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Short story: “The End of a Career”

“The End of a Career,” by Jean Stafford

Appeared in the January 21st, 1956 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), and in Stafford’s collections

My guess is 4,000 words

This story reminds me of Patricia Highsmith‘s Little Tales of Misogyny, depicting as it does a character whose sole reason for living is to be a beautiful woman—or to put it more precisely, a decorative woman. But Stafford is never over the top the way Highsmith can be; she never makes her judgments too obvious, never gets derailed by bitterness. The story portrays Angelica with an objectivity that’s both funny (The Faerie Queene!) and genuinely sad.

Angelica is explicitly described as an artist. She doesn’t cultivate her beauty for social status, money, a husband, or a lover; she cultivates it for its own sake and quite uselessly. It seems to be an underlying theme here that this is part of the reason her pursuit comes to a dead end. Her doctor hints that if she had only managed to be beautiful for someone, to love and be loved instead of pursuing a perfectionist obsession, she might have found a way out of the trap. As with “Solid Objects,” it’s interesting to compare the fictional artist with the author herself, who writes for an audience and therefore perhaps has more hope of success.

On a reread, the remarks Angelica’s aunt makes at the funeral are very disturbing. It’s remarks like these that made Angelica the stunted, miserable, doomed person she was, and the aunt knows it. But who can blame her? What other tribute can be paid to someone so monomaniacal and so hollow?

Edited to add: It does seem a little ridiculous comparing Stafford to Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson (the other comparison I tend to make). Stafford apparently stayed on the more literary side of things; her stories never seem to try to unsettle you. But all three of them have a similar attraction for me, a sense of the strangeness of everyday life.

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Short story: “Maintenance Man”

“Maintenance Man,” by Emma Joy

Audio recording by FacelessVoice Productions (free download here)

Maybe around 3,000 words?

Pornographic fiction aimed at women is selling nicely these days, so I’ve been browsing around to see what it’s like. This story isn’t bad, but the premise is trite and I guessed the ending very early on. It may be good porn anyway; I don’t know, it’s not my kink.

I like the use of the word “penis” in the middle of the sex scene. Seems like the kind of random, non-pornographic thought that real people have at such moments. I’m told a lot of readers hate that kind of word being used in porn, though. This is what makes sex so tricky to write about: there’s no shared language of sex. Pornography traditionally uses one set of terms, medicine uses another, men use another, women use another, couples have their own private languages, and of course children learn a bizarre potpourri of misleading information. No matter what choice the writer makes, it’s guaranteed to turn somebody off. I usually think of defamiliarization as artistically exciting, but sex is one area where our culture’s taboos sort of pre-defamiliarize us, and it seems to me that this is very bad for art. (Whether it’s good for society is another matter.)

On an unrelated note, erotica seems to generate the worst small-press book covers of any genre. This story has a good cover image, though.

Short story: “The Homecoming”

“The Homecoming,” by Mike Resnick

Originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Asimov’s (PDF here); nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award; presented in episode 344 of Escape Pod (read online or listen here)

6,754 words

I liked this story but didn’t find it remarkable in any way. Not crazy about it being nominated for a Hugo. As much as I bitch about literary fiction that lacks heart, I also get disappointed by the kind of sentimental, unintellectual fiction that seems to be popular in the speculative genres.