Afternoon in Linen by Shirley Jackson

Kristen Roupenian joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “Afternoon in Linen,” by Shirley Jackson, which appeared in a 1943 issue of the New Yorker magazine. I count this story as a perfect example of the dark carnivalesque, in the same way The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is darkly carnivalesque. Unlike a picture book for young readers, in which a cat in a hat appears and everyone has fun for a while, these older characters of the dark carnivalesque subgenre have fun playing with each other in a bid for power and respect, however small the stage.

Below are my own thoughts building on notes taken from the converation between Roupenian and Treisman.

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Marriage á la Mode by Katherine Mansfield

“Marriage á la Mode” (1921) is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, first published in a December edition of The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home. Magazines don’t normally publish summery stories in winter, but it makes more sense to know this magazine was aimed at British citizens living in the colonies.

This story was later published in The Garden Party And Other Stories.

Love letters are a risky business. Revealing yourself to another person opens the risk of rejection, but if you had to do it onstage? What if the recipient of your ardour and your expression of vulnerability thought it was funny, and shared your most private, loving self with others for jokes?

Have you ever sent a love letter? What about a revealing email? A selfie? A naked selfie? This story is 100 years old, but we are still sharing ourselves with others in ways that leaves footprints. In fact, we now do this in a variety of uber-revealing ways. People we trust still betray us by sharing our secrets more widely, without our permission. With the Internet, the size of the audience, and the size of possible shame, has grown many times over. The point of shame in this story is probably even more relatable to a contemporary audience.

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Stephen King’s The Mist

When you encounter mist in real life, what do you recall? Stephen King’s novella? Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella? The 2017 TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella?

You may have even studied “The Mist” in literature class — the tertiary level equivalent of Lord of the Flies. This popular science fiction horror contains plenty for discussion and analysis.

Or maybe you’ve never encountered Stephen King’s Mist story before in your entire life, and you don’t scream to family members, “SOMETHING IN THE MIST TOOK JOHN LEE!” whenever fog descends.

I’ve seen the 2007 film numerous times but only just read the novella. There will inevitably be some conflation of those two slightly different stories below, so I’m going to talk about both without worrying about mixing them up.

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Stone Mattress Short Story by Margaret Atwood

1949 March, cover by Arthur Lidov ship

“Stone Mattress” is a masterful short story written by Margaret Atwood, published in The New Yorker in 2011. You’ll also find this story in the Nine Wicked Tales collection.

Some years later, in 2018, author A.M. Homes discussed this story with Deborah Treisman via the New Yorker Fiction podcast, noting that this is (unfortunately) a timeless story.

How many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?

Mona Eltahawy (and implied by Margaret Atwood)
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Coming Soon Short Story by Steven Millhauser

“Coming Soon” is a short story by American novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, first published at The New Yorker in 2013. (About 3,900 words.) Chang-rae Lee discussed this story with Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. The following are my thoughts after reading the story and listening to their discussion.

“You go to sleep one day, wake up and everything’s changed!” This is the sort of hyperbolic statement you might hear from someone describing the pace of change and their inability to keep up with it. Millhauser has taken a sentiment like this and turned it into something literal.

I believe this story has much in common with cosmic horror, and could be described as a contemporary version of that subgenre. Cosmic horror of the Edwardian era has limited appeal to modern audiences, but the big cosmic question remains: Do humans see reality as it really is? Like stories such as The Turn of the Screw, once you start reading this story, you realise that nothing in it is really clear. The less clear a situation, the more readers project our own personal nightmares onto it.

1957 April cover for Fortune magazine by Edmund Lewandowski
1957 April cover for Fortune magazine by Edmund Lewandowski
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The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich

“The Years Of My Birth” (2011) is a short story by Louise Erdrich.

Tommy Orange joined Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “The Years of My Birth,” by Louise Erdrich, which appeared in a 2011 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

The author has said that her novels come from her short stories. “The Years Of My Birth” led to the novel The Round House. Despite the connection and clear evolution, the two are best considered separate works. However, in the New Yorker discussion it’s clear Treisman and Orange have read both. They know a few things which can’t be learned from the story itself, for instance the real name of Tuffy (Linda) which is hinted at but not explicit in the short story. If you’ve read the book, your reading of the short story will be influenced by what you learned in that.

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The Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield

“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1922) is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in The Garden Party And Other Stories.

This story contains some classic horror tropes, and if you didn’t know what a barrel-organ sounded like before, here’s the creepy-ass thing. Honestly, I’d rather go to sleep listening to the tinkle of an ice-cream van driven by the clown from IT:

Look, it’s the monkey. The monkey makes it.

A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.

Although Katherine Mansfield died at the tender age of 34 and so never lived long enough to experience the invisibilisation which comes to women around menopause, she must have either felt it as a younger woman or observed it in others. She did grow up in a household which included two unmarried aunts — younger sisters of her mother. Belle did eventually marry, around the time Katherine left New Zealand the second time, and if Claire Fallon’s biography is anything to go by, Harold Beauchamp (Katherine’s father, Belle’s brother-in-law) didn’t really like everyone leaving his home, where he had been surrounded by women (and lest we forget, so was King Henry the Eighth).

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The Home Girls by Olga Masters

William Frederick Yeames - For the Poor

“The Home Girls” is a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters (1919 – 1986), and the first story of Masters’ 1982 collection, also called The Home Girls. I’m interested in Olga Masters partly because her fiction wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. Then, when she was published, she won a bunch of awards. The Home Girls won a National Book Council Award in 1983.

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Purple Blooms by Carol Shields

Alain Le Foll, The Very Obliging Flowers, 1968

“Purple Blooms” is a short story by American-born Canadian writer Carol Shields (1935 – 2003), included in the collection Various Miracles (1985).

This short story showcases how different the lyrical short form can be from the novel. For one thing, “Purple Blooms” doesn’t seem to have a typical ending. Look closer, and that’s because the plot is an unusual shape: Cumulative. Another short story with a cumulative plot shape is “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector, though Lispector’s story is more obviously so. In a cumulative story the author keeps circling around a topic, enlarging it with each revisit.

Sometimes, the shape of a lyrical short story echoes its symbol web. In this case, I feel the shape of the story continues the motif of ‘blooming’. The ‘purple bloom’ of the title is a verb as well as a noun; to bloom is to start small and then, well, blossom. That’s how it feels to read a short story shaped in this fashion. This plot shape is especially well-suited to the short form. The shorter the better, probably. Adult readers have limited patience for revisiting something over and over. (In contrast, the cumulative plot shape is far more common in picture books. Young children seem to require repetition; it helps them to learn language and to understand their world.)

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Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

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