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Short story: “Man-O-War”

“Man-O-War,” by Claire Vaye Watkins

From One Story #140 (September 15, 2010)—buy here or read more about the story here and here

About 8,900 words

One of my favorite issues of One Story.

The author’s Q&A comments hint at how much work goes into an emotionally vivid story of this kind. I was slightly disappointed that she decided against using the word playas, even in italics.

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End-user license agreements

Any software license agreement that takes more than ten minutes for the average literate person to read should be null and void in the eyes of the law.

(Have you ever paid to do something that involved high speeds or heights or shooting things? I’ll bet the waiver you signed took less than half a page to list all the injuries and disabilities the company was not liable for. Compared to your brain, eyes, and spine, software really isn’t that complicated: it can fail, screw up your computer, open up security breaches, forbid backups and reverse-engineering, collect information on you, share your information with the wrong people, and harass you with pop-ups. See? That took only a few seconds, and none of it sounds as bad as chronic cervical pain or slow death by brain hemorrhage.)

Any agreement that appears in a tiny window with a scrollbar, with no option to save or copy or search, should also be null and void. Every agreement should be presented in a legible font size in a large window. Every agreement should be easy to download.

Any agreement that isn’t available until you’ve paid for the product/service should be null and void.

Any company whose agreement is unreasonable, or unreasonably vague, should be fined on a per-user basis. That includes (possibly unenforceable) ass-covering clauses like “You can’t sue us no matter what” and “You must abide by these terms even if they change without your knowledge.”

No piece of software should have an updated agreement with every single version. No website or service should show you an updated agreement every single time you log in. The only legitimate reason for updates is to accommodate changes in the product/service, the company, or the law.

Every time an agreement updates, the “new” and “old” sections should be marked differently to make them easy to distinguish.

When possible, a company should avoid using a completely separate agreement for several similar products/services. I.e., the sections that apply to all products/services should be marked differently from the more specific sections so that users can read them only once.

I’m tired of having opinions on stupid things like this.

Short story: “Concerning the Bodyguard”

“Concerning the Bodyguard,” by Donald Barthelme

From the October 16, 1978 issue of the New Yorker, also read wonderfully in an excellent episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; also here; collected in Forty Stories

1,497 words (my guess was actually correct this time)

This story is told almost entirely in questions. What we learn is so indefinite that the possibilities remain menacingly open. I’m not sure whether the main character is ambivalent or utterly hostile towards Communism, whether his job prejudices him in favor of his client (a politician) or against him. And yet he remains a real and particular character: his job matters to him, his failure hurts him.

On the podcast, Rushdie comments that he finds the occasional non-question sentences slightly disappointing, as though Barthelme was a little too cautious to commit to his form. I see his point but after listening a few times, I disagree. A single question tends to call attention to itself, but a long series of questions dulls the impact, much like a long series of exclamations or terse, pithy lines. The story’s last two questions come immediately after a handful of declarative sentences, and I think that’s part of why the ending hits so hard. Also, some of the questions in this story (usually the yes-or-no ones) already read like statements in disguise, and too many of them in a row would seem forced. The questions feel most natural when the answers aren’t obvious, when they’re the questions the bodyguard should be asking himself.

Fictional essay: “Funes the Memorious”

“Funes the Memorious” or “Funes, His Memory” (“Funes el memorioso”), by Jorge Luis Borges

Wikipedia says this first appeared in La Nación in June 1942; English translation in PDF here

? words (I swear I’ll come back to this)

I will never understand why Borges’ fictions are all generally considered short stories. This one, like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel,” strikes me as a fictional essay. None of Borges’ essays make much pretense at plot, and the characters are static. What develops as they go on is not plot or character or theme as I understand it, but something else, something they have in common with excellent science fiction. They take a strange idea and work out its implications so thoroughly that it begins to seem familiar (though still strange) and to have relevance to real life. “To think is to forget differences” (Pensar es olvidar diferencias)—yes, of course, why didn’t we realize that before? The fact is that these pieces work, never mind whether they work as essays or as stories, so I may be the only one who cares about the distinction. (And the fact that there are so few fictional essays as good as this must make it tempting to lump them all in with stories. I imagine it’s doubly difficult to make fiction interesting without the carrots of suspense and character identification.)

An especially uninformed opinion (I can barely read Spanish): I think the best translation of the title would probably be “The Vast Memory of Funes.” “Funes the Eidetic” would be okay, except that apparently the word refers mainly to visual memory, and anyway is relatively obscure.

None of this anal-retentive blather does justice to the piece, but I expect to write many more posts on Borges before I’m done here.

Short story: “Where the Action Is”

“Where the Action Is,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course; also here

? words (I’ll work it out someday)

A Highsmith story (or novel) often takes the form of a creepy, absurd, horrific, or misanthropic joke, drawn out at sober and detailed length, the creepiness/absurdity/horror/misanthropy snowballing as it goes on, passing the point where laughter seems appropriate. Instead of laughing, you get an enjoyable shudder, a kind of How did we get away with that?

This one is heavy on irony. Craig, a small-town photographer, accidentally snaps a picture of a tearful young woman running to meet her parents after being held hostage. The photograph becomes famous and wins a Pulitzer; the woman withdraws from social life and plays the part of a damaged but gracious victim. She even begins a career as a model, using her “sad-dog face” to sell perfume and clothing. Craig and the other characters spend a slightly ridiculous amount of time speculating whether she was “really” raped or just wanted an excuse to end her engagement. (Nobody dwells on the idea that she might be legitimately traumatized for other reasons.) Their curiosity is perfectly drawn: sordid, cynical, not especially malicious.

Meanwhile, Craig acts his part as well. Like the young model, he takes full advantage of the career boost, giving interviews, discussing how conflicted he feels about profiting from a stranger’s suffering, doing everything he can to seem deep and compassionate.

In a curious way, Craig realized that he had to hold onto his conviction that Lizzie Davis’s life had been altered, ruined—or he couldn’t make a success of the article-plus-photos that he had in mind. “You think she’s a phony?” Craig asked in a soft, almost frightened voice.

In the interview scene that follows, he “prepare[s] himself as if he were an actor,” and actually succeeds. “He believed, he knew now, that he was being sincere[.]” For the rest of his life, the story implies, he will be driven by this same hollow sincerity, building his career on suffering and compassion. In a way he seems more damaged than Lizzie Davis. He’s given up his innocence willingly.

I like stories about characters who are unwittingly trapped in falseness, selfishness, and ignorance by their own minds and choices. This one, of course, doesn’t have the depth of “The Depressed Person” because it places us at a comfortable distance from the main character; we can sneer at Craig instead of wanting desperately to save him or get away from him. I suppose misanthropy is never as effective a literary attitude as empathy.

Short story: “Everything and Nothing”

“Everything and Nothing,” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated here (by Mildred Boyer) and here and here (by J. E. Irby)

627 words in Boyer’s translation

A remarkable piece. It’s a sort of joke about the scholarly obsession with knowing the “real” identity of Shakespeare, also an anti-character study, also a meditation on what identity and character even mean and what it means to be a creator, all crammed into three longish paragraphs.

On writing

“The writer has no rights at all except those he forges for himself inside his own work.”

—Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners

Short story: “The Depressed Person”

“The Depressed Person,” by David Foster Wallace

Formerly available as a PDF on the Harper’s website (link broken); apparently first published there in 1998; online here (footnotes seemingly missing) and here (for a price) and also here (scroll down; footnotes converted into end notes); collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

4,418 words

I love this story. I’ve noticed that even people who like it usually describe it as boring and unpleasant, but I find it really pleasurable, like picking at a painful scab, and the opposite of boring.

This is one of the few stories I know that consists almost entirely of narration rather than scene—all “telling,” no “showing”—and works beautifully. I’ll admit that I do see now why people say not to do this. It’s smothering. From the richness of the narrated details (the buckskin pelisse, the virulent neuroblastoma), you get the feeling there’s a whole world out there beyond the wall of words. That’s what makes the story work so well for me: the trap it builds. It’s the kind of trap that works really well on people who live mostly in their heads.

Reading the story, I have to keep several mental threads going at once. I understand the therapeutic language literally, as an earnestly precise description of an emotional life, and I also hear its absurdity in the context of fiction. I consider the depressed person sympathetically and critically and even make a few feeble attempts at assigning blame; I hear her shrillness, her patheticness, the smallness and cheapness of her self-pity. The story tries to anticipate all possible reactions and so does the depressed person herself. The effect is to defuse my reactions without halting them. I can see that the depressed person’s explanation of her problem is completely accurate, intellectually, and I can see that all her verbal escape strategies are doomed from the outset, and I can see that my escape strategies are no better than hers. Every possible move is plotted out and they all lead to stalemate. The mind is a machine that can wear itself out.

Apparently several people wrote to Harper’s to complain about this story’s portrayal of mental illness, which they found cruel, mocking, and victim-blaming. It’s hard to argue with them. The story is cruel, relentlessly cruel. (I once advised an anxiety sufferer not to read it unless she were in a particularly robust mood.) But it would be a mistake to call it sadistic. A little sadism would be a relief. At least sadism is a form of genuine human connection.

A phrase I learned from this story that I find strangely chilling: “terminal graduate degree.”

Novelette: The Figure in the Carpet

The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

First appeared in Cosmopolis: A Literary Review, January–February 1896; now on Gutenberg.org and Google Books and no doubt elsewhere

15,394 words

I love the weirdness of this novelette. I love the idea that some novelist’s coded artistic statement could become a central concern in four different people’s lives (I’ve read science fiction less far-fetched). I love the absurdity of the marriage-as-barter, and the suspiciously convenient deaths. I love how we never really find out if Vereker’s confession is exaggerated, if Corvick and Gwendolen are playing some sort of elaborate courtship game, and of course, if the narrator is phenomenally deluded. At the end, after he infects poor, foolish Drayton Deane with his “unappeased desire,” he adds, “[T]here are really moments when I feel it to be quite my revenge.” I love that line. It’s ridiculous but true—when curiosity cannot be satisfied, when suspense cannot be broken, the next best thing is to share the pain. (Reminds me a bit of the short story “Poor Albert Floated When He Died.”)

I love the satire (at least I think it’s satire) on literary criticism. The narrator loses all the pleasure of reading because he’s obsessed with the “figure.” He has so little concrete interest in his subject that we never hear mention of a plot, a character, a prose style, or even a title, and he admits to being more drawn to Vereker himself than to his work. His notion of the figure is blatantly an adolescent notion of sex, all lust and no nuance—“This was above all what I wanted to know: had she seen the idol unveiled? Had there been a private ceremony for a palpitating audience of one? For what else but that ceremony had the nuptials taken place?” As for Corvick, he’s so shallow that his only initial comment on Vereker is, “‘[H]e gives me a pleasure so rare; the sense of’—he mused a little—‘something or other.'” He claims to see the figure as though by revelation.

I love that Lady Jane doesn’t own any of Vereker’s books.

This novella is basically the working out of an idea; there’s no vivid emotional content or characterization. It probably doesn’t say anything good about my tastes that I find this kind of thing thoroughly unboring. Same with Kafka at his most droning and David Foster Wallace at his most long-winded.

Not sure where the cutoff lies between “short story” and “novella,” but this feels like a short book to me, probably because of the chapters. Edited to add: Supposedly this length makes it a novelette.