I primarily write fiction and for years obsessively read “classic” short stories. I loved these stories. In particular the southern short story writers who emphasized thick detail, dark arcs and suggestion rather than explanation — in particular I fell in love with Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider.’ I remember when I first encountered the term bildungsroman. This was back when I was very sophisticated. I’m sure you already know the definition because you are sophisticated, but in case you don’t, a bildungsroman is a story of coming-of-age. A record of what people call “the formative years.” The best time to read about formation is while you’re being formed, so I found the bildungsroman to be a profound, moving form, because I needed to read a lot of them. Then I outgrew the bildungsroman, or I found other ways of reading them or more bildungsromans disguised as other things. In any case, sometimes I meet a writer in their early twenties or a writer who is starting to publish and this writer tells me passionately about Autobiography of Red or Stone Butch Blues and I think, oh good, the bildungsroman is continuing its work…thank god it’s not me anymore.
So, I enjoyed reading Ashok Mathur’s story in the narrative issue of TCR ‘Bildungsroman: a life in line items’ — which is, literally, an itemized list of moments/sensations/factoids that comprise, I assume, one individual’s life. Each item is numbered according to age. For example: “0 emerge” and “10 want to be a doctor” and “51 now the back pains.” Of course, this isn’t a bildungsroman…we follow the speaker far past coming of age and maturity, until a cryptic/poetic line item at 84 suggesting death. But is that the case? Maybe in his breaking down of “important life arcs” Mathur is playing with the linear progression of identity and time as something that can be, according to conventionally paced realist literature, be graphed with time along the X axis and identity along the Y axis. In this list of life, events and realizations interrupt, pop up inconveniently, leave without explanation and fall flat.
The speaker returns to basic realizations. “67. daughter visits out of work stays for the winter this is family.”
This is not a parody of a bildungsroman but it is, in its way, a critique — this “story” is an assemblage of facts and moments that refuse to assume a shape. There is no centre. There are no organized stages of development. There is no foreshadowing because there’s no time for that. If you wait for the curve of the ending you will slide off the edge.
“58: hips start to feel sad take up swim and run”
Yes! Natural disintegration! Nature taking its course!
“59: who would believe at this age, with a younger man”
This is all we get of this love affair.
Illness and recovery are briefly touched on, as well as a death, then,
“65: he says he can be my love but not my caregiver the door shuts”
It happened offstage; it happened.
I think there’s an attempt here to detach the emotional journey of the character from the details and conditions of events, to evoke instead the hard edges of twists and turns as they come. Reasons are pared down to logistics, but for the most part we have shadows of larger things as the speaker leaves them behind: ” 13 like bones breaking to be tall”
The skeleton stretching and reforming; that is what we know of that year.
In 84 line items, a consciousness emerges, a sense of a person ill-at-ease, watchful, struggling with the sea changes in his life. A voice is sketched out and repeats its rhythms. There are no explanations of changes or inconsistencies — the items on the list are left to stand for themselves. “Just like in life!” the bildungsroman wants to tell us, but we don’t get those reassurances here.
The best way to read this piece is all over the place. Choose a few lines at random and try to make a picture out of them.
For example, these three:
“3 words one at a”
“21 love her forever”
“79 just drink juice and tea and sit no walking until winter”
I thought I chose those at random but then realized I’d moved chronologically down the list while choosing them.
The line items can be rearranged and placed at tandem to each other because really the spaces between them are what matters.
How small can a story be?