I have to confess I’m not a great admirer of the short story. The form is too anecdotal for me, I guess. My lack of enthusiasm seems due to the fact that my acquaintance with the characters in the story will be too brief to be worth my attention. And I usually just find myself waiting for the story to be done -- like when someone starts telling you a long-winded personal anecdote and you’re just waiting for the punch-line or the inherent query, or whatever. With novels, there are a variety of situations, or else the permutations of a particular situation. In stories, it’s all situation. The characters often seem to be no more than the ‘types’ who have been recruited to fill that situation. So it seems to me that those with a knack for short story writing are simply skilled at populating situations with types of people. When I find the same thing happening in a novel, I tend to set it aside.
I say all this simply to show that I’m not a push-over when it comes to stories. But at the recent “Listen Here!” event I attended at Koffee? I witnessed another aspect of stories: they are short enough to be read publically, in one sitting, and everyone present can have a collective experience of ‘watching’ the story unfold. It’s a bit like watching a movie (in your head) but you can actually see the other people listening. It’s much more participatory, for the audience. Maybe it’s a bit more like stand-up comedy where the comedian is a good storyteller. Though with the kinds of stories chosen, it’s not going to be the case that the audience will always be laughing or simply amused.
It’s also a bit like drama -- particularly the one-person show or dramatic monologue. Except most dramatic monologues are written in a more ‘stagey’ way than short stories are. That can certainly help for memorization purposes and to help the actor stay in character. What the reader of a short story has to do is a bit more subtle: dramatize the voice of the narrator so that we feel he (at the reading I attended both actors were male) is, in a sense, speaking for himself.
That I think is the difference between unskilled and skilled reading aloud. In the former the person is clearly just reading words already on the page; in the latter, the person delivers those words with a bit of the illusion that they are just now coming to him.
This was particularly successful with the first story, J. D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” because the voice of Salinger’s narrator is so personable, giving us the persona of an older, but still somewhat child-like, speaker who is able to completely inhabit his somewhat precocious earlier self. And the story doubly worked because the situation of the story -- in which a group of kids in a day-camp are regaled by their “Chief” with stories of the Laughing Man -- doubled the act of listening. We, the audience, listened to hear, as the kids did, how the story of the Laughing Man would come out, and also listened to how the framing tale, of the boy’s relation to the Chief and that phase of his life, would come out. The fact that Salinger dovetails these two situations so effectively made the experience of listening -- even if you already knew that outcome as I did -- a true tour de force.
The second story, Ray Bradbury’s “Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You,” was somewhat less successful; maybe because we’d already listened to a great story, it had more work to do, but I also felt that the story groped for its ending. Or rather: that Bradbury had decided what the ending would be -- the idea of a chocolate bar blessed by the pope and given to a priest in thanks -- and then had to get there. It seemed a bit strained by the end. But what made the story quite enjoyable as a listening experience was the actor’s ability to render the speaking voice of the priest -- gruff, at times impatient, but compassionate -- and the voice of the young boy -- which was very winning, and articulate, even if somewhat abashed.
So what made for good stories in dramatic presentation: either a great narrating voice, as in Salinger’s; or good back-and-forth dialogue, as in Bradbury’s.
There’s another reading this week, Thursday, 7 p.m., at Lulu’s on Cottage Street. Hope to see you there.