In Something In My Eye (Sarabande, 2012), Michael Jeffrey Lee’s debut collection of surreal and heartbreaking short stories, the author updates the traditional folktale. His stories are simply framed, with an anxious character embarking on a journey—to a whorehouse for pleasure, to the woods to find a missing child—however, the landscape where events unfold is within the character’s unknowable mind. Lee’s sentences flow like a strange soundtrack; above all, he understands how to create atmosphere, and it remains unclear if his displaced characters are harmless or dangerous, insightful or crazy, though in sharp flashes they seem to experience inner life beyond thought and reason.
In 2010, the author Francine Prose selected Michael’s manuscript as the winner of The Mary McCarthy Prize In Short Fiction, which is sponsored by the independent publishing house Sarabande Books. Lee can be unforgiving to his characters, but off the page he is modest and engaging. Here, he discusses the unlikely influence of gospel music, and his fascination with evil figures in both reality and in fiction.
A unique trait in your writing is the way you rework fairy tales. What do you like about this type of short story?
The simplicity. There’s something so painful and funny, with the ‘rule of three.’ Crisis doesn’t fall once or twice, but three times. When I completed my MFA, I was up to my eyeballs in fairy tales.
Is there a particular story that challenged your assumptions about fairy tales?
The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers by the Grimm Brothers. The story is a deadpan saga about a boy who travels from horrific situation to horrific situation, and maintains his cool. Ralph Manheim translated the fifth version of the text. He’s great—he did all the Céline. What I love about Manheim’s translation is that he keeps the irrational elements, like where the narrator interjects, and that forces the reader to imagine a narrator. Who is this narrator? That’s something I tried to show in my stories.
Rather than a plot driven story, what you’re after is a psychological portrait of a narrator?
Exactly. In Grimms’, the person telling the story is always very strange. I was less interested in the characters they were describing than the narrators themselves. I thought it was scary, and I wanted to explore that relationship—the role of the narrator and myself, the author. There’s an essay by David Foster Wallace, called “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” about his time on the set of Lynch’s Lost Highway, where he raises an interesting point about the creative act. How much is didactic, or subconscious?
Something In My Eye reminded me of Blue Velvet in many ways. There’s a similar unhurried approach in revealing the full picture. At first, the character acts one way, and by the end you see them very differently, but you’re not sure which side of them is the true self. Perhaps you’re suggesting it’s both sides.
That was a film I re-watched over and over when I lived in L.A. In retrospect, I realize there’s something of Frank Booth in Pate—a wild, repressed, maniac.
Music is essential to the world you’ve created and it sets the tone of each story. Your characters recite ornate, almost baroque, lyrics that linger in the mind. Did you invent them?
“If We Should Ever Meet” is unfortunately right out of my head. It owes a big debt to gospel or spiritual music, and hopefully quite funny in that context. My characters are always carrying around songs in their heads—a sure sign of their madness, perhaps, but I suspect that it also offers them genuine solace. I guess my stories are the work of a frustrated songwriter.
Was music a part of your childhood growing up in California?
Somewhat. My father was adept at playing many instruments, and my mother had a pretty singing voice when self-consciousness didn’t get the best of her.
What did you write about today?
I wrote out a few notes for a future story on a notepad and tonight at work I wrote customers’ orders out on white tickets, clearly, so the cooks would know what to cook. It was not a good writing day.
You strip current events of recognizable details so they become generic events—the war in Iraq becomes ‘war’ and Katrina is just ‘a storm.’ It’s an interesting example of how a stylistic choice changes the story thematically. Was your intention to write about our current history the way you experienced it?
The tragedy has been peripheral. I would be dishonest if the stories were about war or Katrina. In 2005, I was new to New Orleans and I was terrified. I evacuated, and my apartment didn’t flood. Post-Katrina I lived in motels. ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ is such a post-traumatic story. In Alabama, I felt surrounded by war and hostility. Though no one in my family was in the war. I don’t lay claim to these things. I experienced a culture shooting itself in the foot, but I was also living an idyllic life as a student, sleeping in a cabin in the woods. I fear what happens when people are in search of authenticity, when they exploit anything but themselves.
For all the time your characters spend in self-reflection, the people in these stories—who they really are—remain elusive.
I like ambiguity. I think it’s dishonest to give it a tragic ending. Humor is a nice way to deflate my more grand gestures. I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting people leave a story feeling relieved.
Is it a way to get people to think?
When the fear is completely assuaged the story is no longer interesting. I think stories fail when they’re too moralistic.
The story “Last Seen” has a very uncertain ending. A mother is grief-stricken and her little boy insists that he sees his dead brother in the woods. The mother is irate, but the boy is sincere, and he has a lot of questions about the vision.
It’s a spooky one to read. It’s a dramatic monologue. I was able to access a much truer voice when I thought of the role of narration as performance.