Friday, December 26, 2014

Three Short Stories That (In One Way or Another) Show the Strangeness of Day-to-Day Life

There are many things about day-to-day life that people take for granted - a stability and predictability that can be reassuring. But daily life isn't as stable, comfortable or rooted in common sense as it may appear when people coast along on it. The following are three stories that show an alien side to daily life and one's place in it.

Title: Health
Author: Joy Williams
Where I read it: American Short Stories Since 1945

I've read only one other story by Williams so far ("Train"), and in both that one and this one, she turns ordinary American life into an alien landscape. In "Health," the story centers on a 12-year-old girl on her way to a tanning parlor. And the story raises questions about 'healthiness' and what it means.

For instance, vacations ought to be healthful - but on a recent trip, the girl contracted tuberculosis. Not that she seems sick; the illness is dormant, so there are no visible signs of it. But it's there, more like a secret drama than a disease. Now she's going to the tanning parlor. She thinks it will make her look more attractive and maybe healthier, but is she healthy? How would she know?

Around her, there's a diseased culture. How do you find or gauge health in such a world? There are pills, powders, a spa; the trip to the tanning parlor that will make everything better. People meantime nurse secret resentments or darkness, and don't talk in meaningful ways. They can be exposed and opaque at the same time. There's sunlight everywhere, but it's artificial. Williams depicts a world that's funny and grotesque, in many small ways.

Title: The Housebreaker of Shady Hill
Author: John Cheever
Where I read it: American Short Stories Since 1945

A man living in a prosperous neighborhood walks into his neighbor's home and steals a wallet. He doesn't have a history of break-ins and theft. He's outwardly a respectable man. But he's in financial straits, so he does it.

Cheever undermines the idea of people living by fixed moral principles; here it's more a mess of emotions and reactions to specific pressures (not all of them understood or possible to resolve with the simple theft of a wallet). Trust between neighbors, love between family members, is in many ways fragile. Making the right choice can be a result not of a firm guiding idea of what's right, but because it has started raining, and a cascade of feelings follow, a sudden melting away of social pressures. In Cheever's stories, a peaceful suburb can be a place of both beauty and gnawing fear in the night, a wild place and not at all stable.

Title: Thought Tracks in the Snow
Author: Dambudzo Marechera
Where I read it: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

A black Rhodesian man in England, watching snow fall, hears a refrain in his mind: "you're crazy, you're crazy, you're crazy."

Socially isolated, uprooted, severed from his family and country, he's now a student and tutor in England. His most vivid, immediate memories from Rhodesia are the beatings at the hands of police at a student demonstration. Those memories, and this sense of insanity when watching the snow, produce the strongest sensations he experiences.

Marechera's story can have the effect of a camera zooming in, up close, and then zooming out. Zooming in, there are the visceral moments (the feeling of a truncheon slamming against bone), different violent events meshed together (the beatings from police blending with the fight he has with another man in England). Zooming out, and the narrator is looking at his life from the sidelines; he might be having conversations or other encounters that in an ordinary frame of mind would strike him as important, but he's detached and watchful, and tired. He's never comfortably inhabiting his life or at peace in his own skin; his life continues to have an alien quality to it - it's his and not his, and he's unsure of what his place is in relation to other people. They might not really see him, as if he's a ghost.

There's a peaceful oblivion to the snow - the harshness and bumps covered over, the ability to gently break apart into nothing (and wouldn't this be a relief in some ways?). But that's the terror too - a complete loss of self and the ability to map mental and emotional terrain.