Thursday, March 14, 2013

Good Short Fiction: 3 Tales from 40 Short Stories

Collection: 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology (1st ed.)
Editor: Beverly Lawn

Title: Civil Peace
Author: Chinua Achebe

Soon after his country's civil war, a decent man counts his blessings and tries to make a life for himself and his family again. But the end of war doesn't guarantee stability, and everything that he and his family work for and try to save could easily be taken from them. Life is precarious in both war and peacetime, and sometimes the man wonders if there's any form of justice in the world that people can understand. He can't explain why good things or bad things happen; all he can do is make the best of what he has, try to survive, and leave the bigger questions unanswered. Achebe's story has a sweet, bewildered tone; even when robbers show up at the man's house, there's a sad sing-song quality to their words and the writing as a whole, like the voice of their child-selves in a world that makes little sense.


Title: The Lottery
Author: Shirley Jackson

Even knowing what would happen at the end (this was my second reading), I was tense throughout. I was also able to pick up on more of the foreshadowing this time around.

The story is set in a small town, where people are pleasant to each other, very neighborly, and there's excitement and nervousness about an upcoming lottery. The lottery is a regularly held ritual calling for the participation of all citizens, young and old.

When this story was first published in the late 1940s, it struck a nerve. Jackson had set The Lottery in a location resembling an ordinary small American town. She made a good choice; small American towns with their neighborly people have been the sites of brutal group violence. No matter what its history, there isn't a single community that can allow itself to be complacent; setting a barbaric ritual in what appears to be a pleasant, ordinary place highlights this. The story also questions the foundation of people's lives. If an otherwise friendly bunch of people perpetrate a savage ritual, one that has no apparent purpose, what does this say about the rest of their lives or the way they think? On what principles does their society rest - on traditions upheld without question? Why do they need this ritual?


Title: What We Talk About When We Talk about Love
Author: Raymond Carver

Four people sit around drinking and talking about love, or what they think love is. It's not as if they reach a consensus. One of them is a cardiologist, this time talking about the heart in another sense.

Throughout the story, some examples of "love" are offered up. One person defines the actions of an abusive ex-boyfriend as love. Another talks about an elderly couple who've landed in the ICU after a car accident.

I like the story for its quietness, its skilled use of dialogue, and the way it raises many questions about love and our perceptions of it. What are the narratives about love that we live by, for better or worse?
There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love?
The characters are in a quiet room, and they all seem detached from their lives, probably because they're drinking and reminiscing, and are also trying to step back and evaluate experiences they usually don't think about. (What, if anything, will they make of their thoughts? Will they change anything in their lives, or are these thoughts on love only left to quiet moments with a drink on hand?) There's minimal information about their surroundings, but sometimes a detail jumps out, like the presence of leaves at a window.


Other recommended stories in this collection include The Cask of Amontillado (by Edgar Allan Poe), Paul's Case (by Willa Cather), A Good Man Is Hard to Find (by Flannery O'Connor), The Metamorphosis (by Franz Kafka), A White Heron (by Sarah Orne Jewett), and The Open Boat (by Stephen Crane).

[Updated 1/2015]