IN WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS' "A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)," he says, writing of Paul Bowles' first novel, The Sheltering Sky :
"How . . . is Bowles going to get the girl undressed. He is going to act to do it.
"By setting the imagination to work. WORK. The artist is now a woman, a particular woman. He is therefore bound by her conditions and so he works at it . . .
"The woman is going to be undressed willingly -- within a time limitation of a train schedule. She will want to be undressed even while she fights against it -- by running out.
"So he gets her soaked to the skin. But on a train? in Africa. How?
"Read it. Lesson No. 1."
Williams' characteristically trenchant observation of one of Bowles' techniques is one that holds true for all the novels and short stories that Bowles has published since The Sheltering Sky : he is an author who works to avoid cliche by confronting his materials, not by sidling past them with the help of the codified tics and patterns of "fine writing." His work is unsettling, but rarely because of the raw materials, the content, of his stories. Rather, it is the acutely conscious attempt to deal with these materials honestly that enables him to transcend the content that, in other hands, might be the stuff of sensation or didacticism.
The language of Bowles' fiction is reticent and formal, but often brutal in its flat candor. No wonder Williams admired him. Over his work there lies a barely visible "haze" of anxiety or terror. His characters, once embarked upon the adventures that he invents for them, carry them through to the end; there is no point in a Bowles story at which one cay say, with any certainty, there is where the story takes its turn. His stories do not take "turns," but follow strait and undeviating paths, the beginnings of which are anterior to their first words. We "come in" on them, as it were.
It is as if Bowles has made a compact with his readers, one that assumes that he and they know that people are weak, vacillating, self-serving, envious, and often base, as well as being, more often than not, irrational because of fixed and unexamined beliefs in country, class, religion, culture, and so on. Granting the existence of this compact, the stories may be seen as inevitable, their characters not so much caught in a web of problems as playing out, so to speak, their hands. In a curious way, the stories maya be seen as modern variations on the Jonsonian use of medieval "humours."
Bowles' Collected Stories 1939-1976 was published in 1979, and gathered together 39 stories written over those years. Midnight Mass consists of 12 stories written since 1976. I don't think any of the 12 have the authority of "A Distant Episode," "The Delicate Prey," or "Pages from Cold Point," but the title story, "Midnight Mass," "The Little House," and the long "Here to Learn" are not much inferior to them. For those not familiar with Bowles, it should be said that he is most at home in his work in a North African setting, usually Moroccan, and that most of his stories have to do with Arabs or with Arabs and their dealings with Americans or Europeans. I would say that much of Bowles' power and clarity, his freshness and eschewal of the banal has come about because he uses this material without resorting to condescension, awed delight, or sociological analysis; the specific world of Morocco is there .
Nowhere is Bowles do we find any hint of the exotic. His Arabs don't think of themselves as such, but as people who live the lives that have been given them. The brilliance of Bowles' work is rooted in the fact that his prose takes his non-western world for granted, and this matter-of-fact attitude is tacitly held in subtle opposition to what might be called the reader's expectations. We bring our great bag if idees fixes to Bowles' Morocco, and he calmly proceeds to empty it in front of us. Furthermore, Bowles' western characters are often seen to be carrying that same bag in the stories in which they appear: their reward for this cultural error is usually disaster.
It should be noted that those stories that deploy only western characters are handled in the same way by Bowles, so that the reader has the eerie feeling that he is reading about the people that he should be able to recognize, but does not. The author's attitudes toward Western culture and Western people are very hard on the ideas of the marketplace. This technical ability has grown, as I have suggested, from Bowles' refusal to follow the fictional path of least resistance. He does what the good artist everywhere does: solves the problems he has created for himself with the same toolss used to create cobwfthe problems. He is responsible to his work and not to the dim flickerings of "taste." These are distinguished stories indeed.