salinger and chuck wachtel’s “behind the mask”

Took a few nights away from reading through Bringing the Devil to His Knees to reread Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger. I received it as a holiday gift and wanted to reread because New Years Day is Salinger’s birthday and also because it helps me reconnect with Salinger and his material. The work means so much to me and also I admire Salinger’s progression as a fiction writer–much more than the rumors, his legal trials and personal troubles. And as I read I thought of planning a special topics course on Salinger since I have his uncollected stories from Will’s Salinger special topics course. I’d love to follow the uncollected stories again that show his growth and tries at marketable stories and then later stories that give depth of meaning and spirituality which all shows such a growth in his art. Perhaps one day soon but I do want to develop a Latino Lit course.

Tonight I focus on Chuck Wachtel’s essay called “Behind the Mask” and see so many similarities to Steven Schwartz’ essay. Maybe that is why I didn’t underline and annotate much. I was most engaged after rereading Wachtel’s opening and how his family speaking a mix of Italian and English along with the grunts and familiarity of language that comes from an old married couple and how all this helped to build his sense of voice. I couldn’t help but think of the Abuelitos and how they spoke a mix of Spanish and English. Language of intimacy is the classification I’m most focused on in Wachtel’s essay. Wachtel writes: “In fiction it is voice that transforms a series of sparse and diminutive symbols, combed into a narrative discourse, into a dynamic, ongoing reflection of experience…When we read, voice is the most immediate and authoritative presence.” He goes on to explain that this notion of voice precedes, or rather should precede, character and setting and image and ideas. He also goes on to state that this idea of voice and how it is the bare essential that famous writers such as Kafka, Gertrude Stein and Becket and exist as the persona of its speaker. The presence of the narrator but also the presence of the author/writer/artist. Then Wachtel asks how these personas or identities can affect a reader so deeply?

He then begins to throw out answers. First he writes voice is a literal and figurative expression. It is real and also a creation/metaphor. Voices then must be read and heard. Then he begins to discuss sources—quoting EL Doctorow and the idea that we must find voices from outside of fiction and also outside from ourselves to bring to fiction. Great stuff and I am thinking perhaps this might be a great place to begin in a creative writing class. I think this because so many of my students create stories but perhaps don’t see how their stories and ears for language can be dragged into their fiction. They do it in creative nonfiction but then move on to vampire and sci-fi stories and horror rather than bringing voices from Illinois into their stories as I try so hard to bring voiced from Colorado into my stories. Lived and observed life coming together within fiction is how Wachtel puts it. Great stuff.

Then he moves on to persona and the idea that the authority of the narrator’s voice is the first thing readers see and becomes so important. He says the voice/persona is “both an immediate and continuous source of meaning.” He uses Toni Cade Bambara’s narrator from “The Lesson” as an example. The world here in this story—and in her entire collection Gorilla, My Love I would argue creates the world, the fictive space and because the voice is unique and encompassing it creates unique authority.

More on this essay soon…

Published by john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo was born and raised in southern Colorado. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including the Acentos Review, Palabra, A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art, and most recently in Duende. His collection The House of Order: Stories was named an International Latino Book Award Finalist and his novel in stories Little Mocos is forthcoming from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 the editors of Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read.

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