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Short Stories

As this Web log has greatly heightened my sense of responsibility as to what I read, even as it has severely cut into the time that's available for reading, it makes sense that I've "rediscovered" the short story. I am reading short stories now, instead of passing them over in favor of books. I do read books, too, but at a pace that by former standards is unprepossessing.

The latest stories have all appeared in the last three issues of The New Yorker.

December 26, 2005 & January 2, 2006 (International Fiction Issue):

¶ "The Word," by Vladimir Nabokov (translated by Dmitri Nabokov)

¶ "Last Evenings on Earth," by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

¶ "Pregnancy Diary," by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

¶ "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death," by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated by Deborah Treisman)

¶ "The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman," by Ismail Kadare (translated by Robert Elsie with the editorial contribution of David Bellos)


January 9, 2006

¶ "The Cryptozoologist," by Tony Earley


January 16, 2006

¶ "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt

Two of the foreign-language stories - those by Roberto Bolaño and Ismail Kadare - made the strongest impressions, which comes as no surprise. I have come to expect that American short fiction will impress me while I'm reading it but lose its appeal when I'm done; I never seem to know what the American writer has in mind. "Last Evenings" and "The Writer's Union" are in sharp contrast replete with intention. The first is a flashback narrative: it is 1975, and a Chilean youth and his father, political exiles living in Mexico City, set out for an aimless vacation to Acapulco. Dread and estrangement clot every paragraph, as do honor and liberty. The father and son are not close, are not even particularly alike; there is menace in their traveling as strangers. When they get to Acapulco, the father wants to party, to "get some action," but the son wants only to read.

There are things you can tell people and things you just can't, B thinks disconsolately. From this moment on, he knows the disaster is approaching.

In spite of which, the next forty-eight hours go by in a placid sort of daze, which B's father associates with what he calls "The Idea of the Holiday." (B can't tell whether his father is serious or pulling his leg.)

What things? What disaster? What keeps the mystification from being annoying is the story's sunstruck atmosphere. The final scene, set in a dive, where B's father plays cards with shady characters, is highly distilled pulp fiction, a panting read. (For an interesting article about Bolaño, who died two years ago, click here.)

"The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman" promises, for most of its length, to be a coming-of-age story, in which the narrator, recalling his early days as a writer in locked-down Albania, tells of his desire to make contact with the city's only prostitute, the beautiful Marguerite. The narrator learns about her after seeing her for the first time.

Despite what I'd imagined, she was in her mid-thirties, and the light summer dress she was wearing made her look even younger. She had a pale complexion and chestnut-brown hair that fell in loose curls to the nape of her neck, and she didn't look the least bit vulgar. A sort of Anna Karenina, but without Vronsky or the screech of carriage wheels - in place of which she had assumed the fate of a fallen woman in a Communist country in the Balkans in the sixties.

As we returned to the Writers' Union, I listened attentively to what my colleague had to say about her. She was the classiest prostitute in all of Tirana, and apparently the only one of her kind. It was amazing that she was still here in Albania. Her clients were a select group of gentlemen who learned of her by word of mouth. She used the forbidden form of address, "Sir," and let them stay all night. At three in the morning, her mother would serve coffee, and the client would slip payment, a thousand leks, discreetly under Marguerite's pillow.

Rarely had I listened to the details of a story with such fascination.

It was only later, thinking the story over, that I realized that at no point does the narrator ever have proof that Marguerite is a prostitute, or even that she is named "Marguerite," and that is very much part of the tale. Marguerite is simply the dream of an open, Western society, in which old-fashioned gentility is not proscribed and puritans do not make the laws. Curiously, Marguerite's significance only intensifies when troubles within the Albanian Writers Union displace her from the page. The narrator is rusticated - "sent on rotation" - to a provincial backwater. When he returns he learns that something has happened to Marguerite, and it is in this way that she mirrors the Writer's Union. This is a coming-of-age story without the coming-of-age. (Mr Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize last summer.)

So much for the stories that really appealed, or, rather, that appealed without letting anything get in the way. Tony Earley's "The Cryptozoologist" is a lovely story, for the most part, but it was badly dented, for me, by the interposition of a "bigfoot" or "skunk ape" figure that made delphic quasi-appearances at two points in the tale. There is also an abortion-clinic bomber, who may or may not be alive in the hills. Neither is necessary to the story, and I could have done without the cryptozoon altogether.

At heart, "The Cryptozoologist" is a beautiful story about a long and rocky marriage. Fieldin Kohler was forty-three when he married one of his art students, twenty year-old Rose. He resigned his teaching post before he could be fired and took Rose deep into western North Carolina, where they settled in a hollow "as close as one could get to the end of the earth and still have access to a grocery store." That's a magnificent phrase. The following paragraph explains, in three brisk sentences, why the young Rose was drawn to Fieldin.

Rose's father had been an Air Force intelligence officer who came home at night prohibited by federal law from talking about what he had done during the day. Her mother was a perfectly coifed and made-up alcoholic with even more stringent standards of secrecy. Fieldin had been the first adult who ever actually told Rose anything.

At the beginning of the story, twenty-five years later, Fieldin is dying of lung cancer. Gazing out from her back porch, Rose fancies she sees a strange figure. It might be a skunk ape; it might be the bomber. When she goes inside, Fieldin has died, and Rose concludes that the creature was a Charon-figure, a ferrier of souls into the next world. This figure will reappear at the end, with results that you might expect. Whisking Rose off to "the other side," however, spares Rose the full burden of living with the proof of her mistake.

This mistake is about Fieldin's paintings, which were never popular and which never sold - while Rose, herself, became an established, if "sentimental," artist who actually paid the bills. Fieldin's theme was the Trail of Tears - the banishment of southeastern Native Americans to Oklahoma. This despite his inability to get along with any living Native Americans or any public support. Fieldin was a handful, impractical, temperamental, and something of a mountebank, and one of the reasons why Rose becomes a "cryptozoologist" after his death because it distracts her from acrimonious recollections.

Studying these reports gave Rose something to think about besides Fieldin, at whom she unexpectedly found herself violently angry. Late at night - when she just wanted to kill Fieldin, and was stymied by the fact that he was already dead - she gratefully followed the CSA...

("CSA" stands for "Cryptozoological Study Association," but it's hard not to believe that Mr Earley intentionally worked out organizational name with resonant initials.) Near the end of the story, Rose pays a visit to her recently-widowed neighbor, Plutina Shires. The Shires are country people, utterly unsophisticated, and Mr Earley carefully presents them as people who would not be expected to "get" a modernist painting, even if they did dutifully hang one over their sofa when Fieldin gave them one of his Indian pictures. But the visit proves that it was Rose, and not Plutina, who failed to understand Fieldin's art. This grand surprise reverses all of the story's polarities, but the thrill is neutralized by the far more spurious excitement of the skunk ape's lurking in the bushes.

This week, The New Yorker published Samantha Hunt's "Three Days." I found it wearisome from beginning to end. Beatrice, a thirty year-old woman goes home for Thanksgiving over a year after leaving the house upon her father's death, and endures an unsatisfying repast with her mother and her younger brother, who will never leave home. "Home" is what's left of a farm that Beatrice's parents took up, whimsically, before she was born; what was countryside at the time has been for the most part paved over and built upon. Beatrice grew up loving her father and not loving her mother. We don't need to know anything about her looks to suspect why she's not married. The writing is intense, if not quite clear.

Beatrice thinks, If I sit in the living room with my mother watching a movie, I will explode and all that will spill out, all that I will have left inside will be a dark-green syrup of boredom that my mother will have to sponge off the floor with some Fantastik and a towel.

The forestory concerns a Wal-Mart security guard, a construction site, and a horse on which Beatrice and her brother, stoned, decide to take a ride after Thanksgiving dinner. It pains me to read of such emptiness as I found here.

Another rather empty story, Yoko Ogawa's "Pregnancy Diary," offered the distraction of kinkiness - I think. My problem with contemporary Japanese fiction in general and with the writing of Haruki Murakami in particular is cultural: I have trouble making do without the markers that older writers, such as Junichiro Tanizaki, implanted to distinguish behavior that might seem strange to Westerners from behavior than even the Japanese would find odd. This makes it very hard to judge the moral atmosphere. In "Pregnancy Diary," a woman poisons her sister's fetus with jam made from imported grapefruit. How weird is this? No motive is given; the project itself is never openly declared. The poisoner might, moreover, be doing her sister a favor, because the pregnant sister, whose very marriage is a shadowy affair, expresses a fear of "meeting" her child. I was reminded of Roland Barthes's The Empire of Signs.

Vladimir Nabokov's "The Word," published in Russian in 1923 but hitherto unpublished in English, is an exhalation of prose that attempts to portray a transcendent vision in which an angel explains everything to the dreaming author in one word - a word that the author cannot, upon awakening, remember. Rich as Nabokov's prose style could be, I don't think that he'd have Englished his story quite so floridly as his son has done. 

I didn't mean to save Taphar Ben Jelloun's "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death" for last, but here we are. A fable about marital infidelity that ends with a tidy twist, it is wry about nervous husbands, palm-reading, and vivid dreams. I'd have liked it better if suspense had been kneaded more lightly into the story's texture, but then I don't deal with suspense very well and usually look to the end of an eventful novel to see who's still alive. For me, suspense is a distraction, not an enhancement.


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Ack - I need to catch up on my New Yorkers and can't read this until later! Have you read "Last Night": James Salter yet? Have we already discussed this?

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