Mark Chiusano: A Year of “Moral Disorder”

Mark Chiusano
ohoto: Charlotte Alter

Though the initial stories in Marine Park are focused on a boy and his brother growing up in the far end of Brooklyn, near the park that gives the collection its name, Mark Chiusano has plenty of other characters to introduce us to, like the couple whose romance rises and falls in the shadow of the Manhattan Project, or the chain of people linked by their sexual histories in 1970s New York City, or the old man who’s called upon to make one last smuggling run in the waters just off the outer boroughs. A few of these stories hint at the expansive time frames Chiusano talks about taking on in this essay—which discusses how to fit a great deal of time into a relatively small amount of prose.

For my day job I work at Vintage Books, where I’ve been working recently on a new project called Vintage Shorts, a program that pulls small sections from our old books for timely anniversaries or events in order to introduce readers to books they might have missed. Working on the project has had the side effect of introducing me to plenty of books I’ve missed. Two of them are Margaret Atwood’s story collection Moral Disorder and Geoffrey C. Ward’s biography of FDR, A First-Class Temperament. At the time I’d been trying to train myself in my own writing to lengthen out the time-frame in stories—many of the stories in Marine Park take place over days or hours, and I’d been experimenting with widening that scope. Reading A First-Class Temperament was an ideal way to increase my stamina, as it were.

Ward’s book is one of those fantastic, monumental, expansive and all-encompassing portraits of a historical figure—First-Class gets particularly close to Roosevelt as he struggles with polio, outlining the painstaking details of learning to “walk” again (he never would). Ward himself suffered from polio as a child and the attention to physical detail in his writing is palpable. In one of my favorite chapters from the book, Ward describes the two years in which Roosevelt goes from being a hermetic cripple to a political player once again, bookended on one side by his failed attempt to crutch himself into his old law office, and on the other by his journey down the aisle at the 1924 Democratic Convention to deliver the fabled Happy Warrior speech in support of Al Smith (“happy warrior,” a phrase from Wordsworth, wasn’t FDR’s idea, by the way: he thought it was far too poetic).

The chapter has the arc of a short story, with the repetition of attempts to walk at beginning and end, supported by a middle section in which FDR escapes on his houseboat Laroco for a spring cruise off the coast of Florida, a change of scenery that allows the reader to learn more about Roosevelt’s state of mind at the time (though Roosevelt hid it well from his houseboat guests, he sometimes couldn’t bring himself to leave his bed until noon) before the climactic events of the ending. Simple temporal section-openers like “At around eleven o’clock on Monday morning,” and “In February 1923, Franklin received from an old friend in England an elixir,” or “At around two-thirty in the afternoon of Monday, February 4, the Laroco anchored off St. Augustine,” are the bare-bones of nonfiction, but became useful in my fiction to help stories cover months and years.

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28 July 2014 | selling shorts |

Life Stories #77: Elaine Lui

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Life Stories: Elaine Lui
photo: Angela Fama/The Grid

In this episode of Life Stories, the podcast where I interview memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, Elaine Lui talks about Listen to the Squawking Chicken, her story of growing up as a second-generation Chinese-Canadian with a… well, to call her a “domineering” mother is a understatement. After all, Lui is 40 now, and much of her daily routine is still set by her mother’s demands. Some people are going to read this memoir, or hear Lui discuss her life, and look at it as emotionally suffocating, but Lui has a nuanced perspective on the situation—seeing the positive benefits of her mother’s insistence on familial piety even as she addresses the frustrations of, say, having adolescent friends be pushed out of her life because they might be bad influences:

“I don’t want to say that my mother’s method was flawed, but I will say that she is flawed. She’s a complicated, often times hypocritical person. But she taught me to be honest and raw. I couldn’t write a book about her teachings without being as honest and raw as possible, and to do that, I had to point out where she failed—not where people had failed her, but where she herself had failed… She has failed at trust, and friendship, which is a cornerstone of trust, and she’s failed at understanding and empathy.

She has her reasons; she was hardened to life by her parents and all the people who’ve disappointed her along the way, but… those excuses only carry so far, and we make our own good choices. And that’s what she taught me—to make good choices. In certain areas, she didn’t make good choices, and in order for me to accurately tell the story, I really had to not be blind and point out the areas where I learned from her by not being like her.”

Listen to Life Stories #77: Elaine Lui (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

24 July 2014 | life stories |

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