Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Three Short Stories About Waking Up Later in Life

Title: New-Wave Format
Author: Bobbie Ann Mason
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The main character, Edwin, is a 40-something man in a relationship with a woman about twenty years younger. It works, at least at the start, because he hasn't changed much since he was her age. He's drifted through life in a kind of stupor, with little awareness of the world and understanding of himself.

Interestingly, it's his new job as a bus driver for developmentally disabled adults that pushes him to develop. (And this story isn't sentimental about his growing understanding and affection for them, and their attachment to him. It feels real.) As he gets to know them better and take responsibility for their safety when they're on his watch, he wakes up a little - and with this new maturity and awareness comes pain. The author doesn't shy from the pain of growing and the loss which comes with re-evaluating one's life and relationships. There might be healing but also a regret for the years, even decades, that have slipped by unnoticed.

Where does the 'new-wave format' come into this? Edwin plays music on his bus - first only oldies and then experimenting with newer more electric and frenetic music - while pretending to be a disc jockey. Music connects him not only to his passengers, but to different parts of his life. The older music, listened to in a new context, helps him revisit and better understand a past he's slept through. He ages mentally on that bus; the music helps to bring him up to date. In different ways, both the old and new music push him to the present moment and underscore the way he relates to his passengers. At the end, he's more mature - but this also means he can't slip back into the comfortable sleep that's cushioned him over the years.

Title: Revelation
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

O'Connor's stories sting; they're thoughtful and sharp, and sometimes funny in a dark way. Even when a character experiences some kind of redemption, the moment isn't necessarily hopeful. There's no easy redemption in her stories. This one begins in a doctor's waiting room, a good setting for bringing together people from different levels of the social hierarchy and pressing them into a confined space, forcing them to breathe each other's air; the setting also suggests that the people occupying it are in need of a cure of some kind, not necessarily medical.

The main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a woman who lives by social distinctions. She's a respectable white woman who knows exactly where she fits in relative to everyone else. Hers is an ordered world, and it feels like a gift she received for being the spotless creature she is. It's only proper that she command respect and own land with her husband.

Another person in the waiting room, a sullen, bookish teenaged girl named Mary Grace, takes a savage dislike to Mrs. Turpin. Their violent confrontation shakes Mrs. Turpin's complacency, her perception of her own goodness and the idea that the social hierarchy in the world around her somehow mirrors what's in Heaven.

From what I remember of the story, Mary Grace's mother is much like Mrs. Turpin; perhaps Mary Grace strikes out at Mrs. Turpin as an indirect blow to her mother as well - and a blow against everyone who maintains a society based on polite fictions, with genteel manners substituting for kind sincerity. Mary Grace's anger isn't misdirected and strange; it's the rage of someone who can see the lies but can do little to change anything. Nonetheless, she helps transform Mrs. Turpin, who takes Mary Grace's attack as a personal spiritual message.

Mary Grace and Mrs. Turpin are also similar (Mary Grace might as well be Mrs. Turpin's daughter, or maybe the teenaged version of her in an alternate life). Mary Grace's attack unleashes some of Mrs. Turpin's personal fierceness, which is usually masked by gentility and expressed in petty ways. When Mrs. Turpin's world gets turned upside down, her ordered world smashed, she rages. She shouts questions at Heaven. She has a kind of savage strength in her, and her faith is no longer a complacent feeling of well-being but more a cry of anger and fierce questioning.

Title: Rosendo's Tale
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Translator: Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Where I Read It: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry

The narrator's voice in this one pulls you into the story. He's a man who has killed someone in a knife fight and gets recruited, via a corrupt police force, to intimidate voters at the behest of corrupt politicians. He does this for years; a life where manhood isn't defined by near-constant physical violence seems unimaginable. And then at some point he sees the senselessness of it, including a key moment where he sees himself mirrored in another man - what he must look like himself as a brute. Could he have had that moment of recognition at any time in his life, or did he have to get worn away a bit by the passage of years?

[Edited 2/2015]