Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Short Story Collections of 2010

It is New Year’s Eve, 2010. I have have looked over the “Best Books of 2010” lists of the major newspapers, networks, and magazines and list below the short story collections chosen for those lists, along with my own comments on those I have read.

The Washington Post listed only “Best Novels” in their fiction category, as if short stories did not exist.

The Village Voice listed no short story collections in their fiction list.

The San Francisco Chronicle listed only one: Selected Stories by William Trevor.

Publishers Weekly listed only one: Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.

Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin listed only The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New Yorker listed only Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy.

Slate listed only The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

Atlantic chose Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg & What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy

National Public Radio listed Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li & The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg. They listed Patricia Engel’s Vida as one of their “best debut collections.”

The Guardian asked individual reviewers to list their favorites:
A. S. Byatt picked Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Roddy Doyle picked Amy Bloom's collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Pankij Mishra, who asked: “Is short fiction with its necessarily fragmentary form and brisk epiphanies, better placed than the panoramic novel to capture the weird disjointedness and partial visions of modern life?” adding he was more captivated this year by short stories than long novels. Mishra chose: David Means's The Spot; Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New York Times’ 100 Notable books included ten short story collections:

Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr.
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Selected Stories by William Trevor.
Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy.
Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The Spot by David Means.
Vida by Patricia Engel.

Of all those listed above, here are the ones that I have read, with a brief comment on each:

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate. The best stories f Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern. Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.

Selected Stories by William Trevor
This is an anthology of stories from Trevor’s most recent collections. As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. Trevor’s stories are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the European Union, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. These are luminous, restrained stories. Every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie ranks second only to Raymond Carver as being responsible for the renaissance of the American short story in the 1970s and 80s. Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie has been alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine characters unable to understand themselves or others. Beattie's people seldom know what makes them do the things they do and have no real sense of purpose or destiny; thus instead of engaging in deliberate action, they more often seem acted upon. Beattie's characters seldom experience the kind of epiphany of awareness we have been accustomed to in twentieth century short fiction from James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson up through Eudora Welty and Bernard Malamud. Moreover, since many of her stories are told in present tense, her characters seldom engage in meditation or attempt a search for meaning, and there is little cause for her narrators to indulge in exposition or exploration. Beattie, especially in her early stories, seems to follow the Chekhovian-inspired dictum in one of her own stories: "Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it."

Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Since the appearance of his first collection The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1979), T. Coraghessan Boyle has published over a hundred stories, and, as this new collection is ample evidence, he is still the consummate showman—an old-fashioned yarn spinner who can mesmerize an auditorium audience of several hundred as though they were hunched wide-eyed around a campfire. Like the true professional he is, Boyle seems compelled to convert everything he experiences, reads, sees on television, or hears about into a story by the transformative process of “what if.” What if the California La Conchita earth slide of 2005 got in the way of a guy trying to get a liver transplant to Santa Barbara? What if a man bought a boa constrictor for a pet and then became so fond of the rats he bought to feed it that he got rid of the snake and let the rats take over? What if a rich couple’s dog died and they reincarnated it by cloning? What if a poor Mexican kid could feel no pain and his father exploited him like a sideshow freak? Of the fourteen new stories in this collection, some, especially those dealing with children, such as “Balto,” “Sin Dolor,” and the title story, are wisely and carefully controlled and thus emotionally irresistible. Others, such as “Admiral,” “Bulletproof,” and “Ash Monday,” exemplify a significant satiric point. Still others, such as “La Conchita,” “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado,” and “Thirteen Hundred Rats” are just clever excuses for stories. All in all, it’s a good mix of the meaningful and the merely amusing.

Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
One of the most critical differences between the novel and the short story is that whereas in the former the plot can wander and the writer can ramble almost aimlessly, in the latter, the action has to have some end-oriented intention on which the writer must focus scrupulously to give the story a unified thematic significance. The reader can perceive this difference immediately when reading a short story by a writer who is more comfortable writing novels. Such is the case with several stories in Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems. Stone has written some impressive novels in his career, e.g. Dog Soldiers (1975), but only one decent short story, “Helping” from his only other story collection Bear and His Daughter (1997). It’s not just that most of the stories in Fun With Problems are peopled by unpleasant drinking and drug-taking male throwbacks to the old days when Stone hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the 1960s—“Wine Dark Sea” about a free-lance journalist who gets drunk by six and often overlooks deadlines and entire assignments, “The Archer,” about an artist and university professor who goes after his wife and her lover with a crossbow while dressed in jockey shorts, and the title story wherein an aging attorney seduces a young woman trying to stay sober into drinking again--it’s that they are so haphazardly and indifferently written.

The Spot by David Means.
This is David Means’ fourth collection of short stories, and his publishers are probably tired of trying to get him to plunk down on their desks the manuscript of a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. The Spot, a collection of thirteen new stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper’s, and other places, is just one more piece of evidence that Means is very good at what he does. Since his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993), Means has largely moved away from Chekhovian realism, taking more chances with experimental narrative structure. Pursuing tactics begun in Assorted Fire Events and made more evident in his last collection, The Secret Goldfish (2004), Means takes increasing liberties in The Spot with storytelling techniques to explore the nature and importance of storytelling itself. David Means’ unerring ability to transform the seemingly casual into the meaningful causal is what makes him a master of the short story, placing him in the ranks of other great short story writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, who stubbornly resisted pressure to desert their chosen form for the more highly prized novel.

Here are the ones I have not read, but will order:

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
Vida by Patricia Engel.
Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

I will probably not buy Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah, because I have read all of Hannah's early stories, and this collection only contains four new oness. I will probably not buy Sourland because I have already read several of these stories in periodical publication, and because I just do not care for Oates.

Happy New Year to my readers!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Stories: "A Christmas Memory" and "The Dead"

It’s Christmas Eve, 2010. I wish every one who celebrates Christmas or any other winter festival a most happy holiday.

I will post one more blog before the end of the year: my usual survey and commentary on the annual “Best of 2010” “Notable,” “Favorite” Books listed by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, etc. etc. etc. I will comment why I agree or disagree with the short story choices and note with mea culpas those short story collections I have somehow failed to read so far.

Now, my Christmas blog:

There are basically two types of Christmas stories, it seems to me: stories of nostalgia and stories of conversion. The nostalgia stories, best represented by Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” are, of course, memories, memoirs, anecdotes, recollections--most often told by an adult recalling childhood.

The conversion stories include Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and such film favorites as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street.” They focus on some spiritual event that causes someone who is bitter or skeptical to be transformed into a selfless believer in the human community.

Nostalgia Christmas Stories: “A Christmas Memory”

Dylan Thomas once said, “I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they’ll have to be quick or else I’ll be telling them about mine.” I know what he means. I have written many recollections of my own childhood, several of them about Christmas. (There’s no stopping me when I have a possible audience; here I go):

I was the oldest of the family, with two brothers and two sisters. We grew up in a beat-up little old house in a valley known as “The Nars,” a corruption of the word “Narrows.” The house perched precariously on the hillside above U.S. 23, which was just above the C&O Railroad tracks, which was just above the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River—all about two rural miles southeast of the small town (pop. 4,200) of Paintsville, Kentucky.

We were poor, but Christmas, of course, was always rich. My favorite gifts on three different Christmases were an erector set, a Red Ryder Daisy air rifle, and a portable phonograph. In the late fall, my brothers and I always nervously gathered black walnuts from a huge tree in a neighboring pasture (occupied by a very mean and very large bull); we would split open the green husks, getting our fingers black from stain, and array them on the roof to dry out. On Christmas Eve, we would crack them on the hearth of the small fireplace, and when we awoke the next morning, mom and dad, (who had stayed up all night making mysterious preparations) had set out on the mantle plates of fudge full of the walnuts. Lord, Lord, I could go on and on. But I won’t.

Although I like Dylan Thomas’s recollection of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” my favorite nostalgia story (and as his comment on the previous blog indicates, also the favorite of my son Alex) is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” What makes the story hard to resist is the present-tense voice of the boy describing his elderly friend” “I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins…. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

The story begins: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago…A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window…’Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’”

As much as I love the story—the voice and the relationship between the boy and the woman as they gather the ingredients (especially the bootleg whiskey from the Indian, Mr. Haha Jones) and prepare the fruitcakes to send to “people who’ve struck our fancy,” including President Roosevelt—this may be a rare case in which a film adaptation is even better than the written story. I cannot read this story any more without hearing the high pitched twang of Truman Capote doing the voiceover, and I cannot visualize the characters without seeing the wonderfully expressive face of Geraldine Page playing the boy’s “best friend.” The way she presses her lips together, squeezes her eyes close, and cocks her head coyly to the side breaks my heart every time.

And like my son, I cannot read the story or see the film, without my eyes tearing up. I know it is sentimental, but I don’t care. When the two of them fly those kites at the end of the story, and the voice tells us it is their last Christmas together, I choke up quite pleasurably. When the boy walks across a school campus in an early November twenty years later, he can hear her voice saying “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather.” And he looks up, searching the sky. “As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.” Oh, my! Like all good nostalgia Christmas stories, “A Christmas Memory” recalls a time when life was simple and good, and filled with love.

Conversion Christmas Stories: “The Dead”

Conversion Christmas stories are, of course, also about love—about an old Scrooge or an old Grinch, filled with bitterness and bile, undergoing a spiritual transformation to understand the central message of Christmas--love, charity, selflessness. I very much enjoy Dickens’s "Christmas Carol." My favorite of the many film versions is the 1950s black and white version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I have an old VHS tape version that I watched with my family the other day.

However, the most complex Christmas conversion story, as my friend Dex correctly identified in a comment on my previous blog, is James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The events of the story do not take place on Christmas, but probably on January 6, which marks the Feast of The Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas--the day the three Wise Men visited the Christ child. Joyce, who had already formulated his theory of epiphany from Aquinas in his first novel, Stephen Hero, perhaps purposely centered his final story in Dubliners on the day of the epiphany. The story combines both the nostalgia Christmas story and the conversion Christmas story.

The first section, which centers on the party given by the Morkan sisters in their dwelling on Usher’s Island, centers to a large extent on the past—the tradition of the party, the old singers from the past. The final section, when Gretta tells Gabriel that Michael Furey died for her, he comes to see the significance of the ultimate act of love—to die for the other. When Gretta says, “I think he died for me,” the Christ story is evoked. In practical, profane terms, for the young Michael Furey to stand out in the rain and die of pneumonia seems childishly absurd. However, it is precisely acting like a little child rather than a practical adult that marks the radical difference between the everyday world and the world of the spiritual.

Anyone reading “The Dead” for the first time might be hard pressed to understand its fame and influence. The narrative and description in the first two thirds of the story suggests that the story will end naturalistically with the end of the party. However, it is with the end of the party, of course that the lyrical nature of the story begins to emerge. Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in everyday experience and life perceived as the objectification of desire.

The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life, and his only psychic interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, can be best understood if we see its most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic prose imitates and the kind of reality that romantic prose reveals.

Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is: In which one of these realms does true reality reside? Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him but that his own life has been an outer life only. This is all the more devastating to him because on the journey to the hotel, he has indulged in his own self-delusion about their relationship: "moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."

Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted. When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort, and he sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has romantically been willing to give his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's own smug safety much the same way that Bartleby challenges the narrator in Melville's famous story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. The ending, in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, allows himself to lose self and imaginatively merge into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness, makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

There are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

“The Dead” is my favorite Christmas story, for it is a great short story, a classic short story that delicately and definitively does what all great short stories do.

As a postscript, I must share a personal note about “The Dead.” Fifteen years ago, my wife, her Irish mother (who had just lost her husband to a heart attack), my pre-teen daughter, and I spent a year living in a suburb just south of Dublin. I had a Fulbright Senior Fellowship and taught courses in short story theory and the American short story at University College, Dublin, and Trinity College. It was a sad year in some ways (I lost my mother to a lung infection at Easter that year), but it was also a wonderful year in many other ways. It was a fine experience for my daughter, attending an International school with children from Ireland and countries all over the world. It was good for my mother-in-law to spend the year in her home country after the death of her husband. It was good for my wife to get in touch with her Irish family and her heritage of Irish culture. And it was good for me in too many ways to enumerate here.

However, one of my most memorable experiences was walking down along the Liffy and looking up to the second storey of the house at Usher’s Island, and from there walking to O’Connell Street and down to the Grisham Hotel, where Gabriel stood and looked out the window at the snow, which was general all over Ireland, falling softly upon all the living and the dead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi"

In the first decade of the twentieth century, O. Henry was the most popular short-story writer in America. By 1920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the U.S. What was the secret of his success? Partially, it was the personality of the man whose voice was heard in the stories, a personality with which readers could identify and who spoke to some universal human need. William Saroyan once wrote that Americans loved O. Henry, for “He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who was also a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” One of the underlying assumptions of O. Henry’s stories is that there is some order in the world, some poetic justice that follows a plan. Everything happens for a reason in an O. Henry story, and everything fits into the overall pattern. Furthermore, O. Henry exploits a universal romantic wish that people are basically good and unselfish and possesses an inherent dignity.

O. Henry combines two different aspects of the short story that contributed to his success—the oral voice of the raconteur derived from frontier humorists and a highly patterned structure originated by Poe. Combining the local color and melodrama of Bret Harte with the ironic reversals and empathy for ordinary people of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry staked out his own territory of New York City and developed a storytelling voice more polished than the usual barroom wag who always seems to have one more tale to tell. He was a talented storyteller who would slap you on the back and stand you to a drink and a marketing specialist who knew exactly what buttons to push to make his audience react. He never really took himself seriously as an artist, preferring instead the title “journalist.”

O. Henry polished and formalized the kind of ironic reversal stories that Boccaccio innovated during the Renaissance. Russian Formalist critic of the 1920s, Boris Ejxenbaum, was one of the first to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form. In his brief study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. Basing his theories largely on the stories of O. Henry, he suggested that the short story was constructed on the basis of some contradiction or incongruity and amassed its whole weight toward its ending. Whereas the novel ended with a point of letup or unraveling, the short story "gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded."

The late nineteenth century focus on realism that made novels so popular and well respected marked a decline of interest in the short story that early nineteenth-century writers such as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe had stimulated. O. Henry’s facility in creating snappy, comic and sentimental stories renewed the public’s interest in the form. As a result of his success, many other writers sought to emulate him and many academics began to study the characteristics of the form. One result was the creation of short-story handbooks—quasi-academic treatises that attempted to teach others how to write a short story. In the best early history of the form, Fred Lewis Pattee listed “ten commandments” of the short story codified in these handbooks and taught in college courses and correspondence schools, all of which were derived from the stories of O. Henry.

As a result of O. Henry’s success and the handbooks that sought to reveal his method, the short story became formalized and static. Finally serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the "decline," the "decay," and the "senility" of the short story. Even Edward J. O'Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form America has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machine-like short story that both sprang from it and reflected it. The short story did not recover from this O. Henry formalization until the seemingly unstructured stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson gained popularity in the 1920s.

O. Henry’s most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” translated and reprinted every Christmas around the world, was written in three hours to meet a deadline that O. Henry had ignored for several days. Here’s the way I have heard about how the story was written.

Near the end of the year in 1905, O. Henry was commissioned to write a Christmas story for the World newspaper. He kept putting it off and missed the deadline. The man hired to illustrate the story went to O. Henry to try to get some idea about the story so he could do the drawings. But O. Henry had not written anything. He told the illustrator to draw a picture of a poorly furnished room. He continued: “In the room there is only a chair or two, a chest of drawers, a bed, and a trunk. On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand. He is playing with it while he is thinking. The girl’s principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That’s all I can think of now. But the story is coming.” A few hours before final deadline, O. Henry told his editor to lie down and rest. He started drinking a bottle of Scotch and began. Three hours later, he had “The Gift of the Magi” finished, and they set up the type right away.

The plot alone—a young woman sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for her vanished hair—is sufficient to make the story a classic about the spirit of Christmas. But it is also O. Henry’s avuncular storytelling voice and his use of a scenic film style that makes it so accessible and irresistible. The story opens on a scene right out of a pantomimed melodrama of the young woman Della in her modest apartment crying because she has no money to buy her husband a Christmas gift, that is, until she thinks of the brilliant yet terrifying idea of selling her long beautiful hair to a wigmaker.

When the young husband comes home and sees his wife with her hair cropped off, the reader has no way of knowing that the peculiar expression of his face is not shock at her changed appearance, but rather bemused recognition that she will be unable to use the gift he has purchased for her. When he opens the combs, the reader sighs at Della’s grand but seemingly worthless sacrifice. When she gives him the watch fob, Jim just flops down on the couch, puts his hands under the back of his head and smiles, telling her simply that he sold the watch to get the money to buy her the combs. The story then ends with O. Henry’s little homily about the wise magi, who invented the at of giving Christmas presents, suggesting that the two “foolish children” of his “uneventful chronicle” who unwisely sacrificed for each other the “greatest treasures of their homes” are indeed the wisest of all, for “They are the magi.”

This is one of the few significant Christmas short stories I am aware of. Great writers seldom write about Christmas.

Next week I will talk about three other Christmas stories: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and a third one—the most famous of all, and the best of all Christmas stories. Can you guess what it is? (not Dickens’s A Christmas Carol).

Please make some suggestions as to why you think there are few Christmas short stories, although there are many, many Christmas movies.

Cast a vote for your favorite Christmas story. Can you think of Christmas stories I have forgotten?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Twelve Short Story Gift or Wish List Suggestions for the Twelve Days of Christmas

If you love the short story and celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, then what better gift to give than a truly great collection of stories by one or more of the very best short story writers of the twentieth century? Or if someone has asked you for a gift idea, and you do not have all the following collections, send this list to your friend with your choice starred; you can’t lose on any of them. Short stories are truly the gift that keeps on giving, for unlike novels, you can read them again and again, year after year. My reward for posting this? Your gifting and reading pleasure.

Unless marked otherwise, the following prices are for paperbacks from Amazon, who, for my money, consistently has the best prices.

Flannery O’Connor,
Complete Stories $12.24
This is the collection that won “best of best” of National Book Awards. Challenging but unforgettable stories.

Eudora Welty
Collected Stories $10.88
Shortlisted for the “best of best” of National Book Awards. This is the one I voted for. Welty’s mythic world and unerring use of language are national treasures.

John Updike
Early Stories $13.57
A big fat book of crisp Updike stories from early in his career. Some of his best.

Alice Munro
Selected Stories $11.53
Runaway $10.20
Some of the best early Munro stories, classics of the genre, and, in my opinion, her best more recent collection.

Andre Dubus
Selected Stories $10.85
Dancing After Hours $11.76
The best of vintage Dubus and his memorable final collection.

William Trevor
Collected Stories $19.80
Selected Stories $23.10 (hardcover)
The first is a delicious fat volume of most early Trevor stories. The second includes stories from his last four collections. Not to be missed.

T. C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle Stories $13.60
Ah, he’s a lot a fun—lightweight and a showman, but still passes the time pleasantly.

Annie Proulx
Close Range $10.20
Bad Dirt $11.20
Fine the Way It Is $10.20
These are the three Wyoming Stories collections; they show what a truly great short story writer Proulx is.

Tobias Wolff
Our Story Begins $10.85
This is a selection of his vintage stories, plus a few recent ones. The early ones are better, but Wolfe is always worth reading. A master of the form.

David Means
Assorted Fire Events $5.44
The Secret Goldfish $5.58
The Spot $15.64 (hardcover)
These are David Mean’s three best books. If you haven’t read him, take advantage of Amazon’s cut-rate price on the first two.

Raymond Carver
Collected Stories $26.40 (hardcover)
This is the classic Library of America collection. Gotta read Carver again and again.

Bernard Malamud
The Complete Stories $13.60
Still one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. Even Flannery O’Connor liked him.

Happy Holidays, whatever your holiday, and thanks for reading "Reading the Short Story"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe

I have just finished reading Terrence Holt’s debut collection, In The Valley of the Kings (Norton, 2009). Holt started writing these stories while earning MFA and PhD degrees in English from Cornell. One of them, “Charybdis,” appeared in The Kenyon Review thirty years ago and was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories. He taught creative writing and English lit for ten years before earning an MD degree from the University of North Carolina, where he now teaches and practices medicine.

Holt is a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, telling an interviewer that he has loved Poe’s stories since grade school, adding that he often needs a voice “that can blur the lines between rationality and lunacy,” which he says turns out to sound a lot like Poe. Holt concludes, “I’m happy doing anything that makes people think about Poe.”

Since I am also one of those who started reading Poe in grade school, and who has since taught graduate-level seminars on Poe’s work and written a book about his contribution to the short story, reading Holt’s stories got me to thinking about Poe again. I would be happy if this blog entry makes you think about Poe and sends you to Holt’s stories, which I think get their energy from some of the primary sources of the short story as a form.

Poe was never highly respected among my colleagues in graduate school or at the university where I taught. I remember one professor asking me what in the hell I found to talk about in a semester-long course on Edgar Allan Poe, saying he had a hard time filling up one class meeting in his American Literature class on that adolescent-minded, alcoholic drug addict and child molester.

Because two of Holt’s stories--“Charybdis” and “Aurora”-- involve space travel to Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and two others--“ Ό Λογος" and Apocalypse”—center on a futuristic end of the world, the old genre issue of science fiction rears its Hydra head.
I suspect that Terrence Holt’s stories will raise the same kind of issues that Poe’s stories have always raised. When one writes “genre” fiction such as detective stories and science fiction, one risks being called light weight entertainment, appealing only to a small group of fans, such as Star Trek trekkies, but never having the respectability of serious literary writers.

In a Boston Globe interview last year, Holt said he avoids the science fiction label, noting that for him generic distinctions between what’s real and what’s fantastic doesn’t make much sense, since it’s all fiction. “And as part of a larger tendency to isolate things that make us uncomfortable, I think such distinctions are dangerous.” Holt says that it makes perfect sense we named everything in the cosmos after the gods. “When you set a story there you get a free pass into the realm of myth.”

And it is indeed the world of myth and mystery and magic that interests Holt. He says that he is interested in the limits of our capacity to understand ourselves. “For me, these stories are more than anything else about where stories come from, and where they take us. They’re about the moment-by-moment process by which our brains convince us that the world exists, and the gaps in that process as well. Those flaws in the illusion are what I want to capture. They’re the chinks in the structure where mystery gets in and haunts our lives—and through which one day we slip into eternity.” All this sounds very much like Poe, for whom the function of story is not to mirror external reality but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds only to the basic human desire for total unity.

In a New York Times review last September, William Giraldi suggested that Holt’s people are beyond the help of science, quoting one of his characters who says, “Science is a consolation only to the ignorant.” Giraldi asks, “What do we clutch at in place of science? What sustained and deceived us long before science, and what will we return to once modernity becomes an antiquated future? Mystery, magic, myth; the allegories and fables that crowbarred open our psyche.”

The “Power of Words” (which is the title of one of Poe’s stories) is central to Holt. Central is the opening story in Holt’s collection, entitled Ό Λογος” a Greek word that means “The word,” as in “In the beginning was the word” in John 1.1. The word of the title appears mysteriously on a young girl’s body, creating some sort of infection that kills her. When it is seen by others, they die also, and the disease then spreads to plague proportions that threatens the end of the world. Thus, instead of the beginning, it is “In the end was the word.”

The story also has a Latin head note: Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit. Some medieval manuscripts dealing with the Black Death end with the author's last prayer, "Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit" which means, "It seems the author died here." A similar “final word” motif is suggested by the head note for “Charybdis”: a quotation from Poe’s early prize-wining story that launched him on his career, “MS Found in a Bottle,” in which the narrator says that he will continue to write in his journal until the “last moment” when he will enclose the MS in a bottle and cast it within the sea. The story is not one of Poe’s best-known stories, but it is one of his most self reflexively complex.

Holt makes another reference to “Ms Found in a Bottle” in the story “Eurydike,” a futuristic version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Another isolated space traveler recognizes a word out of endless rows of empty letters on his screen, the word “discovery.”

In “Ms Found in a Bottle,” the narrator says a feeling for which he has no name takes possession of his soul--"a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of by-gone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key.” Such feelings are the sense of being "captured by the incredible" which is both the very essence of dreams, as Conrad's Marlowe insists in The Heart of Darkness, as well as the essence of story itself; for no "relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams." This realization is what the narrator refers to when he says a "new sense--a new entity is added to my soul." Moreover, this is what constitutes the unintelligible letters he unwittingly daubs on the sail, which, when the sail is put in use, spell out the word DISCOVERY. For the discovery the narrator makes is the discovery that dominates Poe's art and thought throughout his career; it is the discovery of the power of the imagination and thus the power of story.

Like the narrator, Poe himself felt impelled by a "curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of those awful regions . . .. It is evident that we are hurrying on to some exciting knowledge--some never-to-be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction." As Poe's masterworks "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Eureka make clear, the end of the imaginative journey is both the source and the end of life itself, for it is ultimate non-being. We imagine the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" lost in his fantasy, penning the last words--"going down"--and tossing his letter into the sea, from whence, eternally detached from its author, it is taken up by countless readers as a "dead letter" only to be made to live again continuously.

If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material facts of the external world, the short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. If the novel's quest for extensional reality takes place in the social world and the material of its analyses are manners as the indication of one's soul, as Lionel Trilling says, the field of research for the short story is the primitive, antisocial world of the unconscious, and the material of its analysis are not manners, but dreams. The results of this distinction are that whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual. While the novel is primarily structured on a conceptual and philosophic framework, the short story is intuitive and lyrical. The novel exists to reaffirm the world of "everyday" reality; the short story exists to "defamiliarize" the everyday. Storytelling does not spring from one's confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one's encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity).

In the short story we are presented with characters in their essential aloneness, not in their taken-for-granted social world. Such an understanding of the two different realms of the short story and the novel helps to account for one of the best-known discussions of the subject matter of the short story--Frank O'Connor's intuitive analysis in The Lonely Voice. The novel, says O'Connor, can "adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community . . .; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community--romantic, individualistic, and intransigent. This is why, O'Connor says, the short story always presents a sense of "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society. . . . As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness." We must approach the short story, O’Connor says, in the mood of Pascal’s “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

All of Holt’s narrator protagonists face the silence of infinite spaces, the mystery of pushing the consciousness to such extremes that physical reality disappears. To read Holt’s stories is not only to be returned to Poe, it is to return to the primal origins of story itself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog"

Today (November 16, 2010) marks the second anniversary of my blog “Reading the Short Story.” It is also the day my second short story has been published. It is entitled “Down Under” and is available at Marco Polo Quarterly at the following address:

In the two years I have been writing this blog, I have tried to post at least one brief essay each week. Today is my 114th entry. To mark that occasion, for I dearly love to mark occasions, I am posting a brief discussion of one of the most admired short stories in the history of the form, Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” (as translated by Constance Garnett; translated by David Magarshack as “Lady with Lapdog”; also translated as “Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Lady with the Little Dog” and others).

I also will comment briefly on three modern tributes to the story: “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Man with the Lapdog” by Beth Lordan, and “Reading Chekhov” by David Means.

At the end of the nineteenth century Anton Chekhov, the great master of the short story, perfected the form’s ability to present spiritual reality in realistic terms by focusing on the essentially mysterious and hidden nature of the basic human desire to transcend the everyday. Critic Peter Bitsilli has suggested that the complexity of Chekhov's characters leads us to feel there is something about them we do not understand, a something hidden from us, a something that is part of Chekhov's appeal. That something, I suggest, is Chekhov’s understanding of the connection between the old romance form’s focus on spiritual reality and the modern short story’s focus on the secret inner desire of the individual to participate in that reality.

Although the theme of the basic desire of the secret self could be illustrated in any number of Chekhov’s short fictions, the paradigmatic statement can be found in one of his most famous stories, “Lady with the Dog.” Near the end of what seems to be merely an anecdotal tale of adultery, the central male character agonizes over the division he senses in himself.

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."

In "The Lady with The Dog"--a paradigm for the story of the illicit affair--it is never clear whether Gurov truly loves Anna Sergeyevna or whether it is only the romantic fantasy that he wishes to maintain. What makes the story so subtle and complex is that Chekov presents the romance in such an understated and objective way that we realize there is no way to determine whether it is love or romance, for there is no way to distinguish between them. Although Gurov feels that he has a life open and seen, full of relative truth and falsehood like everyone else, he knows he has another life running its course in secret, a true life, and the false only was open to others. "All personal life," he feels, "rested on secrecy."

At the end of the story, Gurov and Anna wonder how they can free themselves from their intolerable bondage, but only Chekhov and the reader are aware that there is no way to free themselves, for the real bondage is not the manifest one, but the latent bondage all human beings have to the dilemma of never knowing which is the true self and which is the false one. Although it seems to the couple that they would soon find the solution and a new and splendid life would begin, at the same time it is clear to them that they had a long way to go and that the most complicated part of it was only just beginning. Indeed, what seems so simple is indeed complicated.

This division between public life and secret life corresponds to the distinction anthropologist Mircea Eliade makes between the two modes of being, sacred and profane, experienced by primitive man. “The man of the archaic societies,” says Eliade, wished to live as much as possible in the sacred, for the sacred is equivalent, “in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being.” The realm of the sacred, or what Ernst Cassirer calls “mythic reality,” is the central subject of the short story. What Cassirer calls “the momentary deity” and Eliade calls the “sacred” is something that manifests itself as wholly different from profane or everyday reality. Eliade uses the term “hierophany” to designate the momentary disruption that marks the sacred, the paradox of which is that by “manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself.”

This phenomenon is well known to writers who have made the short story their primary fictional mode. Raymond Carver suggests it most emphatically when he notes, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power.” As Flannery O’Connor says, "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.... His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”

As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful. More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause. As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

In Chekhov’s great story, “Lady with the Dog,” The secrecy of Gurov’s idealized desire constitutes true reality for him, just as the sacred constituted true reality for primitive man and woman. Indeed, in the modern short story, idealized human desire--unsayable, unrealizable, always hovering, like religious experience in the realm of the "not yet"--replaces the sacred revelation embodied in primal short-fiction forms. As the couple sit looking at the sea, Gurov feels that “in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves…” When Anna leaves, Gurov thinks it has been just another episode or adventure in his life, nothing left but a memory that would visit him only from time to time. But she haunts him, and he imagines her to be lovelier and himself to be finer than they actually were in Yalta. The story ends with the couple agonizing about how to avoid the secrecy and to be free of their intolerable bondage. “How? How?” Gurov asks. But, of course there is no answer, no way that the romantic, spiritual ideal they store up in their ghostly hearts can ever be actualized, except, of course, as it is manifested in the short story—as the immanent, the liminal, the “not yet.”

Beth Lordan, professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, had just returned from a spring semester in Ireland when she wrote “The Man With the Lapdog,” the first story in her “novel-in-stories,” But Come Ye Back, about an American man and his Irish-born wife retiring to her homeland where the sea is near and the butter has a taste to it, but where he hates driving on the wrong side of the road and doesn’t care for the Guinness.

Although each story in But Come Ye Back is a perfectly formed independent fiction, the separate parts create an even greater whole. And the reason is the reader’s gradual discovery of, and growing concern for, the central characters. As you read each story, you experience shifting allegiances. At one point Lyle seems like a gruff curmudgeon and his wife long-suffering; at another, Mary seems to be shrewishly sharp tongued and Lyle quietly self-sacrificing.

Like most couples who have lived together for many years, Lyle and Mary chaff against each other, find it difficult to say how they really feel, and occasionally fantasize about how it would be to be with someone else. For Lyle, it occurs when he meets an American couple on holiday and discovers that the husband is dying of cancer; he imagines meeting the wife again later, but, as opposed to the famous Chekhov story of illicit love from which “The Man With the Lapdog” gets its name, he quietly values his own relationship.

In the final scene, when Mary goes for a walk with Lyle and they meet the American couple, Mary exhibits the gracious sympathy and hospitality the Irish are famous for by inviting them home for tea and putting her arms around the young American woman. As they part, Mary says, “Such lovely people,” and Lyle, who has rejected taking up Irish idioms, presses his arm against her side and says, “They are so. And it’s a sad thing, it is.” Lordan’s story is a delicately-done love story about those daily irritations and fantasies that tear at married couples and those occasional luminous moments that remind them of what holds them together.

Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (in High Lonesome) is not so delicate. Told from the point of view of the Anna character in Chekhov’s story, it is a modern story of adultery, focusing on a period six months after the lovers have broken it off. It is marred by Oates’ ignoring Chekhov’s famous dictum, “It is better to say too little than too much.” Oates has her female protagonist examine and ponder and wonder endlessly, even, predictably, making a half-hearted suicide attempt. The couple torment themselves with recriminations and shame; the cuckolded husband helplessly tries to hold on.

The basic problem I have with Joyce Carol Oates’ stories is that she does not seem to really like her characters, and she does not respect the intelligence of her readers, feeling compelled to explain everything and to center relentlessly on some thematic idea she wishes to convey. Too many of her stories are aesthetically astute but emotionally cold, resonant with the influence of literature but empty of the mystery of life.

Oates writes a great deal and seemingly publishes everything she writes. It is a fact of her literary life that makes one suspicious that in spite of the serious surface of her work she is a one-woman industry. There is no doubt that she knows the short story form well--has studied it and practiced it more than most living writers. However, her work is often imitative and repetitive, and many of the stories seem to spring from a dispassionate artistic "what if" than from a passionate involvement in the lives of her characters.

Too often, Oates' stories read like creative writing assignments. And indeed, students who want to learn how to write short fiction could do worse than read the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and imitate what she does. For she is a complete craftsman who can mimic the conventions of the form. However, as John Barth has his Genie and the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade say in his book Chimera (1972), telling stories, like making love, takes more than good technique; while both heartfelt ineptitude and heartless skill have their appeal, what one really wants is "passionate virtuosity." No matter how well a writer knows the conventions and techniques of a genre, without a deeply felt sense of human mystery that compels the great writer to write, the result is apt to be bloodless. Oates is certainly a virtuoso, but does she have passion?

David Means’ story “Reading Chekhov,” from his new collection, The Spot, is also a version of “Lady with a Pet Dog.” The story is told in brief sections that move back and forth between the man, who is a 35-year-old part-time student at a seminary, and the woman who is married with a twelve-year-old daughter. They know they are part of the overall tradition of adultery; they read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” together and compare themselves to Chekhov’s lovers.

Means has a very perceptive understanding of the subtleties of adultery, and it doesn’t hurt that his characters here are made intelligent about, and sensitive to, what they are involved in. While lace curtains spread a lattice across her body that he traces with his fingers, “from her belly—with its cesarean scar to her chin—“ he says that adultery is multifaceted: “It’s shapeless but at the same time has a rudimentary figure, like a snowflake; an abundance of clichés surround it and yet it’s unique, an entity different each time.” This, of course, is the challenge to writing a good story about adultery, as Chekhov well knew.

Means creates an irresistible trope of the woman’s skirt, which is charged with static electricity, “clinging in wavelets to her thighs, riding along her crotch, sliding up with each step as she climbed the stairs to his apartment.” When they walk down toward the river off the promenade, he lets her go ahead a few yards “so he could watch her hips shifting beneath her skirt, the movement of her rear against the silk fabric, light-and dark-blue daisy-shaped flowers.”

It is at this point that the story shifts, for her pumps make her unsteady on the soft ground and she twists sideways to the right and falls into the weeds, breaking a bone just above her ankle. She must lie to her husband as to how the accident occurred; and as she sits at home letting the bones heal, she apparently decides to end it. Her explanation to him about the importance of her marriage and her daughter seems so stilted she makes up something specific: “I went last night check my daughter, and she was uncovered and sleeping facedown and I looked at her back, the bones of her back, and they were, well, they reminded me of the bones of a sardine. You could chew and swallow them and not even notice.”
And it is indeed such specificities, both real and imagined, that characterize the affair. Here is how the story ends:

“Much later she’d hold specific memories of it…. She beheld a certain dignity in the exactitudes: the smell of cut flowers at a bodega, rubber bands bright red around their stems; the dusky light off Broadway on summer afternoons; the heavy wall along Riverside Park, cool against their claves, as they sat holding hands during lunch, turning now and then to glance down through the trees to the river, which was broken into shards, blue against the green.”

Like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.

One doesn’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. One reads David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies. One reads David Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed--stark and astonishing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best American Short Stories 2010

In her introduction to the 2010 Best American Short Stories, which came out recently, Heidi Pitlor has some bad news and some good news about the short story. She laments, as do we all, the demise over the past decade of such venues for the form as Story, Double Take, and Ontario Review, and the budget slashings that have threatened such journals as Southern Review and the New England Review. But then, she suggests, hopefully, perhaps the length of short stories is better suited to new technologies than other literary forms, citing the shift of Triquarterly and Ascent from print to online, and Atlantic’s decision to sell stories through Kindle.

Concluding that there is cause for concern as well as cause for rejoicing, she advises readers how they can help insure the continuing life of the short story: subscribe to a literary journal, buy a short story collection by a young author. However, readers are not going to do either if they do not like to read short stories, and they will never like to read short stories if they do not know how to read them well, or having learned how to read them, still do not enjoy the experience.

Richard Russo’s Introduction to the volume will not do much to encourage readers to embrace short stories. I know authors are chosen as editors for the Best American Short Stories series because their names on the cover may help to sell copies, and I am all right with that. But surely, the folks at Mariner books could have found someone who knows more about short stories, or cares more about them, than Richard Russo.

Richard Russo is a wry, funny, self-effacing writer who carefully constructs big multigenerational sagas about the great American dream—old-fashioned, multilayered, full-canvas epics with vivid descriptions of classic American places populated by colorful blue-collar characters. He has said that he revels in the discursive, the digressive, and the episodic. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course--that is, unless you try to write short stories.

So what does an old-fashioned Dickensian novelist do when he sits down to write short stories? He writes stories like the ones in Russo’s one collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories-- a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based tales with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find his stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them well enough, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again.

Perhaps because he doesn’t know much about short stories, in his introduction, Russo doesn’t tell us anything about the stories in the present collection, which is all right, I guess, if he had only told us something, anything, about short stories at all. Instead, he regales (I always wanted to use that word) us with a little anecdotal recollection (not a story) about a time in the late 1980s when he as an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University when a real short story writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited the campus. The anecdote centers on Singer’s answer to a student’s question about the purpose of literature, to which Singer, elderly and frail, responded, “The purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct.”

Russo then spends a bit of time defending the notion of “entertainment” as opposed to “instruction” (as if those were the only two possibilities for the purpose of literature). The rest of the Introduction describes Singer at a public reading, which turns comically disastrous over his trying to manage his manuscript, which has been stapled together. When he tears off a page, having nothing else to do with it, he lets it drop, and a gust of wind catches it and blow it into the audience. He finally gives up, reaches into his pocket for another manuscript, and reads it instead.

Yeah, that is all very interesting about Singer's difficulty, and how he handled it, etc. etc. Gee, I wish I had been there. In the last paragraph of the introduction, Russo tells us that he read two hundred and fifty stories in order to choose the twenty in the collection, which, he says, felt like some “sort of literary waterboarding.” God help us! If reading short stories is that much like torture for Russo, then why in hell did Mariner Houghton Mifflin not choose an editor who loved short stories? Yeah, I know, I know. Because of the value of the Russo name on the cover.

I have only read half the stories so far, choosing them because of the appeal of the first paragraph, the familiarity of the author, the etc. Here are some impressions, recommendations, impressions, etc. I may get around to the other ten some day.

James Lasdun’s story, “The Hollow,” is the same story as “Oh Death,” which was in the 2010 O. Henry collection. One was published in the U.S. version of his most recent book; the other was published in the British version. I have already commented on Lasdun and this story in previous blog entries. I like Lasdun, and I like this story, no matter what its name is.

Wells Tower, “Raw Water.” I have commented on Wells Tower in a previous blog entry also. He got a lot of buzz last year with his first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I was not impressed with that collection. I think Tower is a clever writer with a lot of surface appeal, but with little or no depth. This story about a couple going to live in Triton Estates, a real estate development gone bad on the shores of a sixty square mile manmade lake in the desert, is more of Tower’s inventive cleverness. Futuristic sci-fi satire with snappy dialogue and funny bits, it will while away some time, but not leave you with anything.

Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian.” Ferris was one of the New Yorker’s Twenty-under-Forty crowd this past summer, so it bothers me a bit that he is writing about a man living alone on his sixty-fourth birthday, as if he knows anything at all about that. Ferris is also a funny, clever guy, and this story made me laugh out loud just for the sheer facility with which Ferris moves merrily along almost extemporaneously through it. The central character Arty Groys bitches a lot about his age, his loneliness, his weight, his gallbladder. When an old friend sends a prostitute to visit him, complete with Viagra, problems arise, if nothing else does. It’s funny; it’s rigged; it’s facile.

Lauren Groff, “Delicate Edible Birds.” I was never sure whether this story was meant to be taken seriously, or whether it was a parody of very bad “lost generation” writing of the twenties. It’s part of a collection of stories about famous women; this one is Martha Gellhorn, best known for being Hemingway’s third wife. It’s about a small group of war correspondents held prisoner by a French Nazi sympathizer unless the Martha Gellhorn type character agrees to have sex with him. As Groff tells us in the Contributor’s Notes, the plot is based on a much better story by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif.” There’s some quite terrible writing in this story, which is so filled with verbal clichés that you begin to predict them. But I think it is a joke. I hope it’s a joke. By the way, for some totally strange reason known only to himself, John Updike chose a not-so-great story by Martha Gellhorn for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In its badness, it sounds a bit like Lauren Groff’s story.

Ron Rash, “The Ascent.” This one was also chosen for New Stories from the South: 2010. It’s the shortest story in the collection, one of those tight, clipped little stories that says little, but make you constantly uneasy. A boy finds a downed airplane in the wilderness near his home. He takes a diamond ring off the body of a woman in the plane and shows it to his parents, saying he found it in the woods. The father says he is taking it to the sheriff, but instead sells it and blows the money. The boy goes back to get a man’s watch, knowing the parents will squander that too. He makes one final trip to the plane. I liked this story. It is the first Ron Rash story I have read. But based on it, I am sending for his collection Chemistry and Other Stories. One of the best things about Best American Short Stories is that it has always been a good way to discover new writers.

Lori Ostlund’s “All Boy,” which I also liked, is, like the Ron Rash story, also about a young boy who seems closed out, alone. In this case, the story moves almost inevitably to the conclusion when the boy learns that his father is moving out to live with a man. I just received a copy of Ostlund’s recent debut collection The Bigness of the World, which won this year’s Flannery O’Connor Prize. I will post a blog on it soon.

Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” is a story about a young man who tries to write fiction, not very successfully, while teaching remedial writing at a community college. When his retired father begins writing also, quite successfully, the narrator has a hard time dealing with this, especially when he recognizes in his father’s stories many of the events from his past that he has also plans to write about. It’s another funny story that made me laugh. Although it violates a common admonition in MFA writing classes never to write about writing, I liked it.

Jill McCorkle’s “PS” is another comic story, this time a bit too gimmicky for me, written in the form of a long letter from a woman to her marriage counselor. Clever and inventive, but nothing much more than that for me.

Jennifer Eagan, “Safari.” This is still another story about adolescent children trying to come to terms with their father. In this case, the father had taken up with a much younger woman who is working on a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Berkeley. The adolescent daughter tries to break up the relationship. Oh, and by the way, they are on safari in Africa with some other people, one of which is a young man the young woman is inevitably drawn to. Oh, it’s all complicated. What holds it together is the anthropology student’s use of a structural schema to organize the needs of each of the characters and the structural relationships they create. For example, the daughter’s situation is described as “structural resentment,” while the father’s relationship with his younger bedmate is described as “structural incompatibility—all suggesting the way anthropologists study relationships among primitive peoples—which I guess basically everyone is.

Maggie Shipstead, “The Cowboy Tango.” Nothing pretentious about this story. Just a well told love story about a man named Glen Otterbausch, who hires a young woman named Sammy to work on his ranch and falls in love with her. But, alas, you know how love stories must be; she does not love him. She falls in love with his nephew who has recently got a divorce and comes to work on the ranch. But then the nephew leaves, for that’s how love stories are. Otterbausch tries to get revenge on Sammy, but ultimately loves her too much to do so. I am a sucker for a love story, so this one sucked me right in with its uncluttered style and heart-scalded cowboys and cowgirls. It ain’t Annie Proulx, but it will do.

I have been buying my annual copy of Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award Stories for many years now. Their multicolored paperback spines line up neatly on my bookshelves. I have most of the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South collections as well. I don’t always agree with the choices in these books, but they do help me keep up with the short story and introduce me to writers I am happy to discover.

Monday, November 1, 2010

David Means, "The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"

Flaubert, who probably invented modern fiction, once famously said he wanted to write "a book about nothing," a book held together only by the "internal force of its style." Other major contributors to modern fiction, such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce have similarly emphasized form and style over content. Only those who have not read them would think that The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story, or that Heart of Darkness is really all about postcolonialism, or that Ulysses is about one day in the life of a guy named Leopold Bloom.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work."

William H. Gass has reminded us that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of “making.” Every other diddly desire," says Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day"

If you are a writer, Gass says the next time someone asks you who is your audience, you must answer, “the ear.” The writer, says Gass, must be a musician. If you think, “but I have a story to tell, characters to create, a plot to contrive,” Gass says, “No. That’s what moviemakers do… You do not tell a story… What you make is music.”

In 1917, the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky said, "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." And in 1948, the American critic Mark Schorer said, to speak of content is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; it’s only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics. “The difference between content, or experience, and achieved content, or art, is technique. When we speak of technique, then we speak of nearly everything."

However, to say that the purpose of art is to experience its artfulness and that the object is not important, or to say that when we speak of technique we speak of nearly everything strikes the social critic as heartless and the noncritical as just plain wrong.

It seems to me that one of the reasons short stories are not often read is that they are often not read well. Indeed, it may be that great short story writers ask too much, unreasonably compelling us to focus on form and style more carefully than we have the time or patience for, certainly more than the content-conscious novel requires. Of all the great short-story writers today who understand this off-putting secret of the short story form, perhaps one of the most dedicated and challenging is David Means.

Means recently published The Spot, his fourth book, which also happens to be his fourth collection of short stories, and I am sure his publishers are getting sick and tired of begging him to give up this devotion to a form they foolishly think is best suited for MFA workshops and do something more mature, like bring them a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. I, for one, am damned glad Means continues to do what he does so well.

Still, his most recent story, “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” in the October 25 issue of The New Yorker, gives me cause for concern. Not because I don’t like it; I most certainly do. But because I despair of trying to get others to like it. Like all good stories, it must be read more than once. Like all good stories, it takes some effort. Like all good stories, it requires paying close attention to structure and style, not just what it seems to be about.

In fact, if you want to know what it is about, you can get this short answer by googling the title: “Short story about two FBI agents on a stakeout in Kansas in 1934.” The additional “information” in the story is the following: The younger of the two agents (Barnes) complains that the criminal they are waiting for (Carson) will not return. The older of the two agents (Lee) says little but is fed up with Barnes’ complaining; he recalls the stakeout several years later while sitting on his porch overlooking a lake. After five days of waiting, Barnes is taking a smoke behind the tree line when Carson and his men drive up; he walks out of the tree line and is cut down by, as the cliché goes, a hale of gunfire.

And as they used to say at the end of the Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s all, folks!” In terms of experience or content, that’s the story. However, in terms of what is really important in this short story--its artfulness, its technique, its style, its form—the real story lies not in the action but in the language.

This story is about what all stories are about--something appears to take place in time and space. The first paragraph emphasizes time by repeating: “Five days of trading field glasses…Five days of surveillance…Five days of listening to the young agent named Barnes…Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern….For five days Barnes talked…Five days reduced to a single conversation.”

But then all stories take place in a past time, so the second paragraph begins, “Years later, retired, sitting on his porch… Two other paragraphs in the story begin, “Years later at his summer cottage in Wisconsin…Years later in the reductive, slowed-down play of memory…”

The last paragraph emphasizes not the passing of time, but a “moment” when Lee “froze up” and Barnes steps forward out of the tree line, dulled by the “persistent tedium of a scene that had gone on. for what seemed to his youthful mind an eternity” into “a single ferocious moment” of a “fury of gunfire.”

And space is emphasized in this story. The two men are hiding at the tree line, watching a farm; their pattern of behavior in space and time is to take turns going back into the trees to smoke and watching at the tree line. They watch the farm’s connection to a number of cat roads (roads made by caterpillar tractors), knowing that Carson only has one way in and one way out. They try to feel assured that that what has been imagined in the Chicago FBI office, using maps and line drawings, properly matches the Kansas reality they are watching. Lee is cautious of the horizon, which he considers an enemy, because if stared at too long, it can mesmerize one.

So in Time and Space, the two men wait. They wait for something that may or may not happen, something that is imminent. The younger man considers probability, considers the type of man that Carson is, considers what he might do or might not do; he weighs the odds of whether Carson will take the risk. He tries to calculate the patterns of behavior as determined by Carson’s previous movements.

The young man knows that Carson operates out of “a deeper psychology.” [Henry James once said that Nathaniel Hawthorne cared for the “deeper psychology,” and T. S. Eliot once talked about James’s “Hawthorne aspect” as being his awareness of a “deeper psychology.” Perhaps the best example of Barnes’ attempt to penetrate Carson’s deeper psychology is when he says: “The guy knows we are looking for patterns, and he’s even considered, I venture to say, the idea that we’d expect him not to come back here, and in expecting him to expect us to expect him not to come back, he’d expect that we’d take that expectation into consideration—the potential pattern—and stake out his old uncle’s farm.”

All this is what all stories are about: time, space, expectation, waiting, sympathetic identification with the other, perceiving patterns, and figuring probabilities—the transformation of the casual into the causal. And all this is transmuted, as a gut feeling to a hunch, “into the form of clear, precise, verbal statements uttered aloud to a receptive listener—internal or external—who returns in kind.”

When Carson and his men arrive at the farm, there is a merging of one kind of world with another—a kind of movement into “another country,” (to cite the title of a great Hemingway story). And this line between one kind of reality and another is the tree line—a boundary between two worlds that momentarily merge. As Lee watches them, frozen into place by the static reality in which he has lived for five days, he would think later, “They had that city jaunt, whereas we had forgotten the way time worked outside the confinement of the farm.”

Then there’s that last paragraph. Barnes has been back in the tree line smoking, feeling a deeper relaxation, thinking “that the moment at hand was somehow reflective of the general state of the world.” And because Barnes has experienced the five days of static reality, combined with the temporary escape in the quiet beauty of behind the tree line, combined with the barrenness of the landscape of the farm, combined with his sense of humiliation of the stakeout—all this makes him momentarily “break free from standard operating procedure, to move naturally” out of the tree line, stepping “forward into a single, ferocious moment.” As he steps into the gunfire, “his mind—young and foolish but beautiful nonetheless—remained partly back in the woods, taking in the solitude, pondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive.”

What is this story made of? As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Words, words, words.” In reply to the Polonius question, “What is the matter?” one must say, there is no matter. Sure, this is a story about two FBI agents on a stakeout, and yes, there is something of a father/son relationship between the two men, and yes, this is a story about one who escaped and one who did not. However, the pleasure the story provides is the music it makes about waiting, about being caught in time and space, about trying to predict the future by making patterns out of the past. Yes, it is a highly stylized story, but that does not mean it is not a human story. However, it is a human story transformed into, and communicated by, a work of art.

The famous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934 in a “fury of gunfire,” “a single ferocious moment.” And what we know of that moment is captured by Arthur Penn in a highly stylized moment that seems much more “real” and “meaningful” than the historical reality of those two ill-fated bank robbers.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One More Word (I think) on Munro's "Corrie"

Well, my friends. Thank you so much for the invigorating discussion about Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” However, I have nothing new to add to what I have said in defense of Ms. Munro's tactic in the story. I think she supports the secrecy theme with the free indirect point of view very nicely indeed. I hope some others will weigh in on this little debate. However, I leave it, at least for the time being, with this little quote I have penciled in on a 3x5 card (Raymond Carver used to do this; remember him?) from a piece by Joyce Cary (remember him?) in the New York Times Book Review way back in 1950: (I was only nine at the time, but I was precocious.)

"Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’”

I used the quote as the heading for a piece I did several years ago on Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” rebutting one critic’s claim that Hemingway had screwed up the dialogue designation in the story, thus creating reader confusion. As a result, Scribner’s actually changed the text in the next edition of Hemingway’s Collected Stories. I was outraged; I knew Hemingway was too damned careful to muck the story up and tried hard to show that he had a sound thematic reason for creating what that critic thought was a mistake. The last time I checked, Scribner’s had changed it back to the original. So it goes!

I always tried to convince my students that if they read a story and thought it was screwed up or just plan screwy, they should assume first of all that it was their fault and not the fault of the writer. I always assume, and tried to convince them to assume, that the writer knew what he or she was doing. However, if they read it several times and really gave themselves over to the work and still couldn’t come to terms with it, then, I was happy to listen to arguments. I have been happy to listen to arguments by Ed and Kseniya about “Corrie,” but I have read it again and again, and I still believe Ms. Munro has got it right here. I am not saying I can’t be convinced that Munro cheated (Heavens!) or that she did not know how to pull it off (Lord a’mercy!), just that at this point, my faith in her unerring ability at writing short stories has not been shaken. Keep those cards and letters coming!

In the meantime, serendipitously, I have been reading David Means’ new collection The Spot, which contains a story entitled “Reading Chekhov,” which is a version of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog,” the greatest adultery story in Christendom, in my opinion. So I went back and read Chekhov's “Lady with the Pet Dog” again and was, as the young’uns like to say, “blown away.” I then looked up Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Lady with the Pet Dog,” and was so underwhelmed that I dozed off twice.

So, since with Munro, we have been talking about adultery (we have been talking about adultery, haven’t we?), I thought I would post a blog comparing the Means with the Munro with the Chekhov with the Oates. I love to bad mouth Oates about as much as I love to praise David Means.

Oh, by the way, I just got the new edition of Best American Short Stories, 2010 and am reading it dutifully. I will have a post on my progress in a couple of weeks.

And there is a new David Means story in the recent issue of the New Yorker. I will comment on it in the next week also.

I appreciate my readers and look forward to more lively responses to my humble remarks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Alice Munro's "Corrie": Secrecy and Point of View

There’s nothing I enjoy more since starting this blog than interacting with readers who are reading the same stories I am and have thoughtful things to say about them. Kseniya has a very insightful comment and query on Alice Munro’s “Corrie” that I think deserves a second blog entry on that story. Her question made me go back and read it twice more. So at the risk of sounding, at best, academic and, at worst, pedantic, I post the following post script to Munro’s story.

Kseniya points out that the point of view of the first part of the story seems to be that of an omniscient teller, although it stays within the perspective of Howard Ritchie. She says that when we learn about Sadie’s letter threatening blackmail, we believe the omniscient teller to be telling us the truth. Kseniya also says she takes the letter for a fact because Ritchie does not seem cunning enough to dream up this scheme. Furthermore, she says that if the letter is a lie, the reader begins to wonder what is and what is not fact in the story, thus raising the issue of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, Kseniya suggests that since we are given quite a bit of insight into Ritchie’s mind in the first part of the story, it seems manipulative of the narrator to withhold the fact that he keeps the money.

Here is my own take on the point of view issue in the story: First of all, I think that a writer of good short stories, such as Alice Munro, is very careful to make the technique of the story parallel the theme of the story. The key to the success of any affair is secrecy. And although “Corrie” embodies a complex of themes about infidelity--cheating, concealment, guilt, compensation, money, family, stasis--secrecy is the central theme. And to illuminate this theme, Munro must manipulate the point of view very carefully.

Because this is a short story concerned with the themes mentioned above, not a novel concerned with the particulars of the characters’ behavior and thoughts, what we know about Howard Ritchie in the first section of the story, even though we seem to be within his perspective, are only those things that contribute to the theme the story develops. We only need to know the following: that Ritchie is “equipped” with a “family”; that he is conservative; that he is somewhat awkward about how to respond to Corrie’s lameness; that he feels he has no time for anything but earning a living and caring for his family; and that he suspects that when Corrie goes to Egypt she will be snapped up by some creepy fortune hunter; that he finds her behavior verging on the tiresome; that he knows, from his own experience, that for some men money never becomes tiresome.

If we only seem to know a few facets of Ritchie’s feelings and thoughts, it is because we only require these to respond to the theme. And based on this knowledge, I would say there is nothing to suggest that Ritchie would not exploit Corrie for her money.

In the second section of the story, which introduces the blackmail letter from Sadie, the point of view is carefully controlled, as is the voice of the verbs. The information about Sadie working in a house in the city after leaving Corrie’s employ is revealed in passive voice. Noting that Sadie continues to do housework, the narrator says, “This was discovered on an occasion when Howard and his wife were invited to dinner, with others at the home of some rather important people in Kitchener.” Who discovers it? Ritchie, of course, since we are still within his perspective.

However the account seems to focus on this being Sadie’s discovery. This ostensible shift takes place very subtly in the following sentences: “There was Sadie waiting on tables, coming face to face with the man she had seen in Corrie’s house The man she had seen with his arm around Corrie when she came in to take the plates away or fix the fire. An unknown woman with him, who, the conversation soon made plain, was his wife. It was also made plain that his wife had not come recently into the picture. Her time had overlapped with Corrie.” This is not Sadie’s perspective, but what Sadie’s perspective might have been from Ritchie’s perspective.

There does not seem to be any question that Ritchie has actually seen Sadie at a party he and his wife attended. However, since we have been limited to Ritchie’s point of view and have no reason to think we have shifted into Sadie’s point of view, this seems clearly to be Ritchie’s account of the encounter, in which he assumes that Sadie knows that his affair with Corrie is illicit, but does not know what Sadie intends to do with the information. By the time Ritchie tells Corrie about all this, he has tentatively decided what he will do.

Ritchie has been brought up in a fiercely religious household and knows that someone must pay for breaking the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” He knows he cannot pay, for he has little money and has a family to support. And why should not Sadie pay, since she has no family responsibility, doesn’t care for money, and is crippled? This is all rather harsh when expressed so blatantly, which is one of the reasons that Munro keeps it secret. The only relationship in which we see Ritchie engage is with Corrie, and since the key to his relationship with Corrie is secrecy, what we know about Ritchie is only what Corrie knows.

When we read the line, “Sadie said that she had not gossiped about it all,” we know that this is something that Ritchie has told Corrie, not necessarily something that Sadie has told Ritchie. Ritchie’s account of the contents of the letter to Corrie is told in a coy way that, we later learn, does not sound like Sadie at all. “Would his wife be interested in getting this information?” is the way Ritchie says Sadie put it. Even more unlike Sadie is her ostensible remark, “I would hate to have to break the heart of such a nice lady with a big silver-fox collar on her coat.” Corrie wonders how Sadie would even know a silver-fox collar from “a hole in the ground,” asking Ritchie, “Are you sure that’s what she said.” The silver-fox collar, which Ritchie finds hypocritical of his wife to wear, given her left wing leanings, is a little detail of verisimilitude that Ritchie invents to make his story seem credible.

In this conversation, the point of view perspective subtly shifts to Corrie, for she wonders what if Ritchie rejects her offer to pay the blackmail, what if he thinks it is a sign that they should stop. “She was sure there’d be something like that in his voice and in his face. All that old sin stuff. Evil.” When Corrie says, “You’d feel you were taking it away from your family,” Ritchie’s face actually cleared, although Corrie fears she should never have said that word “family.” Ritchie then suddenly remembers something else from the letter—that the money has to be in bills. “He spoke without looking up, as if about a business deal. Bills were best for Corrie, too. They would not implicate her.” Ritchie is obviously thinking on his feet here. And indeed it is a business deal.

It is September when Corrie hears about the death of Sadie. She has given the money to Ritchie to deposit in Sadie’s box in August. Corrie knows that Ritchie has not heard about Sadie’s death, and she also knows that Sadie was not able to pick up the money this time because of her illness, so she wonders if Ritchie has checked to see if the money has been picked up; she thinks not since he has not contacted her.

When she wakes the next morning, “She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.” She realizes that the news of Sadie’s death that would have freed them from the blackmail and the “queasy feeling” she has always had of “the never-quite safeness of their affair is no news to Ritchie at all, because Sadie does not matter and never has. The “family” theme is echoed, as she thinks that the twice-yearly sum of money would have gone straight into his pocket, for he is a man with a family, children to educate, and bills to pay. What makes Corrie come to this realization? All the same things that have made the reader come to the realization: her knowledge of Ritchie, her knowledge of Sadie, Ritchie’s account of the nonexistent letter, his failure to contact her about the money in the mailbox.

We do not get inside the mind of Corrie in this section of the story any more than we get inside the mind of Ritchie in the first section. We have no particular information about her feelings. We only know she is trying to adjust to the realization she has come to and that she feels a sense of emptiness—“a cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.” She then comes up with another possibility. She knows that Ritchie may never know of Sadie’s death since he has no connection with her and no connection with the family she has worked for. He will therefore expect things to go on just as they have—with Corrie giving him the money twice a year and him pocketing it.

Corrie could say something, but she knows that what they have demands payment, and she is the one who can afford to pay. And so, she will continue to pay, for what difference does it make if the money goes to Sadie or to Ritchie, for she has already made it clear that she is willing to pay. Of course, a day may arrive when Ritchie will find out that Sadie is dead. What will happen then? This just means that for Corrie, one sense of “never-quite safeness” has taken the place of another. Everything is in its proper place—in Corrie and Ritchie’s lives and in Alice Munro’s story.

Well, that’s how I read the story. I would love to hear other readings. Thanks, Kseniya, for sending me back to the story.