In the second chapter of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there’s a startling passage in which Biff Brannon, owner and proprietor of the New York Cafe, upbraids his wife Alice: “‘Listen,’ he said. ‘The trouble with you is that you don’t have any real kindness. Not but one woman I’ve ever known had this real kindness I’m talking about.’” The criticism itself isn’t what’s surprising; after all, in the brief time we see Alice on the page, she lies in bed and complains, threatens her husband, calls him a freak, and can muster no compassion for the drunk Blount. When Biff’s night shift ends and Alice finally gets up—only after preparing her Sunday School lesson (she reads aloud from the “fishers of men” passage in the Gospel of Matthew while Biff tries “to separate the actual words from the sound of Alice’s voice”)—Biff cannot stand to get into the bed as she’s left it: “Deftly he reversed the sheets in all possible ways, putting the top one on the bottom, and turning them over and upside down.”
They’re extraordinary details—the sheet-changing, the attempt to separate the words of Christ from the sound of Alice’s voice reading them—details that tell us precisely how Biff feels, in a visceral sense, about his wife. But what I find startling in this episode is Biff’s—and by extension McCullers’s—almost preternatural grasp of the psychology underlying Alice’s unkindness, what he claims is preventing her from having the “real kindness” he’s talking about: “Or maybe it’s curiosity I mean. You don’t ever see or notice anything important that goes on. You never watch and think and try to figure anything out. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between you and me, after all… . The enjoyment of a spectacle is something you have never known … you don’t know what it is to store up a whole lot of details and then come upon something real.”
Certainly Alice’s shortcoming is, on the surface, a failure to empathize, to put herself in someone else’s shoes. But Biff intuits that the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice. To Biff, curiosity—sitting with uncertainty, trying to figure things out—is very nearly the same thing as kindness.
Seeing, noticing, enjoying a spectacle, storing up detail: Biff might say that unkindness is a failure, first, of the imagination.
I re-read this passage on a flight from Chattanooga to Minneapolis. I was going to attend the welter of panels and readings and impromptu reunions that is the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference. In my carry-on, in addition to the McCullers novel, was a story I’d started drafting called “The Directions-Giver,” about an old man in New York City with a rare gift for giving directions. As a child, he could describe certain landmarks with such beauty and clarity that when visitors went to see the thing he described, they were disappointed, because they felt as if they’d already seen the authentic version, the real one before them only an imperfect copy. The Directions-Giver grew adept at gauging distances between points, converting yards to meters and miles to kilometers with speed and mathematical precision. Under his guidance, tourists felt as if they were simply remembering a route they’d taken many times in the past. The Directions-Giver became world-famous. Luminaries who came to New York always sought him out. Alas, poor Directions-Giver—with the advent of smartphones, his gift was no longer necessary in the world. Tourists became self-sufficient. They traversed the city looking at everything because they no longer needed to look for anything. The Directions-Giver wandered the city among them, still honing his skills inside his head, looking and sounding very much like a babbling homeless man.
I realize what I have here is a situation, not a story. In a story, this man would act or be acted upon in a way that forced him to decide something. What does he want, what is he willing to do to get it? He wants someone to need him again. I don’t know what he’s willing to do. And so the draft idles.
Still, it was an appropriate story to have taken to AWP. Directions—the lack of them—became our go-to topic of conversation, disheveled writers late for panels and lost in the interconnected labyrinth of stores and skyways above the downtown streets. Walking outside was a cinch, but it was raining—then snowing—and my hotel was one of the farthest from the convention center. Inside the maze Siri was of no help. It turned out that asking for directions was of no help either. The few times I stopped people who looked not-like-writers (business attire), I would hear, “right right left then another right,” or “there’s a map just past Target.” Perhaps directions-giving is indeed becoming a lost art. My roommate and I asked the concierge how to walk to the nearest Starbucks. Go down to street level, he said, enter the atrium, and smell your way.
I needed a ball of string, a trail of crumbs. I told a friend I wished I had chalk so I could leave marks on the walls. “Red, right, return,” he joked. He’d learned the way after a night of trial-and-error—making a mental list of visual details: stay on the ugly red carpet with gray stripes for two consecutive skyways; enter Macy’s, exit through the Ralph Lauren men’s department; circle clockwise around the giant atrium until you see the sign for the International Center. If you pass the suspended silver bird (or is it a fish?), you’ve taken a wrong turn.
I noticed. I noticed hard. But then it stopped raining and the sun came out and we didn’t need to take the skyways anymore—all of us with phones talking from inside our pockets and tote bags.
I’m home now and working on a novel but I think of the Directions-Giver every day, half-sketched on a handful of yellow legal pages still stuffed in my book bag. I feel a deep sense of grief attached to him and his obsolete skill. Why? What is it he wants to say?
I’ve wondered if the locus of grief is the particular loneliness of our increasing self-sufficiency. Don’t get me wrong—I use Siri liberally, with joy, but she represents one more chink in the massive crumbling edifice of face-to-face interaction. In Minneapolis, the day the sun came out, I watched a young woman, alone, photograph herself in front of the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture using a selfie stick. A year ago she would have been compelled to ask a stranger to take that shot. She might have enjoyed a conversation. And she would have necessarily ceded a tiny measure of artistic control, allowing the stranger’s framing and eye to affect the tenor of the photograph.
What I’ve realized, looking back on the selfie-taker, is that the story’s particular grief isn’t the erosion of human interaction. It’s what’s beneath it, the flaw beneath the flaw. When you ask a stranger for directions you experience a moment of humility; for an instant, you are placing yourself, in a small, nearly intangible way, into another’s hands. There is an admission of need, an acceptance of the state of not-knowing, followed by an intensity of listening and looking for the details.
What my Directions-Giver story wants to grieve is the decay not of human connection, but of an entire imaginative act—one that is closely akin to storytelling and listening, to the tacit exchange between writer and reader.
Say I need to get to an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar city for a wedding shower, circa 1992. I call to ask the hostess for directions. She tells me to exit the freeway on Hanley Road, turn left, go through two stoplights. After the second light, I’ll pass a Shell station on the left just before my turn onto Blackberry Lane. If I start to go up a hill and see a fire station, I’ve gone too far. Go two blocks on Blackberry, take the third right onto Adams. Fourth house on the left, blue Cape Cod with shuttered dormers. Tire swing in the tree, scarecrow and pumpkins beside the mailbox.
As she speaks, pictures form in my head. I reach into my past (creating some kind of amalgam from recollected scarecrows and Cape Cods and fire stations) and project into my future, imagining the drive I’m about to take. Further, I make assumptions based on the details she’s chosen to share: she has children; the interior of her home will likely contain seasonal decor. I wonder if she keeps a garden. What I’m experiencing is, in essence, a holistic act of empathic imagination.
When people ask, why read short stories? I want to say: stories teach us to be noticers the way directions once taught us to be noticers. We sit down with a short story and know we’re going to get somewhere in a single sitting. The details are what will get us there. “It is details that make a story personal,” James Wood writes in his memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life. “Stories are made of details; we snag on them.” We’ve never been where we’re going, but we trust the eye of the directions-giver. We humbly submit to the lyric dream. If a poem is the single landmark we pull over to admire and the novel is the cross-country trip, the story is the urgent drive to an important event. A mad rush to the hospital. Our life may depend on looking for the details.
But why is looking important? It’s almost a platitude: We need art because it teaches us to notice. But why do we need to notice? Why not let Siri simply talk us there—allow everything to wash over us and disappear into the ether?
Here we circle back to Biff and Alice. We need to be intentional lookers in order to preserve, within ourselves, the real human kindness that is the external manifestation of a sympathetic imagination. Reading fiction teaches us how. When Ishmael describes Ahab’s scar—”It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded”—we see Ahab as Melville sees him, stricken but erect. We look at Melville looking at Ishmael looking at Ahab, reading over the shoulder of what Wood would call a “serious noticer,” suspending judgment because the narrative does so. I think of Mrs. Ramsay looking around the table “unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.” Woolf watches Mrs. Ramsay watching the guests; we watch at two removes, composing the scene as Mrs. Ramsay does. I think of the sound of light tapping on the windowpane after Gretta tells Gabriel about Michael Furey in “The Dead,” of the lace trimming on women’s underclothes that “reminded [Gurov] of fish scales” in “The Lady with the Little Dog.”
A scar, guests seated around a table, snow tapping on a windowpane, lace underclothes. When I’m spending time in the mind of a great storyteller, such details in the “real world” enter my sightline already colored by their literary counterparts. I simply see differently. Certain images and sounds and smells arrive imbued, somehow, with feeling and possibility. What feeling? What possibility? I don’t know. I have to watch and think and try to figure things out. “You don’t know what it is to store up a lot of details and then come upon something real.” Perhaps the ability to store up detail gives us the patience to sit with and wonder about and feel empathy for the real, in whatever form it presents itself to us.
The ten short stories in this issue are all, in their individual ways, love stories. In his introduction to My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides astutely points out the difference between love as a subject and the love story: the former a compendium of philosophical and biological and religious theories, the latter a narrative that “can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories.” In other words: in a story, love is in the complex, often unlovely details. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis quotes Thomas a Kempis, writing “the highest does not stand without the lowest” (summa non stat sine infimo). Lewis is positing a rapprochement between the loves—Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity—arguing that the more exalted loves cannot be parsed from their humbler forms. A purifying sacred love emerges under the tutelage of Eros; full-bodied Eros (which Lewis distinguishes from the merely physical sexual act he calls Venus) is necessarily rooted in Friendship; Affection undergirds all three.
In life, we may forget the inherent integration of high and low, may gloss over details to situate love only in a theoretical sense—Shavian evolutionary impulses, Platonic notions of reunion—but fiction remembers that even the most soaring, iridescent love stands upon the minutiae: a doorknob in a woman’s childhood bedroom with “bulbous nose” and “scandalized keyhole mouth” watches her have sex with a virtual stranger; love for a dying father is compressed into the image of a “bloom of bruise” where an IV slips beneath quivering skin; a Viking watches the “unkicking tendrils, white as pearls” of a sinking woman’s legs after a shipwreck; a father despairs when he realizes the son he loves is lethal, finding the “bright jacket of a gypsy child in the tall grass.” A rough homoerotic kiss, “teeth against teeth,” precedes an aggressive sexual encounter; a drug turns a beloved daughter “into a parade balloon in need of handlers.” The geometry of three bodies in a hammock translates into a wider psychology of longing and loss; a couple spends a lifetime telling tales, often charmingly, about the way they met. Grief over a lost pet is manifest in the cold specifics of euthanasia and a dive bar saltshaker “made from an old hot sauce bottle.” A dead lover’s boxing gloves are “enormous eggplants.”
Following John Berger, Wood says that “civilians merely see, while artists look.” Here are landmarks from master directions-givers: ten writers who, in looking, teach us to be lookers.
When friends come up to our house on Lookout Mountain for the first time, I give them directions. GPS default settings route drivers up the Ochs Highway extension to the Tennessee side of the mountain. You can wend your way back over to Georgia—the side we live on—but it adds six minutes to the drive.
Ignore Siri, I tell visitors. Follow the giant arrow pointing toward Rock City. Pass the welcome! we’re glad georgia is on your mind sign. When the trees open up and you see the waterfall at Lovers Leap, you’ll know you’re close to the top. At the first cross street—the Chanticleer Inn will be in front of you, a circular sign with a rooster—turn left onto Oberon Drive. Wind around past the boulders in front of the Fairyland Club. Go over the rock bridge at Mother Goose Village and take the fourth right onto Wood Nymph Trail. Our house is the third one on the left—the one with grass that needs mowing. Suburban parked in front.
Look for the blue slack line in the trees.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.