Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two modern fairy tales

For a class I had to read "The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction." Some of these stories, like "The School," by Donald Barthelme, and "Girl," by Jamaica Kincaid, I have read so many times for classes that although they're very short, I find reading them comparable to sucking on a sweet-centered sour candy. I just want to get to the end.

With that complaint out of the way, I should mention that most of the stories in here are wonderful. T.C. Boyle, Mary Gaitskill, Amy Bloom, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones, and George Saunders are not to be missed. But the two stories that blew my mind were "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," by Russell Banks, and "The Disappeared," by Charles Baxter.

In "The Disappeared," a Swedish engineer named Anders is visiting Detroit on business. He asks the doorman at the hotel for some recommendations on how to spend his free time. The dialogue is so exact, capturing city dialect, that the reader can tell how confused Anders must be, although he tries to play along like he understands the American expressions hurled at him. Anders doesn't want to trouble people by asking them to be clearer. Eschewing the doorman's recommendation that he drink in bars for the duration of his trip, Anders goes to a park where he meets Lauren, and quickly falls in love. He can't figure out Lauren's ethnicity and thinks it would be rude to ask, so the reader never finds out either.

There is something intriguing about an outsider trying to find his way around a foreign place. Anders is one of those genuinely nice characters who gets dealt a bad hand. Walking around Detroit, he notices signs with missing letters. Fire imagery and smells waft through the story, symbolizing the fling with Lauren that flared passionately and died down.

In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," the narrator is a lawyer, wallowing in embarrassment over an affair he had with an ugly woman, Sarah Cole. He is so vague, saying it doesn't matter where the story takes place. He sounds like a crime suspect changing his story while being questioned, and yet having such an unreliable narrator gives this story a strong essence of truth. In the second sentence he reveals that Sarah Cole is dead, and like a good investigator following a trail of clues, the reader needs to learn how she died. They meet in a bar, after the narrator gets off work. (Perhaps if Anders, from "The Disappeared," had taken the doorman's advice to go to a bar, he would have wound up with a woman like Sarah Cole, instead of Lauren, that is, if this were one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.) The descriptions of Sarah Cole's appearance, voice, and mannerisms make her one of the most lifelike characters I've ever come across.

If anyone is familiar with the true story of how the biologist Herbert Spencer broke the heart of the novelist George Eliot,
that is what this story reminded me of. But at least George Eliot had brains and money and could get her revenge with words. Sarah Cole has neither brains, nor bank, nor dignity. She is like a hapless toad some witch has cast a spell on.

Both of these stories are rich in details, complexity and human emotion. They remind me of the most tragic of fairy tales, and attest that romantic tragedies don't need to end like Romeo and Juliet to have a heart-wrenching finish.

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