On the sixth day of 30 Short Stories, my anthology gave to me…a wonderfully nonsensical story by a renowned grammar nazi!
(Apologies for the shabby rhyme. Ahem:)
“The Door” by E.B. White
“More and more (he kept saying) I am confronted by a problem which is incapable of solution (for this time, even if I chose the right door, there would be no food behind it) and that is what madness is, and things seeming different from what they are.”
An unnamed narrator seeks a way forward through a confused description of non-doors (see: “One was an opening that wasn’t a door, the other a wall that wasn’t an opening”).
The narrator remembers lab rats: ones that have been trained to jump at a card with a circle on it for food. Those rats, he remembered, were tricked one day: a card was put in a flat place—one that did not give way to food—and the rodents went mad, confused, and then totally passive. He compares himself to the rats; says he doesn’t know which card to jump at.
His life, he says, has been full of situations without solution. Doors are compared to objects; goals; stages of life. “The door with the girl on it,” is one. Home (“householder’s detail”) is another.
The problem is that the doors keep changing. “It is inevitable that they will keep changing the doors on you…because that is what they are for.”
“You wouldn’t want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, “My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name”? (It had the circle on it.)”
I absolutely love the way this story is written. No, it isn’t clear, but yes, it flows; no, it isn’t coherent, but yes, it makes sense, and resonates; it flows and swells along, pulling back and forth, a pendulum, tick tock, back and forth, a maddened maze unto itself, a vehicle for the message. “The medium is the message,” it has been said. Nowhere do I find that to be truer than with this story.
This was an especially pleasant surprise given that the author is E.B. White—E.B. White of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I was expecting the story to be something very cut and dry; something dull, flat, and grammatically sound. I daresay it was grammatically sound (at least, all the commas were in the right places), but that did not make it any less unstable and desperate and compelling. I can tell right now: this is one I will read again. This one has something to teach.
There is only one line of spoken dialogue in this story: “Here you have the maximum of openness in a small room.” It is unclear to me what this (the maximum openness, or the small room) is, but the ambiguity allows for many interpretations: is this a metaphor for all of the possibilities in one’s life? The choices, or “jumps” we make within a maze? (For some reason, on initial reading I thought of a realtor; and then a mental patient.)
The ambiguity/lack of clarity in this story are unique and poignant and I think done with great delicacy. Some readers would be impatient or upset with not having a clear idea of what’s going on, but that is the great skill of this story: it moves in such a way that treads that thin line, that moves with mastery, that pulls one through and after it with strange allure so that even though it is less than lucid our attention does not waver.
All these words are fictional scientific terms that were designed for the sake of the story:
tex, koid, oid, duroid, sani, thrutex
Another lesson: it’s okay (sometimes even beneficial) to create new words for the sake of your story! Don’t be afraid to break the rules.
Une autre histoire demain…