Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Bubble or Two off Plumb

elliptical--an oval orbit rather than a circular one; a lengthening of or deviation from a conventional path taken by a formulaic novel or short story; behavior of one or more characters that is plausibly off orbit.

A character, scene, situation, or story may vary from the predictable. So far as endings are concerned, the adjective named after the renowned Russian short story writer and dramatist, Anton Chekhov, tells it all: Chekhov enjoyed and used elliptical endings in which the terms of the resolution were neither certain nor spelled out. It wasn't so much a matter of the good causes losing out to the bad ones as it was a blurring of the lines between good and bad, between happy and unhappy, fulfilled and unfulfilled.

In an elliptical story, a reader can come to the ending, there to experience feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration, but these feelings would be reflective of what the characters were feeling at the moment of conclusion. See the ending of James Joyce's short story, "Araby." See also "A Painful Case" and "A Little Cloud." None of the fifteen stories in the collection, Dubliners, is particularly circular in orbit nor, like many of the Chekhov stories, do they push a reader to a conclusion but rather let the events speak to the individual reader.

William Sidney Porter, writing as O. Henry, is one of the least elliptical of storytellers, relying on a formulaic ending framed on some reversal of logic or morality for its payoff. Such stories of his as "The Gift of the Magii," charming and warming in their intent, contain no hint of the ambiguity resident in the elliptical story or in the elliptical motive of a character such as, say, Bartleby in Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener."

A twenty-first century writer interested in a more uniform orbit and less ambiguity in his or her work would do well to compare stories of Joyce, and that other iconic Irish writer, William Trevor,with such commercially oriented short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald as "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Modern readers are less forgiving of being led by the author toward a conclusion than readers of genre magazines. Even then, modern readers expect an eliptical approach such as found in the works of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Raymond Carver.

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