‘The Juniper Tree’ by Lorrie Moore

Moore, Lorrie 2005

The Juniper Tree by Lorrie Moore, 2005

The magic trick:

The nightmare sequence

Today we have a little bit of magical realism from Lorrie Moore. The heart of the story is a eerie sequence – Is it real? Is it a nightmare? It can’t be really happening, right? – in which our narrator visits a friend who had died the night before. It’s an arresting scene, to be sure. Like any good magical realism, the surreal serves to contextualize the other, more realistic, elements of the story. In this case, the nightmare not only emphasizes the narrator’s feelings of guilt and selfishness, it casts her entire world in a more ominous light. It reveals not just self-loathing but a contempt she feels for her friends, the town and the whole college-professor lifestyle she’s fallen into. The nightmare makes the non-nightmare portions of the story feel like nightmares too. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.

The selection:

“As a result?” said Robin, a bit hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “No hugs. Everything’s a little precarious, between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week. This scarf’s the only thing holding my head on.” Though she was pale, her posture was perfect, her dark-red hair restored, her long thin arms folded across her chest. She was dressed as she was always dressed: in black jeans and a blue sweater. She simply, newly, had the imperial standoffishness that I realized only then I had always associated with the dead. We pulled up chairs and each of us sat.

“Should we make some gin rickeys?” Isabel asked, motioning toward the bags of booze and lime-juice blend.

“Oh, maybe not,” said Robin.

“We wanted to come here and each present you with something,” said Pat.

“We did?” I said. I’d brought nothing. I had asked them what to bring and they had laughed it off.

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‘The Enormous Radio’ by John Cheever

Cheever, John 1947

The Enormous Radio by John Cheever, 1947

The magic trick:

Dropping one piece of science fiction into an otherwise realistic setting

We open Science Fiction Week at SSMT with an unlikely author. John Cheever was the master of a certain kind of New York fiction; a world of the white, white-collar slaves to normalcy. “The Enormous Radio” allows Cheever to stay true to his roots while also branching out into the realm of, yes, science fiction.

It’s a very clever trick. The magic radio allows his white, white-collar married couple to listen in on their New York apartment neighbors. Cheever uses elements of humor in some of what they overhear, though it’s always a thin veil obscuring a great sadness.

Cheever stresses early in the story how much the couple has built its life together on the notion that blending in to the Middle Class is the best way toward happiness. So when we see how the radio reveals the couple to be desperately unhappy, it isn’t simply a comment about one doomed marriage; rather it is a condemnation of America’s entire Middle Class.

It might not be the stuff of robots and spaceships, but the science fiction element in “The Enormous Radio” makes for some heavy-duty social commentary. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.

The selection:

The Westcotts were going out for dinner that night, and when Jim came home, Irene was dressing. She seemed sad and vague, and he brought her a drink. They were dining with friends in the neighborhood, and they walked to where they were going. The sky was broad and filled with light. It was one of those splendid spring evenings that excite memory and desire, and the air that touched their hands and faces felt very soft. A Salvation Army band was on the corner playing “Jesus Is Sweeter” Irene drew on her husband’s arm and held him there for a minute, to hear the music. “They’re really such nice people, aren’t they?” she said. “They have such nice faces. Actually, they’re so much nicer than a lot of the people we know.” She took a bill from her purse and walked over and dropped it into the tambourine. There was in her face, when she returned to her husband, a look of radiant melancholy that he was not familiar with.

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‘The Facts Concerning The Recent Carnival Of Crime In Connecticut’ by Mark Twain

Twain, Mark 1876

The Facts Concerning The Recent Carnival Of Crime In Connecticut by Mark Twain, 1876

The magic trick:

Making the reader wait a really long time for the titles payoff

Far be it from me to criticize Mark Twain but…. Let’s be honest. This story is pretty dumb. I do like the absurdity of the plot’s imbalance. It opens as a family story, honoring the narrator’s aunt; shifts abruptly into a surrealist comedy pitting the narrator against his own conscience (in the form of a dwarf); and ends with an insane, figurative drop of the cliff. The carnival of crime, alluded to in the title, is never even mentioned until the very end of the story. It’s a very silly way to construct a story, which, I suppose is probably part of the joke. And that’s quite a trick on Twain’s part.

The selection:

With an exultant shout I sprang past my aunt, and in an instant I had my life-long foe by the throat. After so many years of waiting and longing, he was mine at last.

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