Featured Writer Erik Harper Klass

For the Love of Dirt

This is the theory, incidentally, that anything that is art . . . is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.
—Edward Gorey[1]

I’m in a book club with two old high school friends, both fellow writers. Our mission, in an attempt (otiose, perhaps) to stay au courant in the world of short story writing, is to read various annual anthologies of the craft: The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, etc. Here’s how it works: One member reads and disseminates by email his impressions—in bullet form—of a story, to which the others inject—literally, between bullets—their responses seriatim in different colored type. It is not a bad way to discuss literature with two old friends, one living in Maine, the other Cambodia (I reside in California). Making our way, somewhat laboriously, through a BASS from several years ago,[2] we landed upon a story that left us, let us say, wanting. As in Dryden’s polemic against bad poets,[3] let’s leave the writer unnamed and the story unexpatiated. Life is too short. In nuce, it is about a wedding, a love triangle of sorts, a road trip, perhaps other things. My point: it is about a something—many somethings, in fact—but no something else.

There is a second story, one I’ve recently read (several times) in the excellent summer 2019 issue of New England Review—Nancy Riesman’s “Horse Seasons”—a story I’m happy to embellish with a footnote.[4] The story begins: “In the small pasture, one horse lay on the ground and the other stood beside it, unmoving, the day just beginning to warm.” The narrator later watches these two horses:

That morning in the pasture, the horses stayed photographically still. She learned: yes, they did this. One stood watch as the other napped. Mostly they slept standing, but also this. She watched the standing horse watch the napping horse; she watched the napping horse nap. What was it, then, to let go, to lay in the late season grass, and from there fall further, the light syrupy, the sky melting into fractals, the drumbeat of one’s small fears silenced. And as if the watcher’s breathing, audible then implicit, filled that drumbeat space; as if the standing horse’s very stillness stilled the percussive thrum.

But let’s be clear: “She knew nothing of horses.” And here’s the clue. This story is not about horses. Or I say this wrong. The horses are but the something. We must work a bit for the something else. Just four sentences, spiraling off from her memory of the two horses:

But the image of the upright, motionless horse and the horse on its side in the grass returned to her, one standing watch as the other slept. This she did for her mother, in a series of rooms, in winter. Everything then happened indoors. Beyond the windows: white ground, black branches, sky thickly woolen in pale or charcoal gray. Once, out in the snow-packed yard, silhouettes of deer.

This deeper layer is lightly touched (all the great writers touch lightly[5]), and we never explicitly return to the story of her mother. That’s not to say we don’t notice. The mention of her mother—here and only here, the second character, a one-hundred percent increase—is conspicuous. But it is just two words: her mother. Something slumbering begins to stir, a surface breached. In the first story we wallow, like Edwin Abbott Abbott’s geometric figures, in two dimensions. There is nowhere to go. I literally (literarily) felt claustrophobic reading this story.[6] This second story offers us a great, cool, soily depth. This is why we read. This is why we have book clubs. This is what we talk about when we talk about fiction. If there is no field beneath which we might dig for meaning, then we are strolling through a meadow of crimson poppies, looking for a place to lie down and sleep our opium sleep. Some may choose this somnolence. The sleep, to be sure, comes quick and easy. But I, for one, like to dig.

I speak, of course, in metaphors—reading “Horse Seasons,” as I did, once again just now, does this to you—and perhaps that’s the point.[7] That’s what’s happening here. Gorey’s “art” is about metaphor, not metonymy. It is not about the chains of somethings—the bridal party, the one-night stand, the groom’s disappearance, the ill-advised road trip, even the flashbacks: we could call all of this plot. Art is about what subtends plot. It is not the temporal unfolding of events that is important. It is the synchronic, the vertical, an axis not of combinations but of selections. The linguists would call this not speech, which passes in time in a line, but language, which digs deep, lies waiting like unopened crypts for our use. Literal—I suppose we can call it—depth.

It is not x + y. It is x = y.

And our job, our mission, is to discover that y, to solve the equation, when what we’re mostly given is x.[8] 1984 is not really about 1984 (it’s about 1948). The Heart of Darkness is not really about a river in Africa. “Ripe Figs” is not really about ripe figs. And if we step carefully like dazzled impostors (for I am this, here: an impostor), eyes lowered, into the splendorous realm of poetry, the something else is often so neatly and nearly buried, we wonder why the poet is writing about a doe standing at the edge of an icy road; Ozymandias, King of Kings; a torturer’s horse scratching its innocent behind on a tree; a certain Slant of light; a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

And yet, I suppose, there is this temptation to write hackneyed detective and romance novels, and to read in this way, to get swept up in the surface currents, to turn pages easily turned. There is a third story:[9] Murakami’s “Barn Burning.” It is about a man who burns barns. There’s not much else going on here.

The world’s full of barns, that are, almost waiting for me to burn them down. A barn all by itself beside the ocean, a barn in the middle of a rice paddy . . . Anyhow, all kinds of barns. Give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll burn them to the ground, so it looks like there was never any barn there to begin with. No one gets choked up over it. It just . . . disappears. Whoosh!

It’s strange (of which more below) but not exactly enthralling. But then a girl disappears, is never found, and a whole new reading unfurls: isolation, loneliness, death. The barns are of course not barns at all. In Faulkner’s story of the same name (1939), the barns are barns, but now we have, circling beneath the flames, themes of family and blood (“You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick too”). None of this has to do with barns. The Lee Chang-dong movie Burning (2018) (excellent) grabs onto both of these themes (loneliness, family), but now we’ve moved from Faulkner’s South, via Murakami’s Tokyo, to the borderlands of North and South Korea, and we have a wooden case of military knives (Chekhovian in nature) and the sound of North Korean propaganda weaving the air, and just like that we know this movie is not about burning anything (or, as it turns out, it’s about an altogether different kind of burning).


But then why not just write the something else? Why not skip the skin and tear right into the guts and bone? Why not just write of a girl’s death, or a mother’s? Of blood and loneliness? Why burn barns? Because, I believe, the surface, while it may retreat, while its “reality” may come into question, does not really go away. We do not have two meanings, coexisting, like planets circling different suns. We are interested in how these two different (spectacularly different) meanings interplay, how their gravities pull. De Man: “The two readings have to engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it.”[10] So we use these two readings to create something memorable, magical, mysterious, polysemic, obfuscating, clarifying, beautiful, strange: beautifully strange. We talk of horses instead of a dying mother. We talk of burning barns instead of loneliness and heredity and death and war. Art means to shake us up, to force us to slow down (synchrony is atemporal), to forestall meaning, to slake boredom, to get us down on our knees so we may dig beneath those wind tossed poppies and dirty our hands and break a fingernail, maybe two. To exhume. For, of course, it is beneath the pretty flowers, waving like hypnagogic pendulums, where we may find the dead bodies. Fecund felicity!

I’ve just completed a series of sixteen short vignettes. Each describes a different Polish poet in bed with his lover. The poets are real. When the information is available (in English) I also make their lovers real. I like to use history in this way (history: another surface, another something). The first eight are set on the eve of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s visit to the city of Warsaw in May 1927. The poets dream of listening to the great man read. They dream of communism and revolution. The second eight, involving the same poets, occur at various times after Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930. Things are darker. The poets’ lovers are precarious, fleeting. War looms like a proleptic ghost

But none of this—I need not say—has to do with Polish poets and their lovers between the wars. There is—there must be, I hope—something else, something beneath the surface, something of the consistency of dirt.

1 Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2011), 39.
2 As in Tristram Shandy’s “autobiography,” in which the titular character writes slower than actual time, we seem to be falling further and further behind, compromising the whole “au courant” nature of the endeavor—and yet is not the endlessness of our literary task apropos, à la Thomas Abrams interminable building of the miniature Temple of Jerusalem (Sebald), or Bartlebooth’s 500 puzzles of ports (Perec), or the inquisitors’ search for the perfect book—“the compendium of all the rest”—in Borge’s Library of Babel, or, finally, the limitless piles of unread books—labile and yet eternal—on our teeming shelves?
3 via Crites
4 Nancy Reisman, “Horse Seasons,” in New England Review 40, no. 2 (2019): 84–85.
5 “Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism.” —Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communications in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett  (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 280.
6 On a side note, that this story found its way into one of my favorite journals (American Short Fiction), and from there to the (purported) Best American series, left me feeling ambivalent: Uplifted, in the sense that this apparent lowered bar seems to increase the chances that each of us may one day find one of our stories gracing these (purported) most excellent pages—there is hope for us all! And yet crestfallen, in the sense that I fear we may be witnessing the series’ possible decline, the eo ipso decline in the art of the short story, the eo ipso decline in the art of language altogether, and by extension—for it is but a small step—the inevitable (eo ipso) demise of all humanity.
7 “Imaginative literature is figurative or metaphoric.” —Harold Bloom, That Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2011), 13.
8 Not for nothing are the critics often mathematicians (see Borges, see Plato).
9 The structuralists noted that things occur in threes.
10 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 12.


About the writer:
Erik Harper Klass studied mechanical and manufacturing engineering at UCLA and music at Berklee College of Music. Now he writes. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Erik Harper Klass is the O:JA&L Featured Writer for December 2019.

Image: Courtesy Erik Harper Klass.