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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thoughts on the Short-Story Canon, Thus Far

These reviews are edited from my notes on my course reading...thus their stream-o-consciousness nature and focus on craft.

Edgar Allen Poe, Selected Stories

I read my friend Poe before Joyce--he saved my life when I was a teacher and I had one rowdy class that wouldn’t submit to reading anything else. As I read the Poe stories (the Dupin pair, Usher, Amontillado, and a few other old favorites etc) I thought about how he creates tension in his stories, keeping his “singular effect” essay in mind. I was fascinated by the difference between the horror stories (Usher/Amontillado) which begin right away with a sense of foreboding, in the latter an explicit announcement of what’s going to happen, and the Dupin pair, which lengthily discourse on various human tendencies before getting into the meat of the mystery. In the Marie Roget/Morgue pair, the titles help propel us past the introductory material, which almost teases us. Throughout the story forward momentum often arises from a tension between the clinical language of the narrator and Dupin, and the grisly, mysterious
details of the murders they are attempting to solve. I also found the way both stories wrap up such lengthy investigations in a few paragrpahs extremely intriguing—it put the emphaisis on process. Both demanded to be re-read with the information granted at the end. A friend of mine who is a Victorianist and I spent some time this week talking about the detective figure as a stand-in for the author, sorting through the strands of plot. As for the “Cask of Amontillado” (which I’ve taught) what caught my eye this time, after reading Poe's essay about “The Raven” was its almost poetic use of repetition: “The Nitre! The Amontillado!” Back and forth and back and forth, like the cat-and-mouse game between the two men. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” what struck me most was the way every single detail from the description of the house’s facade at the outset to the songs and stories and paintings, lined up to add to the effect: twinning, guilt, decay. There wasn’t a single irrelevant aside--singular effect at its most precise.

James Joyce, "Dubliners"
I noticed some interesting similarities between the writers’ techniques. I actually started
comparing “A Boarding House” to “Amontillado.” Both are essentially stories of schemes that get carried out effectively, and both schemes rely on vice/temptation which leads to entrapment.
also thought that in general both authors really excellently used ellipsis to build up tension: why does Joe cry at the end of “Clay?” What exactly, if anything, are the “thousand injuries” that provoke revenge?

I love Joyce's mix of long and short sentences and his physical descriptions--words just keep sticking in my head like Maria’s “tidy” body in “Clay” and the “rope” of the girl’s hair in “Araby.”

Isaac Babel, "Red Cavalry and Other Stories":

These were really unlike anything I've ever read. I started by reading a few of his early stories about his childhood which were dark and stifling and full of Jewish imagery and the burden of his family's expectations on him, and then pretty soon I transitioned into "Red Cavalry" so I could read it as a thematic collection. I thought the stories in this section were breathtakingly direct and unapologetic but also their short length gave them a feeling of incompleteness that tantalized me.

Perhaps my favorite was the simple early story in the collection "My First Goose" in which the narrator kills a goose so that the soldiers he's accompanying will see him as one of them, a plan that works, but he sleeps that night "with the crimson hands of a murderer." To me it sets the tone for the rest of the stories and gets to the heart of the underlying question: why is this thinking Jewish guy palling around with Cossacks who slaughter his people, and at what personal price? I felt that the stories, even the simple two paragraph ones, had a wonderful tension between his intellectual, philosophical side and the battle-lust and admiration for his fellow warriors he reveals at the end of "Kombrig 2" when he sees the general riding by after a big, presumably bloody victory and just thinks it’s marvelous. This is also mirrored by the juxtaposition of his short descriptions of nature which are lush and reverent and the carnage that either precedes or follows such descriptions.

I'll admit that I also spent a chunk of time--this is the journalist in me--reading about Babel's life and work, which have a lot of interest for me since all eight of my great-grandparents were Russian/Polish/Lithuanian Jews who emigrated here in part because of the Cossacks. Babel's biography struck me as being very mysterious and elliptical, rather like his stories-you began to get the sense of a man who intentionally blurred his real and fictional identities and created a persona for himself somewhere in between embracing and rejecting his heritage.

Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Re-reading the title story produced a strong, almost visceral recollection of the first time I read it, in high school English of course. I didn't remember it as I began re-reading it, and then when I saw the word "Misfit" it all came back to me. These stories are so effectively disturbing and difficult to remove from one's mind. It’s really a wonderful example of an author “going there”—being brutal and merciless in a beautiful way. The images she creates are quite unforgettable: the dead grandfather sitting on stage with his eyes and mouth open, the mentally-disturbed daughter being left in the diner on her wedding day by the husband who has patiently wooed her so he can get her car, the Catholic schoolgirls whispering in the dark overheard by their creepily precocious young cousin. I loved “A Stroke of Good Fortune” because it had this great demonic pregnancy subtext and the vividness of the protagonist's struggle to get up and down the stair to her apartment was so complete and portentous—you could hear the stairs creaking, see the nosy neighbors, feel the wheezing breath and swollen ankles.

The one mistake I made was being overly curious and then going online and reading too much about the religious subtext of the stories. Because I'm a bitter atheist I found myself getting a bit mad at poor Flannery, who was so, so brilliant but very religiously warped.

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