As I’ve gotten behind in my reading and writing about short stories for the Deal Me In 2014 challenge, I have three stories to cover this week as I scramble to play catch-up. The story for the current week, week four, is by Ambrose Bierce. Week three’s tale was penned by Eudora Welty, and week two brought me Vladimir Nabokov. I’ll talk about all three in this single post rather than spamming the blog with separate reviews.
For week four, the cards brought forth the Ace of Diamonds: An “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. The story was originally published in 1890 in the San Francisco Examiner and has since been included in many collections of Bierce’s work as well as numerous multi-author anthologies.
I love Ambrose Bierce. His Devil’s Dictionary (1911, originally published in 1906 as The Cynic’s Wordbook) is a masterwork of satire and commentary on human nature and the then-modern world which never fails to make me chuckle and nod my head more than 100 years later. I have read a few of his “ghost and horror” stories before, and for some indeterminable reason, I thought “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was one of these. And perhaps on some level it is, although the connection is subtle and indefinite. There is certainly some horror here, but it is mostly fashioned of dread and deft misdirection of the reader. Bierce is fantastic with twists, fake-outs and false trails. He’s a literary prestidigitator, and no matter how sharp an eye you keep on his words, he will still manage to switch up the scene at the last second.
It is functionally impossible for me to say much about this story without spoiling the entire thing. At heart, it is the story of a vignette in the life of Peyton Farquhar, a man being hanged in the American South during the Civil War, supported by a brief flashback to suggest how he got into this predicament. Bierce’s deft description and precise phrasing create an extraordinarily vivid snapshot of Farquhar’s experience, made all the more affecting by how much detail Bierce is able to convey in so few words.
I know many readers will have already read this story and/or have seen one of the filmed adaptations, but for those who have not I will say no more so that they may enjoy unwrapping this brilliant little gem unspoiled.
If we travel back a bit to week three of the challenge, I will have just pulled the 3 of Clubs from the deck, signifying “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty. Welty is an author I’ve meant to read for quite some time but had never yet gotten to. I have The Optimist’s Daughter on my to-read list, and I’m keen to read it, but something about it flummoxes me. I keep thinking it was written somewhere in the 1930’s-50’s, then I am reminded it was actually published in 1972. I don’t know why I persist in half-holding this illusion in my mind, but I can’t seem to shake it. Perhaps it is something about the language in the extract I read. Perhaps it is the fact that the author’s name makes me think of several mid-century British writers, yet Welty is American. (Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 1987, is even worse in this way for me. I keep thinking it’s from a good 40-50 years earlier than it was actually published. At least I’m closer on this author’s nationality, as she actually is English, although she was born in Egypt.) In any event, The Optimist’s Daughter netted Welty the Pulitzer in its year, and I should really give it a try.
Until recently, I was unaware Eudora Welty also wrote short stories. I came across numerous positive thoughts on “Why I Live at the P.O.” online that made me want to include it on my list, including several that insisted it is one of the funniest short stories ever written. As I have a lot of heavy stories on my Deal Me In list, I figured it could stand a good dose of humor, and after the darker nature of the stories I drew for weeks 1 and 2, I was pleasantly relieved to see this story’s card emerge from the pack.
First published in 1941 in The Atlantic Monthly, “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a bit absurdist in tone. I kept thinking this might be what it would be like if John Irving wrote an episode of The Golden Girls which was then filmed by Wes Anderson. The characters, members of an extended family, bicker constantly, get sore with one another over the silliest, most unlikely misunderstandings and outright false accusations and are just about as dysfunctional as a family can be. Every character is truly a character: a grandfather with a several-foot-long beard over which he is extraordinarily sensitive and protective, the protagonist’s younger sister, prone to telling lies in order to manipulate the family, an uncle with a penchant for drinking entire bottles of prescription medication and who thinks nothing of traipsing around in a woman’s silk robe, a tap-dancing two-year-old, a mother who refuses to see the truth in any situation and the protagonist, referred to only as “Sister,” who is the post-mistress at “the next to the smallest” post office “in the entire state of Mississippi.” Darkly comic mishaps ensue, culminating in Sister’s moving into the back room at the post office as suggested in the title of the story.
This story feels more like a play to me, and surely it’s been adapted into one at some point. I know it’s a popular choice for readings, but I couldn’t find any concrete evidence that it’s been put on the stage. It would work well in that medium. I don’t know that I would agree that this is the funniest short story every written, but it was definitely amusing and very easy to visualize, full of huffy, over-dramatic farcical characters who play off each other perfectly.
Week two’s card, the King of Clubs, pointed me toward Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. The story centers on an aged couple whose young son is institutionalized with severe psychoses. They have journeyed to visit him on his birthday. As this is written by Nabokov, of course the language is stunning, beautifully-detailed, each word perfectly chosen. Also due to being by Nabokov, the story is layered, filled with subtext and suggested meaning(s.)
Considering the time in which this was written, I thought perhaps the young man’s issues would turn out to be something that is not actually a mental illness – nonconformity, the wrong political views, perhaps a suggestion of homosexuality…the sort of thing which was all too sadly often used as a “reason” to lock someone up throughout much of the early-mid 20th century. But his issues did in fact turn out to be significant and debilitating, as well as quite dangerous to himself. I was actually quite surprised by the delicacy and compassion with which Nabokov approached this. He not only outlined the boy’s way of seeing the world in considerable detail, but he didn’t pass judgment and didn’t lead the reader to make any particular judgment, either. And the boy’s long-suffering parents love him as he is. This, while being very sad, was also very refreshing.
I really loved this story. My only complaint was that it seemed to just…end. The ending point didn’t feel natural to me, and I was left wondering if I had obtained an incomplete copy. But checking elsewhere proved my copy to be complete. Nabokov just ended his story somewhat ambiguously, and the reader is left wondering what happens next and how things will turn out. It was like a cliff-hanger, but you know no Part 2 or next act or second season will be forthcoming. It does leave one thinking and thinking on the story, but I also find it a bit frustrating.