Wrestling With Angels: New and Collected Stories

Toby Press  2007

 
This book is a unification of two previous collections of short stories by Clayton, plus a new collection and a few stories that, according to the author’s preface, did not seem to quite belong to any of the three collections. The stories all have two things in common: Jewish themes, and a tone that is powerful and understanding, yet intensely melancholy. One thing does seem to have changed between the older stories in the books and those in the new collection, Wrestling with Angels. The latter show a much greater tendency toward happy endings. Whereas the older stories usually hold on to their gravity throughout, most of the new ones lighten near the end, sometimes even breaking away sharply from the tone they had had before. Whether this is a new weakness in the author’s writing or an overall improvement, it is certainly refreshing after the often oppressive heaviness of the older stories. Overall, this is a selection of well-written and interesting stories, best taken one at a time.

Discussion Questions

From: The Toby Press

GENERAL QUESTIONS:

1. The essay at the front of the collection will orient you to the changing nature of the stories and the sensibility that comes through them. Clayton writes, "I do find in my early stories hints of a longing for the holy, a longing that's since become deeper and more real to me." As you read through the collection, do you find a continuing set of concerns? Is there consistency or change in the narrative voice? Is the religious longing of the later stories really hinted at in the earlier ones-or has the nature of the longing fundamentally changed?

2. "One unchanging thing in my writing has been a spatial sense of time." Find examples of stories in which time seems to be nudged out of order, in which the future has happened and the past will happen-as if time were laid out like a tapestry. Clayton says, "Increasingly, this breakdown of ordinary sense of time edges on the mystical." Is the dislocation of time a literary trick or has it significant thematic payoffs?

3. "There's the unreal world given us by the media, by our culture, by every culture-by the categories in which we're taught to think, the lens through which we're taught to see. Then there's God's world." This sense that the world we're taught to see is illusory is found in "Blue House" and "The Promised Land." Is it convincing? Or is it overly didactic? Do you find this vision in other stories? Is there a social critique implied in the stories?

4. The stories are in obvious ways Jewish. The major characters are usually Jews, and though the excerpts from scripture belong to Christianity as well as Judaism, they enter the stories by way of Jewish holy days, Jewish prayer. Are the stories Jewish in a deeper sense? Are the stories accessible to non-Jews?

5. Does the author have a consistent way of seeing marriage? The darkest (though most comic) vision of marriage is found in "Night Talk." The narrator seems to sabotage himself at every turn. The wife can say or do nothing that wouldn't be turned to destruction, and the wife is perhaps a saboteur herself. Other stories, like "Blue House," also show negative portraits of marriage. The stories about family-of-origin express as dark a vision of marriage. Do these stories distort marriage? Are there stories affirming the relation between husband and wife? What would you say about "The Contract"?

6. Many of the stories ("History Lessons," "An Old 3 A. M. Story," "Dance to the Old Words," "Vertigo," etc.) deal with the relation of fathers to children. Are these realistic stories, or do they sentimentalize this relation? Are they moving stories?

7. A number of these stories are full of guilt and remorse. The husband-father is a failure in his relationships but longs to change. The Jewish hunger for Teshuvah-repentance, a turning back to God-is strong. In which stories do you find this need for Teshuvah? Do you believe in the protagonist's desire to turn?

8. Is there a political or social vision in the collection? Do the stories have an ideological bent?

9. Many of the later stories in the collection deal with the experience of mourning: "The Contract," "I'm Here, You're There," "Blue House," "Vertigo," "Friends," "The Promised Land." How does mourning relate to the drama of the stories? Discuss.

QUESTIONS ON SELECTED STORIES:

"An Old 3 A. M. Story"

1. All stories are built around tension and its release. What is the driving tension is this story? What does the reader expect? What does the reader want? Is the tension resolved?

2. Does the story, written in the late 1970s, reflect changes in the relations of men and women going on in the culture?

3. What's "wrong" with Jenny?

4. Is Peter a perfect human being? How does he change the situation to make it more likely that Jenny runs away again?

5. How does Sara, the daughter, relate to her mother? What happens at the end to this relationship?

"Cambridge Is Sinking"

1. Describe the cultural moment in the early 1970s that generates the story. Why is "Cambridge sinking?" WhoseCambridge is sinking? What does Steve mean when he thinks about "the casualties"? Casualties of what?

2. Erik Erikson writes that we cannot "separate...the identity crisis in individual life and contemporary crises in historical development because the two help to define one another and are truly relative to each other." Discuss with regard to this story.

3. How does Steve find himself without a role to play in the midst of conflicting roles?

4. Discuss the playfulness of the style. In a sense, the giddiness of style shows that Steve's situation isn't hopeless. He can still play.

5. How does Susan bring hope to Steve and to Cambridge?

6. Is the ending of the story a defeat or a sign of hope?

"Waiting for Polly Adler"

1. This is not exactly a "story"; it's memoir. Does it differ in any significant ways from a story? The details are factual; how are the techniques of fiction employed? Do these make the memoir less "real"?

2. The figures of Lloyd Clayton, Chuck Clayton, and the author's mother are all used again and again in the fictions. Discuss.

3. How does being a Jew figure in the memoir?

"Talking to Charlie"

1. "Talking to Charlie" is metafictional. That is, it examines its own making, and by making the reader aware that it's a story, it reminds us that our lives are always shaped by fictions: we tell ourselves stories and act them out. It also lifts the reader above the story so that the reader becomes like the presence of which David becomes aware. Discuss. Does the metafictional mechanism help the story or get in the way of experiencing it? How does story-making become the real story?

2. What does the metafictional narrator (he's not the author, of course) mean when he says, "I don't trust this story"?

3. How does David change? Does the reader expect Sarah to return to him? Would the story be stronger or weaker if she did?

4. What religious overtones do you find in the story? Are they convincing?

5. What is the narrator's story-as against David's?

"History Lessons"

1. This story moves from surprise to surprise, revelation to revelation. What are the surprises? The revelations? By the end of the story, what has Daniel learned?

2. What does the reader expect the "history lessons" to be? What in fact are they?

3. In what sense is the past not past? In what sense do we continue to live it and reinvent it?

4. Consider the relationship of Daniel to his son. By the end of the story, has it changed?

"Glory"

1. How is this "a story about glory, not mourning"?

2. Is Avrom crazy? Is there any way in which he's touching, maybe in exaggerated form, realities? What does it mean for time to open up? In what sense are many people, including the dead, inhabiting the rooms we live in? (Freud once famously said that every marriage bed has at least four people in it.)

3. What's the relationship between the story of religious apprehension and the story of human apprehension? Is there Torah in this story-a Jewish religious vision? Or is it really not Jewish but vaguely "spiritual"?

4. Does "Glory" seem overly melodramatic? How do you feel about the revelations in the story? About the portrait of a marriage?

"Muscles" and "Time Exposure"

1. These are companion stories that use some of the same material as the memoir, "Waiting for Polly Adler." Discuss: how has the material been shaped to different ends in each?

2. Is "Muscles" a coming-of-age story? Is "Time Exposure"? What happens to the son in each story? What does he have to face? How does he cope?

3. Is the mother in the two stories purely a victim? Has she a role in shaping the family dynamics? Has she any grace? Dignity? Has the father?

4. How is the uncle seen as weak?

5. What does the scene at the Plaza accomplish for "Time Exposure"?

6. How is the sense of time in "Time Exposure" similar to that of "Glory"?

"The Man Who Could See Radiance"

1. "Before he saw radiance..." the first clause of the first sentence of the story takes for granted something that is unknown, undefined, mysterious. What is the effect? What would be changed if the story had described ordinary seeing and then said, "One day Weintraub saw in a new way"?

2. What is the difference between Weintraub's initial way of seeing and his later way?

3. Do you see Weintraub as crazy? As mystical? What have you emotionally experienced that's like the radiance hevisually experienced? Is the real world you know analogous to Weintraub's expanded reality?

4. How, why, does the radiance Weintraub experiences become not a joy but a terror?

5. Is the ending a defeat? Can one live always in the apprehension of radiance?

"The Builder"

1. How is "The Builder" similar to "The Man Who Could See Radiance" in apprehension and in the structure of the narrative?

2. Azakarian functions in the story both as a kind of malach, a holy messenger, and a clown. Discuss his functions.

3. What changes does Michael go through?

4. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked in Memphis with Martin Luther King, he said, "I felt my legs were praying." How is this insight applicable to Michael's experience in "The Builder"?

"The Contract"

1. Is "The Contract" a theological examination of the problem of suffering? In what sense does it examine the problem? In what sense is it not an exercise in theology?

2. What are the tensions in the marriage? How do they reveal themselves? Does the story come to any resolution of the tensions?

3. Clayton has written about his narrator, "He's a pugilist, not a nihilist-a member of the Covenant, playing by the rules of Torah. He doesn't deny or negate the sacred-ness of the world; he assumes we're in a world infused by the sacred. This gives him the right and ability to speak to God and to Moses. He assumes that life and death are meaningful, that the world has depth and dignity." Discuss. Is this set of attitudes dominant in the contemporary world?

4. Aruba in this story is a created space, a space for play and love. How is it different from the Aruba of the family's experience?

"I'm Here, You're There"

1. Spiritual awareness permeates this story. Do you read it as meaningful awareness made available through longing and suffering, or do you read it as defensive theoretical structures meant to cope with severe grief?

2. What is your attitude towards Bernie? Is he going overboard in his attempt to reach his dead brother? How do you feel about his final decision-to return to Boston?

3. Is Carolyn overly severe with Bernie? Why does she refuse to let him help?

4. What place does comedy have in the story?

"Blue House"

1. The description of the house, leaking, needing repair, is clearly a way of expressing deeper issues in the family. What are these? Describe the marriage of Monroe and Johanna.

2. Consider the narrative arc (the shape of the drama) of Ted's relation to his son Sam.

3. Is Monroe a good surrogate father for Sam? Describe the arc of their relationship.

4. What are the mall and the arcade doing in the story? In psychological terms how does Sam use the war game? 5. Do Monroe's tactics change in helping Sam? Are they merely "tactics"? Do they help? 6. Why does Monroe step back when Ted and Sam are together? 7. Consider the way "Blue House" and "An Old 3 A. M. Story" are similar in the pain the protagonist undergoes when an inadequate parent comes for a child. 8. Is Johanna in any way responsible for Ted's inadequacies as a father, or is it merely that Monroe thinks so? 9. Is the ending tragic? What is the significance of the final telephone call Monroe gets from Sam?

"Voices"

1. There is a similarity between what Krassner experiences and what Avrom in "Glory" and Weintraub in "The Man Who Could See Radiance" experience. Are the dramas similar?

2. The source of the voices Krassner hears: is it his psyche or something beyond him? Does the story tell us?

3. How do the psychology and the sociology implied in the story relate to one another? Is Barbara the victim of her own self-hatred or of social forces? If both, how do they relate to one another?

4. Does Krassner go though any changes or does he simply survive? Do his liberal attitudes function to protect him? Is he a hero in the story?

5. How do you read the ending-the session Barbara comes to and laughs with Krassner? Does the story end in victory?

"Vertigo"

1. In "Vertigo," as in "The Contract," a character recovers parts of the past he's wanted to forget. Discuss.

2. Compare and contrast the mourning of Daniel Bergoff in "Vertigo" to that of Bernie in "I'm Here, You're There."

3. It could be said that time is at the core of "Vertigo." How is the treatment of time in this story similar to and different from its treatment in "Glory"? Why does Bergoff experience time as he does? Is he using his perception as defense? Is he in touch with a truer reality? Does his suffering give him access to deeper reality?

4. He will hide me in His haven on an evil day. How has Bergoff hidden?

5. "This is the time of year when we're told to take stock, a time of turning. The year turns, we are to turn our lives toward God." Does Bergoff do Teshuvah, a turning to God?

"Soap Opera"

1. This story, like "History Lessons," moves toward revelations and a reassessment of the past. Discuss.

2. The story is called "Soap Opera" partly because David's father, Harry Bromowitz, played characters on soap operas in the 1960s. In what ways is the story itself a kind of soap opera, though a comic one?

3. How does Harry's lover, Nancy Collins, change the nature of the family? How does David feel about her? Why? What happens to Harry when Nancy comes? He remains narcissistic; how does he change? How do we see him differently?

4. What is the twist that happens when David lies about his mother's affair?

5. Why is David left with "a hole in his heart"?

"The Promised Land"

1. Is Samuel a prophet or a complainer? Does he have a valid social vision? Compare it to the vision of Monroe in "Blue House." Why is he so opposed to the values he associates with LA? What are those values? How are they made manifest at the party in the hills? "'I-CON/TACT.' You hear, boys? They're building a temple to an icon. Exactly! 'I' as an icon, an idol. And whose world is this? Huh? What chutzpah! Do they think they really own it? Are they really going to bring it to your 'data port'?" What is Samuel's point? Is he being unfair? How are "LA values" different from religious values?

2. In what ways does Samuel's relationship to his grandson Danny undergo changes? How does Peter feel about those changes?

3. What is the significance of Peter's defense of his father at the party?

4. The story comes full circle, ending on the boat. What changes have taken place?



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