I made it to the gym again yesterday, which felt fantastic–despite the fact that I added a set to everything, and upped the speed of the treadmill by .2 miles per hour. The stretching helps; I can’t believe I worked out all those years without bothering to ever take the time to stop and stretch (okay, yes, I was naturally flexible, but I wouldn’t have lost the level of flexibility I had if I’d been stretching all those years). I also organized a bit, did some chores around the house, and wrote the first draft of a story for an anthology with a deadline of February 15th. The story’s not quite there yet, but I think it’s not only a good idea but one that revisions and rewrites will only make stronger. Huzzah! And yay for me!
It was also in the seventies (!!!) yesterday; considering just three days ago we had a hard freeze…yeah, the weather in southeastern Louisiana might be a bit bipolar. I also had a breakthrough on how to revise the first chapter, not only of the WIP but of the Scotty as well. Hallelujah! I really think this focus and positivity mantra might actually be working. Granted, it’s still only January, but between the working out, and the writing…yeah, this is turning into a much better year already than last.
I also read some short stories!
First up was “Music for Chameleons.” by Truman Capote, from his collection Music for Chameleons:
She is tall and slender, perhaps seventy, silver-haired, soigne, neither black nor white, a pale golden rum color. She is a Martinique aristocrat who lives in Fort de France but also has an apartment in Paris. We are sitting on the terrace of her house, an airy, elegant house that looks as if it was made of wooden lace: it reminds me of certain old New Orleans houses. We are drinking iced mint tea slightly flavored with absinthe.
Three green chameleons race one another across the terrace; one pauses at Madame’s feet, flicking its forked tongue, and she comments: “Chameleons. Such exceptional creatures. The way they change color. Red. Yellow. Lime. Pink. Lavender. And did you know that are very fond of music?” She regards me with her fine black eyes. “You don’t believe me?”
During the course of the afternoon she had told me many curious things. How at night her garden with filled with mammoth night-flying moths. That her chauffeur, a dignified figure who had driven me to her house in a dark green Mercedes, was a wife-poisoner who had escaped from Devil’s Island. And she had described a village high in the norther mountains that is inhabited entirely by albinos: “Little pink-eyed people white as chalk. Occasionally one sees a few on the streets of Fort de France.”
I love Truman Capote’s work–I reread In Cold Blood every few years or so, and his short fiction is also pretty compelling. I started reading this story before, but never finished; but in reading it now I realize I kind of borrowed the opening of this one for the opening of a chapter of Garden District Gothic, when Scotty goes to see Vernita Godwin, who is sitting on her front gallery in the Garden District sipping absinthe. I really love that image, of two people on a gallery sipping absinthe while ceiling fans turn overhead. The story isn’t really a story, in the classic definition of what comprises a story; this is more of the slice of life school of short stories, because it’s really just about a conversation between two people after dinner, about life in Fort de France, Guadeloupe. Part of the conversation is about a homophobic hate crime that had occurred on the island in the past; surprisingly, justice was actually served because, as the lady puts it, ‘we don’t tolerate murder here.’ But the strongest image of this poetically written story is the lady, sitting at the piano playing classical music for the iguanas, who listen in the doorway to the terrace and bob their colored heads in time with the music. That’s what I read Capote for–those poetic images.
Next up was “The Intoxicated” by Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery and Other Stories:
He was just tight enough and just familiar enough with the house to be able to go out into the kitchen alone, apparently to get ice, but actually to sober up a little; he was not quite enough a friend of the family to pass out on the living-room couch. He left the party behind without reluctance, the group by the piano singing “Stardust,” his hostess talking earnestly to a young man with thin clean glasses and a sullen mouth; he walked guardedly through the dining-room where a little group of four or five people sat on the stiff chairs reasoning something out carefully among themselves; the kitchen doors swung abruptly to his touch, and he sat down beside an enormous white enamel table, clean and cold under his hand. He put his glass on a good spot in the green pattern and looked up to find that a young girl was regarding him speculatively from across the table.
“Hello,” he said. “You the daughter?”
“I’m Eileen,” she said. “Yes.”
I’m also a huge fan of Shirley Jackson who, as Stephen King once said, ‘never had to raise her voice.’ This story, like the Capote, is a slice of life type story, with a bit of a bizarre twist to it. The drunk party guest and the teenaged daughter have a lengthy conversation about how his generation has ruined the world and how it is up to hers to burn everything to the ground so it can start over, and be the better for it. It’s unsettling, but the end–when he returns to the party a little more sober than when he left it–leaves you to wonder what is going to become of Eileen–and what that story would be like.
I haven’t read a lot of Jackson’s short fiction–I’ve not read “The Lottery,” although I’ve seen the short film made of it in grade school and in an Acting class in high school we did the play, but I intend to remedy this grave error and lack in my reading history during this Short Story Project.
The third story I read was “Pastorale” by James M. Cain, included in Best American Noir of the Twentieth Century, by editors James Ellroy and Otto Penzler;
Well, it looks like Burbie is going to get hung. And if he does; what he can lay it on is, he always figured he was so damned smart.
You see, Burbie, he left town when he was about sixteen years old. He run away with one of them traveling shows, “East Lynne” I think it was, and he stayed away about ten years. And when he came back he thought he knowed a lot. Burbie, he’d got them watery blue eyes what kind of stick out from his face, and how he killed the time was to sit around and listen to the boys talk down at the poolroom or over at the barber shop or a couple other places where he hung out, and then wink at you like they was all making a fool of theirself and nobody didn’t know it but him.
This was Cain’s first published story, and it is not only a macabre, dark little story but it also, as the editors point out, contains themes Cain would return to again and again in his short novels; amoral man has affair with beautiful woman and they plan together to kill her husband. “Pastorale” though, isn’t told from the point of view of the amoral man, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity; the story is told by a third party, someone who knows what happened and is telling the story to someone–the reader, but it’s told almost entirely in vernacular and in that man’s voice, which is arresting and very strong and very rural; the voice reminded me a lot of his Appalachian saga of incest and murder, The Butterfly, and it also reminded me of Faulkner. The tale teller passes no judgment on Burbie or his lady love for their adultery and murder; if anything, he thinks they were fools because Burbie’s own vanity is what wound up bringing them down. It also gave me some thoughts about voice, and point of view, and story-telling.
If you cannot tell, Constant Reader, I am greatly enjoying my self-education in The Art of the Short Story, and I hope you are enjoying following me on this path half as much as I am enjoying going down it.
And now, back to the spice mines.