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Tag: christianity

Flash fiction story: “A Memory of the Christ by the Apostle John”

“A Memory of the Christ by the Apostle John,” by Adam McOmber

Appeared in The Collagist, December 2017

462 words

A vision of an uncaring God, and a miserable Heaven? A tastefully blasphemous story.

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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.

Short story: “The Conversion of the Jews”

“The Conversion of the Jews,” by Philip Roth

Appeared in The Paris Review (issue 18, Spring 1958), online for subscribers here; collected in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short StoriesPDF here

5406 words

A charming story of a child suddenly attaining power and not knowing what to do with it. Stories about children can do this really effectively—show the tension between a child’s need for personal power and their helplessness in the adult world.

According to this, The Paris Review got this story from the slush pile. Goodbye, Columbus was Roth’s first book.

Short story: “The Jesus Singularity”

“The Jesus Singularity,” by Zoltan Istvan

Appeared in Terraform, August 24th, 2016

2,519 words

Heh.

Short story: “Bad Newes from New England”

“Bad Newes from New England,” by Moaner T. Lawrence

Read by Dave Robison for PseudoPod 466, November 26th, 2015

Probably less than 4,000 words?

Very authentic-feeling setting and voice. I thought the Native American burial grounds thing was a bit meh. Nice, though, to know that payment for the story is going to this charity.

Short story: “A Fairly Decent Man”

“A Fairly Decent Man,” by Charles Turner

Appeared in Image, issue 74

2992 words

The narrator fails and keeps failing to respond to the stranger’s criticism and, I think, also fails to give or receive the blessing he wants. I like to think this is a story about guilt and the defensiveness that arises from guilt. I’m not sure if that’s right though.

Short story: “Leg”

“Leg,” by Steven Polansky

Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon

4,926 words

An amazing story.

David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.

For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.

One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.

Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.

This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.


Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.

Short story: “A City of Churches”

“A City of Churches,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the April 22nd, 1972 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); found online here in Chinese and English; also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century; collected in Sixty Stories

1,335 words; almost four pages in this copy of Sixty Stories

Everybody hates listening to someone else’s dream, but everybody likes remembering their own vividest dreams. Dreamlike fiction seems to work best when it ends up feeling like the reader’s dream, not the author’s: ordered according to a compelling secret logic, full of irrefutable meaning.

Is Cecelia a symbol? Is she invading Prester, or is Prester abducting her, or both? That line “She was not afraid of him” has a ring of bravado to my ear, as though it is the character’s thought and not an impartial narrator’s. Then at the end, she shows no eagerness to stay, making threats but taking no action. Is the Secret real? Could it destroy the town? Will Cecelia be forced to assimilate? Perhaps this story is about a specific political or generational culture clash. I don’t know. It feels like my own dream.

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.”

Short story: “Good People”

“Good People,” by David Foster Wallace

Appeared in the February 25th, 2007 issue of the New Yorker (read online here); reprinted in the unfinished novel The Pale King

3,220 words (but only 5 paragraphs)

This story has taken a lot of flak for sentimentality. To me, Lane and his thought process ring true; at the same time I can see why people find it contrived. The prose style is intentionally clumsy. There are odd redundancies like “still and immobile” and, even odder, “it hadn’t brought her comfort or eased the burden at all[,]” where Lane seems to be using his own trite phrase and then tacking on another one he heard in church.

“Good People” seems to get compared to Hemingway‘s “Hills Like White Elephants” often, but the similarity strikes me as superficial and uninteresting. Abortion is a common problem in real life and in fiction; describing a thing without naming it is a common literary technique. The interesting part is when we come to understand, empathetically, why the unnamed thing goes unnamed.

Wallace’s trademark hyper-aware style is muted here (no footnotes, no obvious gags) but still in evidence. His usual agenda is very much in evidence, even in the title: a platitude (She’s good people) transformed into an agonizing moral problem (How can a person be good?). I think it’s been said before, but “What would even Jesus do?” is a line that only Wallace could write—all his variations on “I know this is trite but I mean it,” condensed into five words.

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An amateur’s note on narration, point of view, and voice. I think this piece is entirely in limited third person, but not entirely in close third person, if that makes sense. Sometimes when the narration seems to stray outside Lane’s point of view (“he pretended to himself he did not know what it was that was required”), it may just be reflecting his own self-conscious thought process. Other times, the narrator’s knowledge seems to surpass Lane’s: “He knew this without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and liar.” This might be because the narrator has access to what Lane will know in the future (“[…] what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace“).

Of course, the lines quoted above are clearly in Lane’s voice, clumsy and self-lacerating and laden with “that”s and “this”es. That’s true of most of the piece. Occasionally we get a word like “suffused,” which I tend to attribute to Wallace.

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Edited to add: A line that sticks with me is “It felt like a muscle he didn’t have.” I think that’s the line.