The Secret Goldfish, by David Means

Gift from Lee Monks

One of my objectives for 2012 is to take a more disciplined approach to reading short story collections. While I have always appreciated the form (let’s face it, Canada has enough exceptional short story writers that a serious reader here has to have some acquaintance with it), that has tended to result in more “collections purchased” than “collections read”. And when it comes time to choose a new title to read, there always seem to be several novels that exert a stronger pull — I read in longish sessions, so something that keeps me engrossed for hours instead of shorter parts has more appeal. And when I do start a collection, I have the bad habit of plunging right on, rather than reading a few stories at a time — which is hardly fair to the author.

My 2012 plan is to always have one or two collections on the go, available by the reading chair for a half-hour or one-hour read. I’m not organized enough to have created a physical collections shelf but I do have a mental one: some Russians (Chekhov and Tolstoy), American short story specialists (John Cheever, Tobias Wolff), Canadian greats (Alice Munro, Carol Shields), and that Montreal gang I referenced in a couple of reviews last year (Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, for a start). Then there’s a whole separate shelf for favorite novelists who also wrote short stories (Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Maxwell, Larry Watson). And my friends at Calgary WordFest keep an eye out for me on debut collections from Canadian writers — a couple of which always seem to feature in Prize longlists come fall.

I have read examples from all of those authors (and the list above does not require buying a single book as all are on hand) — disciplined approach or not, it is pretty obvious that this project needs to extend well beyond 2012 even if I don’t add to the existing store of collections.

And that store will inevitably expand along the way, so it is fitting that the first review in the project involves a well-known American short story author whom I have never read. David Means’ third collection (of four), The Secret Goldfish (2004), came into my library a few months ago as a present in a book exchange with Lee Monks, a frequent commenter here. Critics have lavished praise on Means — the Wikipedia entry on him shows comparisons to Munro, Cheever, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver (ouch, there are three more to add to the project list already). My first exposure suggests those comparisons are entirely valid.

Means was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and a number of the 15 stories in the collection are set in northern Michigan. He has obviously spent time in the Rust Belt states, also reflected in this collection. And he currently lives in New York — The Secret Goldfish has stories from the Hudson River Valley, Connecticut and Cape Cod.

So, unlike Munro, Cheever or Carver, there is no “Means” country. Rather, if this collection is a fair indication, there is a distinctive Means’ story style with two central traits. His characters come from society’s underclass (carnies, longshoremen, couples falling apart all feature here) and they are not responding well to their challenging circumstances. And, even more important, the author structures most of his stories in a rapid-fire series of vignettes, most only a page or two long, and the spaces between the vignettes are as important as what is contained in them.

“Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is the story in this volume that illustrates that style best, since unlike many others the “omissions” of this story are included in the text. It opens with the scene-setting current reality:

A pianist was beset with panic because his right hand had frozen up, grown heavy, during a Schubert sonata, missing several notes during the Andante, sending a soft murmur — accompanied by biting coughs from angry throats — through the audience. All was suddenly asunder, his command faltering, the normal alliance between his skill, his talent, and what might be called genius, broken. The audience settled into stunned silence, an aural black hole from which emerged a few more tight coughs. As most everyone knows, his grand celebration, his triumphant return from Moscow, was ruined. And as many of you might have guessed, the sense of panic that began that night would not subside. His fingers — in the parlance of his profession — stayed heavy. Those fingers — I’ll admit — are mine.

That quote is the entire opening section; in the next Petrouchka moves on to a hospital visit with his dying father (“certainly you know him, probably have listened to him play when he was principal French horn with the Philharmonic”). And then we get the first [Omission], the parallel thought that is going on in Petrouchka’s brain or happens later, but which is not really part of the current reality narrative:

Omitted from this section: He disagreed with his father. Of course there in the hospital room he wasn’t about to argue. To linger over one or two composers for an entire career seemed like an exercise bordering on cultist adoration, maybe religion; he was no monk. Later that night his father died. Nothing dramatic. Then days of arrangements — the funeral parlor, the minister, and then the funeral, attended by a few retired members of the Cleveland Philharmonic. When he got back to New York he met up with Antoinette right away, at a place on Madison near her building. When someone tells you something just before he dies, he said, it kind of sticks to you like a residue — is that the word? — and you can’t, at least I can’t, just shrug it off.

Those parallel structures continue throughout the 20-page story in an action-reaction exchange that eventually builds a comprehensive picture. “Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is different from many of the other stories in this collection because it makes the exchanges explicit; in many of the rest, the reader is left to fill them in himself.

I have focused on only one story here because I wanted to be able to include enough quoted material to illustrate Means’ style — his distinctive use of language is as important as his distinctive structure. Here are thumbnail descriptions of just a few other stories that illustrate both those strengths and equally impressed me:

– “Lightning Man” tells the story of Nick Kelley whose distinction, as the title implies, is being struck by lightning — seven times over a number of years and in a number of mid-West locations in the course of the story.

– “Sault Ste. Marie” is my personal favorite of Means’ Northern Michigan stories in this book. Ernie, Marsha and the narrator are a trio of low-life drinkers/drug-users on a minor crime spree in the area around the city of the title (lake freighters, longshoremen and locks all feature in it). Minor turns major when “Ernie shot the guy named Tull in the parking lot”.

– “Dustman Appearances to Date” illustrates another aspect of Means’ style — there are no central characters in this story. Rather, the vignettes in this one chronicle the appearances of dust figures that resemble humans across the United States from Crazy Horse in the West, to Truro, Massachusetts, to Nekoosa, Wisconsin (the author observes in this section of the story: “By the way, Ben Franklin was a big believer in dustmen”). For an author who delights in creating the empty spaces between reality in his stories, it is fitting that he devotes an entire story to ephemeral dustmen figures.

– The title story, “The Secret Goldfish”, features a six-year-old goldfish (“outstandingly old for a fish”, the norm being about one month, as we all know) who has outgrown a series of tanks. The parallel line in this story is that the fish has outlived the marriage of his owner’s parents — that collapse is the surrounding story.

Means’ stories are strange enough that you really do not want to read more than a couple at a time (and hence he was a perfect introduction to my project). The reader needs to take some time after each one to figure out just what pieces of the puzzle the author has provided and which are missing and need to be filled in by the reader himself. It is an approach which distinguishes the author from many of the others named in the opening paragraphs of this review — it also shows why Means has attracted such positive and well-deserved critical attention. Now if I can only get some of those other collections read, sometime in 2014 or 2015 I could get back to more David Means :-) .

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23 Responses to “The Secret Goldfish, by David Means”

  1. Jennifer Young Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    What a great objective. I try to read one short story every day- it helps the dreary news go down.

    Here are two GREATS that you should include: William Trevor and Alice Adams.

    Enjoy!
    Jennifer

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jennifer: Thanks — Trevor is another author whose collections are represented in my library. Alice Adams is a new name for me (and, as you probably guessed, I don’t really need a lot of new ones :-) ).

  3. David Says:

    Ah, Kevin, it is quite uncanny how closely the opening of your post mirrors my own thoughts and my personal reading resolution for 2012. Like you I’ve tended to read story collections as I would novels, one story straight after the other and I don’t think that has allowed me to give them their proper due, and – again like you – I nearly always opt for a novel as my next read despite having quietly amassed a fair number of short story collections over the yeras. In fact, until last month the last collection I read was David Malouf’s wonderful ‘Every Move You Make’ back in 2007! And then at the end of last year Sarah Hall went and wrote ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ which, as a huge fan of her work, I had to read. But instead of ploughing through them I rationed them to one a day and loved (almost) every story. So much so that when that collection was finished I moved straight on to D.W. Wilson’s ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’ (another fantastic collection) and am now reading Robert Drewe’s Australian classic ‘The Bodysurfers’. I had a look over my shelves and discovered I now have over 40 unread story collections, so my resolution is to try and read at least one collection per month and ideally one story per day. I have an otherwise unused half hour (7 – 7:30am) in the mornings that I previously whiled away on the internet, during which I can now be found reading stories and so far I am finding it hugely rewarding.
    So, sometime this year (or next… or the one after) I hope to get to stories by Alice Munro, William Trevor, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Clark Blaise, Alexander and Alistair MacLeod, Michael Redhill, Petina Gappah, John Murray, Ethan Canin, Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis E. Bolen, Ron Rash, Cate Kennedy, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Gerard Donovan, Johanna Skibsrud, Anthony Doerr, Joyce Carol Oates and many others. And based on this review, maybe I should be adding David Means to that list :)

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: You are right that we are on a similar path, although I must say your allocation of a specific time indicates more discipline than I have so far. However, I too am looking at taking idle Internet scanning time and replacing it with a story or two — I do find that I often do want more than one, particularly when stories are short (as they are with Means). The current “chair-side” roster includes Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet (which is short essays rather than stories, but fits my resolution), Clark Blaise’s Southern Stories (which are his early ones) and William Maxwell’s stories from 1938-45. The Maxwell ones are in the Library of America’s collection of his early novels and stories — I’m not a big fan of collections like that normally but for an author like him I must admit the two-volume set is very convenient as long as I treat it like several different books.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    I have an earlier collection by Means, Assorted Fire Events, on the shelf Kevin, recommended (I’m pretty sure) by Lee as well, in a discussion at The Asylum about…Denis Johnson.

    I’m looking forward to getting to it.

    As an aside, I was wondering how you were getting on with Judt: I was totally indisciplined, and pretty much gulped The Memory Chalet down in 2 sittings. Look forward to your eventual review.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I read half of the Judt in a couple of sittings before Christmas and then holiday events got in the way. Since I rushed through them (but they did go quickly), I figured I would go back to the start — my guess is that it will take a couple of weeks when I do that. Unlike short story collections (except for linked ones), I did find from that previous experience that there was some flow in the essays. And I knew even then that I was rushing it and would want to head back to the start.

  6. Guy Savage Says:

    Funny that you should have a post which concerns, in part, short story reading. I’ve decided, recently, that I prefer collections from various authors–rather than a single author. I’m currently reading the Best European Fiction 2012 and I’m taking a story at a time–a much better approach.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I suspect it is the novel reader in me, but I have never been very keen on geographical or topic-based collections. When I come across a story that I like, I tend to want more from the same author. And, as you can tell from the list in the post, I don’t really need to find any new ones — other blogs and commenters are already producing more than my timetable has room for.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Guy, I’ve been dipping into that as well. The Olga Tokarczuk story is superb, though none are less than very good. I find the switch in voices an interesting barometer as to what’s happening to contemporary European fiction, in terms of where it’s going style-wise, but also just how ‘now’ is being encapsulated (or purposefully avoided). The 2010 collection also contains some fine things, not least a piece called ‘Zidane’ by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint.

  7. Lee Monks Says:

    Delighted you liked it, Kevin. And an exceptional review of the book to boot. I can still recall how shocked I was when first reading ‘Lightning Man’ – here was a writer more than fulfilling the promise that the lofty comparisons suggested. Means has a peculiar, noticeably different style, as you mention, which manages to (in my case at least) vacillate, quite deliberately, between a kind of beseeching, intimate turmoil and a ruptured distance, as though the technique were meant to characterise diseased souls, intermittent and wavering in lucidity and comprehension, as though these addled accounts were haunted, insistent, warped transmissions. Well, it works. Great stuff. Hope you review more, be that in two or three years time…look forward to the other names mentioned in the review popping up as well.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Thanks for introducing me to Means. He did take a little bit of getting used to for me — my short story models would lean more to the likes of Munro and Cheever who tend to produce a work with few loose ends, whereas Means likes to leave a clutch of them. Once I got used to that aspect of his style (his prose was excellent from the beginning) I found him much more interesting — I did have to go back and give the first few stories a re-read.

  9. Andrea Says:

    May I share a quote with you? It’s kind of fun.

    “As an art-form (to use an old-fashioned phrase) I do not find the short story sympathetic. You are either given a naturalistic slice of life with a sting in its tail, which disconcerts me, or shown a man standing on a bridge contemplating a fish, which fails to hold my attention. There are, of course, other sorts of short story too, as demonstrated here. The taste is a matter of temperament. I simply put my cards on the table.”
    - Anthony Powell, review of The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen, in the Daily Telegraph, 1988, reprinted in Miscellaneous Verdicts.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Andrea: Thanks for the quote — it is fitting that it should come from an author who produced a 12-volume cycle. I can certainly appreciate why the short story is not to everyone’s taste. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that those who can’t abide the form are missing something.

  11. Isabel Says:

    Do any of these stories interest you?

    http://dailylit.com/tags/short-stories/popular/1

    Have a great 2012!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I’m afraid I have more than enough stories already on the agenda — but perhaps others will find the link useful.
    Thanks.

  13. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    The [Omissions] technique sounds fascinating. It reminded me of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (although they’re probably nothing alike). The theme of the truth being multi-faceted and changeable depending on one’s perspective is an interesting one to explore.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Susan: Interesting that you should raise Durrell’s Quartet here since I just today made reference to it on the Seven Types of Ambiguity thread. There are some comparisons with many of these stories — the characters are often anxious to keep aspects of themselves secret from others (not to mention their own conscience). Durrell’s share that trait and it takes all four volumes until the picture is fully drawn.

  15. Shelley Says:

    Chekhov is often compared to my hero, Horton Foote: the quietness in both their styles. Rare in such an overblown culture!

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The structure and style sound interesting, but I can already see how important it would be not to gorge on them. Historically I’ve read short stories much as you have, in large doses several at a time, but while some collections benefit from that most distinctly don’t.

    I managed to split the Maile Meloy’s up over time, and they benefitted greatly from that. I’m reading, extremely slowly, a massive collection of Chinese classic ghost/fox tales (it’s not a genre we have today so it’s a bit hard to describe). Reading those en masse would be crushing, but spread out they’re delightful.

    Have you seen Chris Power’s series of articles in the Guardian about the short story Kevin? They’re well worth reading.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Meloy was one of the short story writers who came to mind while reading Means — Alan Heathcock’s Volt even more so. All three manage to portray lost souls in non-metropolitan America. I just started Clark Blaise’s Southern Stories yesterday, a Canadian (born in the U.S. West) describing similar characters in 1950s Florida.

    I saw a reference to the Guardian series but haven’t read it — I will go back to it. It does seem to me that the UK treats the short story collection very differently than North America does. Here it is not unusual for a collection to be a debut offering from a writer — the UK has much less of that (and short stories in general). On the other hand, it also has excellent specialists (such as Trevor) and novelists (like Toibin) who are equally good at the form.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I think Kevin, though I could be wrong, that short story collections just don’t sell enough to make that viable. They’ve declined massively even during my own lifetime.

    When I was a kid I of course grew up mostly in science fiction, where the short story used to be a critical form for new writers. Science fiction often particularly lends itself to the form, as an interesting idea may absolutely merit a short story but be too slight to sustain a novel.

    Readers though didn’t buy the collections, and the magazines that printed them slowly faded from view. Where that led the literary culture I think followed, kept alive a bit longer by the occasional magazine or newspaper willing to print them (an option sf didn’t have, but one of little use to new literary writers as established names tend to get preferenced).

    Thank you for the reminder re Volt. I keep forgetting it and yet mean to check it out. This time I’ll make a proper note.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    In his year-end review of printed collections, Power makes the point that the Internet is increasingly filling the gap for short stories that periodicals used to serve — even though he restricts his review to printed collections. I think it is a legitimate point — the link that Isabel provided in her comment is a good illustration.

    My guess is that that trend will accelerate. Printed collections will come from independent publishers (with quite small runs) and the major houses will restrict themselves to established names (Toibin and Trevor are good examples of that). The genre will do just fine in terms of providing “published” outlets (I’m including the Internet there) but readers will become increasingly frustrated — there will be lots of stories out there but the filter that periodicals used to provide in selecting the good writers will be missing. So far, I would say the blogging world is filling that void (Trevor does a good scan of American writers with his New Yorker series, Lee Monks knows the genre and provides pointers like the one that led me to Means — actually, provide the book itself). And I will do my best to continue drawing attention to new Canadian voices.

    So lots of short stories will be published. Alas, the writers of them are going to have to find other work to earn the money to survive.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Gatekeepers have become unfashionable, but they do have real value. The short story isn’t a form I know well. Guides therefore are essential, or I could be reading pat nonsense for ages.

    I actually plan to print off the Powers series. It would be good in some ways to have in book form, but the comments he gets below the line are often extremely valuable and one would lose those.

    I agree with you on the role of the internet, but I do have distinctly mixed views on it in this area. Small press small run editions will continue too, but again a gatekeeper issue emerges, how does one hear about them? As you say, it comes down to the blogosphere.

    So, thanks for pointing the way on the Canadians.

    As for money, I figure short story writers are like poets, they’re generally doing it for the love. Nobody makes any money doing this stuff.

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