Tag: past tense

Short story: “Revision”

“Revision,” by William Walsh

Collected in Pathologies (Keyhole Press); readable online here

518 words

So far, all the pieces in this collection are beautifully crafted and eerie in a literary way. (As with any beautifully crafted literary fiction, I can only stomach a bit at a time.) This piece depicts a peculiar state of mind, sort of emotionally simplified by physical exhaustion and narrow escape from death: “I belonged to them now.” Interesting, now that I think about it, that it’s in past tense—it has a very present-tense feel.


Short story: “Star-Crossed”

“Star-Crossed,” by Kimberly Van Ginkel

Appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, volume 9, issue 1 (otherwise known as issue 49), second half of January 2011 (as far as I can tell; there’s no date on the issue itself)

5,559 words

I got a little impatient with this pair of lovers—like a lot of characters in fiction, they could have avoided a lot of trouble with one or two quick conversations—but I’ll admit I was hooked. There’s nothing like misunderstandings and pining to make a love story sing.

Short story: “The Dupe”

“The Dupe,” by Jim Fusilli

Appeared in D.C. Noir (2006, part of the Akashic Books Noir Series), edited by George Pelecanos

About 15.25 pages in the anthology, unknown number of words

A good little yarn.

I thought opening the story on the day of the crime was a bad idea, especially because the author (or editor?) avoids past pluperfect, resulting in awkwardness (“Five days earlier, Port was summoned”). I understand the need to put the drama up front, but I would have opened with “My father is disappointed, Jordie.”

Short story: “A snapchat is sent.”

Untitled piece whose first line is “A snapchat is sent.”; no byline, may be by editor Spencer Madsen

Appeared on the sorry house tumblr on September 22nd, 2013

179 words

Great use of the social media format. I’ve never even snapchatted, but I understand the feeling very well.

Short story: “Things You Can Buy for a Penny”

“Things You Can Buy for a Penny,” by Will Kaufman

Appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, February 2015

4198 words

A fun read. I admire the way the nested stories flow smoothly from one to the next.

Short story: “The Eyes”

“The Eyes,” by Edith Wharton

Collected in Tales of Men and Ghosts (on Project Gutenberg), 1910; online here; looks like there’s an inexpensive audio version here

8,081 words

One of those horror stories where the horror is all unstated. The biggest hint about the nature of that horror is Culwin’s apparent willingness to believe, even now, that he was being kind to Nowell and Noyes (“making people happy”!). The other big hint is at the end, when he sees his own face in the mirror. Up until that moment, Culwin failed to grasp the meaning of his own “ghost” story. The revelation is carefully foreshadowed:

“[T]here came over me a sense of [the eyes’] tacit complicity, of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they made it so clear that some day I should …”

If Culwin is gay, as seems plausible, then his first self-betrayal lies in making a sham attempt at heterosexuality, his second in a failure to treat the man he admires with respect. He even uses the former to excuse the latter (“I’d done it for his cousin’s sake, not his”), as though, in his self-loathing, he thinks he can cancel out a homosexual love affair by invoking a heterosexual one.

This essay tries to paint Culwin as basically admirable, but I don’t think that interpretation holds up. Frenham’s reaction is too extreme to be simple fear of losing his relationship with his mentor; it’s the reaction of someone who’s lost faith in his hero. Besides, Frenham is too minor a character for his personal feelings to set off the climax of the story, even considering his parallels to Noyes; rather, his breakdown is significant because of what it reveals about Culwin.

I don’t know whether Culwin has mistreated Frenham, and I’m not sure I care. (The narrator seems to think not.) What’s at stake here is Culwin’s soul.

I want to read some double meaning into “No well” and “No yes!”

Another interesting essay here.

Novel: The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 1995 by Faber and Faber, received the Cheltenham Prize (thanks Wikipedia!)

535 pages in the paperback, ? words

I adored this book, but I don’t know if I could ever reread it. It makes various parts of my body hurt from tension.

I’m just going to jot down a few standout points about how this bizarre thing holds together:

  • The dreamlike lapses of logic start early on, with a long, long monologue taking place on a short elevator ride, and they reappear pretty consistently throughout.
  • The changes in point of view also start early on. At first Ryder (the first-person narrator) “remembers” something about another character’s life, and the reader can infer that these are memories of when he lived with Boris and Sophie. But his knowledge becomes more and more interior to the other characters, and it isn’t confined to the past or to anything he might have the opportunity to observe.
  • I once heard someone say that the most characteristic feature of dreams is the credulity of the dreamer. Ryder never questions most of the illogic around him. When he does question it, his attitude is always frustration at incompetence and foolishness and misplaced authority. He never touches the fundamental unreality of his circumstances. In particular, he never questions how he knows something, which means he never comments on the point of view shifts at all.
  • Writer types have told me that a first-person past-tense narrator needs to have a reason for telling a story. In this book, I think we’re supposed to understand Ryder as basically out of control of the story: he doesn’t know why he’s telling it, he isn’t aware of how he’s telling it, he’s reliving it the way a child relives a bad dream. The narration is in past tense, but it has a present-tense feel because of the narrator’s inability to reflect on what’s happening. Or no, he does reflect, but his reflections are dream-muddled and futile.
  • Every character and every plot seems to mirror every other. To my mind, this constant mirroring gives the novel a certain coldness: it’s not really about any particular characters, it’s about the themes and situations they repeat over and over. Ryder isn’t a person we feel for so much as a focal point where these themes mesh together with the greatest intensity. He is son, father, lover, friend, artist, careerist, thinker. (Edited to add: Ishiguro says in an interview, “In a dream, one character often will be portrayed by different people.”)
  • Stuff that unifies/simplifies this book: having just one narrator and a tight three-day structure.

Short story: “The Night in Question”

“The Night in Question,” by Tobias Wolff

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 22nd, 1996 (subscribers can read online); read aloud in the April 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; collected in a book of the same title; found a PDF version online in the archives of a site called A Modest Construct

3,450 words (my first estimate was 2,000)

I feel like I can’t top what Akhil Sharma says about this piece on the podcast.

I wonder if Frances’s seemingly pathological coping methods aren’t, in some sense, healthier than her brother’s. The sermon Frank loves so much is about fathers (God, Mike) hurting their sons in some of the cruelest ways imaginable, and being justified in it. The implication is that Frank has no right to be angry with his father (Frank Senior, God). Whereas Frances insists on keeping her anger, even if it means repeating the cruelty of their father(s), demanding that Frank put himself in an impossible position for her sake. What’s terrible is that she’s willing to hurt Frank just as badly as their father did in order to keep being his protector.

When a piece this short works this well, I think about boxes and keyholes a lot. How did Wolff sit down and write this? Did he have to pare away a novel’s worth of detail and backstory to get this story? Or did he start with the brother and sister and the ghastly sermon, and fill in just enough to show us what they’re really talking about? I should diagram this shit and figure out exactly how much information we get at each point in the story.

I don’t like the title, but then I often don’t like titles. It places undue emphasis on the slightly pompous phrase Frank uses and on Mike’s terrible choice.

Short story: “Bourgenew & Co.”

“Bourgenew & Co.” (“La Maison Bourgenew”), by Jean Ferry, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

The original story first appeared in the August 1953 issue of La (Nouvelle) Nouvelle Revue Française; Gauvin’s translation appeared in Subtropics issue 16, Spring/Summer 2013 (story here; issue table of contents here); see also Gauvin’s notes on his work

2,583 words in this English version

I really like this story, though I have to admit that the realistic opening initially appealed to me a lot more than the hallucinatory sequence (which may or may not represent a glimpse of the afterlife).

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.”