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Tag: loss-of-innocence stories

Short story: “The Fish”

“The Fish,” by Anzhelina Polonskaya, translated from the Russian by Andrew Wachtel

Appeared here on AGNI Online in 2013

1,409 words

Painful, precise, very well done.

Looking back at those first three paragraphs, I see that they are a portrait of the narrator’s adult life. She appears depressed, restless, even morbid. I suspect that she considers her unhappiness the price she has to pay for her past choices. If only suffering had the power to cancel out cruelty.

The prose is excellent, but I noticed one place where I thought the translator had missed something. The remark “When you were younger you didn’t think about anything” seems intended to contrast with a more recent act of thinking, but the sentence before it uses the word “contemplate” rather than “think.” Perhaps this is presumptuous of me, since I don’t know Russian and don’t have access to the original anyway.

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Short story: “Why Don’t You Dance?”

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, by Raymond Carver

Appeared in Quarterly West in 1978 and The Paris Review in 1981; collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories; reprinted in Zoetrope: All-Story in spring 2011 (Volume 15, No. 1); found online here and here and also as a PDF

1,617 words

Marilynne Robinson described the dance scene this way: “The intimacy of marriage is voided, exposed, re-enacted and distanced, all at once. The moment may be said to suggest memory, art, the astonishing bond of intimacy among a world of strangers, the ghostliness of one’s attachment to any place or relationship.”

It does suggest memory and art to me. Somehow, the telling of the story ends up belonging to the young woman (I mean “girl”):

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

She’s gotten an early glimpse of how bad life can get, and storytelling (clumsy, inarticulate storytelling) is the only response she can come up with.

The last line seems to indicate that she fails to achieve catharsis. I can’t tell if she fails because it’s too terrible or because she’s a bad storyteller. Or possibly because she doesn’t have anyone who intuits the significance of the “yard sale” the way she does. Maybe the real ending implied here is the failure of her relationship with the boy.

The story seems to need all its characters to be hopelessly inarticulate. I think that’s a common technique of Carver’s. Inarticulacy is poignant, and it compels the reader to say what the characters can’t.

The economy and inevitability of this piece are daunting.

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: “Summer, Boys”

“Summer, Boys,” by Ethan Rutherford

From One Story, issue 145 (Volume 9 Number 11 February 1, 2011); subscribe or buy here

About 17 pages in One Story, ? words

One thing that impresses me about “Summer, Boys” is the use of third-person plural narration, which I didn’t realize was even a thing. You might expect it to be a clunky, attention-getting device, but it works beautifully. The narrator lets the boys be a single “they,” a single shared identity, with very little distinction between them, but from the start there’s an almost constant tension: can they stay like this? It gradually becomes clear that the narrative point of view belongs more to one boy than to the other. He’s the one who’s anxious about getting left behind, losing the most important part of his life, being no longer welcome at his friend’s house.

This story is also an awesome evocation of eighties childhood.

Short story: “Things I Know About Fairy Tales”

“Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” by Roxane Gay

Appeared in Necessary Fiction on May 13th, 2009 (here); on the 2010 James Tiptree, Jr. Award long list; soon to be anthologized in Haiti Noir 2

2,772 words

I haven’t written anything about “Things I Know About Fairy Tales” before, partly because it’s so harrowing that it’s hard to reread, partly maybe because Roxane Gay intimidates me a little bit. More about the story later, but I’m pretty pumped to see it’s being expanded into a novel.

Short story: “The Ring”

“The Ring,” by Isak Dinesen

First appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1950; collected in Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard; found online here

2,808 words

This story amazes me. The change in Lise’s life convinces me utterly, from her “perfect freedom because she could never have any secret from her husband” to her repeated lie (“‘No,’ she answered”; “‘No,’ she answered”).

At the beginning of the story, the couple has already been through enough to fill a romantic novel, and they seem to have achieved a stable, ordinary life without any sense of anticlimax (“Their distant paradise had descended to earth and had proved, surprisingly, to be filled with the things of everyday life”—what a great line). Yet in some sense they’re still innocent, and I’m not sure why. They haven’t been exposed to physical danger, or at least Lise hasn’t, but that doesn’t seem important to me.

Lise’s innocence is underlined by her childish prank. The fantasy of being able to watch one’s own mourners is so naïve and selfish that trying to carry it out demands a certain unselfawareness. The word “gravely” used shortly afterwards also seems to indicate that the narrator finds something comically serious about Lise’s actions. (I feel like it’s unusual to see that adverb used in fiction without a hint of mockery in it—it’s almost a one-word cliché. Why point out that someone is being serious unless you find the fact incongruous? And in fact it’s used earlier when the story explicitly describes the make-believe quality of Lise’s life: “[O]ne was doing everything gravely and solicitously, and all the time one knew one was playing.”)

The thief’s refusal of the wedding ring strikes me as significant. Lise tries to banish him using the most valuable thing she owns, her marriage. It means nothing to him. So maybe this is the real innocence: the trust Lise places in the love, stability, companionship, and happiness of her life. Like the Buddha’s four sights, the encounter with the thief makes her aware for the first time of “poverty, persecution, total loneliness” and “the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth.”

Other miscellanea:

  • The way the thief is introduced reminds me of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Is this a common trick? I feel like I’ve seen it in movies too. The theft is of interest to Sigismund, so the story has an excuse to dwell on the subject and give a few vivid details (the blood-soaked dirt floor, the broken left arm) and lay down the rational explanation for the dreamlike scene that takes place afterwards. (Actually, the first time I read this I set the book down midstory and forgot those details, so the filthy, injured man came out of nowhere. I’m not sure which way is more effective. Aesthetically, I prefer the rational explanation, but it’s hard to deny the chill of a story that takes a genuinely unpredictable turn.)
  • I love the sexual/wedding-like image of the handkerchief sliding, apparently unrent around the blade, into the sheath.
  • This line neatly captures something I suspect is almost universal in hetero couples—the way a woman can adore a man and patronize him simultaneously, especially when he’s explaining something to her:

She thought: “How clever he is, what a lot of things he knows!” and at the same time: “What an absurd person he is, with his sheep! What a baby he is! I am a hundred years older than he.”

Edited to add: This is a ridiculous thing to be gleeful about, but there’s a book on Dinesen that collects on page 199 six different interpretations of “The Ring”‘s ending, two of which directly contradict each other while remaining equally credible, plus one that’s just stupid. I like to feel I know what’s going on better than other people.

Edited February 9th, 2018 to add: Now that I’ve thought about it some more, the real loss of innocence here must be Lise’s discovery that she values her precious marriage (symbolized by the ring) less than her physical safety. Sort of like the end of 1984.

Short story: “The Laughing Man”

“The Laughing Man,” by J. D. Salinger

From the March 19, 1949 New Yorker (here); collected in Nine Stories; also here and here

5,575 words

Like Frank O’Connor’s childhood stories, “The Laughing Man” is narrated by an adult mostly through his childhood self’s point of view. One thing I liked a lot in “The Man of the World” was how the narrator mentioned that his adult handwriting still showed the influence of his childhood idol. It was a way of saying implicitly, I am still that person—or maybe This still matters to me. The narrator of this story does the same thing, although (being a Salinger character) he takes it to a tongue-in-cheek* extreme, saying, “I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine.” He goes on:

And this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in 1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man’s direct descendant but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my parents’ son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in—preferably without violence, but not necessarily—to assert my true identity.

I like this. It says everything that needs to be said about the seriousness of childhood fantasies, and of storytelling in general.

I made a chart of this story. Notice that the only “live” installment of the Chief’s tale occurs just before he apparently gets stood up. That penultimate installment is valuable because it gets the reader more accustomed to the sort of pulpy melodrama that fuels the tale; without it, we might find the final one too silly to be tragic.

Section Word count
Backstory, containing the Laughing Man’s origin story but not a single actual scene 1,866 ~
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Initial problem (Mary Hudson) and resolution 1,403 ~
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Lead-up to crisis (including an installment of “The Laughing Man”) and crisis (break-up) 1,708 ~
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Final installment of “The Laughing Man” (which takes “no longer than five minutes”) 487 ~
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Close 111 ~

In a short story of this kind, so much is set up in advance that the ending can be as small as a tipped domino.

In general I think beautifully written sentences are overrated, but this one amazes me and I can almost type it out from memory:

It was the kind of whole certainty, however independent of the sum of its facts, that can make walking backwards more than normally hazardous, and I bumped smack into a baby carriage.

The shift from the abstract to the concrete occurs so subtly in the third quarter that when we get to the fourth, we realize we could have seen it if only we’d looked where we were going. Some have speculated that the baby carriage is a symbolic nod at what the couple is fighting over, though the narrator says he still has no idea “in any but a fairly low, intuitive sense.” I would rather see it as a symbol of what they’re going to miss, now that they no longer have a future together.

Another line I like: “I remember wishing the Chief had gloves.” The character isn’t a remarkably sensitive or nurturing sort of boy, as far as I can tell; this protective impulse is new to him.

*It’s always hard to say how tongue-in-cheek Salinger is actually being when he says things like this. He has a tone of earnest irony, of playing make-believe but playing for keeps.** Which has a very twenty-first-century ring, to my ear. I suppose Salinger was a big influence on Wes Anderson and McSweeney’s and other tone-setters. I always assumed the current earnestly ironic tone was a reaction to the problem David Foster Wallace articulated in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (PDF here): when ironic detachment becomes practically mandatory, how is communication possible? But Salinger wasn’t struggling against the prevailing literary culture; he was struggling, I think, with his own glibness and cynicism. And he succeeded, at least some of the time. Certainly in this story.

**Edited to add: Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions put it well. “With each book, [J. D. Salinger] drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, ‘literally’ and literally, become indistinguishable from each other.” Hallberg is referring to the way Salinger sort of went over the edge towards the end.

Short story: “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear”

“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” by Jonathan Lethem

From the October 2009 Harper’s and available here

2,529 words

This story ought to be vaguely embarrassing, the way all clever takes on social media are vaguely embarrassing, but it’s so strange that it feels like a glimpse of another world instead of a satire or cultural critique or anything else with a sell-by date. Its strangeness is due only in a small part to the novelty of the Internet (did you know blog posts display in reverse chronological order?), much more to the conflation of physical place with mental place and to the narrator’s loopiness. In fact, one of the best things about the “blog” conceit is its inaccuracy. On real blogs, trolls rarely say anything as charmingly grade-schoolish as “WORMS SUCK EYEHOLES / YOU SUCK GUMBALLS” and few commenters use rhymed poetic imagery of any kind.

Anyway, the emotional content is right. The narrator, Jaw, creates a blog and is at first thrilled by the power of creation.

I offer this, my blog, to the world, but I do not require the world to need it or accept it, for it is my very very own blog.

Of course the mood doesn’t last. The story draws little distinction between online activities and “real” ones: a blog is a home, an online fan is a squatter and friend, a rude commenter is a vandal. A disemvowelment is a horrifying murder, staining the blog forever with blood and guilt.

The hyperbolic imagery is probably the reason this story is so unembarrassing. It’s over the top enough that you can tell it’s making fun of the whole concept a bit, which perversely makes it easier to care about the real pain Jaw goes through. This is sort of what I recently called “trying to short-circuit readers’ cynicism by anticipating it,” although I don’t think Lethem is consciously doing that, since most of his audience probably doesn’t share my allergy to this sort of thing.

Moral: Turn off comments.

Short story: “The Interior Castle”

“The Interior Castle,” by Jean Stafford

First appeared in Partisan Review (now defunct) in 1947; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories for that year (edited by Martha Foley), then in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999, Houghton Mifflin Company, edited by John Updike with coeditor Katrina Kenison); appeared in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford and available as part of a podcast here

About 6,150 words

An astonishing story, containing some of the vividest stream-of-consciousness passages I’ve ever read. It opens with the main character in a peculiar mental state following a car accident. The hospital workers find Pansy Vanneman appallingly bland and withdrawn, but inside her damaged body she has developed a blissful and adoring obsession with her own brain:

Not only the brain as the seat of consciousness, but the physical organ itself which she envisaged, romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing indefinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and invaluable.

Along with the vaginal imagery, these meditations carry a strong religious tinge; the story’s title is borrowed from St. Teresa of Ávila’s guidebook on spiritual life. It seems clear from a detached perspective that Pansy’s newfound inner world is a reaction to severe trauma, yet the pleasure of being safely immersed in that world is so intense that we are lulled, along with Pansy, into a sense that the castle will stand forever. The only things that trouble Pansy are the fear of her surgeon, the pain of her injuries, and the occasional discomfort of her memories. She finds it easy to retreat from the physical pain, but her visualizations trigger an uneasy memory of being passed over by a man she once adored. (Ironically, it’s the color pink, otherwise a blissful comfort to her, that causes the association.) These vulnerabilities, physical and mental, are horrifyingly realized during the surgery to reconstruct Pansy’s broken nose. Under the anesthesia, she at first surrenders warmly to the surgeon’s prodding; then, overwhelmed by pain and confused mental associations, she feels herself being violated, stabbed, and robbed.

Pansy’s stream of consciousness wavers between blissful images and violent ones. Late in the story, she sees her brain again as a pearl, growing until it encloses her in a whole world of pink. But in the last line, she seems to have lost everything: “She closed her eyes, shutting herself up within her treasureless head.”

For me, the most disturbing thing about this story is the very clear look we get at the thoughts and actions of Pansy’s tormentors, mainly the surgeon, alongside Pansy’s thoughts and reactions. The story slips freely from one point of view to the next, letting us see firsthand that Dr. Nicholas is not a rapist or vivisectionist or “thief”; he regards his patient with puzzled pity and he sincerely wants to fix her damaged face. He does lie to her about the risks of the operation, but it’s partly out of the wish to protect her, and in any case his concern about meningitis seems trivial beside Pansy’s quasi-religious terror of damage to her brain. All in all he and the others come off as patronizing, amusingly imperceptive, but never vicious. Even Pansy thinks well of him: “Miss Vanneman did not question his humaneness or his talent—he was a celebrated man—but she questioned whether he had imagination.”

And it would take a great deal of imagination to empathize with Pansy’s private drama. She is so withdrawn and so mentally fragmented as to make communication almost impossible (I imagine this story would be particularly troubling to a compassionate doctor or caregiver). Late in the surgery, after inadvertently triggering Pansy’s greatest fear, Dr. Nicholson apologizes and asks permission to continue. Still awash in muddled memories, she gathers her rational mind together and agrees because she knows, abstractly, “banally,” that she will need her nose to live in the world outside the hospital. The scene leaves me with the unsettling impression that Pansy has consented to her own downfall, that the cruelty in the story is being done in complete innocence. Or perhaps worse, Pansy’s sanctuary may always have been an illusion, a very temporary refuge from the real world. I don’t really know what it means.

Short story: “Where the Action Is”

“Where the Action Is,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course; also here

? words (I’ll work it out someday)

A Highsmith story (or novel) often takes the form of a creepy, absurd, horrific, or misanthropic joke, drawn out at sober and detailed length, the creepiness/absurdity/horror/misanthropy snowballing as it goes on, passing the point where laughter seems appropriate. Instead of laughing, you get an enjoyable shudder, a kind of How did we get away with that?

This one is heavy on irony. Craig, a small-town photographer, accidentally snaps a picture of a tearful young woman running to meet her parents after being held hostage. The photograph becomes famous and wins a Pulitzer; the woman withdraws from social life and plays the part of a damaged but gracious victim. She even begins a career as a model, using her “sad-dog face” to sell perfume and clothing. Craig and the other characters spend a slightly ridiculous amount of time speculating whether she was “really” raped or just wanted an excuse to end her engagement. (Nobody dwells on the idea that she might be legitimately traumatized for other reasons.) Their curiosity is perfectly drawn: sordid, cynical, not especially malicious.

Meanwhile, Craig acts his part as well. Like the young model, he takes full advantage of the career boost, giving interviews, discussing how conflicted he feels about profiting from a stranger’s suffering, doing everything he can to seem deep and compassionate.

In a curious way, Craig realized that he had to hold onto his conviction that Lizzie Davis’s life had been altered, ruined—or he couldn’t make a success of the article-plus-photos that he had in mind. “You think she’s a phony?” Craig asked in a soft, almost frightened voice.

In the interview scene that follows, he “prepare[s] himself as if he were an actor,” and actually succeeds. “He believed, he knew now, that he was being sincere[.]” For the rest of his life, the story implies, he will be driven by this same hollow sincerity, building his career on suffering and compassion. In a way he seems more damaged than Lizzie Davis. He’s given up his innocence willingly.

I like stories about characters who are unwittingly trapped in falseness, selfishness, and ignorance by their own minds and choices. This one, of course, doesn’t have the depth of “The Depressed Person” because it places us at a comfortable distance from the main character; we can sneer at Craig instead of wanting desperately to save him or get away from him. I suppose misanthropy is never as effective a literary attitude as empathy.