adaptation of memory and that, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other, ‘true’ is rarely the prime consideration: this Christmas will be different; next year’s going to be our year; this smoke is definitely going to be my last…

‘…Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her, I told her I’d found a good job working in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Robert,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling, “I always knew things would work out for you.”…’

You might believe that the couple – a man, older, upright but with a hint of the debonair; and a woman. elegant, reserved, much younger – with the nine-year-old blond boy, are on a family visit to London Zoo. In fact, we’re bearing witness to a growing dysfunction. The boy, Philippe, is the near-forgotten child of diplomats whose only friend is his parents’ butler, Baines. Yet the zoo trip is no expression of surrogate parenthood but a subterfuge so that Baines may spend time with his extramarital lover, Julie, as well as safeguard Philippe’s silence, after he interrupted a previous assignation between the two.

The London Zoo sequence in Carol Reed’s 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, is an embellishment of a passage in Graham Greene’s short story, The Basement Room, in which Baines takes “Philip” to attend his rendezvous with “Emmy”. As our first Reel Time Short Stories study – and thanks to Steenbeck for the comment that inspired the reading and, after many years, second viewing – we’re looking at a short story adapted for the screen by, in this case, the story’s creator.

Greene seems to have understood cinema and in Reed he had a collaborator adept at reflecting the poetics of the original. Much is retained: Ralph Richardson’s Baines is a slippery fantasist, breezy with a charm and confidence that evaporates by the end, leaving him with, in the words of the story, “his old soft stupid expression”; Philip’s mantra of “This is life”, as he ventures into the London streets and towards adult life, is made real for us in Reed’s choreography of the city, something of a mid-point between the Vienna of another collaboration with Greene, The Third Man [left], and the alternative London presented in his Oliver!

For two-thirds of the film, give or take the fleshing out of characters or scenes, we could be watching the straight, stylish rendering of the short story’s narrative. Gradually, though, Greene the screenwriter transforms his downbeat Greek tragedy into a black comedy of misunderstanding and romantic redemption. In adaptation, Greene can tug at the heartstrings but find room for acidic asides – Dora Bryan’s prostitute’s happy declaration to Phile that she knows his dad – whereas in the text, his curmudgeon bleeds through even the naive POV with withering observations on the flailing ambitions and alienations that make up a society:

Philip had never seen the girl, but he remembered Baines had a niece. She was thin and drawn, and she wore a white mackintosh; she meant nothing to Philip; she belonged to a world about which he knew nothing at all. He couldn’t make up stories about her, as he could make them up about withered Sir Hubert Reed, the Permanent Secretary, about Mrs. Wince-Dudley, who came once a year from Penstanley in Suffolk with a green umbrella and an enormous black handbag, as he could make them up about the upper servants in all the houses where he went to tea and games. She just didn’t belong. He thought of mermaids and Undine, but she didn’t belong there either, nor to the adventures of Emil, nor to the Bastables. She sat there looking at an iced pink cake in the detachment and mystery of the completely disinherited, looking at the half-used pots of powder which Baines had set out on the marble-topped table between them.

While Greene manages to alter the plot and some of the tone in order to engage the film audience’s sympathies – and it’s true that Baines and his lover are more passionate and appealing in the film, and Mrs Baines more malevolent – we can detect examples of the short story approach carrying through into the film. The resolution of the narrative within a self-contained or claustrophobic space is a short story characteristic, as we’ve discussed previously, and it’s worth noting that there are differences between the way London is used here and the way the action is played out against the city backdrops in the two celebrated Reed films I mentioned above. Here, we glimpse it in passing or look over it, like the Lady of Shallot, from a remote tower. Philip/Phile in his desolate principality, swallowed by the enormous staircase through whose banister teeth he views life; Baines and Mrs Baines in their loveless marriage; Emmy/Julie in her hopeless fixation on a man offering her no real future: these are familiar inhabitants of a short story and the film resists the temptation to let them taste a world beyond this captivity.

Finally, it comes down to the detail, as it must in short fiction. As Philip/Phile uncomprehendingly bursts in on Baines and Emmy/Julie in their erstwhile secret café, the lovers part in hurried and harrowing fashion. The film makes more of this, with an almost comically overlong 3rd person conversation about the plans of Julie’s “friend” to leave the country. That sequence, though, is rounded off by a visual detail that any short story writer would love to have depicted: Richardson, as Baines, disappears behind a clouded glass partition and we see his silhouette slump and the shadow of his hand reach to clasp his mouth. When he collects himself and returns to the table where Phile is still munching cake, the platitude he comes out with (“The cup that cheers”) is taken directly from the story, an ironic epitaph for a broken afternoon in lives where nothing certain will remain in one piece:

“Who is she?” Philip asked. “Is she your niece?”
“Oh, yes,” Baines said, “that’s who she is; she’s my niece,” and poured the last drops of water onto the coarse black leaves in the teapot.
“May as well have another cup,” Baines said.
“The cup that cheers,” he said hopelessly, watching the bitter black fluid drain out of the spout.


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