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Short Story Study: The Chaste Clarissa

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A twice-divorced philanderer holidays where he has always holidayed, on Martha’s Vineyard. On the ferry he meets for the first time a beautiful young woman who has recently married into a bird-watching, rock-collecting family of average Joes, but her husband won’t be joining Clarissa on the island, so our viewpoint character decides immediately that she shall be his next conquest. He sets up a plan to make this happen.

SETTING

Place

Vineyard Haven is a community within the town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States.

Tisbury

Time

Published in 1952, this is a story set in the same time. This was The Decade of the Housewife, an era which we still tend to idealise, forgetting perhaps, the problems described by Betty Friedan and others.

Milieu

As usual in Cheever’s stories thus far, ‘The Chaste Clarissa’ is a story about upper-class people with upper-class issues. We have holiday homes and housemaids and copious amounts of spare time. Whatever else was going on in the world is irrelevant to these characters, underscored by the fact that this is set on a literal island.

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Short Story Study: The Cure by John Cheever

martini

One Cheever-endorsed Cure for Loneliness: Drink many martinis and forget the difference between reality and delusion.

In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats.

Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger.

John Truby, Secrets of Genre

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

From The New Yorker:

The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.

The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story, however — theirs is only a surface level summary. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true?

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Short Story Study: The Burgundy Weekend by Mavis Gallant

This is a wonderfully frustrating story. The awful character of Gilles will probably remind you of someone you have known at least once in your life. He is a caricature, to be sure, but not so much of one that he isn’t immediately recognisable. You will feel as if you are stuck inside a car with him yourself. Once you arrive at the house in Burgundy, you’ll feel like an unwelcome guest. You’ll be ignored by a Madame and finally, perhaps, feel a little lighter after someone gets told the truth. But you’ll feel, overall, that you’ve just returned from a very unpleasant trip.

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Short Story Study: Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first this reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

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Short Story Study: Clancy in the Tower of Babel by John Cheever

It’s difficult to read the stories of John Cheever without taking what you know of the author’s life as a palimpsest for his characterisations. Though I’m interested in reading one of the biographies, I’m deliberately holding off until I’ve finished his collected short stories, but even the most rudimentary look into the life of the author soon highlights his bisexuality as influential in the themes of his work.

In “Clancy in the Tower of Babel” (1953), Cheever dealt with homosexuality overtly for the first time. But his treatment is stereotypical; he portrays his homosexual characters as effeminate, hysterical, and tortured.

glbtq

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

An Irish immigrant to New York has an accident at his labouring job and eventually finds a job as an elevator operator at a nearby apartment block which, despite its geographic proximity, is completely foreign to Clancy, and his simple life which is in many ways humble. He gets to know the people who come and go, and eventually learns that one of the men is gay. He is disgusted when this man brings back a male lover, and refuses to take them down in the elevator.

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Short Story Study: The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler:

A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.

SETTING

Place

This story takes place in the city but  from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.

The Tennysons live in a tenth floor apartment.

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Picturebook Study: Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman

This book is less picturebook (compound word), more ‘illustrated short story’ in typical picture book binding. In other words, the story could exist in its own right. The illustrations expand the story, sure, but unlike typical picture books for younger readers the words still make sense on their own. So perhaps this is best described as an illustrated short story for older readers — the most interesting kind of story I know (and sadly, the one most likely to go out of print or never make it to soft back, from what I can gather).

Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Australian Horror Writers’ Association

WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

Written in first person point of view, the character as narrator, Stuart Quill, describes his university room mate Caleb van Doorn. It’s clear to the reader from inference that Caleb is the human version of an insect. Both Stuart and Caleb are studying entomology. Caleb’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. He never seems to eat, but is one day caught eating a bowl of raw meat, with blood all around his mouth. On a field trip these two are supposed to be sharing a tent. Instead, Caleb disappears into the forest and manages to find a great collection of very rare insects. In the end, a woman is murdered and Caleb goes missing. The mystery is never solved. But enough information is given to the reader for us to know exactly what happened: Caleb metamorphoses backwards  and forward between insect and human, and in some sort of ‘reverse sexual cannibalism’ (that’s what they call it, since it’s normally the females who eat the males), Miss Emily is killed.

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Short Story Study: O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Stupidly optimistic, Evarts Molloy writes the first act of a play then uproots his family and takes them to New York on thirty-five dollars, which to him seems like a huge sum. Everything in New York seems to glitter. The reader — more worldly than Evarts and Alice — can see before the hapless protagonists do that these two are being taken for a ride, filled with false promises and dreams by unscrupulous New York agents.

SETTING

Location and Time

Wentworth Indiana seems to be a fictionalised town of the sort found scattered around rural Indiana in the 1940s: poor, with hard-working country folk and the odd local eccentric. This is the unseen setting of the story, though contrasted constantly with its urban inverse, New York. Continue reading

Short Story Study: The Cost Of Living by Mavis Gallant

This is the kind of subtle story which would make a terrible movie adaptation, except perhaps in the most subtle of hands. One character confronts another for some wrong-doing, and in one fell swoop the wrongdoer manages to sully the waters with ease, simply because she’s had so much practice.

degas-little-dancer-front

Sylvie is compared to Degas’ Dancer, with her thrust up head and insolent chin.

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Short Story Study: The Common Day by John Cheever

“The Common Day” is a slice of life story set around the time of the 20th Century world wars. Though this story was first published after WW2 had ended, the story is set in a time of unrest, when even the most cosseted upper-crust of New Hampshire can’t feel entirely at ease about the future. When dividing the Cheever stories according to location, this is one of his ‘exurban’ or ‘vacation’ stories.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Our viewpoint character, Jim Brown, is spending 10 days in the country at his wife’s family’s house, somewhere in New Hampshire. Jim himself is a city person. When he gets to his mother-in-law’s large country estate, he is rather flattered to find that the male gardener seeks him out. The gardener misses male company, and wants to tell him that all his vegetables are going to waste unless someone orders them to be eaten. Jim also sets some traps for a raccoon who has been making mischief in the crops.

Later that evening, there is an afternoon storm and everyone’s mood seems to alter. The conversation on the terrace takes a sombre tone. The gardener approaches his mistresses and tells her that he won’t be moving the lilies that she had asked him to move earlier that day. He has a bit of an outburst about how all his boss ever does is kill flowers, whereas he is the one who knows all about gardening.

The raccoon gets caught in a trap that has been set for it. Jim finishes it off by shooting it twice in the head. This wakes his niece and her maid, who come to see what the commotion is about. Somewhat reassured, the woman and girl retreat to bed. Jim Brown wishes he could help them somehow, by offering them his light. Continue reading

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