Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The thinking-dreaming-recall-chant of Allan Gurganus

D. G. Myers wrote a review of Local Souls, the new Allan Gurganus book, that was so convincing I actually read the book, a rare thing for new American books, although less rare, I see as I check my notes, for books recommended by Myers (e.g., Christopher Beha, Dana Spiotta, Jean Thompson).  Please see Myers for a proper review.  I just want to make some notes.

Local Souls contains three novellas set in the same little North Carolina town.  The main thing they have in common, the main virtue of the book, is voice, each narrator’s exuberant, excessive blare of words:

Honestly, if it had been left to us, all Mabrys would yet sit fly-swatting on some hot rental porch midfield.  We three would still be right out there rocking tonight, comforted by roosting chickens’ late-day placement squabbling, studying someone else’s tobacco acreage.  Such land’s main beauty was the horizon where – for our inexpensive sidelined entertainment – an entire sun set nightly.  (245)

This almost counts as plain style for Gurganus.  No italics, no puns.  But “an entire sun” – the book is stuffed with that kind of thing.  It can be too much; it can be great.

I am always attracted to first person narration that identifies what it is – writing, speech, or what?  Authors have done so many clever things with the idea.  But frankly most first person narration is meant to be an amalgam of thought, speech, and wordlessness turned into words unknown outside of fiction.  No one speaks like that, or writes like that, or thinks like that, not for as long as it takes to tell this story, but the first person convention is so useful and easy to accept that we happily ignore the logistics.  Gurganus perfectly names the mode:

During my whole life I’ve never said so much at once as in this thinking-dreaming-recall-chant, last thing.  (338)

In context, as that narrator’s story nears its end, this is even almost logical – all is made clear – but that label should be used more generally.  “Thinking-dreaming-recall-chant” covers a lot of first person fiction.

Myers puts Gurganus in what is now a long tradition of small town fiction following Sherwood Anderson.  You might think from the title that Gurganus is also invoking Dead Souls.  in some small sense.  The protagonist of the first novella, “Fear Not,” loves Chekhov and gets a degree in Russian literature.  “Given her unsettled girlhood, the Russians’ sense of Fate had spoken to her early” (51), but her unsettling begins with witnessing her father’s decapitation by motorboat engine and gets worse from there.  That’s Southern Gothic, not Chekhov (“eventfulness in fiction did not bother her”).

Now, here’s a stretch.  The hilarious second novella is titled “Saints Have Mothers,” narrated by the mother of the saint.  The final story is also about a saint, a too-perfect town doctor.  Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) is a collection of three novellas about saints.  I had not thought of that first heroine as any kind of saint, but now I wonder.  There is scene where she is costumed as angel, shouting “Fear not”!  There are scenes where she receives premonitory visions.  Maybe not such a stretch.

Myers says the last story, “Decoy,” is “worth the price of the entire collection.”  I had planned to write about that one, not this other stuff.  It is about the destructive power of art.  Duck decoys, in this case.  Never make art, whatever you do.

Thanks for the tip, Prof. Myers.


  1. You make me want to read the book with that almost last paragraph about "Decoy." Perhaps I will see if my library has the book just for that story.

  2. That is a good idea, to read the stories in reverse. If the voice of "Decoy" catches you, work backwards.

    "Decoy" has some interesting ideas about how craft turns into art, and about why art has value, or does not, all kind of slipped behind a story about a man and his father and his substitute father, and another story about belonging to a community.