Tag: authorial judgment of characters

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: “Kilifi Creek”

“Kilifi Creek,” by Lionel Shriver

Appeared in the New Yorker November 25th, 2013 (subscribers can read here)

About 5 1/3 New Yorker pages, ? words

Bleak and precisely to the point.

About two-thirds of the way into the first page, the omniscient narrator teases us with the suggestion that Liana’s fate is not fixed. We’re over three pages in before we find out how her swim came to an end, but even then, things could still have gone either way. Whether she’s alive or dead is arbitrary, out of anyone’s control.

Having aged far more than a few hours this evening, Liana was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller. [… I]n some manner that she couldn’t put her finger on she also felt less real—less here—since in a highly plausible alternative reality she was not here.

I find it curious that, at the story’s end, Liana considers the past fourteen years of her life to have been “largely good[.]” The narrator deliberately keeps us at a cool, objective, slightly disdainful distance from her, never allowing us to like or pity her, and maybe that’s why I find her adult life contemptible. She makes no attempt to believe that “she had been rescued by an almighty presence who had grand plans for her[,]” and I admire her realism, but at the same time I find it contemptible that she never chooses any particular meaning in her life, any grand plan of her own or someone else’s. I don’t know whether that purposelessness is a form of fear or merely, horribly, another form of maturity.

Some people, I think, can regard their lives as meaningless and still largely good. Possibly just a matter of temperament.

Edit to add that perhaps the real story here is Liana’s ultimate existential failure to make her life meaningful. The maturity she chooses for herself is the kind that refuses to be fooled and therefore refuses to live. Having perceived that she can never be physically safe in a world full of death, she makes herself safely, cravenly insignificant.

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.


  • 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.”

On taking the mickey out of a thing

Orson Welles: I wanted [Charles Foster Kane] to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. “Rosebud” was Mank’s [cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz], and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen on it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole schtick is the kind of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

Peter Bogdanovich: Toward the close, you have the reporter say it doesn’t matter what it means—

Welles: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

Bogdanovich: The reporter says at the end, “Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything….”

Welles: I guess you might call that a disclaimer—a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.

This is a problem for any writer who’s aiming for both accessibility and depth. On one hand, too much complexity leads to cacophony—a dozen people’s conflicting accounts of who Kane really was, forming no one story. On the other hand, a easy-to-understand symbol like the sled, which appears to answer the central question of the movie, is almost guaranteed to come off as overly pat. That final glimpse of the sled is intensely satisfying, but it’s satisfying in a way that we recognize intellectually to be superficial, even sentimental. (Maybe that’s why Kael called the movie “a shallow masterpiece.”)

It’s always tempting to try to tone down that sort of patness, but I think the results are usually, as Welles puts it, a bit corny. You can’t get rid of Rosebud altogether, or the movie will fall apart. You can hedge about it as much as you like, but you can’t take away the power of that image, so your hedging is just going to read as another form of patness, maybe even as an admission of your own artistic insecurities. Citizen Kane fails to resolve that tension.

There’s an obvious parallel with the irony-vs.-sentimentality tension in David Foster Wallace’s writing (e.g., “Brief Interview #20”) and other contemporary fiction. Wallace frequently succeeds in resolving it, and I think there are a bunch of reasons for that. For one thing, Wallace actually kind of means the sentimental part; Wallace’s version of Rosebud is never just a schtick for him. Whereas Welles unveils the sled like the final reveal in a magic trick, Wallace dwells obsessively on his trite Freudianisms and stock sob stories, examining them from all angles, probing them for meaning. Also, Wallace tends to use irony and authorial interjections in service of his sentimentality, instead of using them to issue disclaimers. His cleverest and most cynical characters are rarely allowed to be mouthpieces for the author’s real opinions; he constantly invites the reader to see past their cleverness to their humanity, and to see their cynicism as a symptom of pain.

One-act play: “Laughs, Etc.”

“Laughs, Etc.,” by James Leo Herlihy

About nine pages, not sure how many words

First appeared in Playboy in July 1967 (now a collectible for sale here); first performed in 1973; collected in Stop, You’re Killing Me

Brutally funny. Definitely going on my list of great mean short stories, though it’s presented as a play. I don’t know if Dorothy Parker ever saw/read it, but she would have approved. Herlihy’s books seem to be mostly out of print. I keep digging up more of them and I’m never disappointed.

Spoilers ahead. On a reread, the use of the word “embalmed” and the introduction of Jo-Anne are both even more stunning in their cruelty. “I haven’t to this day the faintest notion of what the child looked like. […] And yet, in retrospect, she managed, without speaking so much as a word that anyone heard, mind you, she saw to it that she became the star of the evening.” And towards the end, the word “alive”: “So it’s noisy, so it’s bearded and unwashed, so there are no taxis! You take all that, because it’s alive!”

Short story: “The Knife Thrower”

“The Knife Thrower,” by Steven Millhauser

First appeared in the March 1997 issue of Harper’s (subscribers can read here); collected in The Knife Thrower and Other Stories; reprinted in the New York Times here

About 4,584 words (which sounds high to me, but the arithmetic checks out—there are 16 pages in my edition, 29 lines per full page, and slightly under 11 words per full line; I guess it’s a fast-moving story); 5012 words, based on the NYT version

As much as I like this story and the other Millhauser stories I’ve read, I sense something pat about his fiction, something too easy. It might be the vividity of the writing that puts me on my guard. “The Knife Thrower” is full of dramatic black and white and red and glittering silver, all the expected colors of a gothic carnival show. Or it might be that I find it a little too easy to despise the point-of-view characters for their agitated complacence (if that’s the expression I want). They patronize Hensch’s act and disapprove of it, rationalize their inaction and sleep badly. They’re stand-ins for the audience of any truly transgressive piece of entertainment, too fascinated to take responsibility for the ethical choices involved (think of high-brain-injury sports like boxing and football, think of reality TV); or the audience of any truly transgressive work of art; or citizens who rely on their leaders both to make the hard decisions and to bear the blame. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel comfortable about the characters’ discomfort. They don’t make me uneasy about my own complacence.

The plot reminds me a lot of “Le tigre mondain.”

Section Notes Approximate number of full pages
Before the show 1.5
Hensch and his assistant appear; hoops Most of the opening acts are extremely conventional, but these lines establish Hensch’s power over his audience from the start: “The hoops struck the floor, bounced singly, and began rolling like big dropped coins across the stage. Hadn’t he liked the throw? We felt like looking away, like pretending we hadn’t noticed.” Slightly over 2
Butterfly trick The first sign of cruelty, but only to an insect. (Edited to add: Butterfly = yonic imagery?) The point-of-view characters express no qualms whatsoever, and in fact the sight makes them nostalgic for some reason. .5
Hensch’s hand Danger, but innocent danger. 1
The assistant’s dress Slightly more danger. Plus sex, I guess. 1
The assistant’s apple .5
The assistant’s gloves The reason I decided to make this chart is that I’m impressed by Millhauser’s decision to spend so much time on mostly innocent knife tricks. My instinct would be to cut to the chase after one or two. But the multiple acts go by swiftly for me, whetting my taste for bloodshed. .5
The assistant’s mark Until the first mark, each trick took an average of .9 pages. From here on, the average naturally goes up to 1.75. 1
Susan Parker’s mark 2
The young man’s mark The second hand trick. 2
The final mark 2
Close 1

Short story: “The Darling”

“The Darling,” by Anton Chekhov; translated by Constance Garnett and others

Collected in The Darling and Other Stories (on Project Gutenberg here); also online here; anthologized in Best Russian Short Stories, edited by Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (on Gutenberg here, audio version here)

4,957 words in English

I haven’t gotten much into Chekhov yet, but this story is wonderful, and wonderfully wicked.

When I first read Tolstoy’s commentary (in Constance Garnett’s translation here), I missed the byline and somehow formed the idea that it was written quite recently by a conservative U.S. Christian. Chalk it up to the biblical reference. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking that—though this unknown writer was obviously intelligent and had an excellent ear for analogy—I wouldn’t like to be stuck in conversation with him. He’s sharp enough, or compassionate enough, to know that ridiculous love is still love. But he lacks the sense of proportion and restraint that lets adults distinguish healthy love from self-immolation; or, if he does have that sense, he chooses to apply it only to half the species.

It can’t be denied that there is something moving about Olenka and her over-the-top adoration. Is that an exalted feeling, maybe even a sacred feeling, as Tolstoy seems to suggest? For me, it’s more or less the same feeling I have about baby animals and sadistic porn—a thrilling, slightly ridiculous sense of tenderness and power, a faint impression of the extreme edges of what life has to offer. High-quality fiction is more satisfying, but the basic drive is the same. (Or it’s possible I lack the emotional discernment to tell the difference. It’s also possible I’m just unusually shallow.)

It’s a testament to Chekhov’s subtlety that Tolstoy and readers like him are free to misjudge Olenka. The story never sets down any judgment of her, good or bad. Only the final lines hint at the true nature of her love. She all but prays that Sasha’s mother won’t send for him; it never occurs to her to ask herself what’s best for the boy. And that last I’ll give it you! is the cry of a child surrendering to a bully, hoping to be left in peace at last.

Short story: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce

First appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1890; found online here and here; recorded for the first issue of Nil Desperandum here (June 30, 2010); available on Project Gutenberg here; reprinted in LampLight Volume I Issue ISeptember 2012, as part of the LampLight Classics feature

3,767 words

(Spoilers if you haven’t read it.) Apparently this is one of the earliest examples of this peculiar plot.

Even now, it’s a strange piece. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Farquhar’s struggle for life, but I can’t tell what we’re supposed to make of his inability to be a soldier, the way he’s tricked, and his one doomed shot at glory. This essay argues that the story is a satire of narcissistic dreams of heroism. But it’s written with great restraint, too much to read as just mockery.