Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Three-Story Day

I sat in a coffee shop last night while my daughter went to music class and read three (fairly short) stories out of You've Got to Read This. Grace Paley's "Wanting," the opening story in her Enormous Changes at the Late Minute, I have read several times. It is, in its quiet way, an astonishing work: Paley constructs a model bird out of popsicle sticks and Elmer's glue, and it spreads wings and flies away. More surprising, if less familiar, was Donald Barthelme's "The School," another three-page story. I read a lot of late Barthelme a few months ago from his collection Forty Stories, and they can pall fairly quickly. This may also be a late story (the volume has a wholly inadequate credits page), but it proved shockingly good, in a way wholly unlike Paley's. The story is a bravura piece, a performance almost, like someone making a wedding cake with the smallest layer on the bottom and the rest expanding as it grows upwards, the whole thing swaying precariously but remaining upright. You want to cheer.

The third story, however, was in its way the most interesting: "A Day in the Open" by Jane Bowles. It was introduced by Joy Williams, and in a reversal of the previous day's policy I chose it for the introducer rather than the author. (Williams is a fascinatingly fierce writer, whom we can discuss later.) Bowles' story, as Williams notes, is rough-edged in many ways; Bowles "introduces characters woodenly, usually in terms of their nationality. She doesn't know how to get into her stories or how to end them." Her husband, Paul Bowles, urged her to use the "hammer and nails" of fictional technique to get herself over these problems, but Bowles, as Williams says, had to invent her own hammer and nails for every story, and the effort shows.

This doesn't sound promising, and the story indeed has obvious problems of craft. (Bowles indeed introduces the secondary characters in terms of nationality, but not the two protagonists, who are presumably of the country in which the story is set -- which is never specified.) The story -- set in a whorehouse in, probably, Mexico -- involves a picnic that a powerful patron takes with two of the prostitutes, whom the brothel owner compels (though they have just woken up) to undertake. He takes them to a secluded place, along with a second man, and you get the awful feeling that violence will ensue.

A kind of violence does kind of happen, but it's not what you expect; nothing is what you expect. (The second man pays no attention to the proceedings, but spends the afternoon looking at his accounts ledger.) The story has clumsy sentences and bits of strikingly precise observation. You feel unsettled by the entire experience (in a way that reading an ordinarily insufficiently-crafted story never does).

It makes me want to read more by Jane Bowles, though not right away.


Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Greg, do you happen to know of any good short story collections that came out in 2005--I want to spend January reading some short fiction.

I've got Jim Harrison and Patrick O'Keefe and will report on those. And of course I know about Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. I think if I'm going to have a small platform from which to talk about short stories, I should capitalize on it.

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