Richard Bausch and open-endedness in fiction–in “Peace” and “Something Is Out There.”

A few weeks ago, I commented on short stories in general that they often have a surprise ending, and that this is characteristic of the short story form.  While this is more true than not of the traditional short story, in some short forms (such as Richard Bausch’s short story “Something Is Out There,” the title story of a 2010 collection by the same name) the seemingly truncated surprise or what is often called the “open-endedness” which has become a regular feature of novel writing these days is followed, and a prime example of that quality in fiction is evidenced in another Bausch work, his 2008 novel Peace.

There are other similarities as well between the two works, not only in the way they are put together, but in narrative voice and setting/climate of the action.  The narrative voice in Peace is faintly reminiscent in its restraint of Ernest Hemingway at his best, though we fortunately escape from the sometimes chicken-playing maudlin tough guy attitude of the main characters in Hemingway’s war novels, which appears to some extent even in the war novel which I personally believe to be his best, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Though the lofty grandeur of Hemingway one-liners is also missing, in its place in Peace we have what seems a more honest approach to the subject of war from the point of view of a corporal named Marson and two privates in Italy in WWII who are charged with going forward over a mountain to ascertain where the enemy is and in what number.  They are guided by a possibly disloyal Italian guide, and have also to contend with a sniper somewhere in the dismal, wretched winter forest around them.  In “Something Is Out There,” a Virginia family is weathering a winter snowstorm too, after their male breadwinner has been shot off the roof by a former business partner.  In this fiction, the part of the “sniper” is played by the fears they suffer while waiting for a cousin to come through the storm to celebrate Christmas with them, not only because he is late, but because they keep getting calls and an unknown visitor comes, all wanting to speak to the father, who is in the hospital.  The mother of the family, Paula, plays the role of the commanding presence which is analogous to the role played by Corporal Marson in Peace.  Both must defend the others grouped around them, and just as the soldiers in the novel are all unashamedly afraid of dying, so the family with perhaps equal cause feels hunted by what they fear may be lurking in the winter landscape around the house in which they are gathered.  Both the soldiers in the forest and the family in the snowed-in house are plagued not only by the weather, but by uncertainty and the elemental forces around them.  The soldiers don’t know if they are being followed or not, and have to contend with hearing shots in the night without knowing at first who is shooting or being shot; the family in the house is waiting for their family member Christopher to arrive in his Jeep, and is speculating whether the father who was shot is involved in illegal business; both the soldiers and the family have to deal with repeated snowfalls or bad weather, and both are forced to function in the dark, the soldiers because they are out in the night forest, the family because they are in the middle of a power outage.  All of these things constitute similarities between the two stories.

Probably the most structurally interesting thing about the two fictions, however, is that both are left open-ended.  While not wanting to reveal the endings entirely, I can safely tell you that the soldiers go on being soldiers in the midst of conflict without playing out entirely all the different threads of plot which are provided them earlier on:  Marson comes to certain realizations and resolves, but he goes on being a soldier whose first mission is to kill the enemy.  The family members all do various things to make themselves feel safe, but even for Paula, the main character, there is no assurance that her solution is going to safeguard her family or the house:  there is not even an absolute confirmation that they are being rational instead of merely needlessly panicky.  The storm has in some sense dictated isolation, but their isolation is no assurance, since for all they know “something is out there,” the most primitive fear of humankind hidden in the “cave” of its fears.  In fact, it is the open-endedness of these two fictions which helps the reader identify with the fears felt by the characters in each case, fears which bring out basic character traits that sometimes lead to an inability to get along with each other and less frequently to a genuine sort of heroism.  And it is the open-endedness of real life, imitated fictionally here, which makes the two works so convincing and so capable of speaking to what we know of ourselves and others.

(I would like to reference Caroline’s blog Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for her Literature and War Readalong 2012.  I was not able to get around to reading Richard Bausch in time to participate in her readalong, but her blog was the inspiration behind my getting the book Peace and reading it in the first place when I was able to, and also led to my checking out the book of Bausch’s short stories.)

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9 responses to “Richard Bausch and open-endedness in fiction–in “Peace” and “Something Is Out There.”

  1. I certainly agree with humankind’s ‘fear of the unknown’.

    Fear of dark areas, researching the behaviour of cancers, or finding planets compatible with Earth.

    It is said curiosity and analysis is the true stamp of humankind, but it is also the tried and true example that we think what we do not know will kill us eventually.

    We’ll be attacked and killed, we’ll die without the cure, or Earth will die with us on it.

    The real difficulty is realising so much of what we see around us was built from the ‘Chaos Theory’ of millions of years of evolution. No matter what we discover, it will most likely lead to more questions than answers.

    • That’s a very deep and thoughtful response. It’s rather odd and sad that it has taken so many years of evolution for us to be hunting each other with guns through a forest, isn’t it? A friend recently sent me a video which is on the Internet now which starts with a universe, narrows down to the earth and the evolution of humankind, and then gradually shows humankind destroying itself, and a broadening shot back out to the universe again. I just hope that doesn’t tell the whole story, you know?

      • I certainly hope it doesn’t either. For all we know, such a process could have played out many times over the 14 billion’ish year (thus far) lifespan of the universe in its far reaches. With an infinite span, brain-hurting numbers of galaxies, and the endless possibilities of how all the elements come together and interact in the crunch of collapsing stars or the formation of worlds, even a pessimistic statistician would say life had to have happened before… and could again if it ever died out. If we can ever meet other life across such distances is another cosmic kettle of fish though.

        Sorry, if it’s not the Early Middle Ages I am researching, it is the Universe and evolution. Always amusing to realise one is getting geekier as they age =P

  2. Yes, I know. But after all, it’s a question of being sad for oneself, isn’t it? Because if life can renew itself and go on infinitely across galaxies and universes, one can only mourn one’s own particular self and corner of the universe dying out.

  3. I just read Frank O’Connor’s short story “Guests of the Nation” and this principal seems to apply. There is clear violence, and surprising, yet what lingers is that the narrator still goes on, and we wonder about him because he’s hinted at what the violence did to him. The point of the story, then, is not the violent climax but what was implied: what it did to one survivor and perpetrator. Hemingway was great at this buried stuff that goes on past the story.

    • Yes, “Guests of the Nation” is a classic any way you look at it. And though I love to take pot-shots at Hemingway for lines (particularly lines ending novels and particular actions in novels) which make the point over and over again that his character is tough and embittered (like “Isn’t it pretty to think so” at the end of “The Sun Also Rises”), I regard having read Hemingway as one of the literary high points of my life. But the kind of climax I’m talking about is a sort of non-climax, a STRUCTURAL dead end, not so much in characterization as in the way the final events are organized. A sort of lack of finality: is this what you are referring to as well? I guess about Hemingway that once he has done it, no one else can do it as well or at least no one else can do it the same way; still, what I particularly respect Bausch for more than I do Hemingway is that the characters aren’t tough-minded stiff-upper-lipped heroes, but ordinary guys out on the line. Hemingway could never convince me that his hero’s just an ordinary guy, largely I think because he’s never convinced of it himself. But after all, we have so much fiction, and there’s room for so many different kinds of writer, it’s reminding me (in my childish glee at having so much to read) of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem in “A Child’s Garden of Verse”: “The world is so full of a number of things/That I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

  4. Pingback: Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  5. I liked this post a lot, i think to read these two together and compare them works incredibly well. Quite uncanny. I’ve said elsewhere that I had a feeling Bausch was best known for family dramas and such and to see that he applies a similar structure, setting, down to the open end, for two such different stories is very interesting.
    I liked the treatment of weather in “Peace” a lot. There were other things that worked less well for me but I’ve read it with a completely different approach.
    I’m really glad you made me aware of this short story and I will try and read it as soon as possible.
    I have still not figured out why he chose the title “Peace” for the novel. Have you?

    • I think it may be because the scene at home that Marson keeps imagining takes place in a mental space that is still peaceful for him before he leaves. Also, he obtains a kind of religious or spiritual peace after his resolution of what happens at the end (trying here not to ruin the ending for your readers). It reminds me of something in M*A*S*H*, though that is admittedly a more comic and satiric forum for comment. In one episode, a pilot who pays Korean children to run into the mine fields and retrieve metal fragments in order to make souvenirs for American soldiers to take home is prevented from doing so anymore by the two heroes, the main characters. He says, “Do you think you’re going to change the world? Other guys will do it if I don’t.” They respond, “Maybe we can’t change the whole world, but we’re going to change our little corner of it.” It may be the same sort of dynamic in “Peace” at the end. Those are about the only two guesses I have. I mean, I’ve not really sure. I don’t want to shrug my shoulders and say “Search me,” but those two ideas are the best I’ve got!

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