Thoughts on Short Fiction: Ballard, Barthelme, and Munro
It has become apparent lately that I now prefer short stories/fiction over novels. I have read more short fiction titles on the months of April and May than the previous year combined and I am currently reading two short story collections penned by Alice Munro and Donald Barthelme while my copies of Lolita and Atonement, books that I am supposed to read this month, lay abandoned at the sidelines.
Of course, it’s not the fault of Nabokov and McEwan why I am leaning towards reading short stories at the moment. I barely touched Lolita and I have never opened Atonement so it is not really their fault. If there is someone to blame, it would really be Munro. Blame Alice Munro, the unequalled master of feminine heartbreak and pain, who captured me with her collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. As Annie Proloux put it in her introduction:
“No writer, including Chekhov, has so richly explored the feelings and lives of women in our time.”
An equal share of the blame should be put upon JG Ballard and Donald Barthelme whose wildly experimental and innovative stories have made me gleeful that I am reading their work. If Munro constantly breaks my heart; Ballard and Barthelme unhinges my imagination and stretches it to its limit.
So I guess blame Munro, Ballard, and Barthelme. Although if you really want to dig up history, blame Eugenides for editing that masterwork of anthologies, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. But blame is really the wrong word to use here since, I think, “thank” is more appropriate for what I feel right now. Thank Munro. Thank Ballard, Barthelme, and all the other short story writers (Salter, Johnson, Carver) that I have read this year that made me attracted to the form in the first place.
Thank them, I guess, because they inspired me to create this feature (which I hope will be more regular than my other features). Thoughts on Short Fiction will be all about the short stories that I’ve read and will read. For the flagship edition of this feature, I want to highlight three short stories from the three writers that I mentioned above: Boys and Girls by Alice Munro, The Index by JG Ballard, and Me and Miss Mandible by Donald Barthelme.
Boys and Girls, Alice Munro (from Dance of the Happy Shades)
Of all the stories by Munro that I’ve read about gender relations in rural Canada, this is probably the one that resonated with me. I cannot pinpoint the exact reason why but it maybe because the protagonist is a young girl who has not yet realized that society has already planned her life’s trajectory when she grows up because of her gender. She will be someone who will marry, whose life will be synonymous with the keeping the house in order, and whose pastime will be jam-making or embroidery.
At the start of the story, the narrator (and our protagonist) does not actually comply with feminine norms. She has daydreams about riding on horseback and saving the day by shooting guns; she also helps out on her father’s farm by doing some maintenance work like cleaning and feeding the foxes whose pelts are the source of his father’s living. Munro’s protagonist is more at home in her father’s side than her mother’s, who makes her do chores around the kitchen. This set-up evokes the ire of her mother who tells the father that their daughter is a girl and is supposed to do more feminine stuff. There is also the fact that her mother and her grandmother force her to act according to the social norms associated with her gender (“Girls don’t slam doors like that”, “Girls keep their knees together when they sit down”).
This kind of treatment is constantly being denied by the protagonist by doing the things that, according to society, she is not supposed to do. But all of this becomes undone when she gradually and unknowingly changes due to societal and peer pressure. In her dreams, she becomes the rescued instead of the rescuer; she now thinks about what she wears and what she looks like; and sometimes fantasizes about boys in her class.
All of these changes in herself culminates when she knowingly assisted in the escape of one of her father’s horses who was about to be put down after witnessing the death of another of their horses at the hands of her father. Once her father learns about the act that she committed, her father looks at her with disappointment which, in turn, made her cry. When her father notices this, he nonchalantly dismissed her and said: “She’s only a girl.”
Munro’s exploration of the gender divide in rural Canada is masterful. There is no preaching here and no chastising. Instead, the reader is presented with the cold brutal truth that there places in the world that determines who you are by your gender. This is really happening no matter how forward-thinking the world has become and this prejudice still exist in the hearts and minds of people. But what else can Munro’s protagonist do but persevere?
The Index, JG Ballard (from The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms)
The Index is probably the most inventive short story that I’ve ever read and I’m still thinking about if it should be rightly called a short story. It might not be in the strictest and traditional sense as it completely devoid of dialogue, setting, plot, and conflict. What the story really is is a story told in the style of an index with only a short faux-editor’s note at the beginning detailing that the index is the only surviving snippet of an autobiography written by a man named Henry Rhodes Hamilton (HRH).
Here is an excerpt from the story covering the A section:
Acton, Harold, 142–7, 213
Alcazar, Siege of, 221–5
Alimony, HRH pays, 172, 247, 367, 453
Anaxagoras, 35, 67, 69–78, 481
Arden, Elizabeth, 189, 194, 376–84
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The (Stein), 112
Avignon, birthplace of HRH, 9–13; childhood holidays, 27; research at Pasteur Institute of Ophthalmology, 101; attempts to restore anti-Papacy, 420–35
I was, at first, worried that I wouldn’t get the story since it’s in the style of an index but, as I read along, I actually found the experience to be a pleasant one. It seems that HRH (which can also mean His Royal Highness) is a man that has greatly influenced history by having close relations with people such as Hitler, Pope Paul VI, and Churchill. However, his existence is allegedly being suppressed by a conspiracy.
This story is really amazing for its inventiveness. Ballard was able to tell the life story of a man through an index alone and nothing else. I think it takes great skill to do that and there are several things here that made me like this story. First, it uses real events and real people as a backdrop for the story and it even insinuates that there is a possibility that HRH has really existed in the real world, our world. As such, it involves the reader and the reader’s world into the story itself. Another thing is that, although the story is written in index form, it was still able to possess a semblance of linear time with the A section containing details of HRH’s birth and the W section containing the details of his arrest. What was supposed to be a 700+ page autobiography was condensed into an index and that is all what Ballard gives the reader and the rest are up to our imagination.
Me and Miss Mandible, Donald Barthelme (from Sixty Stories)
I am currently in the middle of reading Barthelme’s Sixty Stories and I must say that I am currently enjoying the process. All of the stories that I have so far read are different from each other in terms of style but Barthelme was able to do this without losing a consistent voice. Of the first five stories that I’ve read, Me and Miss Mandible is the one that really captured my attention and the one that I enjoyed the most (so far).
The story begins thusly:
Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.
What is happening here? The story begins in a very strange manner. Here we have a thirty-five year old man who is currently in what we suppose is a classroom being bombarded the sexual aura of his teacher. Official records put his age at eleven even if the protagonist says that it is not so. So, confusion and strangeness abounds in the first paragraph.
As the story goes on, more information is provided to us. The thirty-five year old man was actually sent back to grade school because he is being reeducated because he has not been able to lead a satisfactory adult life. He needs to go back to the basics and relearn everything so that what happened in his former life (failed job, failed marriage) will not happen again. All of this strikes the reader as absurd but is being treated by the protagonist as normal and everyone in the story treats him as an eleven year old kid to the point that one of his classmates has an extreme attraction towards him.
Obviously, there is something wrong within this specific world of Barthelme but nobody knows it, nobody notices it but the reader. The narrative voice is not the source of the absurdity but what is happening in his world. The interaction between the narrative voice and the events around him makes is what makes this story strange. It is also what makes this story a joy to read.
So there it goes, the three stories for the first edition of Thoughts on Short Fiction. If you want to read the stories mentioned above and judge for yourself, there are copies on the internet and all you need to do is Google them. Once you read them, do share your thoughts with me.