Sunday, June 26, 2011

Officers Weep

As I've noted before, I've been way less good about attending author events in the Bay Area than I was in Kansas City. Back in KC, it felt like that was one of the only sources of entertainment I had, so I would jump at the opportunity of attending a reading from anyone I was even vaguely interested in. Now, I have a lot more other fun stuff competing for my time, so I need to feel particularly motivated to make the trek to see an author.

I'm hoping that will change now that I'm living closer to the city. The Bay Area is so large and so decentralized that authors can put in events pretty much anywhere, but SF is the literary capital of the area, and does seem to attract a disproportionate number of authors. I'm gradually getting back into the habit of checking for upcoming events to see what looks promising.

I was thrilled when I saw a brief notice stating that Daniel Orozco would be coming to The Booksmith. He would be promoting his new book, which I didn't know existed; it's a collection of his short stories. I'd only read a single one of his stories, but it probably had a stronger impact on me than any other work of similar length has (possibly excluding "Araby").

Back in college, I was an English Lit major (in addition to, you know, the OTHER thing). I've gotten in the habit of saying "English Lit major" instead of "English major," because there are actually two different types of English majors, which are pretty different. A literature major focuses on the study, analysis, and criticism of other peoples' writing. An English composition major, on the other hand, is trained to write clearly and effectively. As a lit major, I focused on literature classes, but I was allowed to take three composition credits towards my degree. Without hesitating, I settled on Creative Writing.

I've gotten a kick out of writing since I was in early elementary school, penning such masterpieces as "War with Venus." As I grew older, and became ever more widely read, I grew increasingly discouraged about ever being able to write something as good as the books I enjoyed reading. Still, I regularly fantasize about becoming an author (well, you know, a real author) and every couple of years I make a serious push towards writing some interesting fiction.

Anyways - back to college. My creative writing class was a workshop-style class, but one with a very strong focus on reading. Throughout the semester, we would read several short stories for each class period; I think we only had maybe four or so writing assignments throughout the semester, including the final piece. My teacher (Mr. Davis, maybe? I'm a bit fuzzy on the name), who always wore the exact same black shirt to class, was an aspiring writer himself, had phenomenal taste in literature, and led excellent discussions as we tried to answer the question: just what makes these stories GOOD?

Like I said, the teacher had great taste, and I still vividly remember many of the stories we read, which spanned several centuries of writing. We read In the Penal Colony by Kafka, several Donald Barthalme stories (including the excellent A Manual for Sons), Bartleby the Scrivener, a few bits from David Foster Wallace and Vladimir Nabokov. One of our teacher's favorite concepts was "the story that isn't a story." We have an enormous variety of forms that we can use when communicating with one another, or even when writing, and yet most fiction fits into one of just a tiny subset of those forms (the first-person recollection of previous events or the third-person discussion of ongoing events). Some incredibly cool bits of short fiction don't look like short stories at all, but end up being very powerful: perhaps it's a set of recipes, or a packing list, or a piece of literary criticism on the real author of the Don Quixote.

At one point, our teacher described a story that he had read earlier and loved, but had forgotten the title and the author's name. I think he offered extra credit to anyone who could track it down for him, based just on his recollections of the story itself. Someone managed to identify it, and we as a class soon added Daniel Orozco's "Orientation" to our reading list. I was blown away.

As my teacher pointed out, it's pretty amazing that the fiction we read generally bears so little resemblance to the lives we live. He doesn't believe in the saying "write what you know," but still, there's a huge set of opportunities out there for writing about the experiences that most of us have. When you think about it, the average American spends about nine hours a day working in an office, which is more time than we spend doing any single other activity; doesn't it seem weird that we don't have more fiction that's about the office experience?

There's an immediate and obvious rejoinder to this criticism - that offices are boring places and we'd rather read about something more exciting. Still, that very boring-ness can be a great opportunity, and that's where Orozco finds his entrance.


"Orientation" is extraordinarily short - in my collection it's seven pages long, but I think the original copy we read was just three or four. It may fit into the category of story-that-isn't-a-story since the entire text consists of an orientation tour. Basically, you, the reader, are a new worker in an office, and the "narrator" is walking you around, describing who works where and giving you some tips on what you'll need to know.

The story starts out fairly benign - this is where you sit, this is where you keep your pencils, and so on. As you are introduced to the other office workers, though, the story begins to skew a little bit. It grows darker, funnier, more disturbing. The specific things he calls out tend to be the sorts of quirks that are very familiar to anyone who's worked in an office - this is the woman who loves penguins and decorates her cubicle with them; these two people hooked up at the Christmas party last year; this is how the coffee pool works. Yet, he follows those quirks down, spending just an extra sentence or so on each one to uncover the more existential tension that underlies it.


I feel like I'm making this story out to be overly complicated, which it isn't. On the surface it's a short and very funny read. It has a way of sticking in your mind, though, and I've found myself returning to it mentally over and over throughout the years.

In the short term, the story had a profound impact on me. My semester-end project owed a bigger debt to that story than anything else we'd read; it didn't have the same style, but was also set in an office, with a deepening level of unease.

While "Orientation" has stuck with me, I had remained oblivious to Orozco's other work. I think that part of the reason why I've fallen so in love with George Saunders' work is that it kind of reminds me of Orientation - again, stylistically they're quite different, but they share a similar gift at being able to extract really deep meaning from the most banal aspects of our lives.

Sooooooo, anyways, I was thrilled to find that (1) Orozco had written several other short stories; (2) they were all being collected together; and (3) he was coming to visit San Francisco. He was due at the Booksmith at 7:30 on a Monday night, which would let me easily swing by after work.

San Francisco is blessed with a plethora of independent bookstores, and I don't think I'd actually visited the Booksmith before. It's in the Haight, which is a cool but crowded neighborhood. The store itself is awesome - very well stocked, with lots of books but not too crowded, and a good eye towards promoting the most interesting material. I'd arrived about fifteen minutes earlier, and enjoyed browsing around and picking up my copy of "Orientation and Other Stories" while waiting.

They had set up the back of the store with several rows of chairs, so I eventually settled down and started flipping through the book. A nice woman (perhaps the owner?) came out and introduced Orozco; I hadn't realized it, but apparently he has some sort of local connection to the Bay Area, although he now lives and teaches in Idaho. He came out, chatted a little bit (it was very hot in the city on that day, and he was drinking lots of water), then said that he would be reading a story, and answering any and all questions we might have. He borrowed a copy of the book from someone in the audience, flipped through it, and then started reading "Officers Weep."

It was amazing.


"Officers Weep" is yet another story-that-isn't-a-story; this one is told in the format of a police blotter. You know, those short spurts of text that show up in columns on the inside pages of newspapers, summarizing the incidents that law enforcement dealt with. Like those blotters, this story was told in chronological order, with each entry anchored to a specific time and block, in response to some report. This story focuses exclusively on the two officers in one particular patrol car; we only get to know them by their badge numbers (Shield #647 and Shield #325), but by the end of the story we have a very intimate and thorough knowledge of their personalities, appetites, and preferences.

Kind of like Orientation, Officers Weep starts out in very mundane territory - traffic violations, dog excrement - and over time picks up more depth and resonance as it brushes up against unexplainable phenomena. It's also another very funny story, and I'm so glad that I got to hear Orozco read it. I think I have a bad habit of reading text too quickly, and I might have missed out on some of the really subtle and funny stuff that was in there if it wasn't for Orozco's inflection and slight pauses. There's a hilarious buildup that spans several consecutive reports involving an altercation at a Mexican restaurant and "two Cha Cha Chicken Chimichangas and a Mucho Macho Nacho Plate", and some really funny running gags involving the Department of Public Works and the California Highway Patrol.

On the other hand, since it takes much longer to read out loud than silently (and possibly also because it was at the end of a very long day for me), I completely missed the more important links between the stories, which involve things like a stolen chainsaw, motor oil, destroyed mailboxes, and "wicker havoc." On the page, it's a bit easier to keep tracking these clues, while when I was listening, I think the entertaining interludes kept me from making those connections.

The story ends in a very dark place, ambiguously enough that you can decide for yourself just what happened there.


Orozco spent quite a while answering questions. He reconnected with two old friends who he hadn't seen for fifteen years; apparently, they used to work together back when he was a technical writer of instruction manuals for scientific instruments. (That gives me some slight hope of being able to write "real" books someday.) He said that he hated that job; I wondered (but didn't ask) whether that was one of the inspirations for "Orientation."

This being San Francisco, one elderly lady asked why he would write about cops, since cops are so mean and shoot people in the back. "Are there any stories in this book that aren't about cops?" she asked. He responded with extraordinary good humor and grace, pointing out that he was sometimes afraid of cops, and noting that it was, in fact, the only story in the whole book about cops.

He talked a bit about his inspiration for Officers Weep, which I thought was fascinating. He was specifically inspired by the police blotters in small-town Peninsula cities, which were written with a certain kind of gravity, and yet were never about anything that seemed sufficiently important. He could still remember some of his favorite real-life examples: "Child burns another with penny." "Woman returns home to find a man crawling across her floor." Never any more context, just a bizarre and fascinating hint at a story.

I'd noticed that same trend in blotters, too. When you pick up the SF Examiner or another city paper, you get the kind of blotter entries that you'd expect. There might be six or eight items, that would include things like reports of gunshots, arrests for burglaries, thwarted carjackings, and the same. After moving to the peninsula, I became a faithful reader of "The San Mateo Daily Journal;" for the first few months I read it six days a week, and I still grab about one copy a week. Its blotter is the same length, about six or eight entries, but they are hilariously mundane. "Woman reports loud noise from backyard. Officers ascertain the source to be a sprinkler." "Strong odor of marijuana reported from upstairs apartment." "Laundered jeans stolen from laundromat." I'd thought they were great, but would never have thought of the story possibilities there. That's (part of) why Orozco is a great writer!

A woman asked if Orozco had any unusual writing habits. He replied that one thing which was strange was that he always knew in advance how long each story would be: after he got the idea, before he started writing, he would say, "This is an eight-page story," or "This is about a thirty-page story." And, he's almost always correct. The prediction thing is a little unusual, and so is the fact that he thinks in pages instead of in word count, which is how most other writers quantify their work. He'll hear someone say that they've written 5000 words, and he won't have any idea of how long that is.

(This led to some pretty banal follow-up questions relating to his page predictions, which he handled gracefully.)

The last question someone asked was if he correctly remembered that Orozco had once cut up a cadaver. After some laughter from the crowd, Orozco said that he had, as part of a class he took at Stanford. In the process, he learned that the human body is an extremely tough and resilient thing; we tend to think of it as being quite fragile, but when you take a body apart, you learn how very solid it is. He's thinking of doing a story related to that sometime.

He stayed around to sign books, and graciously spent a lot of time with each person. I was my usual tongue-tied self, just stammering out thanks for coming and mentioning that I'd enjoyed "Orientation" in my creative writing class, but I'd had no idea that he was a creative writing teacher. He thanked me for picking up the book, and said something like, "And, even if you don't like the other stories, at least it's short, so you won't have wasted much time." I replied that I was sure it would be great.

I've finished reading the book - he's right, it is quite short, just 160 smallish pages. After my first read-through, I think "Orientation" and "Officers Weep" are still my two favorites, but there's some other good stuff as well in here.

"Hunger Tales" is a surprisingly visceral story, pretty disgusting in parts, the sort of story that I almost read through half-closed eyes, quickly reading past some of the more disturbing images. Which is pretty amazing, since there's no sex or violence in this story, which is all about food; more specifically, about some individuals' sick relationships with food. It's incredibly well-written, taking some very common behaviors and creating something horrifying out of the way they're portrayed. The last of the Hunger Tales is basically about a father and a son eating a Thanksgiving dinner, and it's among the grossest and most disturbing things I've read.

"I Run Every Day" is another upsetting story. This one is told in the first person, by a person who works a menial job, doesn't have strong relationships with other people, and only seems to derive pleasure from running. Even that, though, doesn't seem very pleasurable; he's more addicted than anything to it. We gradually come to sympathize with him throughout the story, which just makes it the more awful when he later violates another person. I found myself rapidly backtracking from my identification with the character, telling myself "I would never do THAT to someone else... right?"

"Somoza's Dream" is the longest story in the collection, and probably the most conventional story told here, though it still isn't simplistic. The story centers around an important event which actually occurs in the first few pages, but it sprawls out from there, showing scenes in the lives of many people who are loosely related to that event. Details which seem superfluous or unexplainable early on later become central to other characters' lives. It's kind of quiet and kind of lyrical in parts, very enjoyable even while dealing with a violent action.

"Temporary Stories" is kind of a parallel companion to Orientation: not as stylistically ambitious, but returning to the same wealth of story possibilities from drab office settings.

The last story, "Shakers," may be the best portrayal of modern California that I've ever read. That isn't what it's officially about - nominally, it details an earthquake and the lives it touches - but it's very strongly grounded in California terrain, and the glimpses of lives we see shows us everything that's interesting and sad about California today, describing it better than I ever could.

I do hope that Orozco keeps up the writing - he isn't the most prolific guy, but the quality of the stuff he creates is fantastic. Here's hoping we won't need to wait as long for a second volume!

1 comment:

  1. And who can forget the immortal "The Boy and His Mad Dad"? Talk about write-what-you-know!