My Oedipus Complex by Frank O’Connor, 1950 Continue reading
Merry Christmas by Stephen Leacock, 1914 Continue reading
The Garden Of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges, 1941 Continue reading
May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920
The magic trick:
Connecting his standard stories of self-absorbed youth with a broader context of world events
This is a remarkable story – one that entwines at least four different strands of plot. Many Fitzgerald stories seem to exist not in a vacuum, for they are very much of their time, but in a bubble. His characters often operate with tunnel vision, immune to the world outside their own selfish concerns of love and money. And there are several characters in “May Day” wearing such blinders. Fitzgerald smacks them in the face with the reality of a larger world outside their own, though, in this story with fascinating and tragic results.
Fitzgerald separates the story – or really, novella, if we’re being precise – into chapters, allowing him to jump between plots and points of view with minimal fuss. He embodies many different perspectives here – from his standard-issue rich Yale playboys, to the uneducated soldiers returning home from World War I, to pacifist protest leader. The characters’ plots collide and the collision offers lessons on a larger scale than just the personal. Yes, the fallout demonstrates the dangers of failing to think outside one’s own point of view with any measure of perspective. But the bigger-picture point from the story is simply to portray what a kaleidoscopic mess post-war America was, with people going 56 directions at once, authority turned upside-down by a generation of youth that had conquered the world and now needed something else to do with its newfound swagger. Essentially, “May Day” is a prequel to the Jazz Age, written by someone who was magically able to journalize the era with a poet’s gift for romance usually reserved for a historian with 20 years’ hindsight.
Fitzgerald was that rare artist who was of and ahead of his time at once. “May Day” demonstrates that feat ably. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.
“Oh,” – She changed the subject. “You’re glad to see me, Henry?”
“You don’t seem to be.”
“I suppose you think I’m a – a waster. Sort of the World’s Worst Butterfly.”
“Not at all. Have a good time while you’re young. Why? Do I seem like the priggish and earnest youth?”
“No – “ She paused, “– but somehow I began thinking how absolutely different the party I’m on is from – from all your purposes. It seems sort of – of incongruous, doesn’t it? – me being at a party like that, and you over here working for a thing that’ll make that sort of party impossible ever any more, if your ideas work.”
“I don’t think of it that way. You’re young, and you’re acting just as you were brought up to act. Go ahead – have a good time?”
The Fly by Katherine Mansfield, 1922
The magic trick:
Anthropomorphizing a fly’s struggle to live
In what is a very creepy and unsettling scene, Mansfield details a fly’s struggle to live even as man is continually pelting it with ink. The man, as the reader learns during the first half of the story, has struggled to find happiness in the six years since his son was killed in the war. His plight serves to anthropomorphize the fly, making the entire scene very sad and almost distasteful. The fly survives one spot of ink, washes itself, and prepares to fly away, only to have the man drop more ink on its wings, restarting the cycle. Is the man seeking inspiration from the fly’s ability to persevere? Is the man simply taking out his own agony on a defenseless creature? If the fly is a stand-in for the man’s pain, does this mean Mansfield is suggesting that the man is a victim of his own torture? Clearly, it’s a very thought-provoking scene. Very memorable. And that’s quite a trick on the part of Mansfield.
He’s a plucky little devil, thought the boss, and he felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage. That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die; it was only a question of … But the fly had again finished its laborious task, and the boss had just time to refill his pen, to shake fair and square on the new-cleaned body yet another dark drop. What about it this time? A painful moment of suspense followed.
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 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.