THE KING'S COUNCIL
In which your Sovereign Majesty gets an earful on contemporary literature from your loyal councillors
[PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES], Bill Henderson, Ed.
Benjamin Chambers: There are some very fine stories in this year’s Pushcart anthology.
Because we’re going through them in the order in which they appear in the anthology, and because there’s so many problematic stories up front, any reasonably attentive reader who’d followed me this far in our critique series would assume that I must disapprove of all of them: untrue. So Bill, should we try this again in the future, we should confine ourselves to critiquing groups of stories in less space. That way, we can get to the good stuff more quickly.
Having said that, I’ve already tipped you off as to what I think of John Clayton’s “Voices.” The only possible suspense remaining for you is why I don’t like it. And it’s a good question. Why on earth would I dislike this story about a well-meaning psychiatrist who, prodded by mysterious voices in his head, saves the life of one of his patients? Because it’s another con.
---Wait, wait! I’m hearing a voice in my head. It’s getting clearer … there! It’s Clayton talking to himself as he writes this story: “I dunno why Sam Krassner decides (without any evidence that it’s necessary), instead of simply calling the police, to break into a patient’s home to save her from suicide, thereby risking his license, reputation, home, and livelihood. Let’s see, why would he do that? Aha! Because he hears voices! Heh heh, perfect, guy’s a psychiatrist, hears voices. Yeah, that’s the ticket, write that down, yes …”
But it won’t wash: we need a better explanation for why Sam acts the way he does, especially since Clayton can’t seem to figure out what those voices are, either. At the end, Clayton has Sam realize that the voices have nothing to do with him; he understands at last that he’s been hearing “fragments of a story.”
A story?! Clayton can’t be referring to the sort of story Sam hears every day on the job from clients – I give him more credit than that. But what does he mean, then? Clayton has no answer. In fact, all that Sam finally understands about them is that “[t]hey’re not his, the words; it’s not his story.” Arrgh.
Sam’s big epiphany about the voices in his head is as dead-on a critique of “Voices” as I could ever hope to muster: this story isn’t about Sam. He’s not changed by its events; in fact, the whole story feels mailed-in. Sam the psychiatrist is stereotypically Jewish, his low-income patient is stereotypically black with a stereotypically angry and abusive husband, and the paternalistic nature of the doctor-patient relationship, while boringly credible, is similarly unsurprising. Sam bumbles around vaguely – it’s not clear what he wants, why he does what he does, or if anything’s changed afterward. A better, more interesting story would belong to his patient, or to somebody who gave a rip.
But is it fair to expect that the main character of every realistic story should be changed by what happens to him or her? Probably not. It’s a good rule of thumb for realistic fiction, but it’s not true all the time. For example, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” doesn’t chronicle change: instead, it slowly reveals the tragic relationship of the couple on the train platform. Yet it’s dramatically powerful in a way that “Voices” is not. Why? Because the two main characters are dramatically opposed to each other, and the stakes are high.
“Voices” is truer than “Hills” to the lack of clarity we all experience every day about our own motivations and the stakes we’re playing for any time we make a decision, but that doesn’t make it a better story. In fact, it makes it worse, because there are serious stakes in play, and Clayton blithely disregards them. Sam knows he’s become too involved in his patient’s life, but no colleagues disapprove, no threat to his license materializes. Even his wife is supportive (and he has the bad grace to resent her for it). And when his patient’s husband comes to his house with a baseball bat intent on doing him harm, Sam talks him down with ridiculous ease.
So maybe the primary character in a realistic story doesn’t need to change, not every time, but no character who goes through what Sam does should be unchanged.
Bill Bukovsan: Well…. I know why he hears voices, if that helps – and it’s not because (or not just because) Clayton needs something to propel the good Dr. Krassner from tony Northampton to not-so-tony Springfield. No: Sam hears voices because he’s Jewish.
I’m being flip, of course, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Perhaps Sam’s Judaism is stereotypical, but it’s deeply felt, and central to the story. (Note that, the first time he saves Barbara, his immediate point of moral reference is Pirke Avot, rabbinical writings nearly 2000 years old. This is not a man, in other words, who has only a cursory relationship with his own religious traditions.) Our Northampton shrink harks back to a long line of prophets, the great list that spans nearly the entire Hebrew Bible, from Abraham through Uriah, figures to whom malachai (and even Yahweh Himself) supposedly spoke. Or, rather, that’s what he wants—he wants to be a prophet, or at least to be something more than he is. Clayton tells us that “Sam’s life is stuck”; we are to believe that this is why he’s hearing the voices. Sam is tired of being uninvolved, tired of the banality of his comfortable life, tired of drawing easy, convenient lines between the pain of others and his own effortless existence. And so it’s not voices that drive Sam to meddle in poor Barbara Hammond’s sad little life, not really—the voices are only a symptom of his underlying yearning for something beyond what he already has.
Now think about what the voices actually say. When they first appear, they’re whispering “inasmuch as…the forlorn ones…adversary song.” Later on they shout “STRICT PROCEDURE” or maybe “CONSTRICTED PROCEDURE” or “STRICTLY PROCEED.” A little later, they say “COMMENCE” and “TENDER.” And that, actually, is it for the voices – though the story refers to them a few other times, these are the only direct quotes we have. So guess what? The voices say nothing at all, speak only gibberish. If Clayton really intended that they be the sole impetus for Sam’s excursion among the less fortunate, you’d think he’d have made them a little more explicit in their instructions. It’s not even as if Sam’s hearing what he wants to in the voices’ words—they baffle him as much as they baffle the reader. (The best he comes up with is that the voices’ last word, TENDER, might be an admonition for him to tender his resignation, which, you’ll note he doesn’t actually do.) At best, they’re the analogs of Rorschach cards to which a subject doesn’t have a particularly strong reaction—maybe, if you squint at them long enough, you can make them look like something, but it’s not like it’s leaping right out at you. Murk and uncertainty are the hallmarks of Sam’s messages from beyond—and if the beyond’s going to be speaking to you, murk and uncertainty are precisely the last characteristics you want its words to have.
But this is precisely the point. Malachai, in fact, do not speak with much authority anymore; the visits of angels (and extraterrestrials), when reported, are shrouded in such a fog of lunacy that it’s impossible for serious people to give them any credence. The days of the Yahweh who told Moses to go and announce to Pharaoh that he should let the Israelites go are long gone; now, when God or His messengers talk, they only mumble. The divine has grown lamentably unhelpful—the results Sam gets for all his inappropriate interference in Barbara Hammond’s life are notably mixed. Sure, he saves her life (maybe—it’s not all that clear how effective or even heartfelt she intended her suicide attempt to be), but he also gets her oldest daughter badly beaten up. In any case, things don’t seem to be appreciably better for Barbara by the end of the story. No matter how much Sam wants to transcend himself, to work an Old Testament-style miracle of his own, he can’t. God sits this one out, and things end up characteristically muddled and unresolved.
Now, before I go much farther—and I do have a little ways left to go yet—I should probably relieve you of a misconception: contrary to the impression the preceding paragraphs might give you, I didn’t much like “Voices” either. I too found the characters horribly stereotypical, especially the African-Americans; Barbara, in particular, seemed to suffer from an advanced case of Magical Negro. And I was annoyed almost to the point of hurling the book across the room when the story asked, “Powerless, does Barbara even care that she is represented in the state legislature by a guy who consistently votes against funding the social services that might help her change her life?” Yes, the narrative voice speaks for Sam, but even so this seemed gratuitous, a way to pound Barbara, Sam, and the nameless legislator in question (Barbara’s current state representative, as far as I can tell, would most likely be one James T. Welch, a Democrat) into the obvious little pigeonholes the story needed them to occupy. Finally, I cannot forgive the story its last line, which lets everyone—Barbara, Sam, and, crucially, the author—off the hook.
All that said, I think that “Voices,” like “Cocktail Hour” before it, is grappling, in its ham-handed way, with something important. For both Sam and the drugged-out Dr. and Mrs. Bernie Roth, the question facing them is how to make their lives meaningful, worth living, in the face of a universe that’s too indifferent to them to even bother alerting them to the fact. The hospital that is Bernie’s life’s work is swallowed by an impersonal HMO, and Sam’s a psychologist who doesn’t seem to be affording anybody any real relief. The Roths medicate themselves away from insight (and therefore despair), Sam talks himself into believing that the nonsense murmurs at the edge of his consciousness are in fact messages from God—and what both sets of characters are really doing is finding some way to lift themselves out of themselves, some pathway to transcendence. It’s impossible, in these times, for educated people to believe in much—the world, more and more, reveals itself to be a mundane place, its mysteries vulnerable to conquest by the patient, plodding application of reason. What we don’t know about it is likely to turn out to be just as boring as what we already do. This state of affairs, however, is something people cannot live with—we need to believe, we insist on believing, even when there’s nothing out there to believe in. We need the amazing, the awesome, the sublime, but these are precisely the things the world can no longer give us. It is this tension, this absurd tension between what we must have if our psychologies (or, if you like, our souls) are to be satisfied and what’s actually available, that both Braverman and Clayton are glancing at (and then quickly away from) in their pieces. The Roths and Sam Krassner are suffering from starvation of the spirit. So are we all.
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