CONJUNCTIONS:26 Fall 1996
Sticks and Stones: An Introduction
Ben Marcus


TO ASSERT THE OPPOSITE of the nursery rhyme invoked above would be to maintain that language is not only physical enough to wreck a body--through precise rhetorical arrangements and sheer sentencery--but also that the word is as stone, a tool to smash obstacles and persons, the hard object that will outlive us all, implacable and immutable. But the original rhyme has it without metaphor. Names can never hurt us. Language is just air, a bit of homemade weather never sufficiently dense to tear the house down. If we stand strong, we'll keep the threatening words away. I tried to follow the rule as a kid, to keep it in mind that the language situation was something not as potent as I felt it to be. But I was everywhere getting smeared in it, eating it, feeling words literally, literally, building me up and breaking me down, foiling my coherence in favor of newer, deeper structures of kid-dreams and thoughts of God. My "mind" was nothing but this massy web of language exploding and growing, and I cried all the time, for what was always, always, a good reason: It hurt like hell. This was what language did. I read to get big and kick ass. I knew this then--reading would prepare me for the battle. A story was the purest food. It hurt, it helped--no difference--I was held or crushed by it. I still am. My history is first a history of my reading. I remember the stories I read as if they happened to me, because they did happen to me. The best stories fake me into the spot of teller, doer, done to, scene, voice, object, scheme. Language shapes me up, and fiction makes the hardest, most lasting shapes. This is all that I want from a story. Or this is everything that I want.
      It embarrasses me somewhat then to suppose that I can hold you the way these coming fictions can. Whatever I manage to write here will be, in the end, introductory notes merely, and I'm sure that the work chosen for this outpost within the hospitable Conjunctions will laugh off any introduction thrust its way. Which is the point, really, and the chief reason I favor this writing that has found a route into me--it refutes all matter extraneous to it, admits to nothing but itself, leaves me silent for a while and grateful for that. I'd rather not muscle too many critical ideas into fiction so troublingly full of the world and its negations because, frankly, my ideas will come up short. Plus I don't like to pretend that my style of thinking can jostle a reader into the right mood, or "light" the "way," or translate literature into safer English.
      Yet I can't leave alone the world this work will enter, or keep from mentioning the kind of writing that quiets the complaint in me, reminds me of the home terms that absorb and compel me: complication, risk, clarity, ambition. I must admit further that I cannot, won't equate the chosen work with a topical cultural or social theme, and politics exists most potently for me when stripped of the official American language it often employs, that serves to wilt its objects, and wilt "me" in so doing. Thus, here is something without a marketing conceit, with no hook, which amounts nearly to a taunt now, or to a short life anyway, at least in stores. An academic term will not be invented to sack these fictions, or fake some order onto them. Despite the "year" that has us--the "1" changing to a "2" very soon, the "19" turning into "20"--the very notion of a "millennium" is absurd to me. One day is just like another day, and we lose out to sentimentality when we see meaning in a calendar structure designed merely to launch holidays into the atmosphere, to punctuate and profit from our nostalgia. The divisions of time that demarcate the sun's efforts and the local repetitions and reminders of weather are just that and nothing more. Day, week, month, year, decade, century, millennium (possibly there is poetic interest in the notion of a "day" or "year"). These "changes" matter to commerce but not to writing, but the one is ever more overwhelmed by the other, and I find that an argument must be made, and quickly, for a shift from safety and obviousness into challenging, articulate compositions by language artists who refuse Hallmark wisdom and empty comforts in favor of hunting down the potentials of language and laying bare a pure code.
      For instance, the heart. It rides high in the chest and works toward shuttling the blood stuff to and fro. This is its task, what it does. There are other things to say about it, such as the duty of blood, the physics of veins. But love is another matter entirely. Love changes the subject.
      The writers gathered here do not change the subject or perpetrate equations that dilute what we secretly know and need to know about the living project, about navigating our common air and living into the wind. I am thus instructed, and chastened, and hectored, and soothed by what I feel to be any vigorous mythmaking that would seek to install a new, or revised, or cleansed set of terms and behaviors into the daily museum we make for ourselves. Here are writers I take to be embarked on this task, and there are plenty more who could just as well be here if it weren't for the limits of space, the natural stricture of the submission period. They are writers who share a rigorous attention to composition that is seemingly unshakable, and otherworldly.
      Here is Dawn Raffel's exquisitely dark "Is Anybody Listening?," a story boiled down to a voice and the gestures it hides--"this voice of hers a hum, little more, a seepage of breath"; Brian Schorn's "The Cyclic History of the Line," a clinical, cold essay on the "line" between Michigan and Paris, and the bodies and objects that get in its way; the attempt to record grief in language, to own our feelings through the act of writing them, in Rick Moody's candid and sad story "Demonology"; the logic of instruction and the classroom defined by tyranny in Timothy Crouse's "The Angelus"; the downright madness of Craig Padawer's novel-in-progress The Meat Garden, excerpted here; and the high-pitched pidgin in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's "Hanging the Creetats," a story of a strange family and the order they achieve through violence. These are fictions unwaveringly strict to the forms they set into place and all the more powerful for it, yielding nothing to worlds other than their own, borrowing their wisdom only from themselves. But that's where the similarity ends, and the stunning variety of living, breathing fiction is asserted.

*

As much as I want to believe that the best fiction lives despite the noise that surrounds it, that the contingencies of commerce might only temporarily divert the delivery of the most necessary writing, it is clear that serious literary fiction is nearly deprived of advocacy without its practitioners, and if it is to be visited onto the nation, must be disguised or politicized or renamed before it can arrive. Literary journals can be the best places to find advance report of it, but to my eye they are read almost exclusively by other writers, if that, and even then sometimes only by the contributors. There are probably some numbers to refute this notion, and I would hope to see it refuted, but in my experience the literary journal, despite its nerve and resilience, seems in danger of becoming a trade journal merely, of interest only to those who understand the special jargon and postures that it favors, as if literature is becoming a foreign language. This is not to fault the literary journals. There are several, at least, that heroically make space for every adventure in literature--the work is there for those who want it. But who wants it? I realize that I am late to this news, and it is perhaps overly quaint to act alarmed at the isolated position of vital new projects in the literary arts, but it seems worth noticing that much vitality, in the form of writing, is living and dying without the robust witness it warrants.
      To this end, I heard it recently remarked that fiction is biased. It is a biased form, it is "inaccurate," went the claim. Writing was always a punishment in school; we had to write sentences on the board because of something bad we had done, or we had to go read in the corner. Writing was what happened to you when you were bad, reading took you away from your friends. But hearing of fiction's bias was alarming. My response might have been, "Hell, I hope so," or "There is only bias," or "Bias implies fact, which is the enemy of fiction, unless it is conceded that facts are simply fictions that have succeeded." But the speaker was expressing a bit of outrage, mistrust, and the implication stood that a body of facts was being injured by the attentions of fiction. It knocked the wind out of me, I who believe that a "table" is as much of a fiction as a "story," all the more so when its incarnations occur in print. But there was clearly an enormous breach in our understandings of why we go to fiction, how it keeps us and what we take away.
      Writers certainly have identities and ambitions as readers. But do we become more tolerant and permissive as we go along, and should artistic writing require a complicated interface--recordings and source listings and other supporting materials--to perpetuate its growth? Vigorous strains of American fiction and poetry are almost entirely ignored by all but the poets and writers themselves. The country's fault, or the fault of the work? Or no one's fault, and not a problem? Apprentices to the art feel obligated to absorb the work of their peers and predecessors, but who else is interested? The sales rep has twenty seconds to describe the book to the bookseller. The term "literary fiction" itself signals an antagonism, as if to announce the presence of something ruthlessly private, to be decoded by only the smartest readers, everyone else be damned. He can't shake a piece of meat in the bookseller's face to make a point. There are restrictions to the form of the sale. Literature itself is becoming one of the minor genres.
      But, after all, it's just fiction, is it not? It is a made-up thing with little relevance, a flight from what is real and therefore without use, an indulgence. We have to be about our business, and our business is not fancy.
      I'm willing to consider that this is a problem with the fiction itself, that art cannot ever complain or whine for people to need or like it. It must instead devise a passage, a method, a means for being swallowed up so that it can go to work on us. At all costs, perhaps. It may be the medium that is weak: the book itself museum-bound, as Robert Coover suggests, the word turning into light, the so-called authority of "linear" text a purely nostalgic form of narrative, thus explaining its falling numbers. But until I see even a "paragraph," if that would be the term for it, of so-called electronic writing with the remotest life or fear or blood to it, and I haven't, I can't concede this to be the difficulty. I could also admit that we live amidst a wide array of celebrated failures. The "heroes" of literature held up for worship and emulation are so dismally disappointing and boring that one is amazed at the ready complicity of writers and readers everywhere to celebrate them. Their names are their names, they are well-known ones. It heartens me then to hear that Brad Morrow is planning to schedule a special issue of this magazine devoted to "Secret Heroes," or writers less favored by national attentions, but clearly deserving of them. David Ohle would fit this rubric perfectly. His stunningly inventive novel, Motorman, appeared in the early seventies, and in this issue we are fortunate to have a selection from his new novel, The Flum, a work of remarkably comic and bizarre beauty.
      Brian Evenson is a writer who happens to be of the Mormon faith. Or he is a Mormon who happens to be a writer, one so exhilaratingly well armed in the devices of fiction-making that he can't help but use his skills and vision to compose scenarios that disturb his religious community. "The Polygamy of Language" takes several tropes of Mormonism and punishes them in language. Yet Evenson would claim no fracture in his devotion, it is simply that his culture, the external one to which he answers, cannot tolerate viewing subversions and inversions of its own antics, particularly, I would think, when composed as fluently as Evenson has done here.
      The object at the heart of Shelley Jackson's "The Putti" is put through a series of increasingly dangerous definitions that run from the vaguely to the explicitly sexual, as if the body is whatever we say it is, and the narrator touring us through this disclosure can create sex out of words with an utterly transfixing menace. Gary Lutz, in his forthcoming first book, Stories in the Worst Way, from which his story "Contractions" is taken, disintegrates our received notions of gender and attraction by offering us speakers of every category and preference with a huge and painful humanity in common, possessing voices crisply original and knowing, funny and bitter and shell-shocked. In "White," by Terese Svoboda, an old man paints a barn while addressing a boy who is helping him: "A chicken's like a family: head, heart, wings. They get shook up in that bag of flour, they go off." The boy runs through what he knows to himself, as he and the man become covered in white, increasingly hidden from each other.
      It may be that a crisis should always attend our efforts in writing, that cultural resistance and obstinance is the natural, necessary impediment for any fiction that seeks to install itself with honor into our shared world, to revise the obstacles that assault us. It is a struggle these coming fictions surpass brilliantly. Here are eleven eloquent and original solicitations for our attention. They are compositions that truly do compose a new and needed place to live.