Chapter 3 – Do You LIke Philip Roth’s Books?

The historical perspective was a perfect lead-in to Bharti Mukerjee’s stories in The Middleman and Other Stories where we looked at the different roles the characters played in different circumstances – an exploration of self and its relationship to culture. And later, in Aleksander Hemon’s writings we saw “self” at times of war.

With Hemon, we also had a taste of his experimental techniques like the juxtaposition of irrelevant footnotes against a story line. I liked the idea of using experimental techniques  to show reality versus nonreality and the different use of metaphors and similes in All About Bruno. There were a lot of people in the class that didn’t like the book I think mainly because it was experimental but I think that the techniques used made it easier to read about war, kind of removed us from the over-the-top brutality of it. It showed us yet another choice that we could make between using traditional story-telling techniques and making up our own techniques.

Another great lesson that we learned while we were reading Hemon was that in order to understand what an author had done, we needed to read their work more than once. More sophisticated works could provide us with different insights each time they were read when there were multiple layers of meaning. This did make sense when we thought about our favorite books that we like to read over and over again.

Dream Date by Jean McGarry was the next book we studied. My favorite story in this collection was “The Secret of His Sleep.” The first line of the story says that George was asleep for the first forty years of his life and is dealt with in a realistic fashion but is meant to be symbolic. The idea of making the symbolic real was great. McGarry also created an interesting structure for the story by organizing it into four parts with four corresponding questions and answers. That was another technique that I wanted to try in one of my own stories. The way that she used dialogue in “Better than Real” was interesting too. She didn’t use any quotes in the story. All of the dialogue was indirect from the point of view of the main character.

While we were going through literature in this class, I was also taking Fiction Techniques. I read all of the different articles or books that were mentioned as we went along and my mind was starting to fit it all together. My fiction advisor had told me that the two core courses complimented each other. Although they seemed very separate to me at first, I found that I was looking for how each author used the techniques we were discussing in my other class when I read and reread our literature assignments.

I focused the short papers that were required for my literature class on not only the issues that had come up in our discussions but also the reading I’d been doing on my own. After seeing Shklovsky referenced in David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, I wrote one of my papers about his ideas. The knowledge and firsthand experience that I was gaining in my Fiction Techniques class did make it a richer experience for me.

We read Tim Parrish’s Red Stick Men that makes setting so important before we moved on to our last author of the semester, Philip Roth. His book, Operation Shylock was an interesting layering of structures that I found very stimulating. I’d never really thought I was much of an academic before but I was really intrigued by the way Roth put the book together and I liked his writing. The vast majority of my class didn’t like the book and said it was too confusing. As I remember, the story was within another story, within another, within another! Read it sometime and see what you think!

Jean McGarry and Tim Parrish visited our class. I had promised myself to prepare questions ahead of time and didn’t which was a big mistake. Ms. McGarry told us about how she wrote her stories one sentence at a time and passed around the notebook she used to compose one of her stories. I wish I’d asked her how she made her decisions, maybe why she chose certain events to illustrate her point.

Our teacher kept everything going smoothly as he had all semester, even when we didn’t ask the “good” questions. Only in hindsight do I see how artful such teaching is.


About marystojak

Mary Stojak has published numerous short stories, her latest will be published September 28th in Mystery Weekly.
This entry was posted in Graduate Writing Programs, Johns Hopkins University, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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