Something for You

Review of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

Reading A Tale for the Time Being, the third novel by New Haven-born author Ruth Ozeki, played with my head in a way I’ve not experienced since John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Whereas Fowles' novel dealt with existentialist philosophy, Ozeki's strange blend of fiction and “not fiction” ponders Buddhist thinking intertwined with quantum theory. It can make for a bewildering read.

Ozeki's novel is written in the first-person perspective of a troubled teenaged Japanese girl and in the third-person perspective of an almost equally troubled author who finds the girl's diary washed up on shore. In penning her thoughts, the Japanese girl, Nao (short for Naoko, and playing on its sounding like “now”), contemplates suicide and intends to make a written record of Jiko, her 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun with awesome “supapawa.” The author, named Ruth, struggles to find the confidence to write her next book (believing her powers are fading like her mother's mind did) and with the lifestyle she shares with her husband, Oliver.

I struggled too. In the first few chapters I found Nao a little unbelievable. She was too upbeat, too interesting to be convincing as a girl intending to kill herself. At the same time, the characterization was wonderful—I really liked her and cared about her well-being. Ozeki constructs Nao's diary as an account written to some undefined, future “you” which draws in the reader just as it draws in Ruth. The novel interweaves chapters between the two characters throughout, taking the reader on a journey with both women. Nao says she is writing for “one special person, and that person is you.” And that person may be Ruth.

Just as in Einsteinian physics, space and time are linked, inseparable, and to some extent the same thing, so Nao seems to reach across time and space to that special “you.” She puns with time, referring to herself as a “time being,” and asks questions of the “you,” wondering how “it feels like I'm reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you've found it, you're reaching back to touch me!” The diary itself is cleverly hidden in time—secreted between the covers of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Living in New Haven, an ocean away from Japan, Ruth is yet of Japanese descent herself and so the two characters are connected despite such vast distance. Ultimately, Ruth's dreams make even that distance seemingly non-existent.

Ozeki explores the themes of opposites and equalities throughout. First, through Nao, she introduces Jiko's maddening philosophy: “up down, same thing. And also different, too.” Similarly, she blurs fiction and non-fiction. It’s obvious that the characters of Ruth and Oliver are meant to be understood as Ozeki and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, making it all the more ironic when Nao (a fictional character) begins to doubt Ruth's existence: “But the fact is, you're a lie. You're just another stupid story I made up out of thin air because I was lonely and needed someone to spill my guts to.”

And what of all the people Ruth and Oliver meet on the way? Do they exist? And how real is real? How much of Ruth and Oliver are Ozeki and Kellhammer? Do the couple really own a cat called Schrödinger, for instance? Just as Ruth googles the names and places Nao writes of to see if they are factual, so I quickly found myself doing the same not just for Nao's story but also Ruth's. Nao, in fact, became so real to me, I became not a little jealous of Oliver getting to read Nao's story. He wasn't the right “you,” I felt. His interjections in the appendix (helpfully explaining the numerous Japanese terms used throughout the book) seemed like an intruder breaking in where he had no place. I felt Ruth was betraying Nao by letting Oliver read what was meant for her alone. But, of course, I was reading Nao too. Oliver had as much right as I or anyone, so why did I become jealous?

Later, Ruth seems to struggle with the same feelings herself (which came as a shock), hiding the book from others and resenting Oliver's involvement. Indeed, Ruth’s situation also reaches across space and time, sucking the reader into her world. Often I felt she was describing the reader’s world as much as her own, admitting “she was finding it harder and harder to pick up the phone these days. She didn't like talking to people in real time anymore.” These words resonate with dedicated writers and readers, people who let “real time” fade away.

The contradiction of opposites becomes a central point, as Ozeki's characters find for themselves. Up/down, reality/not reality, being/not being—even reader/writer—“all the same.” But also different too. Most of the time, Ozeki makes this metaphysical equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat entertaining as well as thought-provoking and, towards the end, I finally began to understand why Nao didn't come across as a suicidally depressed teenager. The truth—and not truth—is more complex than that.

For all its interest, Ozeki doesn't quite manage a flawless novel. There are times when the plot is a little too obviously contrived for the sake of her didacticism. In Part IV, the book gets bogged down in philosophy and theory, losing its way a little too. Nevertheless, A Tale for the Time Being gets close to perfection. Its great success is in making its plot—will Nao kill herself in the end?— almost unimportant. The journey entices us rather than the destination.

And it is a challenging journey. There's something about Ozeki's writing which makes you question your own “time being”: Who are you? Why are you? Reading Nao's voice makes it impossible not to engage in introspection. Indeed, even in writing this review, I can’t escape a personal inflection. You're a stranger to me and I to you. Yet here I am confessing a little of my own thoughts and feelings, all because of Nao and Ruth and Oliver and all the others who appear in this story. And you are reading this to decide whether you should pick up Ozeki’s book and, thus, Nao’s diary. There is something quite fitting about this: like Nao, I’m writing this review just for you, in hopes you will read both. And that makes you kind of special.

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
Canongate, 2013; 400 pages

Story Playlist 32: Signs and Symbols

Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” (1948) It’s a little depressing when arguably the best modern prose writer in the English language is a Russian. Perhaps there’s something to be said for writing in a foreign language, for the language feels fresh and new to the writer, a series of signs and symbols to be deployed without the weight of over-familiarity dragging the words down or making them feel recycled? Whatever you think about Nabokov, the dude can write.

“Signs and Symbols” is as good an example of his mastery as any, not only of prose, turning ordinary words into inky butterflies, but also of his ability to sketch character with a few strokes of his typewriter/brush, and his injection of dread into normal-seeming situations. I’ve already written of how much I enjoy the feeling of dread—the way it propels stories, no matter their genre. A tale needn’t be a thriller to use a sense of foreboding to the writer’s advantage. Nabokov does not write thrillers, but his literary character studies thrill with a certain general menace.

This story, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. The son has been confined in a sanitarium for years, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he thinks that all of the natural world is speaking to him, and about him, in a coded language that he must decipher. It’s a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, as described, but it also seems a great literary disease because it immediately prompts the reader to understand that everything happening in the story, the grace notes of details that we might easily pass over, may have a hidden symbolic meaning for us to discover: that everything in the story might be “signs and symbols.”

Nabokov stories regularly feature ex-pat characters, exiles much as Nabokov was himself. An elderly Belarussian couple, who were important back home, must now rely on the largesse of a more-established uncle. Without extensive details, Nabokov is able to paint the back story of his characters, the little rituals of their life together, a life that has passed through astonishing changes. We feel just how worn down the couple is, not sure how to deal with their beloved son, whose condition was indulged as artistic up to a point it passed long ago. When they arrive at the sanitarium, carrying a basket of fruit jams as a gift, they learn that the son has, again, tried to kill himself, and that it might be better if they did not visit him that day.

The couple returns home, but the father cannot sleep. That night he bursts into the living room in his bathrobe and announces to the mother that their son must not remain at the sanitarium, that they should bring him home. The mother acquiesces, and they make plans to bring him home the next morning. But then the phone rings, though the hour is late. When the mother picks up, though her English is not strong, she understands that the caller is asking for Charlie, and must therefore have the wrong number. There is a kick of dread in the late-night phone call, for such calls are rarely the bearers of good news. We are relieved when it was a wrong number. But then the phone rings again. It is the same woman, asking for Charlie. Again, she is told that it is the wrong number. Then the phone rings a third time…

By that time we fear that it is the right number, that perhaps the mother has misunderstood, and that news has come that their son has killed himself—just before he would have come home. But none of this is made explicit, and it is the stronger for it. If an author can plant just what he wants to plant in the minds of his reader, essentially trick them into thinking what he wants them to think, without having to write it out explicitly, then he wields a powerful tool. Like the best teachers, who do not tell students the answer and expect them to memorize it, but help lead students to the answer themselves, the best writers likewise set up the situation and allow the reader to complete it for them. Of course, with an author as slippery as Nabokov, the actual intention might be quite different, for if he wanted us to understand only one possible interpretation, he would have written it that way. We are told what the caller says, seemingly without distortion.  Do we assume the unanswered third call is the same caller? Why?

The point of the story could be said to be the recreation in the reader of something like the “referential mania” the unnamed son suffers from. Then again, knowing Nabokov, there is likely a story behind the story that only someone who knows the code can read. Nabokov told New Yorker editor Katharine White, in a letter: “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” In that second story, the phone call might simply be the random wrong number it seems to be, and some other detail in the story, easily overlooked, is more essential to the story's meaning.

When reading Nabokov, one feels in the hands of a great master, much like listening to a virtuoso violinist in concert. Knowing that we are in skillful hands, all we need do is remain attentive. All the “signs and symbols” are there in the beautiful riddle Nabokov has painted for us are there. It’s up to us to finish the puzzle.

Story Playlist 31: Sredni Vashtar

Saki (H. H. Munro): “Sredni Vashtar” (1914) There is no more badass short story in this project, or perhaps in existence, than Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar.” Badass may not sound like the proper terminology, but the English language wants for a more formal term to replace it. With glee, I could write a short book on the genius of “Sredni Vashtar,” so rich is it in its plot and precepts.

Conradin, a ten-year-old orphan not expected to live more than five more years, is under the care of his unpleasant cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, and the two dislike each other. Mrs. De Ropp takes a certain pleasure in thwarting Conradin’s happiness, while Conradin, whose perspective we share, nurtures fantasies of escape from, and revenge on, the person who controls him and denies him the few joys in his life.

These joys include two creatures who Conradin keeps in his hide-out, a shed in the back garden: a hen who he adores like a pet, and a darker creature kept in an iron cage in the shadows of the shed, a creature that Conradin both admires and fears. Saki calls this creature a “polecat-ferret,” a hybrid. The boy had it brought to him by an older child in exchange for coins, and he keeps it (how and what he feeds it is not clear) as a sort of totemic demi-god, one who he almost worships, to the extent that a 10-year-old can develop a spiritual admiration for a creature. Even the name he gives the creature, Sredni Vashtar, is not explicated by the narrator or the child. It was likely chosen by onomatopoeia, with Sredni implying “shred,” and Vashtar sounding like some Indian god. It is always tempting to read more into such exotic names than may be present (“sredni,” in Slavic languages, means “middle” but I’m not sure that adds anything), but suffice it to say that we have a dangerous bestial god on our hands.

The antagonistic cousin abruptly sells off the pet hen, seemingly just to do something mean to Conradin, but the child refuses to give her the pleasure of appearing upset. He simply does not indulge his love of toast, his favorite snack, when his cousin offers it, surprised that he does not tuck in. From that point on he makes a nightly wish for Sredni Vashtar to do something for him, careful never to articulate what he would like, perhaps for fear of crossing a line that thinking does not cross.

Wondering why Conradin continues to spend time in the shed, despite having disposed of his pet hen, Mrs. De Ropp sets out to investigate. She suspects that he might be keeping a kitten in there, which she would quickly make off with. Conradin watches the shed from his bedroom window as Mrs. De Ropp goes inside and doesn’t come out—for a very long time. With cinematic poise, the narrator lets us see the images of defeat that fill Conradin’s mind as he stares out the window, eyes fixed on the shed in the distance. Eventually Sredni Vashtar emerges from the shed, his maw bloody, and disappears into the forest. Conradin accepts a tray from the maid and coolly toasts a slice of bread for himself as the discovery is made and the house is filled with screams and commotion.

The idea of a ten-year-old developing a cultic worship of a creature, framed as an exotic beast-god, resonates with the rich fantasy world that adolescent boys can develop, and which can get out of hand, if left unchecked. A “polecat-ferret,” which we can sort of imagine, is a clever choice of creature. A ferret would hardly be able to do away with a grown Mrs. De Ropp (nor, one imagines, would a polecat), but perhaps this is some larger, more fierce variety. The dynamic between an unwilling guardian and her charge, neither of whom like each other but who are stuck together, is familiar. Anyone who has ever wished that a sibling would suffer a minor injury will know a mild version of the fantasy that Conradin develops. It is a question whether we are meant to think that Conradin willed the attack into being, or simply got lucky, a rare child whose prayers are answered. There is no moral here, no “beware what you wish for,” because Conradin is free from the clutches of his nemesis. We do not need to know what happened next, if he will be sent to some even less pleasant guardian, because our camera cuts away just as he prepares himself another slice of buttered toast.

Alice Munro in New Haven Review

Congratulations to Alice Munro, 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  One of the major living practitioners of the short story, Munro is the 13th woman to win the award for Literature, and the first Canadian, unless you count Saul Bellow, born in Canada but a U.S. citizen when he won. In Issue 9 of the New Haven Review, we published an interview with Munro by Lisa Dickler Awano, as well as Munro's story "Wood," originally published in 1980, then revised for a collection published in 2009, and reprinted here.

New Haven Review publishes original short stories in each issue; on our website, Noah Charney has been discussing short stories in a sort of playlist of classics of the form.

We salute the decision of the Nobel committee to honor a master short story writer, and we feel honored and greatly pleased to number a Nobel Laureate among our contributors.





Story Playlist 30: Free Fruit for Young Widows

Nathan Englander: “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (2010) Wow. While I can’t necessarily say that this is the “best” of the thirty stories I’ve read in this project, it certainly feels like it. This could be because I read it last, with the weight of all the others behind it, or it could be that this is one hell of an amazing short story.

In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” the narrative voice has some character of its own, with turns of phrase that suggest an elderly Israeli (like the characters in the story) speaking English, and with a nice sense of humor. There are smile-inducing, if not quite laugh aloud, moments in this story about the brutal and the grim which make the tale easier to read. So we have Millhauser’s narration as historical account, and perhaps some of lightness of James Thurber in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

The story is told as nested stories, like Russian dolls. We begin with a description of our two protagonists, Professor Tendler and Shimmy Gezer, when both were soldiers fighting for Israel against the Egyptians at a time, the narrator tells us casually, when, due to France’s changing sides, both Israeli and Egyptian soldiers wore identical, French-issued uniforms. Shimmy sits at a mess hall, along with four other soldiers. When Tendler arrives, he sets down his tea (“careful not to spill”) and shoots the four other soldiers in the head. Shimmy, thinking he’s gone mad, tackles his friend Tendler. Tendler explains that these soldiers were Egyptians, that he’s just saved Shimmy’s life. Shimmy pauses, then tackles him again, angry that he killed them instead of taking them prisoner. Something snaps in Tendler, and, instead of warding off Shimmy, he beats his friend within an inch of his life.

This is a story Shimmy tells, with increasing amounts of detailed information as the boy grows, to his son Etgar (named, incidentally, after an Israeli writer friend of Englander’s, whose anecdote inspired this short story). Knowing this story, Etgar never understands why his father is so kind to Tendler, now a professor living in neighborhood, giving him free vegetables from the family’s fruit and veg stand—an act of respect usually reserved for war widows—when this same man beat Shimmy so mercilessly long ago. Once Etgar reaches the age of thirteen, Shimmy sits Etgar down and tells him the story of Tendler during the Second World War, the war about which his father has not spoken, and which no one speaks of, the war in which Shimmy lost his entire family. The story about Tendler that Etgar has not yet heard.

Englander gives us three stories in one: the backstory of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, the framing story of Shimmy and his son Etgar, and the central story told by Shimmy about Professor Tendler during the Second World War. This final story is the most powerful and memorable. In Shimmy’s story, the story-telling voice, which is great for fables and tales of magic, but is not as good at producing tension and thrills, largely due to the subtle filter system of the implied narrator (here, Shimmy) as story-teller interfering (someone telling you about a scary film is less scary than watching the film), miraculously produces the sense of creeping dread, horror, and power that surprised me as a reader, after the light and delicately-handled opening.

At age thirteen, Tendler survived a death camp by hiding beneath the pile of corpses waiting to be incinerated. When the camp was liberated, he emerged from the pile, causing two G.I.s to faint at the sight of a living corpse crawling out of the pile of “balsa wood.” He wound his way back home and found his nanny and her family—husband, two grown sons, infant daughter—there, occupying his family’s home. He is given a royal welcome—a goat is slaughtered rather than a fatted calf—as the returned master of the household. Nature calls and Tendler, while urinating outside the window rather than withdrawing to the outhouse, overhears the nanny and her family plotting to murder him in his sleep, for fear that he will take away the property they now consider their own. Tendler returns to the house, enjoys the feast, and heads up to bed. But he stays awake into the night, until the house is asleep, and then he shoots the entire family, including the infant daughter, so that no one is left to take revenge upon him.

This last section is a brutal rollercoaster of emotions for the reader. It is told coolly, with the distance of Shimmy’s narration, including several pauses that pull us out of the scene, when Shimmy and Etgar discuss something in the story. But the material is so vivid, with images like the skeletal Tendler emerging from the pile of corpses, and the emotions so raw, that we practically beg the nanny’s family to take change their minds, then beg Tendler to escape into the night rather than murder the family, especially the infant who truly cannot be blamed. These voices in our heads are echoed in the discussion between Shimmy and Etgar about the story being told. Shimmy plays devil’s advocate and seems to excuse Tendler for killing the entire family, convincing Etgar of its reasonableness, and then shaming him for ever thinking that any human should feel permitted to take a life. Shimmy never would, and wishes to teach this lesson to his son. But Tendler’s experience as a survivor of the death camp system, which was meant to allow none to survive, cracked him just enough that he has lost the humanized capability of showing mercy, of knowing when to stop, of recognizing that, in the choice between escaping, subduing, or murdering it is better to choose the first two rather than the third.

The story is written with such a deft hand that not a word is out of place, nor a word used too few or too many. It brings up, and chews over, philosophical ideas, which is a hard thing to do in works of fiction. Fiction might prompt philosophical discussion (as does Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”), and non-fiction about philosophy might draw examples from fiction, but for one text to be a work of fiction that includes philosophical discussion (without sounding pretentious or stepping out of the narrative) is a pretty rare feat. The characters are brightly drawn with few adjectives. There is very little “Writing” here, all of Englander’s skills are massaged into place, without anyone hitting you over the head with the fact that a Writer has Written this story (as is the case with the wonderful but Baroque style of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”). The story is as good a psychological profile of those fractured by war and returned to society, having to turn off their emotions or melt down because of them, as I’ve ever read.

The only parallel on this Playlist is Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” interesting to read alongside Englander’s story. The writing styles are similar, employing a light hand to deal with serious issues and creating a surprising amount of tension. In Salinger’s story, our former soldier kills himself, whereas Tendler kills his enemies—but Etgar recognizes how easy it could have been for Tendler to have turned the gun on himself instead. Such material could be heavy and gooey in the wrong hands. Englander makes the tale feel light, airy, sky-etched.

Story Playlist 29: One for the Road

Stephen King: “One for the Road” (1977) Stephen King is my favorite author. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but there is no other author who I have so consistently enjoyed and admired. I like Michael Crichton novels, but I don’t admire them the way I do King. I enjoy Nabokov, but I don’t compulsively devour his work, checking the clock to see when I can return to his novel, my heart beating faster as I read it. There is no other author whose work I was so eager to read my way through, nor so grateful that the catalogue is so long—the hyper-prolific King publishes a book a year, at least.

King’s stories are character-driven, beautifully-written, highly intelligent. They happen to feature monsters of all sorts, from natural to preternatural, but that is secondary to their core as great stories, well-told. As an author King is wonderfully approachable and open, writing about his writing process and what he likes about horror, letting his readers into his head to snoop around, to check behind the drapery. He tips his hat to some of the authors featured in this project: Hawthorne, Poe, and Lovecraft above all.

Among his short stories, there were several favorites from which I might choose. It came down to a choice between the two scariest, both of which appeared in his 1978 collection, Night Shift. “Children of the Corn” is the scarier of the two, but “One for the Road” is easier to write about, as it deals in archetypes that are the heart of good horror fiction.

On a snowy night in southern Maine, two septuagenarians are drinking at Tookey’s Bar, about to close up the joint. Herb “Tookey” Tooklander, the proprietor, and our narrator, Booth, have one more drink before calling it a night, when someone bursts into the bar, half-frozen. A tourist in Maine, Jerry Lumley was en route to visit his sister-in-law when his car broke down several miles away. He left his wife and seven-year-old daughter in the car, and trudged through the snow to get help. When he stumbles into the bar, he’s frost-bitten and about to pass out. The two old men agree to help him, but are concerned about more than just the cold weather when they learn where Lumley’s car broke down—en route to Jerusalem’s Lot.

Tookey and Booth take an SUV into the snow, through barely-passable roads in the blizzard. Before we arrive at the car, King wonderfully winds us up, when Tookey warns that, if the wife and daughter are not in the car, then the group will turn straight back around, and that if they see anyone out on the road, even if they are spoken to, they will not speak back. This is before anyone drops the “v-word” and mentions vampires. In fact, the moment that vampires are invoked, a bit of the mystique is lost. Just a bit, because King is so deft.

But consider: the creepiest parts of really creepy books and films are in the first half, when inexplicable things start to happen (footfalls on the stairs, blood on a doorjamb, rooms filled with flies). The fact of their being inexplicable is what makes them effective. As soon as we have an explanation, it sort of “explains away” the mystery and is less effective. From that point on, scares come down to jump-out frights, chases, mortal peril, that sort of thing. Creepy turns to thrilling. Thrilling is good, but I’m an unabashed fan of creepy. Most authors feel the need to explain things by the end of their stories, even if the explanation is not really an explanation at all (“aliens are behind this”). Vampires, or any other known-entity monsters, are a way of explaining things with something we feel we understand. Your average Joe knows enough about vampires, from Dracula, from films, (dare I say it, from Twilight) and so on, that they’ve lost their mystique. They are a cool, archetypal villain, and much ink has been spilled on the subject of just why we are so fascinated with vampires, but they are also a known commodity. I’d venture to say that Average Joe knows more about fictitious vampires, their characteristics, behaviors, and so on, than they do about real goldfish.

So when the creepiness preceding the action in “One for the Road” is chalked up to vampires, I almost winced—but not quite. Because after the reveal of what is doing the creepy doings, the action part is so well done that I wanted to slather butter on the pages of the story and eat them right then and there.

What makes “One for the Road” particularly effective is the sympathy we feel for Lumley, lost and cold and desperate to get to his family, whereas the locals know that it is already too late. Anyone would react as Lumley did. Shocked to see the car empty, and his daughter’s parka inside, he set off to follow the footprints in the snow, fast-disappearing beneath the blizzard. About to give up, he hears his name being called and, emerging from a “copse” (a wonderful choice of word by King, one letter away from “corpse”), his wife. He rushes to her, as would we. Tookey and Booth know that she is no longer human, however, and try to stop Lumley, but of course he ignores them. He realizes too late that he’s about to become lunch. When Tookey and Booth retreat to their truck, to drive away, there’s a heart-stop moment when the daughter (whom we almost forgot about) suddenly appears beside the truck, asking in the sweet, helpless child’s voice for help. Booth immediately sees that something is wrong—the child is standing upon the snow, her feet not sinking into it—but cannot resist, hypnotized by the vampire child (and if vampires are scary, child vampires are scarier). Only a well-thrown Bible from Tookey saves Booth, and they drive away.

King uses sympathy to his advantage. We side with Lumley—if we were to fear for the lives of our family, dismissing vampires as hooey, and suddenly see our wife or daughter alone in the snow, we would rush to them. It’s an irresistible urge for non-sociopathic humans. And yet that very urge is used by vampires to hunt their prey.

Vampires will always hold an endless fascination for us, because they tap into some powerful Jungian archetypes. They appear human, with slight differences. They are hybrids between carnivore creatures and people. They hunt humans, which we humans find fascinating because, grumpy sharks and a few ornery mammals aside, humans are hunters, not the hunted. They live forever, which sounds good to us, but do so in a way that doesn’t sound so appealing. There is a sexual component to how they prey on us, essentially doling out elaborate hickeys. They drink blood. Unlike humans with refined palates, they are not partial to garlic. There is much to wonder at, but most of all, we are fascinated by how they inhabit the liminal zone between dead and living. Add real character depth and development to a story featuring vampires, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a cocktail. Here’s to you, Mr. King.

Story Playlist 28: Brokeback Mountain

Annie Proulx: “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) This wonderful miniature novel of a story by Annie Proulx will perhaps forever be known as “the one about the gay cowboys,” largely due to the fine film made of it. No doubt the distinction of being the first major story to feature a homosexual relationship within a social group that is considered virile and straight, almost violently so, and showing an openness about homosexuality far from the worlds in which homosexuality is open, won the story, and The New Yorker, where it was first published, the National Magazine Award for Fiction. While the story was much-discussed, even before the 2005 Ang Lee film version of it, it is much more discussed than read. This should certainly be remedied.

In 1963, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are thrown together as ranch hands in Wyoming, obliged to graze sheep on the mountain of the title. For weeks they tend the sheep, alone in the wilderness, with only each other for company. Eventually sex takes place between them and for a time they have an erotic idyll. Then the job ends and they go their separate ways.

Ennis is married to perhaps the most interesting character in the story, Alma, who begins to recognize Ennis’ sexual dynamic only when, years after the romance on the mountain, Jack visits her husband and she sees the two kiss in a passionate embrace on the Del Mars’ front porch. The two men had been unable to stop thinking of one another, but the way they speak and think is painted by Proulx as uneducated, laconic, even crass. These are not thinkers, but workers—hired men in ranching and rodeo-riding—which adds complexity to the narrative. Proulx’s narrator finds the words for what they feel; the characters don’t. They don’t think things through too much, or communicate with each other particularly well. They don’t have a grasp on their feelings. Their thoughts, words, and sex are blunt, elemental. As characters, Jack and Ennis feel unidealized, not cleaned up or romanticized, but almost painfully authentic. The disintegration of Ennis and Alma’s marriage, and Jack and Ennis’ belief that they cannot be together openly (they know of examples of murderous, homophobic bigotry), produce a tension that drives the story, propelling the reader through beautiful prose at times a bit mannered.

There is also a bit of a mystery in the tale; it opens twenty years after the idyll on Brokeback Mountain, with Ennis dreaming of Jack, who has died. As their backstory unfolds, with the two finding occasional times to be together, we see that Jack longs for a life together with Ennis, but that Ennis is too afraid. When he hears of Jack’s death, Ennis imagines that Jack met his end through a violent attack, although Jack’s wife tells him Jack’s death was accidental. Ennis embarks on something of an investigation of his late lover’s fate, paying a visit to Jack’s parents, ostensibly to take part of Jack’s ashes back to Brokeback Mountain. He learns that, while Jack was the only man he ever loved physically and sexually, Jack had at least one other male lover with whom he made plans, never fulfilled, similar to those he fantasized about with Ennis; Ennis had already assumed Jack had other casual lovers during the long months when he and Ennis could not see one another. Proulx lets the idea of two men living together as lovers seem a utopian fantasy that neither of Ennis nor Jack can bring about. Ennis remains convinced that Jack was killed for his homosexual relations.

Proulx’s story doesn’t try to label the characters or their longings. The two men are fathers and have lived with women, but what they have together, they both realize, is rare and powerful. By making her characters so basic, Proulx lets us see that labels such as homosexual and bisexual are modern and artificial. Love is love and sex is sex, whomever you are with and wherever you may be. Provided all involved are copis mentis and consenting.

What makes the story so great is that it is a hyper-realistic love story. That the couple in love are two male cowboys, neither of whom considers himself homosexual, is of secondary importance. The story is not sensationalist, though its theme might be so considered by those uncomfortable with male-to-male intimacy. Proulx has added to the popular genre of “impossible love stories,” such as Romeo and Juliet, or stories of racial or class divides that made love difficult and dangerous in other times. That the lovers are otherwise straight, rough-cut men adds a unique spice to the story, which is mainly a powerful tale about loneliness and longing.

Story Playlist 27: The Whore of Mensa

Woody Allen: “The Whore of Mensa” (1974) Woody Allen is probably the funniest man on the planet. He has been consistently funny, smartly funny, from the 1960s to today (although his best material is from the fertile first 25 years). “The Whore of Mensa” is not his funniest story, but it is perhaps the best-known of his short works of fiction, and it offers a good launch pad to examine what makes for funny writing.

There is essentially one joke in “The Whore of Mensa.” A prostitution ring traffics in women who engage their johns in intellectual conversation, rather than sexual activity. The style of the story is mock-noir, a take-off on hard-boiled detective fiction, aping the tone and format of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Our hero is the wonderfully-named Kaiser Lupowitz, one of Allen’s many characters whose names are part WASP, part Jewish (my favorite is Fielding Melish, from Bananas). He is a detective hired to look into this prostitution ring, wherein johns order up blondes or brunettes to discuss Wallace Stevens, Melville or, for extra cash, a comparative study of Melville and Hawthorne. All of the tropes of prostitution are used, with intellectual discussion in the place of sexual favors. One prostitute is one credit away from her Master’s in Comparative Literature, trying to earn money to cover tuition.

A desperate client (the also-wonderfully-named Word Babcock) is being blackmailed, and walks into Kaiser’s detective agency for help. This launches Kaiser’s investigation, and the story. The story is lacking in jokes per se, but jokes are just one type of humor. There is hardly a line that makes you laugh out loud (although the idea that the Hunter College Bookstore is a front for this prostitution ring is pretty good), but the humor is, instead, situational.

There is, believe it or not, a field of study known as “humor research.” Just knowing that may well suck the fun out of anything you find funny, because to explain why something is funny is to destroy what was funny about it. But from a writer’s perspective, peeling away the façade of a story to look at how it stands up is a useful exercise, even if a few temples to hilarity are torn down in the process.

Experts break down the funny into three categories of humor: situational, physical, and satirical. Physical humor is just what it sounds like—something physically happens to a character that is awkward, surprising, or incongruous. It often involves someone being injured, but there is a fine line between funny injury and serious injury. Slipping on a banana peel is funny. Getting hit by a train? Not so funny. Situational humor employs an absurd situation—one that we might even recognize as having comic potential before we read any further. Mistaken identity is a popular tool of situational humor, as is cross-dressing. Mrs. Doubtfire, in which Robin Williams pretends to be an old woman in order to win back his love, focuses on situational humor—a man pretending to be an old woman is a funny, absurd circumstance. Misunderstandings, mistaken identity, improbable situations are all part and parcel of situational humor. Satire, and its cousin parody, are about mocking specific things, people, events, and trends. Parody is more direct, for instance a Saturday Night Live sketch making fun of the film Titanic by mimicking certain aspects of the film. But parody is only really funny if the audience is familiar with at least the basic outlines of the target of the parody. If you know nothing of Titanic, then you probably won’t enjoy a parody of it. Satire is the broader umbrella category, describing humor that mocks human actions and shortcomings in general, without aping a specific source, but rather making jokes out of a situation that the audience will recognize as contemporary. The Daily Show or The Colbert Report are good examples of today’s best satirists.

None of these categories are about jokes. Sigmund Freud wrote a book about humor, and considered that we find funny what the unconscious lets slip out, an expression of what society normally forbids or encourages us to suppress. This might define a joke, which lets out thoughts or feelings that we usually think we must keep shut away. Jokes either surprise us by their endings, and therefore we smile from surprise, or they make fun of other people in ways that we would not permit ourselves to do in regular conversation, where there can be hurtful consequences. Jokes are the bricks and mortar of satire and parody, and they also may be used in situational humor, to point out the oddities of the situation. Jokes are not normally involved in physical humor, unless they comment on the humorous physical action after it has taken place. A program like Blackadder employs all three types of humor. The situations are funny (in one episode Blackadder must impersonate a prisoner he has never seen, and he learns as he goes that the prisoner has weird traits, including a very high voice and only one leg). Physical humor plays a role (Blackadder jumping on one leg to try to impersonate the prisoner, and often whomping his sidekick, Baldrick, with various implements). And there are jokes, often made by Blackadder at Baldrick’s expense, making fun of how he smells, how dumb he is, and how inept.

I was recently hired to write the script for a new Croatian comedy series. I’ve never before written a sitcom or written for television. My stock in trade is art history books and dark thriller novels. I also know next to nothing about Croatia, but I’m certainly game for the challenge. This new commission has prompted me to examine how humor works, from a writer’s perspective, and I’ve found some interesting things. Woody Allen’s work is as good a place as any to begin our study.

If we turn back to “The Whore of Mensa,” we can say almost all the humor is situational. The key is replacing sexual favors with intellectual conversation in this story of cerebral prostitution. There is a parody element, as well, that is amusing as Allen’s narrator approximates the persona of the hard-boiled detective—letting him delight in the loaded similes of the genre: “he was shaking like the lead singer in a rhumba band.” There is no physical humor (it is harder to use successful physical humor in a written story, because the reader has to imagine the action after reading it, as opposed to reacting immediately to seeing it), and there are few jokes; mostly, the laughs come from Allen knowing his audience (readers of the New Yorker) who will smirk at his name-dropping: a prostitute offers a photograph of Dwight MacDonald reading; the “big cheese,” Flossie, has had surgery to look like Lionel Trilling. The whole is clever and humorous, but unlike other pieces by Allen, it is not particularly funny. Not as funny as other stories of his, not as funny as his early films, and not as funny as his stand-up comedy, which is utterly brilliant.

Perhaps it’s simply that the targets—crime fiction and pseudo-intellectuals—are too easy, and yet one wonders: would it be possible to write something this clever with one of the stories on the playlist as the basic situation to parody?

Story Playlist 26: Eisenheim the Illusionist

Stephen Millhauser: “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (1998) In creative writing courses, you’re inevitably told a golden rule of good fiction-writing: show, don’t tell. Don’t tell us that a character is greedy. Instead, show him acting in a greedy way, and allow the audience to understand this characteristic. But rules are meant to be broken, and a whole subsection of stories are written in the oral, story-telling tradition. We’ve already encountered a few of them over the course of this short story playlist: Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog” story comes to mind, in which Twain employs a first-person narrator to retell the story told to him by a character in the story—a layer cake of narration. Other authors employ a manner that is meant to be read as an historical account. Stephen Millhauser’s “Eisenheim” story is one of the latter: a fantastic tale told with a sense of both objective reporting and the hearsay of legend. Where the staid creative writing professor might urge Millhauser to involve us in Eisenheim’s life and thoughts and actions, the story as told gives an external, reportorial view of the events.

In contemporary times, we have grown accustomed, perhaps, to stories that aim for the immediacy of film: a little scene-setting, then tell what happens, with as much neutrality as possible. Millhauser adopts a more antiquated style to mimic the time—late nineteenth-century Vienna, mostly—where the story takes place. The best contemporary stories carry their audience away to another world, with the reader forgetting the teller as they follow the action. Older stories tended to be more narrated, creating an implied author that stands for the veracity of the tale. Millhauser exploits this device to recreate as much as possible the outlook of the times his characters live in.

Eisenheim is ostensibly the greatest stage magician of his time. His tricks are so amazing and inexplicable that he is thought to have real magical powers. The narrator tells us that he has pieced together as much as he could of the life and strange end of Eisenheim, based on newspaper reports, interviews with witnesses, and whatever tidbits he could find. Because of this hybrid story-teller/pseudo-journalistic style, nothing in Eisenheim’s story is directly dramatized. There is no dialogue, direct or indirect, and no effort to inhabit the minds of the characters. There is enough detail to carry us away to a foreign place and time, as Millhauser effectively suggests a parallel between the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire and the rising interest in stage magic, séances, and the paranormal within it.

Millhauser made a choice. He could have dramatized the story of the rise of Eisenheim, the leading illusionist of fin-de-siècle Vienna and beyond. Instead he uses the report format, which takes some of the dramatic kick out of what he tells. We are given a play-by-play explanation of some of Eisenheim’s magic tricks, including the mechanism of how some (but not all) of them worked. This sucks the magic right out of the magic tricks. It is more clinical, and less wizardly, to be told that Eisenheim did this, that, and the other thing, and that the crowd was amazed. Would it not have been better to show the trick, in detail, as if we were viewing it, and then we could share the crowd’s awe?

Perhaps, but since the theoretical backdrop to the story explores the fascination with the supernatural within the hyper-bureaucratic, pragmatic, and crumbling Hapsburg Empire, the intention is to separate us from Eisenheim’s contemporaries, not to make us a part of their world. While this trick may “work”—like one of Eisenheim’s illusions—to create an engaging story, the narration seems a bit dryer than I might have liked, a bit too detached and clinical. It wasn’t quite a tale told by a bard before a blazing fire, nor a piece of twentieth-century sharpened prose, but rather a somewhat dated, if interesting, report on a pseudo-historical personage. I guess I liked the story, the character of Eisenheim, and the striking way he engineered his end, foiling Walter Uhl, the intriguing policeman and amateur magician who tries to arrest him when his mix of reality and illusion is deemed too subversive, better than the way the story was told. I actually found myself wishing that the Pulitzer-prize-winning Millhauser had written a novel about Eisenheim, to fully inhabit the world he only suggests here, especially with regard to the possibly fascinating figure of Uhl, about whom we learn too little.

There is a wonderful core to Millhauser’s story, but more could be done with it. Neil Berger must have felt the same way. His film The Illusionist (2006) is based on Millhauser’s story but adds much more plot. The film is not better, but the character of Uhl (a great performance by Paul Giamatti) is satisfyingly fleshed-out, and a love interest for Eisenheim takes a passing detail in Millhauser’s story and makes it into an exciting subplot involving the Crown Prince. It is worth reading the story first, and then seeing the film on the same evening, to consider whether what the film-maker did to expand the story was a) beneficial, b) matched what you might choose to do, if you were tasked with expanding the story, c) even necessary, for I’m sure many will find the story quite sufficient. I liked it very much, but, like a creative writing teacher, I wanted more showing, less telling.

Story Playlist 25: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Joyce Carol Oates: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966) Joyce Carol Oates begins her most famous story with the self-absorbed personality of Connie, a 15-year-old girl in a small town in 1960s America. Over the last two decades, authors (encouraged by publishers) have felt the need to start stories and novels and even history books in medias res, right at the center of the action, to hook the reader, before stepping back to fill out the back story and develop character. Gone are the days of Balzac’s Pere Goriot, which opens with some thirty pages that simply describe the exterior of a country inn. Balzac would never find a publisher these days. Perhaps today’s attention-deficit readers are too impatient to wait through a slow burn? If they aren’t engrossed by page two—paragraph two?—they are unlikely to buy the book.

But to understand Connie, it’s crucial to see Connie’s discontentment with her family, her teenaged sullenness, and the kind of life she leads, where the highlight of her week is a burger and Coke at a drive-thru where the older kids hang out. While there with another boy, she is spotted by an odd-looking loner with wild dark hair in a gold-painted convertible, who leers at her and says, “I’m gonna get you.”

Sometime later, Connie’s parents and sister head out to a barbeque, and Connie insists on staying home. Oates prepares the scene in such a way that, although it is a bright, sunny Sunday and nothing bad has happened yet, we will Connie to go with her parents, not to remain home alone. This is due to tone and non-explicit foreshadowing, with Oates’ prose underscoring Connie’s vulnerability. And so that sound of a car coming up the gravel drive is chilling to us though only a curiosity to Connie. Until she sees it’s the gold convertible. Inside sits the boy from the drive-thru acting as if she should be expecting him. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and he’s politely aggressive; he knows her, and knew she’d be alone and knows where her family are. At first, perhaps, Connie finds this intriguing, but Oates lets us feel her unease as well. She’s clearly been accosted by strange men before and is not a wide-eyed innocent; she knows what Friend wants.

Still playing the friendly small-town boy—though Connie insists he’s “not from around here”—Friend introduces Ellie, his silent partner in the car who sits with his transistor tuned to the same hip radio station Connie has on in the house. Friend, outside his car and moving around it, points out the inscriptions on it: his name, and some cryptic numbers—33, 19, and 17—and a few slangy phrases. He doesn’t explain the numbers, but the curious reader can decipher their meaning, with a little work: they refer to a Biblical passage, Judges 19:17, in which a stranger is asked the questions that provide the story’s title.

As they converse, Friend is clearly not taking no for an answer, and we see how trapped Connie is. Our fears for her increase when she realizes that Friend is not a boy at all but nearer thirty and his friend is even older, perhaps forty. Friend moves oddly and tends to lean on things and Connie notices that his boots seem not to be filled by his feet, which creates a sense of freakishness that Oates doesn’t overplay. We imagine his feet are perched, satyr-like, in stuffed cowboy boots that lend him an illusion of height.

When Friend flatly refuses to leave, Connie retreats, threatening to call the police. Friend warns her that he will not enter the house unless she picks up the phone, and insists that she will come out to him voluntarily. We might find an element of the supernatural in this—by some accounts, vampires cannot cross a threshold unless they are invited, so Friend’s comment echoes the kind of hypnotic power vampires commonly exercise in legend and horror films. Friend finally threatens to wait outside and kill Connie’s family if she does not come out. After a freak-out moment in which she picks up the phone and simply screams without dialing, Connie becomes numb to what is happening. She continues to hear Friend’s efforts to be reassuringly seductive—telling her he understands her better than her family does and that the purpose of a sweet girl like her is “to give in,” but in a disembodied way, as though it were happening to someone else. She crosses the threshold into a fate left to our imagination.

The tension in the dialogue between Connie and Friend is huge and masterful, provoking that wonderful internal “Don’t do it!” reaction on the part of the reader. My grandmother literally shouts “Don’t go in there!” at the TV screen during moments of tension in films, and to feel that sensation in a short story is to struggle not to skip ahead, to remain in the sickening state of fear Oates creates. As Friend plays cat-and-mouse with Connie, we can also see Oates toying with the reader: “Arnold Friend” sounds suspiciously like “are no friend”; the stuffed boots and the hypnotic patter turn Friend into some sort of hybrid monster, part vampire, part satyr, part incubus (a sort of vampirical demon who hunts for sex rather than blood); the cryptic use of the Biblical quotation might suggest an allegorical dimension, or at least a twisted sense of the Bible’s commonality, as when the Misfit discusses Jesus with the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And, for those who like to look beyond a story to its sources, there is a true crime element as well, since some of the story’s details come from the case of Charles Schmid.

In 1961, Schmid (Smitty to his friends, lovers, and victims) murdered a number of young women in Tucson, Arizona. Schmid was socially adept, murdering women who he knew, in some cases girlfriends, rather than prostitutes or abducted strangers, as is often the case with serial killers. By all accounts he was charming and knew how to appeal to the natural insecurities of girls to draw them out, making them feel appreciated, before his sociopathic streak kicked in and he killed them. Oates read about Schmid, including his custom-made cowboy boots that he stuffed with paper to make himself taller, in a Life magazine article about the Tucson killings. What intrigued her was the victim’s point of view, which is what she recreates brilliantly in her story, giving us a wondrous layer cake: part horror, part true crime, part allegory, part character study—and all ingenious.

Story Playlist 24: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is just about perfect. It is a story that is easy to misread, because the treasures are in the details, a Christmas tree hung with baubles that are barely visible among the pine needles and tinsel. In fact, I had to read it three times to feel that I “got it,” and I’m still not sure if I got all there is to get.

At first glance, the story seems to begin in a banal manner, then becomes awkward, cute, creepy, before an explosive last paragraph that makes you flip quickly back to the beginning, to see if you might find foreshadowing that would have clued you in to the conclusion. It is there, of course, as it must be in all good stories—none of your deus ex machina business, but an honest surprise ending.

The story is divided into two sections, plus that whammy of a coda. The first section features Muriel Glass on a long-distance call with her mother. Muriel is on holiday in Florida with her husband, Seymour, who was a soldier in the recently-ended Second World War. Muriel is a dismissive, unconcerned, and rather oblivious socialite who stuck with Seymour throughout the war, and doesn’t seem to realize that he returned a changed man, damaged goods, as so many poor, shell-shocked soldiers did (Salinger himself was one, and it is easy to project his biography onto Seymour Glass).

It took me a few reads of this opening sequence to catch what was actually going on, because Salinger ingeniously presents it to us as a straight dialogue, with almost no authorial interference, and a lot of interrupted sentences, as when two people are talking over each other or cutting each other off. Muriel’s mother is quite frantic with concern for her daughter, and refers to a number of incidents involving Seymour’s instability, and in each case we can only infer what happened. “The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away.” After a second read, I conjectured that Seymour had been involved in an accident with his father-in-law’s car, perhaps involving trees, that may have been intentional. He may be suicidal (“business with the window” and “plans for passing away”).

We also learn, obliquely, that he was recently released from a psychiatric hospital—too soon, according to one doctor. In the hotel, Seymour’s appearance prompts a psychiatrist on holiday to approach Muriel about him, but she treats the conversation dismissively. Salinger creates tension through the mannered dialogue between a concerned mother and her strong-willed daughter, who seems to want to ignore her husband’s issues since his return from combat. She also accepts that he mocks her, thinking it’s cute that he called her “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and seems most concerned that she knows nothing about the book by “the only great poet of the century” that he sent her from Germany, and which was in German. From the mother’s insistent questions, despite casual comments on fashion and gossip, we sense Muriel’s husband is a ticking time-bomb.

The second section is where it gets odder—more playful but also creepier. A little child, Sybil Carpenter, is sent off to play while her mother goes for a martini (promising to bring Sybil the olive). Sybil heads straight over to Seymour, who is lying on the beach in his bathrobe. Seymour is charming with the young girl, but we may think it odd that a grown man is playing with a little girl unrelated to him, with no other adults around. Their interaction is friendly but their relationship clear. Seymour speaks familiarly to the child, but in a bantering way. When the girl mentions her father’s imminent arrival, Seymour says he has been waiting for him, but we can’t tell he is teasing her or if he actually knows her father. Sybil seems comfortable with Seymour—who she refers to as “see more”—and that’s reassuring. But when he kisses her foot while she’s on a raft in the ocean with him, she is startled. It’s then that he says they must go. There seems to be a sexual undertone that is disturbing, highlighted by the weird idea of “bananafish,” an imaginary fish that Seymour suggests he and Sybil look for in the water. It’s when she says she saw one that he kisser her foot, suggesting a spontaneous gesture of tenderness toward her. If we like we can consider the sexual overtones of the bananafish, certainly a phallic image as described by Seymour: “I’ve known bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas…after they eat so many bananas they can’t get out of the banana hole…they die.”

Why is Seymour on the beach in his bathrobe? His reticence to disrobe is dismissed by Muriel as shyness at being pale, but we sense that’s just an excuse for her mother, who thinks there must be something more to it. Muriel offers another explanation: “[Seymour] says he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo,” to which her mother replies, “He doesn’t have any tattoo! Did he get one in the Army?” Now, that detail seemed to be often ignored by other readers of the story—at least I could find no mention of the tattoo in a Google search—but, after several reads, it occurred to me that the sort of tattoo one would get during World War Two that one wouldn’t want “a lot of fools” staring at, is a numerical tattoo from a concentration camp. An identification with Nazi prisoners—according to his daughter, Salinger was among U.S. soldiers who entered a liberated concentration cam—would further underscore the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that Seymour suffers from. And yet the reference is subtle, and seems to elude most readers.

In the final part of the story Seymour returns to his hotel-room, where Muriel sleeps on a twin bed. In a master-class showing how to build tension and shock in one sentence, Salinger first leads us to believe that, as per the fears of Muriel’s mother, Muriel is going to be the victim of Seymour’s violence.

He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.

That last sentence is a demonstration of skillful misdirection. By telling us Seymour looks at the girl, we assume that Muriel is the one “aimed” at, an assumption that Salinger cultivates until the final three words.

In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s readers must work, like detectives, to first recognize clues that might not seem to be clues, then use them to decode the enigmatic story, piecing together what the clues mean. A writing professor of mine once said that about 2/3 of your readers should “get” a great story the first or second time through. That means that 1/3 will need assistance in order to “get it” all, or they might not get it all—and that’s okay. “Getting it” is not requisite to enjoying the story as a whole, but each hidden attribute that you “get” feels like a miniature conquest, and enriches the overall experience.

Salinger is notoriously hard to “get,” in the sense that he lets quizzical actions and statements remain so, prodding the reader to get on his wavelength but explaining very little. My favorite novels and, particularly, short stories are those that offer up riddles that close reading will solve, opening like flowers to reveal the beauty of the story and the author’s ingenuity. And yet some writers are so good you admire their work even when you can’t determine exactly what they’re getting at with every detail.

Story Playlist 23: The Man from the South

Roald Dahl: “The Man from the South” (1948) Most folks know Roald Dahl for his wonderful children’s books, like The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda (now a Broadway musical), but Dahl led a number of lives. He was a spy during World War Two, and an older generation knows him for his razor-sharp, creepy short stories for adults, the most famous of which is “The Man from the South.”

The story is simple. Our narrator, an Englishman on holiday in Jamaica, is joined poolside by a man dressed in a white suit and cream-colored hat, who speaks with a Spanish accent (“the” is both written and pronounced “de”). This Man from the South (i.e., South America) engages in a bet with a young American sailor, who is trying to show off to an English girl he has just met. The sailor offers to bet a dollar that he can light the Man’s cigar outdoors on the first try with his Zippo-style lighter. The Man makes a counter-bet, offering his new Cadillac if the boy can successfully light his lighter ten times in a row. The sailor is intrigued and asks what he would have to forfeit, if he fails. The Man replies that it is something small that he would not miss—the pinky finger of his left hand.

As soon as the counter-prize is stated, the general tension brewed by Dahl in the slightly-awkward back-and-forth of the Man and the sailor leaps up to a higher level of dread that prompts the reader’s heart to leap with it. What seemed playful becomes sinister.

Our nervousness at the situation is contrasted by the bright and playful environment in which it takes place—poolside at a sunny Jamaican resort. The narrator expresses his dismay at this bet, as does the English girl, who thinks it is foolish. But the young sailor takes the bet anyway. Why is not clear, though he rationalizes that he’s never needed his pinky and would certainly like a Cadillac. Why the Man would want a pinky finger is not asked.

The narrator is roped into refereeing, and they adjourn to the Man’s hotel room. There the Man asks a maid to bring him nails, a hammer, and a meat cleaver. He hammers the nails into the hotel desk so that he can tie the sailor’s hand down to it. The sailor offers his hand, clenched but with the pinky extended, so the Man can lop it off before the sailor has second thoughts, should he lose the bet. The Man hands the car keys to the narrator, and the sailor begins flicking his lighter.

Dahl produces a wonderfully-tense countdown of successful lightings of the lighter, until we reach the ninth. Just then a woman bursts into the room, sees what is happening, and berates the Man in a flurry of Spanish. The bet is cancelled. The woman explains that this Man is her husband, and he is mentally unstable. He has taken 47 fingers and lost 11 Cadillacs—and all the Cadillacs were hers, and not his to bet. She then adds that everything that was once his is now hers, that she won it after hard work. Dahl then provides a marvelous kicker of a last line, when we see that the woman has only two fingers on one of her hands.

The story works beautifully, providing natural tension, and it is no surprise that it has been made into short films on several occasions, including by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre). What we are to make of the bizarre scene and the dynamic between the woman and her mad husband is another question, one which, happily, Dahl does not answer for us. To answer it would be to remove the mystery, and the sustenance of an enduring mystery based on a haunting situation is far more powerful than a mystery that is “explained away.”

Magritte is my favorite painter, because his paintings, with evocative titles, draw the viewer into a sense of a mystery to be solved—but then he does not solve it. David Lynch is the nearest approximation on-screen, with Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive two famous examples of engrossing mysteries that Lynch, arguably, never bothered to conceive solutions to. The goal is to draw us into the mystery, encourage us to seek its solution, but never to give us the satisfaction of feeling that we have solved it. To solve it would be to dismiss it, to move on. By never offering a solution, we remain haunted by the mystery. And after all, all great artists hope to haunt us.

Story Playlist 22: Little Lost Robot

Isaac Asimov: “Little Lost Robot” (1947) In general, I’m no fan of sci-fi, although I don’t avoid it. It just never did it for me. I was more in the fantasy realm after an childhood engaged in avid bouts of Dungeons & Dragons (and for some reason it seems that sci-fi and fantasy fans are never one and the same). But I had always heard of two great sci-fi short story authors who were considered great exemplars of the genre in which they wrote: Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. So I was eager to sample a work by each.

From the start of Asimov’s “Little Lost Robot” I knew that I would like it, and that the fact of it involving the future and robots was largely incidental and not requisite to the enjoyment of the story. It was sauce on a great piece of meat, not sauce used to hide the poor quality of the meat it dressed. Asimov writes in an assured, if old-fashioned, manner and immediately draws the reader in by starting in medias res. As so many great detective stories do, this begins with experts being called in to solve a problem. In this case, the experts are a pair of mutually-antagonistic robopsychologists, including ornery Susan Calvin (a recurring Asimov character), who are tasked with finding a lost robot.

“Little Lost Robot” introduces Asimov’s now-famous “three laws of robotics,” established by scientists to protect humans against their own creations. The First Law is that a robot cannot harm a human, and must intervene if a human is in danger. The plot hinges upon the fact that a mining corporation has tinkered with a small group of robots and trimmed the first law, cutting out the second clause, because robots were interfering with the human miners, who needed to be exposed to blasts of radiation, too brief to be harmful, in order to conduct the mining. One of the robots who was tinkered with has suddenly disappeared, and now seems to be hiding among the 62 other physically identical robots who work for the corporation. Calvin fears that the robot could possibly endanger a human, while still following the first half of the First Law, by not deliberately harming a human but also not intervening to prevent harm. The robopsychologists must develop a test to determine which of the 63 robots is the outlier, without having to destroy them all and cost the corporation millions.

It’s a great setup, and I should pause for a moment to express just how influential Asimov was as a writer. He invented the term “robotics,” as the study of robots. He didn’t invent robots, of course, but so many of the ideas we have about robots, particularly in fiction, emerged from his pen. Just like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which established “rules” about how zombies are depicted in fiction, Asimov established, back in the 1940s and 50s, some by-now familiar tropes about robots—specifically, he foresaw just how much we would rely on them, and what could logically go wrong with our over-reliance on them in the future.

After interviewing the miners, Calvin finds one who, in a fit of anger, told the robot in question to “get lost,” which was meant metaphorically but was taken literally by the robot as an instruction. So the robot hid among the other robots. Asimov adds psychology to the robots, so that Calvin begins to believe the robot’s sense of superiority to humans keeps it in hiding, priding itself on outwitting them. She arranges for a human to be put into what appears to be a dangerous situation, in which a weight is falling upon them. Each robot with the second law programmed in place will be compelled to rush to save the human, even at risk to themselves. While Calvin is on the right track, the renegade robot is ahead of her. He has spoken with the other robots, rationalizing with them that they would be unable to save the human and thus die for nothing.

The situation is multifaceted, with an engaging mystery that has profound implications. Eventually Calvin manages to outsmart the robot, but not before Asimov’s main theme has been sounded: if robots become too intelligent, and if we rely on them too much, a) they might become too independent, and b) they might take over. It’s the theme of countless films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator, but Asimov was the first to employ it, decades before it was a cliché. The implications of robots becoming too human is still present for today’s scientists, and our over-reliance is well-documented. We no longer bother trying to remember things, as our computers remember for us. If our computers one day were to become hostile to their “masters,” or were to suddenly forget everything we’ve saved in them—well, a phrase about a creek without a paddle comes to mind.

Story Playlist 21: The Gift of the Magi

O. Henry: “The Gift of the Magi” (1905) Whether or not you’ve read this story, you’re probably familiar with its broad strokes. A husband and wife with very little money struggle to come up with Christmas gifts for one another. They each possess a single item of great value that they treasure and admire. She has gorgeous long hair, and he has inherited an elegant pocket watch. Without other options that feel satisfactory, the woman’s love prompts her to sell her hair, in order to buy a handsome platinum chain for her husband’s watch, to replace the leather strap he has been using. She gives him the gift on Christmas Eve, when he returns home from work and sees her shortened hair, and his reaction puzzles and concerns her. He then asks her to open his gift: a set of jeweled combs for her long hair, combs that she had long admired from afar. He sold his watch in order to buy her the combs. Thus the husband and wife each sold the object that they most prized, in order to give each other something appropriate as a compliment to what the other most prized. But each wound up selling the treasure that the gifts were meant for, resulting in a pair of elegant, but at the moment useless, Christmas gifts. Their love for one another has been proven, and the story is a happy one, but the key component that it demonstrates is situational irony.

I had heard this story told in a slightly butchered fashion long before I read it. It is often used as the exemplar of an ironic situation, irony being a word that few can define but many can give examples of. This precise plot was the example I was taught in school, in lieu of a dictionary definition of “irony. One definition of irony is “humor based on opposites; something humorous based on contradiction; incongruity.” The humor component, however, is not strictly necessary, or at least is in the eye of the beholder—it would be easy for the couple in the story not to see the humor in their situation. O. Henry, we suppose, wants his readers to see it, perhaps at his characters’ expense.

Thankfully, the tone of O. Henry’s story is remarkably easy-going, even Brechtian in its refusal to tug at the heartstrings until they snap. When I had heard the story spoken aloud, I thought it was about a homeless couple who have nothing in the world but their inherited treasures—this adds a layer of saccharin that is not accurate. Our couple is low-income, but functional, making the whole a bit lighter.

What is most remarkable is how O. Henry has crafted a story that has entered popular mythology. That people know of the plot without having read it is truly noteworthy, and I believe it is the first story on my list that exists outside of the context of the story itself. The theme of live burial in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” is riffed off of and quoted in film and fiction. The evil cobra and good mongoose in “Rikki Tikki Tavi” are known largely via the animated film of the story. O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” exists in the cultural oxygen for folks who have never seen a film version of it, never read it, and think that O. Henry is just a candy bar. That is a remarkable feat, and it’s hard to imagine an author who would not relish creating something that has, in its way, become an example for a rhetorical effect, demonstrating how we understand, or at least explain, situational irony. How many writers can claim to have given dramatic form to a definition?

Story Playlist 20: The Lottery

Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” (1948) What new remains to be said about the most-anthologized short story in history? Shirley Jackson’s classic story, it seems, is read by every American high school student, and is analyzed in classes across America with a batch of cookie-cutter teacher questions. At what point did you realize that the lottery in the story was one that people did not want to win? What are some elements of foreshadowing employed by the author (the pile of stones that children gather, the “black box” in which lots are drawn that recalls a coffin)? What might this story refer to, considering its publication shortly after World War II? And so on. Predictable questions, perhaps, but for a story that is universally read (at least by American students), it still packs a wallop.

The villagers of a small American community, some 300 strong, gather on the annual day of the lottery—an event that will not take long, they’ll be home in time for lunch. Children gather stones in the town square, and men and women arrive separately—we are in a sort of non-specific Puritanical settlement, the sort about which Hawthorne wrote in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The man who runs the lottery arrives with a coffin-like black box containing slips of paper, one for every villager. A single slip is marked with a pencil-drawn dot. Whoever draws that slip is “the winner.” We realize by the end of the story that the winner is actually the loser—selected by the lottery to be stoned to death in the town square by the other villagers, who can still make it home in time for lunch.

Despite the grim facts of the lottery, the villagers take it for granted, and even pooh-pooh the rumor that some neighboring villages have given up the annual lottery tradition altogether. It is implied that the villagers feel this tradition is necessary to their culture, if not their livelihood, but Jackson does well not to explain this. As we see the lottery in action, we and the villagers are relieved when children do not “win,” and the eventual victim is a wife and mother distinguished largely by her nervousness, while the rest of the villagers are resigned to take the lottery as it comes—although perhaps anyone who “wins” would break down and get edgy. What is most striking is the matter-of-factness with which the whole gruesome process unfolds. Villagers chat with each other, joke, call each other on a first-name basis, as if this were normal and quotidian, albeit not something you look forward to—maybe like a dentist’s appointment.

It’s shooting ducks in a barrel to list the allegorical merits of such a story. Given the publication date (1948), high school English students would likely mention the Holocaust, a perfectly good association. Some might refer to German citizens and soldiers following the orders of the Nazi regime without questioning even the most grotesque commands. Conformism and passivity in the face of horror is what it’s all about, and you don’t need the Second World War (alas) to find examples of it.

Jackson’s decision not to focus on a single protagonist, not to step within the minds of the characters, not really even to provide a narrative arc, but simply to let an ingenious, horrifying concept play out is an interesting one. That she avoided specifics makes the story that much easier to see as an allegory. It’s like one of those Baroque paintings of Justice. Shown in her allegorical form, Justice is presented as an idealized female in a toga, wearing a blindfold and carrying scales in one hand, a sword in the other. We recognize this figure as allegorical, in part due to the fact that she is non-specific. If the painting showed a portrait of a specific queen, dolled up with the accoutrements of Justice, then we would be pulled in two directions, one biographical, the other allegorical. This story, like the idealized painting, is unabashed allegory, focusing our attention on the form presented to us, at the expense of telling a more traditional narrative story in which we cheer for a protagonist and see that protagonist change over the course of the tale.

Jackson did a rare thing with “The Lottery.” She created an archetype that has no evident literary predecessor, but which has influenced pop culture hugely since its publication. There are cultural parallels to its concept—the Spartans culled newborn babies who did not seem physically perfect, for example. There are a number of Greek myths about a princess being sacrificed to appease a monster, as in the legend of St. George and the Dragon. But the idea of a lottery, which Jackson tricks us into thinking you want to win for the first two-thirds of her story, and the numbed normality of the villagers who submit to—and even seem to actively support—this annual execution, struck a chord that still reverberates. Popular fictions like The Hunger Games, which begins with a lottery whose winners are forced to fight for their lives on national television, rely on Jackson’s tale. Creating an archetype that enters the common oxygen is the dream of many a writer. The same goes for writing a story that is considered so good and powerful that it is required reading for every student throughout an entire nation.

Jackson is a wonderful novelist, too little known beyond this story. The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted house book ever written, hands down, with an oft-quoted opening paragraph that has been sung to the rafters by modern masters of the scary, like Peter Straub and Stephen King. “The Lottery” is less palpably “written” than most stories I’ve read in this project, based as it is entirely on incident—but an incident with a repetitive, allegorical significance, and that makes it distinctive. There is no character development, and most of the characters, aside from the man who runs the lottery and the nervous, ultimate “winner” of it, are barely presented to us, in just a few broad strokes. We cheer for no one, aside from eventually hoping that no one “wins,” once we realize that you do not want to win this sort of lottery. No one changes over the course of the story. The basic premises of good, satisfying fiction seem to be missing. Instead we have a wholly original, killer (literally) concept. The text is merely a method for presenting the concept. And the concept is ingenious because it is not explained away, leaving its readers to make of it what they will.

Story Playlist 19: Cathedral

Raymond Carver : “Cathedral” (1983) Raymond Carver’s most famous short story could not be simpler. It seems, on the evidence of the stories in this playlist, that, with rare exceptions such as Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” aside, the strongest short stories are the most straightforward. Something happens and, because of it, something (or someone) changes.

In “Cathedral,” the taciturn narrator is pressed into hosting an old friend of his wife’s, a blind man whose own wife recently passed away. Robert, the blind man, and the narrator’s wife became friends when she worked as an aid for him and over the years they developed an intimacy by sending each other tapes on which they talked about their lives. The narrator is somewhat sullen about his wife’s intimacy—dating back to her first marriage—with this blind man with his big beard and loud voice. In the course of a long evening, with many drinks and a joint shared, the narrator comes to accept Robert, and then to be enlightened by him. The change in the narrator, as he tempers his bigotry toward the handicapped, his passive racism, and his chauvinism toward his wife, is the payoff of the story. The key to that change is a simple act of empathy.

The narrator tries to entertain Robert after a big dinner as his wife gets drowsy. Eventually he turns on the television. He expects Robert to retire to the guest room, but the man keeps him company as the wife dozes between them on the couch. A documentary on the middle ages comes on, and at times the camera simply shows pictures of cathedrals. The narrator wonders whether Robert knows what a cathedral is, and how he might possibly describe it to him. He tries to do so in words but cannot. Robert suggests another tactic.

“Go ahead, bub, draw. Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” The narrator sketches a cathedral and Robert places his hand on the narrator’s, following the movements of his hand on the paper. After a time, Robert suggests that the narrator close his eyes as he draws. This moment marks the turning point, as the narrator tells us pointedly, “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” He keeps his eyes closed even after, and the change within him has already taken place. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” He has been drawn into an empathetic situation with the object of one of his many prejudices. By voluntarily accepting a temporary blindness, the narrator recognizes the strength required to live with such a handicap, and his respect for Robert soars. He no longer considers him as a blind man, but as a man.

As soon as a blind person was introduced, my metaphor alarm went off. Since Homer, at least, the blind have been thought to possess a sort of second sight to compensate for their lost sense, to “see” what others cannot. Blindness is a powerful vessel for metaphor, and it is fitting (if a bit predictable) that a literally blind character should help a figuratively “blind” character to see things more clearly. In its plot, the story is predictable, but, in Carver’s hands, the text is sculpted so simply and cleanly that no heavy-hand is felt. The story is about as perfect as a story can be. There is a flawed protagonist, a stranger enters his life against his wishes, and through their interaction the protagonist sheds his flaw and becomes a better person. A change in the protagonist is a fairly basic requisite for any narrative, from short stories to novels to films. A change for the better usually results in a feeling of justice and satisfaction for the reader at the story’s end.

One could tango about the metaphorical power of a cathedral as the vehicle that brought about the narrator’s change, as a way to throw some religious symbolism into the tale—Robert asks the narrator at one point if he is religious and the narrator claims he doesn’t believe in anything. In some ways, the choice of a cathedral is more about choosing something that is not mundane (it would not work as well if the narrator had drawn a sailboat, for instance). Perhaps there is something of a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment in the narrator’s “conversion,” and doubtless many a student essay has been written on the symbolism of the cathedral in Carver’s story of that title. But my interest is in the simple telling, the simple plot, and the minimalist elegance of an assured hand whose pen can make a sighted man see.

Story Playlist 18: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953) If you Google “great short stories,” or the syllabi of just about any high school or college short story course, this is one of the first tales you’ll spot on every list. O’Connor is, in a way, both over- and under- sung. Aside from “A Good Man,” there is little else by her that is regularly read or that could even be name-dropped. Who but her fans and well-read lit profs could name another work by O'Connor? It’s a shame, because she deserves to be read, and read more broadly.

And her most famous story might not send people in search of more. It’s not an easy story, either to read or to interpret. It certainly leaves ample room for teachers to draw students into discussion but, despite this fact, I am hard-pressed to say something meaningful about it, no matter how well I liked it. There is no key or legend that cracks it open cleanly, and perhaps it is the more satisfying for this fact.

We are introduced to a grandmother who begrudgingly accompanies her son Bailey Boy, his wife, and their three children, on a holiday from their Georgia home to Florida (she’d rather go to East Tennessee—and who wouldn’t?). The grandmother opens the story by complaining that an escaped murderer named The Misfit, who is still on the loose, is headed for Florida. One suspects right away that we will be running into him later.

We first see the family dynamic at home—the grandmother seems to be suffered by the family rather than loved—and the tone sounds like a darker and more profound version of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” complete with southern dialects (though here rendered in a more legible way than in Welty’s sing-song version). The next morning they all bundle into a car, with Grandma smuggling along her beloved cat, hidden in a hamper at her feet. En route to Florida, but still in Georgia, Grandma gets it into her head that they are near a plantation house she once visited in her youth.

She knows that if she asks to detour to see the house her son will refuse, so instead she mentions that the house had a secret panel, supposedly with a fortune in silver hidden during Sherman’s March. The children take the bait and proceed to harass their parents with requests to visit the house and seek out the panel, until Bailey Boy submits. They follow a dirt road that Grandma points out to them. Just as she begins to realize she’s gotten it confused, and that the house she remembered is actually in Tennessee, Grandma’s cat hops out of the hamper, latches onto Bailey Boy’s shoulder, and the car crashes.

To this point the mood had been lightly comic, about an elderly busy-body and her ill-mannered family, but now it turns darker. A car winds towards them on the horizon and three men step out, carrying guns. We immediately think that this is surely The Misfit, though it takes the family a bit longer to realize. Grandma blurts out that she recognizes him, and he replies that it would have been better for them if she had not. As Grandma converses with the wonderfully polite and self-reflective outlaw, his two associates escort first the males and then the females into the woods, and shots ring out each time.

It is a brutally drawn-out scene, in which the violence takes place “off-camera” in the woods while Grandma and The Misfit discuss the merits of Jesus, but the hopelessness of the scene makes it hard to read; it is gripping, pummeling. Grandma’s tactic is to reason with The Misfit, appealing to his good instincts and the fact that he comes from good people, but her entreaties and her invocation of Jesus do not sway the eloquent outlaw. The Misfit finally shoots Grandma after she reaches out to him, saying “you’re one of my babies.” When one of his men seems to enjoy himself while dragging off her corpse, the Misfit cuts him short saying, “it’s no real pleasure in life.”

What to make of the story? While it behooves a column like this to offer up an interpretation that “solves” the puzzle laid out by the author, there is no overt puzzle here and so no solution. It is simply a masterfully-written, engrossing story of bottled and uncorked violence and the humans who enact it. Though I may sound like a teacher cheating his students, go read the story, then tell me what you think. The other stories in this series have immediately made me think of what I wanted to say in this column. This one was so good, but somehow different, less of an enigma, so that I have little to say beyond how much I liked it.

Story Playlist 17: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

James Thurber: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) I’d guess that relatively few of us are living the life of our dreams, which is why we dream in the first place. We all have a secret life of sorts, a world or worlds into which we step when “real life” gets us down. The more mundane our real life, the more that secret world offers a welcome escape. Day dreams come to us during waking hours when our mind drifts, bored by whatever occupies us. If life is consistently boring enough, we might have a hard time leaving our fantasy retreats.

New Yorker staple James Thurber introduces us to mild-mannered Walter Mitty in medias res: we’re in the middle of what seems an exciting World War II adventure film, as the Commander pushes up the speed of a hydroplane in freezing temperatures. The scene dissolves at the sound of Mrs. Mitty’s voice—cautioning her husband not to drive so fast—and we’re with the Mittys as they run errands in placid Waterbury, Connecticut. With a light and humorous tone, Thurber lets a series of fantasies add excitement to Mitty’s mundane activities. In each of the fantasies, Mitty is the hero, the focus. This is a far cry from reality, in which Mrs. Mitty “wears the pants” and in which Mitty is ashamed at failing husbandy tasks, like not having the skill to remove snow chains from his own car’s tires.

Shopping while his wife visits the hairdresser, Mitty inhabits a series of adventures in which he is the protagonist: the Commander in the hydroplane; a level-headed doctor faced with medical and mechanical emergencies; a defendant in a murder trial; a World War II pilot about to undertake another perilous mission. In each case, the fantasy arrives from some real life cue: Mitty, hearing a newsboy shout about a local trial, is “on trial” when he can’t remember the other item his wife told him to buy; he becomes a pilot in response to a headline about the threat of the Nazi air force. While giving us cartoon-like glimpses of Mitty’s imaginative realm, Thurber also creates an everyday world where his hero cringes beneath the judgment of policemen, parking attendants, and even random passersby—such as a girl who overhears him muttering about “puppy biscuit”—the item he remembers to buy after, in his fantasy, he is called “a cur!”

Like O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” Thurber’s story is so much a part of our common oxygen it has entered the dictionary, with “Mittyesque” a term for someone who prefers fantasy to reality. It is perhaps not a stretch to think that Thurber chose the name “Mitty” for its similarities to the word “mitigate,” meaning to “lessen something, to make something less harsh, severe, or violent.” “Walter” sounds a bit like “alter,” as in “alternative reality,” giving a sense of Mitty's character—if we want to think of him as heroic rather than hapless—as one who can alter and mitigate the banalities of life through his gifted imagination. Like any creator of fictions, we might say.

As a writer of fiction himself, Thurber clearly enjoys the sound of words, particularly nonsense words. He heightens the humor of Mitty’s imaginative flights by showing that Mitty actually knows nothing about the complicated, high-pressure situations he commands in his fantasies. Official-sounding but meaningless words populate Mitty’s foray into surgery, where he invokes “streptothricosis” and “obstreosis of the ductal tract” and the onset of “coreopsis,” all invented but sounding plausibly like real medical terms. And much like many an earnest writer, Mitty has his own motifs: whenever a machinery-sound is required, Mitty imagines it as “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa,” a wonderful use of onomatopoeia that may also be found outside the boundaries of this story, having—like the name of its fictional originator—entered the popular imagination.

The life of a Walter Mitty might look very different, were it to take place in the digital age. It will be interesting to see how the new 2013 film of the story deals with the fact that we no longer day-dream as we once did. Time once spent in our inner worlds is now spent engaged with the virtual world: texting on cellphones, listening to mp3s, reading on a screen, browsing the internet, watching films or film clips. Rather than lull our spare moments in the cooling waters of our imaginations, we turn at once to our electronic devices. In a sense, our minds have grown lazy. We no longer know how to amuse ourselves in our own thoughts. Were he alive today, Walter Mitty would not exist in the form in which Thurber envisioned him, though the way in which the real world intrudes on Mitty’s thoughts is rather akin to how our surroundings can still bring us up out of our various virtual realities. And one might still kill time by reading “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” on a kindle or smartphone, devices which, in a sense, make Mittys of us all.

Story Playlist 16: Graven Image

John O’Hara: “Graven Image” (1943) It takes a man’s man to admit that he doesn’t understand something, especially when the man in question—me—is a professor. But I don’t understand as much as I’d like to about the stories of the scandalously under-sung John O’Hara, but I love them, admire them, and want desperately to know more.

O’Hara is all too little-known, but was a stalwart of New Yorker fiction, beginning in the 1920s and into the 1960s; in fact it’s been claimed he “invented the New Yorker story.” Of his longer fiction, he is best known for his novel, Appointment in Samarra, which sounds exotic (I read it expecting some sort of international spy novel), but is actually about the intrigues among patrician socialite couples in suburban American—also an exotic locale, but not quite what I had in mind. O’Hara’s fiction balances on a tightrope, telling you just enough to figure out what he means (most of the time), offering up a puzzle with about 80% of the pieces filled in, and leaving it to the reader to imagine how the rest of it should look. As I read his stories I understand their subtlety, their nuance, the layers of information conveyed (if you know how to read them), but I’m also aware that I have to work to understand them, and I rarely feel that I “get” them 100%. This is the opposite of beach-reading. It’s more of a hike, but one with spectacular views during your ascent.

There is little razzle-dazzle in O’Hara’s worlds. Nothing supernatural or macabre, no murders, no heists. He paints chessboards of social interaction, specifically, social interaction in the post-war-to-Mad Men era of New York and its environs. His characters are defined by the schools they attended and their social milieu. They duel with words and jockey for power, cut each other down, and hunt in packs.

“Graven Image” is an exemplary O’Hara story, bullet-sized (a slender three pages). The setting is during FDR’s wartime cabinet. An unnamed Under-Secretary, described simply as a “little man,” meets with Browning, a former Harvard classmate, who lunches with him in hopes of asking him for a job with the administration, even though Browning is a Republican. Over the course of lunch, we realize that the Under-Secretary comes from a lower social class than does Browning, who was a member of the elitist Porcellian Club at Harvard. Club members carry a gilded pig, the “graven image” of the title, as a symbol of their past membership, and it is said to open doors. The Under-Secretary would have liked to have been a member, but was never invited, and is still sore about it.

Browning manages to charm the Under-Secretary during lunch, playing to the “little man’s” ego, to the point where the Under-Secretary is prepared to call in a few favors and get Browning the job he seeks. Browning is thrilled and they toast to celebrate, the Under-Secretary sipping a cordial, Browning downing half his Scotch. Loosened by the drink and the good news, Browning admits that he had been nervous about asking the Under-Secretary for help because of the Porcellian issue. Then he lets slip: “I don’t know why fellows like you—you never would have made it in a thousand years, but …” And without looking up from his drink, Browning realizes he’s put his foot in his mouth, and says the now-famous line, “but I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?” Indeed he has, as the Under-Secretary replies, before leaving. Browning has lost the chance at the job, and the Under-Secretary leaves, “all dignity.”

Along the way, O’Hara treats us to a series of hidden codes, hidden in plain sight. The doorman at the restaurant where Browning and the Under-Secretary dine is the victim of a version of special privilege on the part of the Under-Secretary, and gets a passive-aggressive revenge, mirroring the later incident over lunch. The doorman asks the Under-Secretary how long he will be, stating that if he won’t be long then he’d allow his driver to keep the car in the crescent driveway, rather than obliging him to park it. The Under-Secretary, rather pretentiously, replies “Leave it there anyway.” The doorman later mumbles to himself, “It was a long time coming. It took him longer than most, but sooner or later all of them …” And then O’Hara cuts him off.

We must infer what he is talking about. My best guess is that the doorman refers to people in positions of power who start out nice and humble, but eventually grow into their big britches. Perhaps the Under-Secretary was kind and deferential to staff in the past, but has since become just as haughty as those Porcellian members the Under-Secretary felt alienated from. There is also the suggestion that the alienation from an elitist club forced a reaction in the Under-Secretary to batten down his own hatches and alienate others in retaliation. These subtle tugs-of-war are the arrows in O’Hara’s quiver, and the puzzles he lays out. His narrative voice never explains away what’s going on. He always shows, rather than tells, and expects the patient and thoughtful reader to figure out the rest.

The outstanding puzzle is just what about the Under-Secretary made it impossible for him ever to be admitted to the Porcellian. I first thought that the Under-Secretary must be Jewish, as Harvard only occasionally accepted Jews before they, like other Ivy League schools, turned over a new leaf and focused on diversifying their student body. The Porcellian very occasionally accepted Jews, and it was not until 1983 that the first black student was accepted, and that was only because he had studied at the elite prep school, St. Paul’s. The Porcellian, founded in 1791, lost much of its Boston Brahmin influence around the turn of the last century, but it was still a bastion of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, like Browning. Whether the Under-Secretary could “never in a thousand years” have been accepted at the club because he was Jewish, possibly because he was Catholic, or simply because he came from a working-class background, is not clear.

Which non-WASP social group does Browning mean, when he says “fellows like you?” The answer is probably buried in the text of “Graven Image,” but it is a buried treasure I was unable to unearth. But with O’Hara’s stories, the process of digging in the ground is such intelligent fun that the occasional gold coin that remains buried beyond our reach is par for the course—it means we have something to dig for, to read for.

Story Playlist 15: Reunion

John Cheever: “Reunion” (1962) I came to “Reunion” by John Cheever after I interviewed novelist Justin Cronin. It was the first story he thought of when describing his routine of reading good prose to warm up before he starts to write. Unfamiliar with Cheever’s work, I expected a far more effortful prose than I found. And, while I tend to prefer the more Baroque among writers, there is much to be said for a writer like Cheever who is content to recede into the shadows behind his words, to watch how they play out. Edgar Allan Poe he ain’t.

A young man—the narrator—who has not seen his father for the three years since his parents’ divorce, meets him during a 90 minute layover between trains at Grand Central Station. The young man, Charlie, introduces the tale as “the last time I saw my father.” He describes his initial enthusiasm about the meeting and is proud just to be seen with his father, as they search for a place in midtown to have lunch. In restaurant after restaurant, the father acts like a condescending ass, and the young man is content never to see him again.

It’s a simple story, brief and simply written. There are no ten-dollar adjectives, or even five-dollar adjectives—heck, there are hardly any adjectives at all. It doesn’t so much feel written as breathed onto the page. The writing is not the least bit flashy. It is organic, oxygenated, with not a single term or turn of phrase that makes you realize there’s a writer behind it (no odd use of “oxygenated,” for example). It just is. But does it work? In its way, absolutely.

“Reunion” is about father-son relations, and feeling awkward. Charlie is, at first, so happy to see his father that he wishes someone would take a photograph of their meeting. His father embodies manhood, smelling of whiskey, after-shave, and wool. And the father seems pleased, too. But then, in one restaurant after another, the father, bemoaning the fact that they don’t have time to visit his club, orders Beefeater Gibsons, and does so in a way that condescends to, and insults, the waiters. He is so tactless in order to relish the power play between patron and “domestic,” asserting himself by using belittling language. After a handful of these encounters, the father insists on buying his son a newspaper for the train ride ahead, and proceeds to insult not just the newspaper vendor, but the papers themselves (“disgusting yellow journalism”). The son thanks him for the thought and leaves, and that’s that.

It is tempting to read Cheever himself into the father. Cheever was known as a man who liked his drink and could be an ass when drunk. But I always feel that it should be of secondary interest, to draw comparisons between the author and his characters. The work should stand alone, in a vacuum, and be just as interesting. The story is memorable and it makes you feel. The main feeling is awkwardness at witnessing the spectacle of the father’s overt condescension, the wasted opportunity for both the father and son in the father’s ridiculous behavior. But, to be honest, this struck me as over-the-top, sociopathic in a way that I found unbelievable. Maybe that was Cheever’s intention, but it did draw me out of the story in a way that seemed a shame.

With so little in the way of reflection by the narrator, the reader is left to infer a great deal of back story lurking in the white of the page. The father’s relationship with Charlie’s mother ended a while ago, but surely there were countless similar encounters she endured. The son’s anticipation at his reunion with his father, who he may have thought surely could not be as bad as his mother made out. And the young man certainly changes over the course of the short tale, from ebullient about meeting his father to—we may infer—deciding it is best never to see him again. It’s all implied, simply and briefly, the silences of what Cheever does not explicitly say almost louder than what he wrote.

This makes “Reunion” a good story for young writers who, if they are anything like me, tend to over-spice the proverbial soup, thinking that “more is more.” More description or, these days, more style (even if the style is conspicuous minimalism). There is much to be said for prose that does not feel written. In this sense, Cheever was a master among non-writers.