Short Story Month, Day 31: "Babylon Revisited"

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 managing editor Michael Nye.

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, way back when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I gravitated toward F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. I bought and read all his novels. His collected stories was my Bible. When people asked me who my favorite writer was, I said Fitzgerald. Without thinking much about why. Fitzgerald is now best known for The Great Gatsby, but during his lifetime, he was a short story writer, writing stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Red Book, Liberty, and McCall’s.

I’m thirty four years old, and have only recently reached (some) level of comfort with admitting I haven’t read The Famous Book You Want To Talk About and Are Shocked I Have Not Read. I’ve also begun to question the books I have read. When I read The Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t like it: would that be true if I reread it today? Moby Dick was brilliant when I was in my late twenties; how would I feel about the book now? How many other books do I need to revisit, reconsider? Fortunately for me, this is National Short Story Month, not National Novel Month. So it seems appropriate to close May by rereading  my favorite (allegedly!) short story writer and what’s considered one of his greatest stories.

“Babylon Revisited” is the story of Charles Wales, an American living in Prague after the boom years of the Roaring Twenties have crashed and burned. The story is set in Paris, and when the story opens, Charlie has just arrived. He finds the city is, of course, not the way he remembers it; old friends are broke or just flat out gone; all his old haunts are still and quiet. None of it feels right to Charlie: nothing is quite recognizable and he’s softly embarrassed by all the things he can’t remember or never did when he lived in Paris. He tries to convince himself that the past doesn’t matter. Instead, he focuses on his nine-year-old daughter Honoria, who he hasn’t seen for ten months, in the hope of convincing her guardians, his sister-in-law Marion and her husband Lincoln, to let him take his daughter back to Prague. He hopes they can forgive him for what happened to his deceased wife Helen, which Fitzgerald is careful not to reveal too soon.

The melancholy and the hopeful stubbornness Charlie shows in the first scene resonates in each of the story’s five sections. The large, bustling city he remembers is gone, and Charlie is both relieved and nostalgic for the days when he was filthy rich and frequently drunk. It was a party that never should have ended.

Helen haunts the story. Naturally, Marion is unconvinced that Charlie has changed. Every word she speaks, every gesture she makes, is cautious, icy, a thinly veiled contempt for her brother-in-law. Charlie’s mind never focuses on Helen, too painful to linger on, too incompatible with his hopeful view of the future. Helen reminds both characters of their past—my wonderful and flawless sister; my carefree partner-in-crime wife—that no longer exists and probably wasn’t a true image of Helen anyway. They both need Helen to be a martyr, to serve their own needs.

But the story gives Charlie, and the reader, a second type of ghost: Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, “one of a crowd who had helped them make the months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.” They are doppelgängers for Charlie and Helen, the presence of the past that can be shaken off and turned into pretty memories. They are still drunk and lascivious, and Charlie tries and fails repeatedly to duck them. All of which brings the story to its apex when they corner Charlie by storming into Helen and Lincoln’s living room.

Honoria is more of a device than a character, and I wondered more than once how deliberate this characterization was. To see her as a token to be fought over seems to fit the story, fit how Charlie wants possession of her (of his past, of his change) without really contemplating why. There is little signs of love for her from Helen and Lincoln, who are simply doing their duty more than anything. It’s American of them, in the most derisive of ways, to want to have something solely for the purpose of having it, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Even of their own lives.

This week, after rereading “Babylon Revisited” once, I wrote one of my friends and said that Fitzgerald’s story really seems to be of an era rather than timelessness. I’m less convinced this is true now. All great stories are of their time … and of our own. Experiencing Charlie’s decadence and decay recalls our recent booms and busts. Whether it was the Great Recession and the housing bubble, the tech boom, Dow 36000, the Post War Boom … well, you’ve seen and heard this dance before. This time it’s different, they say. It never is. Any student of history knows better. Any reader of fiction.

Charlie’s collapse, both mental and financial, could be from any era. So too could his stubborn American view of the morning—“football weather”, he calls it—when anything is possible, anything can be done. But Fitzgerald shows us what Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This constant fragility of our lives, of what we’ve done, is the kind of tragedy that Fitzgerald orchestrated these moments better than any other writer of his era. The story’s devastating last line perfectly captures this fragility. I won’t give away the ending of this story, just in case, but close with this from the end of the first section:

It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.

If you haven’t already, you can read “Babylon Revisited” here.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Short Story Month, Day 29: "Guilt"

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 our own technical editor, Patrick Lane.

Only one story I’ve taught has made a student cry in class. Moreover, it wasn’t even a particularly moving passage in the story whose lyricism plucked the heartstrings and brought a tear to the eye; it was the discussion of the story that made the student cry. I reckon that to be some serious narrative power. The story is Judy Budnitz’s “Guilt,” from her 1998 collection Flying Leap.

Budnitz is an accomplished fabulist, and “Guilt” is built on a straightforward “What if?” conceit. Arnie’s mother has just had a heart attack. The story opens with him and his two aunts sitting in the hospital waiting room.

The doctors told us her heart won’t last much longer. Her old ticker is ticking its last, unless something is done. “What can be done?” the aunts cried.

“We can’t fix it,” the doctors said. “She needs a new one, a transplant.”

“Then give her one!” the aunts cried.

“It’s not that easy,” said the doctors. “We need a donor.”

The doctors went away. The aunts looked at me.

“Arnie,” Nina said, “what about your heart?”

Unlike the fantastical conceits of a lot of fabulism, the premise of “Guilt” is disturbingly plausible. When I teach this story some student almost invariably asks, “They can’t actually do that, can they?” In fact, I’m not entirely sure that they couldn’t; but advances in medical technology are not really the crux of “Guilt.” The “What if?” here is not really “What if it were possible to donate your heart to your parent?” but rather “What if you were expected to?”

Arnie is not onboard with this particular form of self-sacrifice. He protests that he needs his heart, that it’s not right that he should give up his life to for his mother:

“We can’t both have my heart,” I say.

“Of course not,” says Nina. “You could get one of those monkey hearts, or that artificial heart they made such a fuss about on the news awhile back.”

“Why can’t Mother get one of those? Or a transplant from someone else?”

“Do you want your mother should have a stranger’s heart? Or a monkey’s heart? Your poor mother? Do you remember how she never used to take you to the zoo because she couldn’t stand to see the filthy monkeys? And you want her to have a monkey’s heart? It would kill her!” Fran cries.

Budnitz has some fun with the stereotypes of Jewish mothers and sons as the aunts continue to needle Arnie, but what’s at stake is the very definition of what it means to be a loving son. The language of love and debt is soon inextricably entangled. The aunts remind Arnie of the sacrifices his mother made to put him through college and of the fact that since graduating all he does is “sit in front of a typewriter all day, call yourself a writer, smoke those cigarettes, never get a haircut–” The accusation is clear: Arnie has been a bad son, a burden on his saintly and long-suffering mother. Donating his heart goes beyond simply the duty of a good son. It becomes the means by which Arnie might finally redeem himself.

Or so the aunts say. Arnie sees the absurdity of their argument and expects reality to come crashing down on them when they present him to the doctor as a potential donor.

“Surely you don’t do that sort of thing?” I say incredulously.

He gazes at me. “It’s very rare, very rare indeed that a son will be so good as to donate his heart. In a few cases it has been done. But it’s so rare to find such a son. A rare and beautiful thing.”

At this point the story adopts a pattern familiar to any fan of The Twilight Zone, in which the rules of the world have changed, but only our protagonist recognizes the difference. Even Arnie’s girlfriend, whom he thinks must surely support him, must surely reject the madness of his relatives, sees the heart donation as not a sacrifice, but a wonderful opportunity:

“Isn’t technology incredible?” Mandy says. “These days doctors can do anything. Now you can share yourself, really give yourself to someone else in ways you never thought were possible before. Your mother must be thrilled.”

In workshop, one of the axes that we use to track tension is connection/disconnection. Are characters growing closer or pulling apart? “Guilt” takes this axis and ties it into knots. We normally think of connection as the positive value and disconnection as the negative. In the classical model, comedies, which end in marriage, are ultimately stories of connection, and tragedies, which end in death, embody disconnection (at least from one perspective). But in “Guilt,” that polarity becomes the point of view of the upside-down world that Arnie finds himself trapped in. It is the aunts and Mandy who insist that Arnie’s reluctance to give up his heart for his dying mother is proof of irredeemable selfishness, who praise connection as the highest virtue, and yet we (at least most of us, I hope) empathize with Arnie. We shiver when Arnie’s mother, ostensibly taking his side and excusing him from any obligation, lays the ultimate guilt trip on her son:

“You have your whole life ahead of you, after all,” my mother says. She looks down at her arms, at the branching veins that creep up them like tendrils of a vine. “I never expected anything from you, you know,” she says. “Of course nothing like this.”

Connection becomes emotional extortion, and disconnection takes the form of a kind of outlaw freedom. Is it right for our parents to expect anything from us? Is it wrong for us to disregard our parents’ expectations of us? Essentially, we all owe a debt to our parents that cannot be repaid, short of repaying a life with a life. Arnie doesn’t get to decide or even debate what he owes his mother; no one will listen to his arguments about whether or not it is fair to ask him to give up his heart. Arnie is left only to decide whether he wants to live in debt or get free of it. As such, the option of giving his very own heart to his mother becomes not the ultimate act of connection and intimacy that all our symbolic traditions would assume it is, but is rather a route to being truly free from her forever.

It was working out this brutal calculus that brought my student to tears. He was trying to articulate what he would say to his mother if they found themselves in such a situation. He didn’t quite get through the whole equation. As he began to get choked up, he simply said, “She wouldn’t — she couldn’t — ask that of me.” For him, Arnie’s dilemma was a “what if?” that had to be kept firmly in the realm of fable and fantasy.

For those aurally inclined, a recording of “Guilt” as read by actor Matt Malloy was featured on This American Life as part of episode #256, “Living Without.” Audio of the episode with the performance of “Guilt” (which is how I first encountered Budnitz’s work) is available at the This American Life website.

Patrick Lane is the Missouri Review’s web editor.

Short Story Month, Day 28: "The Lady with the Little Dog"

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 writer Elliott Holt.

“Every personal existence was upheld by a secret,” writes Chekhov in “The Lady with the Little[1] Dog.” [2]

That line kept running through my head when I saw Sarah Polley’s beautiful documentary “Stories We Tell” last weekend. The film is an investigation of her late mother and the secrets she kept. Polley interviews all of her siblings, her father, and her mother’s friends in an attempt to make sense of her family’s past. I often think about secrets, about how hard it can be to know another person completely, and about how much we humans need our hidden, interior lives. And so it’s not surprising that I return again and again to my favorite Chekhov story.

On the surface “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a love story, and a romantic one at that, but it’s also about the tension between the person we show the world and the one we keep to ourselves. The older I get, the more the story resonates with me.

I must have been in high school the first time I read “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Chekhov’s story can be found on many syllabi, of course, so I read it again in college and again in Russian at the Middlebury language school one summer. In college classrooms, I learned about what the critic D.S. Mirsky refers to as Chekhov’s “lyric constructions” (he notes the musicality of Chekhov’s stories, which tend to end on a minor note) and the “leitmotif of mutual isolation” (there is a lot of loneliness in Chekhov stories). I learned about how Chekhov revolutionized the short story and about his influence on modern American writers. And when I read the story in Russian, our professor, Lyudmila Parts, pointed out its intertextual relationship with Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s novel about an adulterous love affair was published in 1877, a full twenty-two years before Chekhov’s story. And aside from their shared subject matter, and the fact that both women are named Anna, there are scenes in “The Lady with the Lap Dog” that directly reference Tolstoy’s book. As my sister Katharine Holt, a Russian literature scholar, recently reminded me, one could read “The Lady with the Little Dog” as a lower-stakes version of Anna Karenina. It’s a short story, not a novel. It’s an affair in which the woman feels guilty and sad, but doesn’t kill herself. We don’t see the unhappiness of the heroine’s home life the way we see Anna Karenina’s misery in the novel. It’s a snapshot of an affair, rather than the full narrative, yet it’s still deeply affecting.

Gurov is “not yet forty”[3] when he meets “the lady with the little dog,” while on holiday in Yalta. His wife and children are at home in Moscow. Gurov’s marriage is not a happy one: “he secretly considered [his wife] none too bright, narrow-minded, graceless, was afraid of her and disliked being at home. He had begun to be unfaithful to her long ago, was unfaithful often…” From the very beginning, “the lady with the little dog” is his target, and we know that he will succeed in sleeping with her.

I have read this story at least thirty times, but I still think of her as “the lady with the lap dog.” And that is surely Chekhov’s intention because he doesn’t reveal her name until the third page. At the beginning of the story, she is introduced as “a new face on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.” She is “a young woman, not very tall, blond, in a beret, walking along the embankment; behind her ran a white spitz.” People at the hotel refer to her as “the lady with the little dog.” When he finally learns her name once the flirtation is well underway, it’s an after thought: “And Gurov also learned that her name was Anna Sergeevna.”

Anna is married, but has never before been unfaithful to her husband. Gurov’s romantic history is more complicated. He observes that most of the women who have loved him didn’t really know him:

Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination had created, whom they had greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him.

 But earlier in the story he admits that he doesn’t let anyone in completely. Intimacy “grows into a major task” and “becomes burdensome.” When Gurov loses interest in women, “their beauty aroused hatred in him, and the lace of their underwear seemed to him like scales.” (That is a brilliant description, not just because it’s a surprising, specific image, but also because it tells us so much about Gurov’s character.)

Gurov is detached from the people around him. He’s surprised that he falls in love with Anna. And despite his professed love for her, Anna Sergeevna remains an abstract figure in the story. Gurov projects romantic notions onto her the same way women have projected things onto him. When he goes to find her in the city of S., he sees her in the theater (a place of projections and roles) and thinks, “this small woman, lost in the provincial crowd, not remarkable for anything with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, now filled his whole life.” Gurov is convinced that he has never really been in love before, but he doesn’t know Anna very well.

I would argue that this story is less about Anna than about Gurov’s need to escape his conventional life:

He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others…

He needs his secret life. It sustains him. It’s like the watermelon he eats after he has sex with Anna Sergeevna for the first time. Before you slice open a watermelon, you can’t see the juicy, bright red fruit inside. I can’t help but wonder if such a “secret” life is essential to artists, who need to preserve private emotional space in which to compose or write or paint. The “secret” life is one where the imagination flourishes. Perhaps Chekhov’s own marriage worked because he and Olga Knipper saw each other so rarely—she was in Moscow acting in his plays, he was in Yalta because of his poor health. They conducted most of their relationship by letter.[4]

Gurov lives in Moscow, Anna lives in the provincial city referred to as S.  She visits him occasionally in Moscow, but they know they can’t continue to live this way, married to other people and seeing each other only in secret. The secrecy is not sustainable. It’s making them miserable. (In Sarah Polley’s film, someone wisely observes that love affairs “need witnesses” to legitimize them.) Yet if the relationship were not secret, I can’t help but think it would lose its appeal to Gurov. Gurov doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. The story ends on an ambiguous note:

And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

Even after reading it dozens of times, this strikes me as a really ballsy way to end a story. (After all those years reading this story in literature classes, I now read it as a writer. I admire Chekhov’s craft; it’s enormously instructive.) He finishes a story by saying that the end is far off and that the most complicated part is just beginning. He subverts traditional notions of endings by putting the word “beginning,” at the end. And in doing so, he underscores the fact that for all the hope that Gurov and Anna have for their future, this relationship is doomed. As readers, we know their love can’t last. Gurov and Anna really believe that it will work out, but Chekhov’s minor key suggests otherwise. It’s heartbreaking because it’s true.


[1] Like most people I know, I refer to this story as “The Lady with the Lap Dog” because the first twenty or so times I read it, the title was translated that way. But Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, “little dog,” is closer to the Russian title.

[2] All quotes are from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation.

[3] It is worth noting that Chekhov was thirty-nine when he wrote this story and that I am thirty-nine now. As a writer who appreciates this story more every time I read it, I can only hope I will write something half this good. As a human being nearing her fortieth birthday, I am familiar with the restlessness that Gurov experiences in the story.

[4] And oh what letters they are! I read the romantic correspondence between Chekhov and Olga Knipper when I was about 22 and I remember wanting a love affair like that: conducted entirely by letter. The obstacle of distance made them more passionate and appreciative of each other. Better yet, they expressed this passion on paper. At 22, this seemed ideal. I suppose this reveals a lot about me. I need my space and I love writing.

elliottHoltElliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them, is out this month on Penguin. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has lived in cities all over the world. A former copywriter who worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London, and New York, Holt attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College at night while working full time in Manhattan during the day. Her short fiction has been published in Guernica, Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).

Short Story Month, Day 25: "Parker's Back"

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 writer Paul Arrand Rodgers.

I first encountered “Parker’s Back” in high school, at the height of my zeal for Jesus Christ. It was assigned in one of the religion classes at the all-boys Catholic prep school I attended—social justice or ethics or something—and, passing out hand-typed copies of Flannery O’Conner’s short story, my monkish teacher enthused over the perfect Catholicism of its protagonist, O.E. Parker. I think my instructor, whose name is now lost to me, was missing the point, somewhat. O’Conner was a devout Roman Catholic, but, as is the case in many of her narratives, salvation—the focus and aim of every Christian faith I’ve heard of—is denied her hero by a cruel third party. I missed the point, too. I rushed to embrace Parker. I liked him. I was (and still am) jealous of his tattoos; his Sailor Jerrys, his pin-up dolls, and, yes, the cross he chooses to bear.

Entering college, I harbored thoughts of joining the seminary after graduation. By junior year, however, that plan was far, far behind me. I’d since declared my intention to study English literature. I began to take my creative writing seriously. Simultaneously influenced by Natalie Goldberg’s series of writing instructionals and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, I went around Cincinnati amassing a fleet of journals and folios (my favorite one crafted from the remains of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell on vinyl), launched a number of blogs (none of which survive) and set myself to the task of filling them out. I pulled all-nighters doing this, switching from poetry to fiction to memoir, taking brief breaks to critique the daily misadventures of Heathcliff, who, behind Garfield and Felix, is the third most famous comic strip cat. Had I bothered to finish The Golden Notebook before setting out to produce as many words as possible, I may have realized that Anna Wulf’s mental breakdown was partially driven by her impulse to compartmentalize her life, to contain it within the pages of four notebooks and strangle each of those narratives until, refusing to give their author a sense of closure, they were murdered.

Instead, I plowed on, writing myself into a constant state of exhaustion. Juggling extemporaneous writing exercises with my coursework, I sometimes went three, four days without sleep. I’d crash on Saturday, wake up late on Sunday afternoon, and dive into those notebooks, searching for something, anything, I could polish and hold up as art. Often, within those notebooks, I was confronted by a stranger. He had doubts about his faith. He had doubts about his identity. Slowly, painfully, I began to merge with this stranger. Depressed, I spent my evenings crying under the blankets in my locked dorm room. One night, my crying shook the lofted bed so hard it broke.

It was under these conditions that I had my second experience with Obadiah Elihue. I was asked by friends to be one of the leaders of a Campus Ministry retreat, and, doubting Thomas though I was, I accepted. I had to prepare an activity for 30-people to participate in and, wanting something silent and mindful, I created an exercise asking retreatants to write a faith narrative. Vaguely remembering “Parker’s Back” from high school, I purchased Everything That Rises Must Converge from Half-Price Books, copied a thick stack of the story, and piled into the bus for a weekend of prayer, tearful personal stories, group hugs, and ill-prepared camp breakfasts.

Reading “Parker’s Back” again in group, I was somewhat horrified. He finds Jesus—literally—but it’s rather charitable to look at O.E. Parker as a “flawed” individual. He’s a bad human being. Not on the order of The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but what’s clear here is the parallel O’Conner draws between Obadiah and St. Paul, the great scoundrel of the evangelists. It isn’t just that both O.E. and Paul begin their respective stories as bad men and end up redeemed, but that they both find redemption in that which their constituents find repulsive. For Parker, it’s his tattoos, which greatly offended his wife, Sara Ruth, even before his back’s rather literal transubstantiation into holy object. For Paul, it’s Catholicism, which literally knocks him from his high horse.

The difference—and, ultimately what makes “Parker’s Back” such a strong piece of fiction—is that St. Paul’s story is a closed loop. A bad man finds God and crusades for Him just as hard, if not harder, than when he chose to be His enemy. Paul’s reward, martyrdom, was the highest grace that could be given to the early Catholic. Contrast that with Parker, who, chastised by his wife for committing the sin of idolatry, weeps beneath a tree. Which seems like the more plausible conversion scenario: that of the bold, driven general, or the scared, hurt everyman?

My high school teacher contested that O.E. Parker was the perfect Catholic because he rushed headlong into the unknowable, sacrificing his own body to do so. I disagree. Parker knew exactly what he was doing when he trundled off to complete his tapestry of flesh and ink, but it wound up affecting him in a much deeper, more profound way than he originally anticipated. He ends up reborn, but not in the sense that his sins are washed away and forgiven; rather, he is new, raw material. He bends easily. He is susceptible to breakage.

O’Connor’s complete mastery of the short narrative need not be exalted here, though I believe there is a magic to the conciseness of the short story that exists in no other mode of art. Her characters here are drawn with broad strokes, but if you believe, as I do, that great works of art act not only as portraiture, but also as mirror, then those strokes allow the reader to flesh out Parker and his wife with personal experience. “Parker’s Back” stuck with me in the weeks that followed that retreat, as it does to this day. Upon third, forth, and fifth readings, it struck me that O.E. Parker wasn’t a “bad guy” at all; he’s just a human being, and no sudden declaration of faith can wash that away. I can think of two kinds of people who have that knowledge and who are humbled by it: the truly devout, and those who were formerly so.

Though Parker and I are traveling in opposite directions, I would once again embrace him. I think, despite our differences, we have come to understand one another. We contemplate the unknown. We attempt to contextualize it. We are confused. We weep. We have both been shattered and left alone to pick ourselves up. This is what great fiction suggests: not that the moment of catharsis is what’s most valuable to a human being, but the moments that follow. “Parker’s Back” ends with its protagonist weeping, but he is not beaten. There is yet ecstasy in the world. One of those ecstasies is pain. In O’Connor’s hands, it is exquisite.

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com

Short Story Month, Day 23: "Sonny's Blues"

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 writer Liz Prato.

I can’t remember the first time I heard other writers talk about “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s like the first time you heard someone mention Spinoza: you nodded your head knowingly and thought, Huh, I should go look that up sometime. My friend, Yuvi Zalkow, considers “Sonny’s Blues” to be a seminal factor in cementing his relationship with his now-wife. They were dating when they discovered they were both obsessed with the story. They decided to get a hotel room at the Oregon coast and spend the whole night discussing “Sonny’s Blues.” After that, Yuvi knew they were right for each other.

Now, that’s what we call a true lit-geek romance.

So, it’s not surprising that when I told Yuvi I’d never read “Sonny’s Blues” – that I couldn’t even find a copy of it – he took it upon himself to find it for me. Out of the blue, the mail brought me a used copy of a mass-market anthology published in the 1987. The first story in the collection was “Sonny’s Blues.”

I read it on my purple shabby-chic couch while my husband was at band practice. I was about two-thirds of the way through the story when my husband came home. “Don’t talk to me,” I said before he uttered a word. “I’m reading the greatest story ever.”

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again.

The sense of rhythm is instantaneous, the repetition, the call and response. From the very first line, Baldwin evokes both the source of the devil, and redemption, in this story: music. The music carried me through that first reading just like a bebop piece. I was drawn in by the catchy phrase, I stayed because of the constantly evolving complexity. I stayed to find out where it would take me. I keep going back because the music is somehow different each and every time.

I teach creative writing to adults, most of them floating somewhere along the spectrum of “beginners.” I teach (and by “teach” I mean “beat into”) them to not withhold critical information from the reader, to avoid too much backstory — lest it overwhelm the front story, to give your freaking narrator a name, for heaven’s sake, and to never, ever use adverbial dialogue tags. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin breaks all these rules.

The narrator — who is never named — spends four paragraphs telling us how troubled he is about Sonny being picked up in a drug raid before he tells us who Sonny is to him – his brother. A huge chunk of the story is told not just in backstory – but in backstory within backstory, within even more backstory. I mean, it’s crazy. About halfway through the piece, after Sonny has gotten out of jail and the narrator is trying to reconcile with him, the narrator starts remembering things. “This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive,” he says. But before he actually describes the last time he ever saw his mother alive, he goes even farther back and talks about when he was a kid and the adults would sit around the living room. When the narrator comes out of that back-backstory, he returns to the backstory of the last time he saw his mother alive. Then she tells him — in roughly eight hundred words – that his father had a brother, and that brother died in a cruel accident. Through Mama’s lips, Baldwin paints such a vivid description of the night the man was killed that we’re no longer in the living room with the narrator and his mother telling the story. We are on that hill, with the narrator’s Daddy and uncle, with the moon as bright as day and the uncle strumming his guitar, when a car full of drunk white men turned the narrator’s uncle into blood and pulp. The narrator’s father was never right again after that night. “He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away,” Mama tells the narrator, bringing us back to the living room.

That’s what it means to lose a brother.

The story continues along this backstory timeline, with Mama’s death and the narrator coming home from the military for her funeral. He’s infused with a sense of responsibility toward Sonny. He feels the burden of making sure his younger brother turns out all right. Of course, everything doesn’t turn out all right. Sonny turns to jazz music and turns to heroin, and the narrator turns away from his brother.

I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.

Sonny and the narrator have one last big fight, in which the narrator tells Sonny “he might just as well be dead as live the way he was living,” and Sonny says “not to worry about him anymore, that he was dead,” as far as they were concerned. That was the last time the brothers saw each other, until after Sonny got out of jail. We, as readers, have not forgotten Mama’s warning about how dark it is to lose a brother. The narrator may have pushed it deep down, for a while, but that darkness still follows us around. It’s what makes us care so much about whether or not the narrator and Sonny can work things out between them, in present story.

What if the chronology had been linear, instead of wrinkled? The story would have started . . . where? With the narrator as a child in the living room, while darkness fell over the adults? With Mama telling him about the death of his previously unknown uncle? With Mama dying? See, none of that would have been interesting if we hadn’t started with Sonny getting picked up in that drug raid. If the narrator hadn’t said on page one,

I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.

That what we call stakes, my friends.

As for those adverbial dialogue tags (characters say things “grimly” and “knowingly” and “desperately” and “gently”), I don’t quite know how to explain them to my students. Mostly I ask them to notice how they move the dialogue along, how the reader doesn’t have to slow down and consider things, but get to focus on the importance of what the characters are actually saying. I say that because it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. But, really, if James Baldwin brought this story to my workshop, I’d be striking those adverbs in red pen. It pains me to admit it, but that’s the truth.

Here’s the thing about discussing a story that clocks in at roughly 13,800 words: it’s hard to do briefly. I’ve already rhapsodized extensively, and haven’t even mentioned that most transcendent ending in all of modern literature. My skin is shivering right now, just thinking about it, how Baldwin takes the motif and the theme and the plot and the characters and brings them all home with Scotch and milk and a piano. He brings them to rest.

Liz PratoLiz Prato writes and teaches in Portland, OR. Her stories and essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Los Angeles Review, and Hunger Mountain. She is currently writing a memoir, and is about to dive into editing a short story anthology for Forest Avenue Press. Her not-so-recently updated website is www.lizprato.com

Short Story Month, Day 22: "Differently"

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 writer Andrew Scott.

alice

“A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself, of being built of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you. To deliver a story like that, durable and freestanding, is what I’m always hoping for.”

—Alice Munro, from the introduction to her Selected Stories

Like many readers, I am always grateful to come upon the kind of story Alice Munro calls “durable and freestanding,” one that forever alters my experience as a reader. Munro has written many such stories in the last five decades. Her famous story-as-house metaphor is aptly realized in her fiction, especially in stories published after her conscious decision to abandon the epiphanic shape of stories in her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades. Her stories will endure for a number of reasons, but especially because she willingly constructs a “house” that always reveals more with each visit. Other famous stories are as intricately designed as Munro’s—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” for example. Few short stories, though, remain “durable” after so many readings. Munro’s design choices are responsible for that durability, and readers remain excited about her work because their expectations are never easily met. We never want what comes easily, Munro reminds us, which is perhaps another reason why her fiction will endure beyond her lifetime. Reading her work may frustrate readers who do not surrender completely to her narrative control; she complicates expectations to create the kind prison William H. Gass refers to when he says that an author should work to “keep us kindly imprisoned in his language.” Her language, in this case.

“Differently,” a story from Friend of My Youth, is a fair representation of Munro’s post-epiphanic work. Her stories often contain a multitude of shapes, in much the same way a novel can simultaneously employ various shapes. This is generally what readers mean when we speak of her stories’ expansive or novelistic qualities. Many of them are quite long; some surpass forty pages. At 28 pages, “Differently” is not one of her longest stories—only the fifth-longest story in Friend of My Youth—yet “Differently” does have feel more like a novel because there are several characters whose entire lives are revealed for readers, and its narrative shapes vary widely: the journey, the gathering, and more. Munro wishes to pack entire lives, not just mere moments (or glimpses, as William Trevor might prefer), into her stories. “Differently” opens in this manner:

Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.

Munro, like the creative writing instructor, realizes the importance of understanding the reader’s expectations. Unlike the instructor, however, Munro does not hedge toward simplicity or oversimplification. She assumes that readers will rise to meet a work on its own terms, without the story needing to be dumbed down. In “Differently,” Munro is thinking about what readers should pay attention to, about that important thing. Her answer is simple: she asks that readers work to discover the importance of each story element.

One possible reason for Munro’s decision to move away from the epiphanic structure is that, after a century of encountering them in books and magazines and movies, readers can find the pattern in an epiphanic narrative and know, before the story’s ending, the ways in which the character will view the events in a new light. In short, readers’ expectations in an epiphanic story are not openly challenged. For a story to be “durable and freestanding,” for it to hold up after various examinations, it must contain “more than you saw the last time.” Epiphanic stories may have the effect of surprise during the first reading, but the epiphany is rarely as powerful the second time through, and if the story has little to offer but its epiphany, it will be hard for the story to remain “durable” through the harsh winters of time.

The plot of “Differently” is fairly simple. Georgia travels to visit Raymond. The front story—that is, the story that does not occur in flashback or memory—occurs in Raymond’s house. Georgia’s visit is the occasion for story. She and Raymond remember old times, some of which were better than others. Then Georgia leaves. During the course of that afternoon visit, which is told in the present tense, Munro weaves in decades of back story. As a result, readers are never really sure what to expect. The first section, which begins the front story, also contains numerous moments and memories of Georgia and Raymond’s pasts—shared and not. Numerous sections keep the reader guessing as to how these lives will unfold. The sections are organized associatively—Munro navigates through time as needed, and not in predictable ways.

The second section, for example, occurs one year prior to the time of Georgia’s visit to Raymond, back to the moment when Georgia learned of Maya’s death. Maya was Raymond’s wife. Georgia’s had been angry with Maya for many years because Maya slept with a man with whom Georgia had been having an affair.

At this point, the reader might think a pattern is developing, that Munro might return to the front story in Raymond’s living room, thus establishing a pattern of alternating sections: front story, back story, front story, and so on. Instead, the third section moves even deeper into the past, to when Georgia and her husband first visited Maya and Raymond’s home. The fourth section remains deep in back story, but moves forward from the third section to characterize the development of Georgia and Maya’s friendship. The fifth section continues with this, and establishes the start of Georgia’s affair; the sixth clarifies their friendship and the downfall of Georgia’s affair; the seventh section, which is longer than the previous five sections, details the emotional breakdown and distance within Georgia and Maya’s friendship.

The eighth section returns readers to the present-tense front story, the conversation between Georgia and Raymond. But quickly readers are moved through to the ninth section, to Georgia’s final memories of Maya. The tenth and final section brings readers again to Raymond’s living room, where Raymond asks Georgia how they should behave: “‘Differently,’ says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.”

The moment is like an epiphany. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would become an epiphany. A lesson has been learned, although it has taken a lifetime. But then Munro moves past epiphany, having Georgia realize the uselessness of the moment, of her answer, as “she puts a foolish stress on the word.”

“Too many things,” the creative writing instructor says, and what reader would expect, upon reading such an opening, to encounter the story that follows? A writer wanting to analyze the craft of Munro’s stories can expect a long and rewarding journey. Her stories’ structures are often not easily discernible. And writers analyzing her craft are consciously trying to study how the stories are put together, remember—a reader approaching her work simply for pleasure will never know the reasons for its complicated construction. That is to say, such readers may read and re-read her stories with pleasure and wonder, trapped as they are in its kind prison.

andrew scottAndrew Scott is the author of Naked Summer, a story collection, and the editor of a forthcoming anthology, 24 Bar Blues: Two Dozen Tales of Bars, Booze, and the Blues. He holds writing degrees from Purdue University and New Mexico State University, where he was twice awarded a Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other publications. He is the co-editor of Freight Stories, an online fiction journal, and a Senior Editor at Engine Books. He teaches at Ball State University and lives in Indianapolis. 

Short Story Month, Day 20: "A Story About the Body"

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 Sarah Landolfi. 

In the fall semester of my senior year at MU, I enrolled in an advanced fiction workshop course. My instructor was Mary L. Tabor, a fabulous writer and teacher visiting from Washington, DC. She introduced me to “flash fiction” and to one of my favorite short stories of all time, Robert Hass’ “A Story About the Body.” I think this story is remarkable for many reasons, but, being a long-winded, impossibly verbose speaker and writer myself, I think I am most in awe of the economy of language in Hass’ brief but expansive piece. The whole story is really just a paragraph, and not even a very long one. It is available in its entirety here. 

I also love this story for the lovely, nuanced link it creates between the corporeal (human bodies and sexual desire) and the ethereal (making art). Hass writes of the young composer, “He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions.” When I read this passage, I can’t help but picture an elegant older woman, her limbs moving like brushstrokes on a canvas. But – and perhaps it’s because the story itself is achingly concise, stripped bare, comprised only of what seems really necessary – it’s not heavy-handed.

Furthermore, the love the young composer feels for the painter is aptly compared to music: “The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music– withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.’” Yes, the protagonist in this story is a composer, so it’s natural that his desire for this fellow artist would, in Short Story World, be made musical. I would like to posit that Hass has accomplished this in a nuanced way, though, and I would also like to point out how very appropriate the comparison is. Love and affection and desire are radiant, and we do carry them around, fluttering and sort of nauseous-making, in our chests and in our bellies, and they are levity and brightness and beauty.

Most of all, I love the blue bowl full of dead bees, obscured at first by a layer of rose petals; the starkness of this image stays with me every time it is conjured, and the effect is ugly and sour but also righteous and significant. Not only has the painter attempted to communicate to the composer that he is superficial and shortsighted, but her gesture has also called into question the composer’s love for his fellow artist and for her work. How can he truly appreciate her or her art – which is, remember, “like the way she moved her body” – without being willing to bear witness to all of it, flaws included? I walk away from this story feeling at first angry with the young composer, and then pitying him. Ultimately, though, I ask myself if I might react any differently if faced with a similar situation. Would you?

Sarah Landolfi earned a BA in English from MU in 2008; these days, she mostly uses it to justify correcting other people’s spelling errors. She lives in Chicago, where she is a clinical social worker at a community health center serving LGBTQ clients. She rides a bright red, super-fast bike named Lola, has a huge crush on Leslie Knope from “Parks and Recreation,” and drinks a lot of Metropolis coffee. 

Short Story Month, Day 19: "Against Specificity"

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 author Kyle Minor. 

theeraofnotquite

I just finished reading Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite, newly published in trade paperback from BOA Editions. “Against Specificity,” the first story in the collection, is among the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever read. It begins like this: “The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.”

This is as good a distillation of general Americanness as I can imagine, and it’s also the bare bones set-up that fuels 90% of all American fiction. The standard advice offered to fiction writers — concrete, not abstract; specific, not general — is advice Watson ignores. But he ignores in the way that is almost always the most generative of something new: He pushes against the good advice as hard and as far in the opposite direction as he can, until what would otherwise be ill-advised becomes better than what could possibly have been merely good.

The reader is reminded, in “Against Specificity,” of the thought experiment David Foster Wallace offered in his paired half-stories titled “Adult World.” In the first half, Wallace offers a set-up of no small domestic trouble between a man and a woman, and he writes in a low-key register the movements through the cause-and-effect chain. But at the halfway point, he abandons the prose in favor of a schematic outline of the second half of the story, in which he shows each of the beats the story will cycle past, and offers notes about what they’ll mean for the characters, what everyone will want, what will be withheld from everyone, and how everyone will feel about all of it. The reader gets the sense of a writer wrestling with himself, at first abandoning the realist prose in order to ridicule its conventions by showing the machinery that lies beneath them, but then, as the writer moves through the machinery, there is a growing sense that the writer is nonetheless moved by what the machinery is offering up in the lives of the man and the woman. The reader is moved, too. It is a shock to feel such an emotional response to an outline meant to undermine the emotional response that the story would otherwise provoke. Ultimately, Wallace seems to be showing the reader how the machine itself is as much a thing of beauty as the lives of the characters who are animated by it, and the reader or writer who admires formal experiments away from the realist/domestic wing of American fiction might also be forced to consider, because of Wallace’s recontextualization, the beauty of the form that underlies even the dominant kind of story against which the reader or writer might be rebelling, and the things that character-driven fiction might yet have to offer literature in the hands of a writer whose restlessness might animate it yet again.

That’s the kind of recontextualization “Against Specificity” serves up, as well, except instead of stripping away the prose, as Wallace did, Watson strips away the names of everything — characters, objects of desire, the settings in which the psychodramas of want are played out — and replaces them with variables (Thing A, Thing B, Thing C, Thing D) and unspecific grounds of action (the Thing Exchange.)

At the same time, Watson lards his metaphors with specifics. The longed-for Thing A “shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus,” and if “joy itself were sugar maple, Thing A would be the syrup joy gave.”

The Thing Exchange itself is a Kafkaesque maze of procedures. Wanters of Things must take numbers and wait in lines, even though there might be no one else waiting. Maybe the clerk who forces the waiters to wait might be reading a book titled Against Specificity, and if you ask how the book is, the reply might be: I really can’t describe it.

Halfway through the story there is a run of dialogue among “you,” the silence, the disembodied voice, and the person, in which a great many people say the word “Nothing” in a row, but each iteration of Nothing seems to mean something different, which the reader will know by context, and the segment ends with this line: “The silence is great with child.”

By time the reader gets to the story’s ending, the reader might feel indicted (the fact that the story is written in second person probably contributes to this feeling), and who among us hasn’t been burdened with this trouble of being stuck with Thing B but wanting Thing A, fighting hard to get Thing A, offloading Thing B, and then living with the trouble of not knowing whether it was the right thing to offload Thing B for Thing A?

The story’s ending is worth quoting in full:

“About this truth: It is not that you wish you had held on to Thing B–you don’t. Nor do you foresee diminishing returns from your possession and observation of Thing A. You have not suddenly found allegorical meaning in your life, or for that matter in your mother’s. Indeed, this truth has nothing to do with your mother. Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents. The truth that roars now in your mind the way a furnace roars in the dead heart of winter has nothing to do with the Thing Exchange or any of its employees, not even your neighbor. It does not in any way involve circus clowns, scurvy, oranges, or out-of-work magistrates. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the road to hell, down which you are by no means walking, your hands in your pockets, your feet scuffing the hides of the well-intentioned, your mind turning over and over the question of which you prefer: the little that is or the nothing that will be. There is no one to help you decide.”

kylephotojenpercy

Kyle Minor’s second collection of short fiction, Praying Drunk, will be published by Sarabande Books in February 2014. His recent work appears in Iowa Review, Forty Stories: New Voices from HarperPerennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Photo by Jen Percy. To learn more, visit Kyle at www.kyleminor.com.

Short Story Month, Day 18: "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings"

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 writer Micah Dean Hicks. 

“García Márquez is fucking with you.” This is not the answer my students expected.

They had read this story and a few others for class. In it, a winged old man crash lands in a couple’s front yard and gets stuck in the mud. The townspeople try to figure out what exactly he is. They call on neighbors, a priest, and finally write to the Vatican. They never figure it out, eventually getting so frustrated that they give up.

Later in the story, a spider-woman comes into town with a traveling carnival. But unlike the angel, she has an explanation:

 While still practically a child she had sneaked out of her parents’ house to go to a dance,  and while she was coming back through the woods after having danced all night without permission, a fearful thunderclap rent the sky in two and through the crack came the lightning bolt of brimstone that changed her into a spider.

Like my class the town loves her and loses interest in the strange man. “So what’s the point?” my students ask, in chorus. “We liked the spider-lady. What’s up with that angel dude? Why is he even there?”

“Because García Márquez is fucking with you.” And he is. García Márquez knows that people want answers, for the world to make sense, for things to matter. But good art is contrary. It isn’t going to give you what you want, and it isn’t going to do what you expect. It’s going to surprise and confound you at every turn.

Every paragraph of the story is loaded with the unexpected. Wracking his brain about the origins of the old man, Father Gonzaga writes to Rome, knowing that God will have the answer:

But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times         he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.

Never rule out the possibility that your winged man is a Norwegian. In spite of everything, the town decides that the man must be an angel. Nothing about him makes this seem likely, but he is a man with wings, and this is the only way they can process him. Their world is small, and they can’t account for anything outside what they know. So they come to the man for miracles. But his miracles don’t go as everyone had hoped:

[T]he few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get   to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.

García Márquez knows that readers, just like the town, will be most comfortable with the spider-woman’s story, I tell my class. She has a clear origin, for starters. Her punishment confirms everything we’ve been taught to believe. She’s charging for the information, so it must be true, right? But this is not the way that good art or life works. There is nothing new in the expected. The point of art is not to tell us what we already know or to confirm our biases. It upsets and expands what we thought we knew. The world is not a fair place ruled by logic and sense. Bad things are going to happen to people who don’t deserve them, and we won’t be able to find meaning in it. There are things outside the realm of our experience, and no matter how much we try to make them fit with what we already believe, they never will. By the time the old man flies away at the end of the story, we have to accept that we have no category for what he is. This is something new, beyond our reckoning. We are going to have to become bigger to encompass it, and we will be better off. García Márquez is teaching us not only how to write and how to read, but how to live.

You can read “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” online, for free, right here:

MicahDeanHicksMicah Dean Hicks is an author of magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in places like New Letters, Indiana Review, and New Orleans Review. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, will be published by New American Press in summer 2013. He attends the creative writing PhD program in fiction at Florida State University. Keep an eye on him at micahdeanhicks.com.

Short Story Month, Day 17: "The Chrysanthemums"

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 Rachel Cochran. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t “get” John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” the first time I read it.  I was nineteen, and it was assigned in a writing workshop class I was taking, sandwiched between readings that were more exciting and more bizarre (Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” comes to mind).  I knew and liked Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, but “The Chrysanthemums” dragged through its few pages.  I watched Elisa Allen in her garden, “over-eager, over-powerful”, but I was unmoved by her story.  I thought the dialogue was unextraordinary, the symbolism overt, and I kept waiting for something to happen.  The stories I was used to, after all, had opium addicts and bodies walled up in wine cellars.

The end surprised me.  After Elisa cried, I turned the page searching for more story, and there was none.  I looked for an explanation, for an action, but that wasn’t the story Steinbeck wrote.  The teenage me would have mentally rewritten an ending where Elisa Allen goes to a violent fight and watches the boxer’s gloves become saturated with blood, lives for a day as a man.  Perhaps she even would have left her home, taken to the road like the traveling tinker whose life so fascinated and inspired her, finding work where she could and sleeping in the backs of wagons.

Surprise quickly faded to confusion, and I looked back on the story as though it was an easy puzzle I hadn’t been able to piece together.  Always a bright student–a perennial favorite with my English teachers–I wasn’t about to let such a short story pass me by without understanding everything there was to know about it.  Approaching the story with new eyes, I read again.

I found that reading took energy from me.  The weight I now gave to every word, to all nuances of dialogue, positively drained me.  I began to understand that, in a work like this so much more than in a novel, each phrase had to elbow for space, and what came across to the reader was the dimmest glance into a person’s life.  But if you really paid attention, then those glances were not aimed at the faces and arms and bodies of the men and women at work, not at their actions or even their thoughts, but somehow at the strongest essence of what they were.  Characters in novels might languish and slowly form in a way that characters in short stories cannot do.  Elisa was only able to exist for one afternoon of her life, but rather than saturate the prose with a brief history of Elisa’s life so that I might understand why she cries in the end, Steinbeck let me stand in for her and provide that understanding myself.  If that means some readers walk away from the story underwhelmed as I was the first time, that was a risk Steinbeck was willing to take.

What “The Chrystanthemums” taught me is that while event may be external, change is internal.  It taught me ways of saying without saying.  Elisa suppresses and cries because we all suppress and cry.  The second time I reached the ending, I cried alongside her.

Rachel Cochran received her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is a current MA candidate specializing in Creative Writing – Fiction at the University of Missouri.