Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Disambiguation of the Short Story

A short story is a quick trip to a place and time where your primary intent was to relax and observe. Instead, you became distracted by what you saw, perhaps even irritated, but quite possibly disturbed or inspired.

Actual visitors on quick vacations often return with a tangible souvenir such as a sun tan or snow burn, a few extra pounds from overeating, the onset of an indigestion or a cold. These visitors are likely to have spent too much on food and lodging, accounting for their irritation or disturbed senses.

Readers of short stories, a different genre of travelers, come away from their visits with an emotion they did not have going in.

Each group, traveler and reader, come away with some souvenir. What the reader brings back lasts the longest.

This is by no means a diatribe on tourism nor a plea for persons to read and/or write short stories. Rather, it is an observation that where ever we go, however we travel, packed somewhere in our baggage is emotion--the way we feel about things and the way we feel about ourselves.

We read short stories in the first place, you argue, for emotional information, the feelings behind how persons in seemingly improbable situations bring their experience under some guidelines and are not completely run by them. Or perhaps not; one rank of short stories demonstrates how individuals who are possessed by a vision, say an artistic vision, are swept along by that vision, much like the hapless ballerina in The Red Shoes. Or was she so hapless? Another layer of short stories demonstrates the effects of characters who want something just over the boundary line separating acceptable behavior from the unacceptable. True enough, neither Anna Karenina nor Emma Bovary were players in short stories. Each needed a longer narrative to demonstrate the consequences each brought about when stepping over the line of convention, in each case the boundary of adultery, but otherwise the examples are fair because a smaller version of their larger story could have been made from the simple decision to reach over the boundary with the belief that she could do so with some control over the consequences.

We read short stories not only for happy endings or tragic, depressing ones; we read for the way the more modern stories end on a note of ambiguity which, as you look out your splendid windows here at 652 Hot Springs Road or the more commercial windows at your most frequented coffee shops, seems all about you. There are some short stories and some longer ones you return to because they are not in the least ambiguous in their conclusions. Or are they? You read and reread to rethink your earlier takes on stories you once prized because they seemed to merely end, as Bobbie Ann Mason told you her short stories ended--when their energy gave out. Life keeps planning surprise parties for you, with hidden friends and acquaintances popping forth with arms all waving, shouting surprise, and you feeling the stomach thump of having been suckered by some egregious excuse that got you out of the house, and now you get to the serious part of the party which centers around the covered casseroles and drinks and conversation. "I wish you could have seen the look on your face!" You don't need to have seen it; you felt it. Ambiguity rules, sometimes to the point where it runs over into the long form fiction. You want meanings, go take courses in Philosophy or mathematics. You want ambiguity, go look at short stories.

You think you know how it ends, but you come back as soon as a year later and you see something you wish you'd seen before, first time through. You remember feeling so smug, scrawling away in final exam blue books about short stories and what truths really lay hidden in Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" because you'd read beyond the canon and new enough to tilt the screen sideways to deflect the strictness of the cannon. You did have enough guts to take on the Hemingway short stories but even now you wish you'd been able back then to say what you felt about Henry James and The Jolly Fucking Corner because it wasn't ambiguous and inferential at all; what it was in fact was that he'd developed the technique of talking away from a theme and the emotions resident in the theme rather than facing them. You wish you'd written then about the fact that when Henry was back in Boston for the funeral of his beloved brother, William, he'd had a chance meeting with Somerset Maugham, who also happened to be in Boston, Henry pretty much in the closet, Somerset more out than in. And what did they talk about and why?

So it is all of it about a conspiracy that's being conducted in much fiction from about Thomas Hardy onward, the conspiracy of the author and the reader against the character, thus irony. But the joke comes to the reader if he or she will take the trouble to reread over time. The reader is often led to believe he knows the answers, but in reality, he knows only parts of them. Try a reread of Dubliners. Try Louise Erdrich's masterful "The Red Convertible." You'll see. It's not so fucking ambiguous any more, it is simply a matter of characters being caught out, doing something they might not want to be noticed.

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