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.