An example of contemporary literature's maddening problems with voice is Charles Baxter's short story “Loyalty” which appeared in the May 2013 issue of Harper's. I like both Harper's and Baxter's poetry, and that makes this story all the more maddening. The voice in the story is not completely unbelievable, it's just enough “off” to create both tonal and cognitive dissonances that get in the way of enjoying the story and appreciating its thematic attempt.
For example, the narrator, ostensibly a mechanic, delivers lines such as these: “Love for Astrid like a climbing vine grew out of my heart. I don't know how else to say it” (77). But here's the thing: just about any mechanic would know how else to say it, in lots of ways, not the least of which would be “My love for Astrid was like a vine growing out of my heart.” As it appears in Baxter's story this is a line of poetry written by Charles Baxter, not a statement about love as spoken or thought by a mechanic. As I reformulated it here, it's more like a country song, as it should be: vastly more mechanics listen to country music than study creative writing. That's not stereotyping; it's a simple matter or statistics, and if by losing his lovely line Baxter gains some authenticity, his story is all the better for it.
And there's more: “He looks past me as if I were a footnote” (78) expresses the narrator's reaction to his teenage son, as if a footnote were the first thing that would come to a mechanic's mind when he was searching for a way to explain what it felt like to be ignored. “He looked right through me” or “He looked at me like I was thin air” are both dangerously clichéd, but they're a hell of a lot more true to the way most mechanics I know would think. Or take something like “She stands audibly” (78) which, for as simple as it is, is also not what a mechanic would say. He'd understand the physics of it, for one thing, and that would occur to him. What about “You could hear the cheap cushions suck in as she stood up”? Not as lovely, but a crap-ton more true.
Or take “I feel an antiquated tingle” as the narrator describes his feeling when he is kissed by his ex-wife (78). An Antiquated Tingle might be a great title for an alt country album, but a mechanic would say “I felt the old tingle,“ which he'd then joke about with his buddies down at the shop (and our narrator appears to have none) riffing on how he's “got your 'old tingle' riiight here!” It may seem crass, and it would make the story veer in a direction Baxter may not have been prepared for, but that's what would have happened.
Other touches seem minor, but they are glaring. In an attempt at authenticity, Baxter has his narrator notice how “the front end dipped from the bad shocks” (76). That's a piece of writing that has an assonance perfectly balanced, with a subtle interplay between that assonance and the consonants in the line that could take up 15 minutes or more of discussion in a literature class. It also isn't true. Bad shocks make a car bounce, not dip, as any mechanic worth his salt would know. At one point, Baxter's narrator's eyes glance over a “corroded timing light” (76) which, sure, he would notice, but doesn't bother to make note of the vintage of his own F-150 pickup with its “loose fan belt” (79). That's significant because no modern manufacturer uses separate fan belts anymore (they use a single “serpentine belt” setup for all the engine accessories), and they haven't for 20-some years. An F-150 with a fan belt would be approaching classic status, so it would be a real shame to let it rust (76), something our supposed mechanic of a narrator would doubtlessly know, and which would have potentially provided some rich thematic overtones to what happens to the narrator's ex-wife as she spirals into mental anguish, had Baxter been aware of what a mechanic would have been aware of.
Throughout the story, Baxter can't seem to decide if his narrator worked at a small, independent “shop” (78) or the service department of a dealership or department store that would have a separate “Parts Department” (81). This is no small difference, as working in a small shop might not be as lucrative as working at a dealership (where trained mechanics can earn upwards of $50 an hour and receive decent benefits). The narrator's lifestyle appears to be middle class, suggesting a dealership, but if that's the case, why hasn't he also bought himself a nicer truck?
To his credit, Baxter does create a reasonably intelligent narrator, and successful mechanics, unlike the “grease monkey” stereotype, have got to be intelligent people. This shows, perhaps, the problem with voice in contemporary literature: it is written almost exclusively by people whose experiences are limited to the academic world and the middle-class childhoods that create academics. These writers want to tell the stories of people who are not like them. They need to maintain the proper mildly liberal political correctness about those who are not like them. But these writers also need to show off the depth of their word-craft to editors who come from the same middle-class and academic backgrounds. Combined, all this leads to a lot of short stories just like Baxter's “Loyalty”: narrators who all sound like they have MFAs in creative writing peppering their narratives with little bits of “authenticity” that speak much more to the attempts of the writer than to anything about the world the narrators—or, for that matter, the rest of us—actually live in.
In that world, mechanics do speak a certain poetry. But the sort of poetry they speak is spoken accidentally, and to catch it requires listening to real mechanics, listing deeply and listening well, and listening for a long time. And sure, some mechanics have MFAs in creative writing themselves and may very well express themselves as Baxter presents here. But the narrator of “Loyalty” never suggests this about himself, and anyway, why that person would be a mechanic would necessarily comprise the bulk of the story, and that's not what Baxter seems to want to explore.
What he does explore has merit; the kind of relational ambiguity and family dynamics he presents do ring true to life.
Too bad the rest of it doesn't.
Baxter, Charles. “Loyalty.” Harper's Magazine. May 2013: 76-82. Print.