This Week In My Classes: Going Noir

The-Big-SleepWe have started our unit on detective fiction in Pulp Fiction and moved from Sayers to Hughes in Women & Detective Fiction, meaning it’s time to test my prediction of last week that being immersed in noir will make me fretful. So far I’m doing fine–much better than expected! For one thing, I’m happy to be done with Westerns in Pulp Fiction, plus I am starting to feel as if, collectively, the class has some momentum now, something which is definitely helped by the continuities between our readings as much as by the students’ growing familiarity with the kind of analysis we’re doing. Also, while I have reservations about The Big Sleep on other grounds, there’s no denying that Chandler’s prose is–what? beautiful is the wrong word, and ornate seems to miss the point. I’ll go with artful. It’s not just that he never met a simile he didn’t like, but that the ones he chooses infuse the story with both atmosphere and meaning: I’m thinking, for instance, of the plants in the conservatory with “stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men,” or the strands of white hair clinging to the general’s scalp “like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” These images tell us so much about the world of the novel, with its cynicism and corruption and danger, and they also reveal so much about Marlowe’s state of mind, about the blend of resolution and fascination and horror with which he approaches the life he has to live. Unlike Elmore Leonard (with his stupid “leave out the parts that readers tend to skim” rule), Chandler gives us plenty of good material for close reading. Today we warmed up with the stained glass panel, which works pretty neatly as a microcosm of the whole novel:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and very convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.

What kind of chivalry is required or possible, I asked them, if the “lady” you are trying to rescue acts like this one?

Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her head crack on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

She’s so annoying I might have let her head hit the tile: he’s a better man than I am–or is he?

lonelyI know The Big Sleep reasonably well at this point (though I still rely heavily on the helpful sketch of the basic plot, complete with who killed whom and why, that I drew up the first time I taught it!). This is my first time teaching In A Lonely Place, though, and so I am feeling my way along, trying to anticipate the most useful lines of discussion to open up, to tell what’s obvious and what isn’t, what examples are most thought-provoking, and so on. One small but important logistical thing you can’t really be sure of until you try it is whether you’ve chosen the right place to break up the novel for reading. I think I should maybe have assigned a bit more of it for today than I did (we read just the first two sections,just about 50 pages), but we didn’t run out of things to talk about, so that was reassuring.

The main thing I’m still wondering about In A Lonely Place is whether Hughes pulls off the highwire act of dramatizing murderous misogyny without glamorizing or exploiting or just plain recreating it for our entertainment. The first time I read it, I wasn’t convinced. When I reread it this summer, with this class in mind, I thought definitely yes. This time I’m unsure again! We are tucked up so closely next to Dix that even though it’s not a first-person narrative it’s very hard to disentangle our experience of the novel from his story of himself. We can pretty quickly (I think) discern that his version is not reliable, but we are still immersed in his point of view and the thrills of the novel (if that’s the right way to put it) come from exactly that: from knowing what he’s doing, how much sense it makes to him, and the kind of pleasure it gives him. For most of the novel the suspense is his, not about him–it’s about what he’ll do next rather than whether or when he’ll be stopped. Having said that, though–and my students were sharp about this today–he gives himself away so completely as dangerous and deranged and not nearly as in control as he fancies himself that it does distance us from him. I think Hughes succeeds in showing him up as a repulsive exemplar of toxic masculinity, but in doing so she does have to reproduce some of its nastier (and deadlier) features. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is up next, will seem downright wholesome by comparison–and yet its murder is, I think, one of the most horrific crimes (literally and morally) that we will encounter.

This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsWe are well into the term now, and overall I think it’s going fine. I do not like teaching Pulp Fiction at 120 students, which maybe doesn’t sound like that big a change from 90 but certainly feels like one to me. I miss being able to see their faces–and having at least a fighting chance of learning their names! I know that I have colleagues who have taught intro classes at even larger sizes, and also that I have colleagues who are comfortable, pedagogically, with teaching writing at this scale. Maybe they know something I don’t about how to make it work, but for me, the increasingly sharp division of class time into formal lecture time–you can do some Q&A, but not a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion in a tiered lecture hall–and tutorial time (where the 30:1 ratio is still far from ideal for either discussion or hands-on writing and editing work) is really unsatisfying. I don’t think it serves us or them particularly well.

The-Big-SleepThe odds that we’ll ever be able to get back to smaller first-year classes seem slim, however, so I’ll just keep trying to make the best of it. Right now I’m considering giving up on some things I think are pedagogically valuable (like frequent low-stakes work) because logistically it’s just getting to be too much–but it’s too late to do that for this year! In the meantime, we are nearing the end of our unit on Westerns; next week we start on mysteries, with The Big Sleep taking the place of The Maltese Falcon this time around. As you might recall, I had big plans for bigger changes but they fell through: first True Grit turned out to be unavailable and then I lost my nerve about assigning Laura. I’m not entirely sorry, because I have a number of new books on the syllabus for Women & Detective Fiction so it’s relief to have existing materials to rely on here.

In Women & Detective Fiction we are almost done with Gaudy Night, which overall they seem to be finding a bit much. I don’t think of it as a particularly long book: in my 19th-century fiction courses it would be only an average-sized one! I’ve been wondering if the difficulty some students have run into getting through it (or getting into it) comes from their having different expectations for crime novels. Also, our first readings were very simple and quick–Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew–so they may just have underestimated how much time they needed to allocate to reading for this class. The students have mostly been putting in a good effort, though, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. My class notes are basically prompts: chess set, dog collar, fascism, misogyny, academic integrity, sonnet, balance, counterpoint, Bach, Placetne, Magistra? Placet.

hughes2Next up is In a Lonely Place, which means for a while both my classes will be steeped in noir. Though I think both books I’ll be working on are great examples of their kind, it is not my own favorite kind of crime fiction, and it’s likely that this juxtaposition will exacerbate another lurking dissatisfaction of mine this term, which is with the amount of teaching time I’ve been spending on genre fiction. I hope it’s obvious that I am not a snob about genre fiction! I read and enjoy a lot of it; I was the one who introduced our detective fiction class well over a decade ago and I have taught it with great enthusiasm probably a dozen times; a few years ago I volunteered to do Pulp Fiction instead of one of our more standard intro to lit options; I regularly include sensation fiction in my Victorian fiction classes and offer a course exclusively on it; etc. This term, however, I have found myself unexpectedly weary of spending so much of my class time on books that (frankly) wear a bit thin over time because they aren’t, many of them, quite the kind of book that the English literature classroom–or at least my English literature classroom–was designed to showcase.

ackroydDo I really think that? Can I even say that? What exactly am I saying? I’m certainly not saying we can’t or shouldn’t teach genre fiction, or that doing so doesn’t involve doing rewarding or meaningful analysis. That we even have the concept of ‘horizontal reading,’ though, does suggest that genre fiction isn’t always best approached with the aim of deep or close reading, doesn’t it? Agatha Christie, to give just one example, is brilliant at many things (and I have gotten pretty good at making the case for them), but it’s not much fun lingering over the details of her prose; not much will come–not much of interpretive interest, anyway–from mining them for the kind of nuances we appreciate when we read, say, “Araby.” Sometimes in the detective fiction class I point out that (though of course there are exceptions) a lot of details we might read as symbolic in another kind of fiction are better read more literally in crime fiction: does it make any sense to read the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s neck as anything other than a convenient sharp object suitable for murder? There is a similarly literal impulse in a lot of detective fiction: no matter how complex the social, political, or psychological elements, it is rare for the language in particular to be of great  interest.

greatexpectationsI think what I’m saying is that I love my 19th-century fiction classes, which I still teach regularly, but I have also, over the years, loved teaching other more conventionally “literary” material and I’m starting to miss the greater variety I used to enjoy, especially the chance to teach more poetry and more (literary) fiction from other periods. That’s one reason I’m excited to be doing the British literature survey next term. I’ve also asked that, if possible, my next first-year course assignment be something besides Pulp Fiction. When I first designed my version of the course I imagined that students would get caught up in the contrarian spirit of reading genre fiction instead of the classics, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they mostly don’t care: with rare exceptions, they’ve never thought about the difference before and what they really want is just to get their writing requirement as easily as possible. My advocacy for dismantling the canon is wasted on them: I’m standing there at the lectern basically having an argument with myself! And somehow right now I feel as if I’m losing it.

Still Teaching, Still Blogging About It!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYTomorrow I kick of my 25th year of teaching at Dalhousie and my 13th year of blogging about the process. Five years ago I took stock of what I had to show for what was then just a “20 year investment in Dalhousie”:

My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief [in this work] restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them.

I also, I noted, had the benefit of experience, and “a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same”–and I had worked out some effective (for me) strategies to handle the logistical chaos of term, from designated shelves for course materials to ample supplies of post-it notes.

officeIt wouldn’t make much of a post to say that five years later, nothing has changed! And yet in most respects that’s true. (Certainly my office looks more or less the same.) I think, or at least I hope, that the consistency in my priorities and methods is a sign of success, not stagnation. I still take class preparation seriously and regularly look for ways to change things up, whether it’s refreshing my reading lists (as I spent a lot of time working on during my recent sabbatical) or taking on new classes (such as Pulp Fiction, which I offered for the first time in 2017). Like the strong scaffolding I aim to provide with my materials for individual courses, my now well-established routines free me up from a lot (though never all!) of the stress of just keeping everything running, so that as much as possible I’m concentrating on matters of substance. This is one of the reasons I wish there wasn’t so much emphasis on innovation in discussions of higher ed. There’s something to be said for stability, and for sticking with things that you know are effective. Change for the sake of novelty is not desirable–but to hear some pundits and administrators talk, you’d sure think it was better to be constantly experimenting with gimmicks and gadgets than focusing your attention directly on your students and the material you’re working through together. (Also, alas, many of the innovations that are hyped these days are really attempts to compensate for the sad fact that we can’t pay as much attention to our students as we’d like given increasing class size and diminished numbers of permanent faculty.)

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThere won’t be big changes in my pedagogy this year, then: just the usual tweaks to see if I can get an exercise or an assignment or a reading to go a bit more smoothly or get better results. That doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises or challenges, though. That’s the thing about teaching! Every time you do the “same” thing–discuss the same book, assign the same essay topic, ask the same exam question, whatever–you are doing it with a different group of people and in a different context, not just of your own changing ideas but of theirs, which are shaped by the other courses they are taking and readings they are doing and experiences they are having–and by your life in the moment and their lives too. One of the scary, exhausting, and stimulating things about teaching is that no matter how carefully you have prepared, you never know what exactly is going to happen in the classroom that day. You just show up, bring what you’ve got, and try your best to shape, steer, listen, and respond in a way that serves the goals that you have for the course. In my case, though there are more specific objectives that vary from class to class, my fundamental goal is simply to help my students have as good a conversation about our readings as possible (meaning one that is well-informed and attentive to both text and contexts) so that they will carry away with them a sense of both how to do that and why it’s worth doing. We talk a lot these days about “transferable skills,” and those certainly matter, but the reason I teach English instead of something else is that I consider that specific work well worth doing for its own sake.

cassatOn that motivational note, the two courses on my teaching schedule for this fall term are Pulp Fiction (a large introductory-level class) and Women and Detective Fiction (a small upper-year seminar). I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several weeks getting things in order for them; although I’m a bit anxious, as always at the start of term, at this point I’m eager just to get going. Once again, I will be writing about them here. Though sometimes over the years I have wondered if I’ll find anything new to say in this blog series, the exercise itself always proves that I do, and it also always proves valuable in the same ways I explained after my first year of doing it. Blogging about my teaching prods me to reflect on it rather than just get through it and move on; I think it has made me a better teacher as a result. The archive of these posts is also now a helpful resource, for me definitely, and perhaps for others: a record of ideas about both specific texts and broader pedagogical concerns. The high hopes some of us once had for academic blogging may have faded but for me at least, there are still lots of good reasons to be an academic who blogs.

The Whipple Line: Someone At A Distance

whipple“We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.'” — Carmen Callil

A few years back, reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide got me thinking about “books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” The Dark Tide, I concluded, was of the second sort: conspicuously flawed but energetic and purposeful in a way that made me want to engage with it. Reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance made me wonder: can a book be good and yet also uninteresting? What would that mean, exactly, for any reasonable definition of “good”? Reverting, as I often do, to George Henry Lewes’s remarks about Jane Austenthat she was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”maybe what it means is that a book can be good on its own terms (the means to its end), but that those terms (that end) might not be particularly challenging or complex.*

In the end, that’s what I felt about Someone At A Distance. It read very easily: its interlocking stories of an English family and the young French woman who infiltrates and then destroys it are neatly executed; its people are sharply delineated; the consequences of the affair are believably painful, especially for the blindsided Ellen, who up to the very moment her husband Avery’s betrayal is revealed has thought herself the happiest of wives. She is wholly unprepared for a life without him at its center. “We’re not the new sort of women,” an unlikely ally later tells her,

with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.

whipple-2

Whipple conveys Ellen’s shock and grief with real pathos. She also does a good job with Ellen and Avery’s daughter Anne, knocked abruptly out of her childhood idyll by these adult complications:

They stood in the morning sunlight, looking at each other, and from her mother’s face Anne learned, in another lesson, that the grown-up world was not what she had thought it was, not a place of power and fulfilment, but a place of helplessness, pain and ugliness. A world not to enter. Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes too long to recover, if recover it does.

That’s all pretty well done, I think, and the unfolding of Ellen’s gradual recovery in counterpoint with Avery’s bitterness and regret carries the novel nicely through to its conclusion.

whipple-3But. It really doesn’t do more than tell this story. There aren’t any layers to it. The characters are fairly two dimensional, especially the French temptress Louise, who to me was the novel’s weakest element. She’s a selfish narcissist who takes what she wants for her own gratification. The whole catastrophe, in fact, is the result of her resentment at an old lover in her home town in France, himself blithely ignorant “that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking up of that family” or with the rift that opens up between Louise and her own parents. Her unmitigated nastiness sapped the novel of any chance of a real moral or emotional dilemma at its center: Avery is wrong to get involved with her and that’s that. Whipple plays out the moves on the board she has set up, but there’s nothing in it for us to think about: we just follow it all through to the end. And that is just not a terribly interesting exercise: Ellen is a bit of a limp noodle, and the solution that unfolds to her problem of finding her own place in the world is too pat, too easy.

trollopeI did enjoy Someone At A Distance in the moment, but I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to another much better book (in my opinion) about an affair, Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress. In Trollope’s novel the “mistress” is a genuinely sympathetic character; the relationship that develops creates a genuine tension for the husband and then, eventually, for his children, who can’t help but like his new partner in spite of their loyalty to their mother; and the marriage that ends, while not a bad one, has weak spots that made it vulnerableindeed, that maybe even made its end, while painful, a change worth bringing about. Yet even though her mistress is not an evil temptress, Trollope is less sentimental about love, and less blandly optimistic about fixing what has been broken. Someone At A Distance ends with the promise of restoration, but why? Knowing what she now knows about her husband, what is that promise worth to Ellen? I didn’t really care, though: by that point I was ready to be finished with her.

I guess for me the bottom line (my version of the Whipple line?) is that competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short than a novel that doesn’t do more than Someone At A Distance, no matter how well it’s done. I think Carmen Callil may have been on to something with her disparagement of Whipple as not quite good enough. And yet I can’t argue with the introduction, which praises Whipple’s ability to “take an ordinary tale and make it compulsive reading.”

*I am not saying Austen is not great! Just that the idea of suiting means to end is a useful way to gauge literary success.

“I’m a disgrace”: Cressida Connolly, After the Party

connollyWe all have our crosses to bear, our own personal sorrows. Mine is that the people who should be dearest to me, my own children, my sisters, consider me a bad woman. The grandchildren have been taught to be wary. I think I’m a disgrace to them, really. After the war when the newsreel film was shown of what had gone on in Germany and Poland, those places, the horrors . . . It all got tangled up in their minds, as if we’d stood for such barbarism.

Reading Cressida Connolly’s After the Party I kept waiting for the storm to burst–for some twist or spin or revelation to up-end the unnervingly sedate account of an upper-crust family’s entanglement with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.  It never really happened, and as I finished the novel I felt disappointed, but then as I sat and thought about it for a while I started to wonder if the easy slide of the whole story was in fact the point. For Phyllis, the main character, “the party” is just another political option. She is baffled and offended when her ailing mother’s caretaker tells her off: “I’ve no quarrel with her,” she says;

She doesn’t parade about the streets in uniform, like your children and your sister Nina. It’s you two that need to look to your consciences, following that wicked man … You with your salutes and uniforms and speechifying: you’re nothing better than a bunch of traitors. Thugs they are, most of them. Just because you don’t bring your flags and banners here, don’t think word doesn’t spread.

“Our politics are no concern of yours; nor yours of ours,” Phyllis replies huffily; “We vote by secret ballot in these islands for this very reason, so that neighbours and friends shall not be divided by their beliefs.”

connolly-2Even after her long imprisonment Phyllis remains indignant that her commitment to Mosley’s cause has cost her anything at all and especially that it has led to people concluding she is not a good person. It would be at once pathetic and laughable if it weren’t also plausible and unhappily timely: Phyllis insists that she and her fascist friends were very fine people. The novel approaches them with sly delicacy, never presenting them as outright villains but allowing the us to experience their moral corruption through the lens of Phyllis’s own self-justifications. It also focuses on the personal relationships that naturalize and sanitize the fascist cause for those directly involved, keeping the political context just vague enough that the reader almost has to shake herself to remember that what they stand for is not acceptable, that fascism isn’t just one reasonable choice among many no matter how elegantly its proponents are dressed or how preoccupied they are with their families, lovers, and friends.

There’s something sly about the way the novel mimics a different kind of country-house saga, just as there’s something quietly insidious about the ease with which, once introduced to it by her sister Nina, Phyllis and her husband Hugh embrace the Party and come to admire “the Leader.” They aren’t coerced or bullied; they aren’t suffering from economic anxiety or facing any deprivation or threat; they just go to luncheons and picnics and summer camps and dinner parties … with Oswald Mosley. It’s all superficially very civilized–but under this influence their daughter Julia vandalizes a local theater with the slogan “PJ” (for “Perish Judah”). Phyllis is initially uneasy. “Surely that’s taking things rather too far,” she says to Nina; “I don’t suppose any of them have ever even seen a Jew,” to which Nina knowingly replies, “You’re not quite up to speed with it all.” Hugh, too, is unconcerned: the theatre troupe is made up of “frightful people” who refused to rent their space to the Party when “the Leader himself was coming down to give a talk”: “the theatre people were quite rude. Said our views were against the principles of common decency, anathema, that sort of thing.” When Phyllis argues that “we don’t want anyone to perish,” Hugh urges her not to “overreact.” And so Phyllis slips ever further into the abyss.

So much for a free country,” Phyllis complains as she looks back on the disgrace she and Hugh faced after their release; “You may have the freedom to express your views, but they’ll still damn you for them.” Anti-semitic violence, apologists for fascism, self-righteous hostility about deplatforming “controversial” speakers, willfully ignorant both-sides arguments, and over it all a veneer of civility that smugly insists protest and confrontation are more offensive than the loathsome ideology being protested against: it’s a good thing After the Party is a historical novel–we wouldn’t want to see anything like that going on today!

“Side By Side”: Rachel Malik, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

220px-Miss_Boston_and_Miss_Hargreaves

The light was fading more quickly now. Looking across the fields, they could just make out the roofs of the village where the swifts were still flocking their hectic patterns.

They walked up the lane quietly now and easy; side by side they dwindled into the darkening.

Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel as reticent and unassuming as its protagonists, and yet–also like Elsie and Rene–it is full of quiet intensity. Precise in its historical and geographical placing, it strongly evokes its rural settings and the women’s tough, marginalized existence as they work hard, first on Elsie’s farm, where Rene arrives in 1940 to work as a “land girl,” and then, when they are forced to relocate, in a string of different locations that become, often precariously, their homes. The novel does not romanticize their labor, but when, near the end, Elsie is ridiculed for describing their lives as “rich,” we understand what she means. They had enough, and they had each other.

In some respects the central event of the novel is the death of an unwanted guest, taken in out of obligation, who makes a mess of the women’s hard but peaceful life together. His coarse, messy intrusions wreak havoc in their house and with their routines until time together on their own terms becomes rare and precious:

They were still able to glean a little time for themselves at the weekends. . . . There were occasions when they got through most of the paper before they heard Ernest stirring and grumbling. Other times, they would go downstairs before he woke and share breakfast, just the two of them, and the spoilt, skittish Jugger [their dog]–it was such a treat. But neither of them could avoid a sense of dread when they heard him on the stairs, and Jugger cowered.

The very thinness of their pleasures makes Ernest’s ruination of them all the more despicable as he snoops and drinks and provokes. It is hard not to feel protective of Elsie and Rene, who have asked (and received) so little from life; this inevitable taking of sides not only turns us against Ernest but makes it impossible for us to be sorry when he dies–even when it turns out that he was poisoned and Rene is arrested for the murder.

boston-hargreaves-2Although Ernest’s murder and the subsequent trial are the novel’s central plot points, however, or at least its most dramatic ones, it’s interesting how easily subsumed their effects are in the novel’s quieter undercurrents. Surely an act as significant as murder should turn the novel itself into melodrama, should in some way transform our perspective on its characters. How can a woman dubbed “the weedkiller killer” by the tabloids seem so harmless–seem almost, even more provocatively, like a victim herself? Ernest, though abhorrent, is surely not so evil that he deserves his fate, and Elsie and Rene are hardly heroic figures of resistance, to patriarchy or to anything else. Yet all they ever wanted was to live quietly and honestly, and together, and as the lawyers and journalists gather and gawk, Ernest starts to seem in retrospect like a graceless embodiment of all the social forces that try to make something strange and ugly out of their intimacy. The glare of publicity exposes them to all the prurience the novel itself scrupulously avoids:

There was little outright hostility to Rene or Elsie but, slowly and carefully, the two women had to be taken to the vantage point from where the court collectively perceived them. It was not a deliberate tactic, and it was undertaken without relish, but common sense was relentless . . .

What did Rene and Elsie look like from the top of common-sense hill? In summary: odd, most certainly odd, and probably lesbians, odd and poor and gradually ground down by a situation that tainted them. The court knew how they were trying to do their best, but in the end they had had to ‘make do.’ They were certainly respectable, but no one would choose their life. Quillet and Clifford, prosecution and defense, were both convinced that Rene and Elsie wouldn’t have chosen it either, if there had been any alternative. Theirs was, by definition, a second-best life.

It is a conclusion not just condescending but deeply insulting, against which the novel sets the simple but profound loyalty of the two women to each other, extraordinary only in its very indifference to external definitions or judgments.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based on the story of the author’s grandmother, “a black sheep if ever there was one,” Malik says in her “historical note.” She outlines the sources she drew on, including census records, police records, and newspaper reports. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is, however, she asserts, “a fiction and not a speculation,” by which I take her to mean that she is telling a story attached lightly to the facts, rather than proposing that her story is in fact what really happened. It’s a fine distinction, I think, and also a thought-provoking one. I’m not entirely sure why Malik thought it was an important one to (try to) draw, but my feeling is that it has something to do with preserving the privacy of the originals, a paradoxical wish, perhaps, for people whose lives she has specifically and consciously brought into the light but who, as she imagines them, are happiest dwindling into the dark.

“What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

tenth-of-decemberWhat a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was —

Although I found several of the stories in it interesting and memorable, I didn’t much like Tenth of December until I read “Tenth of December,” the final story in the collection. Perhaps this is a lesson in the importance of reading to the end; it is certainly a reminder that abandoning books part way through brings the risk of missing what is best about them.

I was doing OK, if not great, with Tenth of December until I got to “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Up to that point the story I’d appreciated the most was “Sticks”; I was gripped by both “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” and “Escape from Spiderhead” moved quickly enough that I didn’t quite tire of the conceit before it ended. Then, unfortunately, I really bogged down in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: it was obviously doing a lot, but the story’s concept was so aggressive, its execution so heavy-handed, that for me the whole exercise just drowned out any underlying humanity in the story itself. (I’m not saying it isn’t there: just that the style and conceit were very distancing for me.) This slowed my momentum in the collection to the point that I nearly didn’t pick it up again.

Nevertheless, I persisted with Tenth of December, both because of Lincoln in the Bardo and because of Saunders’ reputation, including with readers whose sensibilities I trust. “Home” was a better experience for me; “My Chivalric Fiasco” was worse. Then I read “Tenth of December.” This story put a lot less gimmickry in my way; it was the only story in the book that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved it. One in ten: not a great ratio, if you weigh every reading experience equally, but I don’t think art really works that way. Reading “Tenth of December” made reading Tenth of December more than worthwhile to me. That’s part of the trick of short fiction, isn’t it? The brevity of the form means writers can try a lot of things, take a lot of chances, be a lot of different things–if they want to (as Saunders clearly does). And one really solid connection is, really, everything that matters.

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My edition of Tenth of December includes a conversation between Saunders and David Sedaris. I enjoyed their discussion very much. I read it before I got to “Tenth of December” and I thought at that point that my blog post about the collection might end up noting that I liked what Saunders had to say about short stories more than I liked his short stories themselves! (As it turned out, that was only partly true.) Saunders comments that people often say his work is cruel or angry; he acknowledges the truth of this and suggests it is “a bit of a technical flaw” but one that reflects who he is and how he sees the world. I actually wouldn’t have thought to call the stories cruel, but I did think that they were mostly kind of cold: that they were driven primarily by whatever concept animated them and so they came off as technical, even virtuosic, but lacking in the quality I would call heart. This is not to say that they aren’t in their own way sympathetic and often poignant: it’s just that what tenderness they have towards the characters, or towards the human condition,  seemed to me to be hard to feel under the performance of self-conscious cleverness.

tenth-3Naturally, my mixed and sometimes vexed response to Tenth of December got me thinking about what contemporary short fiction I have responded to more readily and positively. Because I don’t read a lot of short stories, I really don’t have a lot of other examples to draw on. I was very impressed with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but my favorite fairly recent short story is probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” I have but have not read all of the collection it comes from. I think I will go back to it now and see what else is there. For those of you who read a lot more short stories than I do: is there a writer in the genre you’d recommend to me, knowing that I’m a realist by instinct and training, that my favorite classic short story is (predictable but true) “The Dead,” and that I get irritable with stories that are more cleverly self-referential than they are committed to storytelling?