“I don’t believe in craft in the abstract—each individual novel is its own rule book, training ground, factory, and independent republic.”
—Zadie Smith (x)
“Nocturne,” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Collected in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Knopf Canada, 2009)
I liked all the stories in this collection (described by the publisher as a short story cycle), but this one was my favorite. The connection between these two strangers, and the way she insults his music and then confesses how bad she is at being sincere about things she likes.
Some reviewer pointed out that the narrator describes the woman’s facial expression at a point when they’re both supposed to be covered in bandages, an oversight that I imagine most writing workshops would have caught.
This collection/cycle strikes me as thematically uncharacteristic of Ishiguro somehow. I might come back to this if I reread it some time.
“Disquisition on Tears,” by Stephanie Reents
Appeared in EPOCH; anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Winners 2006; collected in The Kissing List (Hogarth, 2012)
Maybe a dozen pages in O. Henry—I would guess 2,000 words
The playful weirdness of this reminds me of Barthelme, though the story is grounded in realism. I’d almost say it’s a realistic story, though the action surely takes place in a hallucinatory dream. I find the depiction of the character’s mental state very convincing, though I don’t know anything about brain cancer.
I saw a bit of commentary saying this story is about the horror of impending death, but what I took away was more the horror that she can never achieve lucidity or contact with reality again. It can be both, of course.
Coming back to the knocking sound at the end is a nice touch.
“Passion,” by Alice Munro
Appeared in the New Yorker, March 22nd, 2004 (online here); collected in Runaway (McClelland and Stewart, 2004), which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2004), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in Caribbean and Canada (2005), and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (2004); anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006
I had to think a bit about the title. It’s Grace’s passion, isn’t it, that drives the story? She’s young and badly in need of stimulation—you can see that in her studies and her reading and her feeling for Mrs. Travers. The stimulation she gets from Neil is along the same lines but more intense than what she’s gotten elsewhere. She learns to drive, and she has an erotic experience, and she has an intense laconic conversation, and she encounters despair—a despair she must have gotten only a dim inkling of, if she got any intimation of it at all, from the end of Anna Karenina. (I wonder which character she identified with. I read it at about age eighteen and don’t recall having a particular affinity for any of them. Maybe for Levin.)
(At my age, I should be feeling how very young twenty is, but I associate Grace’s receptive quality, her passion, with an even earlier age. Maybe I’m not so old, or maybe I was already old—albeit not wise—at twenty.)
What are we to make of Grace’s return more than forty years later? The place means a great deal to her, but why now? We learn only a little about her—that she is an excellent conversationalist, evidently after the example of the Travers family, and sometimes gets sick of hearing herself talk. Is she trying to rediscover the passion she’s lost? Has her passion gotten tucked away behind the laundry basin?
Listed under Recommended Stories in the back:
“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” by Alice Munro
Published in the collection of the same title (McClelland & Stewart, 2001); briefly excerpted in the New York Times, November 24th, 2001
Perhaps 12,000 words? I remember it being pretty long
It’s been over a decade since I read this, but I remember it well. I adore the ending—as Hamilah Marcus puts it, “a setup for disaster that somehow turns out okay.” I adore Johanna—so unromantically romantic, so unlovably lovable, so worthy of the (I hope happy!) marriage she is rewarded with. I like the careful development of each character—the best writers, it seems to me, show respect for every character they write.
The title is perfect: a childish ritual that yearns for some intimation of what adult relationships will be like.
I just reread this and found myself moved by the powerful sense of loneliness at the beginning. Johanna’s admission to the shopkeeper feels uncharacteristic of her, the act of someone overflowing with feeling and without a friend in the world to express it to. I think the uncharacteristicness of it is established in the scene where she arranges the shipping of the furniture and gets her train ticket. It’s tricky to establish a character’s typical behavior when you have them behaving atypically so early on.
I adore the last line. It’s unsubtle, perhaps the least subtle thing in the story, and yet it fits perfectly. How apt that we end with this girl on the brink of womanhood, idly absorbing the news of Johanna’s baby, someone with her own tiny part to play in the world and mystified by it.
The descriptions of settings are rather detailed. I usually don’t much care for descriptions, but it’s important that the women’s clothing shop and the decrepit hotel and the other settings are brought to life for us.
“Big Brother,” by Paula W. Peterson
First published in The Iowa Review 33.2 (Fall 2003) (available online here); anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004
Several thousand words
This story doesn’t have a sad tone to it—it flows on the energy and strength of the narrator’s voice—but it’s sad nonetheless. The main character seems lost.
When fiction uses a dialect different from mine, I’m always mildly distracted trying to judge its authenticity, something I cannot do.