Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Short Course in Short Fiction

From the things you have learned about each man, Aristotle (364 BCE--322) led a life quite less troubled than Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49).  

Aristotle put his relative lack of troubles to work as one of the most original and cogent classifiers of the world around us.  To an enormous extent, he influenced the way we see things, the way we think, and the way we go about assembling logical processions of thought. He also classified and expounded on the nature of story, his related work Poetics, still in print and use.

Poe was known to have troubles with his health, with his notable intolerance for alcohol, his need to write copiously for little money, and the enormous possibility that he was weighted down with severe depression if not its opposite, manic aspect often seen in the bi-polar personality.  In spite of these distractions, his critical writing was of high order and his fingerprint is still seen on that wonder of dramatic concision known as the short story.

Each man had some cogent and noteworthy things to say about story and construction, sharing one particular belief, sometimes referred to as a unity. Each means to have the story take as long in performance as it would take in Reality, were it, of course, real and not a contrivance.

Poe wanted what has become known as the short story to be something that could be read in an hour or less.  In his own writings, we could begin to see what he had in mind about the time span of the story.  We can look at his famed "A Cask of Amontillado," and see it being played out in real time, right up to the payoff, "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat! "

In this one sentence, Poe opens the vault of time, not only on his story but on the entire medium of short story. Fifty years have elapsed between those two closing sentences.  In the bargain, this suggests that the narrator has repeated this story more than once, dining out on it, as it were.  This view adds yet more subtext to the tale, sending the short story out into the world with an admonition that it not be linear, rather that it have nuance and possibilities for ambiguity.

No ambiguity about the revenge Poe's narrator, Fortunato, wreaked on Montessor, but enough ambiguity about Fortunato having told this story more than once to give some weight to your interpretation.  "A Cask of Amontillado" was first published in 1846.  

Sixty years later, William Sidney Porter, AKA O. Henry, published a short story that has become in its way as iconic as the Poe.  This story, "The Gift of the Magi," has evolved somewhat in its narrative device.  The story is being presented to us by an omniscient narrator who could be Porter, himself, or any storyteller, even to the point of an ending summary to make sure we readers "get" the full intent of the unselfish nature of Jim and Della.

"The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

While charming, even to a point endearing, the Porter/O.Henry narrative is linear, with only that brief irony of each sacrificing their greatest treasure for the other.  The last line of dialogue is Jim, suggesting, "And now, Del, why don't you put those chops on?" meaning why don't you get dinner started.  

Okay, someone in a modern household has to prepare dinner, or we send out for Chinese or a pizza, but imagine the possibilities of the opening of that story as a twenty-first century narrative. "Wait a minute, you sold your father's watch. and now you want me to make dinner?"

At the moment, you're reading a collection of short fiction by a new writer, Phil Klay, called Redeployment, recent winner of the National Book Award.  Dramatic narrative has evolved long past the frontiers established by Poe, but for all Klay is original, disturbing, and emblematic of the moral responsibilities of which William Faulkner wrote and spoke, his work still has the fingerprints of Aristotle and Poe.

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