Monday, January 13, 2014

2014-001 Walker Brothers Cowboy

Walker Brothers Cowboy

13 Opening
14 Character
15 Dialogue-Voice
14 Plot
14 Theme
14 Seduction
13 Language
15 Pace
14 Ending



To my eye and ear (treating the story as stand-alone) the whole is slightly "bitty" (especially the first third.) For example, the story would probably improve without the boy who seems (to me at least to be superfluous or peripheral.)

It's tough looking at the very early work of someone who I was championing for years "Should get a Nobel" but this story doesn't blow me away like some of Munro's later works.

I recognise, too, that AM writes one huge novel and that characters come and go in her stories, but it would be unfair of me to judge this short story (the first in her first book, in that way. I simply would not have know that would become Alice Munro's "way". I judge this story as I would any one-off arriving at my desk. I may well have over-marked because I know who the author is.

There's a phrase I picked up years ago from the screen-writer Stephen May at Bath Spa University. He talked about stories and scripts being Too Much About What It's About (TMAWIA). Sometimes I feel AM's work is not quite enough about what it's about. I could do with a tiny bit more "direction" I love subtle, but I don't want waste, and if I have to work hard to "get" a story that should be because the digging makes it worth it. I don't like subtlety (or obtuseness) for its own sake

Opening 13

Solid, direct, clean, "feels like a real writer" and I'm tempted to go 14 which is the classic "professional" mark. Interestingly, the top, top writers rarely blow the reader away with a stunning opener. They tend to start low-key with extreme confidence and it's unusual to read and go OMG in a few lines.

But this particular story (maybe it's more a woman's story?) doesn't make me sit up and take a breath and expect greatness, not even (at this point) "special". I just know or presume I'm in the company of a good, solid writer. When I check and see the collection was copyrighted 1968, a mere 45 years ago, well, yeah, maybe Alice M has improved over the last 4-5 DECADES, and perhaps my mark isn't too far out.
Character 14

Tricky this. Mother is barely sketched, younger brother is fairly stock. In some ways the father could, arguably, also be called stock, but the avoidance of the direct adds something to him, and especially the "other woman".

There was the classic "lives of quiet desperation" thing "throughout" and that was finely done (but the early pages felt more like warm-up to me.) Perhaps a visiting professor of literature could (retrospectively) "prove" to me that the early pages were "vital" but I think they seem relatively unimportant and could be cut. I am still working out what purpose the younger brother serves.

Dialogue-Voice 15

I stumbled occasionally with a turn of phrase and the overall voice is "unassuming". That is it just is and doesn't in itself add to the story's pleasure-giving (unlike, say Bellow's "A Silver Dish" which is plain delicious.)

And there's a problem, too, in delivering the everyday and ordinary without being too flat and ordinary on the page, but I liked the dad, who grew through the story, and liked very much the other woman (if that's what she was.) There was some subtlety in the dialogue and actions (eg T-O-W changes into nicer shoes and dress when he turns up unexpectedly)...

An aside.. So she's an ex? Probably, but is the story advantaged by being deliberately "loose" or obscure?

Plot 15


Don't read on if you're going to read this.

Ma is "always tired" and maybe they don't have a sex life. They are certainly "just surviving." The going to town stuff, while done well and "works", is almost off-theme. Yes, I know AM messes around with standard expectations, but my reading of all these shorts is not about praising or nay-saying over the great and the good, but arguing how beginners, intermediates, advanced writers (but NOT Nobel Winners) might avoid errors and produce, clearer, better fiction.

I have no doubt in my head that either the mother's promenading should be dropped or more organically inter-connected with the rest (treating the story as singular), ditto the boy. The father-daughter-"other-woman" as a single organism would IMO have produced, or could have produced a story scoring 175 rather than 125.

Theme 14

I'm not here going to explain what I mean by Theme or how we treat theme in Boot Camp. But "War" is not a theme. "Adultery" is not a theme.
Theme, for me, is the story's MEANING, what is left when the plot fades, what the story says about the world.  The story is a statement and its own "proof" at least in anecdotal-evidence terms.

If the theme is working well we are left with a lingering feeling. The story resonates with us and refuses to disappear.

In this story, a daughter meets someone (vague) who is probably the other woman, or once was the other woman, or may become (again) the other woman, enough so the daughter intuitively knows not to mention it to the mother (but, then, what about the superfluous boy?) so there's a reasonably-strong feeling but, for me it's good but not great, makes me think, but not for long. It flickers with promise rather than swells and resonates. So for me not great.

Seduction 14

Throughout this story is highly competent, or "professional" but at no point do I gasp in awe or ache that "I could never write that".

The seduction therefore works well throughout but I'm never "lost in the story" like with A Silver Dish or The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (Hemingway) or Englander's The 27th Man, or the absolutely devastating "The Ledge" by Lawrence Sargeant Hall

13 Language

Solid and competent. A few brief extras, but again, there is nothing here language-wise that makes me ooze with pleasure for the language itself.

A note on that. We have (in BC) the idea of "invisible excellence". A story doesn't "have to" be obviously lyrical, beautiful on the page, poetic, euphonic, to be good, and it's also true to say that sometimes the language can get in the way.

But sometimes sentences just feel wonderful, you want to re-read them. They are just so nice. You want to quote lines, and you never feel that the language interferes. Instead it enhances the read, it interacts. Language and meaning feed off each other. I didn't get that here. It was more solid professional "invisible excellence".

Pace 15

Could hardly fault the pace. I would cut some of the first third but that's already been penalised.

Ending 14

Tricky. The story builds very well and the second half is, IMO twice as good as the first half. I loved the stoicism, the sadness, the quiet desperation, the characters just getting on with living, but I was left with a faint dissatisfaction of unfinished business.

Perhaps I should rewrite that and say the closure was just not quite there. That may be subjective, of course, and I know it's partly a style thing, but I honestly feel that the story could be cleaner, crisper and with a closure that resonated.

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