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Often I wondered what would have happened if I had turned to look at her, the day the curtains parted.  And I saw it clearly: the sun-filled air, the dust swirling in shafts of light, the bright empty room.  No, far better to have turned away, to have understood that, for me, imagesIsabel existed only in the dark.

“The Room in the Attic” hinges its forward movement on the reader and David’s conflicting desire to know more about Isabel, but also wanting her to remain a mystery.  Millhauser creates this conflict by setting up the situation around Isabel and why she stays up there in the dark, and spins it into something more complicated and fantastic.  Through David’s eyes, (and I’s because the point of view is first person), we see these two dramatically different worlds that he lives in, the bright sunny one of “normalcy” and the dark room in the attic with Isabel.  He creates fantasies of what he thinks Isabel looks like and at one point plots to sneak a flashlight into her room to see her face.  When given the opportunity to shine it on her however, he decides not to and feels bad about wanting to do it.  She remains a mystery, and this mysterious element of her keeps him coming to see her.   He want to figure her out almost and when, after a long buildup of planning to introduce light back into her room, she decides to open the curtains, he turns away and flees without ever having seen her face.  Millhauser builds to this emotional climax and when David turns away, what could have been a sort of “oh that’s what you look like” moment is made much more dynamic than if he had stayed.

No, the real division was between the visible world and that other world, where Isabel waited for me like a dark dream. (p.63)

The story “The Room in the Attic” by Millhauser becomes extremely fantastical when Isabel is introduced. From the beginning of their friendship, David doesn’t even know if she is real, or if Wolf was fooling around with imageshim. As their friendship develops between David and Isabel, David is drawn to this fantastic world in which everything is a mystery. What is so fantastical about Isabel is that she is almost ghost-like, hiding in the darkness and her touch
and presence fleeting. Millhauser makes us feel the mystery of her and the surrealness of this room that David comes back to almost every day. I was extremely surprised when Isabel revealed herself and David covered his eyes and ran out of the room and away from the house. It’s as if David wanted to continue living in the fantastic reality of not seeing or truly knowing. Through the story, David becomes more immersed in the love for darkness and is lured into the excitement of the unknown. Two lines that struck me, though, were when “during these seizures, I have delusions I call Isabel.” (p. 56) and “… I waved to Wolf’s mother, who turned out to be a jacket on the back of a shadowy chair …” (p. 73) because both suggest that everything that David has described in Wolf’s home may have just been his imagination. If the mother is a jacket and the family isn’t real, had David been visiting an abandoned, dark house? The darkness would have been real, but everything else could have been in his mind.

Proving Up

“And like a quagmire the terror won’t release me, because the man is speaking in the voice of my own father, and every sodbuster in the Hox River Settlement – a voice that can live for eons on dust and thimblefuls of water, that can be plowed under, hailed out, and go on whispering madly forever about spring, about tomorrow, a voice of a hope beyond the reach of reason or exhaustion (oh, Ma, that’s going to be my voice soon) – a voice that will never let us quit the land.” (109-110)

Russell left the identity of of the man Miles meets on page 103 ambiguous. This is a conscious, stylistic choice, resulting in the man having an altogether inhuman quality. This quality is enhanced by his eyes being described as “bottomless” (111). This effect leads me to perceive the man as a personification of death. Both when he appeared to Miles and when he appeared to Mrs. Sticksel, he was perceived as someone the observer was waiting for, the Inspector and Miles, symbolizing how we all are endlessly waiting for death. When he speaks, his syntax reminds Miles of the familiar voice of his father which could symbolize how, to some, death can seem familiar when they are surrounded by it everyday as Miles is with the deaths of his sisters and the death and disappearance of other settlers.

Nothing was there. In the thick darkness I felt myself dissolving, turning into black mist, speaking into the farthest reaches of the room.

The feeling that Isabel may not be real is an interesting choice that Millhauser makes in this story. Even by the end of the story we can’t be quite sure that David didn’t make all of it up. David even questions it when he leaves the house. He wonders if he had just dreamed it all and if the house would be there when he looked back. In a way it seems that David has been sucked into this “other” world and within this world he is becoming a changed person. His parents become worried, while Wolf seems eerily calm about the fact that this boy, who was originally his friend, is now spending more time in his attic than with him. There is even a moment where David realizes this and when he goes to visit Wolf he doesn’t seem to be phased. It does seem that Wolf and Isabel are real due to small choices that Millhauser makes. For example, he shows Isabel leaving the pharmacy and through the rumors that are being spread about Wolf. Yet, when David tries to get close to Isabel she seems to be semi-formed at first. The more he thinks of her the more she takes form. He imagines her in many ways and she presents herself as more than a phantom. There is still a level of uncertainty throughout though. David even avoids the reality outside of the dark room by running away when light is presented. This provokes the question of reality even more. Is it possible that David was just bored and had an overactive imagination? Or is Isabel real and David can’t remember enough of her to accurately picture her when outside of the room?

 

room in attic

“He said that the purpose of books was to permit us to exercise that faculty. Art, he said, was a controlled madness, which was why the people who selected books for high school English classes were careful to choose only false books that were discussable, boring, and sane, or else, if they chose a real book by mistake, they presented it in a way that ignored everything great and mad about it. He said that high school was for morons and mediocrities. He said that his mother had agreed never to enter his room so long as he changed his sheets once a week. He said the books weren’t made of themes, which you could write essays about, but of images that inserted themselves into your brain and replaced what you were seeing with your eyes.”

Steven Millhauser’s short story The Room in the Attic” brings forth a sense of dramatic realism that as a writer brings forth an interesting topic that would typically not be seen as boring. The setting itself would not be seen as something that brings forth conflict, but Millhauser chooses to put a young girl, Wolf’s sister in the attic to make the darkroom more interesting and appealing. The idea that this little girl is living in the attic is centered to draw the reader in and it also is his way of introducing a potential conflict between the narrator and the young girl. Furthermore, when Millhauser begins the novel with, “I first saw Wolf in March of junior year. This isn’t his story, but I suppose I ought to begin with him,” he is establishing that the point of view is first person; this usually means that the narrator is unreliable. Because we know this as writers, we question whether the story is about Wolf or not; this causes us as readers to want to know the truth. As we find out, the story is not about Wolf, but Millhauser’s exposition makes us believe that the narrator has lied because he is constantly describing how cool Wolf is in the exposition and what Wolf thinks about school. We learn as we go into part II of the story that this book is about the unseen in the darkroom and the mystery of Wolf’s sister who eventually disappears. Millhauser’s writing of the dark room and what Dave thinks is in this room gives us a realistic, but magical perception and this is what makes this story fantastic.

Titles, unless they’re Fall Out Boy songs from 2006-2009, are rarely so long or descriptive, so this one caught my eye.  Right from the outset, Russell gives us

Pic from Caters News Agency (PICTURED: Seagul struggles with bread over its face before eating the whole slice). This is one IN-BREAD seagull as it got its head stuck in a piece of thin-sliced white. During a food fight on the harbours edge in Akranes, Iceland, one over enthusiastic gull managed to punch its beak right through the loaf. However, it had the last laugh, as it was able to swallow the entire piece of bread itself, with greedy pals looking on. SEE CATERS COPY

setting.  We are in 1979, in Strong Beach, and a seagull army has descended.  While we don’t yet know the significance of any of these pieces of information, the tone for the story has begun to be set, and the question of what’s implied by the army of seagulls and what their effect on the town will be. This choice on Russell’s part, to include so much information in the title, establishes setting, and while we later learn that the fact of the enormous seagull “army” is not the main driving point of the story (or is it?), they are still an incredibly significant part of the narrative.

Seagull_in_flight_by_Jiyang_ChenRussell in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” hides the pieces of fantastic within it, while having the fantastical pieces and the world of Nal and his family very fleshed out, knowing very specific details about each character. I like how from the beginning, the mass amount seagulls surrounding Nal is noticed slightly, but not enough to pay attention to it. From the start, after getting his hamburger stolen, Russell conveys that Nal deserved that to happen to him, and Nal accepts that, eating the remains of the burger. Throughout the story, the seagulls are noted, but
not to an extent to make a large difference or ever be the center of the story. The seagulls could possibly represent the unrequited love Nal has for his brother’s girlfriend, those thoughts constantly following him around or appearing (in his mind, but also as the seagulls do), seeming to always be growing in size(more obsession over the girl). I wish the seagulls on their beach were more explained and why they were in their town, but then again, surely Russell had his reasons to leave us in question. But, I wish Russell hadn’t left us wondering at the end of the story, too, because after Nal betrays his brother and sleeps with her, there are so many questions as to why would he, why would she, and what happens a little into the future.

But to Nal’s dismay, the ladies of Athertown flocked to Samson in greater multitudes than before. Girls trailed him down the boardwalk, clucking stupidly about the new waxy sheen on his head. Samson was seventeen and had what Nal could only describe with a big laugh and the deep serenity of a grazing creature.

seagullsRussell takes the element of an unusual amount of seagulls at this beach and makes it normal, but it makes me question what the actual purpose of the seagulls is to this coming-of-age story and whether the seagulls are actually physically there or are they a representation of the freedom and confidence that surrounds Nal, but Russell struggles to make this clear. Based on the quote above, in which Russell describes Samson like a seagull, I believe that the seagulls are a representation of the people and environment in which Nal is surrounded by and longs to be like. Also, when the seagull snatches the hamburger pattie out of the sandwich, it appears that this is Russel’s way to foreshadow how Samson takes the girls that Nal likes without Nal putting up a fight. I just wish the purpose of the seagulls was clearer to me.

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Emily Rapp Black is a very with a positive spirit, which was very unexpected. Though she has been through very rough challenges, she still has a great sense of humor and is confident in who she is. When she read part of her essay “Casa Azul Cripple,” I was really able to see the true authentic talent of her writing that allows the reader to be intrigued by something unfamiliar. The amazing thing about this essay is that she draws parallels between the painting of the dead babies to the death of her son, Ronan. Rapp Black’s emotions are conveyed throughout the scenes of her being in her son’s nursery and also when she switches to the scene where she is in the Mexican museum. This raw method of writing allows the reader to see the frame of mind Rapp Black is in when she is looking at this weird painting and how it is closely related to her own experiences; this authenticity allows us as readers to feel like we are there in these places with her, feeling these emotions. It is absolutely beautiful, and it seems that the writing is so natural. I will definitely be spending my spare time reading Poster Child: A Memoir and her many other works.

The gulls landed in Athertown on July 11, 1979. Clouds of them, in numbers unseen since the ornithologists began keeping records of such things. Scientists all over the country hypothesized about erratic weather patterns and redirected migratory routes. At first sullen Nal barely noticed them. (53)

602978-0e4ecfce-d31b-11e2-96e3-1b2db4673cefThe shift in point of view from dramatic third person to third person limited in the first page allows for the reader to learn about the setting without Nal commenting on it. It also allows the original narrator to explain how the “clouds of” gulls are not a normal occurrence as well as describe the flimsy explanations that make it clear that nobody knows why this is happening (53). This knowledge of everyone’s lack of knowledge along with the lightning quick change in point of view instantly knocks the reader off balance. It also establishes early on, along with the title, the importance of the gulls and their relationship to the setting, to the rest of the story.

Warping people’s futures into some new and terrible shapes, just by stealing these smallest linchpins from the present.

The mystery behind the appearance of the seagulls in this story is very apparent, yet it is not the focal point. Russell continues to change the point of the story as it moves along. At first she has us believing that the story is about a teen that is always outshone by his older brother, then it’s about a family struggling through their mother’s unemployment. From there it moves to focusing on the fact that these giant seagulls are stealing pieces of people’s futures, in most cases this seems to be detrimental but in the case of Nal it actually helps him. The giant seagulls are definitely a fantastical part of this story, but no one at Strong Beach seems to mind that they are there. The only reaction to them is that they are covering everything in their droppings. The choice to maintain these birds as a subplot is very interesting in the fact that it keep the reader drawn in. We want to know what brought the seagulls to this place and how are they getting pieces of the future. It is a drastic difference from the first two stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories” because in those she makes the deliberate choice to have the fantastic as the main plot. There are so many questions that accompany this story and very few are answered. The biggest question I had was the one I posed earlier. How are these seagulls gaining items from the future? What is the purpose of stealing a penny that will be minted in a years time? Were the seagulls sent to harm Nal’s family? All of these questions go unanswered and are almost forgotten as Russell pulls the readers into a story of adolescent love.

Jo Ann Callis

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Penelope Slinger

Penelope Slinger

Jo Ann Callis

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Image by Shannon Bool

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story

Exercise 2

By using Google images or by clicking on the links I’ve provided, search for works by the contemporary visual artists listed below, all of whom make use of the surreal in their work. Identify a single image from which you will create a story no longer than three double-spaced pages.

Penelope Slinger
Shannon Bool
Jo Ann Canlis
Caitlin Keogh
Shana Moulton
Julie Curtiss
Carina Brandes

Step 1: Place the image you have chosen for your story on the blog.

Step 2: Write your story.

Step 3. Revise. Revise. Proofread.

Step 4. Place your story in the Exercise 2 folder on Google Drive.

Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.

4c1159e8ccad9a166220d80441379eadIn “Reeling for the Empire,” it follows Kitsune who is one of many girls captured and forced to have their bodies change in order to produce silk from their bodies. This short story is extremely fantastical, creating these creatures that are stuck in this factory. The author does well explaining the world of Kitsune and the other girls, showing us her past, the changes one goes through, and “Nowhere Mill” where they cannot leave. I think this
story is a story of not repressing your past and who you truly are, and also taking control of yourself and your own future, as Kitsune does by revolting and using her memories to create the blackest silks she can. My favorite quote from the story is: “Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.” (page 45)

 

It was as if none of us had ever looked at her, or had looked at her while thinking of something more interesting. I felt that we were guilty of some obscure crime. For it seemed to me that we who had seen her now and then out of the corner of our eyes, we who had seen her without seeing her, who without malice had failed to give her our full attention, were already preparing her for the fate that overtook her, were already, in a sense not yet clear to me, pushing her in the direction of disappearance.

SHADOWThe disappearance of Elaine Coleman appears to have been a gradual disappearance. Through Millhauser’s use of imagery, we begin to see that Elaine became a shadow, almost ghost-like and no one really noticed. Millhauser shows how a disappearance triggers people to want to create an image of a person they avoided knowing. The idea that Elaine’s disappearance was due to the town seeing her as invisible shows the importance of inclusion into a community. Elaine noticed that she was invisible to the people around her, so she both physically and emotionally disappeared from existence. It is also possible that Elaine was going through depression because the narrator says that she was more visible to society when she was in high school, but she became almost nonexistent after she came back from college. Did Elaine’s depression and no one reaching out to help her cause her to allow the depression to overtake her? Have we lost something if we didn’t know acknowledge that it existed or mattered? Do we have an obligation as humans to fight the shadow archetype in our personalities and through our depression?

First the silk worms stop eating. Then they spin their cocoons. Once inside, they molt several times. They grow wings and teeth. If the caterpillars are allowed to evolve, they change into moths. Then these moths bite through the silk and fly off, ruining it for the market.

silkworm lifecycleThis quote is the turning point in the story for Kitsune. She was obsessed with the color of her silk changing and finally, after hearing about Chichibu, she realizes that she is able to control her silk. She has the power to control the market. I find it fascinating that she is not concerned about what is causing her silk to change so much as what effect the change is having on the quality of her silk. Once she realizes that she has the power to shape her silk, she makes it higher quality. It could be said that the lower quality was because she was worrying too much. This quote pulls the fantastic part of this story into reality. It connects what is occurring, and what is about to occur, with these girls to common knowledge. It also gives power to the rest of the story. Kitsune now has a purpose outside of filling her quota. She can save the girls and herself. She knows she has the power to do this because she was the one who signed her own fate away. She willfully drank the tea. She can tap into the natural instincts that came along with her transformation to change the future for the kaiko-joko. Her transformation into a silk reeler was horrifying in its own manner, but her later transformation into a true silkworm is horrifying and inspiring.

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