‘White Angel’ by Michael Cunningham

Before I’d ever heard of Alice Munro, I was familiar enough with “literary fiction” (what I otherwise refer to as “contemporary realism”) to think quite dismally of it; when the waiting rooms I was compelled to inhabit in my youth didn’t carry TIME or even Sports Illustrated, they typically had The New Yorker, probably because it wasn’t stolen as often (except by me). Once I’d burned through the comics and the movie reviews, I would browse the fiction. My sense of what short stories were, outside the Philip K. Dick and Stephen King I sought deliberately, came from this experience. 
 
I couldn’t get on their wavelength. All the cliches seemed to apply: They were all about upper middle-class professionals or academics, all dealing with alcoholism or impotence, in addition to the perennial quiet acrimony of marital conflict so deep that it felt like the characters were born into their resentful couplings. I was a kid, and I felt vaguely insulted that these were the things I was expected to find universal and compelling compared to, say, Paul Verhoeven movies.
 
I’d managed to avoid English comp and literature classes through high school (I was a consummate dirtbag), and it was only when I’d actually tried my hand at fiction that I came to appreciate the craft of it. Between that point and discovering Munro, craft – the dissection and analysis of the choices made by a writer – was the sole attraction bringing me to realism. If there’s inside baseball shoptalk to be had about anything, I love it.
 
‘White Angel’ was one of the first stories assigned to me as an analytic reader, and it got me on board with the program because, like the George Saunders stories I would later read, it builds to the unbearable, chilling intensity of a great suspense story. It follows the family of a young boy, Robert, in Cleveland. It’s the late 60s and Robert’s brother, Carlton, is a classic older brother figure – he is confident, cool, and plugged into the counterculture and psychedelics, which he shares with his kid brother (who he calls “Frisco”). Very much a black sheep boy, Carlton clashes with their frustrated mother. Naturally, Robert idolizes him, and comes to resent – in the way of young children – his brother’s girlfriend, who is deliberately unnamed.
 
We know, very early on, that Carlton is not long for this world – the story is told from Robert’s perspective, in retrospect, and he says openly that we’re seeing the last few months of Carlton’s life. Cunningham keeps that inevitability distant even so, until he brings it close. 
 
To me, Cunningham’s key choice is made immediately before the climactic, shocking scene. There is a shift in perspective, somewhat akin to Munro’s shift from past to present tense in “Royal Beatings” but subtler. The entirety of “White Angel” is told in present tense with speckles of future perfect (itself a tricky maneuver that Cunningham doesn’t hesitate to show off), but in the paragraph immediately preceding the climax of the story, he introduces a new uncertainty. “Carlton must have jumped the back fence. He must have wanted to be there, alone, in case they decided to take somebody with them.”
 
The word “must”, here, is the primer on the scene that follows it. The flow of the story is interrupted; Robert grasps for something that isn’t there, something he missed, and it clues the reader in that we are presently rushing toward crisis.
 
Then the crisis comes.
 
The most significant thing that I read short fiction for – and read past things that I don’t like or find unpleasant – is what Alexander Lumans calls “the sublime moment”, after Edmund Burke. It is the passage, often present in long-form fiction but endemic to short form, in which the story shifts into unexpected registers. Elements that can characterize such a shift include the slowing of time, the use of elevated language, a startling visual, and a quality of ecstasy, awe, or otherworldly terror in the moment itself. 
 
Carlton’s death, from the initial incident through the haunting final image, before time jumps forward again, is a perfect execution of sublimity in fiction on par with the Quint monologue in Jaws, a terrible memory trapped in amber.

First published as a short story in The New Yorker, July 1988, and available to subscribers to read here; then included as a chapter in A Home at The End of the World, Picador, 1998

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