The Man From Mars by Margaret Atwood, 1977
The magic trick:
Creating a shared experience and understanding for two characters through a situation that could be expected to do just the opposite
This story plods along in a linear sequence of “and then this happened,” “and then this happened,” “and then this happened” – much in the way that the Vietnamese student relentlessly stalks Christine. But a funny thing has happened by story’s end: Christine and her stalker are far more similar than the reader might have previously imagined. Both are merely faces in the crowd of the big white normal. Both are made more interesting by the stalking experience. In fact, his stalking of Christine is the defining characteristic of each of them. And that’s quite a trick on Atwood’s part.
Annoying and tedious though it was, his pursuit of her had an odd result: mysterious in itself, it rendered her equally mysterious. No one had ever found Christine mysterious before. To her parents she was a beefy heavyweight, a plodder, lacking in flair, ordinary as bread. To her sisters she was the plain one, treated with an indulgence they did not give to each other: they did not fear her as a rival. To her male friends she was the one who could be relied on. She was helpful and a hard worker, always good for a game of tennis with the athletes among them.
Atwood is one of my favorites. My “Great Books Foundation” reading group read this story last year and had a great 90-minute discussion on it – it always impresses me when “just” a short story can generate that much talk. 🙂