Anton Chekhov said that stories don’t need to answer a question so much as state the question correctly. Whether or not he was right—he’s quoted and paraphrased so often that we should be wary not just of what he said, but of people who recycle what he said in essays on writing—it’s true that writers don’t have to dress up their confusion as certainty. Authority and conviction are great in fiction, but so is the opposite of authority and conviction. George Eliot and Samuel Beckett both hang the moon in complementary crescents.
The plot for my collection’s title story, “A Moral Tale,” comes from Eric Rohmer’s 1967 movie “My Night at Maud’s,” about a lonely mathematician who decides not to sleep with a seductive divorcee. It asks why someone would ever, under any circumstances, turn down sex. There are of course as many reasons for refusing sex as there are combinations of people on the planet, and these reasons could be broadly categorized under headings like lack of attraction, reluctance to be intimate with a stranger, religion, monogamy, impotence, fetishism, misanthropy, etc., but none are very convincing, so I wrote three stories about the question: the aforementioned title story, “Haley,” and “The Stranger.” They don’t provide a definitive answer, but instead flesh out the problem and suggest things like “human behavior is inscrutable” and “we’re guided by complicated algorithms that assess rewards and punishments for action and inaction, and every situation involves variables we’d do well to ignore” and “in saying no to sex one is perhaps not saying no to sex but rather saying yes to something else of greater immediate and ultimate value than sex, and this itself, viewed through certain keyholes, could be a sexual act.”
After my why-reject-sex? trilogy, which was comic in structure and tone, I went dark in “BANG,” the story of a suicide epidemic sweeping the planet, and “Sunrise,” a close look at an accidental/intentional murder. The questions they ask have to do with self-preservation—How does something as fundamental and foundational as the urge to stay alive collapse?—and the combination of boredom and greed—Why do people give in to that kind of toxicity, and how might they get out of it?—and make suggestions that could be construed as declarations, but shouldn’t. Unless that construction helps someone somewhere (though, again, it shouldn’t).
“Nu” grew out of my living in Pennsylvania when fracking started to get bad press. The narrator’s alien-like distance from their protagonist, a woman at the crossroads of natural gas drilling and environmental preservation, reflects my horror at what was going on. There was no way to deal with the subject without viewing it from far away in space and time.
The other stories in A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales predate the comedies and tragedies. I wrote the first, “Concord,” after deciding in my late 20s that short stories weren’t just cramped versions of novels, that one didn’t always need hundreds of thousands of pages to say what had to be said about war and peace, whales, deluded Spaniards, wealthy gentlemen in want of wives, phony adults, tennis and addiction, magical Colombian villages—that writing short stories wasn’t as painful and pointless as wearing shoes a size too small. “Concord” is a love story, which seemed appropriate to cut my short story teeth on because love seemed like a transitory and fantastical thing to me then, and in chronicling four people who renounce bad love and embrace good love I found a happy marriage of form and content. The next stories I wrote, “Arising” and “Humphrey Dempsey”, pivoted away from intimacy and toward religion and geopolitics and fairy tales, which had been obsessing me. “Arising” plays with the way Genesis sets everyone up to die after suffering old age, and “Humphrey Dempsey” draws on the Peloponnesian Wars and the Thirty Years’ War and Humpty Dumpty to get at the complicated roots of betrayal.
The short shorts, “Stargazing” and “Jane Says,” are squibs where I took the liberating compression of the short story form and made it even more liberated and compressed. They get right to the heart of the heart of the matter: the moment everything changes forever for someone (a theme also developed in “Haley”).
The collection’s capstone, “Agape,” is all that’s left of a novel I once wrote about a young idealist who got kicked out of a Sixties-style commune in southern Oregon and had to live in Los Angeles. It’s a study of what to do after you’ve rejected the world you inherited by being born, a world of money and careerism and market-directed, consensus-driven surface pleasures, and then failed at the one you actively, deliberately chose. It asks, What else offers? The answer to which question is, as everyone knows, _______________________.
Click here to purchase A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales.