The Season Of Divorce by John Cheever, 1950 Continue reading
The Lovely Troubled Daughters Of Our Old Crowd by John Updike, 1981 Continue reading
The Student’s Wife by Raymond Carver, 1964 Continue reading
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver, 1983 Continue reading
The Bath by Raymond Carver, 1981 Continue reading
Debarking by Lorrie Moore, 2003
The magic trick:
Portraying a lifeless relationship based more on boredom than passion
It’s rare that you find art that successfully portrays a boring relationship. Why? Probably because it’s kind of boring. But that is so true to life, as we all know. So many romantic relationships aren’t forged from passion or even carnal desire; they just kind of happen because people are lonely or scared or bored. This story describes that kind of relationship perfectly. So what’s the magic trick then? How does Moore accomplish such a true portrayal? Well…
She pretty much just tells the story as the relationship develops. It is clear from the beginning that Zora isn’t that into this romance – whether it’s the non-effort effort of her initial postcard or her bored behavior on their dates. It is clear that she is far more interested and excited about making sure her son, Bruno, is happy than she is worried about Ira. Moore is a master of using details to show the relationship’s state, instead of describing the stagnation simply with the omniscient narrator. So we see Zora give Ira nothing for his birthday. We see her prank him on April Fools Day with a fake break-up and, tellingly, Ira (and the reader, I would suspect) fall for it 100 percent. This is not a stable, happy relationship.
Moore works the Iraq War into the story, and I would argue its presence falls flat. It serves as a reminder of the real-world horrors outside of these two people’s small relationship. It also represents the rationale for these kind of lifeless relationships. Ira’s fear of war and aging and dying and everything going wrong is a big reason for hiding in whatever happiness he can wrest from his relationship with Zora. The war stuff feels awkward, though, in my opinion, and more than a little heavy-handed. More on that topic in tomorrow’s SSMT story.
Anyway, Iraq War stuff aside, the story is a remarkably rich portrayal of the sadness of American middle age. I’m not a 40-something divorcee with children, but having read this story, I certainly have much better insight into the situation than I did yesterday. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
He received a postcard from Zora in return. It was of van Gogh’s room in Arles. Beneath the clock face of the local postmark her handwriting was big but careful, some curlicuing in the “g”s and “f”s. It read, Had such fun meeting you at Mike’s. Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no “too,” no emphasized you, just exactly the same words thrown back at him like some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was stupid or crazy or he was already being too hard on her. Not being hard on people—“You bark at them,” Marilyn used to say—was something he was trying to work on. When he pictured Zora’s lovely face, it helped his tenuous affections. She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling “Z”—as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew? He had to lie down.
Foes by Lorrie Moore, 2008
The magic trick:
Illustrating the push and pull of relationships ever changing
It’s Lorrie Moore Week here at SSMT; or to be less grandiose, I just read Lorrie Moore’s recent collection, Bark, so get ready for a bunch of Bark-related blog posts. It’s awesome. Go read it. Really. It’s very good.
“Foes” is not my favorite story in the collection, but it’s a good place to start for SSMT purposes because it features one of Moore’s hallmarks: the ability to demonstrate the changing nature of relationships in a very few words. In this story, we meet a man who appears to be fairly bored in his marriage and life. He meets a woman at a banquet and begins to flirt. He assesses her as a potential romantic option. Quickly, though, she repulses him with her opinions and politics. Just as quickly, these feelings turn to guilt, shame and fear when he learns more of her background. Full circle, we have the same man clinging by the end of the story to the same marriage and life he took for granted at the start. With the simplest of plots – a conversation at a banquet – the story has presented the way small and big relationships can shift on a dime. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
“I’m Linda Santo,” the woman to his right said, smiling. Her hair was black and shiny and long enough so that with a toss of the head she could swing it back behind her shoulder and short enough that it would fall quickly forward again. She was wearing a navy-blue satin dress and a string of pearls. The red shawl she had wrapped over her shoulders she now placed on the back of her seat. He felt a small stirring in him. He had always been attracted to Asian women, though he knew he mustn’t ever mention this to Suzy, or to anyone really.
“I’m Baker McKurty,” he said, shaking her hand.
“Baker?” she repeated.
“I usually go by ‘Bake’.” He accidentally gave her a wink. One had to be very stable to wink at a person and not frighten them.
Cheap In August by Graham Greene, 1964
The magic trick:
Turning an unlikely relationship into a beautiful thing
This is not the likeliest of loves. True, Mary came to Jamaica with hopes of a vacation tryst, but the old man she hooks up with is described as splashing water “like an elephant” when she meets him. She is nearing the end of her youth. The man, a Mr. Hickslaughter, is nearing the end of his life. She is educated, full of philosophies on life. He is a schemer who can’t even remember the name of his favorite poem.
Greene pulls the couple together gradually, revealing surprising characteristics along the way about both people. Certainly, Mary is even lonelier and more desperate than we imagined at the beginning of the story.
What is amazing though, and ultimately is the story’s greatest gift, is Greene ability to use the relationship to both lower and raise Mary as a character. Even as we come to see her marriage as perhaps more hollow than we first thought, her encounter with the old man also paints her as tougher and more capable person than she was at the story’s outset. The relationship has served its purpose for both characters, and now they can move on with their lives, apart from each other but stronger for having been together. What began as an odd coupling becomes a beautiful thing. And that’s quite a trick on Greene’s part.
It was as though she were discovering for the first time the interior of the enormous continent on which she had elected to live. America had been Charlie, it had been New England; through books and movies she had been aware of the wonders of nature like some great cineramic film with Lowell Thomas cheapening the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon with his clichés. There had been no mystery anywhere from Miami to Niagara Falls, from Cape Cod to the Pacific Palisades; tomatoes were served on every plate, Coca-Cola in every glass. Nobody anywhere admitted failure or fear; they were like sins “hushed up” – worse perhaps than sins, for sins have glamour – they were bad taste.
Children Are Bored On Sunday by Jean Stafford, 1948 Continue reading
The Keyhole Eye by John Stewart Carter, 1962
The magic trick:
Spanning the story’s arc to cover 40-50 years
Obviously, a novel is better suited than a short story for detailing a man’s life from birth to death. More pages, more space. Still, many short stories manage the trick, and “The Keyhole Eye” is one of them. The story’s most poignant moments thrive on the compare-contrast of generations through the relationship between an uncle and his nephew. The story opens with the narrator (the nephew) as a child and ends with him at 50. Such a scale allows the reader to see the familial relationships change and grow and weaken. And that’s quite a trick on Carter’s part.
“’Bout time you got up kid, huh? Today’s the wedding day.” My gaze went past the reflection into the mirror, and he looked very happy there. I smiled and stretched, drawing my eyes back into myself. “You sure look comfortable.”
“I am,” I said through my yawn.
I shook my head and found him again in the mirror. “You looked so comfortable, so damned asleep when I came in – rough night, kid, rough night – ” (I lost his eyes then when he began to fuss with his cuff links) “that I just went to your bed, and that’s where I slept.”
Inside of me warm, wet, sudden tears began. I can still feel them flood my heart; so I know and knew what they were. But of course I didn’t cry them then and I don’t now. They just exist in me and always have. I hope I have them in some poems somewhere. I hope I have them here. Anyway, we never looked at each other, ever again.