Stumbling over Chekhov’s gun

1 Aug

Alright guys, put on your thick rimmed glasses and grab your double espresso cappuccinos. We’re doing literary analysis today.

In between watching my kid cousin and sobbing uncontrollably over my website not working, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. My life has been the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast for three months.

And then I came across a gem of a novel that reminded me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.

There’s a Steampunk Terminator involved in this book. If that doesn’t make you want to run to your nearest store to buy this, I can’t help you.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma is science fiction, romance, drama and categorized as a Young Adult novel. I could stop right here and go off on what determines YA fiction against mainstream fiction. But that’s not why we’re here today.

Like the cover, The Map of Time is a very stylized tale. One of my absolute favorite parts is its omniscient, but very active, narrator, who is constantly breaking the Fourth Wall.

Yes I know that when I began this tale, I promised there would be a fabulous time machine, and there will be, there will even be intrepid explorers and fierce native tribes–a must in every adventure story. (page 56)

I don’t know what it is about the Fourth Wall, I love to see it pulverized.

It was one of my favorite qualities of A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’ll never forget The Ersatz Elevator, book eight in the seriesSnicket describes the Baudelaire children walking up a flight of stairs with the phrase, “and they went up and up” over five pages.

It was why Death of a Government Clerk,  which we read in its original Russian in class, became my favorite story from Anton Chekhov. We’re glossing over the fact that this is the only Chekhov short story I’ve read.

But suddenly. . . . In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly.” The authors are right: life is so full of surprises!

So I did a little Googling to see if I could find some essays on Chekhov: to see if he was the first person to use it, if that was part of his fame, who else was inspired by this style. But because I have an attention span of a goldfish, I started reading some articles on the man himself, and his style as an author and playwright all together, and why he left the impact he did.

I hope, as always, you can excuse my rather shallow understanding of this material, as I’m not only pressed for time, but for a word count space as well.

Apparently, there’s no one answer to “what is the Chekhovian style.”

The article that stood out the most was one by Sonya Chung. She starts with John Gardner’s (of The Art of Fiction fame) theory that bad stories come from flawed character (the author’s essence of being, not the actors in the story). Conversely, good stories come from good character. Chekhov’s oeuvre is good because the good Doctor was, well, a decent human being.

To the modern reader, Chekhov might be considered formless and dull, that his stories are anti-climatic and unsatisfying. But his focus and drive as a writer isn’t Things Happening. It is, as Eudora Welty states:

“…a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning.  It took form from within.”

Ted Solotaroff wrote that Chekhov was “all eyes and heart.” Writing with a clearly objective pen, Chekhov gently, and with a smile, pulls “back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in,” says Chung.

She also lists some stand-outs in Chekhov’s oeuvre, of which included The Two Volodyas, where a young woman married to an older man falls into adultery, but is just as emotionally restless as before.

That story reminded me of a film I saw recently, The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

It’s a modern “Chekhovian” tale if you will, plot-wise and style-wise. The ending is bitterly unsatisfying. There isn’t really a beginning-middle-end per-se, it’s flashes of moments strung together that lead to its inevitable and tragic end; a true climax is nowhere to be found.  The camera is completely objective, cold at times. And it pulls back the veil on the untruths of logic prevailing over emotion, and that true love conquers all.

To be fair though, the story is missing Chekhov’s wit and lightheartedness.

I wonder if Chekhov was able to be so lighthearted about his crushing doom and despair because of his first profession as a physician. I remember my childhood pediatrician: suckers and smiles were given immediately after booster shots.

But all of this brings to mind vulnerability, and most importantly, the vulnerability of writers.

Chekhov (centre, reading) is widely acknowledged as the greatest ever short story writer [Prospect Magazine, 10 July 2006]

Not only the anxiety that comes from others analyzing of our talent, the ability of ours to string sentences to form a story. Hell, I do that every week I publish an article. But true vulnerability–shining a light on the deepest and darkest (for want of a better phrase) parts of who we are as people. Flinching, not with the anticipation of someone criticizing our ability (which can improve with time and practice), but criticizing our character (which moving, like a boulder, is much easier said than done).

Where does the artist end and the writer begin? Are we writers like, as Johnny Depp cries in Sweeney Todd, complete only with our tools in hand? Or does our work exist simultaneously, but independently from our core being? Does Felix J. Palma’s core being shine through The Map of Time? And a better question is, even if it does–should it?

These are complicated questions, far outside the purview of my silly little blog. But Chung does attempt to answer it by saying to write like Chekhov, one must live like Chekhov. Style is as much of where you put the semicolon and how melodic your syntax is, to why you noticed the bird perched upon the tree branch that afternoon.

In lieu of writing this, of reading those few essays and having a few hours to absorb them, I think I’ll be adding the good Doctor to my list of books to read. Maybe he’s got a good prescription for my prose and my self.

Please check out Sonya Chung’s article, “I Heart Chekhov; Better Than Booze or Smokes.” She actually knows what she’s writing about and her essay is very well written. The essay is featured on “The Millions,” an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003.

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One Response to “Stumbling over Chekhov’s gun”

  1. Betty August 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    It was bard to get past the first word because it’s spelled wrong…I cried an emo tear over it…it’s not all right to miss spell all right…okay since I have not read chekov…hard for me to comment…but as for your writing…I know I am prejudice, but your writing and thought process always amazes me.

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