Deal Me In Challenge: Story #45 – “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood

Deal Me InThis week’s story for the Deal Me In Challenge comes via the Queen of Clubs – Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, which was first published in the 1983 collection “Murder in the Dark”.

This piece could probably be labeled a story cycle, as it is constructed of several shorter stories that are all related, twisting back into each other in multiple ways.  The opening is simple enough:

“John and Mary Meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.”

Section A presents a basic story of boy-meets-girl, they marry, they live happily ever until old age takes them to their death. Subsequent sections riff on this initial premise, introducing changes and detours and plot-thickeners that drastically change the fates of Mary and John.  Life is messy, and Atwood shows that while a story is rarely as simple as the ideal proposed in Section A, there are only a very few plots that any story can ultimately follow.

Clipboard01This work is experimental and playful and cutting and feels a bit like a writing prompt crossed with a Choose Your Own Adventure book.  It also succeeds as a short treatise on the art of short story writing.  By the end, Atwood breaks the fictional wall, addressing the reader directly.  I would love to see her play around with this sort of format in a longer work.  Perhaps she already has.

I really enjoyed this story.  I ended up reading it aloud to my boyfriend, and we began talking about how it would make an excellent short stage play, with Atwood as on-stage narrator.  (Tangential note:  She’s currently working with “classical music-pop culture theatrical group” Art of Time on a project that meshes poetry with music.  Her segment is called “noirish”, and I can’t help being intrigued.  I’d love to see something like this live.)

The Classics Club: Classics Spin #8

The Classics Club

It’s time for another round of The Classics Club Spin!  Here are the rules:

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by January 5, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

As I didn’t enjoy my last Spin book much at all,  I’m crossing my fingers that this time around I’ll be paired with a book I can love. Here is my list:

  1. Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of Four (1890)
  2. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki – Naomi (1924)
  3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Double (1846)
  4. Machado de Assis – Epitaph of a Small Winner (1880)
  5. Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  6. Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle (1964)
  7. Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1861)
  8. Ann Radcliffe – A Sicilian Romance (1790)
  9. Margaret Oliphant – The Library Window (1896)
  10. Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight (1939)
  11. Colette – Gigi & The Cat (1944)
  12. Edwin A. Abbott – Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
  13. Herman Hesse – Steppenwolf (1927)
  14. Emile Zola – The Belly of Paris (1873)
  15. E. M. Forster – The Machine Stops (1905)
  16. Sarah Orne Jewett – The Country of Pointed Firs (1896)
  17. Anna Katharine Green – That Affair Next Door (1897)
  18. Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey (1817)
  19. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain – Sultana’s Dream (1905)
  20. Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1950)

Deal Me In Challenge Story #42 & The Classics Club: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

deal me in smFor this week’s Deal Me In challenge story, I drew the 9 of Hearts – Arthur Machen’s The Great Click to learn about the Classics Club challenge.God Pan, first published in 1894.  I thought this a lucky draw, as it’s thematically appropriate for the season, it’s also on my Classics Club list, and I could include it in my Dewey’s Read-a-Thon stack, as well.  When I first included it on my Deal Me In list, I thought it was a short story, as it is often listed as such and has been frequently anthologized.  But no…it’s at least a novelette, perhaps a novella.  I’m uncertain of the word count, but it’s longer than what I would normally call a “short” story.

Specifics be damned!  It’s on my roster, and I’ve finished reading the darned thing…so here we go!

In theory, this story has many elements I usually adore – psychological mucking about, weird science, arcane mysteries, mythological connections, an atmosphere of dread… I am generally a fan of Gothics, especially the stranger and less predictable ones.  I’ve read other works by Machen that I enjoyed, so I expected this one would be no different.  I’ve also read many glowing reviews by authors who were inspired by this particular piece. Well, I hate to be a wet blanket, but my expectations have led me astray, and I don’t quite understand what so many others have seen in this story.

9 heartsA brief summary:  Dr. Raymond has long studied ways to allow a person to “lift back the veil”, to see the world of the uncanny behind our own.  He is bitter than others see him as a charlatan and a quack.  He has invited a friend who is fervently interested in proving the existence of “the devil” to his estate to bear witness to his ultimate experiment.  He intends, through the device of an extremely over-simplified and silly brain surgery, to enable Mary – his teenaged ward whom he rescued from certain death on the streets when she was a toddler and with whom his relationship has a creepy, pedo-vibe – to “see the great god Pan.”

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man
for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit. Come, it’s getting late; we had better go in.”

His experiment is of mixed success; Mary certainly “sees” something, but she is left a gibbering idiot.  Nearly two decades later, an “exotic” teenaged girl is connected to a series of odd occurrences.  There are terrors and rapes and murders and suicides, providing strange births and stranger deaths.  How do these things connect back to Mary and the experiments of the doctor?

Right off, one might suspect that this story is a bit goofy, and one one would be quite right.  But it is also meandering, messy, constructed piecemeal and lurching, ham-fistedly insensitive, racist in oddly specific ways and deeply misogynistic…even for the Victorians. Everyone is a one-dimensional, ridiculous stereotype.  Women are both somehow simultaneously fluffy, brainless idiots and over-sexed harlots itching to get it on with a devil. The men in the story are either completely cold and lacking in any ethics whatsoever or fetishy and obsessive.  Modern hindsight makes any given line unintentionally hilarious, and the whole thing drips with both anti-pagan hysteria and a strange fetishization of the allure of same, as well as the stupid, ingrained old-school masculine fear of women’s hidden “beastial” sexuality.  Feh.

Machen was adored by both Aleister Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft.  Personally, I was in danger of permanently damaging myself from rolling my eyes so hard.  I laughed out loud (and I assure you it’s not intended as a comedy) and shouted aloud at the text many times.  The story was widely panned as “perverse” upon publication, which seems a fair reaction from a pathologically prudish Victorian audience.  I don’t know that I agree, but I do have another “p” word for it:  preposterous.  There are so, so many far better Gothic Victorian works out there.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon: Wrap-Up & Ending Meme (2014)

Deweys 24hr RATSo ends another edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon.  I’m definitely in zombie mode today, but I think it was worth it!  Here’s my brief wrap-up and answers to the end-of-event meme:

I finished three books:

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

I also read a few chapters in The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe and a few more chapters in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.  

End of Event Meme:

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? – Actually, the first hours were the worst this time.  Getting a really late start sapped my motivation a bit, and multiple family distractions and detours got me even more off-track.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? – Last time, I included short stories.  I was very silly not to do so this time.  I highly recommend them for RaTs, as well as graphic novels.
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? – Nothing comes to mind, honestly.  As for suggestions for myself, not for the team:  Try audiobooks.
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? – The cheerleaders were great!  Even though they were short-handed, they were enthusiastic and on-the-ball.
  5. How many books did you read? – I finished 3 and read parts of 2 others.
  6. What were the names of the books you read? – see above
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? – Memory of Water
  8. Which did you enjoy least? – The Great God Pan
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? – n/a
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? – I will almost certainly participate again, as a reader.  I don’t have the moxie to be a cheerleader right now!

Next read-a-thon on the docket:  Bout of Books 12, January 5-11, 2015!  I imagine the next edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour RaT will be around April.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon: Base Camp & Opening Meme (October 2014)

Deweys 24hr RATThis is a sticky post for my periodic read-a-thon updates.

The event started at 5am my time, but I had Things to attend to this morning, so I’ll be starting reading at 11am PST, which is officially Hour 7 of the read-a-thon.

I think I’ll start with Woman in the Dunes first, while my brain is fresh, leaving the YA and graphic novel choices for later when I need a boost in the afternoon.  And of course, Machen’s old-school Gothic horror must be read at night.

My progress:

  • 11:00 am PST:  Start reading.  Ha!  Forget that.  My mother called long-distance, and I had unexpected company.  It’s now 12:45 pm, and I’m just reading my first page.
  • 1:30 pm PST:  I got in about 40 pages between 12:45 and 1:30pm, spread across all the books in my stack.  (I was trying to decide which one was going to hook me first.)  Now it’s time to eat some lunch, stretch a bit, check in with the community and chop some things and toss them into the slow cooker for a late meal when the fella gets home around 10pm.  After lunch and etc., I’m going to continue on with Memory of Water, as it is both swift-moving and peppered with such pretty, descriptive language.
  • 3:30 pm PST – Lunch is eaten, things are chopped and slow-cooking and household puttering is accomplished.  Back to the books! I want to try to read straight until 5:30 or so.  Then I’ll break for stretching, snacking and community stalking.
  • 5:30 pm PST:  Snack and stretch break!  I’m having some popcorn and am about to take a look-see at the current minigames.  I read right around 100 pages in Memory of Water.  I’m not sure if I want to finish it up when I return to my reading spot or if I want to skip over into another book for a bit.  Hmm…  I’ll decide in a bit, but right now my most urgent task is too put the kettle on.  I am in dire need of some strong black tea!
  • 7:00 pm PST:  Tea seems to have had the reverse of its intended effect.  I took a bit of a cat nap – with the cat! – and now I’m going to try for an hour-long reading sprint.
  • 8:15 pm PST:  I finished The Harlem Hellfighers – 257 pages.
  • 2:00 am PST (hour 22):  Since my last update, I read and finished Machen’s The Great God Pan, a couple of chapters in The Woman in the Dunes and another 50 pages in Memory of Water, played in a couple of minigames, visited some blogs and had dinner/family time with the fella.  I’m going to brew some more tea and try to keep going.

Opening meme:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? – I’m in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, United States.  (outside Seattle)

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? – Woman in the Dunes

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? – I’m not looking forward to any snack in particular.  I don’t gather snacks especially for the event;  I just eat the snacks I normally might – black tea, plain seltzer, hummus with veggies, maybe some popcorn or nuts or dark chocolate or a granola bar.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself! – I’m perhaps a bit too pleased at the moment that we’ve launched into the stereotypical gray-and-rainy season here in the Pacific NW.  The chill and the sound of rain has set up a perfect reading feel for me – cozy and cocoony.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? – This is my second read-a-thon.  This time I will not push myself to stay awake all the time but will nap and will acknowledge my body’s signs that it’s time to stop and go to bed later.  I have a chronic autoimmune syndrome, yet I am stubborn and want to push like I used to when I was younger.  This time, I will remember that I’m not 20 and in full health and will take a saner approach so that I don’t pay for it tomorrow and all next week.


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