Thursday, June 10, 2010

Robert Stone's "Fun with Problems"

On a rainy afternoon earlier this week I was browsing through the new fiction at the Sequoya branch of the Madison Public Library and came across a new story collection, Fun with Problems, by novelist Robert Stone. I looked forward to curling up with it, since Stone's incandescent walks on the wild side included some of my favorite American novels of the Sixties through the Eighties -- books like A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise. I hadn't read any of his short fiction and wondered if the stories would resemble his longer works in theme and tone.

Yes and no. Many of the stories cover similar territory, but lack the scope and amplitude of the novels. They don't really come alive for me as the novels did. They're just not as resonant. You can tell they're by the same writer, but they just don't really take off.

Take Children of Light, Stone's novel about a screenwriter's relationship with an actress. A screenwriter/actress novel seems mandatory for every novelist who has ever written a screenplay, or simply had a novel adapted for the movies. It's hard to do anything original with the theme (which always -- surprise -- seems to end with an older and wiser screenwriter survivor), but Stone's version had a resonance that made it stand out from most such efforts. The actress in the novel is schizophrenic and parts of the novel had a really deranged, hallucinatory power that may have drawn on Stone's own memories and emotions of having grown up with a schizophrenic mother. Stone's short story, "High Wire," covers similar territory, but now the characters are just a neurotic losers rather than a sacred monsters. One survives, the other doesn't, and it really doesn't seem to matter all that much.

There was one real surprise in the book. "The Archer" really is a new departure for Stone, in which he mines a comic vein I really don't associate with this writer. It's the story of an over-the-hill academic screw-up named Duffy, and it begins:
It was said of Duffy that he had threatened his wife and her lover with a crossbow. His own recollection of that celebrated night was scattered, but the heroic archaism of the story, featuring Duffy, his ex-wife Otis, the young novelist Prosser Spearman and Duffy's well-oiled, homemade, hair-trigger mechanical bow and arrow, kept it ever new. Each autumn it was revived, like a solar myth, for a new generation of art students.
Duffy seems to be channeling the Lucky Jim of Kingsley Amis, the Grady of Michael Chabon, and for good measure, a hint of somebody imagined by Letter from Here commenter Dr. Diablo. It's funny, satirical and even somewhat touching.


JSE said...

I studied with Stone at Johns Hopkins. Great teacher who does not hesitate to offer direct advice. Have you read Outerbridge Reach? As good as any of the early books.

Madison Guy said...

Yes, I did. Unforgettable. One of my favorites. Just didn't want to make my list too long.