Thursday, September 22, 2011
A Fragile Thing...
I remember I was driving home to Orange County from my parents' house in Palos Verdes one year in late October. I had not written any stories in a few years, and the ones I had tried to write felt disingenuous, inauthentic, nonsensical. Switching on NPR on a forty minute drive home, during their story hour (not sure what the program was called), I listened to the radio host speaking in glowing terms about Ethan Canin. I had never heard of him. The host stated Canin had received an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and gone on to pursue a doctorate in medicine at Harvard. Canin worked as a doctor in an ER while composing his first collection of short stories in his free time, which was little considering the extreme pressures of residency. But he fought through exhaustion and feelings of ennui regarding his own talent and finished his first collection, Emperor of The Air. He was only twenty-seven.
It's not a collection that should have appealed to an early thirties East Indian man. Filled with stories of white middle class families engaged in white middle class activities (Golf), elderly narrators, and moral digressions (infidelity, perils of brotherhood, cheating), it appealed to me for two reasons: voice (tone), and theme. Besides that his stories were about families.
It was one story in particular, "We Are Nighttime Travelers," which had me gripped. Although I can't remember the name of the narrator who read it (somehow my mind tells me it was the actor Donald Sutherland, but this may or may not be true), there was something so haunting and wise and sublime in the story that I had to pull over and listen. What captivated me was how ordinary, everyday actions could be the subject of great literature. His stories were not The Hobbit styled fantasies, or Wrinkle in Time styled fictions. No Heart of Darkness mini-epics, no Tolstoyan tales of War and Peace, no Dostoevskyean grand spiritual inquests. There was nothing fantastical or mythical or allegorical in his stories. They were simple stories (by simple I don't mean easy), direct, and told in a style that reflected the complexity of human emotions. They revealed to me a new world, one right before my eyes, making that world a place as equally mysterious as any mystery. His stories, loaded with refinements of expression and gesture, revealed the moral foundations or lack of them, of what made families tick. It was the minute, the small, as opposed to the grand sweeping tale that made his stories breathtaking to me.
Human frailty. It is something I hadn't seen written about before in such convincing terms. The progression of love through time. This was a new theme for me. Family as a microcosm of the universe. Ethan Canin had the ability to reveal it with such conviction when I finally bought his book and read it cover to cover, then again, cover to cover, I was unable to reconcile the youthful appearance of the man's picture on the back, with the lines, "Life takes its toll, and soon the body gives up completely. But it gives up the parts first." Equally adept at landscape description, at setting up a scene, as he was (and is) at psychology and character development, in Canin's book, I found the seeds to tell the stories I wanted to tell. He wrote about families, sure middle class white families, but there was something universal about his stories: the fragility of family. And that tone. It was like a shot of electricity through my heart. So wise. So sensitive. So utterly powerful.
I sat listening to "We are Nighttime Travelers" by the side of the road, a tear forming in my eye as the last sentence was read, "My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things." Then I went to the bookstore and I bought his book. I have read it again and again over the years without the pleasure it gives ever dulling. It sits on a shelf beside my writing desk under favorite books and authors. It is tattered--words on paper, a fragile thing.