Short Story Month, Day 6: "Some Other, Better Otto"
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Michelle Zuppa.
I first read Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto,” in the 2004 Best American Short Stories anthology. In a collection featuring work by Alice Munro, John Updike, Annie Proulx, Stuart Dybek and other big names chosen by Lorrie Moore, this piece has stayed with me, compelled me to read it again and again. Breaking many workshop rules, the story epitomizes what the internet regularly claims is wrong with realist literary fiction: nothing much happens, there are too many characters –eleven named and others with roles like security guard, doctor, wife, first set of children—it starts with dialogue, and, it’s thirty-one pages long.
So what’s so special about this story?
First, there’s the voice, which captures the magnificent complexity of Otto, revealing his insight, irritability, insecurity, and emotion in the third person, the perfect distance for this character. Considering whether to spend Thanksgiving with his siblings, Otto thinks “and the further truth was… that he himself wanted, in some way, to see Sharon; he himself wanted, in some way, to see Naomi and Margaret and the baby as soon as possible. And it was even he himself who had agreed to join his family for Thanksgiving.” This push-pull of wanting something and not wanting to own the responsibility of wanting it defines Otto, a man who has everything—a wonderful partner, meaningful work, money, friends, compassion, sensibility. Despite his damn fine life, he remains difficult and critical, refusing to enjoy and appreciate what he has, allowing deep insecurity and an innate cantankerousness to compel him to attack those who love him. The voice also has the kind of snark which makes me snort out loud while drinking coffee in public, at lines such as: “The doctor shrugged and flipped back his blue-black hair, dislodging sparkles of handsomeness.”
With this voice, with this character, the story takes on large questions: like how we become who we are, why we reproduce and whether we should, how time works and whether there are multiple universes and alternate versions of ourselves. It shows us the tragedy of lost vast potential, and reminds of the relentless march of time. “It all goes so fast,” says Otto’s sister, trying to get him to come to Thanksgiving. Ultimately, the story reveals the grace of love, received in spite of, or maybe because of, our inability to deserve it. It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully written and worthy of a lingering read.
Michelle Zuppa earned an MFA in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University and teaches English at Erie Community College in Buffalo, New York.