Deal Me In Challenge: Story #51 – “Goodbye, My Brother” by John Cheever

Deal Me InFrom my last two cards, I drew the 3 of Diamonds, representing John Cheever’s classic “Goodbye, My Brother”.  This story has been frequently anthologized but originally ran in The New Yorker on August 25, 1951.

The reader is introduced to the Pommeroy family – Mother, the matriarch, and her adult children – daughter Diana and sons Chaddy, Lawrence and the male narrator, as well as their respective spouses and children.  They have come together at the family summer home on an island off Massachusetts.  The rest of the family hasn’t seen Lawrence in several years, and it quickly becomes clear that his relationship with his mother and siblings has long been strained at best.

Lawrence is a morose man quick to find fault and always ready with a negative comment.  Mother tends to drink in his presence, his wife is sad and harried and his children are timid and quick to cry.  The family tries to include Lawrence in their summer activities, but he seems to want none of this or of them.  He wants nothing more than to get back to his law practice and away from his kin, all of whom he thinks to be foolish, impractical and stuck in the past.  Eventually his general nastiness becomes too much for the narrator, who lashes out with an uncharacteristic violence.

3 of DiamondsThe story is fairly straight-forward at heart, but Cheever’s canny knack for characterization and his ability to paint a scene with crystal clear detail provide layers of context that make the story far more impressive and thought-provoking than a short work of family drama might in less-skilled hands.  As I read, I felt I knew these characters far more deeply than I should from so few words.  I felt like I had been given a perfect, compact set of portraits and would be able to pick each player out from a crowd.  The density of suggested, implied and unwritten subtext in each sentence provided enough insight for nearly an entire novel.

Cheever makes good use of metaphor with his frequent mention of the sea.  The sea is slowly eroding the island; the sea renews; the sea brings together, and the sea separates; the sea represents both home and a barrier; the sea illustrates the passage of time. Time-with-a-capital-T is another metaphor at the center of the story – the ravages of Time, a “simpler Time” in the past, nostalgia for the past, wishing to escape from the past.

Even the names of the female characters were clearly chosen for their symbolism.  The sister Diana and the narrator’s wife Helen and Chaddy’s wife Odette all have names that harken to Greco-Roman mythology and archetypal concepts, (Diana, representing freedom and the wild, is divorced and lives as she sees fit in Paris; Helen is beautiful and graceful; Odette is happy to undertake the journey-quest of life.) while Lawrence’s long-suffering wife Ruth is as loyal and obedient as her Biblical namesake.

I have been in awe of John Cheever ever since I first read “The Swimmer” some 25 years ago.  I’ve read several of his stories since that time, and I must surely have encountered this one before, but reading it now was like a whole new experience.  I feel like I need to reread his work now that I can potentially relate more fully to many of his themes.  I believe he was one of the most brilliant writers of short fiction in English, and I would like to give him my full, (ostensibly) adult attention.

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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.)

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.

Deal Me In Challenge: Stories #39 & #40 – An Unexpected Relationship Between Chekhov and Le Guin

deal me in smI had originally planned to post a stand-alone review of last week’s Deal Me In story, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  But then I read this week’s story – Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” – and was immediately struck by the similarity of underlying theme shared between the two.  I decided I needed to talk about this related strand of thought explored in very different ways by authors from such different times and places.

Story #39, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – represented on my challenge roster by the 7 of Hearts – was first published in 1973 in the multi-author anthology New Dimensions 3 and in soon-after in Le Guin’s collection The Winds Twelve Quarters.  The story was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974.  This fact would seem to suggest that the story is science fiction, but it isn’t.  There is nothing especially science fictional or fantastical in this work, which is more of a philosophical musing than a story with plot and named characters. I suppose one might best label the work “speculative,” as it posits a “What if…” question to the reader and suggests a thought exercise based on that question.

7 heartsThe titular Omelas is a city of fortunate, happy people who enjoy lives free of pain or poverty.  They have much to celebrate and do so with gusto.  But there is a dark side to this prosperity which each citizen must confront during adolescence.  (I will be vague so as not to spoil the impact of the piece.)  For the people of Omelas to continue to enjoy their utopian way of life, one individual must suffer, scorned and living in isolation and deprivation.  The rest of the populace, however horrified to learn the truth of this, must agree to ignore or actively participate in the maltreatment of this individual.  Although some may want to attempt a rescue or at least lessen the suffering, the consequences of this for the rest of the citizens would change their way of life for the worse.  So they look the other way, pretending the atrocity does not occur or convincing themselves that the prosperity of the many is worth the misery of one.  There is one other option, undertaken by a relative very few: They can choose to walk away.

I was immediately reminded of real-world examples of a very similar attitude.  People may well know that their favorite brand of athletic shoes is created by children in horrible sweat-shop conditions.  They may be fully aware that their smartphone is both full of conflict minerals the acquisition of which actively supports the violence and bloodshed in some nebulous region on the other side of the world and fashioned by factory workers whose daily pay is a mere pittance compared to an hour of their own.  The beauty of their wedding ring outshines the meaning of the term “blood diamonds.” They may understand that their coffee beans or quinoa is picked by indigenous peoples who see no actual benefit for their work and can no longer afford to eat their ancestral food due to the demand from elsewhere in the world.  They may even realize that the votes of the majority often stifle the needs, desires and rights of the minority.  But they want a smartphone. They love their coffee.  They need good quality shoes.  They don’t personally support the aims of the warlord who profits from the diamond mines, and their wedding ring is an enduring symbol of love.  So they look the other way.

Le Guin doesn’t preach to the reader.  (And neither is it my aim to do so, despite what the harshness of my previous paragraph might suggest.)  She doesn’t point her authorial finger and accuse anyone or fling hard truths in the reader’s face. (She is far more subtle than I, which is but one of hundreds of excellent reasons why, of the two of us, she is the revered author.)  She presents her fictional city with its hypothetical ethical quandary and leaves the door open for the reader to connect the dots to issues in the real world.  One might interpret this story through any number of lenses and continue the lines of thought to many different situations in one’s life, each of which seems to present a complex and knotted collection of un-makeable ethical choices.  But looked at through perhaps the clearest and least-complicated lens, there is only one core choice at the heart of these matters:  either A. to opt in – to agree, to decline to object, or B. to refuse to participate, to reject the benefits no matter how pleasing, how “necessary”… to leave the crowd and walk away.

jack diamondsStory #40, Gooseberries(Gutenberg, public domain) was brought to me by the Jack of Diamonds.  This story, published in 1898 and frequently anthologized, walks a very different path to arrive at territory very much akin to that explored by Le Guin.

Seeking shelter from the rain, two men present themselves at the home of a third.  Ivan Ivanich tells a tale to the other two men, detailing the progression of the life of his two-years-younger brother, Nicholai.  The brothers have a title of nobility handed down from their father, although his estate was sold to pay his debts.  Nicholai has long nurtured an obsession with owning land and having a farmstead.  He draws up diagrams and plans (always including gooseberry bushes, which he seems to see as symbolic of prosperity), scours ads of land for sale and saves every penny he earns. Despite his lucrative job, he lives much like a beggar, starving himself so that all his wages can be saved toward his dream.  This dream obsesses him so that he sleeps poorly, and for many years his life is empty except for these fantasies.

After many years apart, Ivan hears that his brother has married.  Nicholai’s new wife is an elderly widow whom he cares nothing for, but he very much adores her money.  He makes her live like a pauper, with not even enough bread to eat, and soon she withers and dies.  He channels all her money into purchasing the land for which he has so long pined, which includes a small farmstead and covers 300 acres.  There are many peasants in residence as tenant farmers across this land, and although it does contain a river (brown from the run-off of a brickyard and a gelatin factory) it does not contain gooseberry bushes. Nicholai plants 20 bushes and settles down to enjoy his dream.

The next season, Ivan visits his brother to see how he is getting along.  He learns that Nicholai is dismissive at best of the peasants and that upon attaining prosperity, he has developed an attitude of feeling he knows best how others should run their lives. Once a year on his birthday, he provides the peasantry with vodka, and they celebrate and praise his name for his generosity, forgetting how poorly he treats them the rest of the year.  At dinner, Nicholai displays a huge platter of the first crop of his estate’s gooseberries.  He insists they taste sweet and wonderful, but to Ivan they seem hard and sour.  Nicholai convinces himself that his life and this symbol of his prosperity are perfect and without blemish, while Ivan knows they are bitter and but mere hollow status symbols.

Later that night, Nicholai is again plagued by insomnia, as he is drawn again and again to eat more from the platter of sour gooseberries, metaphorically counting his gold, lying to himself again and again by convincing himself of the goodness and the sweetness of his life.

I immediately felt that Chekhov is using a different writing technique – more of a parable than Le Guin’s philosophical what-iffery – to steer the reader to some of the same intellectual territory.  Again we have someone who benefits at the expense of others – his miserable wife, his miserable tenant farmers, as well as his miserable self whose years have been spent living a life of self-imposed deprivation, devoid of companionship, healthy food or pleasure – a life devoid of Life – and who has managed to convince himself it is all worth it in the end.  The ends justify the means, no matter who suffers and how much.

Both Le Guin and Chekhov seem to me to be saying that if a person is to enjoy those ends, he or she must make themselves aware of the means.  He or she must decide if the desirable outcome is indeed “worth” the costs and if our own convenience or happiness is worth actively allowing or turning a blind eye to suffering.  Two authors a century apart, on opposite sides of the world address here very similar, perhaps universal questions that we all must face in our own lives.  We must make informed choices, be aware of how our own success may affect others.  We should also live our lives, not deprive ourselves in the extreme and thus cause ourselves needless suffering in the name of prosperity to be achieved “someday”.

Deal Me In Challenge: Story #32 – “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

Deal Me InStory #32 for the Deal Me In Challenge is brought to me by the 9 of Diamonds – “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant.  According to Wikipedia, the story first ran in the French paper Le Gaulois in February 1884 and has since inspired several other authors and playwrights.  It is widely available in the public domain, and I read it at East of the Web.

This is a story I felt like most everyone had read except me.  Once I finished reading it, I was overcome by the nagging suspicion that I had in fact 9 diamondsread it many years before, but it may be simply that the story is so iconic that echoes of it can be found in many other works.

The story is quite simple at heart – a young woman of modest means desires pretty dresses and jewelry yet has no hope of ever having them.  Her husband works hard as a clerk, and they have a home and one servant. So I would not call them poor by an means, but they certainly feel that they are poor in comparison to other families they know.

When the husband brings home an invitation to a fancy soirée, thinking his wife will be thrilled, he is surprised to find that she is instead dejected.  The practicalities of their situation decree that she has nothing suitable to wear to such an affair. Although the husband has been saving money to buy himself a gun, (for leisure, it should be noted…not for necessary hunting) he decides to give the money to his wife so she can buy a dress for the party.  For jewelry, she will borrow something from a more affluent friend, even though it will be a bit humiliating to do so.  She borrows a lovely diamond necklace and is overcome with joy.

The evening in question arrives, and a good time is had by all.  But when the couple returns home, the necklace is nowhere to be found!  After an exhaustive search, it is decreed lost.  The husband borrows money from everyone he knows, and a replacement necklace is purchased and substituted with the lender none the wiser.  The couple spends the next 10 years (!) paying back these debts, moving to a tiny attic apartment, dismissing the servant and living even more simply.  The husband takes in extra work; the wife does all the housework herself and ages rapidly.  Eventually the debts are paid and the couple’s minds are set at ease.

A chance meeting later with the lender of the necklace brings a shock and the characteristic de Maupassant twist ending, which I will not spoil for anyone who has not read the piece.

On the surface, it would seem that this story gives critique to social striving, covetousness and materialism.  But this was a natural and honest sentiment for the woman – wanting to be appropriately dressed for the occasion and not humiliated among others more fortunate.  I don’t feel this is what the author intended to critique at all.  The couple pays their debts, at great personal loss and with much hardship yet without undue complaint.  If they had just been honest with the lender instead of trying to cover up the fact that the necklace was missing, they could have spared themselves so much grief.  I feel like de Maupassant was trying to make the point that trying to cover up a negative occurrence through trickery and deception brings more suffering that it alleviates, even as it may be well-meaning.  In lying in an attempt to avoid the lender’s potential anger or disdain or grief at the loss, they took on a greatly-disproportionate quantity of pain themselves, needlessly.  Two entire lives ruined, all for a meaningless bauble.  Don’t we see such dramas play out, perhaps less dramatically, all around us every day?