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Tag: authors repeating themselves from one story to the next

Short story: “The Tower”

“The Tower,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 25, 2007

16 1/3 pages in McSweeney’s

Millhauser is always good but rarely as good as I want him to be. This story is a very long parable, maybe too long. When I reread it after some years, I realized I had forgotten the ending—not because the ending is arbitrary, but because it’s sort of parabolically inevitable, like the endings of “Paradise Park” and “The Dream of the Consortium.”

I really like this line, for no special reason: “a row of sparrows rose into the air with beating wings, like the sound of a shaken rug.”

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On sacrificing stories

“Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it.”

—Willa Sibert Cather (in an essay found online here, audio here)

This is interesting because it seems to explain, or rather to excuse, the habit some writers have of repeating themselves. They publish the same story over and over in different forms and settings and styles, and only one or two versions are really remarkable or memorable. It’s probably unfair of me to expect such writers to sit on their “fairly good stories.” They’ve got to make a living, after all, and it’s never easy being the judge of one’s own work.

Short story: “The Invasion from Outer Space”

“The Invasion from Outer Space,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in the New Yorker September 9th, 2009 (online here)

1,535 words

Goddammit Millhauser. This story could have been twenty words long. Maybe a few hundred words, to give us time to underline the banality of the “invasion.” What’s the point of the other thousand? Does the publication date have some significance? Is this a statement about how the impact of 9-11 is dwarfed by that of other, more anticlimactic, “peaceful” horrors of the world? Is it a tacit admission that Millhauser cannot control his addiction to the first-person plural? Do I even give a shit?

(Edited to add: I can’t believe I wrote “third-person plural” up there. I need sleep.)

Short story: “Paradise Park” or “The Dream of the Consortium”

“Paradise Park,” also written as a totally different string of words titled “The Dream of the Consortium,” and probably other versions as well, by Steven Millhauser

“Park” appeared in Grand Street (now defunct); “Dream” appeared in Harper’s in March 1993 (subscribers can download it here); both, perversely, are collected in The Knife Thrower

“Park” is about 40.5 pages in my copy, or roughly 12,900 words; “Dream,” at 18.5 pages, is more like 5,900

I have a feeling I’m being unfair to Millhauser, but the guy seriously repeats himself all the freaking time. These two stories are ostensibly completely separate works. They just happen to have practically the same plot and themes and atmosphere. A somewhat mysterious business/businessman creates a bizarrely elaborate and beautiful place (amusement park, department store) that takes the idea of commercial entertainment/consumerism to sinister extremes. The result is an ambivalent, mildly satirical commentary on the nature and perils of commercial entertainment/consumerism.

With the instinct of a true showman, Sarabee understood that the fatal enemy of amusement is boredom, and he was tireless in his search for new mechanical rides, new spectacles, new thrills and excitements.

The consortium was determined to satisfy the buyer’s secret desire: to appropriate the world, to possess it entirely.

In one version, an amusement park keeps pushing the boundaries of amusement and the boundaries of parkness until finally, when it burns to the ground, the conflagration seems like one last fantastic spectacle. The other version is less flashy: a department store offers such a rich cornucopia of displays and goods and services that it blurs the boundaries between itself and the real world, and its addicted shoppers learn to prefer it to the real world. Until rereading, I actually forgot which version went with which ending. Both seem like logical conclusions.

Millhauser is really good at evoking the window-shopperish pleasure of stuff: artifacts, gadgets, oddities, spectacles, luxuries, rides, on-demand entertainments, things that are incredibly detailed and authentic replicas of other things. He’s good at making kitsch intensely atmospheric. He’s good at lists, I think. Lists are hard to do well in fiction. He uses them to develop the texture and atmosphere of his settings, and to make surprising juxtapositions. I guess my beef with him is that he has a small number of tricks and he uses them again and again with little variation.

Short story: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman”

“A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman,” by Margaret Drabble

Appeared in Cosmopolitan in October 1973; also in the collection of the same title*

Around 25.5 full pages in my edition; approximately 8,619 words, though that seems like a lot**

The only reason I picked up this short story collection was to reread an old favorite of mine (“The Gifts of War”), and the only reason I started reading this story was idle curiosity about whether the title came from Plath‘s line “And I a smiling woman.” (Maybe.) Then I couldn’t put it down.

Perhaps predictably, the story never actually states the nature of the awful thing inside Jenny, letting it remain just kind of a heavy-handed symbol (a discreetly hidden disease at her core/at the core of her very womanness***). There’s a mention of “malignant growths” but also, vaguely, “polyps and ulcers[.]” On reflection, I speculated that the thing was a malformed fetus, but that’s unlikely since Jenny and the narrator never personify it in any way. More likely it’s just a tumor, a hidden part of herself that grew out of control.

At the climax, when she’s sitting through the headmistress’s stupid speech, I expected her revelation to lead to her being true to herself, publicly, scandalously, for the first time in her life. Perhaps by a deliberate act of courage or perhaps because her body, bleeding out uncontrollably, is more honest than she is. I still feel like that would be a viable character-redemption-type ending (albeit one I’ve seen in a few movies). But maybe this is essential to what the story shows us about the society she lives in: honesty wouldn’t help. If Jenny Jamieson didn’t play along with other people’s nepotism and pettiness and stupidity, she would not be a success.

Here’s something that amazes me: The children don’t have names. They don’t even seem to have a number. More than two, clearly. The narrator gives us the names of the foreign servant, the husband, the committee members, the headmistress, everybody except the ones who supposedly matter most to Jenny. The children are actually an abstraction. She has a whole self-lacerating fantasy about them grieving her, but it’s an abstract fantasy, a generalized portrait of orphanly grief. (I was about to tag this post “unnamed major characters,” but these alleged children are only one out of three.)

Jenny never asks herself what business she and her husband have raising kids in the first place. The closest she comes is when she thinks, “I treat people like children, and I treat my children like adults.” I wonder if she really loves them at all. To treat them like adults means, surely, to treat them the way she treats herself after her awakening. Does she let them bleed while keeping up appearances? Does she tell them what she didn’t tell the schoolgirls, that she is a liar?

“Looking back, she was to think of this day as both a joke and a victory, but at whose expense, and over whom, she could not have said.” If she doesn’t really love her children, then her speech is an act of capitulation, regardless of how self-aware she is and how gracefully she carries it off. I think the story leaves it ambiguous though. You could read Jenny as genuinely loving  her children (abstractly or not) and you could read her speech as an affirmation that she will go on living, no matter how starved and false a life it is—her own pathetic victory over death.

At first I saw the husband as a villainous representative of the thing that screwed Jenny up so badly, the contradictory pressures that our society places on women: Be a perfect beauty and homemaker and careerist, but not too perfect, or men will hate you. But it occurs to me that at least as an individual, he has a good reason to hate his wife. He doesn’t keep up appearances as well as she does; it may be that he’s not just less polished but also more honest than she is. “He would accuse her of neglecting him and the children”—a typical sexist jab at a career woman, so fatuous that I actually forgot the specific content of the accusation and had to hunt it down in the text just now. And yet, having read the whole story, I think he’s got a point. She “neglect[s]” them, not necessarily by expending her time and emotional energy elsewhere, but by being essentially hollow. Perhaps his “morose[ness]” when she screams at him has a touch of relief in it, seeing her act like a human being. He doesn’t show satisfaction the way a merely malicious abuser would.

Oh geez, what if she’s bleeding because he hit her in the wrong place one night? Okay that would make him the villain after all. Whatever, he’s boring.

One more great line, because there are so many: “But it would absorb a great deal before it marked.” Ha ha, yes, Jenny, the dress was you all along.

*The collection is titled A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, not Cosmopolitan.

**An average of 10.0625 words per full line, which makes about 338 on the sample page I picked.

***I realize genitals aren’t really the same as womanness, like see transgender and intersex people, but we’re deep in symbolic territory here. Anything concave is obviously a bleeding gash of primal concentrated Woman.

Short story: “A Hunger Artist”

“A Hunger Artist” or “The Hunger Artist,” among other translations (“Ein Hungerkünstler”), by Franz Kafka, translated by various

First published in Die neue rundschau in 1922; appeared in the Guardian short stories podcast on December 13, 2012 (the translation seems to be Joyce Crick’s, although I don’t see any attribution on the Guardian website; her Kafka collection is previewable on Google Books); translated by Willa and Edwin Muir here and on Scribd and by Ian Johnston here; the original German is available on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive

Somewhere around 3,984 to 4,141 words in English

Some unorganized notes:

  • I love this aside (from Crick’s translation) very much: “—curiously, they were usually butchers—” I love the image of beefy, virile flesh-and-blood men standing outside the cage. At least one Kafka piece ends with the protagonist being butchered, but the hunger artist, like Gregor Samsa, is not even fit for slaughter. He’s a sacrificial animal without the fatting. The only person who bothers to sacrifice him is himself. I love the word “curiously,” in which the narrator adopts a pose of mild and uncomprehending surprise.
  • Speaking of which, studying this story has made me realize that my analysis of omniscient narration is inadequate—more on that later. The point of view here is often objective, or rather historical, but freely dips into the artist’s point of view, the impresario’s, the circus supervisor’s, and the crowds’.
  • I prefer “Hunger Artist” to “Metamorphosis” by a wide margin, partly, I think, for the superficial reason that it’s less widely known and homaged and parodied. Another likely reason that it has fewer characters. The focus stays on the nameless artist the entire time, with the other characters existing primarily for the sake of his story. And the saddest possible reason is that it is easier to analyze. Every symbol is obvious, dialed up to eleven. Actually, that’s not entirely a sad reason. The symbols are obvious because they glow with meaning, and I like stories that glow.
  • Crick’s translation uses the peculiar word “hungering” where I’m used to seeing “fasting.” I prefer “fasting,” but I wonder if Crick is trying to capture something clumsy and labored in the wording of the original. More likely, she’s just trying to make the verb match the established (and highly evocative) term “hunger artist.” (The same term has been translated as “fasting artist,” which doesn’t work at all—it lacks the connotation of suffering and unsatisfied desire—and “starvation artist,” which carries far too much of that connotation and even sounds whiny, self-pitying. Then again, like any rereader, I’m prejudiced in favor of what I’m used to. Grandiose self-pity is not entirely alien to this story, after all.)
  • I think every translation I’ve read renders this hilarious piece of self-punishment the same way: “It was the easiest thing in the world.” It’s all the better that the wording is so simple and arguably cliché. Somewhere on the spectrum of communication styles, cliché tends to blur into simplicity, so that instead of distancing the reader from the meaning conveyed, it brings them closer.
  • The whole story is hilarious, in roughly the same way “The Darling” is hilarious.
  • It’s rare for me to want to change a jot of Kafka, but there’s one bit I want to dial down, right at the end—the remark about how the keepers bring the panther its food. Reads like lily-gilding. (The earlier appearance of that same food, though— “the raw meat carried past him for the beasts of prey”—is perfect.)
  • I find it comforting that one of my favorite writers repeated himself so much from one work to the next.
  • I find it comforting to think that this story is complete, a world unto itself, independent of interpretation.

Short story: “Kaspar Hauser Speaks”

“Kaspar Hauser Speaks,” by Steven Millhauser

First appeared in the spring 1998 issue of The Kenyon Review, volume XX, number two (order here); on JSTOR; collected in The Knife Thrower and Other Stories; mp3 reading here

A little over nine pages in my edition; not sure how many words

The more Millhauser I read, the more frustrated I get. He’s consistently good but only occasionally excellent. Most of his stories are on similar topics and employ similar tricks, and a knack for atmosphere and symbolism only goes so far. “Kaspar Hauser Speaks” reads like “Report to an Academy” with less depth and less mystery. Part of the power of “Report” comes from Rotpeter’s refusal to be explicit about his self-loathing; instead, he dwells obsessively on finding “a way out,” and it gradually becomes clear to the reader that finding a way out means trading his integrity for a lonely, troubled life. In this story, Kaspar Hauser’s desire to disappear is the explicit climactic reveal. I like how it cleverly echoes the life of the historical Kaspar Hauser, but it doesn’t come off as chilling or profound. Maybe if I knew more of the history I would appreciate it more.