Review Of The Mountains Won’t Remember Us, by Robert Morgan
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/06
Not all bad writing is bad. That statement may confuse people who are longtime readers of mine. What I mean by it is that all writing that is considered bad is not necessarily badly written. There are writers whose work avoids the obvious clichés, easy stereotypes, bad music (especially in poetry), and the glaring maladies that kill a written work, which tends to fail in only a handful of ways, yet whose writing is just painfully dull, and essentially pointless, and far from being good. In fact, even though it is ‘better written’ than most bad writing, often the worse writing has better potential because at least it is individuated. Yet, this sort of bad writing, the type I am concerned with, is just words that describe dull people, duller, events, and has not an ounce of transcendence, nor anything memorable in their narrative nor even phrasing of things. When you get finished reading their work the reader is left wondering what the reason was that the writer felt compelled to share this information about characters that are no more interesting than the fat lady who lacked the grace to hold in her fart while you were standing in line at your local supermarket. These writers lack what is called style, and this stems in part from the fact that they lack any real inspiration. Their work is the sine qua non of the term generic. What separates a good, or great, artist from a lesser practitioner is that they have their own style. One does not mistake Frederic Edwin Church for Henri Matisse, nor is Ernest Hemingway taken for Herman Hesse, nor is Walt Whitman ever mistaken for Sylvia Plath. These generic writers write simply to advance their names, not to enlarge the scope of human knowledge nor enjoyment. It is, in a sense, an act of selfishness that propels them, and dooms their unfortunate readership to a waste of their time, time that will and can never be retrieved. In short, generic writing, even if it does not violate the most flagrant bounds of execrability in writing, is still, in its own way, bad.
One such work The Mountains Won’t Remember Us, a 1992 collection of tales documenting the history of southern Appalachia, and its generic author is Robert Morgan, a professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a writer whose later novel, Gap Creek, apparently became a notorious Oprah Winfrey Book Club Selection. In a fair and just cosmos I would not have to state a single word after that last sentence to compel you to accept the truth that Morgan is a generic writer, at least I prose, although I doubt his published poetry is any better. Another sin that most generic writers suffer from is an inability to be concise. Stories that a good writer might nail in three thousand words will take the bad, generic writer eight thousand to tell, so rapt with needlessly overdescribing their fictive cosmos in stilted and perfunctory ways that the meat and center of the tale is buried and the generic writer’s reader is long turned off to completing their work, which becomes a task, not a joy.
Such was the case with my reading The Mountains Won’t Remember Us. Morgan is not a workshop bad writer, nor a PC bad writer, nor even a hipster PoMo bad writer. He’s simply a generic bad writer, whose tales of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the South, and the several generations of people that inhabit them, simply are narcoleptic. The book is comprised of ten short stories and the titular novella. The earliest tales deal with the late Eighteenth Century, and slaves and Cherokee Indians abound, and the later tales bring the reader up to sometime in ‘the present’, presumably the late Twentieth Century. Thus, we proceed from Indian skirmishes, and mass murder to the trailer park trash so often found in stories by better writers, like Raymond Carver and Russell Banks. One would think that this approach to documenting an area would yield positive results, given that many writers, in recent years, have written short story cycles-cum-novels of place, with varying degrees of success, from great outings like Monica Wood’s Ernie’s Ark and Edward Jones’ Lost In The City, to lesser works like K.L. Cook’s Last Call. Yet, Morgan’s book is simply a collection of unrelated stories following the vagaries of mostly poor white folk. And none of them goes anywhere.
Yet, one would not know that truth from reading the typically generic blurbs and intellectually inert critical feints that the book received, such as this one, culled from online:
With one eye on the land itself and the other on its inhabitants, Morgan poignantly portrays a history of change, of transformation in the landscape, in humanity’s relationship to the earth, and in people’s relationships with each other. His intimate knowledge of the region he portrays makes this collection a valuable social history. At the same time, Morgan offers a moving theme to that which is universal and eternal- the majestic immutability of the earth and the heroic human struggle to live, love, and create new life. Focusing on one people in one place, Morgan addresses the themes that matter to all people in all places: birth and death, love and loss, joy and sorrow, the necessity for remembrance, and the inevitability of forgetting.
Look at how generic this blurb is, which recapitulates the man’s writing, but also shows how dull writing is constructed, with trite and overblown verbs and modifiers as ‘poignantly’,‘transformation’, ‘valuable’, ‘universal’, ‘eternal’, ‘majestic’, and ‘heroic’. It gets little better in the actual stories. Five of the tales have female lead characters and the range of ages of the speakers vary from the preteens to octogenarians, yet, despite that, there is a blandness to the perceptions each character recognizes and every word they speak. The dialogue is atrociously banal. Yet, even worse is the fact that none of the tales take off, and their endings are non-moments. The tales simply end, but not in Chekhovian zero endings, which use their relative narrative ‘silence’ to allow the great reverberations of the tale told to echo, but in what could only be called ‘negative endings’, as in negative numbers, not awful events, that simply seem to reveal the writer had no clue on how to wrap up his tales.
In the first story, Poinsett’s Bridge, we follows the building of a stone bridge in South Carolina, during the post-Revolutionary war days. The main character, a stonemason feels he is a part of history, even though he questions the treatment of the people who build the bridge, as well that of the slaves. Yet, nowhere does the narrator connect the dots, nor have an epiphany. Yes, sometimes epiphanies can be contrived, and a clueless narrator is the way to go, but a good writer makes that cluelessness something to marvel at, and the tale leaves a gem of a notion within the reader precisely because its point is missed by the main character. This does not happen in this tale, which ends this way, as people pour over the bridge:
I looked back and there was the prettiest carriage you ever seen, with a black driver all in livery carrying his long stiff whip. They was lanterns of polished brass and glass on the corners and shiny black fenders. You never seen people dressed up like them inside, ladies with parasols and dresses so low you could nearly see the nipples on their bosoms, and men in top hats and silk cravats. And behind that carriage was other carriages, and buggies, and a whole bunch of wagons carrying supplies and servants. It was some big party from the Low Country coming up for a picnic in the mountains. I’ve heard Fremont, the general and governor of California, was in that party. He was just a boy then. I stood back and let them pass, and they ignored me just like I was air.
Then when I did get started up the turnpike finally, stepping around cowpiles and horse apples, my strength coming back a little at a time, I met more drovers coming down the mountain. It was like they had opened a flood gate and flocks of sheep came along, baaing and pushing and jumping over each other, turning the road to dirty wool. And then a drove of hogs came, nosing and grunting, squealing when prodded by boys with sticks. I thought I had seen it all by then, but all of a sudden around the bend come a flock of turkeys, all gobbling and squawking. And behind them a bigger flock of geese come waddling, driven by more boys and followed by an old woman who carried a sack on her back.
‘We’s come all the way from Kentucky,’ she said.
Finally I thought I had the road to myself. I knowed I’d have to hurry if I was to get home by milking time. Clara was going to be mad, but they was no point in putting off the bad news.
‘Watch out, watch out, sir,’ somebody called behind me.
It was a man in a buggy pulled by a shiny Morgan that just clipped along. He had a sack on the seat beside him. And I recognized Sam the peddler from Spartanburg. He used to come around with a pack on his back, and we almost always bought cloth and buttons and such from him and asked him to stay for dinner. And now he was driving a fine buggy with a carriage horse.
After he passed it seemed late in the evening. The road was already nearly in shadow. They was a buckeye laying in the tracks, but I couldn’t tell if it was mine. It had been stepped on by a cow and I let it go. But I seen something shiny in the dirt ahead. It was my light mason’s hammer. Them big rough boys had dropped it there as they run away. They didn't have no use for a mason's hammer, and thought it was too heavy to carry. I picked it up and wiped the grit off the handle and head, then started again for home.
You get glimmers that something is happening, but the character does not, yet neither does the reader, for the story never turns away from the narrator, and outward. One of the most effective tools in a writer’s arsenal is to switch gears, and sometimes a single sentence, or even word, can turn a tale inside out and redeem the flaws that came before. This does not. Reading this end is almost like being brought to the moment of orgasm, and then your partner falls fast asleep.
Virtually every other tale in the book suffers from the same lack of prescience and skill, as well as the manifest dullness of the rote descriptions. As example, Watershed deals with white settlers’ disposition of the ‘Indian Question’ in typical bloodthirsty fashion. Death Crown follows the vigil a woman keeps over her retarded great-aunt on her deathbed. She is her aunt’s favorite, and this complicates their relationship. Frog Level deals with modern infidelity, and a scorned woman, whose Vietnam veteran husband is followed by her, all about town, and reveals nothing but Morgan’s desire to dully describe the local color. The Bullnoser deals with a man who is out of work, and his mother, who lament the fact that his dead father left them in debt, by losing money to a scam artist that the son tries to avenge. Mack is the present day penultimate tale, told by an old man with a bad heart, and focuses on the man’s love for his titular dog, a collie. And all the other stories, frankly, were so dull that I forgot what they were about the moment I turned the page.
But, worst of all, if only for its inordinate length, is The Mountains Won’t Remember Us, the novella, and really should be seven to eight pages, not the 73 pages it is. It follows the life of an old woman who has been twice married and lives in a nursing home, and has lost her foot. Yet, she is haunted by the circumstances surrounding the death of her first fiancé in World War Two.
The reader, however, is haunted by the idea that a really good writer could have done much more with the often interesting premises that Morgan sets up, yet lets go flat as stale soda. I couldn’t help that last line. Perhaps reading so much formulaic, generic, and lifeless workshoppy writing is infectious. If that’s the case, I will end before I accidentally recapitulate any of Morgan’s ‘style’, so to speak, and end with….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
Return to Bylines