30 Stories in 30 Days: Complete!

This post follows my successfully-completed endeavor to read one short story every day for 30 days, write about it, then post what I wrote on my blog. I challenged myself to do this in order to observe good writing, apply what I learned to my own writing, and—at least, where blogging is concerned—work on that other goal of expanding my writerly platform.

Now that the daily reflections are over, however, the time has come to reflect on the process as a whole.

Let’s look at the charts, shall we?

THE 30 STORIES IN 30 DAY CHALLENGE

Number of stories read: 31*

Number of words looked up: 135

Number of followers gained: 71

*Rounded up for the 31 days in January.

It’s a little harder to quantify just how much I learned in terms of craft, but there was at least one lesson in it for me each day. Every story, besides generally being a pleasure to read, had something to teach.

Looking at everything I’m coming away with—more stories in my head, better craft, new vocabulary, and no small amount of new followers—I definitely feel that this practice was worth the time I put into it.

That being said, of course, time was probably the biggest tradeoff in this investment. Reading a story every day (anywhere from one to twenty-six pages) might have cost a minute or a couple of hours; summarizing the story, looking up words and reflecting on writing lessons probably took up to another hour, or longer if the story was lengthy; compiling everything into daily blog posts (and formatting, finding an image, tagging, etc.) likely cost upwards of another half an hour.

That’s a pretty big commitment for thirty consecutive days, and it didn’t leave a lot of time for me to focus on the task this whole endeavor was meant to serve: writing! And yet, I did manage to write an entirely new short story in the month of January…(hooray!)

Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again? With pleasure.

Am I in a hurry to do it again? No, sir—I have a manuscript to revise! That’s going to be priority #1 for a while.

I am, however, contemplating another, less time-consuming series. I like the idea of using those 135 words I picked up for something—maybe printing out and cutting up the definitions, putting them in a jar, and drawing a handful at random each day to make sentences with. We shall see.

Alternatively: blackout poems. That could be a fun break.

At the very least, coming up are a complete list of the 31 stories I read for my challenge, plus a compiled vocabulary list (all 135 new words).

Right now I’m still enjoying my (it feels as if new-found!) free time to write write write, anything I want! So far, since January and the challenge ended, I’ve written:

  • A letter
  • A poem that I’m really excited about…and might name a chapbook after
  • A rant about ugly pajama pants (look for it shortly)
  • Roughly twenty pages of manuscript (well, re-written; I’ve changed a great deal, plus wrote a character into one of the first scenes).

Well, lads—for now it’s back to the books, as they say!

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30 Stories, Day 27: Harrison Bergeron

If I could say one thing about Harrison Bergeron, it would be this: Vonnegut doesn’t mess around.

Many thanks to I’m All Booked, who commented on my last Forum Friday post: “What is your favorite short story?” for the suggestion.

After 27 of 30 short stories, I will happily concede that Harrison Bergeron has been one of my favorites, too. Full story (a quick read) at the link; synopsis, thoughts, and vocab below.

Enjoys, kids.

Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance—it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sash weights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Synopsis

In 2081 everyone has been made equal: no one is better-looking, more intelligent, or talented than anybody else. This has been accomplished with the efforts of a new government industry: the United States Handicapper General.

A husband and wife, George and Hazel Bergeron, are watching television. Hazel’s intelligence is average (“normal”) so she bears no handicaps, but George, an intelligent man, is required by law to wear a government radio piece in his ear. This device emits various bloodcurdling sounds and screeches approximately every twenty seconds, thus disrupting one’s thoughts and preventing people with above-average mental facilities from gaining unfair advantage.

The more beautiful, strong, intelligent or talented someone is, the uglier, heavier, larger and more crippling the handicap to match. George, being also a man and of sturdy frame, must also wear weights and bags of birdshot.

The ballerinas they watch on TV are burdened with such weights to handicap their muscled strength and grace, and also must wear repulsive masks to hide their beauty. When a sharp screech pieces George’s thoughts and two of the ballerinas on stage fumble and hold their ears it is evident that they also wear radio handicaps.

Hazel and George, watching the show, make mindless conversation. Every twenty seconds or so George loses track of the conversation due to the terrible sounds in his ear, and Hazel likewise can not sustain any train of thought for more than a very brief span of time. Her memory—what is considered normal—is comparable to that of a goldfish.

At one point Hazel says George looks tired, and suggests he take off his birdshot bag, or even just removes a few pieces from it. But George, remembering that the penalty for such treasonous behavior is two years’ jail time and two thousand dollars per grain, declines.

Suddenly the televised performance is interrupted by an emergency newsflash. The announcer, who has a severe (normal) speech impediment, must give the sheet to one of the two intelligent ballerinas to read. The ballerina reads (after screwing up her voice so that it does not sound beautiful):

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen, has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

Harrison is Hazel and George’s son. He was taken from them in April that year, and it had long been evident that he was a force to be reckoned with. Where Harrison Bergeron was concerned, The Handicapper General could not think up inhibitors fast enough: he wore not a tiny ear radio but huge earphones, incredible, heaping scraps of metal (he is seven feet tall, and commensurately strong), a clown nose, black ink between his teeth to ruin his charming smile, and spectacles designed give him headaches and make him half blind.

But before the ballerina can finish the announcement, there is a terrible disturbance on the set: a door is torn from its hinges and the entire studio shakes.

George recognizes this as Harrison’s approach.

Indeed, huge and intimidating, Harrison thunders clamorously onto the set in all his scrap-metal, clown-nose etc. regalia. Musicians, ballerinas and technicians alike cower in his presence.

“I am the Emperor!” Harrison proclaims. “Everyone must do what I say at once.”

Harrison makes a dramatic show of tearing through all his handicaps and casting them to the floor like some hulking monster out of a cotton shirt. He smashes his headphones and glasses against the wall and flings away the rubber nose and teeth-gaps.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he decrees, looking upon the cowering figures before him. The throne shall be given to the first woman who dares to rises, he says.

A moment passes and a ballerina rises. Harrison approaches her, removes her mental and physical handicaps, and lastly her mask. She is incredibly beautiful.

Harrison strips the musicians of their handicaps and demands that they strike up their best—if they play their best, he says, he will make them all barons and dukes and earls—and declares that he and his Empress will now show the world the meaning of the word dance.

After setting the music to his liking, Harrison and the ballerina do just that: dance. They dance, uninhibited by their handicaps, more gracefully and wonderfully than anyone has seen. (See: “They leaped like deer on the moon.”) They rise higher and higher, spinning more and more beautifully, and at length, suspended in the air, kiss one another.

Then, at the height of their performance, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General herself, bustles into the studio and aims a gun. She fires twice, and both Harrison and the ballerina drop dead to the floor.

Then the reception goes.

Hazel turns to George make some remark about it, but finds him absent. He returns after a moment, however—he had gone into the kitchen to get a beer—and sees a tear on his wife’s cheek.

“You been crying?” he asks.

“Yup,” she replies.

He asks what about. Hazel can’t remember. Something sad on TV. George suggests that she forget sad things, and Hazel chipperly replies that she always does.

Then George’s ear device emits a sound like gunfire.

“Gee,” says Hazel. “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

He replies in the affirmative: “You can say that again.”

She does.

Observations

What stands out most to me in this story is exactly what I wish to do better in my own writing: it communicates much in a very short space, and quickly. The sentences are neat and simple; the prose is unburdened by description or wandering; intro, culture, action, BAM, story’s over, and you’re left staring and going: whoa.

I’ll admit though, at first when Harrison came barging into the studio and said, with no introduction, “I am the Emperor!” I had a “Mangler” moment (see: Stephen King’s laundry machine of doom) where I failed to take what was happening seriously. But afterwards, I thought about it: in the context of this story, where characters can only hold on to a single, coherent thought for twenty seconds at a time, it makes sense: Harrison, or anyone else who wanted to grab the nation’s attention, would have had to get straight to it. No dawdling.

And that, my friends, is the sort of writing I hope to imitate.

Vocab

A whole new woooord…sorry. Couldn’t resist. I had been planning to write, “A whole new word: don’t spend it all in one place, now,” and then the fourth word came out like Aladdin.

Here ye go, now:

consternation: anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected

Four days more in the month. A story for each to come.

30 Stories, Day 26: Nicolas was…

Alright. I admit it: after twenty-five days I was looking for a shortcut. (Note to self: use previous sentence as beginning of a short story.) I am talking, of course, about my thirty-day challenge to read one short story a day and write about it in long-term efforts to improve my own writing and get published.

In scanning the table of contents in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, an anthology I picked up in December, a number of titles caught my eye, but there was one selection in particular: “Nicolas was…”.

It was one page.

Perhaps more intrigued than relieved to find that short a story, I flipped to it. I’m not sure what my expectations were; I’m not sure that I had any. Actually, if I expected anything it was probably to find that the story was so short that I could not possibly glean anything from it, it would not be worth reporting (I should have known better: this is Neil Gaiman we’re talking about), and, ultimately having to read another, I would have spent my thirty seconds in vain.

Not so.

Today, in salute to the perfect brevity that is “Nicolas was…” I am not providing an excerpt or a synopsis. Instead, I encourage you to invest thirty seconds and read

Nicolas was…” by Neil Gaiman

yourself, and then (if you so please), come back and read my observations. Note my observations contain spoilers, so if you’re going to read them, read the story first!

Observations

HOLY CRAP Neil Gaiman is a GENIUS.

I think, him being the accomplished author of Stardust and Coraline and several other books as well as another short story of his I recently enjoyed, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” I already knew as much.

And yet here I stand, dazzled and envious of the simplicity of the feat he achieved in “Nicolas was…”: how, using a few concise details, a little modification, and just enough of the familiar—“Ho. Ho. Ho.”—that we recognize it beyond doubt, Gaiman takes a (pretty much) universally-understood concept, Santa Claus, and completely recasts the story behind it.

I stand in awe.

It’s an easy recipe. A forehead slapper: a why didn’t I think of that? revelation. I think, after reading this, I will keep my own eyes trained for anything else that might make such a subject matter—something universally recognized—and one day attempt to do the same.

Until then—well, and probably always—hats off, Mr. Gaiman.

Vocab

No new words this time.

Only four (five, if I round up to the end up of the month) stories remain. Let us see what they will bring.

30 Stories, Day 25: The Ghosts

If I haven’t yet said so in twenty-five days of reading, I’ll say it now: as much can be learned from bad writing as from good. (I will also say this: if you only read my “observations” one day, read them today. I made myself laugh.)

I am not saying that “The Ghosts” is a bad story. In fact, I found it in an anthology titled 50 Great Short Stories. Therefore, by default, it is “great”.

…But there are things I would change. See observations in bold below.

The Ghosts” by Lord Dunsany

Suddenly a herd of black creatures larger than bloodhounds came galloping in; they had large pendulous ears, their noses were to the ground sniffing, they went up to the lords and ladies of long ago and fawned about their disgustingly. Their eyes were horribly bright, and ran down to great depths. When I looked into them I knew suddenly what these creatures were and I was afraid. They were the sins, the filthy, immortal sins of those courtly men and women.      

Synopsis

A man visits his brother in a house called Oneleigh. Oneleigh is a solitary manor out in the forest, and is so old and has stood through so many periods and events that it seems as old as time itself, if not older. Within the place are relics of these other times: armor, tapestries, old furniture. There is no electricity.

The man argues with his brother about ghosts. His brother, he tells us, thinks that a second-hand account—that is, someone else claiming they’ve seen one—is tantamount to proof that ghosts exist. As such, he believes in them. The narrator argues that even if other people have seen ghosts, that is still no proof they exist: delirious men (sailors?) have seen red rats, but nobody believes in their existence.

If he saw a ghost, our narrator concludes, he would thus continue to argue against their existence.

That night, when his brother goes to bed, our narrator sits before the fireplace a while. The room is old, full of ancient furniture and tapestries, and cast in shadow (remember, there is no electricity). If ever he might imagine seeing a ghost, this is just the sort of place he would do it, he thinks.

Midnight passes without event. The narrator lingers, almost daring his imagination to play tricks on him, and just when he has given up of seeing anything ghostly there comes a sound: the rustle of silk dresses.

Into the great hall walk, two by two, high-born ladies and their gentlemen in exquisite Jacobean dress. They are faint, like shadows, and come to fill the room and its vacant old chairs. The narrator, blithely accepting that he has now seen these “ghosts,” rises from his chair to retire for the night.

But before he can do so there comes the sound of padded feet upon the floor. He looks around: now enter these massive black creatures like dogs with deep eyes and sniffing noses. They jostle about, crowding the men and women.

Sins, he realizes.

He looks more closely: not a single person there seems to be without one. One sits with an old man with a grandson on his knee; another licks a child’s face; one wanders between two people while another noses its way under a woman’s hand. Even the demure lady beside him has a sin at her feet, a thing with red eyes glowing murder.

Suddenly one of them lifts its head and calls, a terrifying sound: it has picked up the scent of a living person. All the other monsters gather to it and begin sniffing; too late the narrator makes to leave, for swiftly they track and attack him en masse, mauling him with their great weight.

The narrator begins to have wicked, wretched thoughts. He begins to think of killing his brother, who sleeps upstairs. Where the revolver is. How easy it would be put flour on the brother’s face, make it look like he had dressed himself as a ghost, and jumped out and surprised him. The servants had heard them arguing about ghosts: surely he could get away with it. It is a beautiful, wondrous idea.

But as the creatures drag him down, the narrator makes a concerted mental effort. He remembers: “If two straight lines cut another, the opposite angles are equal. Let AB, CD, cut one another at E, then the angles CEA, CEB equal two right angles…”

He goes to get the revolver; the beasts rise up and howl. “But the angle CEA is common, therefore AED equals CEB. In the same way, CEA equals DEB. Q.E.D.

And just like that, he talks himself through it: logic and reason are reestablished, the room and chairs are empty, and killing his brother seems a most terrible, repulsive idea.

Observations

There were some bumps in the beginning of this story; a lot of superfluous description crowded the meat of it, or where the action started. Frontloading a story with information and backstory is something my own writing professors most always railed against, and in this story—though the piece in its entirety was relatively brief—my attention began to wander.

Perhaps early monotony could have been broken with dialogue; even a single, hooking line of it. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” had only one spoken line in all the story, but it was used, and used well. But then again, perhaps after reading Robinson Crusoe I am biased against narrative of any great length that is all summary, summary, summary, and never broken by the action of spoken word. Great premise, but weak delivery. Grace save me, that book was drier than a camel’s bald spot.

My big issue with this story, however, is the content of the ending. I appreciate the concept: the narrator is a man of reason and, as just as he said he would, he uses his reason to save himself from doing something crazy.

But let’s be honest: there are ghosts and monsters in this story. They are brilliant. They are fresh. They are in turns fascinating and terrifying. And then, when the darkness attacks and possesses our narrator, he just suddenly pulls back and magics (er, logics) himself out o’ there by reciting a few geometrical theorems??

JULIE DOESN’T BUY IT.

The ending comes up short in my book for two reasons:

  1. Eerie house! Ghosts and monsters! He GOT UP to go get the revolver, for Chrissakes! A little redemptive math is hugely anticlimactic.
  2. I just couldn’t take the ending seriously. It was like Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” which is about an industrial laundry press that comes to life and kills people in grisly and terrifying ways. I couldn’t take that story seriously because all I could picture was somebody running down a lamp-lit street at night and a laundry machine bumbling menacingly after them.  

When all is said and done, my lesson is this: a great beginning and middle must have an equally great, or greater end.

Vocab

venerable: accorded great respect due to age, wisdom, character, status, etc.

wainscot: wood paneling on the lower part of the walls of a room

pendulous: hanging down loosely

Q.E.D. quod erat demonstrandum: translates as “which was to be demonstrated,” and is a formal way of ending a mathematical, logical or physical proof.

Más cuentos seguir. Hasta mañana.

30 Stories, Day 22: The Three-Day Blow

For today’s short I visit Hemingway and find that, in addition to oft-taught pieces like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” he writes a mean vignette, so he does.

“The Three-Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway

“It all evens up,” Nick said.

They sat looking into the fire and thinking of this profound truth.

“I’ll get a chunk from the back porch,” Nick said. He had noticed while looking into the fire that the fire was dying down. Also he wished to show he could hold is liquor and be practical. Even if his father had never touched a drop Bill was not going to get him drunk before he himself was drunk.

“Bring one of the big beech chunks,” Bill said. He was also being consciously practical.

Nick came in with the log through the kitchen and in passing knocked a pan off the kitchen table.

Synopsis

Nick Wemedge walks through a bare orchard and a field to his friend Bill’s house. Bill is home alone (his father is out hunting), and for want of something to do, produces a bottle of Irish whisky (note: spelled “whisky” in the story) for he and his friend to mix with water and drink.

The two friends back and forth before a lit hearth, warming themselves against it. Their conversation wanders from baseball, to reading materials, to arguing about which books and authors (Walpole, Chesterton) are better. All the while, they drink whisky.

“Let’s get drunk,” says Bill. “My old man won’t care.”

As the water to whisky ratio gets lower and lower, Bill and Nick discuss their fathers. One is a painter, the other a doctor. Nick says his father has never touched a drop in his life. But then again, he amends—and his father admits this himself—he’s missed a lot in life.

The fire begins to falter. Nick, noticing, gets up to fetch another log from outside. He makes an effort to appear less drunk than he perhaps is, though when he comes in again accidentally knocks a pan of soaking apricots to the floor. He picks them up and slyly delivers the log.

Nick suggests another drink; Bill produces a bottle of Scotch from a liquor locker. Nick volunteers to get more water, and this time—as he passes through the hall—stops to gawk at his reflection in a mirror. His face seems odd; not his own. He smiles; his reflection grins. He winks at it and moves on.

Now the friends are having large shots. “What’ll we drink to?” asks one. “Fishing,” says  the other. “Gentlemen,” says Nick, “I give you fishing.” They toast to fishing, and then to literature, and to Chesterton and Walpole.

Then Bill changes the subject. “You were wise,” he tells his friend, “to bust off that Marge business.” It is evident Nick has had a rather long and involved history with Marge—that they were engaged (“Going to get married,” Nick corrects. “What’s the difference?” says Bill)—and as Bill goes on about how Nick’s life would be different, how he would have to deal with the in-laws, and be tied down, and probably not going fishing tomorrow, Nick begins to feel profoundly empty.

He suggests another drink.

“All of a sudden everything was over,” says Nick, suddenly reflecting. “Just like when the three-day winds come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.” He says he couldn’t help it. Privately, he thinks of the plans he and Marge had made; and now, how they would probably never see one another again. Bill sympathizes and talks it out with him and at length suggests they retire the subject; if Nick thinks about it, he might want to get back into it again.

This thought seems to lift Nick’s spirits: nothing, after all, is irrevocable. Perhaps he can make things right things with Marge. But instead of pursuing the subject aloud, he suggests to Bill that they take up their guns and go join Bill’s father.

They do, and strike down into the orchard. Once they are outside, nothing seems important. It is as if the wind has blown Marge, and all other concerns from Nick’s head. Still, he feels better knowing he can go into town Saturday and see her if he wants to.

Favorite line(s)

There were a couple lines in this story that really resonated:

“Fall for them but don’t let them ruin you.”

(Repeated for emphasis) “All of a sudden everything was over,” Nick said. “I don’t know why it was. I couldn’t help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.”

Observations

Ah-HA! I have finally found, in three weeks of reading great short stories, an exemplary slice of life/vignette piece. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (though they are used somewhat interchangeably):

vignette: a brief evocative description, account, or episode

slice of life: a storytelling method that presents a sample of a character’s life, possibly without plot, conflict, or a conclusive ending. Slice of life stories simply present what is, typically without great change or development.

Slice of life fiction goes against a lot of what I’ve been taught as a writer. Mmm…maybe not ‘goes against,’ but veers away from. Plot, I was told. Character development, I was told. Strong ending, I was told. And yet, these disembodied episodes that are slice of life can be incredibly powerful and resonating. I even found myself relating to bits in this story (i.e., wanting to appear more sober than one actually is; anyone who’s had a social drink or two or three can probably identify). That seems a great strength to me: writing about the ordinary is easily relatable, and as such might appeal to a larger audience.

Suddenly I can see why literary magazines are so interested in the slice of life/vignette genre. Okay, I think I have my next short story writing challenge picked out: write a slice of life!

Vocab

peat: a brown, soil-like substance made of decomposed vegetable matter

Mackinaw coat: refers to a heavy and dense woolen water-repellant cloth

Alright, so. Another tale tomorrow.

30 Stories, Day 20: The Monkey’s Paw

The most wonderful thing just happened.

I realized, a short way into reading this story, that I’d seen a play adapted from it in middle school. I loved that play, and have often thought back to it (the best stories stay with us that way), but I had, of course, conveniently forgotten the most important detail: that the talisman the family used to make their wishes was a monkey’s paw, which, of course, is the eponymous title of the story. Now, unexpectedly, I have found it. It is as if I’ve discovered an old letter from a childhood friend…

Two-thirds through my 30-day short story challenge, I present it to you. Enjoy.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

“To look at,” said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”

He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.

“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White, as he took it from his son and, having examined it, placed it upon the table.

“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”

Synopsis

A father and son, the Whites, sit playing chess during a cold, wet, and windy night in Laburnam Villa. They are expecting company.

Herbert, the son, defeats his father and then cheers, “There he is!” Mr. White admits and introduces Sergeant-Major Morris to his wife and son. All hurry to warm him by the fire (he has made a long journey; this Villa is remote, and the weather regrettable) and give him whiskey, and by the third glass he is telling the family (all eagerly listening) of faraway scenes and wars and plagues and peoples. Mr. White and the sergeant-major knew one another in youth; the latter has been gone these last twenty-one years, surveying the world.

Mr. White says he’d love to make it out to India. The sergeant-major assures him he’s better where he is. But the old man continues daydreaming: he should like to see the temples, and the fakirs, and the jugglers, and oh yes—what was it Morris said about a monkey’s paw the other day?

“Nothing,” Morris hastily replies.

But with all the family eagerly listening, he elaborates: you might call it magic, he says. It looks like nothing more than a mummified paw (here he produces a package to show his listeners), but it had a spell put on it by an old fakir: a very holy man. This holy man wanted to show that fate rules people’s lives, and that to attempt to tamper with it is folly. He spelled it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.

Mr. White pipes, “Well, why don’t you have three, sir?”

His company gravely replies that he has. And they came true.

Mrs. White asks whether anyone else has wished. The soldier responds in the affirmative; the first man made three wishes—the final one being for death—and that was how he came to possess the paw. Thoughtful, Mr. White asks why the soldier keeps the paw. Morris can offer no good reason. When asked if, given the option, he could have another three wishes would he take them, he replies that he doesn’t know.

Then, without warning, he throws the paw in the fireplace.

Mr. White, with a cry, snatches it out. His friend tells him to let it burn, but Mr. White insists on keeping it. The soldier warns and discourages him from using the paw, telling him there are consequences, but Mr. White does not heed him; finally, desperate, Morris grabs his friend’s arm and demands that if he must wish that he wish for something sensible.

When the soldier leaves, the family discuss the paw together. Mr. White seems more reserved now; hesitant or perhaps having second thoughts as he relays that Morris pressed him again to throw the thing away. Herbert scoffs. Why should they—why would they throw it away when they could use it to be wealthy and famous and happy? Wish to be an emperor, he advises his father.

Mr. White admits that he doesn’t know what to wish for; he is content. Herbert suggests paying off the house—two hundred pounds ought to do it.

“I wish for two hundred pounds,” says Mr. White.

The dried paw writhes in his hand. He cries aloud.

But no money appears. When, at length, nothing happens, Mrs. White assures her husband that he imagined the movement and the couple goes to bed. Herbert lingers a bit longer, staring idly at the fire; when the fire begins to take a simian likeness he laughs,  shakes himself, and dashes water the fireplace before going to bed himself.

The next morning the paw remains on the floor, and the family laugh at themselves for believing in such nonsense. Herbert jokes the money might yet fall from the sky; Mr. White says, according to Morris, the wishes were granted in such a natural way that they might be called coincidence.

Herbert leaves (presumably for work) and Mrs. White assures a stubborn Mr. that he must have imagined the paw moving.

Then, shortly after Herbert’s departure, a well-dressed stranger is seen wandering in front of their house. He is hesitating whether or not to visit. The Whites usher him in.

The visitor, looking uncomfortable, says he was asked to call from Maw and Meggins. This is presumably Herbert’s place of work (a factory, by the sound of it), for the Mrs. immediately inquires whether anything has happened to her son. Is he hurt?

“Badly hurt,” the visitor assents. “But not in any pain.”

It takes a moment for his meaning to sink in. When it does, the visitor explains that Herbert was caught in the machinery. Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility, he continues, but wish to offer a compensatory sum.

“How much?” asks Mr. White.

“Two hundred pounds,” is the reply.

The Whites bury their son and mourn. The days pass. One night, unable to sleep, the wife has a sudden revelation: the paw! Why not use one of the other two wishes to wish Herbert alive again?

“You’re mad!” says her husband. Herbert has been dead for ten days; he would be a terrible apparition now. The wife rebukes him: would she fear the child that she herself raised?

Reluctantly, the husband retrieves the paw from downstairs and, at his wife’s command, make’s the second wish: “I wish my son alive again.”

They wait. Nothing appears to happen. The wife raises the bedroom blind and looks out the window; the candle burns and burns and blows out; they lie in bed and wait in the darkness, listening. Finally, when the husband can stand the darkness no more, he goes downstairs to retrieve another candle.

His match falters and goes out at the bottom of the stair. Then, before he can strike another, there comes a soft knocking at the door. He pauses. The knock comes again. And again.

“What’s that?” says his wife.

“A rat,” he replies.

The knock sounds again. Loudly.

“Herbert!” she screams. “It’s Herbert!”

She runs down the stairs, past her husband, and goes to the front door. Her husband grabs her by the arm, barring her from letting whoever it is in.

“It’s Herbert,” she repeats, insisting that there is nothing to fear. The knocking continues, and, against her husband’s pleas, she begins undoing the locks. Mr. White flees from the room, groping upstairs in the dark for the paw. The door is stuck; Mrs. White can’t reach the bolt. She calls for him as the knocking continues, thunderous. She fetches a chair to stand on and undoes the bolt just as her husband finds the paw and frantically whispers his last wish.

The knocking stops and she opens the door. She lets out a great wail, and her husband runs back to her, looking outside and all around: the lit street is quiet and empty.

Observations

I find little new and compelling in the way of craft here—everything is clean and simple (the story shows, doesn’t tell; dialogue is tight and concise; minimal character description given, etc.).  The only remark of value I feel I can add is that this is a case where the story itself is strong; the pithy presentation lets it do the talking.

But there were a few new words!

Vocab

placid: not easily upset or excited; peaceful

rubicund: having a ruddy (healthy red) complexion

doughty: steadfastly courageous

fakir: a Muslim or Hindu religious idealist who lives solely on alms

henpeck: (of a woman) to criticize/order (a husband) around. This word is perfect for Madame Kushin of yesterday’s story!

antimacassar: a piece of cloth put over a chair to protect it from grease or dirt

bibulous: excessively fond of drinking alcohol

fusillade: a series of shots fired in rapid succession

20 stories down, another 10 to go! À demain!

30 Stories, Day 18: The Happy Man

Ahahaha, so remember how I said after “Nightingale” and “A Good Man” I was going to read something more light-hearted? Remember the glittering, glamorous one-day comic relief that was Dorothy Parker? Well, today’s short story is about HELL.

Intrigued? Good. You should be. This is absolutely the most haunting story of all those I have read so far in my 30 day reading challenge. Jonathan Lethem’s The Happy Man is speculative and though a little bit longer at 24 pages, I can’t recommend it highly enough. This story appears in Lethem’s anthology The Wall in the Sky, The Wall of the Eyewhich is fully worth hunting down a hard copy of, as the Google Books link only offers a limited preview.

“Happy” reading…

(Note: the synopsis is so lengthy, and the story itself so much better, that it might be better just to read the story on this one!)

“The Happy Man” by Jonathan Lethem

[Abridged] In Hell I’m a small boy. The beginning is always the same. I’m at that table, in that damned garden, waiting for the witch.

The witch is supposed to be making us breakfast. We’re supposed to wait. Quietly.

Time is a little slow there, at Hell’s entrance. I’ve waited there with the other children, bickering, playing with the silverware, curling the lace doily under my setting into a tight coil, for what seems like years. Breakfast is never served.

But I’m leaving something out.

We sit in a semi-circle. That’s to make room for the witch’s horse. He’s waiting for breakfast, too.

The witch’s horse is disgusting. His forelegs are chained and staked to keep him at the table. He’s sitting on his tail, so he can’t swat the flies which gather and drink at the corners of his mouth.

That’s how Hell begins. Time in Hell doesn’t start until you get up from the garden table.

Synopsis

Tom has died, gone to Hell, and returned to life on earth. In fact, Tom’s soul returns frequently to be with his wife, Maureen, and twelve-year-old son, Peter, and to work and provide for them (when he died Maureen was still in school and in debt; something had to be done. With the proper paperwork, Tom’s body was thawed and released into their custody.). There’s just one problem: the visits on earth never last long.

For his family these visits are both curses and blessings: they allow them to see him again, to love him, to be with him in the flesh; however, the visits are estranged, as Tom is inevitably dead and cannot stay. It is a sort of cycle of loss and gain, loss and gain, and in some respects perhaps a crueler reality than death. Tom appears normal and is fully functional—can hold a job and a conversation—but when his soul is absent his body remains, a zombie. Apparently there is a culture of soul-migrators in this day and age, for we learn of doctors and pills and therapy and support groups available for those that cross over.

Tom’s son, Peter, who used to be into computer games and D & D and rock before his father died, makes it his mission to computer-map Hell based on his father’s accounts (perhaps harboring the misconception that, like just another dungeon, plotting a map will help find the way out). Tom narrates all; Peter plots it.

Usually his soul spends a week in his personal Hell. In his Hell Tom is a boy of eight or nine. At the entrance time moves slowly and it’s always the same: he sits at a table with three other children and a horrid horse—the witch’s horse—waiting for the witch to serve breakfast. But she never does. The children are hungry and restless and get to various trouble, but the witch (a beautiful woman) only ever pops out of the house every so often to say breakfast will be ready soon (but never is). Time in Hell only starts once one gets up from the garden table.

After the witch’s garden Tom runs through Field of Tubers, twisted roots like potatoes or knees that bleed when you kick them. It is always night when he gets to the other side.

After the Tubers is the robot maker: an old man in a welding helmet who makes wiry, pathetic robots and never welds. The man seeks an apprentice to help him solve a problem: Colonel Eagery, one of his best creations, he says, went renegade and began assembling robots of its own—robots who dismantle the old man’s work. But Tom knows better: Eagery (whom Tom calls the Happy Man) isn’t a robot. His and the old man’s robots duke it out in the pavilion, a ruined battle arena glowing with the radioactive bits of the robot maker’s broken works. The old man’s robots are always defeated, and afterward he weeps.

In his soul’s absence, it would seem, a migrator’s body continues on; keeps living and working. Once, when Tom came back, he was in the middle of a public service announcement. That same day he went to the bar to borrow himself some time to re-adjust, and, in a chance encounter, met up with another migrator. The two compare notes. This other migrator’s Hell is different: urban instead of rural; composed of garbage trucks and shootings and nuclear war that had turned all the animals intelligent and vicious. He must spend ten days in his Hell, he says, for every day he is present outside it. And usually, when he comes back, he finds himself drinking with workmates (who are all strangers to him). The men trade numbers, but have difficulty meeting thereafter: one or the other is always away.

When Tom leaves the robot maker he goes north. He passes through a thicket of trees whose leaves are razor blades and comes upon shrunken homes: tiny doors and windows built into a giant dirt mound, with tiny people to match. Then, as always the storm comes: a miniature black whirlwind that sends razor blades flying across the tiny village and reduces is it to rubble. There is never anything he can do. When it is all over, and he gets up from his cover (somewhat cut and scraped himself) he is staring at Colonel Eagery: the Happy Man.

Colonel Eagery is the one wild card in Tom’s Hell sequence. He appears at different points and places in the chain, and encounters with him seem to be what spirit Tom back to the real world.

This time he picks Tom up after the razor storm. He’s a jovial man, cracking jokes that Tom doesn’t understand. He offers Tom food (or rather, a hellish imitation of food: tiny, sugar-coated body parts in a bowl with milk). Eagery produces some ties, knots them together, and loops them around two trees. He gets Tom to hold them. Tom, trusting Eagery, permits himself to then be tied between the trees. Eagery then snips away Tom’s clothes and does the thing you might guess.

That’s when Tom crosses over.

This time when he comes home his uncle Frank is visiting. Frank seems to want to stay for a while. They are family. But Frank seems oddly uncomfortable. “If anybody calls,” he says, “I’m not here.

Problems at home: after intimacy with Maureen they talk. Maureen, dejected, is beginning to lose faith in Tom’s ability to come back. If she lets herself get comfortable, she says, she’ll just feel ripped off again. They talk about Frank; from what is said and the conspicuous gaps in conversation, it becomes apparent that Maureen is starting to see someone else. He leaves, and takes a bottle for a walk around the neighborhood.

In the west of his Hell is a ghost town. In its dusty street, a crying baby. It’s windy and the baby is cold. But if Tom picks up the baby it becomes the Happy Man, every time.

At home Tom wakes in a drunken stupor. Uncle Frank makes him breakfast. They go out to the beach and Tom asks Frank what’s got him on the run. He’s avoiding the mob, Frank replies. Tom tells him to stay as long as he likes with them; he’s family. Tom realizes he hasn’t spent any time with Peter yet on this visit, so he and Frank go to pick Peter up from school. Peter is in computer class, and all of his friends are engrossed in the computer Hell he’s created.

Maureen gives out to Tom for sucking Peter into his Hell world. They fight—or would, but Tom doesn’t let his voice rise. Maureen cries (so he won’t, Tom feels, attack her). Things are really over between them, Tom realizes.

A bag of emotions thwaps Tom over the head the next morning. He’s going back again, he realizes, while his wife is out, probably with her lover; their son is left home alone; he won’t have another chance for god knows how long to get in another word about the affair, and there isn’t much time left to be with his son. Desperate, he goes to Peter’s room.

“Hey, Dad,” says Peter. “I had an idea about Hell.” Peter shows him something on the computer. Why, Peter asks, has he never tried to go into the witch’s house before?

Tom begins to get unbalanced. The emotions, the stresses of Hell are not easily communicated. Peter pretends not to notice the tension in his voice, and continues by saying that Uncle Frank reminds him of somebody, somebody from Hell, like the robot maker or—

Tom hits him.

The he goes back to Hell.

He tries Peter’s suggestion and enters the witch’s house. Eagery is there, with the witch (one guess what they might be doing) and Eagery, upset at being interrupted, drops Tom into a baking pie and slams the oven door shut.

He is transported back. Peter was right: the witch’s house was a shortcut.

Realizing he hasn’t been gone long, Tom decides to pretend his soul is still absent (ostensibly to spy on Maureen, but also partially to avoid having to talk to his family, which has become a tormenting task in and of itself). He is parked in front of the TV when they all arrive home and sit beside him. Peter (on whose face he can see a great purple bruise) squirms a while, and at length suggests that he (Tom) needs a shower. Tom has an epiphany: he isn’t a zombie. He’s a more like a big, stupid pet that eats and drinks and needs to be cleaned and gets in the way.

At dinner, passive, Tom notices how they avoid discussing Peter’s injury and Frank’s troubles.

Finally, it’s time for bed. Maureen, not wise to the ruse, calls her lover when she can’t sleep. Tom begins to overhear embarrassing things, and get angry, and wonder just what it is he’s trying to prove, (fists balled), and then—

He bolts upright. Maureen, shocked, quickly hangs up the phone. For an awful few moments Tom presses her face into the pillow, telling her to be quiet. Then it becomes apparent why: Tom has noticed an intruder in the house. Down the hall he can see Peter’s nightlight is off, which Peter would never permit.

Tom sneaks into Peter’s room and finds him tied to the bed with knotted neckties. At his side, pants down: Uncle Frank. He smashes Frank over the head with Peter’s keyboard until he draws blood and falls to the floor, mouth open. He tears up the floppy discs for Hell.

Hell DID mean something, after all. Frank was Eagery: he had molested Tom as a child, while his mother was in the kitchen making breakfast. The call Frank had been avoiding was his local police department: he was on the run from the molestation office.

In the end, Hell is different. Tom is back in the house with Maureen and Peter, but they can’t hear him: he’s a zombie. He watches TV, or wanders, or stands in Peter’s doorway, unable to meet his eye, watching him play Hell over his shoulder.

Observations

Fantastic set up. Tom’s personal Hell route is given in episodes, one scene to the next; between these episodes we get looks at the culture of resurrection and soul migration, a modern development. It’s very effective: rather than front-loading or back-loading a story with information Lethem intersperses it throughout the piece, with the Hell/nightmare sequences running as an ongoing narrative and continued action.

Plus, we get this first-person, warped vision of Hell. How COOL (if macabre) is THAT? I find dreams to be compelling reading material; nightmares even more so, and one scarcely gets more nightmarish than Hell.

One artistic choice I find interesting but don’t completely understand/appreciate (and therefore question): the segments go in chronological order, 1-20, except for the very last one, which is marked ‘6’. It’s the second ‘6’. If it were to replace the first, it would come right after the segment about Tom getting upset at his first therapy meeting: where he stormed away, convinced that Hell didn’t mean anything; that it wasn’t symbolic; that it just was. I suppose there might be some poetic full-circleness to that, but I don’t feel it’s strong enough to merit the outlier.

But overall, the telling and especially the end of this story are masterful. It’s rare to me for a short story to feel so developed and yet so self-contained at the same time. If I ever venture to write a short story of this length, or else a dream/nightmare-driven piece whose reality rubs up against/blurs with the dreamlike I will definitely return to this piece.

Haunting.

Vocab

tableau: a picture, painting; group of motionless figures representing a scene from a story

ineffectual: not producing the desired effect

contingent: subject to chance

30 Stories, Day 16: A Good Man is Hard to Find

On Day 16 of my short story escapades (in which I read one a day in efforts to improve my own writing), I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is the first I’ve read of Flannery O’Connor. I heard her name quite often at uni but somehow never made time enough to read her! My mistake– this one threw some punches.

Listen to Flannery O’Connor read A Good Man is Hard to Find here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

“I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”

Synopsis

A grandmother’s son and his family are planning a trip to Florida. The grandmother is opposed to this; she wants to see eastern Tennessee, and tries various ploys to persuade her son and his family to do what she wants: first she brandishes an article about an escaped convict, The Misfit, headed for Florida at her son, saying it would be unconscionable to take one’s children in that direction with such a dangerous man at large. Failing to get her son Bailey’s attention, she turns instead to his wife and says that the children have been to Florida; it would round them out better to go somewhere they haven’t been (east Tennessee, hint hint). The wife does not seem to hear her, either.

The next day the family sets off. The grandmother, against what she’s well aware are her son’s wishes, smuggles the family cat, Pitty Sing, along. The car ride is pleasant to her; she sits between John Wesley and June Star, pointing out various sights and beautiful pastures. The wife dozes in the passenger seat and the children read comics.

Alone on the road with our characters, we get a big dose of family antics. The children are bored, and the grandmother criticizes their disinterest. Even the baby, who she offers to bounce on her knee awhile, only offers the occasional faraway smile. At one point the grandmother jokes about Gone With the Wind; she is the only one that laughs. The kids finish their books, begin playing games and, at one point argue and starting hitting one another over the grandmother, who sits in the middle between them. The grandmother tells a story from her youth to pacify them.

They stop for lunch at a barbeque called The Tower. Red Sammy, the owner, enters at one point and says a line about not being able to win, and never knowing who to trust these days. The grandmother agrees people are not as nice as they used to be; assures Sammy he is a good man for letting two men he mentioned charge gas rather than pay in cash. She asks if he has heard about The Misfit.

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy replies. He and the grandmother talk of better times, when people were kinder, and one didn’t have to lock one’s door.

Back on the road, the grandmother remembers a nearby plantation house she once visited in her youth. She wants to see it again, but knows her son can’t be bothered to make a stop for such a thing—so she craftily sells the idea to the children instead, inventing a story about a secret panel inside the house behind which its old owners hid all their silver. The kids are sold and want to go and Bailey says no; but with much kicking and screaming and protest they get their way.

On a dirt route en route to the promised house, the grandmother suddenly remembers: the house she is thinking of is back in Tennessee—not Georgia, through which they are currently traveling. As she startles with this realization, she upsets the basket in which she has smuggled the cat; the animal snarls and goes flying out, landing on Bailey, who is driving.

The car spins off the road, crash-landing into a gulch.

Minor injuries are sustained, but no one is killed or critically wounded. The grandmother announces she believes she has injured an organ—likely as not to reduce her son’s wrath at her—but no one acknowledges her complaint.

Another car approaches from the main road; the grandmother drastically flags it down. It approaches slowly, considering them; when it gets close enough they see there are three passengers. After some consideration the driver gets out and motions for the other two do the same. They do, and all three stare down into the ditch directly over the family. The two younger boys have guns.

The children cry out, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!”

The driver, a man with spectacles, begins trying to foot his way down and instructs one of his boys, Hiram, to see if their car will run. As they approach, the grandmother gets the vague sensation that she knows the driver, and then places him—

“You’re the misfit!” she shrieks. The driver concedes with pleasure.

Bailey then barks something so vicious to the grandmother that the children are shocked to silence and the old woman begins to cry; even the convict tells her not to be upset, and assures her that men sometimes say things they don’t mean.

Hiram reports the car will take half an hour to fix as the grandmother tells him his nickname is unbecoming, for she can see that he is by nature a good man and comes from good people. The Misfit instructs his boys to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods: they want to ask them something. Bailey, to his credit, calls his mother Mamma and tells her he’ll be back in a minute.

The grandmother and the Misfit back and forth for a while, her pleading of his goodness, him quietly shaking his head. A shot rings out from the woods, then another. Silence.

Illogically, the grandmother continues pleading with the Misfit. She suggests praying. Jesus. Being good. “I don’t want no hep,” the convict replies. “I’m doing all right by myself.”

Bobby Lee and Hiram return from the woods, the former dragging the shirt that Bailey was wearing. He tosses the shirt to the boss and the Misfit begins putting it on. When the children’s mother begins to sob the convict asks if she and her girl wouldn’t like to join her husband and son. “Yes, thank you,” she murmurs. Hiram and Bobby Lee lead them into the trees.

The grandmother mutters Jesus faintly, now at a loss for words. The Misfit explains his name: that his crime and punishment are mismatched, the latter grossly greater than the former. A scream comes from the woods, then another shot. The convict speaks of justice; the old woman continues pleading. Another two shots.

She pleads and pleads; the Misfit’s philosophy grows more impassioned and mad until he is right up in the old woman’s face and a change comes over her; she takes him as one of her own children. She touches him on the shoulder, and it is the last thing she ever does; the Misfit recoils and shoots.

Hiram and Bobby Lee return. “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” says the latter. The Misfit replies she would have been a good woman, if somebody had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.

Observations

This story caught me so off guard! Here I was, expecting the typical family road trip antics with bored, cabin-fevered children, the humorous (and somewhat ignored) elderly, and parents so tired of their kids whining and fighting in the backseat that they almost wonder why they wanted a ‘vacation’ in the first place. If not light-hearted, I certainly expected the story to be one of the family’s frustrations with a possibly-senile grandmother (see: smuggling the cat to the motel).

And yet, there was a shovel-ton of foreshadowing/device-planting in this story. No deus ex machina here, folks. The Misfit was right in the first paragraph, and appeared again midway at the restaurant; the cat—the whole reason the car fell into the ditch in the first place—was mentioned early on, and seemed innocent (even humorous) at the time:

“She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself.”

But perhaps what makes this story so haunting is precisely that: the rapid change from the everyday (cramped quarters road trip with family) to the horrific (family murder including children and baby). This sort of event—rare though it may be—is shocking to the core and all too real (personally, I could not help but think of Sandy Hook). Sometimes, and to terrible effect, fiction can be just as real and vivid (if not more) than true events. Suite Française, a fictional account of the WWII bombing in Dresden written as it was happening, also comes to mind.

At any rate, this story packs a powerful emotional punch, and reminds us that tragedy occurs in the everyday settings we often take for granted.

Vocab

nickelodeon: no, not the cartoon station! a jukebox, operated by nickels

valise: a small traveling bag or suitcase

Alright. First “The Nightingale”, now this…I think I’ll look for something happy to read tomorrow!

30 Stories, Day 15: The Nightingale and the Rose

I was saving the one by Oscar Wilde like a rare coin—I knew it was going to be good. Now, halfway through my 30 day challenge of reading and reporting on short stories, I present to you one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful short stories I have ever read. (Highly recommend it! Readable online at the link below.)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde

“If you want a red rose,” said the Tree, “you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”

Synopsis

A Student mopes in his garden, bemoaning its lack of red roses. Were it that the garden held but a single bloom! His heart’s desire promised she would dance with him at the Prince’s ball the next evening if only he brought her red roses; because he has none to give he must instead sit alone and watch her glide across the floor with others. He is heartbroken just thinking about it and falls and weeps in the grass.

The animals of the garden hear his cries. “Why is he weeping?” they ask. The Nightingale, who has been listening from a branch overhead, answers: “He is weeping for a red rose.” The other animals scoff, calling the Student ridiculous, but the Nightingale understands his pain. Pain is the other half of what she so joyously sings of each night: Love.

The Nightingale resolves to help the student.

She flies from one Rose-tree to another. “Give me a red rose,” she says, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.” But one tree bears white roses; the next bears yellow; the third bears red, but has lost its buds to the harsh winter.

The Nightingale pleads. She only wants one, she says—is there no way she can get it? “There is,” the Tree replies. “But it is terrible.”

For a red rose, the Tree says, the Nightingale must sing to him with her heart against a thorn. She must sing to him all the night, heart pierced, and her blood must flow into the Tree’s veins.

The Nightingale considers this. At length she decides that love is greater than life, and that the heart of a man is greater than that of a bird. She will do it.

She flies down to the Student, still in the grass, and tells him to be happy: she will make a rose for him. But with one caveat: in return he must be a true lover (for love is wiser than philosophy and mightier than power). The student looks up and listens, but does not understand. Even when the Nightingale sings (the Tree that keeps her nest has heard her plan, and requests a final song) the Student perceives her through an academic lens, noting in a journal that she has form, but not feeling; style, but not sincerity. He sees neither meaning nor purpose in her song, and goes inside to sleep.

The moon comes out and the Nightingale goes to work, singing of love with her breast again the rose Tree’s thorn. Song by song petals begin unfurling, but still the rose is pale. “Press closer,” bids the tree, “or the Day will come before the rose is finished.”

The bird heeds the advice and presses closer, so that the thorn pricks deeper into her body. The petals begin to go pink as she continues singing, but still it is not enough; the thorn has not yet pierced her heart. The tree bids the Nightingale press closer once again.

Finally the thorn pricks the bird’s heart, and as she is cut by bitter pain the Nightingale’s song grows wilder: becomes a verse about Love that does not die even with Death. Her blood seeps into the rose, finally turning it crimson.

When the rose is finished, the bird lies dead in the grass.

The next day, the Student looks out his window and sees the rose. Quickly he dashes it up and takes it to the home of the girl he pines for.

“Here is the reddest rose in the world,” he says, producing the rose when the door opens. He offers it as a symbol of his affection; suggest that she wear it that night and know how he loves her.

The girl frowns. She says it will not go with her dress, and besides—another suitor has sent her jewels.

The boy, angry, calls the girl ungrateful and casts the rose into the street; the rose is trodden flat by the wheel of a passing cart.

The Student concludes that Love is a silly, useless thing—not half as useful as Logic or Philosophy—and goes back to his room to read.

Favorite line

(Alright, it’s really more of a passage this time…but Wilde just has too much great imagery and writes too beautifully to include any less!)

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”

Observations

This breed of fable is an interesting one: animals speak, but humans don’t understand them. This serves a purpose, of course: the inability of the Student to understand the Nightingale’s sacrifice says something about love (perhaps even plays back to her creed that Love was greater than Philosophy or Power) and makes her noble act all the more heart-breaking. What a wretched lesson in love! I mean, I had heard that Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories were depressing, but this has got to be one of the most heart-wrenching short stories EVER! (And yet, it’s so beautiful and poignant—I love Wilde all the more!)

As far as fables and parables go, I am constantly learning more: one of the keys to keeping a story timeless, it appears, is using basic characters (be they human or animal or plant or object) who have both been present in the past and are present today. The more generic, the more timeless. One object, and one object only, I felt, dates The Nightingale and the Rose: a “cart-wheel” running over the eponymous rose near the end. Now, that doesn’t diminish the story for me at all—it’s just an observation. Actually, it begets a question: are the best parables/fables/folklore timeless? Or do we associate them with a certain time period: the middle ages, perhaps?

Wilde is THE MAN when it comes to maxims and pithy sayings. After reading The Picture of Dorian Gray I wanted to write nothing but Lord Henry-style witticisms! My observation with aphorisms is that, though they don’t always use absolutes, they tend to take a position and are said with confidence. In this story, for example: “In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity.”

Vocab

As observed with past parables and children’s tales, the language here is simple and designed for a broad, youth-inclusive audience. No new words here.

Right-o. It’s going to be hard to top this one. We’ll see what tomorrow’s short story brings… 🙂

30 Stories, Day 12: The Necklace

I have been wanting to read Guy de Maupassant ever since a friend recommended Bel Ami to me. After this short story, which is twelfth in my 30 day short story reading challenge, I think I may just have to bump Bel Ami up a few notches.

In this post my observations include a running theme I’ve noticed between the twelve short stories I’ve read so far this month. It’s something I’m actually applying to my own latest short story in progress– I’ll later share how it turns out 🙂 For now, to Guy!

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

Suddenly she discovered, in a black satin case, a superb diamond necklace; her heart began to beat covetously. Her hands trembled as she lifted it. She fastened it round her neck, upon her high dress, and remained in ecstasy at sight of herself.

Then, with hesitation, she asked in anguish:

“Could you lend me this, just this alone?”

Synopsis

Mathilde Loisel is miserable in her marriage to a clerk in the Ministry of Education. She feels she has married beneath her and daydreams, from her average home, of luxuries and delicacies: antechambers, tapestries of strange birds in faery forests, footman and torch-lit halls; saloons, perfumed rooms and antique silks; delicate meals and silver with which to eat them; for fancy clothes and jewelry. She is so miserable for want that she cannot even visit an old friend come into wealth, because every time she comes home from such a visit she is perfectly wretched.

One day the woman’s husband brings home an invitation to an elite party, which he has worked hard to procure. She flings it away and asks what she’s meant to do with such a thing.

“Why, darling, I thought you’d be pleased,” the husband replies. She rarely goes out, he says, and this would be a chance to see many important people. The woman asks, furious, just what she’s to wear to such an affair.

The man asks what it would cost for a fancy dress she could wear to the party and use again for other events. After some consideration (Madame desires the maximum amount, but is careful not to sound unreasonable) she suggests a 400 franc allowance. Reluctantly, her husband forks it over.

Madame buys a suitable dress, but as the day of the party nears her husband observes her looking more miserable than ever. He asks her what is wrong. She replies she is miserable because she has no jewels to wear with her dress, and she shan’t even be able to look anyone in the face.

Her husband suggests asking her wealthy friend to borrow something. Delighted (she doesn’t know why she didn’t think of it herself!) Mathilde goes to visit her friend, Madame Forestier, and is offered her choice of jewels. She settles on a single, breathtaking diamond necklace and is wildly happy.

At the party Mathilde is a huge success: she is elegant, the most beautiful woman present; men whisper and stare and line up to waltz with her. Even the Minister notices her. Madame Loisel dances all night, in a cloud of bliss and beautiful happiness, until four o’clock in the morning.

When they return home it is like exiting a fairy tale. Madame is low and Monsieur thinks of work in a few hours.

Then things go from bad to worse: Madame realizes the necklace is absent from her neck. Distressed, the couple check all their pockets and the folds of her dress; she retraces her steps and decides she had it when she left, so it must have fallen at some point in the journey home. The husband searches the streets, inquires at the police station, offers in the paper and to cab companies.

“Write to your friend,” Monsieur advises his wife, “and tell her you’ve broken the clasp.” If her friend thinks she’s getting it fixed, he reasons, it will buy them enough time to find it. She writes.

A week goes by. Monsieur Loisel (who “has aged five years” in those seven days) says they must look into replacing the diamonds.

They find a like necklace at the Palais-Royal for forty thousand francs. They manage to bargain it down to thirty-six thousand but even so it takes three days to assemble the funds: Monsieur Loisel inherited eighteen thousand from his father, and must borrow the rest from a hundred different places.

Finally, Madame Loisel takes back the (replacement) necklace. Madame Forestier says, rather haughtily, that she might have returned it sooner. Loisel is relieved that she doesn’t take it from its case on the spot for fear she learns it is a substitution.

For ten years the couple lives in poverty to pay back what they owe. They dismiss their servant and move flats; Madame takes charge of all of the grueling housework herself, learns to haggle at the marketplace; her husband takes up odd jobs and night work.

By the time it is all over Madame Loisel has become a stooped, coarse woman made rough by the hard labor of poor households. She looks back and wonders how things would be different if she had never lost the necklace.

One day, as Madame Loisel is out for a walk, she encounters her rich friend Madame Forestier—still young, still beautiful. She decides to tell her the truth.

She is so changed that Madame Forestier does not recognize her at first. Loisel explains she has fallen on hard times, then admits that it is because she and her husband have spent the last decade paying for the necklace that she lent her for the party. “But you brought it back,” her friend protests. “No,” Loisel replies. They had replaced it.

Madame Forestier, moved, takes her old friend by the hands and (spoiler alert!) reveals that the necklace she loaned her was an imitation—not worth more than five hundred francs.

Observations

I am starting to notice consistencies between many of the short stories I’ve read so far this month: this one, like others, spends little or no time and space discussing the characters themselves. No detail of physical appearance is given. Mannerisms, likes and dislikes, hobbies are not discussed; we are given only a few brief elements of introduction for both of our protagonists here: that Monsieur works for the Ministry of Education, and Madame is miserable in her lust for riches.

I’m starting to see that keeping characters as generic as possible can have its functions, too. For one, it pares down the word count, which is good when you’re submitting short stories to magazines—flash fiction seems to be all the rage these days, and (though admittedly, every magazine is different) many will not accept stories above 5,000, or 4,000, or 3,000 words. But more than shortening word count, keeping characters generic can change the mode of storytelling: turn it into a fable, fairy tale, or parable. See Tolstoy’s parable “Three Questions”, for example, where the characters are even stripped of names and referred to as “the king,” “the hermit,” and “the bearded man.”

Back to this story in particular: it’s simple. It’s clean. No convoluted language bogs down the telling and the story progresses quickly.

And who doesn’t love a neat twist at the end?

Vocab

A whoppin’ one word, folks:

tureen: a deep covered dish from which soup is served

P.S. Yep, that pic is definitely the heart of the ocean from Titanic.