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Critical Essay by Alice Hall Petry
SOURCE: "Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 12-27.
In the following essay, Hall Petry discusses the differences between the short stories of Walker's In Love and Trouble and her stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, asserting that the stories in the first collection are much stronger than those in the second.
There's nothing quite like a Pulitzer Prize to draw attention to a little known writer. And for Alice Walker, one of the few black writers of the mid-'60s to remain steadily productive for the two ensuing decades, the enormous success of 1982's The Color Purple has generated critical interest in a literary career that has been, even if not widely noted, at the very least worthy of note. As a poet (Once, 1968; Revolutionary Petunias, 1973) and a novelist (The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970; Meridian, 1976), Walker has always had a small but enthusiastic following, while her many essays, published in black- and feminist-oriented magazines (e.g., Essence, Ms.), have likewise kept her name current, albeit in rather limited circles. The Pulitzer Prize has changed this situation, qualitatively and perhaps permanently. Walker's name is now a household word, and a reconsideration of her literary canon, that all but inevitable Pulitzer perk, is well underway. An integral part of this phenomenon would be the reappraisal of her short fiction. Walker's two collections of short stories—1973's In Love & Trouble and 1981's You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down—are now available as attractive paperbacks and selling briskly, we are told. But a serious critical examination of her short stories—whether of particular tales, the individual volumes, or the entire canon—has yet to occur. Hence this essay. As a general over-view, it seeks to evaluate Walker's achievement as a short story writer while probing a fundamental question raised by so many reviewers of the two volumes: why is You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down so consistently less satisfying than the earlier In Love & Trouble? How has Alice Walker managed to undermine so completely that latest-and-best formula so dear to book reviewers? The answer, as we shall see, is partly a matter of conception and partly one of technique; and it suggests further that Walker's unevenness thus far as a writer of short fiction—her capacity to produce stories that are sometimes extraordinarily good, at other times startlingly weak—places her at a career watershed. At this critical juncture, Alice Walker could so refine her art as to become one of the finest writers of American short fiction in this century.
She could just as easily not.
One key to understanding the disparate natures of In Love & Trouble and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down is their epigraphs. In Love & Trouble offers two. The first epigraph, a page-long extract from The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, depicts a girl, Ahurole, who is prone to fits of sobbing and "alarmingly irrational fits of argument": "From all this her parents easily guessed that she was being unduly influenced by agwu, her personal spirit." It is not until the end of the extract that Amadi mentions casually that "Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was eight days old." In light of what follows in the collection, it is a most suitable epigraph: the women in this early volume truly are "in love and trouble" due in large measure to the roles, relationships, and self-images imposed upon them by a society which knows little and cares less about them as individuals. A marriage arranged in infancy perfectly embodies this situation; and the shock engendered by Amadi's final sentence is only heightened as one reads In Love & Trouble and comes to realize that the concubinage depicted in his novel, far from being a bizarre, pagan, foreign phenomenon, is practiced in only slightly modified form in contemporary—especiallyblack—America. In the opening story of In Love & Trouble, "Roselily," the overworked title character marries the unnamed Black Muslim from Chicago in part to give her three illegitimate children a better chance in life, and in part to obtain for herself some measure of social and economic security; but it is not really a relationship she chooses to enter freely, as is conveyed by her barely listening to her wedding ceremony—a service which triggers images not of romance but of bondage. Even ten-year-old Myop, the sole character of the vignette "The Flowers," has her childhood—and, ultimately, her attitudes towards her self and her world—shattered by the blunt social reality of lynching: as much as she would love to spend her life all alone collecting flowers, from the moment she accidentally gets her heel caught in the skull of a decapitated lynching victim it is clear that, for their own survival, black females like Myop must be part of a group that includes males. Hence the plethora of bad marriages (whether legal unions or informal liaisons) in Walker's fiction; hence also the mental anguish suffered by most of her women characters, who engage in such unladylike acts as attacking their husbands with chain saws ("Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?," IL & T) or setting fire to themselves ("Her Sweet Jerome," IL&T). Must be that pesky agwu again—a diagnosis which is symptomatic of society's refusal to face the fact that women become homicidal/suicidal, or hire rootworkers to avenge social snubs ("The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," IL&T), or lock themselves up in convents ("The Diary of an African Nun," IL&T) not because of agwus, or because they are mentally or emotionally deficient, but because they are responding to the stress of situations not of their own making. Certainly marriage offers these women nothing, and neither does religion, be it Christianity, the Black Muslim faith, or voodoo. That these traditional twin sources of comfort and stability cause nothing but "trouble" for Walker's characters might lead one to expect a decidedly depressing volume of short stories; but in fact In Love & Trouble is very upbeat. Walker manages to counterbalance the oppressive subject matter of virtually all these 13 stories by maintaining the undercurrent of hope first introduced in the volume's second epigraph, a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: "… we must hold to what is difficult; everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition." For Walker as for Rilke, opposition is not necessarily insurmountable: struggles and crises can lead to growth, to the nurturing of the self; and indeed most of the women of In Love & Trouble, sensing this, do try desperately to face their situations and deal with them—even if to do so may make them seem insane, or ignorant, or anti-social.
The sole epigraph of You Can't Keep lacks the relevance and subtlety of those of In Love & Trouble: "It is harder to kill something that is spiritually alive than it is to bring the dead back to life." Fine words from Herr Hesse, but unfortunately they don't have much to do with the fourteen stories in the collection. Few characters in You Can't Keep would qualify as "spiritually alive" according to most informed standards. We are shown a lot of self-absorbed artistes (the jazz-poet of "The Lover," the authoress of "Fame," the sculpture student of "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring"), plus rather too many equally self-absorbed would-be radicals ("Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells," "Source," "Laurel"), plus a series of women—usually referred to generically as "she"—who engage in seemingly interminable monologues on pornography, abortion, sadomasochism, and rape ("Coming Apart," "Porn," "A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?"). These women are dull. And, unlike the situation in In Love & Trouble, the blame can't really be placed on males, those perennial targets of Alice Walker's acid wit. No, the problem with the women of You Can't Keep is that they are successful. Unlike the ladies of In Love & Trouble, who seem always to be struggling, to be growing, those of You Can't Keep have all advanced to a higher plane, personally and socially: as Barbara Christian observes, there truly is a clear progression between the two volumes, from an emphasis on "trouble" to an emphasis on self-assertiveness. The women of You Can't Keep embody the product, not the process: where a mother in In Love & Trouble ("Everyday Use") can only fantasize about appearing on The Tonight Show, a woman of You Can't Keep ("Nineteen Fifty-Five") actually does it! Gracie Mae Still meets Johnny! Similarly, a dying old lady in In Love & Trouble ("The Welcome Table") is literally thrown out of a segregated white church, but in You Can't Keep ("Source") two black women get to sit in an integrated Anchorage bar! With real Eskimos! Trudier Harris is quite correct that, compared to those of In Love & Trouble, the women of You Can't Keep seem superficial, static: "Free to make choices, they find themselves free to do nothing or to drift"—and they do, with Walker apparently not realizing that in fiction (as in life) the journey, not the arrival, is what interests. Men and marriage, those two bugaboos of In Love & Trouble responsible for thwarting women's careers ("Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?"), mutilating hapless schoolgirls ("The Child Who Favored Daughter"), and advocating anti-white violence ("Her Sweet Jerome"), at least brought out the strength and imagination of the women they victimized, and the women's struggles engross the reader. In contrast, the men of You Can't Keep have declined, both as people and as fictional characters, in an inverse relationship to the women's success. Most of the volume's male characters barely materialize; the few who do appear are milquetoast, from the pudgy, racist lawyer/rapist/lover Bubba of "How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy"; to Ellis, the Jewish gigolo from Brooklyn who inexplicably dazzles the supposedly cool jazz-poet heroine of "The Lover"; to Laurel, he of the giant pink ears who (again inexplicably) dazzles the black radical journalist in "Laurel." And many of the male characters in You Can't Keep meet sorry ends—not unlike the women of In Love & Trouble: Bubba is shot to death by his schoolgirl victim; the shopworn Ellis gets dumped; poor Laurel winds up in a coma, only to emerge brain-damaged. Curiously, we don't miss them; instead, we miss the kinds of conflicts and personal/social revelations which fully-realized, reasonably healthy male characters can impart to fiction.
For men, either directly or through the children they father, are a vital part of love; and it is love, as the soap operatic title of In Love & Trouble suggests, which is most operative in that early volume. It assumes various forms. It may be the love between a parent and child, surely the most consistently positive type of love in Walker's fiction. It is her love for her dying baby which impels Rannie Toomer to chase a urinating mare in a rainstorm so as to collect "Strong Horse Tea," a folk medicine. It is her love for her daughter Dee that enables Mama to call her "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo" in acknowledgment of her new Afro identity, but her equally strong love for her other child, the passive Maggie, which enables her to resist Dee/Wangero's demand for old quilts (Maggie's wedding present) to decorate her apartment ("Everyday Use"). Then again, the love of In Love & Trouble may be between a woman and God ("The Welcome Table"); and it may even have an erotic dimension, as with the sexually-repressed black nun of "The Diary of an African Nun" who yearns for her "pale lover," Christ. And granted, the love of In Love & Trouble is often distorted, even perverse: a father lops off his daughter's breasts in part because he confuses her with his dead sister, whom he both loved and loathed ("The Child Who Favored Daughter"); a young black girl and her middle-aged French teacher, the guilt-ridden survivor of the holocaust, fantasize about each other but never interact ("We Drink the Wine in France"); a dumpy hairdresser stabs and bums her husband's Black Power pamphlets as if they were his mistress: "Trash!' she cried over and over … 'I kill you! I kill you!'" ("Her Sweet Jerome"). But in one form or another, love is the single most palpable force in In Love & Trouble. This is not the case in You Can't Keep, and the volume suffers accordingly.
What happened to love in the later collection? Consider the case of "Laurel." What does that supposedly "together" black radical narrator see in wimpy Laurel? Easy answer: his "frazzled but beautifully fitting jeans": "It occurred to me that I could not look at Laurel without wanting to make love with him." As the black radical and her mousy lover engage in "acrobatics of a sexual sort" on Atlanta's public benches, it is clear that "love" is not an issue in this story: these characters have simply fallen in lust. And as a result, the reader finds it impossible to be concerned about the ostensible theme of the story: the ways in which segregation thwarts human relationships. Who cares that segregation "was keeping us from strolling off to a clean, cheap hotel" when all they wanted was a roll in the sack? Likewise, the husband and wife of "Coming Apart," who speak almost ad nauseum on the subjects of pornography and sadomasochism, seem to feel nothing for each other: they are simply spokespersons for particular attitudes regarding contemporary sexual mores, and ample justification for Mootry-Ikerionwu's observation that characterization is definitely not Alice Walker's strong suit. Without love, without warmth, this ostensible Everywife and Everyhusband connect literally only when they are copulating; and as a result Walker's statements regarding the sexual exploitation of women, far from being enriched by the personal touch of seeing how it affects one typical marriage, collapses into a dry lecture punctuated by clumsy plugs for consciousness-raising essays by Audre Lorde, Luisah Teish, and Tracy A. Gardner. Similarly, its title notwithstanding, "The Lover" has nothing to do with love. The story's liberated heroine, having left her husband and child for a summer at an artists' colony in New England, decides—just like that—to have an affair with the lupine Ellis: "when she had first seen him she had thought … 'my lover,' and had liked, deep down inside, the illicit sound of it. She had never had a lover; he would be her first. Afterwards, she would be truly a woman of her time." Apparently this story was meant to be a study of how one woman—educated, intelligent, creative—uses her newly-liberated sensuality to explore her sense of womanhood, her marriage, her career as a jazz poet. But the one-night-stand quality of her relationship with Ellis, not to mention the inappropriateness of him as a "lover"—he likes to become sexually involved each summer "with talkative women who wrote for Esquire and the New York Times" because they "made it possible for him to be included in the proper tennis sets and swimming parties at the Colony"—makes the story's heroine seem like a fool. And that points to a major problem with You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: whereas the stories of In Love & Trouble move the reader to tears, to shock, to thought, those of the latter volume too often move him to guffaws. Too bad they weren't meant to be humorous.
One would think that a writer of Alice Walker's stature and experience would be aware that, since time began, the reduction of love to fornication has been the basis of jokes, from the ridiculous to the sublime. And whether they come across as comic caricatures (vide Laurel and Ellis), examples of bathroom humor, or zany parodies, the characters, subject matter, and writing style of most of the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down leave the reader with a she's-gotta-be-kidding attitude that effectively undercuts its very serious intentions. Consider the subject matter. In stories like "Porn," "A Letter of the Times," and "Coming Apart," Walker attacks pornography, sado-masochism, and violence against women by discussing them: it's a technique that many writers have used, but it can backfire by (1) appealing to the prurient interests of some readers, (2) imparting excitement to the forbidden topic, or (3) discussing the controversial subject matter so much that it becomes noncontroversial, unshocking; and without the "edge" of controversy, these serious topics often seem to be treated satirically—even when that is not the case. This is what happens in many stories in You Can't Keep, and the problem is compounded by the weak characters. The story "Coming Apart" is a good example: the husband dashes home from his bourgeois desk job to sit in the john and masturbate while drooling over the "Jivemates" in Jiveboy magazine. None of this shocks: we see so many references to genitalia and elimination in You Can't Keep that they seem as mundane as mailing a letter. Worse, the husband himself (called "he" to emphasize his role as Typical Male) comes across as a rather dense, naughty adolescent boy. He is so clearly suffering from a terminal case of the Peter Pan syndrome that it's impossible to believe that he'd respond with "That girl's onto something" when his equally-vapid wife (called "she") reads him yet another anti-pornography essay from her library of black feminist sociological tracts. Walker's-gotta-be-kidding, but she isn't. Likewise, the story "Fame" has a streak of crudity that leaves the reader wondering how to respond. For the most part, "Fame" consists of the ruminations of one Andrea Clement White (Walker always uses all three names), a wildly successful and universally admired writer who returns to her old college to receive her one-hundred-and-eleventh major award. She doesn't much like her former (Caucasian) colleagues or the banquet they are giving her, as her thoughts on the imminent award speech testifies:
"This little lady has done …" Would he have said "This little man …"? But of course not. No man wanted to be called little. He thought it referred to his penis. But to say "little lady" made men think of virgins. Tight, tiny pussies, and moments of rape. (Walker's ellipses)
As Andrea Clement White degenerates from Famous Author to a character type from farce—the salty-tongued granny, the sweet old lady with the dirty mind—everything Walker was trying to say about identity, success, black pride has dissipated. We keep waiting for Walker to wink, to say that "Fame" is a satire; but it isn't.
The reader's uncertainty about how to respond to You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down is not dispelled by the writing style of many of the stories. Funny thing about lust: when you confuse it with love and try to write about it passionately, the result sounds curiously like parody. The following passage from "Porn" reads like a Harlequin romance:
She was aflame with desire for him.
On those evenings when all the children [from the respective previous marriages] were with their other parents, he would arrive at the apartment at seven. They would walk hand in hand to a Chinese restaurant a mile away. They would laugh and drink and eat and touch hands and knees over and under the table. They would come home. Smoke a joint. He would put music on. She would run water in the tub with lots of bubbles. In the bath they would lick and suck each other, in blissful delight. They would admire the rich candle glow on their wet, delectably earth-toned skins. Sniff the incense—the odor of sandal and redwood. He would carry her in to bed.
Music. Emotion. Sensation. Presence.
Satisfaction like rivers
flowing and silver.
Except for the use of controlled substances and the licking and sucking, this is pure Barbara Cartland. Likewise, the narrator's passion for Laurel (in the story of the same name) makes one blush—over the writing: "I thought of his musical speech and his scent of apples and May wine with varying degrees of regret and tenderness"; their "week of passion" had been "magical, memorable, but far too brief."
One might be inclined to excuse these examples on the grounds that love (or lust, or whatever) tends naturally towards purple prose. Unfortunately, however, similar excesses undermine You Can't Keep even when the characters' hormones are in check. Here is Andrea Clement White once again, musing on her professional achievements while awaiting the award at her banquet:
If she was famous, she wondered fretfully …, why didn't she feel famous? She had made money … Lots of money. Thousands upon thousands of dollars. She had seen her work accepted around the world, welcomed even, which was more than she'd ever dreamed possible for it. And yet—there remained an emptiness, no, an ache, which told her she had not achieved what she had set out to achieve.
The theme is stale; worse, the writing itself is trite, clichéd; and frankly one wonders how anyone with so unoriginal a mind could be receiving her one hundred and eleventh major award. The same triteness mars "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring," in which Sarah Davis, a black scholarship student at northern Cresselton College, is "immersed in Camusian philosophy, versed in many languages" and the close personal friend of the small-eyed, milky-legged, dirty-necked blonde daughter of "one of the richest men in the world." Sarah is BWOC at Cresselton: "She was popular"; "Her friends beamed love and envy upon her"; her white tennis partners think that she walks "'Like a gazelle.'" There is a momentary suggestion that Sarah takes her situation and her classmates with a grain of salt ("She was interesting, 'beautiful,' only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came"), but this theme and tone are quickly abandoned as the tale lapses into a curiously un-black reworking of the you-can't-go-home-again concept. If irony is what Walker has in mind, it certainly doesn't come through; and the over-all impression one gets from "A Sudden Trip" is that, like her 1973 biography of Langston Hughes, this is an earnest story intended for adolescent readers who appreciate simplistic themes, characters, and writing styles.
The mature reader's uncertainty over how to respond to "A Sudden Trip" takes on a new wrinkle when one considers that Sarah Davis's prototype was another black scholarship student from rural Georgia attending an exclusive northern college: Alice Walker. The least effective, most seemingly comic heroines in Walker's short fiction were inspired by Walker herself. These predominate in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.
Walker has never denied that there are some autobiographical dimensions to her stories. When "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" was first published in Ms. magazine, Walker included a disclaimer that "Luna and Freddie Pye are composite characters, and their names are made up. This is a fictionalized account suggested by a number of real events"; and John O'Brien's 1973 interview with Walker offers further details. Similarly, Walker in a 1981 interview with Kristin Brewer discusses the autobiographical basis of her earliest story, 1967's "To Hell with Dying" (IL&T). Anyone familiar with Walker's personal life will see the significance of the references to Sarah Lawrence, the doorless first apartment in New York, and the job at the Welfare Department in "Advancing Luna" (YCK); or the stay at a New England artists' colony in "The Lover" (YCK); or the marriage to a New York Jew, the baby girl, the novel, and the house in the segregated South in "Laurel" (YCK). There is nothing inherently wrong with using oneself as the prototype for a story's character; the problem is that the writer tends, of course, to present his fictionalized self in the most flattering—even fantastic—light possible; and too readily that self assumes a larger role in the story than may be warranted by the exigencies of plot and characterization. Consider "Advancing Luna," in which the speaker—who is "difficult to distinguish from Walker herself"—takes over the story like kudzu. We really don't need to hear all about her ex-boyfriends, her getting "high on wine and grass" with a Gene Autry lookalike who paints teeth on fruit, or her adventures in glamorous Africa ("I was taken on rides down the Nile as a matter of course"). Her palpable self-absorption and self-congratulation draw the story's focus away from its titular heroine, poor Luna—the selfless victim of interracial rape who ostensibly is an adoring friend and confidante of the narrator. The reader's immediate response (after confusion) is that the story is really quite funny—and with that response, all of Walker's serious commentary on rape, miscegenation, and segregation have dissipated. We see the same inadvertently comic, Walker-inspired heroine in "Laurel" and "The Lover." In the latter, the jazz poet "had reached the point of being generally pleased with herself," and no wonder. What with her "carefully selected tall sandals and her naturally tall hair, which stood in an elegant black afro with exactly seven strands of silver hair," and her "creamy brown" things and "curvaceous and strong legs," she is able to stop meals the way other women stop traffic: "If she came late to the dining room and stood in the doorway a moment longer than necessary—looking about for a place to sit after she had her tray—for that moment the noise from the cutlery already in use was still." (Really, who could blame Ellis for wanting her so?) If only there were an element of self-mockery in "The Lover"; if only Walker were being ironic in "A Sudden Trip"; if only she were lampooning the shopworn notion of the successful but unsatisfied celebrity in "Fame"; if only she were parodying romantic writing styles (and thereby puncturing those "love affairs" undertaken purely to prove one's "sexual liberation") in stories like "Porn," "Laurel," and "The Lover." But there is absolutely nothing in Alice Walker's interviews, nothing in her many personal essays, nothing in her friends' and colleagues' reviews of her books, nothing anywhere to suggest that she is being anything but dead serious in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.
What is especially unfortunate about the unintentional humor of You Can't Keep is that Walker is quite capable of handling her material very effectively; in several stories, for example, she excels at narrative technique. Consider "How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy" (YCK). At first glance, the narrative voice seems untenable: how is it that a poor little black girl from Poultry Street writes such perfect English? (Placed entirely in quotation marks, the story is "written" by her.) We learn the answer at the end of the story: having murdered Bubba, the white lawyer who became her lover after raping her, the narrator/confessor stole all the money from his office safe and used it to finance her college education. Hence her flawless English, and the irony of her "confession": there is no repentance here, and no reader can blame her. The point of view also is consistent and effective. The same cannot be said of the long and rambling "Source," which unfortunately occupies the second most prominent position in You Can't Keep—the very end. It has no identifiable point of view, and suffers accordingly. "Source" would have been far more effective had Walker utilized what has been identified as her "ruminativestyle": "a meandering yet disciplined meditation." It is seen in those stories (first-person or otherwise) which essentially record one character's impressions or thoughts, such as "Fame" (YCK), "Roselily" (IL&T), and "The Diary of an African Nun" (IL&T). The sometimes staccato, sometimes discursive third-person narration of "Roselily"—"She feels old. Yoked."—is reminiscent of E.A. Robinson's account of another dubious love affair, "Eros Turannos" ("She fears him, and will always ask / What fated her to choose him"). Likewise, the barely-restrained first-person narration of "The Diary of an African Nun" is very evocative of Li Po's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," and it comes as no surprise that Walker attributes her fondness for short literary forms to the Oriental poetry she has loved since college. Also effective is the shifting point of view: the black father's and black daughter's disparate attitudes towards her affair with a married white man is conveyed by the alternating perspectives of "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (IL&T). This rhythmic technique is usually identified as cinematic, but it also owes much to the blues, as Walker herself is well aware.
This blues quality in the narrative points to the bases of several of her best stories: the oral tradition. Whereas stories based on Walker's own experiences tend, as noted, to be overwritten and hence inadvertently comic, her most memorable tales are often inspired by incidents which were told to her—be they actual accounts (e.g., "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff" [IL&T] depicts her mother's rebuff by a white woman while trying to obtain government food during the Depression) or black folk tales (e.g., "Strong Horse Tea"). A particularly striking example is "The Welcome Table" (IL&T): having been ejected bodily from an all-white church, an old black lady meets Christ on a local road, walks and talks with him, and then is found frozen to death, with eyewitnesses left wondering why she had been walking down that cold road all alone, talking to herself. It could be right out of Stith Thompson. The importance of the oral tradition in Walker's stories is further evident in direct addresses to the reader ("you know how sick [my husband] makes me now when he grins'" ["Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?," IL&T]) and parenthetical asides ("I scrooched down as small as I could at the corner of Tante Rosie's table, smiling at her so she wouldn't feel embarrassed or afraid" ["The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," IL&T]). The oral quality of Walker's stories is as old as folk tales, ballads, and slave narratives, and as new as Joan Didion, who shares with Walker a flair for using insane or criminal female narrators: compare Maria in Play It as It Lays with the would-be chain saw murderess in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?" (IL&T) or the coolly-detached killer of "How Did I Get Away with Killing …" (YCK). Curiously, when the teller of the tale is an emotionally-stable omniscient narrator, the oral tale techniques tends to backfire. For example, the narrator's remark at the opening of "Elethia" (YCK)—"A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia's life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes"—sounds regrettably like a voice-over by John-Boy Walton.
Clearly the oral tradition is a mixed blessing for Walker's fiction; but it is a particular liability when, as in so many folk tales and ballads, there is a paucity of exposition. Consider "Entertaining God" (IL&T), in which a little boy worships a gorilla he has stolen from the Bronx Zoo. The story would make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, and where a lack of preliminary information tends to draw the reader into O'Connor's novel, it alienates him in "Entertaining God": the story comes across as a disjointed, fragmentary, aborted novella. Another Wise Blood-inspired story, "Elethia" (in which a character with a habit of lurking about museums steals a mummy which proves to be a stuffed black man), does not fare much better. Similarly, as Chester J. Fontenot points out, "The Diary of an African Nun" (IL&T), although "only six pages in length,… contains material for a novella." Expanded to that length, "The Diary" could take an honorable place alongside another first-person account by a disenchanted nun, The Nun's Story—assuming, of course, that Walker did not turn it into a series of socioeconomic lectures disguised as chatty personal letters as she did with African missionary Nettie's letters in The Color Purple. Lack of exposition can be extreme in Walker's short stories. Consider this extract from "Porn" (YCK): "They met. Liked each other. Wrote five or six letters over the next seven years. Married other people. Had children. Lived in different cities. Divorced. Met again to discover they now shared a city and lived barely three miles apart." How is the reader to respond to this? Is Walker making a statement about the predictability, the lamentable sameness of the lives lived in the ostensibly individuality-minded 1970s? Or is she just disinclined to write out the details? The more one reads You Can't Keep, the more one tends (albeit reluctantly) towards the latter.
Walker's disinclination for exposition, and the concomitant impression that many of her stories are outlines or fragments of longer works, is particularly evident in a technique which mars even her strongest efforts; a marked preference for "telling" over "showing." This often takes the form of summaries littered with adjectives. In "Advancing Luna" (YCK), for example, the narrator waxes nostalgic over her life with Luna in New York: "our relationship, always marked by mutual respect, evolved into a warm and comfortable friendship which provided a stability and comfort we both needed at that time." But since, as noted earlier, the narrator comes across as vapid and self-absorbed, and since the only impressions she provides of Luna are rife with contempt for this greasy-haired, Clearasil-daubed, poor-little-rich-white-girl from Cleveland, the narrator's paean to their mutual warmth and friendship sounds ridiculous. No wonder critic Katha Pollitt stated outright that she "never believed for a minute" that the narrator and Luna were close friends. Even more unfortunate is Walker's habit of telling the reader what the story is about, of making sure that he doesn't overlook a single theme. For example, in "The Abortion" (YCK), the heroine Imani, who is just getting over a traumatic abortion, attends the memorial service of a local girl, Holly Monroe, who had been shot to death while returning home from her high school graduation. Lest we miss the point, Walker spells it out for us: "every black girl of a certain vulnerable age was Holly Monroe. And an even deeper truth was that Holly Monroe was herself [i.e., Imani]. Herself shot down, aborted on the eve of becoming herself." Similarly transparent, here is one of the last remarks in the story "Source" (YCK). It is spoken by Irene, the former teacher in a federally-funded adult education program, to her ex-hippie friend, Anastasia/Tranquility: "'I was looking toward "government" for help; you were looking to Source [a California guru]. In both cases, it was the wrong direction—any direction that is away from ourselves is the wrong direction.'" The irony of their parallel situations is quite clear without having Irene articulate her epiphany in an Anchorage bar. Even at the level of charactonyms, Walker "tells" things to her reader. We've already noted the over-used "he"/"she" device for underscoring sex roles, but even personal names are pressed into service. For example, any reasonably perceptive reader of the vignette "The Flowers" (IL&T) will quickly understand the story's theme: that one first experiences reality in all its harshness while far from home, physically and/or experientially; one's immediate surroundings are comparatively "innocent." The reader would pick up on the innocence of nearsightedness even if the main character, ten-year-old Myop, hadn't been named after myopia. Likewise, "The Child Who Favored Daughter" is actually marred by having the father kill his daughter because he confuses her with his dead sister named "Daughter." The hints of incest, the unclear cross-generational identities, and the murky Freudian undercurrents are sufficiently obvious without the daughter/Daughter element: it begins to smack of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine after just a few pages. Alice Walker's preference for telling over showing suggests a mistrust of her readers, or her texts, or both.
One might reasonably ask how a professional writer with twenty years' experience could seem so unsure about her materials and/or her audience, could have such uneven judgment regarding fictional technique, could seem so strained or defensive in her short stories. Part of the answer may be that she is a cross-generic writer. Leslie Stephen felt that newspaper writing was lethal for a fiction writer, and perhaps the same may be said for journalistic writing—especially when the magazine's target readership is a special interest group. Whatever the case, as a short story writer Alice Walker seems to alternate between (1) presenting editorials as fiction, (2) experimenting with the short story as a recognized literary form, and (3) rather self-consciously writing "conventional" short stories. At best, the results are mixed.
The magazine editorials which masquerade as short stories are among Walker's least successful efforts. The classic example of this is "Coming Apart" (YCK). It began as the introduction to a chapter on violence against third world women in Take Back the Night; then, with the title of "A Fable," it ended up in Ms. magazine, for which Walker happened to be a contributing editor; and now, unrevised, it is being marketed as a short story in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. The volume contains several stories which occupy this No Man's Land between journalism and fiction: "Advancing Luna," "Porn," "A Letter of the Times"—and, somewhat less transparently, "Elethia," "Petunias," and "Source"—all exist so that Walker (or a mouthpiece character) can make some statement about pornography, racism, politics, sado-masochism, the Search for Self, whatever. Perhaps these "stories" have some impact when read in isolation, months apart, in a magazine such as Ms.; but when packaged as a collection of short stories they are predictable and pedantic. The omniscient narrators and mouthpiece characters rarely get off their soap-boxes; too often they resort to lecturing other characters or the reader. Consider this appraisal of the husband in "Coming Apart": "What he has refused to see … is that where white women are depicted in pornography as 'objects,' black women are depicted as animals. Where white women are depicted at least as human beings, black women are depicted as shit." The insistence upon the points Walker is trying to make would be appropriate for editorials or magazine essays, but it doesn't wash in a short story.
Those stories in which Walker attempts to experiment with what is commonly held to be "the short story" are a bit stronger, although they often have that fragmentary, unpolished quality alluded to earlier. Frequently the experimental pieces are very short: "Petunias" (YCK) is a one-page diary entry by a woman blown up by her Vietnam veteran son; it is entirely in italics, as are "The Flowers" (IL&T) and "Elethia" (YCK). As Mel Watkins notes in the New York Times Book Review, Alice Walker's shorter pieces tend to be "thin as fiction," and he is probably correct to classify them as that short story offshoot, "prose poems." Longer pieces also can be experimental. For example, "Roselily" (IL&T) utilizes a point/counterpoint format, alternating fragments of the wedding ceremony with the thoughts of the bride: the phrase "to join this man and this woman" triggers "She thinks of ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion." The irony is as heavy-handed as the imagery, but the device does work in this story. Experimentation with structure just as often fails, however. "Entertaining God" (IL&T) offers three discrete cinematic scenes—one of the boy and the gorilla, another (evidently a flashback) of his father, and a third of his mother, a librarian turned radical poet; but the scenes never really connect. Perhaps it was meant to be what Walker has termed (in reference to Meridian) a "crazy quilt story," but if so the quilting pieces never do form a pattern. The same quality of uncertainty and incompletion is evident in "Advancing Luna," which offers four—count 'em, four—separate endings with such pretentious titles as "Afterwords, Afterwards, Second Thoughts," "Discarded Notes," and "Imaginary Knowledge." Apparently meant to be thought-provoking, instead they suggest that Walker is indecisive about why she even wrote the story—or, what is worse, is resorting to experimentation as an end in itself.
In light of all this, one might expect Walker's more "conventional" stories to be uniformly stronger than the essay/story hybrids or the experimental efforts, but such is not always the case. All too often, conventionality brings out the banal, the sentimental, and the contrived in Alice Walker. Not surprisingly, two of her earliest stories—"To Hell with Dying" (IL&T) and "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring" (YCK)—are very conventional in terms of structure, characterization, and action. In each, a young woman returns to her rural Southern home from college up North at the death of an elderly loved one. Old Mr. Sweet in "To Hell with Dying" is a sort of dipsomaniac Uncle Remus, wrinkled and white-haired, with the obligatory whiskers, a nightshirt redolent of liniment, and a fondness for singing "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the narrator, who helps to "revive" him during his periodic fake deathbed scenes. In short, he is very much the sentimentalized "old darky" character that Walker challenged so vigorously in "Elethia," that O'Connoresque tale of the grinning, stuffed Uncle Albert in the white man's restaurant window. Sarah Davis, the heroine of the equally sentimental "A Sudden Trip," summarizes what she learned by attending her estranged father's funeral: "'sometimes you can want something a whole lot, only to find out later that it wasn't what you needed at all.'" Is it any wonder that black writer Ishmael Reed has called Walker "'the colored Norman Rockwell'"?
Her sentimental streak has been noted by many of her commentators (Jerry H. Bryant admits to a lump in his throat), and Walker herself acknowledges she is "nostalgic for the solidarity and sharing a modest existence can sometimes bring." Perhaps it does have a place in some of the stories from early in her career. But it seems frankly incongruous in the work of a woman who prides herself on being a hard-hitting realist, and it poses particular problems in her handling of the stories' endings. The potentially incisive "Fame" is all but ruined when the tough-as-nails Andrea Clement White melts at hearing a little black girl sing a slave song. Likewise, "The Lover" (YCK) ends with the jazz poet heroine in a reverie: she "lay in bed next day dreaming of all the faraway countries, daring adventures, passionate lovers still to be found." Perhaps in part to avoid these final lapses into sentimentality, Walker sometimes doesn't "end" her stories: she leaves them "open." It can be a very effective technique in stories such as "Strong Horse Tea" (IL&T) or "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (IL&T), where the pain is underscored by the lack—indeed, the impossibility—of resolution in the character's situations. Probably Walker's strongest non-sentimental endings belong to three of the most conventional stories: "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff" (IL&T), "Nineteen Fifty-Five" (YCK), and "Source" (YCK). In "The Revenge," Mrs. Sarah Marie Sadler Holley, fearing that a black rootworker will be able to use them in spells against her, stores her feces "in barrels and plastic bags in the upstairs closets" rather than trust "the earthen secrecy of the water mains." Her psychotic behavior turns her husband against her, and she lets herself die in a chilling dénouement that would do Miss Emily Grangerford proud. Walker has used the psychology of guilt and fear in lieu of the Jesus-fixed-her-but-good attitude held by Hannah's prototype, Walker's mother, and the refusal to sentimentalize enhances the story. Likewise, "Nineteen Fifty-Five," a strong story with which to open You Can't Keep but atypical of the volume, is a sort of docudrama tracing the career of Elvis Presley (Traynor) through the eyes of blues great Big Mama Thornton (Gracie Mae Still). Still never does understand this sleepy-eyed white man or his alien world, and her reaction to seeing his funeral on television—"One day this is going to be a pitiful country, I thought"—is the perfect conclusion to the story. No sentiment, no commentary. Finally, "Source" offers a surprisingly non-sentimental ending to an insistently nostalgia-soaked story. Whether they are grooving in a Marin County commune with Peace, Calm, and Bliss (didn't nostalgia for the '60s end with Easy Rider?) or getting it together in the '70s in an Anchorage bar (sort of "The Big Chill Goes Alaskan"), the story of Irene and Anastasia/Tranquility has little for anyone. But the ending of the story—that is, after the now-reconciled heroines have hugged "knee against knee, thigh against thigh, breast against breast, neck nestled against neck"—is quite provocative: a group of tourists, peering through the mists, believe they are seeing Mt. McKinley: "They were not. It was yet another, nearer, mountain's very large feet, its massive ankles wreathed in clouds, that they took such pleasure in." Suggestive without being saccharine, and ironic without that "tinge of cynicism" which undercuts so many of Walker's endings, it is an ideal fade-out conclusion to a collection that, with varying degrees of success, seeks to pose questions, to raise issues, to offer no pat answers.
The strengths and weaknesses of In Love & Trouble and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down offer little clue as to the direction Alice Walker will take as a writer of short fiction in years to come. Surely she will continue to write short stones: Walker personally believes that women are best suited to fiction of limited scope—David Bradley points out that this is "the kind of sexist comment a male critic would be pilloried for making"—and she feels further that, as her career progresses, her writing has been "always moving toward more and more clarity and directness." The often fragmentary and rambling tales of You Can't Keep published eight years after the moving and tightly constructed In Love & Trouble, would suggest that this is not the case. At this point in her career as a short story writer, one wishes that Walker would acknowledge the validity of Katha Pollitt's appraisal of You Can't Keep: "Only the most coolly abstract and rigorously intellectual writer" can achieve what Walker attempts in this recent volume, but unfortunately that is not what she is like: "As a storyteller she is impassioned, sprawling, emotional, lushly evocative, steeped in place, in memory, in the compelling power of narrative itself. A lavishly gifted writer, in other words—but not of this sort of book." What Alice Walker needs is to take a step backward: to return to the folk tale formats, the painful exploration of interpersonal relationships, the naturally graceful style that made her earlier collection of short stories, the durable In Love & Trouble, so very fine. Touch base, lady.
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