Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Healing in Room Twenty

This story is a continuation of Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen'. Lessing's powerful story is about a woman, Susan, who feels trapped in her family life. Susan's dissatisfaction prompts her to travel and to hire a nanny. When those things don't work, she rents a room in which she does, well, nothing but stare into space. When she discovers her husband is having an affair, she goes to room 19 and commits suicide by blowing out the pilot light to the fireplace and turning the gas on high. My story asks the question, 'What if Susan had been rescued instead?'
Image result for picture of hard candy
Winnie Mccloskey sat up in her bed with much protest from her aching bones and studied her roommate, Susan Rawlings. The poor woman had been saved from some sort of accident in her hotel room. She listened carefully to the conversations in the hallway between the nurses and doctors but couldn’t get the full story. All she knew was the accident involved gas and that the hotel was inspecting the meter to make sure it wasn’t malfunctioning. Susan had been very sick when they brought her in a week ago but the blue tint, be it real or imagined, faded and she had begun to recover.
Her darling children came to visit every day after school with their lively nanny, Sophie. Winnie took great joy in sneaking them some hard candies that she kept hidden away in her nightstand. One had to carefully watch hard candies. Everyone loved them, from hard-faced nurses to rosy-cheeked children, and if left in the open the little sugary delights were wont to disappear. Winnie dug one out and held it out to Susan. “Candy, dear?”
Susan didn’t even turn her head to look; just kept staring out the window or rather at the curtains. Winnie frowned and dropped her hand. Susan was much worse off than she first thought. Her old bones knew there was more to Susan’s story, insisted it was no accident. “Too right. We mustn’t spoil our lunch.”
Winnie painfully pushed herself out of bed and stood still until the snapping and popping subsided and her bones settled into place. She hobbled over to the window and drew open the curtains. “There now. Isn’t that better?”
Susan blinked in the sunlight but didn’t otherwise react.
“You know, you might as well talk to me because if you don’t, I’m liable to start answering myself. I’ll either drive you mad with all my jabbering or the peckerwood police will drag me off to the loony bin. Then what will you do? One of us will be in the nut house and the other will be in here all alone.”
Winnie smiled and waved to an aide walking past their door. The woman barely paused long enough to say “Good morning, Ms. Winnie.” The staff were always so busy, dashing here and there. How any person managed to heal in such a place was beyond her. She pressed a hand to her lower back. As soon as her daughter got back from her trip, Winnie would get out of here. She had places to be, things to do. Hard candy to buy.
Winnie sank into a chair near the window. Technically, the chair was meant for Susan’s guests but Winnie had been here long enough to appropriate it as her reading chair. Her daughter was on a very long trip. She picked up an old textbook full of poetry. She hated poetry but beggars couldn’t be choosy.
She read aloud a poem by a young man named Rupert Brooke. The Solider it was called. She smiled at his sweet words about laughter and the beauty of nature. “If that ain’t worth living for, then I don’t know what is. Isn’t that just great? ‘…laughter learnt of friends.’” She sighed into the long silence that followed. “You know, I’ve learned more these past weeks than I did in all of my schooling. Amazing what a little reading can do for a person. Did you know that this sweet boy died just a year later? Tis a shame.”
Susan shifted in her bed. Progress. Winnie’s goal for today was to get her to eat. The pitiful thing was wasting away.
“This book says that Brooke saw the start of World War One. Hard times those were.” She flipped through the pages of the book. “There’s a lot of poetry about it.”
 A kindly nurse had leant her the old textbook from her English class. Winnie didn’t much care for the heavy reading, but there had been nothing better to do before Susan showed up. “I never got to go beyond high school. My folks couldn’t afford it. I ended up with a passel of kids instead.”
Susan looked at Winnie for the first time. “I went to school,” she whispered.
“Well! Blow me over with a feather! How about that.” Winnie hummed a tuneless song and flipped through the book some more. She didn’t want to push Susan too hard. She’d open up when she was ready.
Winnie came across a poem titled “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and read it to herself. Did she dare? ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ was all well and good but it was too much; maybe later. She hunted through the book for some spark and found an older poem called “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti and read it aloud instead.
“You know what I like about that one?” Winnie didn’t wait for the answer that was unlikely to come. “Laura was fixin’ to die but her sister saved her. Sometimes only another woman can help.”
Susan’s eyes flickered. “Saved her from what? Sickness?”
“Naw, from men, of course.” Winnie snickered. “Don’t you think her idea of men is just right? Goblins. Ha!”
A shadow crossed over Susan’s face. There it was. Man trouble. Maybe Susan’s goblin was more of a demon. And where was that demon anyway? Not coming in to visit with the children, that’s for sure. If he ever showed up, she wouldn’t offer him a piece of candy.
“You know, we are so lucky to live nowadays. Back when that goblin poem was written, according to this here book, women and children had no rights. They worked and died and weren’t too happy about it. Took a lot of people fightin’ hard to change things. We’re resting on their shoulders.” Winnie put the book aside. “It’s good to remember how good we have it.”
Susan seemed to shrink. Winnie had said the wrong thing. She smoothed her hair down and thought for a moment. Susan didn’t talk much--that was most likely half her problem. “But on second thought, just because we have all the freedoms and rights in the world doesn’t mean we don’t have to fight… doesn’t mean that life isn’t hard and that we don’t have pain.”
“You know, I heard someone say once that we’re all working to find where we truly belong.” Winnie stretched with a groan. “Heh. Looks like I’m right where I should be. Besides, you and I are quite the pair. I have all the physical pain and you have all the heartache.”  
Susan clenched her fists. Tears glistened in her eyes before she turned her face away. Winnie wished she’d scream or do something. Anything.
Winnie stood shakily. “Mine can’t be fixed. I’m old and that’s my lot. But you? Well now, that’s a little different.” She walked toward her bed. Lunch would be coming soon and she wanted to have her little table ready.
“I am empty.” Susan didn’t face her. “I have everything and yet it means nothing. People think they want to have what I do, that I’m lucky. Beautiful children, successful husband, great house, housekeeper. But I’m not lucky.” Her voice was flat. “I was lost and when I found myself again it was too late. I had no choice. I’m trapped.” She finally met Winnie’s eyes. “A golden cage is still a cage.”
Winnie froze. She didn’t expect the dam to break so soon. “And who holds the key to your cage?”
Susan struggled to sit up a little. The nurse knocked on their door, brought in their lunch trays, and bustled back out with nary a word. Winnie shook her head but called out a ‘thank you’ at the nurse’s back nonetheless. She’d need to do the real nursing around here, but she already knew that.
“The real question we all face is ‘who am I? How can I make myself happy?’ Some of us never have the push we need to wake up enough to even ask that question.” Winnie rested a hand on her hip. “We don’t have to fight for our rights like the women back in the day did, but we still have to figure out what it means to be a woman and what it will take for us to be free enough to be happy.” Winnie studied Susan to see if her words were getting through. “I don’t know what trouble brought you here, but this is your chance to break that cage wide open.”
 Susan eyed the tray and reached out her hand to push around the sandwich with her thin finger. Winnie hid a small smile. She got a candy out of her drawer and passed it to Susan. “For dessert.”
Susan took the hard candy and without protest popped it into her mouth.
So it starts. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Unfinished Work: Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting

            The Enigma of Arrival; or, When Should We Have Read Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting? by Richard Purcell explores the historical context and political climate  during the long years spent writing Ellison’s novel as well as the more recent implications for the Obama presidency once it was released posthumously. Purcell points out that many critics of Obama said he was ‘not black enough’ just as one character said of the main character in Invisible Man but others also criticise that Obama also suppressed his black heritage in a similar fashion to Senator Sunraider in Three Days Before the Shooting. While I found these points to be well made, my interest lay more with his explanation as to why Ellison was unable to finish Three Days Before the Shooting;  namely the rapidly shifting political and cultural climate, Ellison’s desire to ‘rebuke the dangerous, anti-human forces he saw represented in Reagan’ (Enigma,183), and the shift in Ellison’s style and craft which sent him into an editing loop.
            In another article by Richard Purcell titled “Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?” he explores the idea that Ellison’s purchase of a personal computer was a major contributing factor to the status of‘Three Days Before the Shooting’. He refutes the notion that Ellison was the very first author to use a word processor, citing Len Deighton’s ‘Bomber’ in 1970 as the first novel written with the technology. While Ellison did purchase the very first P.C. released in 1981 called the Osborne 1 pre-installed with WordStar, Purcell asserts that many more factors should be considered when speculating Ellison's unfinished novel. Those reasons are better explored in his first article ‘The Enigma of Arrival’.
            Could changing from handwritten manuscripts or a typewriter to a word processing program make a big enough difference in his writing process to cause Ellison to fail? Purcell reports that Ellison had 489 files stored away with 423 of them containing old scenes for Three Days Before the Shooting and some held edits done a decade apart-- many of those edits were not significant ones. I am left wondering if the easily saved files with endless opportunities to edit and change the prose somehow stalled out Ellison’s creative project and left him chasing his tale (misspelling and pun intended) in hopes of making his story perfect.  This limitless and easy editing could lead to over-editing, lends itself to perfectionism, and ultimately could cause a writer to become frozen in one story that would remain forever unfinished.
            Modern writers often suggest switching to pen and paper to help cure writer’s block by removing unnecessary distractions, and even go so far as to say it uses a different part of our brain in order to ‘shake something loose.’ They argue that writing on a computer gives one less time to think and that the writing process itself becomes much more ‘sudden’. There is no way for me to know what Ellison did in the quiet moments spent tapping away on his P.C., though I think it’s safe to say in those days he didn’t have the same level of distractibility as we do today with the long list of websites sucking away our time.  Nor can I say what his experience of the two different modes of writing were or which one he found to be more appealing. I can only stick to the facts: he produced a prodigious amount of words (Three Days Before the Shooting is no small book, coming in at a hefty 1,101 pages) and he spent 42 years on his sequel to Invisible Man.
As a writer who has had a pet project for more than ten years, I can speak with experience when I say that perfectionism plays a large part with drawn-out stories. Add to that the desire to have the story reflect the current times and I see a pitfall that most anyone could fall into. The question remains, did the process of writing change so drastically when using a P.C. that Ellison was unable to finish his novel or would the result still be the same even if Ellison had ‘kept it old school’ and stuck with pen and paper?
I agree with Purcell.  Ellison’s inability to finish his novel is more nuanced than the purchase of a computer, however he does little to explore this notion despite the title of his article (Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?).  While this article in particular was a review of Adam Bradley’s novel “Ralph Ellison In Progress; From ‘Invisible Man’ to ‘Three Days before the Shooting”, the core question of literary death by computer is left unanswered.
No. The laptop did not kill Ellison’s novel but it didn’t help him either. The laptop enabled him to fall into an over-editing trap simply by making it easier. The mode of writing changed the feel of the process itself, made him compose his prose in real time which gave him less time to think. However, these two issues on their own do not stop a writer from completing a novel. Otherwise, we would have no new novels to speak of in our modern times. Ellison may have simply run out of time, for who among us can predict the day of our death? Many issues piled atop Ellison and while he did his best, continuing to write up until weeks before his death, he simply could not overcome them. Firstly, he missed the big moment for his novel’s release with the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 when the United States overthrew segregation laws. His character’s reality in the story no longer fit America’s narrative. Next, his changing style led him to go back over his decades old work to nitpick and his perfectionism didn’t allow him to declare it finished.
Ray Bradbury has a short essay entitled ‘The Joys of Writing’ and in it he extols the virtues of writing one’s passion and allowing that passion to lead the way to the end of the story. He speaks of his process as being one that leaps onto the page with a quickness that both delights him as an author but also allows him to finish his work. Reading Bradbury’s take on the writing process and the way it is free flowing speaks to the exact opposite style of Ellison who seems to deliberate and put much emphasis on the deeper meaning of his stories. Perhaps on top of all the other factors keeping Ellison from finishing, he had lost the joy and the spark of excitement that would carry him through to the end of his novel.
Whatever Ellison’s reasons might have been for leaving Three Days Before the Shooting unfinished, there is no doubt that what he did accomplish has lasting impact on our culture today. From Obama to addressing racism in its more insidious form in which it strips individuality away and makes a man invisible, Ellison is a leading voice and points toward what American can and should be.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. New York, NY: Bantam Book, 1992.
Bradley, Adam. Ralph Ellison in Progress: From Invisible Man to Three Days before the Shooting. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2010. (viii, 244 pp.).
Purcell, Richard. "Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?" Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture (2017 May): 241-256.
—. "The Enigma of Arrival, or, When Should We Have Read Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting?" Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture (BoundaryII) (2012 Fall: 39): 169-189.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bartleby is about charity, dammit.

Many people think Bartleby the Scrivener is about capitalism, but I would prefer not to.

At first glance, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville is a simple story.  A lawyer describes his employee, Bartleby, and his idiosyncrasies. Bartleby proves to be more trouble than he’s worth, so the lawyer washes his hands of him and moves on. Bartleby as a consequence, dies in jail. However, a closer look can gives us a chilling picture of charity gone wrong.

Melville’s story starts with a quick statement of intent to tell of Bartleby followed by an overview of the status quo for his office. He gives quite a bit of detail about his employees Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, but he does not give their true names. I find it worth noting that the lawyer is more concerned about their superficial appearance and the way their behavior affects their work (and thus him as their employer) than he is with their personal lives. Perhaps he is more concerned about telling Bartleby’s story and glosses over the other characters to get to Bartleby’s tale more quickly. However, this notion is belied by the fact that he spends almost three whole pages on these characters, almost to the point of causing the descriptions drag on, with absolutely no mention of family or aspirations. His focus on superficial details speaks to the lawyer's self-interest.

Bartleby does well at first, but before long he begins to ignore the lawyer’s instructions and does not comply with what would seem like the simplest requests. This catches the lawyer’s attention, not only because it is an affront to his authority, but because it causes him hardship. He does little to explore why Bartleby behaves in this eccentric manner, instead focusing on how it made him feel. Anger and frustration are a recurrent theme.

While it is easy to say the lawyer is a push-over who easily backs down, the actions he ultimately takes (moving his office to be rid of Bartleby and allowing the police to take over) shows something more. This is a man who wants to feel good, to feel like he did the right thing with as little effort as possible. Instead of helping Bartleby in a meaningful way, which would require time, effort, and money on the lawyer’s part, he would rather take the fast and easy solution, one that pushes the responsibility of Bartleby onto other people, but one that also allows him to avoid criticism.  After all he could argue, he offered to pay Bartleby extra, to help him find another job, even went so far as to make the empty offer of opening his home.  These offers are empty because the lawyer knows that what troubles Bartleby is more than simple material needs as evidenced by his thought: “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.” (Norton,1496)

Adding another layer to the falseness of the lawyer’s offers to help Bartleby is the fact that these offers came only after he wished to be rid of the problems Bartleby created. The lawyer was willing to allow Bartleby to remain in his office until his peers began to take notice and gossip. He also did not go back to visit Bartleby until his old landlord came to him to tell him he was responsible. The lawyer goes to the jail to visit, but again pushes the care of Bartleby onto others by paying the cook to attend to him. In the eyes of the lawyer, it is preferable to part with money than it is spend time with Bartleby-- hence my assertion that the lawyer’s ‘charity’ is self-serving. The lawyer gets to go home guilt-free with little real effort on his part.

While I can understand the theory that this story is a tale of the American workforce and the role capitalism plays with Bartleby standing in for civil disobedience, I think this is a study in the nature of charity. The lawyer falls into the trap of false charity, one that is best described as a two way street. He expected Bartleby to do something for him; to improve himself, to work, to go away… he never once practiced true charity by giving without expecting anything in return. The lawyer’s view of charity is understandable and one that we all are vulnerable to subscribing to, but Melville shows us that such charity can end up doing more harm than good with Bartleby’s death in the end. While it is incumbent upon us all to be responsible for ourselves, and to recognize that there are people who no matter how much we might do for them cannot be helped, we must also be careful to examine our own motives and reasoning when offering help. The easy thing would be to say, ‘don’t be selfish’ but as Melville shows us, sometimes such selfishness is not easily recognized. I’m sure if the lawyer could speak directly on the subject he would be indignant at the accusation and make all kinds of excuses.  The ending of Melville’s story tells as much. The lawyer blames Bartleby’s problems on his time spent in ‘dead letters’ and takes no responsibility for his part. 

I believe the story of Bartleby is Melville's way showing us how to give purely and with good intentions. A simple story at first glance, yes, but one that reveals a heart of gold upon closer examination.


Goldfarb, Nancy D. "Charity as Purchase: Buying Self-Approval in Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'." Nineteenth-Century Literature  (2014 Sept): 233-261.
Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Healing in Room Twenty

This story is a continuation of Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen'. Lessing's powerful story is about a woman, Susan, who ...