‘The Fly In The Ointment’ by V.S. Pritchett

The Fly In The Ointment by V.S. Pritchett, 1978

The magic trick:

Using the occasional narrative bomb to direct the reader toward the true dynamic between the two characters

Old V.S.P. is up to his old tricks today. So much subtext. So much said without saying it. So much exploration of the power dynamics between two people.

In the case of “The Fly In The Ointment,” we have a father and son talking among the wreckage of the father’s company, now bankrupt.

They talk so much in a way they’d like to talk, saying the things they’re supposed to say. It would be hard to figure out their true feelings were it not for some crucial narrative additions. For instance, the third-person narration tells us the facts of the premise to start the story, staying mostly impartial. Then suddenly we get a “He despised his son…” thrown in. It’s a remarkable thing to present among the other facts. And it completely changes our perception of the father-son chat.

What we might have previously taken as genuine feelings of warmth, we now know are lies and lies disguised as niceties.

And that’s quite a trick on Pritchett’s part.

The selection:

The two men walked towards the glass door of the office. They were both short. The father was well-dressed in an excellent navy blue suit. He was a vigorous, broad man with a pleased impish smile. The sunburn shone through the clipped white hair of his head and he had the simple, trim, open-air look of a snow man. The son beside him was round-shouldered and shabby, a keen but anxious fellow in need of a hair cut and going bald. “Come in, Professor,” said the father. This was an old family joke. He despised his son, who was, in fact, not a professor but a poorly paid lecturer at a provincial university.


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