‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, Ernest 1936

The Snows Of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway, 1936 Continue reading


‘Subject To Search’ by Lorrie Moore

Moore, Lorrie 2014

Subject To Search by Lorrie Moore, 2014

The magic trick:

Exploring the notion that just because you assume someone would understand you it doesn’t mean they will

In a book of very sad stories, this one takes the biscuit as the saddest. It seems to grow from such hope. A man and a woman connected long before the action opens. They were married at the time, and likely thought, oh if only I was with that person, things would be better. And now, as the story begins, they are together; they are both single; and yet, things aren’t so much better at all.

The key theme behind the sadness is the inability to communicate, to connect with another person. Moore outlines the theme in a similar manner to yesterday’s SSMT feature, “Debarking.” That is to say, she does so simply and with excellent show-don’t-tell detail. Our protagonist literally can’t speak the same languages as Tom. Tom, meanwhile, can’t give her the attention and love she craves because he’s too emotionally wrecked by an incident in the war years earlier in which men died because he failed to properly communicate instructions.

Speaking of the war, Moore is far more successful here – again, I write with the opinion of an idiot amateur – than in “Debarking” at incorporating 21st-century current events and political malaise into fractured personal relationships. Probably because Tom’s line of work directly connects to foreign relations, the use of war in the story feels far less forced than it did in “Debarking” or even “Foes.”

Regardless, it’s another masterpiece of sadness and stagnation. It’s a perfectly communicated picture of communication breakdown. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.

The selection:

“Merci.” He smiled. She knew that he liked it when she said anything in French. His specialty was languages, including Urdu and Arabic, although only an hour and a half of Urdu, he declared, and then his mind turned into a blank blue screen. “And actually only four hours of Arabic,” he said. “And maybe even only five of English: five hours is a long time to keep talking.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ by James Baldwin

Baldwin, James 1960

This Morning, This Evening, So Soon by James Baldwin, 1960

The magic trick:

Jumping between present, past, and future to reflect the story’s ideas about time and identity

Time, place, and identity loom large over this story, so it makes sense that Baldwin jumbles up all three elements throughout the unfolding of the narration. Our narrator, a nightclub singer who is moving back to the United States after 12 years in Paris, discusses a morning and evening in the present tense. But he also bounces back and forth between different memories from his past in America and France, all the while anticipating his feelings about adapting to an uncertain future. Some of it has a tendency to ramble, and I’m not sure some of the racial comparisons and contrasts always add up, but the point is made clear: one’s sense of identity is a complex thing, especially for an African-American expatriate in the 1950s. And that’s quite a trick on Baldwin’s part.

The selection:

Once I had been an expert at baffling these people, at setting their teeth on edge, and dancing just outside the trap laid for me. But I was not an expert now. These faces were no longer merely the faces of two white men, who were my enemies. They were the faces of two white men in accordance with what I knew of their cowardice and their needs and their strategy.


‘In Another Country’ by Ernest Hemingway


In Another Country by Ernest Hemingway, 1926

The magic trick:

Making a large comment on international affairs through short fiction

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Hemingway’s hammer falls fast on America.

One paragraph, you’re celebrating with the narrator the pride of soldiers who know mutually shared sacrifice. We’re all in this together. It was tough, but we did it! And then the very next page, you’re feeling America’s guilt, profiting from a war won on costs this country will never truly understand. It becomes quickly clear that the American narrator will not carry this war experience with him in the same ways as his European counterparts. He has not lost a wife. He has not lost his face. Hell, he can still play football someday if he so chooses.

It’s a comment on massive, global issues being made through the microscopic lens of one man’s story. And that’s quite a trick on Hemingway’s part.

The selection:

The boys at first were very polite about my medals and asked me what I had done to get them. I showed them my papers, which were written in very beautiful language and full of fratellanza and abnegazione, but which really said, with the adjectives removed, that I had been given the medals because I was an American. After that their manner changed a little toward me, although I was their friend against outsiders. I was a friend, but I was never really one of them after they had read the citations, because it had been different with them and they had done very different things to get their medals.


‘American Express’ by James Salter

Salter, James 1988 American Express by James Salter, 1988

The magic trick:

Imparting a memorable idea

Salter is most famous, I gather, for his artfully mannered sentences. That’s nice. I noticed more than a couple here. I wasn’t, however, particularly taken with the story or the characters. It feels very ’80s. What resonated, more than anything, was one particular quote. Frank is extricating himself from a would-be relationship, saying, “Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they’re ready to leave.” This is a very deep statement. Is it perhaps total condescending bullshit passed off as it is by the story’s lead creep? Perhaps. But it has stuck with me in the weeks since I read the story and left me debating its philosophical merits. And that’s quite a trick on Salter’s part.

The selection:

They lay silently. She was starting at something across the room. She was making him feel uncomfortable. “It wouldn’t work. It’s the attraction of opposites,” he said.

“We’re not opposites.”

“I don’t mean just you and me. Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they’re ready to leave.”

She got up without saying anything and began gathering her clothes. He watched her dress in silence. There was nothing interesting about it. The funny thing was that he had meant to go on with her.

“I’ll get you a cab,” he said.

‘Liars In Love’ by Richard Yates

Yates, Richard 1982

Liars In Love by Richard Yates, 1981

The magic trick:

A great title

I love the title of this story. It’s catchy and memorable like a great pop song title. It’s also instructive as to what Yates is saying in the story.

Christine lies. We see that. Warren is very obviously concerned about her lies. We don’t any help in seeing that. With the title’s guidance, though, the reader is prompted to look further and find the lies in the other characters’ actions as well. Warren and Carol lie to their daughter, to Carol’s aunt Judith. Warren lies to Christine about his feelings and intentions. Much of the surface happiness in Grace and Alfred’s apartment is based on lies, half-truths, and hidden feelings. Everyone lies.

Tellingly, when the characters in the story communicate honestly, things play out far better than they anticipated. Yates grants them happy endings only when they stop lying. The theme permeates damn near every sentence of the story, and the title keeps the reader’s focus on this idea. And that’s quite a trick on Yates’s part.

The selection:

“Know what I like most about you, Warren?” she asked very late in their third or fourth night together. “Know what I really love about you? It’s that I feel I can trust you. All my life, that’s all I ever wanted: somebody to trust. And you see I keep making mistakes and making mistakes because I trust people who turn out to be – “

“Shh, shh,” he said, “it’s OK, baby. Let’s just sleep now.”

‘Babylon Revisited’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, Scott 1931

Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1931

The magic trick:

Writing really good sentences that beautifully encapsulate the essential sadness within the story

Talk about stating the obvious, right? This story is good because Fitzgerald wrote good sentences? Well, yes. That’s what he does. Fitzgerald always had a knack for breaking into his stories’ narrative to drop absurdly wise and poetic bits of knowledge that serve as sort of Cliff’s Notes summaries to his main themes.

In “Babylon Revisited,” he actually is far less verbose than in much of his earlier work, but he still is capable of the occasional jaw-dropper. It’s funny because a writer is usually taught to show and not tell. I’m praising Fitzgerald’s ability to do the exact opposite. He shows and tells. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.

The selection:

All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate” – to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion.