Charles Baxter's stories, as collected in Gryphon, seem to me to epitomize an approach to fiction writing that has become the trademark approach in the era of the Creative Writing program and its "workshop" method of instruction. Whether Baxter has simply become the most consistent enabler of this approach, or might even be a model to which other aspiring Creative Writers turn for inspiration, Gryphon is a virtual sourcebook of the workshop method, and might ultimately be interesting for later readers and critics who want to understand the nature and appeal of this method--although, in my opinion, they will prove interesting for very little else.
The stories included in this volume are not exactly bad, but they certainly are dull. Consistently and surpassingly dull. First and foremost they are dull because they are so formulaic. It is true that Baxter's stories do not emphasize "plot" in the most traditional, drama-building sense of the term, but for this they substitute a more meandering, "slice of life" technique that nevertheless almost always leads to a moment of revelation, understated in the "quiet" manner favored by workshop realism (presumably a legacy of minimalism, but now more a mannerism than an intentional strategy), but a gathering-point of plot nonetheless. In a Baxter story things happen, and they are always pointing to a resolution of the underlying tensions the story has introduced. This sort of slackened plotting so predominates the stories in Gryphon that it quickly comes to seem just a pallid variation on conventional plot devices and settles into bland routine.
Baxter's characters are similarly repetitive, and ultimately seem alternative versions of the same character, however much the superficial circumstances change. Most often, they seem to be just drifting along in their lives (so the "drift" in the plotting, of course, is even more directly mimetic); sometimes they are merely eccentric outsiders, other times outright losers; often they are disappointed with their lives (whether they admit it or not), and even those characters who seem mostly content with their lot have experiences that bring out latent conflict. These characters are subject to the revelatory moment or episode, usually a realization on the character's part about the state of his/her life, to which the stories are leading. Usually the revelation adds up to the fact that the character is, well, drifting, disappointed, conflicted, etc.
Both Baxter's habitual mode of plotting and characterization could no doubt be called "quirky," or at least this is the overall "feel" of the stories. The characters are off-centered enough and the narratives just nonlinear enough that they can pass for unconventional, but "quirky" has become its own kind of storytelling mode, almost a genre of its own, in both fiction and certain "independent" films. It seems to designate a sufficiently unorthodox approach to suggest such works are to some degree original and innovative, but these "quirky" films and fictions are actually a flight from originality and innovation, a retreat into formal timidity and aesthetic sameness. They pretend to be daring in their choice of character, subject, or milieu, while reinforcing all the unadventurous expectations of narrative transparency that ensure readers won't be alienated by a work that is unduly "difficult." Charles Baxter's stories could be the lodestar of this style of "quirk."
Much of this quirkiness is also, ultimately, sentimental. The characters and their travails inevitably provoke, or are meant to provoke, protective feelings on their behalf, feelings of sorrow or pity for their limitations or of satisfaction at their occasional triumphs. Baxter's stories share in this sentimentality. The first two stories in Gryphon, featuring elderly characters with dementia, lay it on pretty thick, but while not all of the stories are quite so explicit in their heart-tugging, most of them most of them do ask the reader to indulge in emotions that are essentially sentimental. "Surprised by Joy" is an especially egregious example, a story about a couple whose daughter has died. The wife finally seems to manage to find "closure," but the husband still has not, and the story ends with the husband exclaiming "I don't want to be all right" while the wife looks at the beautiful mountains in reawakened joy. "Shelter" concerns a man who takes a sudden interest in helping the down-and-out and brings one young homeless man home with him, bemusing his wife but upsetting his son. In "Flood Show," a man almost drowns trying to cross a flooded river to reunite with his ex-wife, to whom he then confesses, "I couldn't help it. I never got over it." All of these stories take ostensibly strange turns to get to their sentimental conclusions ("Shelter" ends as the protagonist asks his wife to "shelter me" and embraces her), but they are finally just a diversion from the hackneyed tropes and cloying emotions in which the stories habitually traffic.
Often enough the stories attempt to cloak their sentimentality with portentous conclusions. In "Harmony of the World," a failed musician turned music journalist takes on a side job playing accompaniment for a singer whose lack of talent he can't finally keep himself from declaring. The protagonist, who is also the narrator, concludes by reflecting on the fate of souls in Dante's limbo, where they suffer "grief without torment." The narrator observes, "These sighs are rather like the sounds one hears drifting from front porches in small towns on soft summer nights." The bathos of this is overwhelming. The story does nothing to convince us that life in "small towns" rises to this level of grandiosity. (The analogy actually makes it seem rather banal and sordid.) It does convince us that the narrator is wallowing in his own self-pity. In "The Disappointed," a Swedish engineer visits America on business, perhaps to stay on in Detroit as a consultant. Not surprisingly, Detroit provides a virtual reverse image to the protagonist's antiseptic native Sweden, and at the end of the story he is mugged. Leaving the hospital, he "steps[s] out onto the front sidewalk, and to the air, which smelled as it always had, of powerful combustible materials and their traces, fire and ash." One hardly knows what this sentence is supposed to signify. It clearly wants to mean something. The "smelled as it always had" seems to add some pseudo-allegorical implication, but at best we are left with a story of ordinary, even obvious, disillusion elevated into faux-apocalyptic imagery.
This kind of fake profundity embodied in the story's concluding image or gesture is unfortunately yet another characteristic of the workshop story Baxter shares, to the ubiquity of which he has no doubt contributed. Such a device is just "indeterminate" enough to seem appropriately "literary," while managing to simulate a moment of insight that is sufficiently arresting to convince some readers the story must be consequential. In all of the devices that Baxter uses, he works to manufacture this illusion of substance, both formal and thematic. Since I have not found a single negative print review of Gryphon, I have to conclude he is apparently succeeding.