‘A Story In An Almost Classical Mode’ by Harold Brodkey

A Story In An Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey, 1973

The magic trick:

Purporting to dive deep in search of explanations for and understanding of his mother, but suggesting with one sentence that there is a whole world of unsaid solutions running in the story’s shadows

OK, so yes, this is Harold Brodkey.

Let me be the first to wish you luck.

It’a a grind. It’s a long story. It’s a slow story. It’s repetitive. Words upon words, pages upon pages of suffocating self-absorption.

The narrator, who has a backstory suspiciously similar to that of our author, is pouring over the past scene by scene trying to figure out how to better relate to and then support his adoptive mother, who is slowly dying of cancer.

I nearly quit reading the thing five different times.

But wow if I didn’t get to the end and find myself near tears. It’s the kind of story that slowly breaks down your defenses, so much so that once you realize you’re falling in, it’s too late. You’re all in.

Anyway, the thing that really got me was this one sentence in the middle. Keep in mind, the narrator is bleeding dry like every conversation he and his mother had when he was age 13. So many conversations. So much navel gazing.

Then we get this:

“… I sneaked a look into my mother’s bureau, at her underwear… but also at her jewelry and handkerchiefs and sweaters: I wanted to see what was hidden. Other motives I pass over.”

Other motives I pass over!

The nerve of this guy. He’s making us read about every single detailed memory. But other motives he passes over?

Pretty incredible. There is an assumption, I think, particularly with this kind of internal story, that we’re getting the whole picture. Nothing held back. No motives passed over.

But here he is, just casually presenting an entire shadow story we’re not considering.

Which of course means we consider it.

Now, suddenly, what is this story about? What does this wretched experience with his dying mother instill in him? What did it teach? Who has he become?

That one sentence suggests a new set of answers to each question.

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

The selection:

No man or boy was ever permitted to be outspoken near a woman. In U. City, there weren’t too many docile, crushed women or girls; I didn’t know any. In U. City, women sought to regulate everyone in everything; they more or less tried to supersede governmental law, instinct, tradition, to correct them and lay down new rules they insisted were the best ones. Nearly everything they wanted from us – to be polite, to sit still, to be considerate, to be protective – was like a dumb drumming of their wanting us to be like women. The rarest thing in a woman was any understanding of the male. And that wasn’t asked of them. Women were highly regarded and in U. City it was considered profoundly wicked to be rude to any of them. One simply fled from them, avoided them. Their unjust claims. I mean we respected women as women, whatever they were as people.

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