Tag: twentieth century

Fictional essay: “Bread”

“Bread,” by Margaret Atwood

Appeared in the Iowa Review, Vol. 12, Iss. 2, Spring/Summer 1981, and downloadable as a PDF here

831 words

Like David Foster Wallace’s “Octet,” this piece approaches the reader with multiple tiny stories that try to elicit a moral response. I wonder if Wallace was inspired by the form and content of “Bread,” though he certainly doesn’t trouble to mention it, and in fact he describes his ambitions as dauntingly original. And of course, unlike Atwood, he allows his own writerly anxieties to overwhelm the heavier moral themes he introduces earlier on.

On a reread, the first section has been transfigured into something ironic, even accusatory: “You don’t have to imagine it” and making bread is “something relaxing to do with your hands.” The presumed reader is so comfortable, and must be disturbed.

This is such a great piece of mental bargaining: “It’s not the hunger or the pain that is killing you but the absence of the yellow bowl.” A lesser writer would have just invented a longing for some ordinary and beautiful object and stopped there. It reminds me, if I may lower the stakes and arguably the brow, of Arthur Dent’s longing for a cereal box.

The Iowa Review has so much free fiction online! Amazing. And this issue is devoted entirely to women.


Novelette: “The Princess”

“The Princess,” by D. H. Lawrence

According to Wikipedia, first published in the March, April, and May 1925 issues of the Calendar of Modern Letters (now defunct); collected in St. Mawr and Other Stories in 1925; found online here

15,896 words

I have a theory that horror, comedy, pornography, romance, drama, and tragedy are all various aspects of the same thing. Every story aims at a certain effect, sometimes more than one, and most stories take roughly the same route to get to it. I like stories like this, where the emotional effects are mixed and piled on heavily. The last line, for example, is hilarious because it’s slightly horrifying and also anticlimactic. There’s also a lot here that is serious. Mr. Urquhart’s “demon” theory of the psyche sounds like Lawrence’s own.

Why does Lawrence’s perverse little fantasy work for me while Vonnegut’s doesn’t? Where “Welcome to the Monkey House” is self-indulgently kinky and in denial about it, “The Princess” is self-destructively kinky, shattering its protagonist’s brittle purity with open eyes.

Short story: “A Party Down at the Square”

“A Party Down at the Square,” by Ralph Ellison

First appeared, as far as I can tell, in the posthumous collection Flying Home and Other Stories (published in 1996 or 1997); downloadable in .doc format; online here; also at Scribd behind a login wall

3,063 words

It’s hard to know what to say about this story. It’s so grotesque, so evocative of the banality of evil. I feel it doesn’t affect me as strongly as it should, to be honest. Shouldn’t I be angry? Horrified? Revolted? I’m white, and even modern-day hate crimes rarely make me anything more than sad.

I like that the narrator puts his hands in his pockets almost immediately after the lynching victim does. It may make the narrator feel a modicum of empathy—and certainly we readers know that it ought to. I also really like the line “I guess that’s what made me sick”: the way the narrator doesn’t even fully understand that he’s sickened by what he’s seen.

I wonder what Ellison was thinking as he got inside the mind of his oppressors this way? Is this an admirable feat of imagination, or a futile one? Is there anything to learn from it?

Literary fiction publication: Boston Review

Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, a print and online magazine

1975 (as New Boston Review) to present

Editors-in-Chief: Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman; Fiction Editor: Junot Díaz

Sells subscriptions, T-shirts, and tote bags; accepts donations

Pays writers

Scores in Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize Ranking of Literary Magazines — Fiction: 2 in 2013,  2014, and 2015

The print version is glossy and slim. I was disappointed to find that they only publish one piece of fiction per print issue (?). The online version has plenty more, though.

With everything that’s been said about Junot Díaz, it’s troubling to see he still has a job here.


Short story: “Welcome to the Monkey House”

“Welcome to the Monkey House,” by Kurt Vonnegut

Appeared in Playboy in January 1968; collected in the book of the same name (Delacorte Press, 1968)

A few thousand words

I usually have a strong stomach for rape and violence and gross stuff in fiction. But I just find the central conceit of this story too revolting and too unbelievable to deal with.

Maybe the equation of rape with sex is supposed to parallel the equation of re-brainwashing with re-education. The rebels desperately need recruits, and the only way for them to break through their fellow citizens’ brainwashing is by force—that is, by further brainwashing. If society forces its citizens not to think, the rebels have to force them to think. If society forces chastity, the rebels have to force sex.

Which is a neat little parallel, but it all sounds suspiciously like somebody’s half-baked power fantasy, doesn’t it? The rebel guy gets to hang around afterwards looking kind and sad, and quoting poetry, while his victim (or at least the reader) slowly comes to understand that he was only doing what was best for her. It was a hard decision to make, but somebody had to do it. Really, he’s a hero.

I feel like I say this a lot, but: It’s okay for writers to use their stories as wish fulfillment. It’s okay for readers to use them that way! Wish fulfillment is one of the greatest pleasures of both reading and writing, as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t think one person’s fantasy is morally better or worse than another’s. But some fantasies make for good stories and good storytelling; others don’t.

Once you get past the shock plot, this story is designed to make a sexual/mental/emotional violation, and the relatively bland character who commits it, seem noble. For me, the story falls apart at that point.

On the end of Alien

I just want to say that I’m totally on board with Ripley’s decision to go back and look for the cat. I’ve heard people describe that as a stupid, sentimental, stereotypically feminine move, but I disagree. Remember: Ripley is no longer making decisions for the whole crew. The crew is dead. Ripley has to decide how she’s going to live the rest of her life, and she decides she’s going to save the cat (her only remaining crewmate, her only companion—imagine the loneliness, imagine the sense of responsibility) or die trying. To me, this seems like an understandable and even a noble choice.

Why she doesn’t put on pants first is beyond me.

Notes on a description

“This is from Chapter Two, Part 4, of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, immigrant professor Timofey Pnin, has just had all his teeth pulled:

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.

“[…] Nabokov, as he often does, takes big risks with figurative language in his description. He’s likening sensations to objects when he talks about the ‘ice and wood of the anesthetic.’ It works because these objects so rightly represent the way the anesthetic makes the mouth feel—frozen (you can’t properly control the muscles of the mouth and tongue and lips the way you can’t when you’ve been sucking ice, and you can feel things but only dully, also in a way that recalls the post-ice-sucking sensation) and wooden (dull, heavy, strangely solid in a manner that becomes more apparent when contrasted against the ‘warm flow of pain’ that replaces it, which is rightly given liquid and thawing qualities.)”

—Kyle Minor, in this essay

I sort of want to quote the whole piece.

Short story: “The Gifts of War”

“The Gifts of War,” by Margaret Drabble

Appeared in Winter’s Tales 16 in 1970; collected in A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories; also in the anthology Into the Widening World: International Coming-of-Age Stories, edited by John Loughery

About 16 pages in my library’s copy of A Day in the Life; ? words

A story of accidental cruelty that has stuck with me for years. Now that I think about it, the plot sort of reminds me George Saunders’ “Puppy,” but this story is quieter and the heartbreak happens onstage, from an outsider’s point of view. The clash between different social classes is similar too. As in “Puppy,” the point of view stays close to one character and then switches to another about halfway through, at a section break. This story is way more successful at differentiating the two voices.

If there’s a social message/satire intended here, I don’t get it. The title and epigraph seem out of place to me. I see it as loss-of-innocence story, with the college kids’ naive politics being nothing more of a foil for the unhappy woman’s jadedness and involuted life. Joyce Carol Oates actually described this as “an antiwar story” in the New Yorker, so consider me entirely out of the loop on this one.

I first read this in the coming-of-age anthology mentioned above, and I’m still not sure which character is supposed to be coming of age.

Short story: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” by Harlan Ellison

Appeared in Galaxy in December 1965; won the 1966 Hugo Award for best short story; won the 1965 Nebula Award; anthologized in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966

Not sure how many words

I was pretty underwhelmed when I finally got around to reading this. I’ll admit that the prose style and the unserious tone are awesome, especially the cheeky 1984 reference. Maybe that stuff was striking and innovative when this piece was first published, but today, treating serious subject matter with complete irreverence is unremarkable. The same goes for the dystopian plot. (Maybe the moral is that even small, doomed acts of rebellion can make a difference in the long run? Sure, whatever.) It doesn’t help that the characters are deliberately paper-thin.

This essay describes the story as a self-subverting fable, which is fair enough. Another essay says it’s about “the futility of protest in effecting social change.”

I feel like “‘Repent'” fails for the same reason any story of its kind must fail. You can use the techniques of storytelling to deny that stories hold meaning, but you just end up undermining yourself.

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.