In another respect, however, the distance of a few years gives me a chance to ponder Wallace’s characteristically edgy introduction to the 2007 anthology and to recognize what he’s achieved in his compilation of selections in spite of his many disclaimers: that nobody reads such an anthology from front to back cover, that hardly anybody will read his introduction, that his qualifications are slight and his authority limited in what he’s pleased to call his role as Decider. Furthermore, “I know I’m not alone,” he writes, “in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.”
And yet a triage of what he calls the Total Noise of American culture is exactly what Wallace has achieved in the 2007 anthology, where along with revelations of the now infamous doings at Abu Ghraib prison we hear about the sexualization of children, the abuse of nonhuman animals, the historical horrors of warfare, the widening gap between the very wealthy and the very needy, and the destruction of the planet to the point where the final essay in the volume, Edward O. Wilson’s beautiful “Apocalypse Now,” sounds like a prayer: God help us.
But at the same time, another thread is unwinding itself from Wallace’s triage of human iniquity. A curious note in his introduction sounds when he interrupts his disclaimers about the authority of the Decider with a foray into genre distinctions. It turns out that Total Noise is a useful qualifier, not only to describe American culture, but to draw a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. “Fiction’s abyss [over which the writer teeters] is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of choice . . . .” which leads to Wallace’s choice of JoAnn Beard’s “Werner” and Daniel Orozco’s “Shakers,” which he admits aren’t really essays, for inclusion in an anthology of essays. “And yet Beard’s and Orozco’s pieces are so arresting and alive and good that they end up being salient even if one is working as a guest essay editor and sitting there reading a dozen in a row before them and then another dozen in a row after them—essays on everything. . .” and he’s off again about the impossibility of his task.
Wallace suggests that Beard’s “Werner” might be an example of a subgenre called “narrative essay.” To a reader who is not forewarned, JoAnn Beard’s “Werner” appears to be a modernist short fiction from the close third point of view of a young man who goes to extraordinary means to rescue himself and his cat from an apartment building fire in New York City. As Beard herself explained during a visit to the University of Idaho in 2006, she had read in the papers about the actual young man’s experience, made his acquaintance, and got his permission to write his story based on a series of interviews. A whole workshop’s worth of fact-and-invention discussion is packed here! “Do you call the piece fiction or nonfiction?” a student asked her. “I don’t call it anything,” Beard replied.
Daniel Orozco, on the other hand, is a fiction writer. He published “Shakers” as fiction in StoryQuarterly and includes it in his 2011 collection, Orientation: and Other Stories. “Maybe the convincing detail about earthquake cause-and-effect in 'Shakers' fooled Wallace into thinking he was reading nonfiction,” a student suggested. “I’m glad the earthquake detail was convincing,” Orozco replied, “because I made it all up.”
“Shakers” depicts, through a series of vignettes, the effects of an earthquake on a large cast of briefly evoked characters. It is postmodernist in its irony, its dark humor, and its overarching omniscient voice. I am tempted to identify “Shakers” as the single piece outside Robert Atwan’s original list of 100 essays that Wallace successfully lobbied for, although of course I can’t know for sure. But what, I still ask, paraphrasing the old song, are these petunias doing in this onion patch? I will hazard a guess; a guess that might also touch on Molly Peacock’s quest for endurance in “Passion Flowers in Winter,” Marilynne Robinson’s plea for responsibility in “Onward, Christian Liberals,” and even Edward O. Wilson’s faith in humanism in “Apocalypse Now.” A fragile thread, perhaps, in the context of Total Noise? A thread nonetheless.
Beard’s and Orozco’s pieces are, as Wallace says, “arresting and alive and good.” The concern they share, which I believe accounts for their inclusion in the onion patch, is for the resilience of the human spirit in awful circumstances. In the first piece we have Beard’s Werner, suffocating from smoke inhalation and risking all, not only for himself but for his cat. In Orozco’s “Shakers,” stellar throughout, we reach the stunning conclusion in which a doomed hiker experiences a moment of transcendence: “. . . his breaths will soon come slow and steady and his despair will give way to something wholly unexpected.”
Oh, I won’t give it away! Read it yourself!
Mary Clearman Blew recently retired from the University of Idaho, where she taught in the MFA program in creative writing. Her short fiction collection, Runaway, won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Prize, as did her memoir All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family. A novel, Jackalope Dreams, won the Western Heritage Award. Her most recent book is This Is Not the Ivy League: a Memoir.