During the forty years I have been studying the short story, I have suggested that the form often explores certain themes repeatedly. This is a risky business, of course, for once the critic isolates themes in a form, he or she is apt to see those themes everywhere. For all that, I cannot ignore the fact that the shortness of the form and its heritage in the romance, seems to insist that certain themes are indeed often emphasized in the short story. Frank O’Connor’s discussion in The Lonely Voice of the short story’s emphasis on isolation and loneliness is the most famous argument about the relationship between the short story’s formal qualities and themes most compatible with those qualities.
I want to discuss briefly how three stories from the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories seem to illustrate three themes often found in the short story: secrets of the private vs. public life, the mystery of character motivation, and the tension between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world.
Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook”: The Secret Life
Alice Mattison says the people in her story “The Vandercook” cannot solve their problem, although she wishes they could. Editor Laura Furman says the story is about a shift in the marriage’s balance of power in which the wife becomes the dominating force. I am not sure exactly what the “problem” is in the story, for I do not believe that it is only about a limited, personal problem between a man and his wife.
It is often true that the narrative line of a short story is merely a vehicle for a more universal, general theme. I think readers are more apt to understand, and thus be challenged by, a story when they are alert to its thematic repeated motifs rather than merely “what happens” in a story. “What happens next” may govern the initial temporal reading, but “what it means” emerges from subsequent spatial readings.
The narrative line of “The Vandercook” charts Lorenzo and Molly’s move from California to New Haven to take over Lorenzo’s father’s printing business after the father broke his hip. Molly wants to run the business, while Lorenzo returns to his love of letterpress printing, which is the kind of typeset printing originated by Guttenberg—not the photocopy or offset printing, or even digital printing, that has taken the place of the old methodical setting of type. Lorenzo, the narrator, begins to discover that Gil, the man who has been working for his father for many years, may have a secret that the father does not wish to know about. This narrative ends with an act of vandalism on the print shop, which Molly discovers has been committed by a man with whom Gil has been having an affair for many years. Molly, who has always been blunt and unwaveringly determined in her opinions, decides she must fire Gil for bringing on this disruption of what is now her business.
As this narrative develops in time, Mattison sets up several motifs in space. First, of course, there is the old vs. the new, for example, the Vandercook typesetting printing press vs. photocopy and offset. One interesting image of the old and the new is when the flower lady wraps flowers in discarded printed pages, such as a fragment of someone’s dissertation on the Holy Roman Empire.
A parallel story, which seems to have nothing to do with the primary narrative, but may indeed have something to do with the theme of the story, focuses on Julian, Molly and Lorenzo’s youngest son, being hired to play a bit part in a movie being made in the neighborhood. The film company replaces the Conte’s Printing sign with a sign from the thirties to reflect the time of the film story. Thus, the theme of the old and the new is ironically embodied by a pretense of the old being overlaid on the new. Also embodied in this seemingly irrelevant filmmaking story is the theme of pretence, or acting, which is reflected in the story of Gil’s secret affair.
Another suggestive motif is the vandal’s having scattered the pages of a book Lorenzo has been working on, spilling type from the old wooden cases: “hundreds of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks for each font.” This scattering of meaningful letter combinations into meaningless chaos reflects the disruption Molly causes in the life of the printing company. When Lorenzo suggests that the vandalism looks like the result of anger, Molly says that it looks “intended, sane.” Lorenzo replies in a highly suggestive thematic line:“I don’t know how chaos could look sane.”
The central thematic motif of the story focuses on the issue of one’s secret personal life. The father says that Gil has problems he does not mention, whereas Molly has no secrets: “Molly held the secret of her unpredictable self, but did she have no secrets of the conventional sort?” Lorenzo says, “Some of my secrets had to do with Molly. I had not kept secret from her how I felt about the incidents in which I felt she’d been unfair in the past—far from it—but I’d kept secret how I counted and reconsidered them.” The father says he does not pretend to understand Gil’s life.
In my experience, a reader should always pay careful attention when there is a suggestion of a secret in a short story, for short stories are often concerned with hidden life, rather than public life. When Molly discovers the secret that Gil is gay or bisexual, that he has been in a relationship with a man who committed the vandalism as revenge, the father thinks he and Lorenzo have made a mistake letting Molly run the business, that they should have sold it.
Molly says she cannot afford to keep on someone whose personal life would lead to something like this, that she will not put the business at risk by retaining Gil. When Lorenzo says she cannot do this, she says, in typical Molly fashion, “You may not tell me what I may not do.”
The story ends with the aftermath of what we assume is Molly’s drastic act of firing Gil, of her frightened face and Lorenzo’s futile desire for love to be simple, wanting to tell her how nimbly Julian had darted across the street in the scene he played in the movie, “how scared he seemed, how hard it was not run toward him, stretching my arms out wide.” However, Lorenzo is helpless to rescue anyone. People have secrets, and the secrets have consequences; people act without discernible motivation that others can only observed and fail to understand.
Sam Ruddick, “Leak”: The Mystery of Motivation
“Leak” starts with an idle conversation after lovemaking between Peyton and the narrator Oscar, in which he wonders about what made a friend quit his job and go to Alaska after he had seen a documentary about bears. His lover Peyton says you cannot pin down why people do things. This is a very typical short story theme because if short stories are often about people’s secret life rather than their public life, we have to accept the fact that there is no way to know why people do the things they do. Many short story writers, Flannery O’Connor being the most prominent, have always known this about the short story as a form. O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed: Good stories have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” The peculiar problem of the short-story writer, O’Connor has said, is to reveal as much of the mystery of personality as possible.
“Leak” explores O’Connor’s perception about the mystery of personality in this short story by creating a comic dance involving four characters. The first step in the dance occurs when Oscar’s old girlfriend Stacy comes in on Oscar and Peyton and wants to fix herself something to eat.
The title is announced when Stacy says, “You know your faucet’s leaking?” Stacy’s description of the leak as Chinese water torture is a thematic allusion to the comic encounters that begin when Peyton, suspecting that Oscar still has something going on with Stacy, shifts her allegiance from Oscar to Stacy. However, when Peyton tries to leave, she backs up her car without looking and gets hits by another car. More complicated maneuvers occur when Peyton says she will call her husband, George, surprising Oscar with the knowledge that George knows about his affair with Peyton. Peyton did not tell him George knows and does not seem to care because she says Oscar “was getting such a kick out of being the bad boy,” to which Stacy chimes in, “He loves that shit.”
George, a short, fifty year old man with a big gut, who is jovial, like a regular Santa Claus, arrives and says, “You know you got a leaky faucet?” He sticks his head under the sink, calling it “an easy fix.” Oscar gets him the toolbox his mother gave him twenty years before, which he has only opened once.
Furman calls ”Leak” a well-choreographed story in which George is the befuddled innocent in a farce complete with clowns piling out one by one from a car. In his author comments, Ruddick says that Frederick Barthelme helped him with this story by suggesting that it needed to be exploded out of its initial seriousness, making him realize that he did not have to be so concerned about plausibility: “People don’t work that way. I don’t know why I thought fictional characters would.”
In my opinion, the story is pure style with little significant content. Sure it is about the mystery of motivation--what makes people do the strange things they do--but mainly what Ruddick wants is for us to enjoy this slapstick comic routine in which an extramarital affair is no more worthy of human interest than a leaking faucet, for both are an “easy fix.”
“The First Wife” by Christine Sneed
“The First Wife” begins with a direct statement of the story’s theme: the difference between the famous and the unfamous. “The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics--refinements or corporeal variations—that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.” The narrator says the story is about how difficult and unromantic it is to be the wife of a very famous, memorably handsome, man.
Immediately, the narrator establishes herself as a writer, which allows her to focus attention on the construction of the story itself. “It soon became clear to me that I liked making up the characters more than playing them.” As a writer, she says she wants to begin her story with the ending, since in movies the collapse of a marriage usually only is given a few “sodden minutes at the end of the film.”
She feels that he was extraordinary and being with him had made her feel as if she has little to do with ordinary disappointments and sorrows. In another direct statement of the story’s theme, the narrator says, “That is what celebrity signifies more than anything else—it is the apparent refutation of the banal.”
The story ends with the narrator’s recollection of her meeting with her handsome husband and her reaction to his desire to have sex with her for the first time. “This isn’t real, I kept thinking all that night and the next morning. This is a joke’ isn’t it?”
The story thus explores in a rather straightforward way the relationship between two worlds, or what appear to be two worlds—the everyday world and the fantasy world created for and by movie stars and other celebrities, who do not seem to live in the same world ordinary folk do. We cannot really imagine such people doing the same things we do—that is until some paparazzi snaps a photo of them shopping in a grocery store. Although we are drawn to such revelations of the ordinary, we do not want to think about that; we want to believe that celebrities live in a world that is a “refutation of the banal.”
An Apology and a Few Comments on Reading These Stories on a Kindle Fire
I want to apologize to my readers for not fulfilling my promise to load up my blog during the month of May—Short Story Month—with lots of discussions about the stories in the PEN/O.Henry collection and recent stories in the New Yorker. Personal obligations came first. I spent a week in my hometown in Eastern Kentucky visiting with family, for my younger sister is very ill. Then when I returned home last week, I had contracted some bug on the overcrowded American Airlines flights from Lexington to Los Angeles. I will try to catch up.
Reading the stories in this year’s PEN/O.Henry Award Stories on my new Kindle Fire has reaffirmed my initial judgment that, at least as far as I am concerned, e-readers are just fine for casual reading of disposable fiction--usually novels--but not so fine for serious reading of permanent fiction--usually short stories.
I took my Kindle with me to Kentucky and read several stories on the plane and during waits and layovers at airports. I also took with me hard copies of eight stories from recent New Yorker issues. Contrasting the difference between reading the hard copy stories and the Kindle stories, I have to admit that I prefer reading short stories the old-fashioned way—print on paper and me with a pen in my hand.
A first reading on the e-reader seemed facile enough—something about the relatively small “pages,” or rather “screens,” as opposed to magazine triple columns or larger book pages. However, when it came to highlighting and annotating what I was reading, I much prefer the old pencil annotations. For one thing, the highlighting function of the Kindle is hard to control. My fingertips are not particularly large, but they are certainly less precise than the point of a pencil/pen or even a crayon-sized highlighter. And there is no comparison between taking marginal notes with a pencil/pen and entering them on the small touch screen keyboard of the Kindle. Once again, my fingertips are so large that I often make typing mistakes, and it is too damned slow. Maybe if I did a lot of texting—which I do not—it would be easier. I have ordered a stylus and will let you know what I think about using it on the Kindle.