Time and Interiority in David Means’s “The Chair”
By Kent Kosack •
Prose shines, comes into its own as a medium, when writers make the internal conflicts we all suffer through, each and every second, external. I don’t mean simply dramatization in the form of scenes. I mean prose that actually captures, that mimics—in style, in syntax or sentence length—the speed of thought. As someone often trapped in my own head, drowning in the river of words and ideas and memories roiling around up there, I’m drawn to writing that reflects the chaos of that internal churn. And yet, writing that is merely that, that is mired in internal monologue, can often feel like self-indulgent solipsism. Still, certain writers deftly manage to dip into the stream of thought without drowning in a dull and placid sea of static interiority.
David Means is one such accomplished swimmer. His short story “The Chair,” originally published in The Paris Review and one of my favorites in his latest short story collection, Instructions for a Funeral, is emblematic of the type of prose I’m trying to describe. How does he do it? I think it has to do with the way he plays with time in the story, with the simultaneity of experienced time. As he said in an interview in Guernica, “That’s the way time works. When you live, you’re in many different time zones at the same time. You’re in your memory, your present-moment ruminations, your speculation of what’s going to happen to you in the future.”
Means sets the reader up for this sort of mental time travel on the first page of the story, discussing his fears for his son (also a great way to characterize the narrator—what father doesn’t fear that their sins will be revisited upon their son?), who is an adventurous toddler ignoring his father’s warnings as he runs across the yard, dangerously close to the edge of the property and the Hudson River running along just beyond it:
I wanted to be assured he wouldn’t grow up painfully shy. (He didn’t). I feared he’d grow into one of those in-the-corner wallflower types, dainty and delicate, brooding, ponderous, sad as a young kid and then sullen when he hit his teenage years and then, as an adult, deeply depressed. (He didn’t). So, I suppose, part of me—in the yard that afternoon, as I followed him up the hill—was happy that he was resisting my commands and remained slightly beyond reach.
That reorientation is crucial, the way Means brings us out of his character’s head and grounds us in a particular time and place with a yard, an afternoon, a hill. Yet the preceding sentences are so internal, with the narrator reflecting on, as time has shown, unwarranted fears. Interesting, too, the way Means sets up the drama around a father stuck in his head while his son plays near a ledge and a swift river and yet, rather than make the suspense around the potential fall the driver of the story, Means has his narrator divulge that his son survives that afternoon, not only survives it, but presumably grows up well-adjusted.
Throughout the story we have this flow of the river and the flow of time and the flow of the narrator’s thoughts, often in long, lyrical sentences:
To my right, the river beyond the wall stretched at least three miles across, with the ebb tide and the flood tide meeting in the center to form a sheen of calm… Evening would fall, and the lights on the bridge across the river would throw themselves onto the surface of the water, appearing one by one as the sky faded, and then, safely inside the house, I’d look out the window and feel the fantastic unleashing of the pure, frank wistfulness that used to come to me at that time of day, and I’d feel, ahead, the future in one form or another, without which I could not endure the task [of being the stay-at-home parent]. At some point in the future we’d be alone in the house and Gunner [his son] would be off at college or married, and days like that would be sucked into a vortex—what other way to think of it?—of retrospect…
We’re in the narrator’s head as he’s in the yard but we’re also in the future with him, looking back on this moment, the near future of the upcoming evening and the distant future once his son is grown and has moved away. But before losing us in the vortex, Means puts us back in the yard in the first sentence of the next paragraph. Is that the trick? Characters moving through the real world, a specific place and time described with concrete details, as a counterbalance to the lyrical flights of interiority?
The plot, though, is more internal than external. In the world outside the narrator’s head the son ignores his father, falls over the edge, but, because it’s low tide, lands safely in the mud “with a shawl of wet, black sand around his collar.” The narrator brings his son inside and, as punishment for disobedience, sentences him to sit in his chair until his mother comes home. Through the narrator’s interiority we learn the real plot, that he suspects his wife of infidelity, he is insecure about her being the big-shot New York City breadwinner, he frets over his influence on his son, and over the tragic loss that is the passing of time, brought home in the scent of mutual decay:
Love is the moment just as he [his son] comes out the schoolhouse door, standing amid his friends and searches for my eyes. Love is in the second he sees me, and I see him… That’s what love is, I thought each time I went to the school to pick him up. Then, as I lifted him and felt his weight, the purity of the moment vanished and I would smell the stale, tart odor under his collar while he smelled, I suppose, the smoke and coffee on my breath and something else that later, at some point, perhaps even in memory, he would recognize as the first hints of decay.
The narrator desires to stem the passing of time, to keep his son in that chair forever—but of course he can’t. His son is already in the stream of time with him, already building memories to reflect on, building a skewed image of his father. Is Means, then, able to toggle back and forth in time because of these telling sensory details, the stink of smoke and sweat? Is he grounding details in conversation with the “vortex” of competing times? Or does the key lie in his long, complex sentences in one time punctuated by short, parenthetical statements in another? “The Chair,” like all good writing, like all good art, transcends its constituent parts. Maybe you can’t reverse-engineer alchemy.
In the final two paragraphs, the narrator has jumped down to hoist his son back over the retaining wall and into the safety of their yard:
…as the wind roared along the Palisades at Hook Mountain and took on a northerly bite, as night began to descend upon the water and the tidal flow established itself in a southerly direction, working firmly past the bridge pylons, churning up white Vs, my son leaned and offered his hands to help me over the wall, and the air between us, before we actually touched, filled with an astonishingly pure love. It was there for a few seconds, and then it vanished and I took him into the house to the chair where I told him to sit until Sharon [his wife] came home. He resisted squirming from the chair, but I insisted, saying, Sit there and wait until your mother gets home. Your time’s not up. Your time’s not even close to being up.
The story’s multiple flows converge in the ending: a moment, a memory, frozen in time; and alive in the now-story, father and son firmly in the world. Means slows time down, though not quite freezing it, to leave us with a final image, loaded with truth and significance through the combination of swift interiority smacking up against the material of the world around us, mind and heart, time and matter, transmuted through the half-explicable alchemical processes that produce prose worth reading.
KENT KOSACK is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. He also serves as an Educational Arm Assistant at Asymptote Journal, designing lesson plans to promote world literature. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Tin House (Flash Fidelity), The Normal School, Hobart and elsewhere. See more at kentkosack.com.