“And you, sprawled upon your cushions, watching and listening to me tell my tale, you who believe me but a fleeting reflection of reverie in the torpor that follows a fine meal, are you sure it is any different for you, that each and every one of your adventures, or even entire lives—dreamer, reader, author—is anything but an infinitesimal moment in the reverie of an enormous drunkard sprawled upon his clouds, or a ticklish twitch deep in the infinite womb whence sprang (perhaps) the universe? Outside the coffin shop, outside the room where you lie, is vastest night. Do you hear the sirens of ambulances howling as they come and go, searching for prey?” ~ André Pieyre de Mandiargues, “The Nude Amongst the Coffins” (“Le nu parmi les cercueils”) from Feu de braise, (Grasset, 1959) first published in English as Blaze of Embers (Calder & Boyars, 1971). I have tinkered with April Fitzlyon’s translation.
“And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?” ~ Richard Ford, “Rock Springs” from the collection of the same name (Atlantic Monthly Books, 1987). Esquire first published the story in 1982.
The first of these stories features a man named Daniel Point settling into a siesta in Mexico City. It tells of how, “in the process of succumbing to this gentle inoccupation,” Daniel has already closed his eyes when he seems to glimpse, in the mirror hanging above him, a nude girl among coffins piled high in the back room of a mortuary, though no such space is situated for the mirror to show it.
The other story centers around Earl Middleton, fleeing Montana for Florida with his girlfriend (Edna), daughter (Cheryl), and dog (Little Duke) in tow. We know that Earl, a writer of bad checks, is driving a cranberry-colored Mercedes. We know next to nothing of Daniel, except the vision from which he wakes.
Both stories feature first-person narrators who meet with difficult fates. Earl is our tour guide on his country song of a short story, which involves loss of car and girlfriend. Mandiargues begins and ends his tale in the third person with Daniel, but its meaty middle gives voice to Mariana Guajaco, the girl of the title and Daniel’s vision, whose story it really is.
Both stories set crucial scenes at motels that feature couples having fights. Both leave their women disillusioned, or worse (both authors have been justly charged with misogyny). Neither story contains an overtly supernatural event, but Mandiargues’ bizarre fantasia is cloaked in the menace of death, while Ford’s scrupulous blue-collar realism deals mostly in loneliness and desperation. Mandiargues, in his mortuary setpiece, so overtly links sex and death as to invite ridicule. When Ford’s characters meet with a literal and unattainable gold mine, his story staggers under the weight of a symbol so outsized as to tinge realism with (American) dream.
These are two texts that in our current, or indeed most any literary culture, might never meet, but why shouldn’t they? Mightn’t they shed light on, or have something to say to each other? Couldn’t two apparent ends of the spectrum be brought together for some new productive purpose? Both acquire their power from the same abrupt rhetorical turn toward the end, the character’s j’accuse. In Ford’s America, like that of Springsteen’s songs, few are safe from heartbreak, bad choices, and worse economics. Mandiargues’ Mexico City, like that of Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, is a site of spiritual squalor and feral dilapidation, in which “districts where undertakers are found are also those where prostitutes solicit,” where none escape bondage or the angel of death. “We made love on the seat of the car in the Quality Court parking lot just as the sun was burning up on the Snake River, and everything seemed then like the end of the rainbow,” says Earl in a lyrical moment referencing that American ur-fairyland, Oz. Whereas Daniel
“got up, his mind confused as after a bender, grabbed an umbrella and went out, knowing at least that he would return to that district, and dreading, moreover, a meeting there with something—man, woman, beast, object, or tragedy in the street, which would have the gravest consequences for his life, and which would be the continuation of a vision he refused to believe had been but a lie or empty phantasmagoria.”
No one in either story is safe from dreams.
Yet though these two tales, sharing a table at a bar, make the same gesture for a final round, they order fairly different drinks. Amidst direness, Ford makes a play for compassionate identification, the highest morality of mainstream fiction. Mandiargues’ narration expands gaseously toward cosmic dwarfing and would almost dissipate in Kiplingesque opium smoke of the kind critics find easy to dismiss as irrelevant—were it not for the brutal final sirens.
Mandiargues can be tiresome in his belabored (often oddly cubist) paeans to the naked female form, and when not enacting some rigorous symbology, his plots disappoint. He hurls so much energy into his expert prose in pursuit of momentary intensities. Throughout his work, willful cruelty and humiliation are fancifully exaggerated into ritual and universal principle. His baroque tableaux are animated not by human drama but by external, sourceless terror. “The Nude Amongst the Coffins” is dedicated to Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour.
Ford’s tale masks a great deal of canny, economical storytelling under oral twang and nested anecdote. That it goes down easy should count for and not against it. At every turn, it flaunts the careful craft that is both the aesthetic virtue and philosophical limitation of contemporary, middle-class, mainstream American realism—the boundaries of its taste and imagination. You, readers of literary fantasy, know how this goes: clean, unassuming prose purports to provide windows into characters’ souls, but never a mirror into a nonexistent mortuary.