Short Story Month, Day 30: "Theft in the Pastry Shop"

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 Scott Garson. 

Italo Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” has the illustrious distinction of being the story I’ve most often read aloud to people on road trips.

Probably that’s not incidental. Calvino’s narration—an all-knowing 3rd—makes it easy for listeners to orient themselves. And the story’s not hard to find your way around in the first place. It’s whole and direct, like a melody, and gives pleasures, I think, much the same.

So what is there to say about it? What’s there to say about an infectious tune, beyond stressing your enthusiasm?

I’ll start with some bibliographical stuff. The version I have—translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright—is from the 1984 HBJ collection DIFFICULT LOVES. According to a brief foreword, the story was written sometime in the mid-to-late 1940’s and first published in book form in 1949, in ULTIMO VIENE IL CORVO.

That would put it in the heyday of Neorealism, and you can definitely see the signs. The leader of the gang, Dritto, “[walks] along in silence, through streets empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” The lookout man, Uora-Uora, has to stand out in the cold, hungry. He’s dressed “in his best, God knows why, complete with hat, tie and raincoat,” but with his long wrists “jutting out of his sleeves.”

If there’s the stark, social poetry of Neorealism in “Theft,” however, there’s also something more immediate and more easily identified: genre. Like the title says, this is crime fiction, and we run into certain conventions right away. We learn that the men are accustomed to the life: they’re out with “two jobs to do.” We observe in their group rigid hierarchy: Dritto, the leader, is imperious and grim; the two underlings, Uora-Uora and Baby, ask questions we might end up taking as dumb—because Dritto sees no need to answer.

Have I given you enough for you to imagine you’ve pegged this story by now?

Wait.

“It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.

Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them. He jumped down into the darkness, kicked against a telephone, got a broomstick up his trouser leg, and then hit the ground.

At this in point in the story—two pages in—things take a definite turn. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the story goes more Chaplin’s way than De Sica’s. And if you were thinking that the men would either get the desired lire or become subjects of a meditation on iniquity—no. The crime-fiction scaffold goes sailing. We get something wild. Psychological. Metaphysical. Both. Or neither. Vital, anyway.

Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” is a story of happenstance liberty, fleeting deliverance in a garden of instinct. If you’re like me, you will pretty much never forget the last line, which involves Baby and Tuscan Mary. If you’re like me, this story will keep calling your name. It will seem the kind of story you can always use.

 Scott Garson’s collection of stories–Is That You, John Wayne?–is just out from Queen’s Ferry Press.

Short Story Month, Day 27: "The Sex Lives of African Girls"

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 Misha Rai.

When I came across Taiye Selasi’s short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in GRANTA’s The F Word issue, I found, in the beginning, that I couldn’t get past the title to the story. Those six words—the sex lives of African girls— had made me restless, instantly. My brain was agog with activity. My first thought (a writerly thought, read selfish) was, why hadn’t I come up with such a title? My second (again writerly, selfish), I needed to appropriate the idea and write about the sex lives of Indian girls. My third, fourth, fifth ad infinitum thoughts (for a while), as I plunged my nose between the pages of the journal chasing the often sought after olfactory high of ink and paper and glue, were that of wondering what was the sex life of an Indian girl like? I made notes on the page where the title (GRANTA devotes an entire page to the author’s name and title of the story) appears. I sent a semi-coherent, overly-exuberant email to various friends and colleagues asking them about their experiences and perceptions of women and sex in the India of today. Six words, from a writer I hadn’t heard of before, had got me thinking, drafting and asking questions.

As a writer what keeps me coming back to “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is Selasi’s use of the second person point-of-view narration or rather her choice to exercise restraint, in some parts of the story, and not (over) use the second person personal pronouns as the only vehicle to tell a story as other authors employing the same point-of-view have done often. In the first section of the story the word “you” appears only twice in the first two hundred words. In the fourth section it appears twice in the whole page. Selasi achieves this by having a clear narrator for the story, eleven-year-old Edem, and by weaving in dialogue amongst the other characters and creating scenes that do not necessarily focus solely on Edem. The burden of narration is placed beyond the “you.” Often when I read this story I find myself forgetting it is a second person point-of-view story. Selasi doesn’t try to get the reader to follow a set of rules or create a sense of intimacy or jolt the reader or make them feel guilty instead she carefully chooses moments that may be relatable—She doesn’t know your first name so keeps calling out, ‘Child!’ You’ve never thought yourself as this—‘child’—neither a child nor someone’s; you’ve always simply been you—and melds them with somewhat unrelatable moments—You’ve heard the Sad Story in pieces and whispers, from visitors from the village, whence the rumours began: that your mother got married and is living in Abuja with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother.  

Another aspect I find fascinating, and a wonderful echo of oral storytelling, is Selasi’s use of repetition of phrases and sentences. The first section of the story ends with the words—Enter Uncle—exact words that appear again at the start of the last section tying in the beginning with the end. Selasi repeats phrases and whole sentences a lot—In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother—throughout the story at crucial moments. This works because each time a change has manifested in the story before she duplicates a phrase or sentence. Additionally, what I love about her writing is how whilst this repetition helps me keep track of the various sections of the story since “The Sex Lives of African Girls” unfolds non-linearly, Selasi jumps back in time and then jumps farther still and seems to be in no hurry to get back to the point at which the story started or to continually provide crumbs for the reader to keep that first section in mind. My joy is always trebled, if not more, to come across creative work that not only flouts the norms of conventional wisdom but also, hopefully, creates frontiers for other writers to push against, question and rework.

Swadesh Deepak, an Indian playwright, novelist and short story writer, once told me that a good story will always perpetuate another, even if the other is simply the telling of how that first story affected the reader. For me, as a reader, at its core “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is a story about the discovery of strength women find in themselves and the hope carried in the choices they can ultimately make even if the result of that choice takes place off the page. I think about the consequence of that choice for days. I write multiple stories about these women in my head. I find connections with them even though Selasi’s story is set in Ghana and Nigeria and I am from India and currently live in the United States. And whilst this story is not representative of every girl on the African continent and I don’t represent every woman on the Indian subcontinent, I, like most readers feel empathy and like some readers have insight. I know what it feels like to be constantly aware of the vulnerability of my female body, to have that body need protection, to realise that for most of my life I will have to make choices that should ideally protect me from sexual assault, to come to the realization that my best efforts may not be enough and to hope that I too will find unlikely allies in women who may scare me but also give me the courage to help them when their strength fails and keep moving on. Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls” has done more than just give me simple pleasure in reading it or talking about it, it has taken me down multiple roads of inquiry—imagined and real. I look forward to discovering what other gifts this story holds, as good stories always do, each time I re-read it.

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Misha Rai is a PhD student in Fiction at Florida State    University. Her fiction will appear in The Indiana Review. She is a   former Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review.  She is currently writing her debut novel. 

 

Short Story Month, Day 26: Antonya Nelson

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 Rebecca Meacham.

It started because I wanted to shoot a dog. In a short story, that is. The stories for my first collection— then my doctoral dissertation— were character-driven epiphanies hinging on a character’s decision to act, or not to act. A story with a gun on page 1 and fired by the ending—this sounded like big, explosive fun. So I shoehorned a dog-shooting into a story that really didn’t need it.

My dissertation advisor looked over my draft and said,  “If you want to shoot an animal in a story, read ‘Fair Hunt,’ by Antonya Nelson.”

He was right, of course. Nelson’s story is both explosive and character-driven, introducing me to her ability to capture the internal voice, and painfully limited awareness, of her characters. Her stories are also fearless: Nelson writes from the vantage points of husbands stealing strangers’ children, masturbating boys, men having sex, women having affairs, parents fumbling drunkenly, and children exploiting their own tragedies. Like her character Daisy in “Female Trouble,” as a writer Nelson seems “up for whatever.”

Nelson balances extremity with understated, graceful language— the kind of control that goes unnoticed until you try to copy it. Here’s more about Daisy: “When she’d fallen in love with [McBride], she’d gone to his apartment and climbed in his bed and waited for him to come home. She was a free spirit with a crush, a mission, a taste for disaster. His roommate had greeted him in the kitchen that late night…whispering as he stepped daintily on tiptoes, ‘There’s a girl in your bed,’ with such admiration and awe that McBride seemed stripped of very many options. A naked girl in your bed was not a thing to take lightly…Like a gift, a girl between the sheets, an gift, this girl, like an animal in a gunnysack, and on fire, in heat.”

Most of us would be happy to stay in this moment, but Nelson opens “Female Trouble” years afterward, in an institution, where Daisy’s heat has turned to self-immolation. McBride visits but he’s put off— not because he’s matured, but because she’s frail. He now lives with Martha, a staid older woman who notes, “We love each other’s damage.” This line foretells the story’s events: repulsed by Daisy and Martha, McBride sleeps with another institutionalized woman; Martha and Daisy form an alliance; a baby is born; a woman dies; and McBride speeds away at the end, “staying between the broken yellow lines, and don’t look back. No no no.”

McBride is a lout, and overall, The Lout is Nelson’s most versatile vantage point. To outsiders, the Lout’s actions are unfathomable, immoral. But inside the character’s head, where Nelson takes us, decisions are not only logical, but also convincing: there really is no other way to act.

Remember those animals in “Fair Hunt”? Shooting animals is total Lout behavior, right? Except this Lout’s wife is returning home with virtually no immune system, likely to die, after ravaging chemotherapy. Their house is grimy from all the strays his wife’s kind heart has welcomed. Before her cancer, the Lout— James— had never fired a gun. He can do nothing to make his wife better. As he shoots animal after animal, his impotent rage is heartbreaking and, as he later realizes, mistaken. His epiphany makes “Fair Hunt” a great story: James meets his wife’s eyes over her sterile mask and realizes, to his horror, he had plenty of other options all along. But up until that moment, “he had only done what he knew he had to.”

Nelson renders her Louts with a lightness that never dissolves into mockery. Take the two point-of-view characters in “OBO,” (an acronym for “Or Best Offer” in classified ads). Our first Lout, Abby, is a liar who has conned our second Lout, her professor, Dr. Michael Shapiro, into joining him at his wife’s Christmas family reunion. Both Abby and Shapiro are pathetic romantics, but not for one another. When Shapiro leaves to meet his secret lover at the MLA Convention (she doesn’t show), Abby schemes to get close to Shapiro’s wife, Lucia, a flutter-gowned Madonna figure with one child at her breast, the other at her skirts. Bold with yearning, Abby steals keepsakes from family suitcases, wears the dead matriarch’s clothing, and spies on Lucia and her sister from the kitchen pantry. She even sentimentalizes a sandwich: “Lucia’s teeth bit beautifully into the white bread with its white filling, turkey, mayonnaise, Muenster. A tiny morsel was offered the baby, who sat now on Lucia’s lap at the table, mother and child cross-eyed evaluating the exchange. Abby wished for a photograph of this, the pink skin and the fine white fabric…Abby felt rapturous, as with a painting, or some other piece of great art.”

Of course, Abby will be rebuked. For readers, the failure of the Lout’s “unrequited, completely unrequitable love” is never in much doubt. That’s because in Nelson’s stories, hope cleaves two different paths. The Louts seek what they want —pleasure, elevation, redemption, admiration, justice—usually from other characters; the reader clenches and simply hopes everyone survives with a shred of dignity.

One path leads to a beautiful romantic portrait. The other path leads to piece of great art.

Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her stories have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, West Branch, Paper Darts, SunDog Lit, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction appears on the blog for Ploughshares. Rebecca lives with her family in the woods of Wisconsin, where she’s an Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

 

Short Story Month, Day 24: "Dry September"

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 Lawrence Coates. 

“Dry September” depicts a lynching.  The very act, a means to terrorize a subjugated people, is reprehensible on its face, and a story that presented this kind of violence in order to condemn it would be a fine undertaking.  However, Faulkner’s particular genius in this story is to use the lynching to reveal all the ugly aspects of the white social order that not only condone the act but call it forth, indeed demand it, and revel in it once it is done.

“Dry September” begins in a barber shop, and those gathered are discussing “the rumor, the story” about Miss Minnie Cooper and a black man named Will Mayes.  The lynch mob forms when John McClendon, a decorated veteran of the First World War, bursts into the shop and asks “Are you going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?”  He lays down a challenge.  “All that are with me get up from there.  The ones that ain’t –”  And one by one, the men gathered in the shop join him, some reluctantly, and pile into the car.  None of them is willing to be marked as one of the group not with him.

Faulkner then moves to Minnie Cooper’s story, and he reveals what a stunted and partial existence she has in Jefferson.  Minnie is in her late thirties, passed over for marriage, and while her former schoolmates were beginning to have children, she had one scandalous liaison with a widower ten years older than her.  When that breaks off and the widower moves to Memphis, her face takes on a “bright, haggard look,” the look of desperation.  The women of her acquaintance always visit her after the widower has been back in town and make it a point to tell her how well he looks, and how he is prospering.  The townswomen as a group are bitter and vicious, and Minnie’s place within their social pecking order is to be seen as an object of pity.  Her own frustration at the “furious unreality” of her life seems to search out an object upon which to project itself, and in this time and place, that could only be a black man.

After the mob leaves the barber shop, one man, a barber named Henry Hankshaw, rushes after them and attempts to be a voice of reason.  He joins the drive to where Will Mayes works as a night watchman, thinking he can talk them into realizing that they are after an innocent man.  But Faulkner has made it clear that there was never any evidence of any crime.  The mob has never been pursuing an act of justice or revenge.  It seems rather that they are acting to affirm an identity.  The men can only know themselves in an act of violence against an Other.

After they capture and handcuff Will Mayes, Hankshaw realizes he will not be able to talk them out of murdering him, so he asks to be let out of the car as it is driving to a dark and secret place.  He is sitting in the car next to Will, who speaks his name as though it is his last chance.  When McClendon refuses to slow down, Hankshaw jumps from the moving car.  He watches as it drives away, then watches again, some time later, as it returns on the same road.  As in a Greek tragedy, Faulkner chose to have the actual act of violence occur offstage.

In the town, after the lynching, Minnie is catered to by the townswomen, who are avid to know the details of the story.  “When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened.  What he said and did; everything.”  The town glories in the lynching, exchanging versions of what happened to Will Mayes and proudly noting “There’s not a Negro on the square.  Not one.”  Yet the women also have frustrations that are projected upon the Other, and as they care for Minnie after an attack of hysteria, they whisper to each other, and their eyes are “darkly aglitter, secret and passionate.”

The life of the black populace of the town is seen mainly through what is not depicted, and the absence of blacks from the town square in the aftermath of the lynching is telling.  Still, one of the most chilling moments of the story comes when Will Mayes has been captured and handcuffed, but not yet been beaten.  He knows the men who have captured him, he knows them and calls them by name, he calls them “captains,” he calls McClendon “Mr John,” and Hankshaw “Mr Henry.”  Faulkner makes clear that blacks and whites know each other, live together in a kind of intimacy that makes the lynching even more horrific.  When Mayes understands that he is facing death, he does fight back, but it is too late.  He is shackled and outnumbered, and he is beaten and thrown in the car.

In the brief space of a story, Faulkner has portrayed the blank and baffled anger of men who can only understand themselves by doing violence to a nonexistent threat to their social order, and portrayed equally well the constrained lives of women whose stunted passion searches out someone or something upon which to project itself.  The brilliance of the story is to dramatize a single incident, yet reveal an entire world.

lawrence coatesLawrence Coates is the author of three novels, most recently The Garden of the World (2013). His short fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Ascent, and elsewhere. He currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. See his work online at www.lawrencecoates.com.

Short Story Month, Day 21: "A Fine Son"

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 Alex Luft. 

I’ve always thought about the short story as an extended form of joke-telling. You’ve got your basic premise (three guys walk into a bar), and your growing complication (and then the second guy says) and then your punch line. Or, in some cases, there’s no punch line—and that awkward lack of punch creates an entirely different effect.

And if we understand short stories as a lot like jokes, then Roald Dahl’s “A Fine Son” might be a sort of literary practical joke. I first came across this story while cataloguing stories published in Playboy; this one appeared in December 1959. While it was Dahl’s first original story for Hugh Hefner’s magazine, many of his other works—including a novel excerpt—showed up in Playboy.

Strange place to find the man who brought us James and the Giant Peach.

“A Fine Son” is not necessarily a great short story, but it does perform a peculiarly notable set of moves. The exposition: we’re in a German hospital, where a doctor is trying to calm a woman who just gave birth to a little boy. The complication: the woman has lost three children in the last 18 months, and she fears this child, too, will die. To make things worse, her beer-swilling husband blames her for producing such frail children and hesitates to acknowledge this new child.

Dahl drops us a breadcrumb. The mother says: “I think my husband said that if it was a boy we were going to call him Adolfus because it has a certain similarity to Alois. My husband is called Alois.”

When the husband shows up, he is disappointed in how small the child is and declares it’s no use trying; the child will certainly die. The doctor urges him to reconsider, to hope the best for the child.

Then, the punch line. In reference to the wife, the doctor tells Alois: “Be good to her, Herr Hitler.”

Dahl has spent this entire short story gearing us up to root for baby Adolf Hitler. Gotcha!

The turn of this story at first appears simple—a nearly manipulative demonstration of how character and narrative can direct our sympathies toward places we’d never imagined they’d go. But for a lot of readers—and we have to remember this happened in 1959—it was perhaps a subtle way of challenging the master narrative of singular evil and inhumanity already formed around Hitler. I think the question for Playboy’s readers was not necessarily whether they ought to reconsider their views of Hitler, but rather how they might understand certain human sympathies manipulated for unclear or even nefarious ends. Gotcha again.

So even if Dahl plays a bit of a joke on his reader, he’s done it for a purpose. That’s one of the strengths of the short story form—it’s like a writer’s playground, a place where they can try new or innovative things.

Alex Luft’s fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Barely South Review and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Missouri and will be pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He just completed his master’s thesis titled “Pleasure Reading: Playboy’s Literary Fiction.”

Short Story Month, Day 5: "The Fall River Axe Murders"

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 Alison A. Balaskovits

On this burning morning when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple frock that, if worn by itself, might be right for the weather. But, underneath, has a long, starched cotton petticoat; another cotton petticoat, a short one; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that takes her in an unkind hand and squeezes them very tightly.

There is also a heavy linen napkin between her legs because she is menstruating.

Angela Carter was a master at taking stories to which we already knew the ending – at her most frenzied, the fairy tales, where the monsters become lovers and mothers ride in with shotguns to save the daughters who wept over gold bath taps – and twisting them into strange beasts that we must look at sideways, fearful that she might be onto something there.

In “The Fall River Axe Murders”, Carter spins the story of Lizzie Borden, that famous murderess who chopped up her family one hot day and was acquitted of the crime. While it would have been easy to focus on the ultra-violence of the murders – both parents were whacked several times – Carter extends her narrative out, capturing the violence of the father, Andrew, whose hobby was “grinding the faces of the poor” and who did not believe in plumbing or bathing, for fear it would rob the body of its “natural oils”. But it is not only her father, but the clothes upon clothes she must place on her body to be proper. But it is not only the sticking clothes, but the tension of a previous robbery that made her house into a pull of manic-despair. But it is not only a robbery, but also the oppressive stepmother who Lizzie hated. Or perhaps it is that “Lizzie is not herself today”, if she was ever whatever Lizzie Borden was supposed to be.

We see the family on the day of the murder, but we see nothing of what we understand to be violence; Carter knew that violence was not random, not for Lizzie, but a kind of relief that folded over the mind and body until all that’s left is that moment of tension. We know the murders will happen, but that is not the violence she cares to focus on. It is the small, every-day violence of civilized life, propriety, industry and imperialism that flare together over the Borden household.

Perhaps this story is so powerful because it fulfills the desire that is born within whenever violence strikes; we must know how it happened. But Carter delivers us an answer that is so large and so positioned in a small household that unweaving it would threaten the layers of enlightened living we believe we must cling to, like that grey and gristly piece of sword-fish that goes in and out of the icebox, and makes them vomit all night long.

Angela, Angela, Angela; I miss you.

Alison A. Balaskovits loves Angela Carter.