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The Abyss

“It was one thing to know what abyss we were all drifting toward, and another to see ourselves sinking there through letters, documents, photos, and objects testifying to our decline.” -“The Bronze Schoolboy”

“He relived their games on the edge of the abyss. It could’ve been yesterday. It was. Ten years, twenty, the blink of an eye, and an entire lifetime were the same.” -“The Dolceola Player”

“Before him yawned a chasm into which he’d almost disappeared without a trace. He stopped himself just in time, catching hold of the last lamppost at the edge of the abyss.” -“Sweet Street”

“Can you die without having your fair share, without fathoming the marvelous truth? Fox is beside himself. What if he’s about to die, right here and now, struck down before the very first veil is even rent?” -“A Room on the Abyss”

 

As you can see, I’ve noticed a trend in the stories from Chateaureynaud’s A Life on Paper. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to assemble and publish a collection of work, whether it’s poetry or fiction. Obviously, I’m not about to publish anything, but reading the collections of stories by single authors (i.e. not anthologies) has caused me to notice patterns, such as the one highlighted in the quotes above regarding the abyss. Does the author notice themes emerging in his or her work, and then decide to submit the related pieces to be published together? Does the publisher notice a trend in a bulk submission, and select those that fit the bill? Do authors attempt to write along a theme, or does it just happen? It makes sense that an author would write about similar subjects in different ways because we all have subjects that make us tick. Our own personal muses.

Time and time again, Chateaureynaud’s stories remind the reader that life is fleeting; it washes away with time (down a river of acid, he says (to paraphrase) in “The Bronze Schoolboy”) and the end brings something mysterious. His stories feature characters that realize  they’re headed for the abyss, and there’s nothing they can do about it. More happiness, time, youth…none of it can change the inevitable. The tales explore how the characters feel about their fate and because this idea recurs I wonder if it is a reflection of the writer’s own thoughts on life and death. While a writer or poet may not write autobiographically in the traditional sense, it’s certain that some of the author’s experiences, feelings, and perceptions will seep into his or her work provided there was an investment in it (and I would think that with the majority of professional writers, there is a great deal of personal investment behind their work).

In addition to noticing the theme in A Life on Paper, I really like it. Life and its purpose is something most everyone struggles with. These struggles are written about eloquently and thoughtfully in this collection, more out of acceptance and understanding (it seems) than fear or denial. Aging and death were written about with similar eloquence in 100 Years of Solitude, which impressed me again and again. It’s comforting, in a way, to consider about our uncertainties through stories that are so confidently written that it seems the author knows something the reader doesn’t.

 

-Ashley

4 Responses to “The Abyss”

  1. “Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to assemble and publish a collection of work, whether it’s poetry or fiction. Obviously, I’m not about to publish anything, but reading the collections of stories by single authors (i.e. not anthologies) has caused me to notice patterns, such as the one highlighted in the quotes above regarding the abyss. Does the author notice themes emerging in his or her work, and then decide to submit the related pieces to be published together?”
    I’m sure it varies greatly, but in this case I can provide a concrete answer: the stories in A Life on Paper were chosen by myself in collaboration with the author. They were selected from 7 collections and a chapbook that spanned 30 or so years of his career, and I partly chose them with an eye to how they might enter into conversation with my own vague notions of what the contemporary short story was in America, both fantastical and non-. Which is one reason it’s so wonderful to have them taught in a class like this, in the context of like works–the very conversation they were meant to enter.
    I say “vague” because while I can hardly define “the contemporary American short story,” I’ve read a lot of them, in anthologies, journals, and collections, as a writer, translator, fan, and product of MFA culture.
    These stories were also selected to give some idea of Chateaureynaud’s variety and range of topic, style, substance, and theme in introducing American readers to his work. So of course the opposite is also true: a certain coherence emerges from the variety, repeated motifs and obsessions. Abyss imagery was definitely on my mind. Around the same time as this collection, Christine Bini put out the first critical study of his work in France. Chateaureynaud has said that reading the critical study made him see through-lines in his own work he’d never noticed before, and the new awareness was a challenge to producing new work. Usually, his collections in France are arranged in pure chronological order of composition. Every time he has 10-15 stories, he takes them to his publisher, they weed out the weaker ones, and publish the rest. Sometimes those orphaned stories get picked up by small presses in chapbooks.
    Obviously the pieces in A Life on Paper are not chronologically arranged, though probably the flow I attempted to create in it is really only in my head. I also ran a lot of numbers when assembling this anthology: how many 1st person narrators vs. third, how many from each collection, how many mermaids, etc. Originally some other stories were slated for inclusion but were cut for various reasons (for instance, two pieces on King Kong for fear of copyright issues). So what you see is the product of lots of behind-the-scenes goings-on, only some of which have to do with the actual stories.
    T.C. Boyle likes to relate this advice of John Cheever, his teacher at Iowa, on assembling collections: “Three good stories up front, two at the end, and all the rest in the middle.”

  2. Ashley says:

    Thank you so much for your comments. I’m really flattered that you’re reading the blog and taking the time to answer questions. It’s an incredible opportunity for our class to have your insight.

  3. Let me add my thanks to Ashley’s, Edward, along with my fervent hope that we’ll have another Châteaureynaud collection in English soon. We’ve just read the final story in ALOP, and I’m very sorry to be done.

  4. No, no, honor’s all mine, really: so glad people are reading the book, and G-O just loves getting readers’ honest, unvarnished reactions (as opposed to polished reviewerese). I’ll be seeing him soon this summer and I’m sure, like last time, he’ll have printouts of your posts with questions for me. These days, translators wind up representing their authors in many ways, and G-O is a special case for me, since I approached the publisher with the project, as opposed to being assigned it, like most of my work. I think it’s a development that is good for international literature on the whole: http://translationista.blogspot.com/2012/10/recruiting-for-reviewer-hall-of-fame.html
    JGB, thanks again for teaching G-O! I’m not sure about another collection–I think that for market reasons the publisher wants a novel next–though I’m happy to point you to or even supply you with copies of the uncollected short fiction that has appeared since the collection. But someday!