Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Before I reached the bottom

Bob Dylan's song "All Along the Watchtower" is his best short story. I won't argue that it's his best poem, or best song, but as a straight-up short-short, it succeeds completely.
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
There's so much story there. I can't begin to explain it. My goal as a writer, for the rest of my life, will be to come close to something that reaches that level of complexity and beauty. One of Keats central concepts of literature was negative capability, and a fiction writer struggles with that idea as Dylan does here. I always imagine negative capability like one of those metal pin art things, where you press your face into it and it leaves an impression. I want each story to be something where each individual can find their own face in it.

But the symbolism and mystery and myth in stories can't ever be generic, because it's in the specific that we find the universal. We know all sorts of things about the characters in this story. We know their professions. We know that they are in a watchtower--not just a tower, but a watchtower. We know that something changes profoundly for them at the end of the story. We also know a lot about their character, based on the conversation they have. Those specific references lead us to specific images--the one that always occurs to me are the thief on the cross next to Christ. Who's to say the other fellow wasn't a joker? And the riders at the end. The whole story rests on those riders at the end. They're so specific--I can see them, against the horizon, at the end--but they could be anyone.

The most famous short-short of all, of course, is by Ernest Hemingway. He invented the genre, some claim. His is also the shortest successful story, in my opinion. Six words. Here it is:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Allegedly, he called it his best work. But he was wrong about a lot of things.

Here's a more modern one, by Dave Eggers. With tongue suitably in cheek.

It was a great battle. You probably heard about it already, so why go on about it here?
Dylan uses all of 130 words, which is practically novelesque by comparison. I find myself thinking a lot about Dylan lately. As usual, I suppose. He gave an amazing interview about "Christmas in the Heart" on his web site. He's a true believer, and he never let anyone else tell him to play by their rules. He never even let anyone else choose the game for him. I want to be like him, but it's hard to be that strong. I feel like he must have a keg tapped straight into the Muse.

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