Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes
Ted is super helpful. On a busy street, he assists people with disabilities or kids separated from their mothers. He puts in extra time at work. And he keeps referring to the many friends he has, and the people at work who like and value him.
Then why was he so alone? Why does he go to bed each night hoping for immediate sleep to ward off his loneliness? Why does he go every Sunday afternoon to the pictures and sit alone in the dark through two showings of the programme, and then return to his deserted flat and once more go to bed, trying to evade the loneliness?Ted is super helpful, or at least that's how he sees himself. Behind his back, people call him unflattering things, like "conceited" and "overbearing." But what happens after his death? They say nicer things about him at his funeral - that he was "helpful," "courteous," "a noble and good man." Has the way he died influenced how they choose to remember him (or how they say they remember him)? His attempts at helpfulness form a shell around his hollow life, and the way people speak of him after he departs from that life doesn't change how isolated he was. His helpfulness never meant as much as he wanted it to.
He hasn't a friend in the world, and he knows it.
Title: The Comforts of Home
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: Everything That Rises Must Converge
Fear, anger, and self-hatred are often directed outward. Good deeds may be twisted by a lack of self-awareness and a poor understanding of other people. Gratitude is easily overshadowed by resentment and contempt.
Thomas, the main character, is in his 30s and lives with his mother, who supports him and tends to him. When she extends her generosity to an unstable young woman, Thomas finds the situation intolerable. His life is shaped by his mother serving him, and by the voice of his deceased father, a man with a rotten character; his father's voice is in his head, corrupting him and rendering him powerless to be his own man. Thomas shares some similarities with the young woman he hates, namely the fact that neither shows much gratitude to his mother. They're also both stunted people. Instead of fighting to understand himself better and push against the demons in his head, Thomas makes the fight external, so that his mother's home becomes a battleground where he pits himself against a female demon. He can't see or admit to himself that he's stuck in a state of immaturity or that (horrors) he may even find this woman sexually attractive.
Title: The Embassy of Cambodia
Author: Zadie Smith
Where I Read It: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2014
Fatou is an undocumented African immigrant who currently lives in England and works for the Derawals, a wealthy Indian family. She considers whether she's their slave, as they withhold her wages for food and board and keep hold of her passport. However, they don't keep her locked up, maybe because there are few places she can go. One exception - that Fatou makes an exception for herself - is a local health club; she sneaks into the club using one of the Derawals' guest passes that they've forgotten about. And she makes one friend, another immigrant studying part-time in England and working as a night guard.
The story highlights sharp divisions. A street, even in a first world and supposedly liberal country, can be carved up among different ethnic groups who keep to themselves. There are also divisions based on wealth and on one's status as an immigrant. Fatou can't declare to the wider world who she is and where she lives. Back home, she worked at a resort and was raped by a guest who afterwards pleaded with her not to tell anyone, as if the authorities would have helped her. So she's in England, working for a family that despises her and would respond to accusations of injustice by insisting that she feel grateful for their employment. However, when she saves one of the Derawals' children, they find that they can't live with gratitude towards her. To feel grateful to her would mean seeing her as a fully fledged human, and the position in which they've placed her doesn't allow for her full humanity.
What on Earth does the embassy of Cambodia have to do with any of this? Fatou passes by this embassy. She can't see past its walls or know who is playing a game of badminton on its grounds. The idea of Cambodia is an abstract one. She's as of little concern to them as they are to her. People can live a short distance from each other and know nothing of each other.
Title: A Gift from Somewhere
Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story
The story starts with an encounter between two people: a wandering religious man who scrapes together a living offering spontaneous prayers and placebos, and a woman who's afraid her baby is dying. Her other babies have died, and this one looks like he's going to follow. The man, who didn't anticipate having to work miracles with a nearly dead baby, is terrified the child will die in his arms; as soon as he has handed out an injunction to the mother for preserving life, he gets out of there and leaves the child to its almost inevitable death.
The story then shifts perspective to the mother. Her baby, named Kweku Nyamekye, unexpectedly survives and becomes a thriving boy. Was it a divine miracle, worked through the religious man? What happened exactly to cause the reversal in her fortunes and her child's? It's a mystery. There's also another mystery that the mother can't understand - the hatred that her husband feels towards Nyamekye. Maybe he envies the extent of her devotion to the child, what she's willing to sacrifice for the boy and the bright hopes she holds for his future - an adult life that will maybe offer more possibilities and broader horizons than his father's. The characters seem to live in an invisible, complex system of weights and balances, where the calculations are made just out of sight.
There's a ferris wheel feeling to the story, sinking and rising in one's chest, only the ferris wheel is an unstable one; it wobbles more than is safe and might tumble and roll away. Despair rises to hope and joy; hope and joy sink to anger and defensiveness, before rising again to hope. One person's fortune might feel to another like a curse. Throughout the narrative, there's a bewilderment about why people behave the way they do, and why events unfold as they do. The characters are religious, but ascribing events to divine will still leaves them uncertain and reeling, shaken with gratitude and joy or staggering with loss. There's little they take for granted.