Category Archives: Short stories

Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda

It’s been a while since I finished The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, published by Open Letter Books, so details of individual stories are a little hazy, but overall, the collection impressed me. The stories are full of drama and passion, not at all like the quiet stories with small epiphanies that you find so often in American short fiction. I like quiet stories as well, but it was a nice change to have more action, more bright, vibrant characters and overpowering emotions.

Rodoreda is a Catalan writer who died in 1983; these stories come from three collections published in 1958, 1978, and one that (as far as I can tell) was collected after her death. These stories are published in chronological order, and become more experimental toward the end, moving toward a more impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. I was less taken with these stories than with the more realistic ones, but it was interesting to see her moving in new directions and experimenting with new styles.

Most of the stories are short; there are 30 stories in 255 pages, and some of them are only two or three pages long. Rodoreda captures a wonderful depth of emotion and life in such a short space. For example in the story “Ice Cream,” only a little over two pages long, a man and woman get engaged while eating ice cream but have entirely different responses to their engagement, responses that foreshadow years of unhappiness. The man cannot bear to be parted from his lover:

It was always the same: As the moment of parting approached, it seemed as if a bucket of sadness was being poured over him, and he would hardly utter a word during the time they had left together.

While she, on the other hand, feels trapped:

She spread her fingers to look at [the ring], stretched her arm out, and turned her hand from side to side. With secret regret she thought about her hand only a moment before, without a ring, nimble and free. Her eyes welled up.

There are many similar moments in these stories, moments when people can’t communicate their emotions or feel trapped by them. In one of my favorite stories, “Carnival,” a young man and woman meet unexpectedly on the street when she asks him, previously a stranger, for directions to the taxi stand. When they can’t find a taxi, they decide to walk. They are both in costume for the carnival, and there is a feeling of possibility and excitement in the air. They walk for hours as though they are in another, magical world. But the illusion of other-worldliness is destroyed when it begins to rain, they become exhausted, and are accosted by a man demanding money from them. The young man describes his disappointment with the night:

I wanted to make this evening … I don’t know how to explain … a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.

For her part, she is filled with sadness at his disappointment, but also wishes he would just disappear — his intensity is almost too much for her to take. Both of them are overwhelmed by the journey — a journey through the city but also a journey into their own hearts.

There is a wide range of situations, characters, and perspectives in these stories, but each one has an intensity to it that makes for exciting reading. I enjoyed these stories very much and am curious what her novel-length fiction is like.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Short stories

The Boat

Nam Le’s book of short stories, The Boat, has an incredible range of settings, situations, and types of characters. The first story is the most traditional, the most stereotypical, perhaps (although this is not to say it’s not a good story), with its main character who is a student in the famous Iowa creative writing program. From there, though, we take off to Colombia and read about 14 year old hitmen (hit children?) and then to New York City, Australia, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam. Le writes about each of these places with admirable ease and assurance, describing them as though he knows the places and the people intimately (leading me to speculate about the author’s life, although I generally try to be more sophisticated than that).

The stories are all action-filled, each one centering on some highly dramatic moment, often a violent one. For example, the story set in Iran tells of political protests and arrests through the lens of two estranged friends trying to understand each other, and the Australia story tells of teenage love, jealousy, bullying, and schoolyard fights. The last story is a harrowing account of Vietnamese “boat people” on a journey that lasted much longer than it should have.

But these stories aren’t simply interesting for their plot; they are wonderfully written as well. Le’s sentences beautifully capture the characters’ exterior world as well as their interior landscapes; they often startle you with a brilliant image or an unexpected observation. At times the writing veers toward stream of consciousness as Le takes you deep into a character’s mind. Here’s a passage that shows how Le writes about action and consciousness all at once:

Finally the storm arrived in force. The remaining light drained out of the hold. Wind screamed through the cracks. She felt the panicked limbs, people clawing for direction, sudden slaps of ice-cold water, the banging and shapeless shouts from the deck above. The whole world reeled. Everywhere the stink of vomit. Her stomach forced up, swashed through her throat. So this was what it was like, she thought, the moment before death.

She closed her eyes, swallowed compulsively; tried to close out the crawling blackness, the howl of the wind. She tried to recall her father’s stories — storms at sea, waves ten, fifteen meters high! — but they rang shallow against what she’d just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky lurching overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick. She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did — forcing herself to concentrate, if not — if she was unable to — on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of — what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over.

How can you read this and not want to know what happens next and also not want to know more about this young person caught in horrible circumstances?

The stories have an interesting metafictional element too. The first story about the creative writing student seems highly autobiographical (particularly as the character shares the author’s name), and in it, the character grapples with the question of whether he should write about Vietnam. Ethnic lit., he is told, is incredibly hot right now, and he could exploit that trend with tales about his father, a victim of the war, and with stories about Vietnamese boat people. A friend tactlessly tells him:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.

Interestingly enough, most of the stories his friend lists appear in Le’s book (the lesbian vampire story isn’t there, unfortunately). So the whole collection becomes an exploration of writing and identity. What should a person write about? Should a person write about his or her roots, particularly if that’s what people want to read about and if it’s more likely to get published? Should a person instead explore other worlds?

Le does both of these things, writing about the familiar (he himself was a student in the Iowa program)  and writing stories about Vietnam (the first story about personal consequences of the Vietnam War and also the closing story about the boat people) and also writing stories about places and situations that seem remote from him. The book seems to argue that a writer can have it all, can write about his experiences and can stray far from them. And why not?

I admire the way Le uses the opening story to prepare the reader for the rest of the book and the way that story gives it a kind of unity, while at the same time the collection as a whole is incredibly diverse. Added to this unity-in-diversity is a self-awareness I admire, a questioning attitude about the relationship of writers to their material. All-in-all, Le has managed to pull off a pretty wonderful feat with this book.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Short stories

Paris Stories

For the most part, I am enjoying Mavis Gallant’s book Paris Stories; I say for the most part because my response to them has been a bit uneven — I’m not sure if this is my fault or the stories’ fault. But at the halfway point of the book I can say I’ve liked most of them, especially the one I just finished, “Speck’s Idea.” The story is about a gallery owner in Paris, Speck, who is trying to revitalize the gallery and earn some money to keep himself going; he gets the idea to revive the work of the artist Hubert Cruche and spends much of the story negotiating with Cruche’s widow, a woman who has some surprises up her sleeve. Although the story is a little sad — Speck seems like someone who will always dream of success and never quite find it — but it’s charmingly told. Gallant’s wit shines through and she has a brilliant way of describing her character. Unfortunately, I failed to mark any of the brilliant passages so I can’t reproduce them here, but trust me! They are brilliant.

The stories I’ve liked best in the collection are the ones where Gallant slows down the pace a bit and takes some time to describe scenes and dialogue. Some of the stories give the full sweep of a character’s life, from birth to mature adulthood if not beyond (such as “The Moslem Wife”), rarely stopping to linger on any one moment, and these leave me a bit cold; what I find myself wishing for is more detailed interaction among the characters. I do admire Gallant’s way of summing up a life, however; in just a few phrases, she can capture the essence of a person.

Many of the stories in the book are on the long side, but two of the shorter ones are particularly good; “In Transit” describes a couple as they wait in an airport — the story manages to give you a sense of their entire history while concentrating on a brief period of time. The other one, “From the Fifteenth District” is a playful tale of haunting — except it’s the living who haunt the dead rather than the other way around.

S0 — we’ll see what the second half of the book brings.

Cross-posted here.


Filed under Books, Short stories

All In Together Girls

b1.gif I have just finished Kate (of Kate’s Book Blog fame) Sutherland’s collection of short stories All In Together Girls, and enjoyed it very much; the collection has 14 stories, all of them quite short, each one capturing a glimpse into the life of a female protagonist.

Many of the stories are about young girls in their early or late teens who are trying to figure out their relationships with parents and with friends and with boys; these stories describe acts of disobedience and rebellion and often also moments of humiliation and frustration. They are about trying to find one’s identity while negotiating the needs and demands of others. They tell of the desire for freedom and the uncertainty about what to do with it; the first story, for example, is about a group of friends who lie to their parents so they can spend the night hanging out, but things quickly go sour leaving them wanting nothing but to go home. In a later story a girl skips her dance lessons to hang out with friends, and in another the protagonist lies to her parents and spends the night with her friends trying, but failing, to smoke dope. In each of these stories, the promised fun times never quite materialize, and instead the protagonists are left with an air of sadness and worry.

The adult protagonists of some of the other stories seem just as lost; in “Outside the Frame,” the narrator tries to piece together her mother’s story from a photograph, seeking to understand the quality of her mother’s marriage as her own is falling apart. The story alternates between the mother’s experience, as imagined by the narrator, and the narrator’s accounting of why she is leaving her husband. In “Notes for a Documentary,” one of my favorites, the protagonist travels to Scotland to do research and to see family; she visits the places where her parents courted and ponders what to do about her own love affair. She is unsettled, positioned between an unchanging past and an uncertain future.

I enjoyed each and every one of these stories. Many of them are told in the first person, and the voices are clear and appealing, telling their stories straightfowardly, recounting hard times but not asking for pity. The language is simple and direct, drawing attention not to itself, but to the predicaments of the characters — it’s their thoughts about themselves and their lives that matter here.

This is the second collection of short stories I’ve read this year (the first was Jesus’ Son), which fulfills my short story-reading goal; I’m enjoying reading more in the genre, though, and may pick up another. I’ve got Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories on my shelves if I get the urge.


Filed under Books, Short stories

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

imagedbcgi1.jpg I finished this book a few days ago and have been thinking about it since then. It’s a collection of linked short stories with the same first-person narrator in each one; it’s a powerful collection, moving and disturbing and beautifully written. This is very far from the usual sort of story I read — the narrator is a young man who is an alcoholic and drug addict who drifts through his life looking for more drugs, wandering here and there, meeting people, getting into trouble, getting high, and thinking about life.

He doesn’t tell us a whole lot of what he thinks about life, actually, as more often than not he seems to be trying not to think, but he comes out now and then with comments and judgments on the world around him that are all the more startling for being relatively rare. The narrator’s voice is haunting; he’s mostly matter-of-fact in the way he recounts his life, often using strings of short sentences or long sentences made up of strings of short phrases that seem not to reveal much until suddenly they reveal a whole lot. This is the way one story begins:

I was after a seventeen-year old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

This is a typical Denis Johnson sentence, I think, one that starts off a little bit shocking and becomes more complicated as you go on, and then ends with a phrase that takes you into another place entirely, some place larger and more thoughtful. Here’s how another story begins:

I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d even known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.

And you’ll find passages like this one, where the narrator starts off describing the events of a day and end up taking the measure of his life:

Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back. Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breasts. A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.

I’d like to keep giving you example after example of the writing, because it’s so beautiful and so stunning. You can see in the last quoted sentence that the narrator is looking back on his life, writing about it in some future time; occasionally he’ll make reference to how he has changed and what he has lost, sounding nostalgic at times for this youthful, free-wheeling life and culture. He mentions urban renewal a number of times, soon to become reality (the book is set in the early 70s), which will destroy the landscapes he knows, bleak ones, yes, but familiar ones too.

And yet he also is writing from the perspective of sober adulthood, knowing very well just what a harsh and difficult life he has led; the last story describes a narrator newly-sober and struggling to settle into a new life, offering the reader a hint of the narrator’s future trajectory. This last story is one of the best and most disturbing, I think; the narrator spends a lot of time spying on an unsuspecting couple in their home, longing to understand and maybe to imitate their normalcy. He can only gaze in on this conventionality from the outside, though, and the people he finds himself actually involved with are outcasts like himself. The story ends with this thought:

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.

In spite of all the darkness, the collection ends with the possibility that the narrator will find his place after all, will figure out how to shape a life for himself.

From the collection’s title you will be able to guess that there are religious references throughout; these don’t occur all that often, but just enough so that you know the narrator has a spiritual awareness; he is aware of just how far he has strayed from God, perhaps, or maybe it’s that he feels that God has abandoned him and the world he sees around him. The title feels ironic at times — this guy is Jesus’ son? — and yet he also seems watched over, somehow, as though the older narrator knows that the younger version of himself will find a way out of the mess; if he won’t find salvation, exactly, he’ll find a new life:

There were many moments in the Vine like that one — where you might think today was yesterday, and yesterday was tomorrow, and so on. Because we all believed we were tragic, and we drank. We had that helpless, destined feeling. We would die with handcuffs on. We would be put a stop to, and it wouldn’t be our fault. So we imagined. And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons.

To be found innocent for ridiculous reasons — that’s one version of salvation, I suppose.


Filed under Books, Short stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find

First of all, if you haven’t read the Hobgoblin’s post on his father and on what’s happening to war vets, do go check it out.

I taught Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in my classes yesterday and had such a fun time doing it; I’m not sure I got the students to like the story as much as I do, but that might be because it’s a story that grows on you with every reading. For me, the story gets funnier and funnier each time (and I’ve re-read it quite a few times now).

The story describes a family on a trip from Georgia to Florida; they get side-tracked down a dirt road and run into an escaped convict called the Misfit and violence ensues. Now that doesn’t sound like funny material at all; in fact, when I talked about how funny I think the story is, a number of my students were shocked. But that’s the genius of O’Connor, and what makes her so strange: that she can write a funny story about violence that also has a profound and beautiful religious element. This paragraph will give you a taste of O’Connor’s style:

The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

This last line just kills me; it captures the grandmother perfectly, with her primness and properness and her failure to recognize that if she’s dead on the highway, she’s not going to care what she looks like. And the bratty children crack me up:

“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.

“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”

“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

“You said it,” June Star said.

What sends the family down the dirt road is that the grandmother remembers a nearby plantation she visited as a young woman and she gets the children excited about stopping there. They set off down the side road, and it’s then that she has a terrible thought. This terrible thought makes her jump, which lets the cat out of the basket where she’s been hiding it, which then jumps up onto the father’s shoulder startling him and causing them to veer off into a ditch. This is the grandmother’s response:

As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

The grandmother is just such an awful person. She’s self-centered and irritating, and not so different from her bratty grandchildren, and this is what makes her such a great character — O’Connor gets her perfectly. And yet, in spite of being so awful, she has a wonderful moment at the end of the story, a moment when she manages to be someone different from who she’s been up until that point. There’s something wonderful about the extremity of this story, the violence and the humor and the suddenness of the grandmother’s moment of insight at the end. O’Connor isn’t interested in the subtle shifts in thinking we often see in short story characters; she gives us drama and lots of action and the possibility of sudden transformation.

I’ve read all of O’Connor’s fiction, I’m pretty sure, unless I missed a story or two. But it was quite a while ago I read it, and I think it would be fun to read her again — she’s someone whose work it wouldn’t be hard to read in its entirety, as she has only two short novels and a couple short story collections. She’s someone I might read differently now that I’m a bit older; I feel like with a little age I can better appreciate her sense of humor.

I found myself reminding my students that this is fiction we’re talking about; yes, there’s violence in the story, and yes, it’s gruesome, but that’s not really the point. It’s not as though it’s the kind of gratuitous violence you frequently see in the movies; it’s violence that gets you to think about God and grace and what the point of trying to be good is. And since it’s a truly horrible person who leads us into all of these serious thoughts, why not make that horrible person and her family as funny as you can? You can get a sense of O’Connor’s rather wicked sense of humor from the story’s closing lines:

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”


Filed under Books, Short stories

Hills Like White Elephants

Here is my late post on Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” for A Curious Singularity; I couldn’t quite find the time to read it when everybody else did (short as it is), but I taught it in my Composition and Literature classes this morning and so thought I could write about it now. I’ve taught this story in many freshman-level literature classes and I like it for teaching; there are so many things to talk about in such a short short story — the symbolism of the white elephants, the significance of the setting, the exterior point of view, the concision of language, the troubling dynamic between the two main characters.

Invariably students are confused by the story and they don’t figure out on their own that it’s about an abortion — which I wouldn’t have figured out either most likely; they tend to think it’s about the two characters deciding whether or not to have sex — although the textbook I’m using this semester gives this information in the discussion questions following the story and sometimes students look up the information on the internet. A couple of students, upon hearing that it’s about an abortion, got a look of enlightenment and relief on their faces — it does make sense after all! — and said they would now have to re-read the story.

I ask students in this class to give a short presentation in small groups and to lead class discussion for a while, and the student who was responsible for this story wrote me a slightly panicked email last night saying she couldn’t understand what was going on, and so we met this morning to talk about it and she ended up doing a fabulous job in class. She’d spent some time thinking about white elephants and led the class into a good discussion of their various meanings. My early morning class was a little reluctant (or too sleepy) to talk much, but my later class did such a good job with the story that I kept telling myself to keep my mouth shut and let them do the work of figuring out the story, because eventually they cover pretty much everything on their own. When that happens, I have the fun of sitting in the back of the class and just taking it all in.

Anyway, one of the textbook’s discussion questions was about the significance of the number two in the story — the number gets mentioned ten times, apparently (I didn’t count) — and my students had a great time playing around with the meaning of this. Two is important, of course, because the couple has to decide if they will remain only two or if they will add another person to become three, but also we have the two parallel train tracks that don’t meet and the two strings of beads that Jig holds, both illustrating the two main characters traveling together, side-by-side, but never meeting, never really communicating.

My students can be fairly quick to personalize their readings and to make sweeping generalizations as they’re grappling with the story — about gender in this case; as some students began to describe how weak and pathetic the man comes across in this story, some of the men in the class began to get a bit uncomfortable and wanted to defend their gender from what they felt was an attack. I start squirming in my seat when the conversation takes this kind of turn, wanting both to let students have the fun of discussing what the story means to them but also to step in and point out that we can talk about the character’s weakness without making broad claims about human nature that are distressingly vague and that distract us from the story itself.

I’m happy when students make a personal connection with what we’re reading, but I’m often unsure what to do when their personal connections lead them into interpretations of the story I don’t agree with or toward conclusions I’m tempted to argue with. Figuring out how and when to correct students when we’re talking about something as complex as a short story is difficult.


Filed under Books, Short stories, Teaching

Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

I have a copy of Kafka’s Complete Stories; it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever read all the stories in it, but I would like to read more, as I enjoyed “A Hunger Artist.” I feel like I’ve read a lot of Kafka, but when I think about what, exactly, I’ve read, I realize it’s only The Trial, and that I read over a decade ago. Maybe I’ve read a lot about Kafka and that makes me feel like I’ve actually read a lot of his work. The term “kafka-esque” is very easy to throw around in conversation, and so it’s not hard to begin to think I’ve got him all figured out.

I don’t think I’ve got him all figured out, but “A Hunger Artist” didn’t upset my expectations of what I’d find in a Kafka short story — you could call it “kafka-esque”: it feels like a parable; it deals with ideas as least as much as characters and more so than plot; it’s absurd, and yet the story is told as though it weren’t; it’s about darkness and suffering and yet there’s something fine and admirable about it.

At the center of the story is the paradox of the “hunger artist” himself — how can one be a hunger artist? What’s artistic about not eating? The narrator tells us the hunger artist believes in “the honor of his profession,” and we learn that no one but the hunger artist can know for sure he is not cheating, so “he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.” So there is something mysteriously artistic about fasting, and not only that, but the hunger artist is the only one who really understands it. He also says that although no one else knows it, fasting is easy, further undermining the “artistic” element of it. And there’s the twist at the end where we learn that he fasts because he can’t find food he likes to eat. So in what sense is fasting artistic?

I don’t know, really, but it defines art as a complex give and take between artist and viewer. The artist knows fasting is easy, but the viewers won’t believe it, so they insist that they are witnessing an act in one sense or another — the artist is either “out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy,” i.e., he managed to sneak food into his cage. So part of the “art” is simply doing nothing and then letting viewers make what sense of it they will. The more the artist insists he’s doing nothing, the more “artistic,” partly as in “artifice” and “artificial,” the viewers think it is.

Art in this story is nothing — it’s negation and refusal. It’s about letting the body waste away, until it disappears at the story’s end. And yet the art is nothingness that creates an event. It’s a refusal of the body that’s also a display of that body — a weird denial of and celebration of the body. If art here is about nothing, it’s also about death — the artist makes his living off of dying.

No wonder taste is changing and people pass him by to head for the menagerie, and no wonder they prefer to see the panther, so full of the joy of life. And yet I don’t think the story is leading us to sympathize with this changing taste; the hunger artist seems to be an admirable figure, and the people who refuse to appreciate him are refusing to see something real and true about life. It’s like the hunger artist is the one who can recognize the true nature of things — that everything ends in death and nothingness. He is an artist because of the way, simply by placing himself in a cage and refusing to eat, he can turn nothing into something — he makes some kind of meaning, difficult and distressing though it may be, out of emptiness.

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Alice Munro

I finished Runaway last night and have decided, much to nobody’s surprise, that Alice Munro is a genius. I will agree that too much Munro might not be a good thing, but too much of anybody is probably not a good thing.

There are eight stories in this collection, all of them with a woman as their main character, at all different stages of life. Often Munro will cover decades in one story, so we might see a young woman as she meets a man and gets engaged, and then we see her as a widow, and we learn how the marriage turned out. Munro gives long stretches of time and she does it gracefully, the information on what happened in intervening years worked into scenes so that it doesn’t feel like summary.

I particularly liked a sequence of three stories about the same character, Juliet. She’s off to her first teaching job in the first story, in the second, she’s returning home to visit her parents after a long absence, and in the third she’s an older woman and the story is about her relationship with her daughter. Each story is fairly focused in time, but together they give a sense of Juliet’s entire life. I like this scale; the stories show both how much Juliet gets wrapped up in each event in her life and what the events mean in the larger picture. We get the emotions of the moment which we can place in the context of an entire life.

I’ve read criticisms of Munro’s work that claim she’s too narrowly focused on the personal and private and doesn’t let larger world events into her fiction. This may be a valid point, but one important social and political event that does inform her stories is the women’s movement. Juliet, for example, is a graduate student whose male professors do not take her intellect and her job prospects seriously:

Her professors were delighted with her — they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted — but they were worried, as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married — which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, she was not bad-looking at all — she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men (who needed them more, as they had to support families). She would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as its irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier to men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them. Not so the other way around.

As she ages, however, and as her society becomes a little more open to ambitious women, she finds ways to take on a public role. The public world — the world outside the family and the self — does have a place in Munro’s fiction; it’s just indirect and muted. It’s not the focus. But this strikes me as realistic, in its own way; many of us deal with significant world events in indirect and muted ways.

I remember somebody calling Munro’s stories “novelistic,” in the sense that are so rich with emotion and complexity that they could fill the space of a novel — this makes sense to me, although I wouldn’t want to sound like I’m denigrating the short story genre by calling excellent stories “novelistic.” Perhaps I should just say that these stories are satisfying in the way they capture whole worlds and lives and minds and emotions.

I enjoyed my experience of reading a book of short stories, which I have rarely done, and I think I would like to read more. The trick, for me, is to read them fairly slowly, meaning only one at a time, and to read them in one sitting if I can. To read a whole series of stories at once would confuse me (just as reading a whole series of poems would), but to sit down and read one an evening or every other evening works well.

This book, as you can see in the sidebar to the left, is my second book in the Winter Stacks challenge — three more to go!

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Short stories

I began Alice Munro’s book of short stories Runaway last night, and I finished the first one, the title story. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories; what Diana said about the effort it takes to get into a story and the fatigue of having to do it again and again with a book of stories really resonated with me. With a novel, you orient yourself once, or maybe a couple of times with new characters and locations, but then you’re set, and you’re in a world for as long as the novel lasts, and you can return again and again to that world every time you pick the book up. I like to live with characters for a while.

But I do want to read more stories, and while A Curious Singularity, the short story discussion group, is helping me, I’m eager to read some collections of stories on my own. Okay, that sounds more planned and organized than I really feel — I got inspired to read stories when I saw the Munro book, and I’m getting the feeling that I should continue to read stories now and then.

So, the Munro story was good [spoilers ahead]. It’s about a young married woman Clara, her husband Clark, and their older neighbor Sylvia; Clara turns to Sylvia for help when she realizes how unhappy she is in her marriage. Munro describes the marriage dynamic extraordinarily well; I can see just why Clark was so difficult, just why Clara would have been attracted to him in the first place, and just why she’d think about leaving him. And why she’d return, as much as I didn’t want her to. Munro can dramatize all this history and all these feelings so effortlessly.

I remember a commenter telling me to look out for the goat in this book — well, the goat appears in this first story and turns out to be the story’s symbolic center. Clara’s goat Flora is missing through most of the story, but she appears at a crucial moment near the conclusion when Clark confronts Sylvia for helping Clara run away. The goat comes walking out of a fog, illuminated by passing headlights, and frightens the two characters, so that Clark grabs Sylvia’s shoulder in a protective move and she lets him do so, although the two had just been fighting. Sylvia writes to Clara later that:

[Flora’s] appearance at that moment did have a profound effect on your husband and me. When two human beings divided by hostility are both, at the same time, mystified — no, frightened — by the same apparition, there is a bond that springs up between then, and they find themselves united in the most unexpected way. United in their humanity — that is the only way I can describe it. We parted almost as friends. So Flora has her place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband’s life and yours.

And yet — if you’ve read the story, you’ll know this is not what happens at all. Flora comes to stand for something much different — much darker — in their marriage. So the story ends, not with the issues resolved and not with the kind of reconciliation Sylvia hopes they might have had:

All she could hope was that perhaps Clara’s flight and turbulent emotions had brought her true feelings to the surface and perhaps a recognition in her husband of his true feelings as well.

If Clara and Clark have recognized their true feelings by the end of the story, this recognition is not an easy or a rewarding one. Sylvia’s hopes are a dark counterpoint to the reality of the marriage — a marriage in which Clara now seems firmly entrenched.

Okay, now I’m depressed. But, sigh, this seems like real life to me. I suppose part of Munro’s genius is to capture a rich, if dark, emotional world in such a short space. I’m looking forward to the rest of the stories in this collection.

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Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”

I appreciate A Curious Singularity for introducing me to new authors and stories; I’d never read Katherine Mansfield until now and I’m glad I’ve read “At the Bay.” It’s quite a long short story with a relatively large cast of characters; it’s structured in a series of vignettes that tell the stories of members of the Burnell family. It takes place over the course of one day, opening with a fairly extended scene filled with descriptions of the natural world. We see a shepherd leading a flock of sheep past the bungalows of a summer colony in an unnamed place, although it’s presumably New Zealand where Mansfield was born.

From there we get brief stories about the characters who range in age from the very young, unnamed “boy” and his three older sisters to the mother Linda Burnell, her husband Stanley, and Linda’s sister Beryl. I found these stories unsettling. Stanley seems supremely self-absorbed, expecting the entire family to cater to his every need, and when he returns at the end of the day contrite and apologetic for not having said goodbye to Linda that morning, he only gets irritated when he realizes she has no idea what he is apologizing for. In the section devoted to Linda, she confesses that she doesn’t love her children, and at the story’s end, we read about Beryl’s sinister encounter with the husband of her friend.

The most enjoyable parts of the story were the descriptions of the children. Mansfield captures the feeling of being young very well, but even here the story is jarring as Linda’s daughter Lottie becomes distressed when she can’t figure out how to follow the game the children are playing and screams when she sees a strange face in a window. Another daughter Kezia, in a scene where she is napping with her grandmother, realizes for the first time what death means. She tries desperately to get her grandmother to deny that she will die one day, but she gets no answer and instead her attention is diverted. Instead of answers all we get is distraction.

These unsettling stories are framed by quiet, peaceful nature scenes, a pattern that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” where descriptions of nature also predominate. In Woolf’s story, the natural world showed the brevity and relative insignificance of the human lives; her story of the snail trying to get past the leaf seemed just as important as anything happening in the people’s lives. In Mansfield’s story there seems to be more of a contrast between the peaceful natural setting and the discontented humans who populate it. Mansfield highlights the precariousness and uncertainty of human experience by contrasting it with the stability of nature. Here’s the closing section:

A cloud, small, serene, floated across the moon. In that moment of darkness the sea sounded deep, troubled. Then the cloud sailed away, and the sound of the sea was a vague murmur, as though it waked out of a dark dream. All was still.

In contrast to this stillness and serenity, the people seem stuck in a “dark dream.”

I think this story is most effective in the way it creates a mood — it evokes a feeling of dreaminess that begins to shade over into a nightmare at times. It doesn’t have a strong story line, but instead it gives a brief glimpse into a number of characters’ lives and through those glimpses builds its atmosphere.

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Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens”

In a way, I’m hesitant to talk about Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” as a story, since it shares so little with other short stories I’m familiar with. In what sense is this a story? In a lot of ways, it seems more accurate to call it a sketch, or maybe a prose poem. It consists of a description of a flower bed in Kew Gardens and a snail slowly making its way between the plants and around the leaves. It describes the colors and the light in minute details. We read of small groups of people who walk by the flower bed; we catch little bits of their conversations, enough to begin to piece together a story, but really only fragments before they move on and we lose sight of them.

What tempts me to call the work a prose poem is not so much the beautiful description, although there is plenty of that, but more the way it creates a mood, the people and the natural world together, so that the point is not what happens but how we feel as we read it. I’m also tempted to call it a prose poem because it gives us little glimpses of stories that we have to work to put together, in the way a poem will sometimes hint at a situation without fleshing it out, and focus on the feeling of that situation more than the events, even though the events are often implicit.What we get from the vignettes are images, as we might find in poems, as when the first man thinks of 15 years previously when he sat in the gardens with Lily and asked her to marry him and she refused:

We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe.

We picture the man staring at the Lily’s shoe and watching its impatient movements and understanding his fate, and we also picture that same man 15 year later walking through the gardens with his wife and children and remembering Lily’s rejection with relief and with regret.We see an old man walking with a younger one:

The elder man had a curiously uneven and shaky method of walking, jerking his hand forward and throwing up his head abruptly, rather in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house; but in the man these gestures were irresolute and pointless.

He talks incessantly to the younger man about spirits who are speaking to him of heaven, and the younger man’s “look of stoical patience [grows] slowly deeper and deeper.” With the older man’s jerky movements and the younger man’s strained calm, we put together the story of failing mental powers on the one hand and youthful health and energy on the other. Woolf gives these hints of story through the images themselves; they are vibrant because they are brief and sharply focused.Woolf spends as much time describing the flower bed and the snail as she does the people; in fact, since there are four groups of people who walk by, the snail gets much more attention than any particular person does. The human stories are not privileged; the snail’s decision whether to crawl around or over or under the leaf is just as important as whether Lily said yes or no. With Woolf’s careful description of the flowers and the sunlight, she creates a feeling that the natural world, even though it is made up of individual parts that are fleeting, as a whole is more real and long-lasting than the human world.

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