Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The List

After compiling a list of ten political novels for the Department of Public Information at the University, I could not help but let the process carry me to the beginnings of another list, one that took me by the hand, directing me to the realization that lists, even laundry lists and grocery lists, afford me a satisfaction that reverberates through my being. The former, the one that came as a result of listing ten political novels, provides more satisfaction than the grocery or laundry kind, but those too give me some lingering sense of control over the chaos of every-day life.

Ten or twelve short stories from the Nineteenth Century, moving along into the first half of the Twentieth. Thus would one be able to include The Girls in Their Summer Dresses or The Eighty-Yard Run by Irwin Shaw, certainly Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, To Build a Fire or The Come-uppance by Jack London, A Cask of Amontillado by Poe, Hills Like White Elephants or A Clean, Well-Lighted place by Ernest Miller Whatzisname, Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor or The Swimmer by John Cheever, nd not to forget the one that really brought the project into focus, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. To be sure, a Checkhov might apply as well, and one of the Saki, say Tobermaury or The Window by H. H. Munro. Maybe, just to be mischievous, Gregor Samsa's travails in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. And for even more mischief, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.

Many of these are icons, things we not only read from the joys of growing up and discovering what we wanted to write and what we would never consider writing, but things that were pushed at us (along with The Minister's Black Veil) by junior high school and high school English teachers who wanted to help us distinguish adjectives from adverbs and how to recognize synecdoche when we saw it.

The purpose of the new list is to construct a series of stories in which the ending of the original became the beginning of the new. Such a work would demonstrate vividly the shift in the short story, how its payoff is left a good deal less resolved and how, accordingly, the short story has become the banner of our times, undergoing changes in subject matter, attitude, narrative focus, and a closer adherence to the emotional complexities that inhere in those of us who ride the moral trampoline of the twenty-first century.

Each of these new stories would end with an emotional jab to some part of the reader, because this is what short stories ought to do, but the jab would relate more to a certainty of justice being done, love finding a way, the right decision being made, the difficult faith being reinforced; the ending would not be nearly so sure for the insults would be more complex, the love more sophisticated, the justice more an uncertainty or even injustice.

The laundry lists and grocery lists will remain pragmatic, which is their own way of reminding us about the nature of lifestyle we are indulging at a given moment.

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