Once you’ve got some words looking back at you you can take two or three – or throw them away and look for other. I go over and over a page. Either it bleeds and shows it’s beginning to be human, or the form emits shadows of itself and I’m off. I have a terrifying will that way.
-Bernard Malamud (Found in his obituary from the Times,)
Continuing on with the post I had written a few weeks ago, we saw that Carver was unafraid to remove everything but the essentials, and Cheever delved right into his character’s inner intellectual turmoil without worrying about losing the reader. These different methods of character creation and utilization fit in perfectly with the varying messages both authors were trying to convey. The question remains: How does a skilled writer establish a good character in so few pages? And how does it relate to their overall style and composition?
I’d like to shift focus onto two less popular (by most standards) short story writers, starting with Bernard Malamud. Malamud today is perhaps most famous for his novel The Natural, which was turned into a popular Robert Redford film, but his short stories are sublime. The great author Flannery O’Connor described him as “a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself.” His work is often associated with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, who focused on similar themes and settings, mainly the experiences of Jewish Americans in poorer urban settings (for some excellent reading and introduction to Malamud, check out Roth’s memorial)
The neatest thing Malamud does with his characters is have them exist as both fully-fleshed out individuals and as metaphorical representations of a certain morality or as a connection to a sense of universal suffering. In one of his earliest short stories The Armistice (written pre-The Magic Barrel) a Jewish grocer and a German-American butcher serve as allegorical representations of their WWII counterparts, and it follows their relationship as the Germans march on France. The story ends with a fight between the two men, and the German butcher pushes the grocer’s son and hurts him, and then drives away. He is unworried about the image of the tear-stained boy that is in his head, because “he knew that if he relaxed the picture would fade”. The German is a clear (somewhat heavy-handed) representation of the Nazi’s in WWII, and his reaction to his violence mirrored how Malamud felt the world was responding to the Holocaust.
Another technique that Malamud used frequently (especially in his later stories) was having the dramatic climax of the story be a dialogue between two characters, their differences highlighting the suffering one of them is facing. In Benefit Performance, the aging actor Maurice Rosenfeld is unable to provide for his family financially, but remains proud of his artistic influence and cultured nature. When a plumber, Ephraim, courts his daughter, his flies into a rage at his simplicity as well as his ability to provide for his family, unlike the poor thespian. Rosenfeld eventually gets in a shouting match with Ephraim, culminating in Rosenfeld praying loudly in Yiddish and Ephraim storming out after insulting him.
“You cheap actor” [Ephraim] cried suddenly, with venomous fury. “You can go straight to hell!” He strode over to the door, tore it open, and banged it so furiously that the room seemed to shake.
In this passage, the two men’s methods of argument show their character, with the actor wildly and dramatically begging God for his daughter to see reason and the plumber yelling and banging with his hands that had been described as “beefy and red from constant washing in hot water, which did not remove the calluses on his palms or the grease pockets underneath his nails”, an immensely physical man compared to the withered actor. These types of characters make Malamud’s work so great, representations of different ideals and personalities that define each other through their aggressive confrontation. So Malamud builds his characters against each other, and the story and tension comes from these pairings.
The next author I want to discuss is J.G. Ballard, one of my personal favorite authors; his oeuvre is incredibly varied, ranging from war novels to dystopian fiction (anyone who can write in a variety of genres and themes is special in my opinion, like John Williams). His short fiction is usually focused on dystopian science fiction, examining worlds that are over-populated and over-mechanized.
What Ballard does with his characters is something that many science fiction writers also do; their characters are intended to reflect the fantastic or horrifying world around them. The burden of questioning their circumstances is rarely placed upon them, but instead upon the reader. They are similar to many of Philip K. Dick’s characters, who stumble through the schizophrenic worlds and blindly navigate the twists and turns of his shifting worlds with an almost blasé reaction their surroundings.
Ballard’s characters almost never question their reality, never have the reflective nature found in Malamud’s characters. For instance, in Ballard’s early story Billennium the characters live in a world that is so overpopulated that each person lives in a tiny cubicle with only room for a bed (and a chair if one is particularly lucky). When one of his characters moves into a new cubicle and discovers a secret, spacious room behind a wall, he doesn’t hesitate to invite his friend and an increasing number of people to live in it until it’s even more crowded than his previous room. In comparison to Cheever, Ballard’s characters almost seem more parable-based, like something out of a Br’er Rabbit story.
Another example of this type of unreflective character is the story The Last World of Mr. Goddard. Mr. Goddard holds in his room an exact replica of the town he lives in. In fact, it is revealed that his ‘larger’ life is merely a macrocosm of his model in his safe. Mr. Goddard observes the lives of these figures in miniature at night, but interacts with them during the day in their enlarged size. When the citizens of his tiny town begin to rebel against him, he is completely unaware of why they would be upset at his omniscience, thinking
“Countless times he had gone out of his way to be of help to others, had put endless thought into arriving the best solutions to their problems. But with what result? He had aroused only contempt, envy and distrust.”
Goddard never understands why the denizens of the town feel such anger towards him, and indeed never gets resolution; he accidentally knocks over the miniature town, and his cat eats all the tiny people.
The point of these narrative comparisons is to show that characterization in the context of a short story is best utilized in the greater scheme of the work: Carver’s characters were reduced to the essential details that defined them, which meant his stories and plots could move forward without the more detailed descriptions that Cheever had, but missed the psychological intricacies of Cheever. Malamud’s characters defined each other in contrast both physically and ideologically, while Ballard’s were built as a reflection of the world they lived in. Obviously there is no ‘best’ method of making these characters, merely different or more economical ones and ones that work better for the style or theme of the story. A Cheever character in a Ballardian world would stick out like a sore thumb, and a Carver character in a Malamud story would be numb to the suffering of the world around them. Character building should not just be the copy-paste routine of some fantasy genre, but instead should work within the greater whole of the text; it is a tool, and something that can elevate the text to a new level of meaning (short story or not). These short stories show how that works, and why.