Monks: a Short Riff on Hemingway and Porter

        We always talk about work, whether we each can tolerate our individual job or if we should try something new. Since we don’t know anyone who has what sounds from the outside like a dream job, we opt for tolerance. I spent a lot of time talking about lost opportunities. I always seemed to be in love with one woman when I could have been having fun with several.

        He told me the story of a third member of our tribe trying to get him to participate in a threesome. I pretended like I’d never heard it happened. In truth, some new details emerged. As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder to watch the cook through the service window. She was cute, rangy but in a graceful way. She looks really young. They all do.

        We were talking about the woman, the mistress, the third, about whether we should feel sorry for her. I feel sorry, I said, for anyone on the decline. Women have it especially bad. Just imagine part of what makes you special, a large part, a majority, is your youth and your beauty. Only you never fully realize how major a part youth and beauty are playing until yours are on the wane.

        “It would be like coming up with a program for success, having it work really well for years, only to realize that the program you’ve been following is actually useless because your success stems from the fact that you happen to be a genius—and the way you discover this is that you start becoming less and less successful because for whatever reason your genius is fading.”

        “That’s a really depressing thought. That’s depressing me. Why would you be thinking about that? Are you depressed?”

        “No—well, I’d say I’m lonely. A little frustrated that nothing seems to be happening in my life. But, no, I’m not really depressed.”

        I’d brought up a woman I work with and how much of a turnoff it was to hear her talk about how much she wanted to get married—how it always seems like women who talk like that put their preplanned schedule ahead of finding the right guy, and how that doesn’t seem as tragic as it used to because we both have come to the conclusion that even the idea of there being such a thing as the right guy or girl is pretty suspect.

        As much as it still doesn’t sit right with me, I explained, I could see the logic in having your life scheduled out. Women have a briefer window in which to establish their family lives, and their general success tends to begin with healthy family ties. Although, in the context, I was putting two and two together and getting a sum of being a man ain’t no different.

        Walking home from the pub we talked about “making it” and about how we don’t care much for big houses and cars. They’re not worth the work. I guess there was a pretty overt strain of asceticism being expressed. Still, when he said, “We’re monks,” it surprised me a bit. It surprised me because I’d actually anticipated our conversation after inviting him over and thought about saying I was living like a monk to sum up my situation. So, when he said it, I had to wonder if I’d said it in an earlier conversation, or whether he might have said it and I picked it up from him.

        Back at my apartment we got high and talked about how excited we got as kids about skee ball and the prizes you could get with the tickets. He’d been to Cedar Pointe and was talking about the abandoned arcade he’d wandered into when his neck was too sore for any more rides. We laughed at how foolish we’d been.

        “It’s really stupid, but really when’s the last time you got that excited about anything?”

        We talked about Christmas and Star Wars toys and pellet guns—about how all briefly thrilled before all briefly disappointed before all permanently faded into oblivion. Prizes no longer compel us forward. If we move at all, the impetus comes from discipline. I want to lose a little weight. I want to get a better job. I want to meet more people. I want a woman I can love.

        I was drunk, and then I was high. So, naturally I talked too much about the woman I haven’t been with for close to a year and a half. The cook through the service window at the restaurant reminded me of her.

        We talked briefly about politics, about how the free market solution for deadly chemicals and toxic customer service was supposed to be the consumers’ perogative to vote with their feet. But you can’t vote for an option that doesn’t exist, or against one that’s an industry-wide standard. We talked about getting badgered every time we try to buy something. Everyone’s trying to squeeze just a little more out of you. In the short term, they may make a few extra pennies—but, big picture, they’re probably depressing the economy by gently punishing consumers. People in China and India are starting to want more. The seeds of a middle class may have been planted.
This was me riffing on a theme from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

        Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

        I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for anything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

        Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.
And from Katherine Anne Porter’s “Theft”:

        In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed from her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.

What to Leave Out: Minimalism and the Hemingway Mystique

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” features a man who is lamenting his lost opportunities to write a bunch of stories he’s been saving up in his mind as he lays wounded and dying from an injury he suffered while on safari in Africa. It turns out Hemingway himself once suffered an injury while on safari in Africa; but of course he survived to write about the ordeal. Several of his other stories likewise feature fictionalized versions of himself. In fact, there are very few works in the Hemingway oeuvre that aren’t at least obliquely about Hemingway.

The success of the famous “iceberg theory” of writing, which has the author refrain from explicit statements about important elements of the characters’ minds, histories, and motivations, probably relied in large part on readers’ suspicion that the stories they were reading were true. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway explained,

"If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

The prose style of this theorizing on prose style is markedly unlike Hemingway’s usual “short, declarative statements.” And it is remarkably revealing. It almost seems as though Hemingway is boasting about being able to get away with leaving out as many of the details as he does in his stories because he’s so familiar with the subjects of which he writes. And what exciting and fascinating subjects they are—wars, romances, travels, brushes with death, encounters with man-eating beasts. Yet readers coming to the stories with romantic visions of Hemingway’s adventures are quickly disappointed by the angst, insecurity, and fear of the actual Hemingway experience.

Stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” unsettle us because there is a truth in them that not many people are given to exploring (even in America, land of “happily ever after,” marriages entail struggles for dominance). But much of the impact of Hemingway’s work comes from the mystique surrounding the man himself. Hemingway was a brand even before his influence had reached its zenith. So readers can’t really come to his work without letting their views about the author fill in the blanks he so expertly left empty. That’s probably why feelings about it tend to be so polarized.

If you take Hemingway’s celebrity out of the equation, though, you’re still left with a formidable proposition: fiction works not by detailing the protagonist’s innermost thoughts and finding clever metaphors for his or her feelings; rather the goal is to describe the scene in enough detail, to render the circumstances so thoroughly that the reader doesn’t need to be told how the character feels because the reader can imagine for him or herself what it would be like to inhabit a real-life version of the story. This proposition may have begun as far back as Proust, and having been taken in a completely new direction by Hemingway, reached something of an apotheosis in the minimalism of such authors as Raymond Carver. Of course, Carver’s more domestic dramas rely on a common stock of experience in place of the celebrity of the author, but the effect is of even greater revelation—or perhaps recognition is a better word.

Really, though, if you take this theory of storytelling to its logical endpoint you have films and movies, and you’ve lost the element that makes fiction writing unique—the space for interiority. It’s no coincidence that the best candidate for the Hemingway mantle today—at least in his most recent works—has had his two latest books adapted into films within a couple years of their publication. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been able to rely on any public notion of his interchangeability with his characters; nor does he write about experiences he can count on his readers to recognize. Instead, he builds his stories up from the ground of popular genres we’re most familiar with from our lifetime love affair with cinema. No Country for Old Men reads so much like Hemingway at points that you wonder if McCarthy took frequent breaks from the writing to dip into the icon’s complete short stories. At the same time, the novel reads so much like a script you wonder if the movie rights were sold before or after he began writing it.

If Hemingway could only write about things he’d actually experienced, and Carver can only write about experiences similar to those his readers have actually had, and McCarthy is dependent on our familiarity with popular genres, it seems the theory of omission or minimalism either runs up against a wall or gets stuck in an infinite regress. The possibility of discovery, the author going somewhere new and taking his readers along for the ride, recedes farther and farther into the distance. These limitations are real, of course, no matter what style you’re writing in; all writers must follow the injunction to write what they know—at least up to a point. I think the lesson to take from Hemingway and his followers is that the emotion inferred is often more poignant than the emotion described, but inference is only one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox.

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