A guest post!
Flashes of Insight in a Short Story: Wendell Berry and Shann Ray
By Scott Elliott
In his 1963 essay “The Lonely Voice” Frank O’Connor argues that the short story is closer to its nimble older sister lyric poetry than to its hefty brother the novel. In my teaching I’ve settled on a shorthand distinction between the two prose genres that claims for the short story a flash of insight, a revelation, and for the novel extended development, exploration of facets.
The opening short story in Wendell Berry’s 2012 collection A Place in Time furnishes a perfect example of the kind of flash of insight by which many stories earn the lyric moment that makes the events worthwhile. The story is set in Berry’s own Yoknapatawpha, Port William, Kentucky during the later days of the Civil War. Occupying Port William are bands of soldiers from both armies, joined by a third category: dangerous makeshift guerrilla outfits using the war as an excuse to settle scores completely unrelated to the war. The town shuts itself to all of these groups “like a terrapin closing its shell” because the intruders are likely to “requisition” horses, take already scarce food and weapons, prosecute suspected enemies on hazy grounds, and recruit young men.
The story brings Rebecca Dawe, 16, into focus as someone who has left her river bottom home to help her aunt in town with that aunt’s children. Already scarred by the war—her brother was shot by a neighbor as he left to join the Confederate Army—she fears and so hates all of the intruding men in the area. Her uncle Thomas, formerly the town’s blacksmith, was arrested by Union troops and placed in a federal prison in Louisville for helping the wrong person shoe his horse.
We get the lyric moment that makes it a story, the necessary flash of insight, near the end when Rebecca watches a line of riders pass by out a window. These riders are described as follows: “They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody to pursue. The last of the riders sees Rebecca in the window, makes eye contact with her, stops his horse, and stays for a time looking up at her. Rebecca faces him, unflinching. Master that he is, Berry lets this moment of tension extend for over half a page before the young man, who under different circumstances might have been described as handsome, says, “Get your ugly face out of the window.” In response, even though she is “a young woman of principled modesty” immediately after the encounter Rebecca allows herself a glance in the mirror and thinks to herself, “articulating the words deliberately as if saying them aloud: ‘That is not an ugly face.’”
Perhaps this story seems a good one to furnish an illustration of how flashes of insight into characters work in stories because here we have a literal glance into a mirror demonstrating for us the ways in which this moment illuminates Rebecca Dawe’s character. It shows us how she refuses to let a passing invader, this interloper, have any power in incorrectly defining her. Even though the story reminds us that a literal shooting in this tense moment is entirely possible, instead of a literal shot the man’s volley carried the potential of making a dangerous, insidious incursion into Rebecca’s identity. Her response after glimpsing herself in the mirror, reveals that her identity is too strong, too well fortified against the invaders, to allow the moment any traumatic influence. Her character is fortified to withstand the moment; her courageous gaze back at the man has won the day, somehow. The riders words were more about himself than her; Rebecca’s unflinching gaze became a mirror for him. The story resonates with Berry’s steadfast message about being true to one’s place, one’s own local, inherent beauty in the face of rootless, marauding forces that would unmoor you, convince you otherwise.
We can find parallels between flashes of revelation like this one in short stories, and the small turns by which poems earn their poemhood. Some readers of William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” have argued that the poem earns its status as poem in the small turn at the final lines from one sensual register to another— from taste to feeling, “so sweet” to “so cold.”
When you can locate them in a story, these revelations are like the ruby in the bucket of dimes. They glimmer with the presence of more of the valuable stuff of insight than the other lines. They are the molten lava core in the game of hot and cold the reader plays in a story, though they depend upon every other moment in the story to supply them with their heat.
In some cases short stories bring their readers to a well-wrought figure, a paragraph or series of lines that at first seems strange and unconnected to what has come before but which points to where the heart of the story lies. The story proceeds into the new paragraph faithful that readers will use their natural and honed instincts for narrative to help them bridge the gap. The opening story to Shann Ray’s 2012 collection American Masculine, “This is How We Fall” ends with just such a powerful figure. We’ve been introduced to a couple, Benjamin Killsnight and Sadie, who we see in love (for his part, at any rate) and in the throes of their drinking together. When she is unfaithful to him, he throws the other man into the snow and beats him up. He sobers up and asks her to do the same. Instead, she leaves him and experiences several years of a rambling, panhandling life, moving from place to place and man to man. She comes back into Benjamin’s life just before the end of the story. They have a brief scene together, in which we see her wish to come back to him, his initial reluctance in the face of his abiding feeling for her. The scene ends with the suggestion that they will try to be together again. Then without making any explicit connections but trusting that readers will make their own, the story moves on to end with the following lines, a memory located in Ben’s interior of a time he witnessed two golden eagles locking talons:
“He recognized the birds and set the glasses on them and saw distinctly their upward arc far above the ridgeline. He followed them as they reached an impossibly high apex where they turned and drew near each other and with a quick strike locked talons and fell. The mystery, he thought, simple as that, the bright majesty of all things. They gripped one another, and whirled downward, cumbersome and powerful and elegant. He followed them all the way down, and at last the ground came near and they broke and seemed suddenly to open themselves and catch the wind again and lift: Their wings cleaved the air as they climbed steadily until at last they opened wide and caught the warm thermals that sent them with great speed arcing above the mountain. There they dipped for a moment, then rose again on vigorous wingbeats all the way up to the top of the sky where they met one another and held each other fiercely and started all over, falling and falling.”
Without any judgment, but with some subtle suggestions about the story’s aims, the paragraph builds its figure and asks the reader to make connections. The effectiveness of this passage lies in its ambiguity in relation to the rest of the story, the mystery of this image from the natural world that is first of all only itself in all of its dramatic glory—two raptors with locked talons soaring then falling. But the passage also begs for interpretation in relation to the preceding story. How are we to make sense of the extended figure considered beside the characters we’ve left on the brink of deciding to try to be together again despite how badly things went the first time? The ambiguity renews the old, tired figure of “falling in love” by supplying it with a fresh, specific, living and breathing image appropriate to the story’s setting, like most of the others in this collection, in Montana. It reminds us of the fierce talons of Eros, and makes us wonder whether this time Benjamin and Sadie may find a way to make it work, or whether it will once again be a life-ruining mistake. The eagles soar when they are alone. Does this mean that our two characters would be better off alone and that on some level Benjamin knows this? The eagles’ falling is dangerous and cumbersome, but it’s also majestic and gives meaning to the soaring. Does this mean it’s better to risk the falling? How are we meant to map the characters’ trajectory alongside Benjamin’s free floating memory of the birds? We’ve been thrown into a consideration of the possibilities for meaning and in the bargain brought into a consideration of nothing less than the nature of love, its risks and demands, its burning necessity, its burdens and majesty.
Much of the power in literary short stories seems to reside in their ability to carefully orchestrate a flash of insight, their ability to bring us, suddenly, through some move—a gesture, an image, a figure, a line of dialogue, a thought-- and sometimes following what had seemed a set of unpromising narrative details, close to a lyric moment, into zones redolent with mystery, rich fields of possible meaning in which our minds can engage in the serious kind of play that might change us or make us change our lives.
Scott Elliott's latest novel, Temple Grove, came out earlier this month. You can read about it here.