Sunday, December 26, 2010
December 26, 2010: A Hard Story is Good to Find
I love short stories (not trolling for post-Christmas presents, honest, but a great short story anthology is most definitely one of life’s true pleasures). There’s a particular art to constructing a perfect short story, and many of those that fall into that category (as judged not only by my own standards but by those that are most anthologized or republished in various ways) prominently include among their charms an ironic or twist-y or at least seriously striking ending, one that leaves us surprised but that also feels, when we think about it, like the only way the story could have ended. O. Henry is the undisputed master of that terrain, but again plenty of the best-known and most-collected short stories, especially those high school standards like “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Necklace,” and “The Lady or the Tiger” (all fun and engaging reads for sure) follow a similar pattern. And the trend crosses genres—I taught a number of science fiction and fantasy short stories from two best-of anthologies this past semester and was struck by how many (such as most of the stories that comprise Ray Bradbury’s great collection The Martian Chronicles) likewise included a jaw-dropping ending.
Almost guaranteed a spot on virtually any top-ten list of such stories—at least judging by my own experiences with it as both a student and a teacher—would have to be Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953). O’Connor’s story has plenty more going for it than just the ending—it’s a funny and biting portrait of a multi-generational American family as they embark on that most stereotypical and potentially treacherous of quests, the family vacation. It manages to make us feel superior and yet entirely similar to both the family as a whole and especially the grandmother and the father (her son) whose conflicts drive the story’s plot and bring them and us inexorably to its tragicomic and even horrifying final act. And that final act—and especially the final exchange of dialogue between the grandmother and the family’s unexpected nemesis, the criminal known only as The Misfit; lines which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling—is pitch-perfect for sure. If this is the only O’Connor that most folks are likely to read, it’s certainly not a bad choice.
But the twist-ending type is only one kind of perfect short story, and I would argue that in some ways it’s more potentially gimmicky than the other, which I would call the thoughtful and open-ended type; in these perfect stories, it feels as if we could keep reading and inhabiting the world well past the ending, and in fact we often find ourselves doing so. “Good Man” has a bit of that operating underneath the surface, especially in its portrayal of The Misfit’s perspective on himself, crime, and society’s influences. And another of O’Connor’s very best stories, “The Lame Shall Enter First” (1962) is a similarly pitch-perfect example of this type. This story of a father whose social and charitable efforts with needy children, undertaken after his wife’s untimely death, have sorely distracted him from his own son’s life and needs, is not without a striking and powerful ending by any means; but far from wrapping the story up in a bow, as the twist endings often do, this one feels as complex and messy and dynamic and evolving as the story’s relationships and characters, among whom we feel we could happily (well, productively) spend a good bit more time. And just as the outside narrator of “Good Man” moves across that story’s perspectives to build its multi-character portrait, the first-person narration by the father in “Lame” both highlights the limits of his perspective and yet allows us to sympathize deeply with what has created and influenced that perspective.
The open-ended story asks something different, and perhaps something more active, of us as readers than the twist-ending one—not just to be impressed by the skills of the author in whose hands we’ve put ourselves (a feeling with which I have concluded many great short stories of both types), but to examine, for ourselves and in our own experiences and lives, the questions with which the story has grappled; questions that have not only not been resolved by the story’s end but that feel in many ways as if they’ve just been posed to us. A story that does that perfectly is, in my experience, very good to find indeed. More tomorrow, on the philosopher of education and identity whose influences go way beyond the catalog.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Full text of “Good Man”: http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~surette/goodman.html
2) Google book of the collection that includes “Lame” (which starts on page 143 and is, I think, all here): http://books.google.com/books?id=-Sd3OkSndXQC&pg=PA143&lpg=PA143&dq=flannery+o'connor+the+lame+shall+enter+first&source=bl&ots=_L-_P_cqLM&sig=bBtnM75NVADF7MVLo96UAt3jjMI&hl=en&ei=qKoWTbL-G8Gp8Aai27mTDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CDwQ6AEwCTgK#v=onepage&q&f=false