introducing readers to writers since 1995

August 03, 2005

Returning to Short Stories

by Ron Hogan

Following yesterday's precedent, here are the further results of my short story collection dipping... I liked the two stories I read from Christopher Coake's We're in Trouble. First, there's the title piece: a suite of short-shorts in which three couples confront the terror of death. Each couple is at a different stage in their relationship, from a young man and woman who've just met to a husband who wants his wife of fifty-plus years to help him commit suicide rather than face cancer. Raw stuff, but Coake makes his characters real, with authentic dialogue and behavior. That's also the success of the longish "Abandon," in which a man and woman find themselves trapped in a remote cabin during an unexpected snowstorm. The story runs on two tracks, cutting between their present dilemma and flashbacks that explore the beginning of their relationship--with key insights that point towards the inevitable conclusion.

I'd been meaning to get to Lavanya Sankaran's The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories for a while now, and unfortunately just hadn't gotten around to it until now. But "Alphabet Soup" was a fantastic story about a U.S.-born Indian-American whose college radical posturing finally convinces her father to send her to Bangalore so she can see what life is really like in her imagined native paradise. The awakening this "American Born Confused Desi"--which is how the story gets its title--is somewhat rude, but not to the point of cliché, and the gentle mockery the narrator expresses towards the character early on subtly shifts as her fantasy gives way to the world into which she's been plunged. I should get back to the other stories at some point, because this first one was quite excellent.

If you've been reading Beatrice since last year, and I tell you that I started reading a short story collection from Lauren Slater, you might feel a certain sense of dread coming on. I swear to God, I did my best to approach Blue Beyond Blue with a fresh mind; after all, now that Slater's writing straightforward fiction, the question of veracity becomes irrelevant, and just about all that need really concern me and any other reader is, are the stories any good? Well, the three I read were awful, and I'll explain why after the jump.

The conceit of the collection is that Slater's writing modern "fairy tales" with some degree of "narrative psychotherapy" involved; in other words, she may well be working out her issues as well as trying to come up with stories. But as fairy tales go, these are awfully flat and artless. Here's an example from the story that gives the collection its title, in which a woman who desperately wants a child finds an egg that hatches a girl. The girl hits puberty and grows wings, which the mother slices off while the girl sleeps, scarring her back:

"The girl grew up and grew beautiful and then, one day, fell in love with an acrobat. The mother said, 'How will he support you, doing flips?' and the girl said, 'We need very little,' and , indeed, the mother knew this to be true, for she herself needed very little, except the love of this girl, who was leaving her now, for a man in a red stretch suit."

But wait, there's more:

"The girl and the acrobat went away to the acrobat's home at the outskirts of the village. The wedding party dispersed. The mother stood for a long time waving her handkerchief in farewell, and the mother thought, 'Many years ago I tried to stop my child from flying away, but she has flown away, because that is destiny, which cannot be cut."

With prose this heavy-handed, it's amazing Slater was able to lift a pen. Her fairy tales strive for a magical atmosphere, but the overdetermined symbolism and dialogue drain all the wonder out of her stories, reducing them to obvious lessons. And I think we can all remember how much we hated stories that were obvious lessons when we were kids. I flipped to the back of the book, but "The Mermaid" was a weak imitation of YA lesbian awakenings like Jane Futcher's classic Crush, except that the object of the narrator's affections is also a mermaid, because mermaids are exotic. And "The Gun" was merely frustrating, as a bunch of women, their men no longer interested in them, act out their frustration with increasing vigor until they finally start having sex with each other, at which point the men suddenly regain interest, and the women take them back. At least, that's how I interpret the closing lines:

"They were watching us with hunger. At long last their appetites had returned, just as we were cultivating those appetites for ourselves. Just when we were doubling. There was something fiery, proprietary, beautiful in our mens' eyes. We stared at them. We stroked each other. We were mournful and exhilarated. We knew this time was over. We watched as the men came toward us, with held-out hands."

Let's just take this on from a feminist perspective: Here we have a group of women (narrating in the first person plural) who are rejected by men, try desperately to regain men's attention, eventually manage to make a life for themselves, and then abandon that life when the men don't just notice them again, but objectify them and their newfound relationships. I mean, is there some level of irony to the story I'm missing? I assume not, if only because the other two stories are so dreadfully earnest and obvious that it seems impossible this story could have any subtlety to it, so I'm left believing that Slater's women really do want to chuck their newfound happiness aside to go back to men who hold them in pornographic regard--and will in fact invite them to do so by staring at them while stroking each other. This is therapeutic?

If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.