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Reading, Seeing, Remembering: Aesthetic Experience in Ron Rash’s Stories from Nothing Gold Can Stay

Marie-Christine Agosto
p. 155-168


Cet article examine les non-dits et leur effet sur le lecteur. Au-delà de leur rôle évident dans la création du suspense, les blancs, les incongruités, les ruptures narratives captent l’attention et engendrent une temporalité propre à la lecture. Des images se cristallisent, se font écho, entrent en résonance avec l’expérience du lecteur, conférant au texte une densité qui supplée aux failles du sens. Dans cette approche de lecture, où les images priment sur l’articulation des intrigues, se déploie un univers d’évanescence et de résurgence qui fonde l’expérience esthétique et inscrit la fiction de Rash dans une tradition littéraire et culturelle qui dépasse la dimension populaire et régionale de ses récits.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Ron Rash
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1Since the early 2000s, Ron Rash has made us familiar with a fictional work of high dramatic intensity, combining local color and a gothic mood, and allying the tall-tale to the detective narrative. His southern Appalachian material, caught between tradition and modernity, easily lends itself to reminiscences of the backward rusticity of past life which offers but a poor consolation for the no-way out misery of present conditions. Solitude, frustration and a sense of loss prevail in the derelict areas in which his stories are set and whose inhabitants, over time, have been left psychologically and socially shattered by the wars in which they have taken part, inland and abroad. Be it in the novels or in the short fiction, the reader is immersed in an out-of-the-track world which owes as much to the callousness of its ways and behaviors as to the author’s art of storytelling. Rash’s short story collection published in 2013 and entitled Nothing Gold Can Stay is no exception to this pattern.

2Among the fourteen stories that compose the collection, some are straightforward and explicit narratives, but a lot more feed on mystery and hide such unbelievable horror that they leave the reader dumbstruck, torn between misunderstanding and bewilderment. Suggestiveness is at its best in those fictions characterized by elliptical narratives, gaps and lapses of meaning, and plots jumping to unexpected turns, ironical twists and paradoxical endings. Withholding information is not just a dramatic device for creating suspense. Allowing for a suspension of the diegetic time, it generates a different reading and triggers a switch of attention from the logical articulation of events to mesmerizing images, unfamiliar landscapes, and obsessive details. This reading process is similar to what Barthes describes as “a stroll on the side of a valley, a oued flowing down below,” pointing to the difference he makes between “work” and “text,” the former providing informative material, the latter a field for aesthetic experience (159). Rash’s storytelling requires the reader’s disposition to stroll and linger on specific words, motifs and images, seemingly fleeting and evanescent, yet haunting and resurfacing through the collection. This reading experience is like a memorizing process. It brings forth a network of intra-textual and inter-textual echoes, running through and beyond the texts, restoring a form of literary continuity which makes up for the narrative and historical disconnections. It ultimately provides the collection with an underlying structure, an aesthetic ordering of the pieces into a dynamic mosaic arrangement. The present study purposes to question the narrative gaps. It will show how they inform the reading process, at verbal and visual levels, by appealing simultaneously to affect, cognition and emotion, so as to make sense of and react to the unsaid, the evanescent, and the resurgent.

The Unsaid

3Many stories in the collection are perfect examples of elliptical narratives. The opening story, “The Trusty,” sets the tone and the method, and introduces a recurrent theme. It is the story of a failed escape and betrayal, staging a chain-gang prisoner, Sinkler, and a young farm girl, Lucy, whom he easily seduces and who promises to help him. Taken in by his longing for freedom, he—ironically the one to be trusted—trusts the girl and remains blind to the many signs that hide her duplicity. The angel she appears to be eventually turns into a devil. During their escape, her attitude changes from innocence and sweetness to a sudden unexpected “harshness” (Nothing 22), “profanity” (24), and “roughness” (25). There is no doubt that a fast reader will be left puzzled by the enigmatic ending, spontaneously wondering what happens to Sinkler and to the girl, or if Sinkler is going to be shot or just robbed, and by whom. The answer comes to her/him as it comes to the character, when, kneeling at the seeping water, he recognizes his own “handprint” in the sand. Being the one who knew the directions, Lucy has taken him in circles while calling her husband to shoot him. This denouement is all the more horrible as what happens is not explicitly said, but only suggested through oral signs, like the sound of a hole being dug, “the rasping plunge of metal into dirt” (25), someone whistling, the noise of “leaves rustl[ing] as someone approached” (26) and “the soft click of a rifle’s safety being released” (26). Adding visual intensity to these sounds, the disturbing image one keeps in mind at the end of the story is of the man kneeling by the creek, unbuttoning his shirt. The narrative stops there, just before the final shot, time suspended, plunging the story in the unknown. The device, equivalent to the “degree zero ellipsis” described by Genette (139-41), slows down the tempo to a stasis. It borrows from the well-known cinematographic technique of the cliffhanger, though here no follow-up is provided. It is also related to the rhetoric figure of speech called aposiopesis, wherein the discourse is deliberately interrupted and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the reader’s imagination.

4A similar pattern can be found in the story entitled “Where the Map Ends,” which also deals with misplaced trust, betrayal and revenge, and ends in death. The old farmer makes his motivation explicit and justifies his deadly intention, but his killing the half-breed youth to pay for his own son’s death is only implicit in the last paragraph, in the two-hour period of time it takes the older fugitive to reach the creek and proceed toward Tennessee, leaving the youth behind. The device used here is similar to what Genette calls a “determined ellipsis” (139-41). Part of the plot is deliberately omitted, as shown by the typographical blank and the indication of the time that has elapsed before the narrative resumes. Although the youth’s cruel fate remains unworded, the intimation of death has been looming around him from the moment he got to the farm, as a strange foreboding of what is awaiting him. Once again, as in the first story, the narrative unfolds a series of signs to decipher or to sense intuitively. The youth catches sight of “the rope dangling from a loft beam” (Nothing 70) and “[t]he two mounds [lying] side by side, marked with a single creek stone” (74). The mood is even more disquieting later on, when he stares at “the scuff mark he’d made [with his boot toe] on the ground” (77), like the imprint of his own burial to come. The tension quietly builds up until the end, and although the unknotting of the plot and the horror that it contains are silenced, death is made obsessively present.

5In both stories, the reader is all the more baffled and horror-stricken as s/he is made to adopt the protagonist’s perception. The third person narrative switches to internal focalization in the last lines of the first story, until the very moment Sinkler is shot and everything for him is brought to a halt. In the second example it switches to the older fugitive’s perspective, as he moves on toward Tennessee and never looks back, which accentuates the gruesome feeling and gives us to understand the youth’s death.

6When the reader comes to the sixth story of the collection, “A Servant of History,” s/he has gotten used to Rash’s art of dropping significant details that foreshadow the dramatic ending. The protagonist, James Wilson, an infatuated scholar, introduces himself as a proud Scot, but is unable to recognize the red-and-black tartan of the McDonalds, or to make out his host family’s name under the rustic accent of his guide. As a consequence, he cannot relate them to the tragic history of their Clan, destroyed by fire in the Glencoe massacre. He keeps blundering until vexing point, and, by boasting of his Campbell ancestry, he exposes himself to a terrible act of retaliation. In the epilogue, situated after a six-week ellipsis corresponding to his recovery, the external focalization remains constant, which alleviates the reader’s emotional investment and suits the grotesque turn of the whole story. Nevertheless, the event left out is so enormously unbelievable that the reader hardly remembers the three allusions to Luther “pick[ing] up the poker, stab[bing] at the fire” (92), “nest[ing] the prod in the flames” (94), “gaug[ing] the heat” (95), and probably getting ready to inflict Wilson the injury of having his tongue burned. A second reading is necessary to understand what may have happened. The diegetic chain of events sounds improbable, yet the outcome makes sense symbolically. He who has sinned by his tongue shall suffer by his tongue, could be the moral lesson of the story.

7The rational reader will stumble over this unlikely turn of action. Similarly, in “The Dowry,” s/he will be dumbfounded by Pastor Boone’s decision of having his hand cut off and offered to the Colonel so as to help young Ethan keep his own hand and win the Colonel’s daughter. The reader will undoubtedly identify with Doctor Andrews, who stands for science and rationality, and who misunderstands the Pastor’s foolish intention. A further degree of horror, typical of the gothic macabre, is reached in the end when the marriage is celebrated with the severed hand wrapped in a package and set next to the Bible (192). Self-sacrifice and bodily mutilation are recurrent motifs in Rash’s stories staging the biblical lex talionis quoted by the Colonel, “Life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, thus hand for a hand” (181). Keeping in mind that the sacred text also includes “burn for burn, wound for wound,” it is to be acknowledged that the biblical formula is taken literally in many stories, as shown not only in “The Servant of History,” but also in “Nighthawks,” where Ginny deliberately cuts her cheek with a glass shard to punish herself for not having protected her pupil who got wounded when a branch shattered a window pane during a storm.

8However, the significant element in Ginny’s story is the question asked about the couple’s hands in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The parallel drawn in the last scene between the iconic representation and the fictional situation casts light on the themes of loneliness and failed communication illustrated both in the story and in the painting. Above all, the fact that Ginny disagrees with her boyfriend on the interpretation to give to the characters’ hands—is it a sign of intimacy, or not?—creates a second level of reading, mirroring the reader’s questioning. The reader will be tempted to go back to the picture and check by herself/himself, and s/he will confront the impossibility of a definite answer. The device testifies to Rash’s versatility in shifting focus, and functions as a meta-textual comment on the reading process, similar to an intense gaze probing into details, however cryptic they may be. Instead of an ellipsis, what the narrative displays here is an unsolvable mystery, a real loss of meaning. Hands, which were meaningful as identification tokens or communication tools in “The Trusty” and “The Dowry,” have now become meaningless and metaphorically unable to supply the body language or sign language needed, leaving it all to the reader’s or beholder’s subjectivity of interpretation.

9There is hardly a story in the collection that does not puzzle the reader. Gaps and lapses cover up incongruities, far-fetched issues and unbelievable twists of action. Or they just emphasize pitiful situations: for example in “Twenty-Six Days,” where the protagonist is physically absent, taken far away to a distant war field, which is never named and which the reader needs to identify or imagine (probably Afghanistan, where IEDs were used extensively by insurgent groups), while the focus is on her parents’ anxious waiting for news from her; or in “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” where the decision made out of love by the male protagonist in the end of the story takes the reader aback; or again in “A Sort of Miracle” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which feature dumb characters acting unexpectedly out of feeble-mindedness and misery.

The Evanescent

10In the stories linked by their tragic or tragically grotesque vein, the narrative disruptions accentuate the horror by leaving the reader free to imagine it. They also modify the narrative speed and influence the reading tempo, and therefore are related to a certain conception of time. They go from lapse of meaning (to be solved like an enigma) to a real loss of meaning (an unsolvable mystery), of which death is the ultimate stage. Yet, rather than the final rupture, what they set forth is the resulting absence, the process by which everything vanishes and disappears. Rash’s stories owe much of their power to the evocation of those fleeting images, erasing themselves like the handprints of the trusty who sees “the two star-shaped indentations, water slowly filling the new one” (26), and knows his body will melt with the earth after being buried; or like the young girl’s body being dismembered in the river, in “Something Rich and Strange,” and dissolving in the water element. What the diver sees underwater is particularly chilling: “She was less of what she had been, the blue rubbed from her eyes, flesh freed from the chandelier of bone. He touched what once had been a hand. The river whispered to him that it would not be long now” (49). And the ending is nothing less than appalling: “[He knew the petals] would furl amid the last bones and like the last bones they would finally slip free” (50).

11Merging with nature is part of the environmentalist view supported by Rash in his fiction. One has in mind Serena and its denunciation of deforestation, or Saints at the River, the novel length version of “Something Rich and Strange,” expanding upon the same episode of accidental drowning. In the short story, the metaphysical reflection prevails over the political one, in the idea of transience and evanescence conveyed by the image of the debris and their process of dissolution. With a scary realism, Rash focuses on time destruction and the slow, “gentle,” biological transformation of the materiality of the body, “[c]rayfish and minnows unknit[ting] flesh from bone” (Nothing 49). His stories exemplify a reverse cosmogony, based not so much on creation but on human decomposition by the governing forces of water, fire and earth. His approach to time—historic time and philosophical time—is underlined in the title “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Borrowed from Frost’s eponymous poem, it brings forth not a carpe diem principle, or an epicurean philosophy, but a feeling of melancholy resignation.

12In stories of a lighter tone, like “Cherokee,” where the protagonists are no victims but lucky gamblers, the mood in the end when Lisa sees her husband and checks the money in her bag is almost one of misgiving and disbelief—a mood conveyed to the reader by the last sentence which switches to a detached and matter-of-fact point of view obliterating the character’s inner thoughts. Lisa’s experience has taken place in an out-of-time parenthesis (the casino has no clocks and she has drunk too much), so her coming back to reality in the morning is paradoxically bitter and sad. Transience and luck—good luck and bad luck—are recurrent in the collection and go hand in hand. Luck is an out-of-control, irrational phenomenon. It escapes the laws of causality and rationality, and happens mostly haphazardly, by chance, or by accident, almost magically. It is suited to the strangeness of Rash’s imaginary universe, which takes after the oral tradition and the country legends. Similarly to “Cherokee,” although marked with a stroke of bad fortune, the end of “The Magic Bus” is pervaded by a feeling of awakening to an inescapable reality, after the fire has destroyed all trace of Sabra’s magic night with the two hippies who have deceived her with a dream of happiness and freedom. As a derisory sign of her disillusionment, what is left in the end is the sadly humorous image of the disoriented cow “[standing] by the barn’s ashes, waiting to be milked” (172), while everything else has disappeared.

  • 1 In One Foot in Eden, Sheriff Alexander comes to realize the value of the past when investigating a (...)

13Rash’s stories are full of evanescent images, soon passing out of sight, memory and existence, like dreams. “Something Rich and Strange” and “The Woman at the Pond” have a similar plot-line telling of drowning tragedies, but thematically they both read like illustrations of what Rash’s narrator, in the opening chapter of the latter story, calls “water . . . archeology”: “a leveling . . . because what is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface” (193). How the past is forced into oblivion is clearly summed up in the narrator’s last words in the same story: “By the time I’m over the barbed-wire fence, I can look back and no longer tell what was and what is” (208). A mystery lies at the heart of “The Woman at the Pond,” which is built on the secret of a supposed murder that the narrator has confusedly and unwillingly witnessed when he was a boy, but that he has never told anyone of. On the spot where it happened, the past drama hidden in his memory resurfaces progressively as the pond is being drained, and reappears through images and details, almost between the lines, without being explained, and leaving the reader free to reconstruct the story by herself/himself. As is often the case in Rash’s fiction, going back to the landscape of one’s youth triggers a remembering process that propels the narrative.1 In “The Woman at the Pond,” a fading technique is used, by which the past overlaps the present and brings forth three flashback segments (194-95, 196-202, 204-06), which determine three moments, or episodes, in the narrative arc of the story. They are materialized by typographical blanks and changes of verb tenses, from past to present. The text acquires a slow and wavy rhythm, which fits the reading tempo, helps the reader follow the meditation of the unnamed inside narrator and identify with him. Thus, it echoes the reading process, which also involves seeing, remembering and bringing up to consciousness.

14To increase the desolation of the scene, the context is carefully set, with detritus slowly emerging “in what was once the shallows”: “rusty beer cans and Styrofoam bait containers . . . along with a ball cap and a flip-flop” (202), followed by “a rod and reel, a metal bait bucket, more lures and hooks and bobbers” (203), and in the middle of that junk, “the cinder block, with what looks like a withered arm draped over it. . . . Not an arm but a leather jacket sleeve, tied to the block by a fray of blue nylon” (207), and “in the jacket’s right pocket . . . a withered billfold . . . [containing] . . . a driver’s license, some other card now indiscernible” (207). If the body has disappeared, no trace of the event is left, which makes it even more difficult for the narrator, and for the reader, to fully understand what has taken place. The reticence shown in this story provides a feeling of unease, a sense of shame and waste. The image of the leather jacket sleeve draped over the block like a withered arm pinpoints a void, where there should have been a human body. The story itself resists closure, pinned down in this obsessively haunting trace, like the image of the “girl’s wide blue eyes” and “flowing golden hair” that haunted the diver’s sleep, nights after, in “Something Rich and Strange” (47-48).

15Gaps and lapses appeal to the reader’s complicity in so far as they offer her/him enigmas to decipher. At the same time, they cause a decentering of the narrative, taking it into a no-time area where images crystallize and become fascinating. Rash does not play a mere guessing game. His enigmas are not just riddles to be solved. They foster images of such density that they trigger the reader’s imagination. The phenomenon takes after the “aesthetic experience” defined by Jean-Marie Schaeffer, operating on heterogeneous planes (action v. images) (135, 180). In Schaeffer’s words, the text “captures attention” and the “attention-driven dynamics” simultaneously sets up thought, emotion and artistic pleasure—an Aristotelian cathartic expurgation of fright and horror through the disturbing pleasure of recognition, understanding and reminiscence.

The Resurgent

  • 2 Mikhail Bakhtin has demonstrated that “dialogic literature” carries on a continual dialogue with pr (...)

16Various types of reminiscences abound in the collection, among which implicit and explicit quotations, casual, formal or re-contextualized references, and accidental allusions. Although it is sometimes difficult to decide if an allusion is intentional or not, we will take for granted the author always knows best, even when the reminiscences elicited in the reader sound subjective. They all belong to the inter-textual and intra-textual fabric of the text and result from interconnections in the cultural network operating during the reading process. The dialogue they involve, between other works and the present texts, and between author and reader, is characteristic of the Bakhtinian concept of “dialogic imagination,”2 and is part of the “attention-driven dynamics” of Schaeffer’s “aesthetic experience.”

  • 3 Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was published in New Hampshire in October 192 (...)
  • 4 “Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leaf’s a flower; / But only s (...)

17“Nighthawks” is a key-text in that respect, with explicit references to Edward Hopper’s eponymous painting and to Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”3 Both works emphasize darkness and loneliness, and perfectly fit the mood of the short story. As mentioned before, the story plays a didactic function in calling for the reader’s gaze and attention. By contrast, in the story “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the quotation from Frost’s poem is featured on a minor mode, insofar as neither the poet nor the quote is explicit. Nevertheless, although it is re-contextualized, it is clearly identifiable and thematically suited to Rash’s fictionalization of impermanence.4 Also used as a title, the quote “Something Rich and Strange”—which at first reading does not fit the tragedy to which it applies—invites the reader to look closely into the substance of the text. Borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act 1, scene 2), when Ariel sings to Ferdinand after his father has drowned in a shipwreck, the quote emphasizes the terrifying beauty of death by water:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

18In parallel, by association of ideas and images, one can also think of Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five, in which the debris embedded in the surface of the canvas echo Rash’s description of the junk stuck underwater.

19Most stories in the collection have a visual quality which resonates with traditional literature. The image of the man kneeling by the seeping water in “The Trusty” calls to mind Horace Benbow in the opening scene of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, drinking at the pond and spied upon by Popeye, the villain, who stands for evil lurking in an illusory Eden (3). Moreover, Sinkler might be one of the chain-gang prisoners, one of the twelve mortal men depicted by Carson McCullers in the epilogue of “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and whose fate and song cause one “to grow cold with ecstasy and fright” (85). Rash’s narrative strategies also bear resemblance with Flannery O’Connor’s treatment of violence, off stage but nonetheless horrifying, for example in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Besides, the youth left behind by his older companion in “Where the Map Ends” could be a replica of young Nelson denied by his grandfather in “The Artificial Nigger.” Sabra’s experience of deceit in “The Magic Bus” is reminiscent of Hulga’s misadventure, when she was left helpless without her wooden leg up in the barn, after being lured by Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman who has exploited her weakness in “Good Country People.” And the reader is reminded of O’Connor again in “Where the Map Ends,” when the farmer writes directions on a thin piece of Bible paper he removes from his pocket (Nothing 79). While O’Connor sets forth an ironical reversal of Christian values to denounce the loss of spirituality, Rash pictures a world of luck and chance, at odds with the remnants of a dying religious faith. Here, what survives of the religious tradition is the harsh and unforgiving law of the Old Testament, turned into blind cruelty. More generally, Rash’s stories have inherited Faulkner’s modernist conception of time, in which subjective psychological time and duration take precedence over scientific clock-time. As a consequence, his narrative structures are like Faulkner’s, whirled around a sedimented secret or taboo which slowly emerges to consciousness or semi-consciousness in distorted flashes and layers.

  • 5 “Indian Camp” is part of the Nick Adams stories. It was first published in Transatlantic Review (19 (...)

20If Rash’s fiction is rooted in the Southern gothic tradition, it is also part of the American mindscape and its repeated feeling of a lost paradise. In the American pastoral tradition, where contemporary eco-literature originates, fishing is a common topos and is often seen as belonging to the good old days, the token of a Prelapsarian innocence. One thinks of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien, Norman Maclean, to quote a few writers who have celebrated a remote unspoiled American dream whose echo can be heard in the last words of “Nothing Gold Can Stay”: “Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world” (42). In “The Woman at the Pond,” the gesture of the woman trailing her hand in the water and feeling it warm (204) brings back to mind the same gesture made by Nick Adams, in the last lines of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”5 A bass jumps, making a circle in the water, is a sign of life in Hemingway’s story, while Rash’s story it is a sign of death. Yet, the bass and catfish described by Rash beaching themselves in the thinning water and gathered “like fallen fruit” (206) are like those fish in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” that breed on vegetal and animal debris in the swamp and make fishing “a tragic adventure” (see Agosto).

21Rash’s collection resonates with literary reminiscences, accentuated by the inner echoes, motifs and themes that link stories two by two, or in groups of three: escape and freedom are common to “The Trusty,” “Where the Map Ends” and “The Magic Bus”; revenge and the impossibility of forgiveness link “The Dowry” and “A Servant of History”; drugs and illusions result in disenchantment in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” and “The Magic Bus”; and many stories deal with faithfulness and solidarity opposed to betrayal. A binary structure is reflected in the creation of characters: they go by pairs, linked for the best or for the worst, like married or engaged couples, friends, brothers, casual companions, or, alternately, one person alone facing a perfidious couple, as in “The Trusty” and “The Magic Bus.” Whether young or old, they have in common the loss of directions, the hope for a better life, a better place, a better future, and a pathetic yearning to get out of failure and lost dreams. Repeated narrative gaps and mystery tend to enforce a general disorientation, one example of which is to be found at the end of “A Sort of Miracle,” when the young men are “unsure which way to go,” cannot see much because it is getting really dark, and do not even know how to turn on the headlights (126). Similar details and images surge through the collection, causing a paramnesic effect: thus, the Windsor chair of the Colonel in “The Dowry” (179) echoes the Windsor chair of the grandmother in “A Servant of History” (89). Variations on the same motif produce a crisscross effect: the barn is a place of tragedy in “Where the Map Ends,” a place of disillusionment in “The Magic Bus,” a place of renewal in “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out.” The cow giving birth in the last story may be a regenerated version of the one standing by the barn’s ashes not knowing where else to go (172).

22The presence of so many echoes makes it tempting to try and sort out the stories, and order them in a coherent pattern, as suggested by the tripartite organization of the collection. Robert Brinkmeyer argues for a structure based on the thematic regrouping of sections. He shows that section one is mostly about commitment and betrayal, section two about the insider/outsider, civilized/uncivilized opposition, and section three about the reconciliation of individual freedom and social responsibility. According to him, the last story, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” plays its conclusive function in offering a synthesis of all themes.

  • 6 Spill borrows Proust’s metaphor of radiance in Time Regained to refer to the artist’s illuminating (...)
  • 7 It can be noted that this episode is a common cultural reference in visual arts and music. Among ma (...)

23The last story certainly delivers a note of hope, as testified by the successful gesture of the veterinarian helping the cow to give birth in the barn, and the two old war veterans, both widowers and full of wisdom, keeping their promise of mutual help and friendship. The setting and context (a barn in the night, the stars, and the lantern’s glow) suggest a variation on the myth of the Nativity and the Magi guided by the star. The title epitomizes the “special radiance” on which Frédérique Spill builds her analysis of Rash’s writing.6 As a further message of hope, it offers a striking contrast with the symbolic pattern of the opening story, dominated by the feeling of thirst, the plot of seduction, and the consequent entrapment, fall, and death. In the opening story, the water metaphor and the image of drawing from the well read like prosaic echoes of two biblical episodes: the meeting of Jacob and Rachel, in Genesis 29, when Jacob arrives in the land of the people of the east and sees shepherds near a well whose mouth is covered by a large stone; and the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, in the Gospel of John 4: 4-26, which is a warning against liars and seducers.7

24However subjective they may sometimes appear, resonances appeal to the intuitive part of the reading experience. They resort to the collective unconscious acknowledged by Rash when he describes his creative process:

I don’t know where the image is going; I don’t even know what it means. I don’t want to know what it means. This is in large part because I’m a Jungian. I believe in Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, his idea that there are certain things that happen to us that we can’t articulate but that we respond to; certain images, archetypes. That’s the realm I am most interested in. That’s why I want the image to emerge naturally during the creative process. (“Blood-Memory” 43)

25Along the same lines, Rash refers to the text as “an act of communion between the author and the reader; it’s a shared consciousness”; he and explains that reading is a necessary and intimate process through which the written words are brought to life (“An Interview with Ron Rash” 188). So, instead of reading the collection as a thematically articulated triptych, which favors linearity, causality, and chronology, and freezes it into a definite static form, it might be read as a rhizomatic and dynamic system, in which what emerges and reverberates is dependent on subjective connections and circumstances. Such a reading is possible in the conditions of discontinuity, ruptures and multiplicity present in the book. The deliberate fragmentation of the historical and cultural background, wandering from one period to another, and mixing all wars and crises gone through, from the nineteenth century to the present days (Civil War, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, contemporary wars) allows us to consider the text not as an articulated arborescent system but as a system propelled by its own aesthetic density. The non-chronological organization of the stories in the collection, and the narrative and structural disconnections they display, individually or as a whole, together with the multiple echoes and resonances that emerge from the texts and give them density, are in favor of a dissemination of signs and a nomadic system of growth and propagation typical of the Deleuzian rhizome. Following this approach, Rash’s fiction can be considered to bear evidence of how literature feeds upon itself, and presents itself as a map or an array of attractions and influences open to the readers’ response and aesthetic experience. His images surge and bounce back like pebbles thrown on the surface of the water, and the water metaphor also applies here as an echo of Rash’s conception of memory, spreading, smoothing, and ultimately leveling all events beneath the present’s surface.

26In his interview with Joyce Compton Brown in 2003, Rash said that “in poetry, [he] want[s] to begin in mystery and end in mystery” (“Blood-Memory” 43). If mystery plays an important part in his detective novels, the format of the short story allows him to use mystery differently. Detective novels lead the reader to a resolution of the central mystery. In short stories, enigmas, gaps and lapses do not necessarily need to be solved. This contribution has tried to show that the power of Rash’s short stories is precisely in the capacity they have to hold the reader in suspense, to have her/him stop and probe into those narrative ruptures and blank spots. Rather than a disarticulation of the stories, they entail a concentration and condensation of the images that propel the stories, and ultimately it is not the chain of events but the images that raise questions. Poetic or not, this writing definitely has a visual quality that captures the reader’s attention and appeals to her/his senses and emotions. The aesthetic experience gone through is like Barthes’s wandering in a landscape, water flowing below, or like a daydream meditation which favors reminiscences and recollection. What the reader sees and thinks of is multiple, sometimes unexpected, surging from memory, and it conjures up an array of other images which give weight and density to the text and contribute to the pleasure of the reading experience.

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1 In One Foot in Eden, Sheriff Alexander comes to realize the value of the past when investigating a murder in his native Jocassee valley. In Saints at the River, Maggie Glenn, the photographer missioned to cover the current events, is brought back to her own past when confronting her dying father after a decade of estrangement from him.

2 Mikhail Bakhtin has demonstrated that “dialogic literature” carries on a continual dialogue with previous literary works, is informed by them, and will inform future works in its turn. Dialogism, as a concept, accounts for inter-textual “utterances”—not as a matter of influence, but of heritage. According to Bakhtin, “[t]he word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention” (293).

3 Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was published in New Hampshire in October 1923, a collection that earned him the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

4 “Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leaf’s a flower; / But only so an hour. / Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay” (84).

5 “Indian Camp” is part of the Nick Adams stories. It was first published in Transatlantic Review (1924) and republished in In Our Time (1925).

6 Spill borrows Proust’s metaphor of radiance in Time Regained to refer to the artist’s illuminating vision and power (7, 167).

7 It can be noted that this episode is a common cultural reference in visual arts and music. Among many examples, mention can be made of the sculpture by the French artist Gervais Drouet (1651), the painting by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1525-1537), the cantata “The Woman of Samaria” (1867-1868) by English composer William S. Bennett, and the American gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.”

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Marie-Christine Agosto, « Reading, Seeing, Remembering: Aesthetic Experience in Ron Rash’s Stories from Nothing Gold Can Stay »Journal of the Short Story in English, 74 | 2020, 155-168.

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Marie-Christine Agosto, « Reading, Seeing, Remembering: Aesthetic Experience in Ron Rash’s Stories from Nothing Gold Can Stay »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 74 | Spring 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 31 mars 2023. URL :

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Marie-Christine Agosto

Marie-Christine Agosto is Professor of American literature at the University of Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, France. She is a specialist of 20th century fiction, and the author of three monographies: Richard Brautigan: Les Fleurs de néant (Paris: Editions Belin, 1999), Gilbert Sorrentino: Uneexubérante noirceur (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007) and Ernest Hemingway: Fiesta, The Sun Also Rises (Paris: Atlande, 2011). She has done research on the 19th century influence on postmodernist literature and she is also interested in visual arts and text-image relationships. Her work includes articles on various prose writers, poets and painters: Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock. In 2015, she published an article on Ron Rash: “Poetics and Politics of Place in Ron Rash’s fiction: Saints at the River, One Foot in Eden, Serena,” in Environmental Crisis and Human Costs (Madrid: Universidad de Alcalá).

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