Mark Richard, “House of Prayer #2”

I’m currently teaching Mark Richard’s memoir, House of Prayer #2, and my students love it. Here’s one of many reasons why:

The advanced-placement class bumps you that fall into an algebra class taught by a teacher who policies with a meter stick she once broke over the back of a slow country boy’s back. She looks at you, the youngest in the class, a cripple too, and she smells a cheat. 

In defining finite and infinite numbers, she says, by definition, finite terms are numbers assigned to things that can be counted. For instance, is the number of grains of sand in Jockey’s Ridge finite or infinite? You’re the kid holding his hand highest to be called upon, eager. You say the number of grains of sand in Jockey’s Ridge is infinite. Miss Meter Stick smiles and says, No, if you could count them, you would find that there is a finite number of grains of sand in Jockey’s Ridge. No, you say, that’s incorrect. First of all, you patiently explain, the ocean is constantly throwing up fresh sand that dries and is blown onto the dune by the wind at the same time the same wind is carrying sand off the dune into the Albermarle Sound.

Second, you say, even as you notice Miss Meter Stick tapping the meter stick against the side of one of her shoes, her smiling face beginning to purple, second, the number of grains of sand in Jockey’s Ridge would have to be considered infinite by her very own definition of being able to count them; if the grains cannot be counted, there is no finite answer, hence no finite number. But if you could count them, she says, as she moves down the aisle of seats to where you are seated, you would eventually reach a number, a finite number, so you’re wrong, she says, poking the corner of your desk with her finger. Then you go fucking count them, you unwisely counter, and you are sent home from school for two days at a time when your father is toward the end of his first affair and is looking for someone upon whom to vent his guilt. You had long before nicknamed his backhands “flying tigers” after his college mascot, Mike the Tiger, whose tiny head ornamented the LSU class ring worn on the hand delivering the often unexpected blows (80-81).

Here’s another reason.

“Sounds of Dolphins” @ Waccamaw / Modularity

Over the summer, I read Madison Smartt Bell’s book, Narrative Design, where he discusses and defines “modular” stories, stories that are:

..organized according to some non-linear principle—and usually without a strict cause-and-effect structure. Modular narratives are organized by juxtapositions rather than by linear continuity” (373). 

and/or:

“[liberating] the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward. Modular design replaces the domino theory of narrative with other principles which have less to do with motion (the story as process) and more to do with overall shapeliness (the story as a fixed geometric form). The geometry of a modular design, especially one that has been well worked out in advance of composition, will be defining and confining to some degree. But the gain can be more than worth the sacrifice. The very fixity of the substructure can give the writer more latitude to improvise freely around the hidden armature with plot, character, and voice ” (215-216).

My story, Sounds of Dolphins, is a “modular” story that appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Waccamaw (see link below). While I’ve written modular stories before, this is the first story I’ve written with Bell’s terminology in mind. It’s a design that fits stories about marginalizing experiences particularly well and allows the writer to cover a range of issues/themes/topics without adhering to dominant notions of “plot.” Can plot be place itself? I think so. Some of my favorite books, like The House on Mango Street, The Things They Carried, and Winesburg, Ohio, employ modular design around “place.”