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Tag: stories as jokes

Short story: “One Eight Hundred”

“One Eight Hundred,” by Mark Leahy

Appeared in Wigleaf, September 27th, 2015

83 words

Stories that are essentially jokes don’t always work. This one sounds like a standup bit, but it works, I think, because the narrator makes it personal and because the approach is somewhat grim and quiet (“planning four hundred final moments”). The last sentence does have a punchline feel, though, that would be mitigated if this were a part of something slightly larger.

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Short story: “Why I Hate Cake”

“Why I Hate Cake,” by Paul Mannering

Read perfectly by Alasdair Stuart for a flash fiction episode of Pseudopod (November 22nd, 2007)

Maybe 500 words?

Short, silly, and delicious.

Short story: “Baby Girl”

“Baby Girl,” by Dylan Landis

Appeared in Black Clockissue no. 19, winter 2014/spring 2015, pages 37 to 39

About 2.25 pages; my guess of 1200 words was pretty close to the actual figure, 1,173

Like a quiet horror story or an extended joke, this tale gets its power from the gradual escalation of mundane fears and cruelties. It’s too believable to be fun, but I can appreciate how well and how concisely it’s deployed.

Short story: “Suzanne Delage”

“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe

Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine

2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word

I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.

The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.

I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.

It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.

This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.

§

A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.

The meaning of the tale consisted / In discussing if it existed.

I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:

  • The narrator notes that some of the girls in the Pie Club photo have their backs turned. He wouldn’t mention that fact if he didn’t consider it significant. Therefore, we can infer that the number of names in the caption of the photo is greater than the number of visible faces. (The only way it makes sense for the two numbers to be the same, or for the names to be fewer than the faces, is if there are faces in the background, where the photo captioner would have had the option of leaving them nameless. The narrator doesn’t mention any background faces, so there probably aren’t any.)
  • Assuming the captioner didn’t make a mistake, Suzanne is visible in that photo. No photographer has the patience to take notes on everyone present in a group photo; it would make far more sense to note “Pie Club” and let the yearbook editors work out the details. Therefore, we can rule out the theory that Suzanne is supernaturally impossible to photograph.
  • If someone deliberately expunged Suzanne’s picture from the yearbook, they must have been interested only in removing her face. The yearbooks still contain her name and, almost certainly, a photo of her facing away from the camera.
  • The Spanish influenza isn’t enough information to reliably date this story. The narrator seems vague about what kind of epidemic it was. Furthermore, we know he has been married and separated amicably twice (he never actually says divorced). Would that really have been acceptable and “mundane” in small-town America before 1960? He says he has “lived nowhere else”; where, then, did he find two women who were willing to end a marriage for no reason except boredom?
  • Even post-1960, was it conventional for people to end marriages so lightly? Perhaps he’s fudging the truth a bit. His wives left him because he couldn’t give them children, or for sexual reasons.
  • Speaking of culture questions, when and where do Americans customarily visit each other “for tea”? I associate that phrase with something more elaborate than a mug of Lipton or a Southern glass of iced tea, but the discussion of textiles places us in North America.
  • The rules of the small town setting seem to ensure that, if Suzanne had been involved in some scandal, the narrator would have known something about it. He admits to knowing “the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones[.]”
  • Robert Borski’s “Snow White” theory doesn’t hold up. His interpretation of the narrator’s role is good and he points out some tantalizing connections, but the apple and mirror allusions are too faint and too ambiguous to be convincing. It would be just as plausible to connect the textiles with Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, or the yearbook to the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Besides, Suzanne’s daughter isn’t described as having anything like “lips as red as blood,” and there’s no one to fill the roles of the huntsman or the dwarves.
  • Here’s a theory: The narrator’s mother, or some other adult, actually conspired to keep the narrator and Suzanne from meeting. Perhaps she was trying to protect him from something she knew about Suzanne, or to protect her friend’s daughter from something she knew about her son. Perhaps he and Suzanne were secretly siblings or half siblings, and their guardians were terrified of accidental incest. The widowed neighbor’s grudge was an invention, the yearbook photos were destroyed deliberately, and the narrator’s and Suzanne’s classes were carefully scheduled to keep them from even passing each other in the halls. (It’s unusual for a mother to see a good marriage prospect for her child without at least making introductions, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t seem to notice the oddity of that omission.) But no, a parental conspiracy makes no sense. If their parents wanted to separate them, the obvious thing would be to send them to different schools. The narrator implies that there are at least two elementary schools in town, so it would be odd for there to be only one high school, even an “overgrown” one.
  • Hasn’t anyone suggested a time travel theory yet? No wild mass guessing session is complete without Purgatory, a gay romance, and time travel. So, in another timeline, the narrator knew Suzanne, and their relationship had disastrous repercussions. He caught the flu from Suzanne; he passed the flu on to someone important (perhaps to all the “pilgrims from other towns” who visited his mother!); he and Suzanne, young and foolish, did something terrible together; Suzanne infected the main quarterback with flu, thus giving the narrator his chance to shine (or to get horribly injured); the widowed neighbor turned against him and his family; whatever. At some later date, somebody (the narrator, Suzanne, Suzanne’s mother, or someone else entirely) decided to overwrite the timeline, giving the narrator a dull, peaceful life.
  • The Purgatory theory should be easy to come up with. Actually, the narrator’s mediocrity might place him just outside the gates of Dante’s Hell, among “the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
  • The mothers’ obsession with textiles is extreme, even manic—more passionate than anything in the narrator’s own life. A hint of what he’s missed out on, and/or been protected from?
  • Neither the narrator’s father nor Suzanne’s is ever mentioned.

Short story: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison

Appeared in the March 1967 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction (now defunct); won the Hugo Award in 1968

Slightly over 5,809 words (my guess was relatively close this time—5,000)

I’ve always admired this story as a small, concentrated dose of pure horror. It’s also quite funny. Like a lot of funny-horribles, it resembles a well-told joke.

(I say this kind of thing a lot. I guess I’m trying to develop a taxonomy of fictions. Probably futile. Most stories have similar structures; some use them more baldly than others.)

I think Ellison described the ending as an ethically happy one. The main character is in Hell, but he has fulfilled his duty to his fellow creatures.

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: “The Verdict”

“The Verdict,” by Edith Wharton

Appeared in Scribner’s in 1908; collected in The Hermit and the Wild Woman, and Other Stories the same year (on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive); also found online here

3,743 words

“But I forced myself to put it here; and now it’s cured me—cured me.” Somewhere around this line, or a bit earlier, it becomes pretty obvious (to me, if not to the narrator) why Gisburn has given up painting, and on my first reading I wanted the story to end there. But the recounted scene with the corpse has an unexpected savor and poignancy.

A lot of my favorite stories are very cruel. What makes them work as stories is the precise deployment of their cruelty, sort of like jokes whose punchlines simultaneously fulfill and reverse audience expectations. I’m putting this badly, but I may put it better later.

All the women in this story are remarkably empty-headed and despicable, even taking the era into account.

Short story: “The Long QT”

“The Long QT,” by Hilary Mantel

Appeared in The Guardian on October 19th, 2012 (read here)

1,487 words

I’m starting to wonder if this is a parody of something. When I first started reading, I was struck by the extreme conventionality of the subject matter and style. It’s almost the ideal example of a familiar literary short story: dull suburban marriage, would-be adulterer, high-quality prose, third person limited, psychological astuteness, detached wit.

The ending took me by surprise, but not because it was really unexpected. In this type of story, it’s inevitable that the main character’s complacence must be shattered like (even the metaphor is inevitable) a dropped glass. What surprised me was that the ending arrived so soon. The abruptness of it left me wondering if I had been the victim of a sly literary joke. You see, the story seems to say, it’s even in the title! You can see it coming a mile away, so why not get it over with now instead of 2,000 words later?

And I did feel I should have seen it coming:

A shock will do it, he said, or strong emotion, strong emotion of any sort. Sometimes, he said, people die laughing.

This last little irony struck me as recycled from a thousand other stories, though no one story in particular. I don’t know whether to admire this story for being such a perfect distillation of its type or look down on it for its pointlessness. Or laugh.

Short story: “Pickman’s Model”

“Pickman’s Model,” by H. P. Lovecraft

First appeared in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales; found online here and here

5,572 words

Lovecraft isn’t known for his sense of humor, but his stories are often strangely funny as well as chilling. (Here, he even slips in one of the ghouls’ own gags: “Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn.”) Maybe it’s because horror and humor both fulfill the same need—the need to respond to something so strange that it might otherwise defy response.

That last line is priceless. You can see it coming, sure, but the timing! It still gives me a chill after all these years. And makes me laugh.

Short story: “Popular Mechanics”

“Popular Mechanics,” later retitled “Little Things,” by Raymond Carver, with considerable editing by Gordon Lish

Appeared in the collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories; found online here and here

496 words

This is a slight story, in my opinion—a horrible little joke about selfish people destroying what they think they value most. You can analyze it as something more complicated and insightful than that, but isn’t it perfect the way it is?