One of the stories in the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories that intrigued me, but that I did not have a chance to discuss in December, is Samar Farah Fitzgerald's "Where Do You Go?" The story reminded me of another story I once read, which is not unusual, of course. The story I recalled is Rolfe Yngve's "The Quail," which I included in my short story textbook several years ago.
It was not the style of Fitzgerald's story that struck a chord with me, but rather the similarity to Yngve's basic theme of a young couple coming in contact with, and thus being significantly contrasted with, an older couple.
Yngve's story is quite short—about three pages in my text book anthology--and focuses on a simple object that takes on symbolic significance—the quail of the title. Basically, the story is about a young couple who, during the first spring of their marriage, are visited by eight quail who come to eat in their elderly landlord's garden. They are still within the honeymoon phrase of their relationship, and their life seems quite idyllic. They feed the quail, while the landlord and his wife rail against them for eating their seedlings. The seasons pass until winter when the quail disappear. The young husband discovers that the elderly landlord has trapped them and eaten them; he does not tell his wife.
The question that my students and I discussed is whether the story makes effective use of the symbolic object or whether it is a bit too rigged and predictable. The dichotomies in the story are quite explicit: old couple and young couple, romance and reality, the beautiful and the practical. The fact that the quail arrive during the first spring of the couple's marriage is sufficient to indicate the symbolic value of the birds.
The fact that the protagonists are referred to only as "the couple" or "the tenant and his wife," while the antagonists, if such they are, are only called the landlord and his wife is sufficient to indicate the fable-like nature of the story. The language, with its short simple declarative sentences, also suggest that what we are reading, in spite of the fact that the characters seem "as-if-real," is an illustrative fable, not a realistic story.
Given the fact that the romance of early married life inevitably gives way to the practicality of everyday reality, there is no other way that the story could end than that the quail are transformed from being the symbolic center of a romantic idyll for the young couple to being merely food for the older couple.
Samar Farah Fitzgerald's "Where Do You Go?" is also about a young couple, Vega and Henry, who, in the spring of their second year of marriage, move out of the city to a house they buy in a neighborhood mainly occupied by elderly couples, widows, and divorcees. The young wife begins taking walks with an old man with emphysema man who smokes cigarettes secretly; the young husband begins do small odd jobs for the old man's wife.
Fitzgerald's story, at eighteen pages, is considerably longer than Yngve's story—the added length creating more of an "as-if-real" quality to the story--in contrast to the fable-like nature of Yngve's story. But I wonder if this difference in generic style is the only reason that Fitzgerald's story is so much longer than Yngve's. It makes me reconsider Chekhov's famous injunction about short stories: "It is better to say not enough (or too little) than to say too much." But then, Chekhov added teasingly, "because, because, "I don't know why." Well, if Chekhov didn't know why, then who does? Even after all these years of studying short stories, I am not sure I do.
The short story, as I have argued many times over the years, is a form that is more often structured by a meaningful theme than by mere mimesis. The form originated as an illustrative fable and, in spite of the Renaissance shift to realism, still has something of the parable about it. The novel does not have the same heritage and thus, in contrast to the short story's thematic need to be controlled by what Poe called a "single effect," has a tendency to be, what Henry James called, a "loose, baggy monster" (no offense intended).
By this criteria, I ask myself the following questions: Does a short story have to be limited or controlled or structured around a central theme? Can't it just be about "something that happened"? Can't it just be a story of an event or an action? Moreover, if it is structured around a central theme or "effect," can it not be "loose" enough to include details that have nothing to do with that central theme? Can't there just be details that suggest that this is a "real" event, taking place in a "real" world, involving "real" people?
Rolf Yngve's story "The Quail" is so tightly controlled around the theme of young and age, romance and reality, that there is little or nothing in it that is not about that theme. However, there may indeed be details in Fitzgerald's story that have little or nothing to do with the theme of youth and age. But, could that not mean that Fitzgerald's story is about more than the theme of youth and age? Or could it mean that her story is a more complex treatment of that theme than Yngve's?
I think the novelist, faced with the need to write a "long" work, often includes details that just "occur" to him or her at the time—interesting and intriguing, or clever and amusing—but that have little to do with the theme of the story. This, I would call the "novelistic" temptation. However, the short story writer more often tries to resist that temptation, ruthlessly cutting out everything that does not seem to advance or explore the significance he or she senses is at the heart of the story. For example, in Fitzgerald's story the narrator introduces a bartender who tells Vega about freezing his leg in dry ice so it could be amputated. You can find on line a true story of a man named Baz who did that. It's a well-known intriguing obsession, but is it relevant to Fitzgerald's story?
Another aspect of the novelistic temptation is to provide a social/historical/cultural context for the story, as well as a biographical background context for the characters. For example, Fitzgerald provides a four-page section devoted to the story of how her young couple met and married. We know little of the background of Yngve's couple. Do we need to know the background? Well, maybe in Fitzgerald's kind of story, we do, but in Yngve's we do not.
Moreover, there is something else going on in Fitzgerald's story. Since the couple have moved from the city, her young woman has been having "inexplicable episodes of disorientation," which her husband suspects may be panic attacks. The young husband starts having dreams that he is looking for his wife in "crabby caves under the lake, and he begins to worry that she might indeed disappear someday. One of the young woman's attacks take place in the supermarket--an attack that brings on the most thematically mysterious sentence in the story: "But it was only a matter of time before that feeling, the knowledge that something was coming for her—and for Henry too, coming for them both—would return."
We don't really know what this ominous sense of the impending means, although the possibility of having a child is suggested, as well as the possibility of falling out of love and the possibility of mortality. The story ends with the couple at a party, when the narrator once again refers to some inevitable time coming: "It was going to be different for each of them, they both knew that. Vega would become unreachable, impatient and sullen as a teenager. Henry would cry and, if his wife was still alive, he'd draw her into his weak arms."
When they go home, they make love, slowly, bringing "each other along." The next morning, Henry puts his hand on Vega's stomach and "looked at her hopefully. She nodded 'yes,' although it was impossible to know yet for sure."
"The Quail" is clearly an accessible story; the structure, technique, and meaning are all quite clear. The question that might be posed is: Are we completely satisfied by a story that is so satisfying? Or do we prefer a more puzzling story?
"Where Do You Go?" is a less taut story, more realistic than fable-like, more discursive than economical. Which is the more complex story? Is it really better to say too little than too much? Is it necessary to provide a bio-background to the characters in the story? Does a story have to has a theme?
AT the risk of making these questions all the more difficult to answer, I suggest a third story about a young newly-married couple coming up against the future, challenging the hopeful promise of Browning's "Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be."
"Why Don't You Dance?" the first story in Raymond Carver's controversial collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is characteristic of the qualities of his short fiction at the high point of his career. The story begins with an unidentified man who has, for some unexplained reason, put all his furniture out on his front lawn. What makes this event more than just a mundane yard sale is the fact that the man has arranged the furniture just as it was when it was in the house and has even plugged in the television and other appliances so that they work just as they did inside. The only reference to the man's wife is the fact that the bed has a nightstand and a reading lamp on his side of the bed and a nightstand and reading lamp on "her" side of the bed; this is Carver's typical unstated way of suggesting that the man's marriage has collapsed and that his wife is no longer around.
The story begins its muted dramatic turn when a young couple who are furnishing their first apartment stop by and begin to inspect the furniture. As the girl tries out the bed and the boy turns on the television, their dialogue is clipped and cryptic, reminiscent of the dialogue of characters in a story a by Ernest Hemingway. There is something a bit unsettling about watching the young couple try out the man's furniture--the girl lying on the bed, the boy watching television, for it suggests a new story beginning to be enacted on the remnants of an old one. "I feel funny " the boy says, and well he should as the girl tries to seduce him into this new story in the making. The girl plays the role more willingly, lying on the bed, inviting him, asking him to kiss her; the boy sits up making believe he is watching the television.
When the man returns from a trip to the store, the dialogue continues in its understated and laconic way as the couple make offers for some of the furnishings and the man indifferently accepts whatever they offer. The man turns off the TV and tells the girl to pick out a record; but she does not know the names on the labels, for they belong to another milieu than hers. In the epilogue of the story, weeks later, the girl is telling someone about it, about getting drunk and dancing in the man's driveway. "She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying." The story ends with the common short story motif of the ancient mariner, as the girl must tell the story--the manifestation of the repetition compulsion--over and over again until it can be, if not understood, at least integrated.
The story is an embodiment of the way that modern short fiction since Chekhov has attempted to embody inner reality by simply describing outer reality. By placing all his furniture on his front lawn, the man has externalized what has previously been hidden inside the house. When the young couple arrive, they embody the ritual process of replacement of the older man's lost relationship with the beginnings of their own, creating their own relationship on the remains of the man's. However, the story is not a hopeful one, for the seemingly minor conflicts the dialogue reveals between the two young people--his watching television and her wanting him to try the bed; her wanting to dance and his drinking--presage another doomed relationship just like the one that has ended. Indeed, there is more to it, as the girl senses, but she cannot quite articulate the meaning of the event, can only, as storytellers must, retell it over and over again, trying to get it talked out and intuitively understood.
It's a puzzling story, probably made all the more puzzling by Gordon Lish's cut-and-slash editing—a story that truly challenges Chekhov's dictum about brevity.
I would be glad to hear from any of my readers about these issues—especially Rolf Yngve and Samar Farah Fitzgerald.