Bright Angels & Familiars: “The People Who Were Not There” by Lewis Horne


I don’t know what this story means. Maybe you can tell me. It certainly intends to tell me something, but I’m leery of drawing conclusions.

It’s starts off as yet another of those once-upon-a-time-in-my-memory-in-the-West stories, then suddenly throws a three-paragraph bit of essay at the reader, then ends with a new vignette from, oh, a couple decades after the first—this story only the slightest bit connected with the first. It left me a little dizzy. And if it weren’t for a genuinely surprising and painful moment in the second story, I might have been left completely confused.

But somehow that moment provided an aesthetic completeness.

I have another book (unread) in my collection by Horne (read it free!) and I may need to read it in hopes it will provide a key to this story.

The trouble I’m having is that this story is anxious to be interpreted and I’m anxious to avoid the easy interpretations. But maybe I’m trying too hard?

Oh please, Internet! Tell me what to think!

= = = = =

Next up: “Sayso or Sense” by Eileen Gibbons Kump

12 thoughts on “Bright Angels & Familiars: “The People Who Were Not There” by Lewis Horne”

  1. I think the quoted poem “My Sad Captains,” used as an epigram at the beginning of the story, helps point to Horne’s intentions.

    There is a lot to discuss, here. My kids are having piano lessons and doing homework, so I’m not sure how coherent this will be. I’ll just jot down my thoughts and try not to stress over whether they sound intelligent or not.

    I think both Clifford and the saleswoman both illustrate the fact that people are infinitely more complicated than we assume them to be. The narrator in both cases is able to slip his skin, if only for a moment, and see that these bit players in his life are actually the heroes of their own stories. Both give him the tiniest glimpses of their private griefs; they are more than “the mean Indian kid” and “the energetic blonde saleswoman.”

    The saleswoman’s revelation to the narrator shocks him out of himself, just as Clifford on his horse did years before. He responds initially with fear, but gets past that both times to insight and empathy.

    The shadows/darkness in the tent and in the air around the airport.

    I love the mirroring of the burning grandfather’s house with the lit-up monuments in Washington, D.C. Which represents the real America? Do they both?

    The narrator invokes his own heritage–that of his grandfather in “alien territory” in Samoa–to shield him from Clifford, whom he sees as cloaked in a rich and remote heritage of his own. As he does so, he is able to find common ground–literally in the clayey mud of the irrigation ditch, and figuratively as well.

    There’s a lot more, but my three-year-old is throwing a fit. I’ll try to come back.

  2. I admit that it’s hard to see exactly how all the pieces fit together. I’m struck, though, by how many of the pieces seem to have to do with how the past (and particularly the lives of those now dead) makes us who we are in the present.

    The tent of memories burns, but meanwhile the narrator has been changed by the sight of the picture. The thought of those six elders gives him the confidence to act in a different way the next time he meets Clifford. His past helps him grow into a more confident present — just as the past of his grandfather and William’s grandfather lies, undetected previously, under their family’s move to a new place. The burning of Clifford’s grandfather’s house nevertheless marks a change in hiss life, as he changes schools and (possibly) destinies. The traveling saleswoman is twice defined by the past: first by the past in which her children were alive, and then by the past in which they died.

    Or to put it another way: the dead live on in their influence on who we are. That seems to me to fit both the initial epigram and (more pointedly) the final paragraph:

    “The plane flew on low in the sky toward Richmond. The darkness outside grew deeper and, as it grew deeper, seemed to take on more density, to become populated vastly with shadows. Not forgotten, I don’t believe. None of them forgotten. That was the pain of it. Only waiting — like angels — their call.”

  3. .

    No question this story is beautifully written. And I appreciate the parallels you’ve pointed out. It makes me feel more certain that my impression is right: that there is more to the story than the simple echoes and themes that would be obvious to a child just becoming cognizant of literary intentions.

    In fact, I’m thinking this story would be good to teach — any student could catch some of what’s going on, but as has been shown, there is much more to find when one looks.

    My next question is this:

    Is the beauty of the phrasing hiding an inelegance in piling on the layers? Or, in other words, is this story too arty, turning it into more of a scavenger hunt than an honest portrayal of real people? I ask because as much as I appreciate the story, I keep falling back to this question. Is this more a wonderfully executed exercise than a story? I want to feel convinced of one or the other.

  4. In response to Theric (comment #5):

    A personal essay (which is what I’m convinced this best classifies as) consists, as I see it, of details and narrated experience in an elliptical orbit around a central point. The more elliptical, the better — so long as the center holds.

    So does the center hold in this case? For me, yes (if only barely). I’m left with a sense of unity, even if I can’t articulate that unity precisely in thematic terms. All the better, in my view, if I’m forced to ponder in order to figure out what this was about — so long as I’m not left feeling confused or pulled in multiple directions. The caveat is that this will inherently vary greatly from reader to reader. If a reader winds up confused or irritated, inherently for that reader the essay didn’t work.

  5. Frankly, a lot of the considered classics of Mormon literary Literature leave me rather cold (Lost Generation, I’m looking at you!). This story, on the otherhand, was marvelous. The writing style was engrossing (sorry, Wm, I disagree), and the structure and layering of the piece … amazingly constructed, deeply satisfying, complex but accessible.

    I’m left rather amazed by what I think Horne accomplished.

    I’m left wondering there was a mix-up at the printer and my copy of BA&F got slipped a different story than everyone is reading.

    Theric, I’ve sent you a rather more detailed analysis (check your thamazing email) that for technical reasons can’t be replicated in a blog comment.

  6. Lee,

    Is there some way you could share the heart of your analysis here? I’d love to read it!

  7. That’s why I sent it to Theric. It’s diagram-dependant which blog commenting tech precludes (at least my mastery of said commenting tech). I’m hoping he can throw it up on an addendum post or something.

    Sorry, I tend to think visually when plotting my own stories (storyboarding them and/or digraming them like PowerPoint org charts). It’s how I process stories.

    I mean, I could talk about its perfectly mirrored bisymmectrical pinwheel structure (a very rigid structure at that), but without the diagram I don’t know how to convey what I see he did and how.

    I will say that Luisa was spot on in noting the importance of Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains” epigram at the beginning of Horne’s piece.

    Read the poem (it’s short and available online) and then picture Horne writing a Mormon story around that poem, seemingly keeping the poem’s imagery and message and literary-ness while simultaneously writing a story that’s the Mormon worldview complete refutation and complete opposite of it.

    I really do think the story’s a tour de force.

  8. I think that overall the style is engrossing, but I kept running into sections that pushed me out of the narrative flow, which dampened my overall enthusiasm for the story even if it is poetic and formally brilliant. A minor point.

    Also: Lee have you read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennnifer Egan? One of the stories in it is told via PowerPoint. It’s quite interesting and effective.

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