I am so very behind. I am even behind on catching up from being behind! This week’s Deal Me In post will be an effort to make up some lost ground. I’ve read four stories since I last posted about one, and although challenge-runner Jay has kindly informed me that the rules don’t stipulate a challenger must actually review each of the stories they read, I do want to say a little something about each.
I want to start with this week’s story – week 22 – and will update this post over the next couple of hours with weeks 19, 20 and 21. I just want to make sure I don’t miss the unofficial deadline time again! 🙂
Week 22’s story is “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry, decreed by the 6 of Diamonds. This was so much funnier – and significantly darker – than I was expecting. It was one of those stories that kept me simultaneously laughing and cringing and enjoying every minute of it.
The gist of the story: Two swindlers have launched a money-making scheme in which they kidnap the son of the wealthiest man in the nearest town with intent to collect ransom. But things do not go as they planned, for the child is smarter than they, as well as sneaky, determined and violent. The kidnappers find themselves more captive than captor as the boy thwarts their plans, controls their actions and inflicts repeated applications of both insult and injury. This story was surely a strong inspiration for the movie “Home Alone” – in addition to dozens of other movies, television episodes and cartoons – although I personally thought the story was funnier – more subtle and less dependant on tortures that would be completely abhorrent in a film if they weren’t being perpetuated by a kid.
O. Henry’s writing is terrifically clever and full of cruelty of the brand that only small children can inflict. The language of the narrator is what I think of as “midwestern homespun intellectual” – a Twainian combination of folksy and erudite, pragmatism tinged with cynicism, quaintly conversational yet peppered with thousand-dollar words. (I am from the US Midwest, and this is pleasantly-familiar linguistic territory for me.)
“It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama–Bill Driscoll and myself-when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, ‘during a moment of temporary mental apparition’; but we didn’t find that out till later.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn’t get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers’ Budget. So, it looked good.”
Previously, I was only familiar with O. Henry through his much-loved story “Gift of the Magi.“ While I did enjoy that story, this one absolutely delighted me and was much more in line with my tastes. I highly recommend it and will definitely be seeking out more of the author’s work.
Stepping into the wayback machine, these are the stories I read in the three previous weeks, in reverse:
For week 21, the Queen of Spades saw me reading Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America,” from her collection Birds of America. Moore is one of those writers I keep promising myself I’ll try but never seem to get around to, despite the rapturous praise for her work I see written just about everywhere. Having now read one story only, I suspect the praise is well-deserved.
I’m not certain what to say “Dance in America” is actually about. It is written in a strange style, nebulous, suggesting so many things but not necessarily stating any of them concretely. Yet is says so much. I was very moved by this story of an aging dancer/choreographer engaged in a tour of Pennsylvania schools as a dance demonstrator/lecturer. She stays with an old friend and his wife, who have a 7-year-old son with cystic fibrosis. The family is unconventional and clearly in love with each other. I found them all quite delightful. Which, of course, caused me to keenly feel their collected emotions regarding their son’s likely-fatal illness.
This story was so full of life, despite the darkness lurking in its background. Moore chooses her words so carefully, and any sentence, any phrase may hold surprise, delight or shock due to this unusual, pitch-perfect wording. The piece is quite short, as I hear most of Moore’s stories are, so I won’t spoil more of the story here. Although, to be fair, there’s not much to spoil. There is no “plot,” per se, as this is more a character piece or a slice-of-life vignette. But I loved it enough to read it twice, and I will certainly be reading the rest of the collection.
An additional thought: I really like that this story is matched to the Queen of Spades, suggesting both a softness and an edge, looking like a heart blackened and impaled so that only the sword’s handle protrudes. It’s absolutely fitting.
Week 20 gave me the 6 of Hearts – Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” I read this story (more of a novelette-to-novella in length) during the frenzy of the Bout of Books Read-a-Thon. For the past several years, Ted Chiang has been one my of top-most favorite authors of short-form science fiction, and I am functionally incapable of reading his work objectively. He is absolutely a master of the form, and his work is often so brilliant – both for its ideas and the author’s writing skill – that I am left speechless and unable to do much of anything but frantically press the book into the hands of a loved one, my eyes rolling wildly. Chiang is anything but prolific. Fans often wait ages – years – between stories, and as yet he is purely a short form writer, with no longer works to his credit. (His day job is as a technical writer in Seattle, Washington, hence for me he is also a local author.) But whatever he writes seems scribed in golden ink, as with only one published collection of his many scattered published stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, he has still amassed 3 Hugo awards, 4 Nebulas and 2 Locus awards, among many less-glamorous decorations.
I had to re-read this one before I could write about it, and having done so I find myself at a loss for words. It’s just sooooo good! Ok, let me break it down: The story takes the form of a double narrative – the first taking place somewhere in the near-ish future (perhaps 20 years hence) and the second taking place somewhere in the past in a tribal society that has only recently encountered Europeans. In the future story, a journalist evaluates and weighs the pros and cons of a new technology that records and retrieves memories so we don’t have to – rather like an advanced, even more invasive Facebook/Instagram sort of thing, via an implant working in concert with an earlier technology, a retinal implant. In the past story, European colonialists and missionaries end up introducing writing to the tribes as part of their attempts to control, convert and govern them.
Both stories deal centrally with memory, especially subjective, personal memory vs the objective memory of recorded events. In the future, Chiang explores how wide-ranging precision recording of every detail of our lives affects relationships and a person’s sense of history and identity. In the past, he explores how a society based on oral traditions is changed when is altered by the concept of writing things down.
Chiang frequently uses language or numbers as a central plot point in his stories, with technology or other science fictional devices providing a method by which to explore these concepts. His sci-fi is imminently human, being steeped in sociological, historical, religious and anthropological ideas while also including highly technical concepts. This story is quintessential Chiang: perceptive, intuitive and extraordinarily thought-provoking. I think it would even be a wonderful choice for someone who doesn’t normally enjoy science fiction, as it deals with philosophical forms, not fantastical.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” may be a bit longer than the average short story, but I think most thoughtful readers would love it, and it would serve as an excellent introduction to the author’s work.
Week 19 provided “Cathay“ by Steven Millhauser, represented by the 9 of Spades. Cathay is a poetic place name for China, much as one might see Caledonia used for Scotland or Columbia for the United States. According to Aimee Bender’s introduction to the story, Millhauser’s tale is something of a continuation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” It is presented in several paragraph-long titled sections, so that it comes across rather like an encyclopedia of sorts, but with the feel of a travel log or diary.
On their own, each small section is quite lovely, interesting and well-crafted, but my brain kept wandering. I found myself re-reading sections again and again, confounded by the nonfictional feel of the writing. I’m not trying to say it wasn’t good…only that it didn’t have either much of a plot or of character development or exploration of ideas. Each section is a vignette, a snapshot, illuminated in florid, poetic language. The narrative structure is highly unconventional. I feel like I really need to re-read it a time or three, as I suspect I’ve missed something essential regarding the connections between the sections, which seem strangely subtle. It’s more like reading entries from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (which I adore, but then I approach it with full knowledge that I’m reading a diary that isn’t a connected narrative) than a short story.
So loose are the bonds between the sections of the story that I can’t even manage a perfunctory synopsis of what the thing is about! The Emperor is a recurring figure, and everything centers on him and the palace. He is chronically bored and suffers from insomnia. He runs through diversions, toys and entertainers. Finally, in the last section, an actual story is introduced, regarding a battle between magicians devised as yet another entertainment for the terminally bored Emperor.
I am definitely missing something. But I can say with certainty that the language is beautiful. As examples, I’ll give two of the shorter sections:
Our boredom, like our zest, can only be as great as our lives. How much greater and more terrible, then, must be the boredom of our Emperor, which flows into every corridor of the palace, spills into the parks and gardens, stretches to the utmost edges of our unimaginably vast empire, and, still not exhausted, but perhaps even strengthened by such exercise, rises to the height of heaven itself.
On a summer night, when the moon is a white blossom in a blue garden, it is good to go out of the palace and walk in the Garden of Islands. The arched wooden bridges over their perfect reflections, the hanging willows, the white swans over the swans in the dark water, the yellow and blue lights in the palace, the smell of plum blossoms, all these speak of peace and harmony, and quell the rebellious restlessness of the soul. If, on such a night, one happens to see a dark green frog leap into the water, sending out a rainbow of ripples that make the moon waver, one’s happiness is complete. “