I recently stumbled onto a book called My Belief by Leo Tolstoy, after first considering to flip through the Bible to see what solution it could offer for the political and social absurdities happening these days (and most other days for that matter, but something seems especially out of whack right now).
So I googled something about turning the other cheek and non-violent resistance, and there was a short mention of this Russian author who I mainly connected with some Bible-sized book about peace and war, or perhaps the other way around, so it seemed as a good compromise.
Apparently it is a bit of a paradox that Christian believers, from common people to politicians and even priests, have chosen to more or less, or much less than more, ignore the 6th commandment, which happened to be put forward by the very person (or God, or son of God) who they stake their entire faith on. “Thou Shalt not Kill”, or more correctly translated: “Resist not evil”.
And that made me think that there could be something interesting here, something worth looking into, since I myself happen to be a Christian, or at least a believer in the suggestions from this holy, or not-so-holy, philosopher, put out there to help create a world with much more peace than war, or perhaps no war at all.
So I started reading this book, and I don’t mean the Bible, nor the Bible-sized novel, but the one where Tolstoy let us know why it is pretty weird that so-called holy men, dressed in cloaks and long beards, have decided that killing Thy Enemy is fine, as long as you are very sure it is actually an enemy, and preferably, proven an evil one. Ideally it should be done in self defense, or at least in pre-emptive self defense, that has lead to some rather interesting historical consequences with legalised atrocities and subtle genocides.
Yes, I can thank Donald Trump for my new-won interest in some kind of faith and the writing of the Russian genius from the end of the 19th century. And thanks to Donald, I actually felt the motivation to read on in the book that would normally have lulled me to sleep. Obviously he is not the first politician to break a few of the commandments, or pretty much all of them (and tweaking a few of rules from the Bill of Rights at the same time), but I find it really wonderful how he does it so directly and openly. We shall not only kill our enemy… We shall bomb the hell out of ‘em!
Anyway… to make a long story short (since this is about short stories and not long kind), I read through all the arguments put forward by Tolstoy, and found it hard not to agree that both the protectors of my believes (priests, clerks, the Pope and so forth) and the exploiters of my believes (pretty much every politician who ever lived, plus anyone preaching that market power is the answer to all of life’s problems), have decided among themselves that the 6th commandment is some anarchistic BS that would never work in practice. “Thou Shalt not Kill”, becomes “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” and “Turning the other cheek”, becomes “Three strikes and You’re out!”
At this point (and probably a bit earlier) you would have began to question what on earth all this has this to do with George Saunders and the Power of the Short Form, which this rambling article has promised to investigate.
Another way to start this article could of course have been to announce that George Saunders became the first winner of UK’s newly established Folio prize for his stories collection Tenth of December, giving further evidence that the short story form is getting more attention in the literary world.
And I could have written quite a lot about this interesting development. Especially because I happen to be a pretty big fan of short story writing and I always thought that there was too little attention given to it. I could also have enjoyed looking into the background of this new award, created by people in the industry who felt frustrated by the development of the Man Booker.
But then I remembered that I am pretty much unqualified for such discussions and that I don’t really have such strong opinions about this matter anyway. Except perhaps, that I would like to see the more daring writers like Saunders get more attention, so that there would be fewer toothless works of fiction out there to lull us further into our Soma-like state of mind (“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; non of their defects” Yeah!)
So instead I tried to remember which of his short stories I had heard on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, where I get most of my literary analysis injections. And then I recalled a very short, short story called “Adams”, that coincidentally happens to be an allegory about our political establishment’s tendency to completely forget that there exists a 6th commandment, and how quickly the escalation of violence occurs when we choose to ignore it. It is also a masterful example of the use of oral story telling technique in the short form, that has the power to engage the reader from the first sentence and place him or her inside the text instead of looking at the story from the outside. In the notes on the bottom of the page, you will find a link to the podcast reading.
“Adams” is a story by George Saunders that was published in 2004, some one and half year after the start of the Iraq war and 8 months after USA so proudly captured the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein. In the podcast (where one author reads aloud a short story by another author and then discusses it with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman) they conclude that this story is obviously an allegory for the US pre-emptive strikes on Iraq. The first person narrator is named Roger and the not-so-good-guy who is violated, is named Adams. It does not take much imagination to rearrange those names into a couple of country leaders at the time.
It is a fast-moving and seemingly simple story, where the author guides us through the psychological escalation of one man feeling threatened by his neighbor, who he one day finds standing in his kitchen in his underwear and looking in the direction of his kids’ bedrooms. Within about 10 minutes reading time we have been moved through perceived threat, to response, to anger, paranoia, and pre-emptied action. What starts with a ‘wonk’ to the head, ends with Roger beating up the Adams’ and possibly lightning up their house in flames to save himself, his family and their “perfect” way of life.
“Adams” is a hilarious, but worrying, tale illuminating the serious topic of violence, both domestic and on a large scale, disguised as a suburban neighbor feud. It uses humor and direct, vocal language, with cartoon-like expressions like “Wonk”, to draw us in and make it impossible for us not to place ourselves in the shoes of the narrator.
In their discussions after the reading, Ferris and Treisman agree that this is first and foremost a story, and that the allegory could not be justified if it did not work as one. It begins with a typical trait of an engaging short story, where the reader is immediately placed into a scene without introduction or explanation how the narrator got there. Saunders’ first sentence is especially interesting because it starts straight into a dialog, where the narrator tells us that he has found the neighbor in his underwear facing his kid’s bedroom “so naturally he wonks him on the head”. It then spirals down without pausing into violence concealed in understated language. Roger tells us that he continues to “wonk” Adam before he pushes him down the stairs and chases him out. Later he goes over to Adam’s house, who is still dressed in his underwear, and continues to “wonk” him, while pushing away his wife and kids who come to his defense. We might think of the TV images of Saddam Hussein caught in his white briefs, or his weak army that was so easily fended off.
The following day, he writes a leaflet about what Adams has done (there is an obvious hint of pedophilia) and spreads it around the neighborhood. He then breaks into his house and steals potential weapons, including the rifle, the butcher knives, and the butter knives (“that could be sharpened”). After some paranoid considerations, he goes back in to take away the paints, thinners and other chemicals, that might be used to hurt his family in some way. This is when Adams family arrives home and it ends up with a brawl where Roger beats up everybody and flees up the basement stairs, as he lights the bag of chemicals on fire. The story ends here and we are left to conclude whether or not he locked the door behind him and let the house burn down with poor Adam, and his wife and teenage kids inside.
“Adams” is an excellent example of how great short story writers can spring complex themes with powerful messages (often disguised in simple scenes and settings) in only a few pages. A short story like this will stay with me for weeks and even months, and often have a bigger effect than a well-written novel. When I started reading Tolstoy’s “My Belief”, it fueled my anger against a hypocritical political establishment who preaches the importance of Christian values with the one hand, while breaking all its moral rules with the other. When reading “Adams”, in contrast, I laughed out loud several times, and only after I finished I started contemplating the moral of the story.
Personally I would have liked to “wonk” Donald Trump in the head (multiple times in fact, and quite possibly be tempted to bring his tower down with him inside). I can easily imagine that there are a lot of people around the world in much worse situation than me, who dream of doing this on a much larger scale. But it would do us no good. Fighting evil will not stop evil, just loop it around and warping it into another form.
As Tolstoy finds out, there is a strange misapprehension that Christ’s teaching (one of the consequences of which is non-resistance to evil) is of no use for our industrial age:
“… as if the existence of this industrial age are a sacred fact which ought not to and can not be changed. It is just as though drunkards when advised how they could be brought to habits of sobriety should answer that the advice is incompatible with their habit of taking alcohol.”
Resist not evil is a slow and painful path to follow (much like the process of becoming a recognised and influencing short story author) and you are not likely to experience any big wins during your lifetime, only small personal victories, that will hopefully have an effect on someone you know, who will also be convinced that this is the only way to fundamentally change injustice for future generations.
Thanks for reading this first post of my column “The Power of the Short form”. Next time I will be digging a bit deeper into the various elements found in short story writing and discuss some more inspiring examples heard on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.
Link to the free to listen to New Yorker Podcast and the Adams story: http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/joshua-ferris-reads-george-saunders
A few quotes from the podcast discussion:
Treisman: “I think that one way he gets us to care is simply by using very direct voices. We can’t stand outside and say that the man goes there and does that and we don’t like that. We actually become that man. We are “wonking” this man in the back of his head. And that is maybe a way he battles our resistance or breaks us down.”
Ferris: “This would be a story very difficult to tell in a third person narrative and also without his decision to utilise such words as “Wonk.” If it got any closer to the violence that is actually happening, we would be very far away from Roger and his defence of his children would become less understandable.”
Treisman: “Adams does not respond as an innocent man. So we cannot trust him, nor Roger. There are no likeable characters … I guess the idea is that there is one sane consciousness, the authorial one, the one who created and is controlling the first person narrator, and that’s where we might look for likability.”
Other fiction works by George Saunders:
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)
Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000) (novella)
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)
In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)
Tenth of December: Stories (2013) (short stories)
A Two-Minute Note to the Future (2014) (essay on brown paper Chipotle bag)
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)
Jonathan Swift. Donald Barthelme. Franz Kafka.