Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I've read some great short fiction over the past few days, alternating between Shirley Jackson and Jean Thompson.

Jean Thompson's quite a surprise. In the two stories I've read so far from her collection Throw Like a Girl, Thompson uses an omniscient narrator who clings very closely to one character's point of view, setting the reader deep inside their consciousnesses. Both characters, female, are trapped, one by her age (she's 12), the other by her passivity in the company of her boyfriend. Such accurate portraits, and such interesting--though not unexpected--turns the stories take. I have to read more to get a broader sense of her.

I first heard about Thompson when Alan Cheuse reviewed her latest book on NPR. He talked about her as if "Of course you know who she is." No, I didn't. Thank you, NPR!

The Jackson stories are mostly those I've read before. I don't think I've ever read so many at once, however, and doing so lets me see what's constant about her stories: a preoccupation with social discomfort. Often, people can't speak up or simply don't know how to respond; rather than epiphanic moments, characters face moments of existential dread--though they don't recognize then as such.

This makes me think I've been missing one of the key elements in "The Lottery" when I teach it: What does Bessie Hutchinson's reaction to getting the black dot tell us about her as a person? The way the story shifts from the quotidian to the ultimate is actually a distraction from this character whose behavior is built on the expectation that life will continue to proceed in a certain way. Her horror is not about her imminent death--at least, not in terms of Jackson's larger social preoccupations. Rather, her horror is that events have unfolded in a new way, which forces her not to question the lottery itself but the physical and social mechanics of the day's ceremony.

I flipped through Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 (I got it from the library to copy Karen Joy Fowler's outstanding "What I Didn't See" for a colleague), but couldn't find anything of interest. The introduction to Harlan Ellison's story sucked most of the potential joy from it; nevertheless, I plowed ahead, but found that the writing itself, trying so hard to be, in his own word, "antic," drained away the rest of the story's potential.

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