Thursday, February 12, 2015

Four short stories for an unromantic Valentine's Day

Title: How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things

This reads as a twist on the tired idea that men and women are from different planets. Two teenaged boys, one of them shy and the other one more confident, wind up at a party where the girls are literally aliens - intergalactic travelers, countless galaxies in their eyes. One girl is a living poem containing the essence of a people whose planet died. Intimacy can be terrifying, what with the universe we each have in our heads.

Title: Legal Aid
Author: Frank O'Connor
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

In Ireland, two young people fool around, the girl gets pregnant, the boy is weak-willed, the boy's father objects strenuously to the idea of marriage, and finally it's up to the girl's lawyer to try and resolve the situation out of court where it's made its way in a paternity suit. The story is full of sly humor and spot-on observations about social pressures and people's petty foolishness. It also compares people's messy actions and motives to the tidy narratives they try to spin in court - where they become 2D figures (paragons or fiends) in a staged drama that has little to do with justice. One lawyer has to choose either to destroy his target in court the way he's been paid to do or to recognize her humanity and the all around fragility and shabbiness of the situation.

Title: Liars in Love
Author: Richard Yates
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

Love in this story is a temporary word, used when convenient to express a short-lived need. Play-acting at love is a way to fight off loneliness. The main character is on a scholarship in England and on his own for a while. He acts like someone else and steps into a life that isn't his. It's an intense but hollow fiction. And if he can express love as a lie so neatly during this brief, unusual interlude, what does it say about his feelings the rest of the time when he's back in his "real life?" Throughout the story, there's the sense of people engaging in the mechanics of a relationship (sex, cohabitation, meeting the partner's family), but without real intimacy. They clutch at each other for a while and remain lonely.

Title: The Littoral Zone
Author: Andrea Barrett
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Two scientists studying marine life have an affair. Both are married. When they're apart from their families, their relationship makes sense to them, and they think it's worth the betrayals and upheaval. But what will they discover about themselves, years later? What made sense at one point in their lives might no longer apply, and what they live on now are stories they tell to try to justify and redeem what they've lost.

In oceanography, the term 'littoral zone' refers to the part of the ocean nearest the shore (it also sounds erogenous). It's an unsteady place, subject to currents, winds, the tide, the shape of the shoreline and other sources of influence. Creatures that thought they'd learned to thrive there might find themselves gasping on dry land or thrashing around in unexpected turbulence. To keep living, they need to adapt, even if circumstances are now less favorable than they were before. To survive, they can't turn on each other. The stories they tell regulate the tension in their relationship and preserve a certain environment that allows them to both keep breathing.