August 27, 2012


By Alice Munro
~9500 words

During the Second World War, a young teacher from Toronto is assigned to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Canadian hinterland, where she falls in love with the resident doctor.

The first-person narrative consists of the protagonist's reflections, presumably in the present day, upon her experience in the sanatorium and, in particular, with Dr. Alister Fox. Fox is unremarkable in almost every respect, "a spare man of ordinary height, whose reddish-fair hair was cut very short" and who "was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into." Somehow, nonetheless, Vivien falls in love with him, loses her virginity, and rushes into wedding preparations until, for unexplained reasons, Fox calls it all off and sends her packing. Over a decade later, now married, she runs into him on the street in Toronto and still feels the pangs of love.

The story is at its best in its descriptions of the bleak Canadian landscape:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some small, untidy evergreens, rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds.
The cheerlessness invades every crevice, from the "smell of winter clothing that never really dried out" to wretched meals of Postum, canned salmon, and cold apple pie to the sacrifices inherent in the wartime effort. Life in the sanatorium is particularly dismal: the students are "quiet and tractable but not particularly involved," and when they miss class it usually means that they are feverish, undergoing surgery, or dead.

The story's main characters are as dreary as their surroundings. Yes, this is surely the point, but that doesn't mean it's an advisable one. Fox is about as forgettable a character as there ever was, and the narrator makes no effort to explain how she can fall so hard for a man who serves up boxed mashed potatoes and, on their first sexual encounter, "did not want me to say anything" and "provided a towel, as well as a condom." She, too, is a lifeless creation, with almost no unique or endearing qualities. She states that "My passion was the surprise, to us both," which comes as a great surprise to the reader as well, for there is no evidence of it anywhere in the story—except, perhaps, when she confesses to wanting to feel "my spine crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter." But that's one sentence in a 9500-word story, at the end of which we're supposed to understand why Vivien, over ten years later, still feels the sting of loss.

In my personal hierarchy of characters, which faithful readers of this blog will have come to recognize, deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic beings reign at the top. This is the case of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" and "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy." (It's also key, by the way, to Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero.) In the middle are characters we can't ultimately love but who nonetheless prove unique and intriguing (often with a touch of humor or morbidity), as in "Expectations," "Ever Since," "The Golden Vanity," and "After Ellen." At the bottom are specimens so colorless and insubstantial it feels as if they'd tip over if you blew on them: behold "Someone" and, unfortunately, "Amundsen," whose beautifully rendered ambiance is insufficient to redeem the bloodless souls that populate it.


Reader poll: I found "Amundsen" to be ___. 

August 13, 2012

"After Ellen"

By Justin Taylor
~4200 words

A d.j. flees to San Francisco after abandoning his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon.

The narrative begins with the main character, Scott, in the driveway of the house he sublets with the eponymous Ellen, packing all his possessions into the car on which they both rely. He can't explain precisely why he is leaving and is plagued with doubt about it (especially since Ellen is away and has no idea of his plan), but he carries through with his intention, leaving behind only an ill-composed note beneath the pepper mill on the kitchen counter. We follow his flight down Interstate 5 to California, where he makes his way to San Francisco and eventually begins a new life with a barista named Olivia and a lost dog that turns out to be pregnant with nine puppies.

The language and imagery are strong throughout, and the narrative offers excellent examples of how different points of view can be effectively incorporated into a limited third-person perspective. Consider the following:
When he turns his phone back on, he learns that Ellen called him sixteen times in the first two days he was gone. Her initial messages are desperate and imploring—baby whatever I did wrong; baby I don't understand; baby TALK TO ME—but that tone is soon supplanted by frustration, then rage. "You pussy!" she screams in one of them. 
And the following:
Andy's profile picture is a closeup of him and Ellen in a staring contest, eyes wide open and nose tips touching, in what Scott believes to be the master bedroom of the house he fled.
Olivia, naked in the bedroom doorway, draws a sharp breath when she sees why Scott is frozen. She sidles up behind him, her belly against his back, and slides her arms around his waist—thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans.
The main character is also well crafted, but, in contrast to the others, he seems deliberately designed to repel the reader's sympathy. He can't bring himself to close his goodbye note to Ellen with "Love." In phone conversations with his parents, he manipulates details about Olivia to cause the greatest distress possible. He constructs bizarre fantasies about the owners of the lost dog he has claimed for himself. And so on.

Deeply flawed main characters are perfectly acceptable, even desirable, as long as they possess significant redeeming qualities (see, for example, "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy" or "The Cheater's Guide to Love"). But the few tokens of sympathy in Scott—his initial misgivings about leaving Ellen and his tearful departure—feel forced and insufficient to counteract all that comes afterward.

"After Ellen" gets points for language, imagery, and perspective, but the risk it takes with the main character doesn't ultimately pay off.


Reader poll: I found "After Ellen" to be ___.

August 6, 2012

"Thank You for the Light"

By F. Scott Fitzgerald
~1200 words

Near the end of a long workday, a woman searches for an unoffending place to smoke a cigarette.

The third-person narrative follows Mrs. Hanson, "a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty" who sells corsets and girdles on a traveling route that moves westward following her promotion. One busy afternoon in Kansas City, she finds her clients unexpectedly anti-tobacco and enters the Catholic cathedral thinking it might be a reasonable place to satisfy her urge for a cigarette: "if so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make no difference. How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?" Hoping for a light from a votive candle, she is dismayed to find that the sexton has just put them all out. Dozing off in a pew before an icon of the Virgin Mary, she awakens to find a lighted cigarette in her hand.

The story offers much to admire in a mere 1200 words. The main character is delightfully portrayed: captive to her vice ("I'm getting to be a drug fiend," she muses) but hesitant to offend others, especially in a cathedral. Equally well-crafted is the passive aggressiveness of the nonsmokers—and there were apparently plenty of them in Fitzgerald's time—who answer her requests "half-apologetically with 'It's not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.'" The language is perhaps not as crisp as one might expect from a master such as Fitzgerald, but it's not totally surprising given the posthumous nature of the piece. (I don't read anything about TNY's stories before writing my critiques, so I'm unaware of how much editorial intervention—if any—went into this publication.)

Dating from 1936, "Thank You for the Light" is a charming example of early-twentieth-century flash fiction, a perfect fit—literally—for the single New Yorker page on which it has come to rest.


Reader poll: I found "Thank You for the Light" to be ___.