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Tag: authorial judgment of characters

Short story: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor

First published in The Avon Book of Modern Writing (Avon Books, 1953); anthologized in The House of Fiction (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960); collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955); anthologized all over the place; online hereread by the author here

6,463 words

I like this story without really knowing what it means. I love the grandmother. She’s so annoying, so unwittingly ridiculous, it’s actually cute.

Wikipedia offers several interpretations of the story. J. Stillwell Powers, on the Ploughshares blog, subscribes to the “moment of grace” one, which I like:

“The grandmother experiences her own dismantling as her family is executed. Her attempts to reason with the Misfit prove futile, and she is forced to confront the failure of her worldview as a means for salvation. Stripped of the perspectives she has clung to, she turns inward for redemption, and, in this moment, sees clearly for the first time. Here lies her moment of grace. Beneath the muzzle of the Misfit’s gun, she suddenly perceives the Misfit’s humanity, recognizing it as her own.”

This seems like the interpretation O’Connor most likely intended. Not to imply that the author’s intention is the last word.

Now Bessie Smith’s great rendition of the song of the same title is stuck in my head.

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Short story: “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde

Appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 18; online here

2,030 words

I heard this on the podcast—very well read by Amal El-Mohtar—but had to read it again on the page to get what it was about. I didn’t catch the word that rhymes with eek, for example. As Wilde and Julia Rios say on the podcast, it’s an angry piece.

Apparently this was first titled “Grotesquerie.” An apter title, in my opinion, though not as vivid as the one they went with.

From Jodie Baker of SFF Reviews (here):

“‘Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand’ feels reminiscent of Alyssa Wong’s style. It’s darkly bitter, and visits quite perfect, and quite disturbing, magical punishment on those who do wrong. Let’s just say ‘you’ do not come out of this encounter well. It’s not quite a revenge story; the punishment is too impersonal to call it revenge. It’s more about punishing society for their stares, words, and medical experiments. Punishing slowly; one person at a time. The reader is left with the feeling that the narrator will always remain, and that they have eternity to teach visitor after visitor a lesson.”

Short story: “Woman of the Week”

“Woman of the Week,” by Claire Polders

Appeared in matchbook in February 2016

449 words

A neat piece. Sort of celebrating the individuality of somebody who appears superficially uninteresting.

Short story: “Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets”

“Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets,” by Jacob M. Appel

Appeared in The Gettysburg Review, issue 23:2, summer 2010; published in a collection of the same title by Black Lawrence Press

15 pages in the magazine, maybe 2,500 words

For a story about a topic as contentious as abortion, this is a charmingly light and gentle piece. You can feel the author being amused by his characters, maybe, but not censuring them or talking down to them.

I tend to read the ending as being about Ziggy’s moral failure. He has allowed his choices to be dictated more by emotion than by rationality, and surely he will have cause to regret it soon. Then again, neutrality was never really a viable moral stance for him to take, and how much harm can he do by making himself happy?

Short story: “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving”

“The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in The Black House in 1981; also in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and Selected Novels and Short Stories

? words

This story bears some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects,” which portrays a similar obsession (artistic? primal? both?). One protagonist ultimately abandons civilization, the other clings to it.

The title is so grandiose that I wonder if the author is having some fun at her character’s expense. After all, Highsmith is a practitioner of a craft as ancient as basket-weaving, and is far more dedicated to it.

Then there’s the symbolism of an empty, torn-up baby basket finding its way to someone who is childless by choice. Contrary to the usual trope, Diane doesn’t seem to be threatened by the symbolic loss of a child, or the lost opportunity to have one, only by her own latent creative potential. Maybe that’s why the symbolism doesn’t weigh the story down: the thing being symbolized is somewhat unexpected, and mysterious.

Short story: “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”

“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology,” by Theodora Goss

Appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in July 2014; there’s also a YouTube recording of the author reading it aloud at Readercon (the audio isn’t very good)

7045 words, according to Lightspeed

A fantastic riff on a theme by Borges (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

I love failed Pygmalion stories, and this one doubles as a failed imperialism story, which only makes it more delicious.

An apt review of The Double: A Petersburg Poem

“I can easily imagine Dostoevsky thinking ‘I’m going to write about Job, but not a righteous and admirable Job—rather, a miserable worm of an official with no redeeming qualities, someone who merely thinks he’s admirable, and I’m going to make the reader interested in him and his fate anyway.'”

—languagehat, here

Short story: “A Woman of Properties”

“A Woman of Properties,” by Jack Matthews

Recorded for Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

? words

Delicious. I would call this story cruel to its main character, but that’s not quite right. The author/narrator depicts her failure and her repression precisely, impartially. Actually, now that I’ve written that out, I find myself skeptical of the author/narrator’s impartiality. Is a story really less cruel because it is carefully crafted, because it avoids showing any sign of malice? Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I find it impossible to hate the character, or even look down on her, no matter how awful she is. I know her too well.

Short story: “The Secret Miracle”

“The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges; the version I read was translated by Harriet de Onís

Collected in Labyrinths, probably anthologized all over; a version without translation credits in PDF

My current estimate is 2,500 words in English

I like this so much. On a reread, I notice that Hladík is not described as a remarkably good or hardworking writer. Up until that final miracle, he seems both mediocre and undisciplined. One of Borges’ witty throwaways demands to be quoted:

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Which makes his redemption (or whatever it is) all the better. Hladík is apparently nobody special, and neither he nor we can understand God’s motives for choosing him. Maybe it’s like humoring a child who wants you to check for monsters under the bed just one last time before going to sleep—God’s way of comforting someone who is beyond rational comfort.

Miscellanea:

  • Hladík’s torment as he waits for the appointed day is entirely believable. I wonder if Borges was thinking of Dostoyevsky.
  • Borges very logically makes his writer a formal-verse poet. A prose writer, or a writer of free verse, would have a lot of trouble trying to take advantage of this miracle, unless he happened to have Funes’s memory.
  • I like the epigraph here better than the one on “The Circular Ruins,” but that may be because I’ve never read the Koran. If it were as familiar to me as Through the Looking-Glass, I probably wouldn’t find this excerpt so strange and lovely.

Short story: “Departures”

“Departures,” by John L’Heureux

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 7th, 1980 as a “Portrait,” whatever that means (subscribers can read online here); collected in Desires; anthologized in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff)

Roughly 11.5 pages in this edition, no clue how many words

A bunch of barely organized thoughts:

In art, emotional distance doesn’t seem to correlate negatively with emotional intensity.

“His mother is beautiful, radiant, and she will not be dead for another fifteen years.” Every time I read this sentence, I trip slightly over “beautiful, radiant,” because I half expect it to be the start of a list of adjectives or adjectival phrases. I think this slight awkwardness is intentional. It’s as though that “radiant” caught the narrator by surprise, as it must have done to the priest himself in his memory.

The dice dream seems to implicate the priest in the ritual humiliation of Christ. In the Gospels, the casting of lots is a quiet moment of cruelty not unlike his greeting to his mother. He evidently doesn’t analyze it that way. In fact he appears to avoid analyzing it at all. The closest he comes is his thought that meditating on the dice “has something to do with not feeling, with the reason he is a priest in the first place.” Holding dice seems like a plausible symbol of “bring[ing] order out of chaos” as well, since dice are used to exploit blind chance within the formal rules of a game.

The kiss on the cheek, attempted twice and failed both times, also calls to mind Judas. Obvious, I guess. He could be a failed Judas, then, one who thinks he’s acting according to a plan, but is really only committing a pointless betrayal.

The priest’s fatal choice, I take it, was “order” at the expense of everything else. The “crazy couple” represents one of the possible traps he fears, the trap of what he sees as pointless emotion and public indignity and general inefficiency. He doesn’t realize he’s only walked into another trap until his dice dream becomes a nightmare.

What happens at the end? I can’t decide whether the priest has broken out of his trap or not. We know from the narration that he has another fifteen years to live. Does he walk out of the ceremony? Does he lose himself in drink? Does he reach out to take the dice, or perhaps to close his mother’s fingers around them and give them back, or merely to snuff out the vision he sees? The title suggests that he too is departing, but I don’t know from what.

I looked up the prayer he recites at the end, but I don’t see any particular significance in the words he fails to recite.* I think what stops him is the word “sanctify.” He has attempted to sanctify himself by ceasing to care much about anything. He must be realizing now that he’s failed, and/or that he was wrong to try.

The narrator is “omniscient” in that it knows things beyond the present moment, but “close” in that it almost exclusively speaks the priest’s own thoughts, without overt editorializing. I’m not sure if that even counts as omniscient rather than limited, since it’s technically possible for everything the narrator tells us to be within the priest’s lifetime knowledge. (Fifteen years from now, he may well be aware that he’s dying, and how fast.)

The author/narrator’s real opinions are expressed only indirectly, by making the priest’s thoughts ridiculous: “It is boring but good for him. Existentialism is good and humanism is good, and he feels that boredom is just something that goes along with the package.” And later: “But what is good? Well, he feels good and that’s something.” Mocking the priest’s inability to hold real (non-abstract) values or even to make a sincere search for them.

Present tense is widely said to make fiction more vivid. (Detractors say less reflective and less disciplined, but that criticism would be pretty laughable here.) I don’t think the choice of present tense in this story has anything to do with vividness. It’s probably a practical choice that makes it possible to mention past, present, and future events without grammatical difficulties. I think a lot of Muriel Spark’s fiction is in present tense for this reason. (Why don’t I have a Muriel Spark tag already?)

*According to the book From the Beginning to Baptism, by Linda Gibler, it continues, “Sanctify this new fire which was struck from flint and is destined for our use. Grant that we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires through this paschal feast that we may come to the feast of eternal light with pure minds.”