The Man Of The World by Frank O’Connor, 1956
The magic trick:
Folding up a familiar story template and twisting meanings and themes out of it
We begin a month of Irish literature on the SSMT site. Frank O’Connor seems a good place to start, and I’d rank this story among his very best.
Man looks back on childhood and isolates a particularly memorable moment when life taught a lesson. In this case, it’s a more aggressively sophomoric friend who is teaching our still-elementary naïve narrator. Not only is not an original premise, it’s a trope. The reader settles into the familiar template immediately.
Ah, but now O’Connor has you right where he wants you. It was all part of his fiendish plan.
The narrative twists at the moment of truth, and the surprise not only affects the characters in the story, it totally forces the story’s template to fold in on itself and deconstruct. The story comments on itself, and what we thought was a trope was actually part of the overall theme of surfaces.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
“Noticed the new couple that’s come to live next door?” he asked with a nod in the direction of the house above his own.
“No,” I admitted in disappointment.
It wasn’t only that I never knew anything, but I never noticed anything either. And when he described the new family that was lodging there, I realized with chagrin that I didn’t even know Mrs. McCarthy, who owned the house.
“Oh, they’re just a newly married couple,” he said. “They don’t know they can be seen from our house.”
“But how, Jimmy?”
“Don’t look up now,” he said with a dreamy smile while his eyes strayed over my shoulder in the lane. “Wait til you’re going away. Their end wall is only a couple of feet from ours. You can see right into the bedroom from our attick.”
“And what do they do, Jimmy?”
“Oh,” he said with a pleasant laugh. “Everything. You really should come.”
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