Monday, June 21, 2010

Perfect Endings

I had my heart broken a few times this weekend. I was listening to short stories again.

At the suggestion of a friend, I listened to couple from the New Yorker podcast, Richard Ford reading John Cheever’s “Reunion”, and A.M. Homes reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I hadn’t heard either, surprising I guess from the sound of the podcast, as it sounds like it’s taught in schools.

The Cheever is gorgeous, short, sharp, like a razor - you’re unaware of the damage until it’s already cut. It moves so quickly, and ends abruptly. That ending is what makes it for me. Not only is it a brilliant moment in a relationship between father and son, but it gives nothing away but starts the moment they start relating, and ends the moment they stop. It’s enough, though, to leave you with a heartache for the father and son. Ford said he wrote a story inspired by it, and reads his classes his story along side Cheevers –brave. It sounds like a great exercise – not just the inspiration, but to have an assignment to write a relationship like that – a scene that stands by itself as a full story. I tend to like those – compact, succinct, with enough room for my imagination. Ford said he goes back to it again and again, and I can see why. You almost want more, more juice, more to explain, but there’s no need. It’s a great balancing act. Heartbreaking.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” I didn’t know, though I had been warned from the pre-ample that something was going to happen. I started to guess about half way through, but thought it couldn’t possibly be what I thought it was. Interestingly, when it was published in 1946? 8? hundreds cancelled their subscription, horrified by the story. It’s intense, with almost no indication of what’s going to happen, but it circles closer and closer inevitably as the story moves along. It’s tight as a rock. The language is so simple, and once again, it ends almost shockingly abruptly. This and the Cheever are so brilliant in their resistance to tie things up, but leave you speeding up – almost as if they have pushed you up a ramp they’ve created, and the ramp ends with you in mid-air and nothing to catch. Both are quite exhilarating. It’s interesting that Homes and Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, talk about how she’s fallen by the wayside. Holmes suggests it’s because there are no women writers from mid-century that are read now. I was in my car thinking “Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter”. They didn’t hear me.

A few other highlights as well – I’m probably sounding like a broken record using “beautiful” and “gorgeous” to describe these, but I did love and think was beautiful Lorrie Moore’s story “Dance in America” that Louis Erdrich read on the New Yorker podcast. I can’t even go into how subtly heartbreaking this is, but to do this kind of thing in a short story is like amazing song writing. You listen over and over and can’t figure out how something so short can be so packed. It was so full in fact, I found myself making up alternate stories in my head out of the small details just thrown about. A woman meets up with a man she hasn’t seen since college while teaching a group of elementary students dance in the town. He lives with his French wife and his son with cystic fibrosis in an abandoned frat house. This one manages to break your heart and salve it at the same time. How is that possible?

I guess I listened to a lot – there’s a beautiful story read on Selected Shorts called “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates that John Updike selected for the best short stories of the century. Looks like he also selected a Jean Stafford story, and I’d love to read more of her. Wild Plums, though - once again magical, simple, surprising – was written in 1929. I was overwhelmed with the desire for this Kansas farm girl to eat a wild plum and break out of the stern control of her parents. Once again, the perfect ending.

How do they do it?


Elizabeth said...

I love all of these stories -- and despite having read them already, reading your commentary makes them fresh in my mind. I remember when I first read the "The Lottery" -- I must have been in high school -- the shock and horror of it! I can't wait to listen to these, though, so thank you for this post!

Criticlasm said...

Sure--it's fun to have trip to get some reading time!