Tag: characters who are defined by their emptiness

Short story: “After Life”

“After Life,” by Jen Michalski

Appeared on LitMag‘s blog, April 10th, 2017

2,252 words

The emptiness of the girlfriend’s characterization is striking and well done: you can see she’s a real person, but like the main character, you can’t see who she really is. Is it possible the dreams she recounted were, in fact, all she ever dreamed? Did she sense something missing inside herself?

Edited to add: This casting-about for answers is familiar to anyone who’s lost someone to suicide.


Short story: “A Painful Case”

“A Painful Case,” by James Joyce

Original manuscript dated August 15th, 1905; collected in Dubliners in 1914 (on Gutenberg.org); also found online here; an excellent reading here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

3,641 words

This piece contains some of my favorite character descriptions:

“His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”


“He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.”

The name “Duffy” is a little too obvious for someone who’s such an emotional duffer. Though I’m afraid what really bothers me is that it reminds me of an adorable toy dog.

Why the lengthy article inserted in the middle of the story? To make us feel the pain of the case sooner and more acutely than Mr. Duffy allows himself to feel it. The article hurts because it is so clumsy and inadequate and unwittingly cruel (the line about the “failure of the heart’s action” in particular—but also, more generally, the dryness of the legal and clinical proceedings), and in that way it resembles Mr. Duffy himself. To me, though, the technique of including the entire news item seems dated. I feel sure that today, a writer of Joyce’s abilities would cut it much shorter. I’m not sure if that’s because today’s readers are more familiar with the emotional tone being struck here or because we simply have less patience.

For all Mr. Duffy’s Jamesianness, his ending reminds me more than anything of “The State of Grace.”

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: “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”

“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament,” by Willa Cather

First appeared in McClure’s Magazine in 1906; collected in The Troll Garden; online here and here

8,270 words

This is a strange story because the main character is so strange, and because the story mostly refuses to interpret or judge him for us.

I felt a certain relief in reading this story. There is nothing to admire about Paul, except his dedication. There’s very little to romanticize in him, since his “vocation” is parasitic rather than artistic. There’s almost nothing to blame in him, either, since he lacks the depth to be a moral agent. Not being compelled to judge Paul, not being attracted or repelled by him—in short, not being distracted—I felt I perceived his situation more clearly and purely than I might perceive similar situations in other stories. Paul’s “case” is a genuine problem, an important one, petty though it might seem from the outside.

This sort of reminds me of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” where the character’s death seems arbitrary and preventable from the outside, but on closer examination it’s inevitable.

Short story: “The End of a Career”

“The End of a Career,” by Jean Stafford

Appeared in the January 21st, 1956 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), and in Stafford’s collections

My guess is 4,000 words

This story reminds me of Patricia Highsmith‘s Little Tales of Misogyny, depicting as it does a character whose sole reason for living is to be a beautiful woman—or to put it more precisely, a decorative woman. But Stafford is never over the top the way Highsmith can be; she never makes her judgments too obvious, never gets derailed by bitterness. The story portrays Angelica with an objectivity that’s both funny (The Faerie Queene!) and genuinely sad.

Angelica is explicitly described as an artist. She doesn’t cultivate her beauty for social status, money, a husband, or a lover; she cultivates it for its own sake and quite uselessly. It seems to be an underlying theme here that this is part of the reason her pursuit comes to a dead end. Her doctor hints that if she had only managed to be beautiful for someone, to love and be loved instead of pursuing a perfectionist obsession, she might have found a way out of the trap. As with “Solid Objects,” it’s interesting to compare the fictional artist with the author herself, who writes for an audience and therefore perhaps has more hope of success.

On a reread, the remarks Angelica’s aunt makes at the funeral are very disturbing. It’s remarks like these that made Angelica the stunted, miserable, doomed person she was, and the aunt knows it. But who can blame her? What other tribute can be paid to someone so monomaniacal and so hollow?

Edited to add: It does seem a little ridiculous comparing Stafford to Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson (the other comparison I tend to make). Stafford apparently stayed on the more literary side of things; her stories never seem to try to unsettle you. But all three of them have a similar attraction for me, a sense of the strangeness of everyday life.

Novella: Good Old Neon

Good Old Neon, by David Foster Wallace

First appeared in issue 37 (fall 2001) of Conjunctions (subscribe) and was collected in Oblivion and anthologized in O. Henry Prize Stories 2002; available in PDF form ; also online here

17,935 words, counting mathematical elements and a fragment of code at the end

Googling reviews of this story, I happened upon this interesting cry for help. I don’t have actual advice for anonymous, but there are two things I wanted to say to Neal in the story:

  1. Could it possibly be okay to be a fraud? Is it possible that someone who is incapable of choosing not to be a fraud would be capable of choosing to be a fraud, and of finding a way to be comfortable in fraudulence, and being harmless and even helpful to other (presumably nonfraudulent) people?
  2. Isn’t it possible that people who seem genuine and sincere actually have something fraudulent about them, somewhere inside?* And that that fraudulence doesn’t necessarily negate their value as people, but is just a common human flaw that they live with?

The story anticipates both responses. Neither seems to occur to pre-death Neal, but post-death Neal hints that all real-life communication is incomplete and therefore in some sense fraudulent:

And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t?

Like a lot of people talking about Wallace post-death, anonymous admits to being scared that the author never did escape his “war with himself.” Not convinced of this. Wallace’s biggest war was apparently against his own head, the kind of war nobody ever really wins in the end, which makes me think the inner war “David Wallace ’81” survived was something more contained. It’s possible neither of those wars was what killed him. I prefer to believe he died of chemical causes that it would be misleading, as well as heartbreaking, to narrativize as personal flaws or spiritual crises—I mean, I prefer to read the nonfiction of Wallace’s life as nonfiction. Life is hard enough without elevating every accident to a tragedy. Anyway, good luck, anonymous.

Some notes on how this story works:

  • Post-death Neal is the narrator. Towards the end it becomes clear that he’s addressing either pre-death Neal or someone eerily similar in the moments leading up to his suicide. The actual death takes place, appropriately, in a footnote: it has the finality of coming at the end of a page but makes no pretense of being an actual ending. When we finish it, we return to the main text and find that, just as the narrator suggests, no time has passed at all.
  • The metafictional framing of the story is amazingly internally consistent. Neal implies that Wallace could be either channeling him or simply trying to empathize, and that it doesn’t especially matter which it is. There’s none of the tired This is just a story. Instead there’s something like This is one possible and valid story, and even if it didn’t really happen this way, it’s worth imagining and telling.
  • The “neon” of the title comes up twice, connecting the two points of view that go into the narration. First, it’s the image the narrator himself uses to evoke one’s life flashing through one’s mind like a cursive neon sign. Then it’s David Wallace’s memory of Neal as having a “seemingly almost neon aura around him” back in high school. The great thing about this image is that it suggests both dazzling beauty and cheap advertising. (There’s a neon light in Vertigo that has a similar double meaning, at once ethereal and tawdry. That’s an exciting film if you’re interested in the mingling of fakeness and authenticity.)

Other stuff:

  • At one point, the narrator mentions an overheard conversation between his stepparents about his stepsister possibly missing what he calls her “time of the month” due to an eating disorder. He goes on, “That period passed on its own, but […] I’d always remembered this and other periods when I’d been cruel or tried to make her feel bad”—apparently unconscious of the double meaning of the word. In context, there’s no special reason for him to emphasize menstruation or underline his own discomfort about the topic. Odd little verbal echoes or innuendos of this sort come up frequently in Wallace’s fiction—in this story, the word “firepower” is a big one. The “period” bit may be a hint that it’s not really Neal who’s choosing his words. The narration is getting filtered through someone else who has oddities and discomforts of his own. (Edited to add: I’m almost sure this thought isn’t original to me, but I can’t find the blog post or essay that inspired it.)
  • Compared to “The Depressed Person,” this story doesn’t make me feel as much of the constant tension of juggling reactions and interpretations. Neal’s narration reads as more or less straightforward, even flat, in spite of his occasional oddities. And yet I still don’t find it completely boring. Shouldn’t 10,000+ words of rambling backstory be boring? I’m not even sure if all those pages are necessary. It must be hard to edit something that’s both well crafted and intentionally clumsy.
  • Referring to one’s adoptive family as a stepfamily is unusual. I can’t tell if Neal was literally adopted by his stepparents (making him an orphan or abandoned child) or if he’s using the terminology to maintain the distance of their relationship.
  • I guess this is technically a novella.


Edited the day before Tax Day (U.S.) 2013:

(It turns out there are things that you can discuss in a suicide note that would just be too bizarre if expressed in any other kind of venue.)

I’ve been thinking about this parenthetical. I’m no head doctor, but it seems to me that this sums up a big part of Neal’s problem: he can’t bring himself to talk about things that are important to him except by removing them from their normal context. He has to narrate his entire story from the afterlife. I wonder if writing suicide notes could be a productive therapeutic exercise.


*One last edit to add that I’ve always found the charismatic fish-tank cross pretty funny. Neal really is oblivious to other people’s pretensions, at least while he’s alive. He retains that obliviousness throughout his narration, but I think he’s putting it on for the benefit of the reader/listener, much the same way that an adult narrator can temporarily put on the naivety of their childhood self.

Short story: “The Armchair Detective”

“The Armchair Detective,” by Jon Steinhagen

Found here in matchbook, March 2012

941 words

Sort of an anti-story, taking apart the classic character type. The Armchair Detective exudes self-satisfaction, right down to his quirky yet dignified hobbies (here, Bezique and the Heckelphone; see also: orchids, gourmet dining, the Diogenes Club), but there’s something hollow about him. He’s an amusing curiosity rather than a whole person. I like the melancholy of this piece.

As usual with this magazine, I wish I hadn’t read the critical thoughts bit. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it doesn’t go well beside the story. I wonder if that’s how random googlers feel, looking for fiction and chancing on this blog.

Novella: The Beast in the Jungle

The Beast in the Jungle, by Henry James

From the collection The Better Sort (1903); also on Gutenberg.org

18,752 words

I just finished this and what. The. Fuck. I don’t know if that’s a good WTF or a bad one, artistically speaking.

Towards the beginning, I started wondering if this was the book that inspired Thom Gunn’s epigram “Jamesian”: “Their relationship consisted / In discussing if it existed.” Pretty sure it is. The ending I most expected was that the beast would never appear, so I was caught by surprise. In a way, the actual ending could be a happy one, or at least a happier one than it appears. The main character’s throwing himself across the grave is an act of grief, and he doesn’t have the sort of temperament that feigns emotion in hopes of learning to feel it. Which means, I think, that he really does feel his loss, though I don’t know if it’s the loss of his life, his friend, or his lover. That much grief seems proof that he has lived at least for these few moments, if for nothing else.

I seem to pick a lot of books and stories about characters who are defined by their emptiness (or emptiedness, in the case of “Second Person, Present Tense”).

Short story: “Everything and Nothing”

“Everything and Nothing,” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated here (by Mildred Boyer) and here and here (by J. E. Irby)

627 words in Boyer’s translation

A remarkable piece. It’s a sort of joke about the scholarly obsession with knowing the “real” identity of Shakespeare, also an anti-character study, also a meditation on what identity and character even mean and what it means to be a creator, all crammed into three longish paragraphs.