When We Were Nearly Young – The inspiration for Mavis Gallant’s short story, entitled ‘When We Were Nearly Young’ was a diary she kept during the 1950’s. The backstory goes that Gallant was living in Madrid, forced to pawn her typewriter, while waiting for a check from her agent. She did what every writer does by turning a real-life situation into fiction. The short story deals with a woman on a quest for self-discovery, living with three friends, all of whom are waiting for money. They eat cheap, loaf around and try to enjoy life on a budget. Gallant is a prolific contributor to The New Yorker, featuring publication of more than one hundred stories in the magazine. I wonder, now that handwritten journals are obsolete, how will writer’s notes be remembered?
A Day by William Trevor – In William Trevor’s short story, entitled ‘A Day’, the author successfully immerses the reader in the point-of-view character’s consciousness. We wake with Mrs. Lethwes as she watches her husband sleep, as she goes marketing and stops by the coffee shop. We listen to her chat and eavesdrop on her thoughts. Her nerves deepen, growing more serious, while day turns to night. She is trying to reconcile herself to her husband’s affair. ‘A Day’ is featured in William Trevor’s 1996 collection ‘After Rain’. In his own words, Trevor says: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so.”
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK – This is an extremely short story, at barely two pages in length. I find a relationship in that the further an author pushes into experimental form, the shorter a story needs to be, to keep readers engaged in the story arc. Similar to “Father’s Great Escape”, “The Gospel According to Mark” (by Jorge Luis Borges) succeeds as such. Because the author gets in and gets out, quickly. This avoids any possibility of allowing readers spotting the upcoming twist ending (which I won’t give away here). Thus, when an aimless medical student goes to stay at a ranch, he becomes trapped indoors by a flood. Alongside an illiterate farm family, that works the land as ranch hands. They are in awe of the young man because he reads passages to them from an old notated family Bible. In the final sequence, the father asks him if Christ let Himself be killed to save all men. The young man says, “Yes, to save everyone from Hell.” They mock him, spit on him and shove him, into the back part of the house. The girl weeps (he has had sex with the ranch hand’s daughter but vows to deny it) because she knows what’s waiting for him, on the other side of the door. The story touches on themes of crucifixion (with several deliberate references to Christ, it’s no coincidence), salvation and earthly pleasures. I feel that the author is also sending a clear message about class. Specifically (I imagine), the treatment of common laborers in relation to the upper echelon, in Latin America, if not as a comment on the world at large.
IN THE REIGN OF HARAD IV – A miniature maker–honored with a fur coat to attend court—creates doll house furniture with incredible detail. He loses himself in his own ambitions, ever creating things that are smaller and smaller, that his apprentices check on him one day. He has made a doll house so small, that it is invisible, even under powerful magnification. In the Reign of Harad IV by Steven Millhauser the author explores themes common to his other works, small moments, replicating reality, small models and exploration of the literary fantastic. This Pulitzer prizewinning writer has authored Dangerous Laughter, A Precursor of the Cinema and The Other Town.
ABLE, BAKER, CHARLIE, DOG – This short story is part of a larger work by the author entitled Sweet Talk. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker numerous times over a twenty year period. I haven’t read any of the other stories, so this review only pertains to: Able, Barker, Charlie, Dog by Stephanie Vaughn. The story is spare and haunting, centering on the first person narrator’s perceptions of her father, as they changed over time. The title is derived from a trick to memorize the alphabet, that she learned at age twelve years, taught to her by her father, used by the military to keep the B’s separate from the V’s. Throughout the story, he (the father) teaches life lessons, he is a good man, while at the same time, that he is deeply flawed, as a human being. Thematically, this is Vaughn’s moral of the story: even at our best, we’re still capable of our worst.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF IMPERFECTION – This short story was published in the New Yorker–but, is part of the author’s longer work titled ‘Seduction Theory’–with a college student whose father dies of cancer. In A Different Kind of Imperfection by Thomas Beller, the protagonist returns to his mother’s home for Christmas vacation from university, after recently breaking up with his girlfriend. There are inanimate objects scattered all throughout the apartment that remind him of his childhood, about his mother as she is now, as well as piles of his father’s books. In particular, he zeroes in on ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf with a business card, pencil marks and paper scraps found inside the book. The imagery is somber and restrained, reminiscent of Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, which also makes an allusion to Virginia Woolf, as she descends into hysteria and madness. Cunningham’s book titled ‘The Hours’ (also a major motion picture) famously deals with Woolf’s suicide as she filled her coat pockets with rocks and drowned herself. The short story is a comment on what we leave behind when we are gone.
SHORT STORY REVIEW THE EVOLUTION OF KNOWLEDGE – In New York, two foreign men (Italian and German) share either side of a wall, living in an apartment building, with their families. On weekend mornings, the children run and bounce balls, which disturb the neighbor, setting in motion a series of interactions. There are negotiations, compromises, agreements and violations which are discussed–in public and private–amongst each other, as well as with their friends. In the big-picture, The Evolution of Knowledge by Niccolo Tucci is a statement on Fascism, changing morays, discipline of children and post-World War II renewal. In the small-picture, the short story is framed within the context of an ordinary dispute between neighbors that is told with charm and simplicity. In either sense, it draws upon the fact that good fences make good neighbors. In that light, I am reminded of Frost’s poem: ‘Mending Wall’.
FATHER’S LAST ESCAPE – In the context of the liquidation of their business, coupled with the presumed drowning of a servant girl and replacement with another, the father has transformed into crab/ scorpion. The short story, Father’s Last Escape by Bruno Schulz, is intentionally vague, highly fantastical and almost completely dissociative. At points there is more material devoted to elements that seem insignificant. While important aspects of characterization and plot are given a glancing treatment. There is a clear allusion to The Metamorphasis by Franz Kafka. Several times the author applies animalistic, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic qualities to the crab-like animal, characters or inanimate objects, at times interchangeably. I suppose it’s true that this might be a comment on aging, death and dying; as the literary criticism states. However, the story is so short (at less than three pages), utilizing such a high level of stream-of-consciousness, it can easily be interpreted the way any of us transform, reach an epiphany or disappear from each other’s lives–with or without notice.