Graven Image by John O’Hara, 1943
The magic trick:
Chronicling in great detail human ticks and interactions
I just can’t get into John O’Hara. I’ll give him credit here with a story that feels like journalism of a sort. His attention to detail and dialogue is remarkable here as it is in the other stories of his that I have read. You really feel like you’re in the room having lunch with these characters. That’s to his credit.
But I think it may also be his signature flaw. These stories are like brick walls to me. They do not welcome me in. It’s almost as if in his rush to capture the minute human ticks that so fascinate him, O’Hara forgets to consider the reader. There is a lack of context to this story. I find virtually zero description in the stories of his that I know. That might have played just fine to his contemporary readers, but for me in the 21st century? It’s just flat. What is going on in this world? Who are these characters? Why should I care?
I’m not sure I have answers to those questions. Regardless, the story’s details surrounding the human interactions are superb. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.
At this, Browning grinned, “By God, Joe, we’ve got to have a drink on this. This is the best news since—” He summoned the waiter. The Under Secretary yielded and ordered a cordial. Browning ordered a Scotch. The drinks were brought… Browning looked at the drink in his hand. “You know, I was a little afraid. That other stuff, the club stuff.” “Yes,” said the Under Secretary. “I don’t know why fellows like you—you never would have made it in a thousand years, but”—then, without looking up, he knew everything had collapsed—“but I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?”
As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.
I have to agree with your comments about “Graven Image.” I listened to an interview between E.L. Doctorow and Deborah Treisman which gave some context. This is, in my opinion, one of those stories that is a tad too close to the nugget. But I think it’s very realistic in the way people talk to each other almost in code. Also, written in 1943 has to be taken into account.
Interesting to read this post today. I’ve read a bit more O’Hara since I wrote this, and feel like I have developed more of an appreciation for him. I don’t like this story much, it’s true. But I don’t feel like it’s representative.