Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fiction Anemic's Review of "Where will you go..."

Now, this is what I'm talking about.

"Where will you go..." has a very Flannery O'Conner feel to it, from the long title to the setting to the resolution with opposing characters never really seeing or understanding each other until it's too late.

Set rural South, the story opens with the Jeepster (aka Leonard), a scoundrel grieving the loss of his former girlfriend, Amy. We already know this isn't going to end well when the Jeepster shows up at a gas station with a 9-mm handgun looking for someone who might have helped Amy's murderer.

From there, the author leads the Jeepster through a haunting rural wasteland of once-prosperous family farms turned into meth labs or the deserted scene of past crimes. Even narratives that describe the bonding of the Jeepster and Amy have a lost and abandoned feel to them. It's almost as if the environment sucks any potential and energy from its characters (the Jeepster recalls the crowd roaring as he makes the winning catch of a high school football game and then finding himself on the empty bleachers a year later).

Instead, characters are left to fill the void with alcohol, drugs, sex, and ultimately guns. The only people who seem to thrive in this world are the police, who seem to be everywhere, trying to keep people from the drugs, sex, and guns. It almost comes as no surprise then that Amy's father is a cop who blames the Jeepster for her downfall and death.

Barred from her funeral, the Jeepster is desperate to have something of Amy. At first, he wants the blood from where she died, but then later, something more. Did Leonard really love Amy or is the dead girl just the next logical step in an already soul-sucking existence?

From a craft persepctive, "Where will you go..." has some amazing imagery in it. When describing desolate family farm of Jeepster's meth creating friend, Emile, the author writes,

"The appalled ghost of Emile's mother haunted these rooms, hovered fretfully in the darker corners. Wringing her spectral hands over doilies beset with beer cans and spilled ashtrays."

To keep my street cred at LitBitch, I do have to say that sometimes the imagery and plot points sound a little like the script outline of a music video or an independent film. Other times the imagery stretches a bit thin, such as when the author writes how the Jeepster... "watched the traffic accomplish itself in a kind of wonder." Huh? I could also argue that the characters are somewhat stereotypical (The Jeepster has LOVE tattooed on the fingers of one hand and HATE on the other? Oh, come on!).

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the story and recommend that anyone reading the anthology skip through to this story. This is what the BASS should be about.


Monday, March 17, 2008

BASS: Fiction Anemic's Review of My Brother Eli

"Hey Louie, you don't happen to know Jacob Foxx Greer, do you?"

So, after a nice break with young characters, we're thrown right back into Elderlyland with Joseph Epstein's "My Brother Eli", the story of a man looking back on the life of his self-centered writer brother.

Almost from the get-go, I kept looking at this story and Ann Beattie's "Solid Wood". In that story, the narrator was literally left picking up the life tab of his self-centerd famous author mentor.

While Beattie's narrator is just figuring out that his mentor was a destructive prick, Louie, Eli's brother, knows it from the start. Eli borrows money, writes about Louie and his mechanic business in a bad light, marries woman after woman only to abandon them and his children in the end, etc. Few people realize this, however, and Eli develops a literary following.

In the Contributor's Notes, Epstein says he was playing with the idea that artists are entitled to special rights and priviledges (i.e. if Mozart hadn't fooled around on his wife, we might not have Marriage of Figaro). Do lesser artists get the same pass? Epstein's goal is to say no. Staggering work of genius or not, artists are just as accountable as everyday people.

It's a nice sentiment, but Eli is so thoroughly unlikeable that I don't know if I see it. It would be nice to maybe see some of Eli's prose perhaps to make it more udnerstandable why the literary types are drinking the Kool-Aid.

I'll leave the more thorough analysis to Synedochick, but I will ask the question, why are audiences (or writers) so fascinated with the flamboyant author? This is (at least) the second story in this anthology like this. Is it because so many of these writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, etc.) were around for so long, entertaining us in their larger than life style, and are now going or gone?


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

SynedoChick’s Review of “Riding the Doghouse” (Best American Short Stories 2007)

FictionAnemic, I had a similar reaction to this story. It seemed like a breath of fresh air--finally, I thought, a story about something other than the problems of the very very rich.

This kid’s childhood—riding cross-country in his father’s rig—is a far cry from the precious upper class New York world of “Pa’s Darling.” But the more I read, the more similar these stories seemed …

Obviously, in both stories, narrators reminisce about somewhat troubled father-child relationships. In both stories, that trouble revolves around generational differences in social class. In Auchincloss’s story, the narrator (or maybe the world in general) has failed to live up to her father’s New York upper class values. In DeVita’s story, the narrator is troubled by his father’s lower class status. Although little is said about the adult narrator’s class status (the frame “story”—in which the adult narrator watches his son sleep—is really pretty thin), we do know that he went to college, distancing himself from his working class origins.

FictionAnemic, I like your analysis of how the narrator passes through these phases—loner, loser, rebel—to achieve maturity (or loss of innocence, depending on how you look at it). The narrator changes as he becomes aware of the class differences between his father and his friend’s father. I thought this was an interesting and poignant theme. The dialogue seemed a little on the nose when the narrator and his father argue, actually saying things like, “Sitting in air conditioning ain’t work.” The emotional subtext of the story was perfectly clear without having the characters spell it out.

I also wondered what Midnight was supposed to represent—and I agree that on some level, he does seem to be harbinger or death. But it is interesting that Midnight appears in the story—and threatens his father’s life—just after the narrator has insulted his father's work. It is fitting that Midnight is another trucker, someone who stalks the narrator’s father on the road, takes pictures of him asleep in his truck. Midnight is innately tied to the father’s working class job. And the father fittingly dies during his son’s first semester in college—the son’s first step out of that working class life.

In Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre, he talks about a type of horror he calls “economic unease.” I think this story fits into that category. Midnight might represent death, but he also represents the working class life the narrator has escaped. And perhaps what’s made the narrator an insomniac is the fear that he has not escaped that life completely—or the guilt that his class aspirations were a rejection of his father and, in some irrational way, responsible for his death.


Randy DeVita's "Riding the Doghouse"

FictionAnemic coughs her way through a review of Randy DeVita's "Riding the Doghouse" that should have happened a month ago. Careful, I'm still contagious.

Originally, the first blurb that this review was going to have was, "Finally, a story by someone under the age of 40." Of course, four weeks ago, I had a lot of different plans than I have now after trying to get over a really relentless strain of the flu and then catch up with everything else in my life.

But yes, finally a story by someone new, a fresh young voice. Gone are some of the WASP-y end of life themes we've seen - illness, retirement, accumulated wealth, etc. Instead, our ominous story focuses on a pre-teen boy taking a trip with his truck driver father.

While reading this story, I thought of a book I recently read on adolescent boys called "Loners, Losers, and Rebels." The thesis of the book is how boys have to go through three stages of seeing themselves as a Loner, a Loser, and a Rebel. Like much of adolescence, each stage is painful, but boys can't skip any of these stages without having major problems later on down the road.

Throughout this story, the main character is going through two of these stages. He questions his father why he doesn't have an office job like his friend (rebel). At certain points, he sets himself apart from his father (loner).

The Loser stage takes place at a truck stop late one night. The boy's father establishes that his son should touch none of the controls. When the father steps out of the cab, the boy does exactly that (another rebel act) - using the CB to get in touch with the mysterious Midnight, supposedly another truck driver. Only when it's too late does the boy realize he's made a mistake.

If there is one end of life theme going on here, it's mortality. Midnight is also at the truck stop. In an ode to Rear Window, the boy looks over to another truck and sees the tip of a cigarette goal orange and then disappear. Midnight threatens the boy, saying he might come after his father.

My question is, is Midnight a real trucker - some psychopath, or is Midnight death in physical form? Either way, the boy has paid the price to be a man - he's aware of his father's (and ultimately his own) mortality.

The story is bookended by the narrator (the boy) as a grown man overlooking his own pre-teen son asleep during a thunderstorm. One wonders what his son will do as he goes through his own three stages.

While I liked the story a lot and the respite from old people stories, one thing I wondered - is this truly one of the best american short stories? Sure, it's extremely well crafted, but I can't help but wonder if this has something to do with Stephen King being the editor? But, there I go again, being the lit snob. What do you think SynecdoChick?


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Is TC Boyle calling his teenage protagonist a dog?

My first take on T.C. Boyle's Balto.

You spend an afternoon drinking bottles of wine and cognac with your mistress when you realize you're extraordinarily late to pick up your adolescent and school age daughters from school. Your mistress drives off as soon as the valet brings her sports car around and as you get behind the wheel, you realize the booze has hit you harder than you thought. So, you pick up your teenage daughter and ask her to drive you home.

This is the premise of Boyle's Balto, the fourth story in BASS. I'm thrilled to report that the main characters in this story are under 45 (at least), but the jury's still out on how much I liked this story.

Last week, SynecdoChick mentioned that the characters in this story are white, rich people, and while I wouldn't argue that the father is rich in this story, he's losing everything. He's lost his wife - she's gone off (or back - considering that the girls have French names) to Paris. He's lost his car after letting his daughter behind the wheel. He looks like he's about to lose his job if he keeps taking long,liquid lunches, and he's about to lose his children. Am I right in guessing, Synedoc, that there's a bourgeoise trope of having it all, but losing it slowly?

The story of Balto, the sleigh dog that brings vaccine to Inuit children dying from diptheria, comes into play after the daughter hits another child while driving her drunken father's car. The daughter has to testify before child services and lie
to protect him so he won't lose them. Or more importantly (b/c it's implied that her mother is gone and not coming back), that she doesn't lose her family.

Why am I undecided? Boyle switches back and forth between dual points of view easily. But I feel really strongly about the scenario where the father asks his daughter to help by driving for him because he's too drunk. It strikes me as selfish and reckless. While I have a twinge of sympathy for the father, I feel extraordinarily sadden for the teenage protagonist, who is essentially an orphan or will be by the time her father is through. But then again, I wonder if this is a successful story, then for making me feel this much?

I am still waiting for the edgy, culturally diverse fiction by unestablished and maybe writers who were born after the Johnson administration. Is it that there is so little quality fiction from this age group? Is it that a pack of established writers that defined short fiction for decades is getting older? Or is it that the publications have an older, white baby-boomer audience, ergo they have stories about older, white baby-boomers? I don't know.

If you could say anything to this author about this story, what would it be?


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SynecdoChick’s Review of “Balto” (Best American Short Stories 2007)

“There are two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones” (55). Now that’s a first line …

I found this story compelling from the very beginning. I criticized “Solid Wood”—probably unfairly—because not enough happened. As Fiction Anemic rightly corrected me, the interior action of the characters can be all the action a story needs. Maybe “Solid Wood” seemed to be lacking not so much because nothing happened, but because there seemed to be so little at stake. All the action that mattered happened in the characters’ pasts. “Balto” is compelling because there is a great deal at stake for the characters—their actions will have significant consequences in the present tense.

I also liked the way Boyle structured this story—at first the reader isn’t sure what has happened or what it is that the lawyer is asking Angelle to do. On a first reading, I was propelled to the end just to find out what Boyle meant by that first line and to find out what Angelle would say in the courtroom. In the end, the reader isn’t sure whether Angelle confessed because it was the right thing to do or whether it was simply an act of adolescent rebellion. It reminded me of the ending of John Updike’s “A&P”—you’re not sure about the character's true motivations, but you’re sure the character’s life will never be the same.

Boyle is such a skillful storyteller that it’s easy to overlook any faults in the story. For example, on the first page of the story, Angelle thinks deeply about the metaphor “crow’s feet,” relating the image to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous raven. Is this a likely train of thought for a 13-year-old?

I also wondered how the tale of Balto functioned in the story? Why was it significant enough to be referenced in the title? I know T.C. Boyle has written extensively about Alaska … but how is that story-within-a-story related to the story Boyle is telling here?


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

SynecdoChick's Review of "Solid Wood"

Fiction Anemic, that’s an interesting observation about the ages of the characters in the first three stories. I didn’t catch it—what I did notice was 1) rich white people in New York, 2) rich white people on the mid-Atlantic coast, and 3) rich white people in Florida. I don’t want to give anything away, but I read ahead. Next week, we get to read about rich white people on the West Coast, so that will be a real change of pace …

I agree that in the past, BASS has seemed more diverse subject matter, style, authors, etc. However, the editor typically chooses the order for the stories. This year, Stephen King has the stories arranged in alphabetical order. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that these stories are grouped together at the beginning of the book.

As for “Solid Wood”: when did it become okay to have a boring first line?

This is not just directed at Beattie’s story; I see this all the time lately. Maybe it’s because the importance of great first lines has been drilled into writing students for so long that it’s become a cliché. Maybe starting with a dull first line is a kind of statement—a way of forcing the reader to plow through a couple sentences … often a couple of pages … before getting to any kind of payoff.

And, are stories about nothing still in vogue?

I much prefer a story like Barth’s. In “The Toga Party,” the plot (one attempted and two presumably successful suicides in the last third of the story) is a little over-the-top, a little unreal, but at least something actually happens.

In Beattie’s story, there are some vivid descriptions and there’s interesting history between the characters, but nothing much comes of it. And I guess that’s the point, that these characters lived in an era when things weren’t said. In real life, secrets remain buried, people skate across the surface and would drown if they fell through the thin ice of polite appearances and social convention (at least, I think that’s what the falling-through-the-ice incident was doing in the story).

I also guessed that Maurice was the kid Doris gave up. It would make sense that Jacob (and maybe Clemmie?) would be involved in the adoption arrangements and would want the child to be raised by a family they knew. But there’s nothing in the story to confirm this. Maybe it’s just a “magic trick” of narrative convention—as a reader you can’t help looking for significance, meaning, and closure, but these are narrative illusions (just so much doves and fire). Life isn’t like that, and neither is slice-of-life fiction.


FA's Review of Ann Beattie's Solid Wood

Doves and fire aren’t the only things coming out of those pins in Ann Beattie’s, Solid Wood.

One thing that surprises me about the first three stories of the BASS 2007 is that they all center around people over the age of 60. The female narrator of Pa’s Darling is 60. While it’s unclear who exactly the narrator is in Toga Party, the main characters are retirement age. Ann Beattie’s three of the five characters (Penny and Maurice excluded) are in their sixties.

This seems strange to me, because my impression of BASS stories is that they were more diverse. You might have a story by John Barth side by side with some up-and-coming writer. But maybe I was thinking of the Best Non-Required Reading series. Maybe that's yet to come. While Ann Beattie's Solid Wood is a really enjoyable read, I keep longing for stories about people under 40.

Nonetheless, Ann Beattie’s Solid Wood is one of my favorite stories so far. The narrator, Jake, recalls a vacation to Key West with his sickly sister, Doris. While there, he visits Clemmie, the also sickly widow of Jacob Foxx Greer, Jake’s Raymond Carver-like writer/mentor/colleague. Greer’s biography is coming out and one item of his life that is not included is that Doris and Greer had an affair and a son together, which was given up for adoption.

When Jake first visits Clemmie, he runs into her daughter, Penny. As a young girl, Jake once saved Penny from drowning after she fell through some ice. It seems hard for Jake to reconcile the little girl with the woman who responds to his social call with sarcasm and bitterness.

Doris, Jake, Clemmie, and Penny all meet to see a magic show by the son of one of Clemmie’s friends, Maurice the Magnificent. Doris becomes part of the act, examining some of the magician’s pins and stating that they are solid wood. In reality, doves and flames shoot out of them. The group then goes to dinner and at the end of the night, Jake wonders, “Is it too late to rethink things?”

To me, this story seems like the main character is gazing into the looking glass. On one side he sees Clemmie, the wife of his beloved mentor, and Penny, a young girl who in some ways he cared for like a daughter. On the other side, he sees Doris and her lost son (Maurice?). The pivotal point of the glass is Greer, a man who Beattie conveys as a self-centered artist who had it all and then went off for more (the narrator even mentions an affair with a young man).

The tragedy of this story is the narrator. There’s no allusion to his wife or children. He mentions a book that never went anywhere. The things that were solid wood in his life were nothing but hollowed out compartments for Greer’s manipulation. Jake is the one who cleaned up after Greer’s life and quite literally, picks up the bill (Penny’s bitterness, the lost opportunity to ever know his nephew) at the end. So when he asks if it’s too late and Doris replies, “What things need to be rethought so late at night?”, it’s clear he’s the last one to realize it.


Monday, January 28, 2008

BASS '07: FA's Follow-ups on John Barth's Toga Party

It's almost too late to talk more about Toga Party, but I can't resist but to throw a few more questions out there about the rattlesnake-in-the-mailbox ending and the identity of the narrator. Spoilers abound.

Let me quick talk about the ending of Toga Party by throwing out a few questions to you:

First, as I said before, I read the first half of this story and was about to comment, but then I stopped because I knew it was building up to a rattlesnake in the mailbox, particularly with a bacchanalia and a knife. I half expected someone to die in a bathtub after opening a vein. Sam’s suicide attempt was sort of surprising, but to me, not Dick and Sue’s death. Did you think this was satisfying?

Is it really selfish that Dick and Sue let themselves go? They say that more people are spending their money and leaving their children no inheritance.

I think the narrator is really interesting in this story. My guess is it’s George Newitt. He would be someone who would play golf and be around Sam and Doc (as opposed to the wives) and has the fewest lines in the story. No matter who it is, however, how would he/she know what Dick and Sue’s last words were?


SynecdoChick's Review of "Toga Party"

I’m going to defy the name of this blog and say that this story gave me nothing to bitch about.

I think the “The Toga Party” skillfully functions on two levels: slice-of-life realism and metaphor/allegory. A toga party is a believable theme for a cocktail party thrown by aging baby boomers (Doc, Dick, and Susan are a little older, but the Hardisons seem to fit the boomer demographic), so it worked on a literal level, while the party also served as a neat metaphor for America’s status as an empire on the edge of a steep decline.

The juxtaposition of the frivolous party with the allusions to the 2005 hurricane season and the Iraq War convey the feeling of fiddling while Rome burned (though Trimalcho’s Feast is a more accurate metaphor).

Even on a literal level, this story seems more self-aware than Auchincloss’s story. While the characters in “Pa’s Darling” live in a bubble of privilege, Barth’s characters are always conscious that their comfortable lives on Maryland’s eastern shore exist alongside abject misery elsewhere—that while some Americans retreat behind the walls of gated communities and take advantage of illogical loopholes to ensure that their amassed wealth will outlive them, other Americans are literally/figuratively drowning.

When I first read the ending, I thought the decision to commit suicide together made perfect sense for the characters, especially after what’s happened to Doc. Throughout the story, the Feltons’ commitment to each other, fear of being alone, and fear of their own mortality was palpable. Their decision to end it while they still had their dignity and to die so that “each is assumed to survive the other” seemed moving and even romantic.

Looking back with an eye toward the metaphorical/allegorical level of the story, it is fitting that Barth had them asphyxiate themselves with the exhaust from their car (a symbol for the major problems [so far] of the 21st century—oil wars and global warming). At the end, when Dick says, “so we’re dumping on the kids, leaving them to take the hit and clean up the mess. So what?” he’s speaking about his own kids, but also about future generations who are going to “take the hit,” thanks to the unchecked consumption of the Feltons’ generation. On this level, it’s harder to sympathize with their decision to kill themselves and let the kids clean up the mess.

The story creates an interesting tension—I sympathize with the Feltons as individuals, but I’m also frustrated by their selfishness and complacency.

I agree that the beginning of the story is a bit roundabout. The narrator begins by telling you how Doc would have started if he were telling the story—with a rant about the problems of the world and how they can only be glad they’ll be dead when “the shit really hits the fan.” As a reader, the significance of Doc and his imagined rant is only clear in retrospect, after you’ve finished the story. I think beginning this way distances the narrator from the politics of the story. By telling the reader what a character would have said, the author gets to say it without saying it, in a way. Maybe Barth felt that it made the tone less pedantic, while still planting the themes in the reader’s mind.

What I wonder is, who is telling this story? It’s not Doc, it’s not one of the Feltons. Much of the story is told in third-person limited, from the perspective of Dick Felton. However, there is a definite narrative voice separate from Dick. I wonder why Barth structured the story this way …


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Second Volley: Pa's Darling

Y'know, I really don't want to say I hate this (for a number of reasons I'll go into later), but I'm not at all disappointed you did. Thank you.
I agree with your analysis. As I read it, I kept thinking about the last book I read, The Friday Night Knitting Club: after her snotty comment about the University of Michigan, it's easier to believe this is some rich women writing literary stiff.
But, I can't let go of the dates of this story. I think this supports your analysis. All of these timeframes are points when the class system and bourgeouise are at its highest and right before somegreat social equalizer comes into play. 1960 is when America is at its most prosperous (well, for some people) and before the Civil Rights movement. The character's father is 87 in 1960, meaning he was born in 1873 (the year of the Panic of 1873, a nationwide depression that lasted until 1877). He would have beenone of the Victorian era's masters of the universe in 1900 (when the social structure is at its highest inAmerica and Britain and five years before Marxist revolutionaries start taking on monarchies likeRussia). If his daughter was born the same year, shewould be 27 in 1927 (during Jay Gatsby's era whererich girls don't marry poor boys and two years beforeBlack Tuesday and the Great Depression) and 40 in 1940(before World War II fox holes found upper class men fighting alongside and sometimes being led by common men).
As I mentioned before, I didn't want to say I hated this story for a bunch of reasons. First, it's not some Upper West Side socialite writing this, but a man (Louis Auchincloss, whose profile said he published his first book in 1947and has produced 60 novels since). So I was looking for the ironic portrayal...but I don't think it's there. If you look at the titles of his fiction books on Wikipedia, it lookslike they all are firmly in the VSPoCotR literary subgenre. He made a whole career of it.
One comment he did make was that he wanted to write about a child's frustration and sense of inferiority at a more talented, egocentric parent. But why choose a woman as your narrator? I mean, yes, an older white male writing from the perspective of an inferior woman, what a surprise, but I feel like with all the other short stories out there, this one can't be such a bland miss.
You know, the funny thing is, Auchincloss wrote several non-fiction books as well - one on Edith Wharton and another on Henry James. :)
I guess the other reason I don't want to outright hate this story is that, with Stephen King as the editor, I can't believe he would choose such an unlikeable story. Maybe it's sentiment or false loyalty, but Ifeel like when I listen to his audio CDs, his book On Writing, or even this introduction, it feels as if King is talking directly to me (or you or the reader). Auchincloss' story is so impersonal and chilly. Knowing King's history as a working class person and that he reads something like 80 books a year, it just seems strange. My sense is that he did it as a nod to the older gentleman's writing.
As I read your post, I had to take notes on all the stuff I haven't read. I read only half of Portrait of a Lady and absolutely hated it (all right, all right -she's a virtuous woman who is given money - get to the part where she realizes her marriage is a sham). I think I might have read an Edith Wharton short story or two, but I am embarrassed to admit what a fiction anemic I am and how full of holes my cheesecloth study of literature has become. The last sort of literary thing I've read is MacBeth (last year) and maybe whenI went into my Jane Eyre kick. Otherwise, I'm reading more non-fiction (a biography of Anne Boelyn rightnow), some chick lit, or "reading" audio fiction on This American Life.
But I think it's a sign I need to do more reading. One of my NY's resolutions is to take time to read some of the periodicals King is recommending.


First Volley: Fiction Anemic's BASS review of John Barth's Toga Party

It's taken me a while to comment on John Barth's Toga Party, the second story in BASS. In fact, I was going to make some initial comments, but I knew if I did I would be commenting on something that was building up to surprising ending.

Toga Party tells the tale of an older, upper-middle class couple, Dick and Sue, going to a toga party at the house of a neighbor in their retirement community.

At first, I had a hard time getting into this story. John Barth has a character go through an opening rant that was like trying to read with the television on really loud. After reading the clause-dense Pa's Darling by Louis Auchincloss, the first story in BASS, I thought John Barth's story was going to have a similar theme of rich people complaining in an unironic way about how bad their life. Just this time, set in the 21st century.

The first half of the story goes into great detail about the soul searching Dick and Sue do after the death of a friend's wife and their own looking into their wills and end of life arrangements. Growing old gracefully is mired by health problems and life insurance/investment firm legalese that takes the experience of life out of dying.

The story dramatically picks when the reader gets to the toga party. The setting is just after Hurricane Katrina so the toga party seems less like a send up of Animal House, but more like a real Roman bacchanal. Barth's characters may be attending the party in bed-sheets and have cell phones, but there is a something very Nero-esque going on as the Bush administration ignores the plight of hurricane ravaged New Orleans residents and male party-goers eat grapes from the décolletage of their spouses. Dick and Sue are so desensitized that they can’t experience the decline of their own lives. Part of it is nature, but part of it is their own fault of keeping up in an upper-class retirement community. They can only live after a widowed friend’s desperate act leads them to take one last stab at living their lives their way.

One part of the story that rang false to me was Dick’s unfamiliarity with Animal House or what Et tu Brute? means. While part of me thinks it’s the writer’s attempt to show the main character’s shallowness or unfamiliarity with pop culture, I wonder if the writer is trying to indicate that a bigger medical issue is going (dementia? Alzheimer’s?). These just seem like too common in the American mindscape to be ignored.

This story isn’t perfect. As I got into the story, I thought of someone I knew who wouldn't read The Great Gatsby: he had already passed the stage of life that the characters were in, so he wouldn't be able to sympathize with them. As a person in her early 30's, I can understand the concern of getting wills together and such, but not seven-plus pages worth of it in a short-story. I felt like Barth could have made the story a little shorter and still had it be as interesting.

Overall, I thought it was good. This isn't a story I would find myself picking up again to lovingly re-read, but it restored my hope in BASS after last week.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

SynecdoChick's Review of "Pa's Darling"

You said that you didn’t “get” this story – I don’t think there was a lot get, honestly. I’ll say what you wouldn’t say: I didn’t like it.

I think this story falls within the genre of literature about upper class New Yorkers who worry about whether they’re upper class enough, whether they’re the right kind of upper class, or whether monopoly/commodity capitalism is degrading the qualities that define the upper class so that the “true” upper class is superceded by a boorish new breed of bourgeoisie. The story also deals with the way that people—women in particular—become commodities of fluctuating value in this (degraded) class system.

Yawn. I’ve read Henry James and Edith Wharton, and I think they about covered it.

This story also belongs to a literary subgenre dealing with the Very Serious Problems of children of the rich. See also Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (though I’d say that that book had some self-awareness that its protagonists’ problems were quite precious and were particular to a specific historical moment and social strata).

The narrator’s first husband, Sumner, is the nobleman who reflects the “better,” aristocratic, side of her father and herself—the noblesse oblige and appreciation for high culture (serving as a judge rather than making even more money, discussing high brow literature and theater, serving three days a week as a docent at the Met, etc.). The narrator differs from her first husband in that she is more acquisitive—she wants money, parties, glamour (conspicuous consumption)—and degrades her husband by diverting him from his higher aspirations (convincing him to go make money rather than serve as a clerk—a more “pure” practice of law). (I think there's also the suggestion here that this higher realm of art and language is the province of men ... that women can't really aspire to it and will always drag men back down into the muck of the material--and materialist--world.)

Her second husband represents the nouveau riche bourgeoisie—he lacks the “class” of her first husband (and her father); he is nakedly obsessed with money and social position. But, near the end, the narrator says (of Dicky), “I had again been married to my father.” Maybe she means that to her father, as to Dicky, “appearance was everything”—her father didn’t mind that his wife was sleeping with another man, as long as they kept up appearances. The narrator also says her father liked to show off his daughter “like a financial magnate showing off a master painting he has just acquired, inwardly confident that the owner of the picture is superior both to the work and its artist.” That description makes her father seem more similar to Dicky than to Sumner.

I don’t think that communism is a subtext of this story, but maybe you’re picking up on a critique of contemporary capitalism: that it’s an economic and cultural system that values appearance over substance. However, in this case, it’s not a progressive critique, but a reactionary one—a longing for an older class system that recognizes the “natural” (god-given) superiority of an aristocratic class represented by Sumner and the narrator’s father (a class defined by its tastes and innate ability to appreciate high culture) over social climbers like Dicky.

I agree that the style seemed awkward. However, because the narrator does not share her father and Sumner’s appreciation for language, I thought that the awkward style was a conscious choice, meant to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of the narrator?

When you read the title, “Pa’s Darling,” did you think of Chekov’s “The Darling”? It’s a pretty famous story with a very similar name—seems reasonable to suspect that the author may have been aware of it or referencing it. (If you’re interested, you can google it; it’s pretty short.) I wonder if there’s a connection …


Sunday, January 13, 2008

First volley: Pa's Darling by Louis Auchincloss

Pa's Darling, a story by Louis Auchincloss that opens the Best American Short Stories of 2007, obviously isn't my darling...
I hate to admit this, but I didn't get Pa's Darling. Not one of those things like, "Oh, I don't like it." I had to read it twice (maybe I'm just really out ofshape for reading literature) because I wondered if I missed something. I understood the whole thing that her two husbands mirrored her parents relationship, but I feel like there's some bigger subtext going on here, particularly since this takes place in 1960, 1927, and then 1940. Any ideas? Are they communists?

I think my problem with the story was that I got stuck in the structure. I love the way this writer can put together extraordinarily complex sentences. Did you notice this, too? Maybe it's the tech writer in me but at first I was like, 'Geez, break these sentences down.' But then, I felt like, no, these are actuallybeautiful and really capture the writer's sense of ...I was going to say confusion, but I think this kind of round aboutness of ideals. That is, if you go far enough into love you end up in hate and vice versa. I especially liked that she is able to woo a man with three words and that she's lost that ability by the end of the story.