Short story: “The Darling”

by look i have opinions

“The Darling,” by Scott Bradfield

Collected in Dream of the Wolf, anthologized in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff)

19.5 pages in this paperback copy of Vintage Book, no idea how many words

I dare you to read this story without giggling. What’s delightful is how it just keeps topping itself, hopping from one horror to the next without pausing for breath. Especially at the beginning, narration predominates over scene, evoking a handful of vivid details before moving smoothly to the next bizarre twist.

The opening paragraph is just one dizzying rush, going from the ambiguous use of habitual aspect to the simple past tense in the space of three sentences. “Dolores liked to hold the gun in her hands too” is probably habitual aspect; the next sentence reads more and more like simple past; and finally there’s the unambiguous “Then, very slowly, Dad lowered his head[.]” Then we get the comedic image of the elderly neighbor banging on the ceiling (a bit cliché, but the timing and delivery are top notch). We barely have time to be sure Dad is dead, just as, a few sentences back, we barely had time to figure out the nature of his abuse.

The plot is the sort of thing that I found wearying in American Psycho because of the deliberate, relentless emptiness of Ellis‘s characters. Dolores, however, seems not so much empty as lost. The other characters strike me the same way: their glib eloquence and psychobabble and cynical clichés are believable, uncynically, as cries for help and sinister displays of power. Here’s Dr. Weinstein articulating what he sees as the moral of Dolores’s story: “We do it every day[.] We appropriate the souls and strengths of other people. It’s just that most of us don’t have to kill them, babe.” He, of course, turns out to be a politer, more horrifying, more successful version of Dolores Starr and her first husband and her father. His crimes are nurturing, healing, life-giving. His murder of Dolores is “bloodless” and it is delicious.

The psychobabble and other cultural motifs are a little dated, I guess. I don’t think it hurts the story. The serial-killing-yuppies plot is a little dated too, but I love it too much to care. Does the style age well? Not sure. This is a sarcastic story, and sarcasm is heavy-handed by definition. Again, I love it too much to care.

Sometimes I complain about literary fiction and its emphasis on polish, but this story reminds me how well excellent prose can be deployed. (Compare the pointlessly excellent prose of some literary fiction; compare Patricia Highsmith‘s functional but occasionally clumsy sentences.) I want to quote almost every line. Here’s a delightful ingredient list: “The protein shake contained nonpasteurized whole milk, two fertile eggs, eight ounces of liquid protein, wheat germ, vitamin B complex and B12 and three heaped tablespoons of blue crystal Drano.” (Using “and”s instead of commas usually seems to indicate that the narrator is rushing breathlessly through a list. In this case, the first “and” at first appears merely to join the two types of vitamin B as a pair; it’s only when we reach the second “and” that we realize we’re picking up speed.)

One thing I rolled my eyes at just a bit was at the very beginning: “Dolores, she thought. Dolores, dolorous, dolorous star.” I had the feeling the author felt the need to lampshade her meaningful name, and I immediately got distracted by the question of how she knew the word “dolorous.”

There doesn’t seem to be any connection with Chekhov’s story of the same title, except the quiet horror of the ending, in which someone vital is being smothered in a conventionally “loving” relationship. And, of course, the feminine likableness of the main character, charmingly subverted as it is. I wonder which Bradfield intended? Actually, scratch all that, both stories are irresistibly rich in irony and cruelty, and both their protagonists are struggling to fulfill dangerous needs they don’t understand. I don’t know why I didn’t see their kinship right away.