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Tag: 1990s

Short story: “A Party Down at the Square”

“A Party Down at the Square,” by Ralph Ellison

First appeared, as far as I can tell, in the posthumous collection Flying Home and Other Stories (published in 1996 or 1997); downloadable in .doc format; online here; also at Scribd behind a login wall

3,063 words

It’s hard to know what to say about this story. It’s so grotesque, so evocative of the banality of evil. I feel it doesn’t affect me as strongly as it should, to be honest. Shouldn’t I be angry? Horrified? Revolted? I’m white, and even modern-day hate crimes rarely make me anything more than sad.

I like that the narrator puts his hands in his pockets almost immediately after the lynching victim does. It may make the narrator feel a modicum of empathy—and certainly we readers know that it ought to. I also really like the line “I guess that’s what made me sick”: the way the narrator doesn’t even fully understand that he’s sickened by what he’s seen.

I wonder what Ellison was thinking as he got inside the mind of his oppressors this way? Is this an admirable feat of imagination, or a futile one? Is there anything to learn from it?

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Short story: “Ovando”

“Ovando,” by Jamaica Kincaid

3,824 words

First published in Conjunctions, Issue 14, Fall 1989; the first story in the anthology The New Gothic (Random House, 1991), edited by Conjunctions‘ Bradford Morrow and also Patrick McGrath; selected by Karen Lord to appear in Strange Horizons, August 31st, 2015 (no longer available online)

In one sense, I find it very easy to understand how Kincaid came up with this story. She condenses a brutal historic invasion into a surreal meeting of two characters; she gives her narrator the perspicacity to tell us exactly what kind of person and societal force Ovando is. And bitter gallows humor:

They looked around and at last they saw me. In unison, like a clap of thunder, they all said, “Mine!” Ovando, seeing the danger in this, said “Draw lots,” but the people who drew my head really wanted my legs, and the people who drew my arms wanted my insides, and so on and so on until they fell on each other with a ferociousness that I could not have imagined possible.


I have very little memory of writing the above, but it seems good, and I may reread this story someday, so I’m posting it.

Short story cycle/fictional essay: “Octet”

“Octet,” by David Foster Wallace

First published without the crucial last question in spelunker flophouse; collected with that question in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 1999)

Several thousand words

I found this piece effective because it forced me to ask myself very seriously whether I found it effective. The first few pop quiz questions are interesting and necessary to the piece, but I’m really talking about the extremely lengthy last one, which begins, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.” It made me actually anxious, I agonized over the question of how I felt, I even felt guilty because I might not be getting what I was supposed to be getting out of this piece that the intratextual writer character (and, I naturally felt, the extratextual author) was obviously pouring his heart into. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss this, as the text itself suggests, as a bit of cheap manipulation. Same with the author and writer character’s artistic choice to make the numbering of the pop quiz questions illogical, listing them presumably as they were listed in an earlier draft that had all eight questions, deliberately showing the reader the seams and lacunae. But I didn’t resent it. I didn’t feel manipulated. I felt moved.

I certainly wouldn’t feel this way about an adult coming up to me and asking, “Do you like me? Please like me.” I would merely have to decide whether to lie or tell the truth, and would think, This person is really odd.

Short story: “Definitely Maybe”

“Definitely Maybe,” by Allee Richards

Appeared in The Lifted Brow, issue 38, June 2018 (buy the issue or read an excerpt of the story)

Several thousand words; I’m getting lazy about word count

A story about being in a bad relationship and very aware of it, and the desperate inadequacy of nineties-style “Girl Power.” Perhaps the inadequacy of more contemporary feminist thinking, too? I like the character bragging about how she used to grow out her underarm hair, to prove she’s better than this.

I can’t get over how much this magazine costs to ship to the U.S. Not sure it contains enough fiction to be worth it, but at least the fiction is good.

Short story: “Audition”

“Audition,” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Appeared in the September 10th, 2018 issue of the New Yorker; read by the author on The Writer’s Voice: New Fiction from the New Yorker, September 4th

6,708 words

An engrossing story. At the end I worry that the main character is lost, that he will go on smoking crack (quite possible, and the author implies in an interview that he’s doomed) and never move to LA (almost certain). And I don’t want him to move to LA, because that way lies a miserable disillusionment—at least in my mind.

Sayrafiezadeh has, of course, been published in the New Yorker, which makes him the kind of success in his field that the main character dreams of being. I wonder what it’s like writing such a character from such a vantage point.

Hard and not much fun

“In his author’s note in the 1995 Best American Short Stories, [Steven] Polansky said that ‘Leg’ was ‘hard, and not much fun, to write.’ This was a new one to me — but he was on to something. My best work since then has been the stuff that has made me the most uncomfortable, and that I have been the most anxious about sending out into the world.”

—J. Robert Lennon (x)

Short story: “Border Crossing”

“Border Crossing,” by Ann Copeland

Appeared in The FiddleheadNo. 163 (Spring 1990) and No. 185 (Fiddlehead Gold)

Maybe 3,000 words?

I liked this story. The title seems to suggest what disturbs the main character: some kind of trespassing across the borders that divide his life as a father from his life as a man.

I’m curious about how a (presumably) female author approaches the interiority of a male character.

Short story: “The Specialist’s Hat”

“The Specialist’s Hat,” by Kelly Link

Collected in Pretty Monsters (Canongate Books), which won a Locus Award; the story also won the 1999 World Fantasy Award; read beautifully in Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

Not sure how many words

This story is so strange I wonder if it originated as a dream. Not the identical twins or their preoccupation with death/Death—those strike me as fairly conventional tropes in horror and the literature of the uncanny. But that hat, which doesn’t look like a hat, and which can mimic any sound … that belongs in the realm of dream. The ending is marvelous, with children’s games and poetry ambiguously bleeding into the real world.

Short story: “A Visit”

“A Visit,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in the New Yorker, August 25th, 1997 (online for subscribers); collected in The Knife-Thrower (1998); read by Richard Powers for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, January 3rd, 2017

Maybe 4,000 words? Not long

This story feels sad to me—the failure of the narrator to make a meaningful connection with his old friend and his friend’s new wife. It occurs to me that this story could be a parable for a prejudiced person’s reaction to an interracial marriage, or a same-sex marriage, or perhaps a marriage to a transgender person or a severely handicapped person by someone who’s neither: How grotesque this is, how wrong! Yet the narrator does get an intimation of a real and healthy marriage, a thing he’s never achieved himself.

More good thoughts about singular they

“My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft (found here)