Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

Down to a Sunless Sea
by Mathias B. Freese
(c) 2007

Genre: Literary Short Stories

This was the short story collection I was reading a couple of weeks ago which inspired me to commit to a serious investigation into the craft of the short story with the intent to write them. I have been wanting to for some years now but keep putting it off being the practiced procrastinator that I am. And even as the reading of these very short stories triggered the wish to begin that project, that naysayer who lives in my head whispered, "If only it weren't so close to NaNoWriMo." But then that trickster, that jokester, that idiosyncratic juxtiposer shot down the naysayer with a jaunty "What if you combine the short story project with the NaNo project by making the stories related by theme or setting so you can still call it a novel?" And with that my muse took off and the result became the plan that I delineated in this Friday Foray's in Fiction post a couple weeks ago. Since then I've picked up several short story collections from the library and am preparing to immerse myself in them over the next couple of weeks.

So what is it about Freese's stories that had the power to kick start all of this? It was something about the effect each one had on me. The reading of each one was an emotional experience that lingered like the aftertaste of strong tea; often a bit bitter but compelling the next sip. It was something about the startling realization that each story was so unique in style, tone, voice and vocabulary that I probably would not have been able to match story to author if I'd encountered them sans byline. The uniqueness of each story seemed to be a function of the story--whether told in first or third person and from whatever POV--of its belonging as intimately as breath to its central character every one of which were uniquely wounded by the travails of growing up human. It was something about Freese's ability to render the lives of social misfits in such a way as to elicit empathy; to display their despair and the deplorable complacency of a society whose primary byproducts tend to be injustice and hypocrisy without denying the possibility of hope.

These stories were often dark and depressing and just as often humorous and full of wit. Sometimes all in one story. I had to ration myself to two or three per day and never more than one in a single sitting. This partly to protect my own emotional equilibrium but mostly to protect the integrity of each story so that I could hold it in my mind like a single pearl and wonder at the beauty that could result from the attempt to isolate and excrete a toxin. Which leaves me wondering if that is the source of all human art.

Here is a list of the fifteen stories:

* Down to a Sunless Sea
* I'll Make It, I Think
* The Chatham Bear
* Herbie
* Alabaster
* Juan Peron's Hands
* Little Errands
* Arnold Schwarzenegger's Father Was a Nazi
* Echo
* Young Man
* Nicholas
* Billy's Mirrored Wall
* Unanswerable
* For a While, Here, in This Moment
* Mortise and Tenon

I had hoped to comment on each one with a line or a paragraph but that was too ambitious for the conditions in my life this week and I must not put off posting this until conditions improve as they are not likely to before NaNoWriMo starts in less than three weeks and if it isn't posted by then it would likely wait until after the Holidays. Which would be unconscionable since I was given this book by the author as a review copy and that would be a poor way to show my gratitude. And I am profoundly grateful. Not just for the book but for having encountered the heart and mind of its creator through his creations. Also for the inspiration that led to the concept of combining NaNo with my desire to study and practice the craft of short story which I have known for years is quite distinct from that of novels. Maybe I will reread one or two during this Saturday's Read-a-thon and comment on them at that time.

Update: I did re-read Little Errands during the Read-a-thon and wrote an off-the-cuff impression of it in my Read-a-thon post, My Brain on Books III. But my couple of paragraphs regarding this story are buried in the several thousand words of that post so I am pasting them here:

Re Little Errands by Mathias B. Freese: This really short story at only four pages is entirely an inner monologue of a person with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) who frets over every step of every task checking repeatedly that each step has really been done and still fretting that maybe he had been mistaken in his memory of completing certain steps. He has to open and reseal letters to confirm the right check was really inside. He opens and reopens the trap of the mailbox to be sure the letters went in and still frets that maybe they hadn't been in his hand in the first place. He turns the car radio off and on and off again repeatedly and still frets as he precedes to his apartment that he misjudged the feel of the click and will find a dead battery upon returning the next morning. A misunderstanding with his neighbor has him repeatedly calling and knocking on his door to attempt to clarify himself and being repeatedly rebuffed he resolves to write him a letter.

I laughed aloud at the ending again as I did the first time tho maybe not as spontaneously or as energetically. It still tickles me. Partly because I see elements of my own behaviors in this poor guy's. I don't obsess on the same things but my thoughts go in similar circles and moibus strip loops about other things. In trying to pin down the difference it occurred to me that his thoughts are stuck in the past--in whether or not he did something and did it correctly--whereas mine are stuck in the future--in planning what I'm going to do.

2 tell me a story:

Anonymous,  10/15/2008 7:20 AM  

Dear Renee: After that review I need to hear the ancient Greek warning, "Beware of excessive pride." I do look forward to hearing or reading at least one of your interpretations of any one of the stories. As a fellow writer and having read your plan for writing stories, I need to suggest only one book as a model and an absolute stunning example of the craft: Sherwood Anderson's, Winesburg, Ohio. Given ytour spiritual background, please read it; Hemingway learned a great deal from him. And hen you catch your breath, check out on Google the references to my "The i Tetralogy." If interested I'll forward a copy to you -- no review required,just a sharing
Kind regards,

Anonymous,  10/16/2008 12:30 PM  

Dear Renee: remarkable synchronicity. if you would go to descriptedlines.com, paulen is the blogger. she has an extended evaluation of her reading of winesburg, ohio. please read it.

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