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Tag: first-person narration

Novelette: “Sarrasine”

“Sarrasine,” by Honoré de Balzac

Original on Wikisource; translation by “Clara Bell and others” (?) on Gutenberg

13,137 words in translation, not counting a footnote that appears to be the translators’

Most famous for its analysis by Barthes. I haven’t read S/Z because I am too cheap to buy a copy and Barthes mostly confuses me anyway.

The frame story is one of the great failed pick-ups of literature. Narrator, why oh why did you think talking about some guy’s unrequited passion for a castrato would get you anywhere? I love his lady friend’s reaction: seeing that all earthly love is doomed to disillusionment, she resolves to be “pure” all her life. Extreme, perhaps, but I think she understands the story better than he does. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing him hoist by his own petard that way.

There’s also a pleasure in seeing Sarrasine suffer for his selfish “love.” Did Balzac intend that? The readers of his time must have sympathized with Sarrasine’s fury at being duped. And yet Balzac is careful to show us that Zambinella is never cruel, merely foolish. The singer even asks, “Suppose I were not a woman?”—hoping for acceptance, empathy, love. Like many trans women today, he (?) is nearly murdered for daring to exist.

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Short story: “Nocturne”

“Nocturne,” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Collected in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Knopf Canada, 2009)

? words

I liked all the stories in this collection (described by the publisher as a short story cycle), but this one was my favorite. The connection between these two strangers, and the way she insults his music and then confesses how bad she is at being sincere about things she likes.

Some reviewer pointed out that the narrator describes the woman’s facial expression at a point when they’re both supposed to be covered in bandages, an oversight that I imagine most writing workshops would have caught.

This collection/cycle strikes me as thematically uncharacteristic of Ishiguro somehow. I might come back to this if I reread it some time.

Short story: “Big, Dark Hole”

“Big, Dark Hole,” by Jeffrey Ford

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

8.25 pages in the magazine, therefore approximately 4,364 words

The struggle to understand and remember someone who’s lost forever. This struggle seems to arise most often with suicides, and, as in this case, disappearances that might or might not be suicides. It’s like there’s something unfinished and we have to keep telling the story to find out how it ends.

That’s the struggle to understand. The struggle to remember involves the horror or melancholy of losing parts of our own stories, parts of ourselves.

Like “Transfer,” this story is about an outside observer of a mysterious drama that’s never completely explicated. I find it more effective though. Maybe because it so blatantly dwells on the narrator’s loss at the end, making it clear to the superficial reader (me) what the story was about. “Transfer” ends with the narrator contemplating the harm she has done by interfering, and then “marvel[ing]” at the stories she can now tell. Perhaps that story is about casual cruelty, and was just too subtle for me.

The last line ought to be a little too neat, but to my ear it rings just right. The narrator is approaching his own death, his own disappearance.

I admire the prose—snappy and full of juice.

My theory on the dog is that he was bleached by old urine.

Short story: “Transfer”

“Transfer,” by Laura van den Berg

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018; also an “online exclusive,” whatever that means, here

7.5 pages in the print magazine and 3,970 words, which means Conjunctions fits approximately 529 words to a page

This is fascinating, but it feels incomplete. It seems to me the main character doesn’t entangle herself deeply enough in the plot to be the main character. The story seemingly belongs to the director, the one who’s dealing so desperately badly with her grief. I want the narrator to snoop and interrogate even more than she does.

I’m curious about the choice to summarize the letter instead of quoting it. Filtering it through the narrator’s sensibility keeps our attention on her curiosity, her voyeurism.

Maybe the key to this story is the main character’s confession that she was the first to find the body. She’s trying to become closer to the director, or at least to trade one secret for another, but the director’s madness forms a barrier between them. Or it could be more reticence than madness.

When the main character tells the staff one of the director’s secrets, I wonder how much she’s motivated by “hoping that they might take pity on her” and how much by the very human need to share what she knows.

Semicolon watch: I noticed many semicolons here, every one of them connecting two independent clauses. The narrator is literate and reflective, so semicolons suit her.

Short story: “Ovando”

“Ovando,” by Jamaica Kincaid

3,824 words

First published in Conjunctions, Issue 14, Fall 1989; the first story in the anthology The New Gothic (Random House, 1991), edited by Conjunctions‘ Bradford Morrow and also Patrick McGrath; selected by Karen Lord to appear in Strange Horizons, August 31st, 2015 (no longer available online)

In one sense, I find it very easy to understand how Kincaid came up with this story. She condenses a brutal historic invasion into a surreal meeting of two characters; she gives her narrator the perspicacity to tell us exactly what kind of person and societal force Ovando is. And bitter gallows humor:

They looked around and at last they saw me. In unison, like a clap of thunder, they all said, “Mine!” Ovando, seeing the danger in this, said “Draw lots,” but the people who drew my head really wanted my legs, and the people who drew my arms wanted my insides, and so on and so on until they fell on each other with a ferociousness that I could not have imagined possible.


I have very little memory of writing the above, but it seems good, and I may reread this story someday, so I’m posting it.

Flash fiction story: “CVS”

“CVS,” by Sean Thor Conroe

Appeared here in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, December 7th, 2018

891 words (feels shorter, possibly because it’s one paragraph)

I really like the mood this captures.

Short story: “Stanville”

“Stanville,” by Rachel Kushner

Appeared in the New Yorker, February 12th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

Several thousand words

You really get a feel for the hopelessness of these women’s lives. The way the main character analyzes that woman who tells the parole board she’s innocent seems very right. I’m a little puzzled by the shifts between first person and third person limited. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author tried two first-person narrators, or two third-, for symmetry’s sake, before discovering that the two points of view required different modes. Maybe the prisoner needs to have her own voice rather than being a distant “she,” while the teacher can’t sustain his own voice because of his lack of self-assurance?

I can’t tell this is a novel excerpt, which is nice.

Short story: “I Walk Between the Raindrops”

“I Walk Between the Raindrops,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Appeared in the New Yorker, June 30th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

6,993 words

A peculiar story, changing from topic to topic with very little connection between them. I feel like it’s basically a story about guilt. The main character is so painfully mediocre, neither especially cruel nor especially kind, doing so little to make the world a better place, and I think he knows it.

Deborah Treisman: There seem to be two narratives here: one in which a relatively contented, happily married, satisfied man recounts some events that revolve around the misfortunes of others, and another, in which he is subconsciously aware of the role that he played in those misfortunes and is subtly trying to deflect guilt. How hard is it to channel those two narratives into one?

T. Coraghessan Boyle: This is the beauty of first-person narration: the reader can never be sure whether the narrator is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth or fudging things just a wee bit in order to assemble the psychological blocks of his own self-defensive version of events. I do like the way you put it, Deborah, with regard to the conflict here, and, of course, there is the revelation near the end in which Serena, the ESP woman, calls Brandon out for what he is.

Short story: “We Have a Pope!”

“We Have a Pope!”, by Christopher Buckley

Appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 2003 (online here); anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004

26 pages in BANR, 9,593 words

A fun story, carried along by the voice and personality of the narrator. I didn’t know the Atlantic published this sort of thing. (According to Wikipedia, the Atlantic dropped the “Monthly” soon after this story came out.)

The fact that Buckley was chief speechwriter for the first Bush makes me appreciate this story a little less. Perhaps he’s not putting on the narrator’s hucksterism and dishonesty?

Short story: “Meeting of a Lifetime”

“Meeting of a Lifetime,” by David Batteiger

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, October 5th, 2018

701 words

A sweet story.

The final sentence distracted me a little by stating something the character shouldn’t know yet.