Sunday, May 8, 2011

Today's short fiction review

I've got to get back to regularly reading short fiction. Forthwith (Am I using that word correctly? I've never used it before . . . ) I'll read at least one short story a day, mostly from collections I have at hand but have never finished reading.

"Unterseaboat Doktor," Ray Bradbury (from Quicker Than the Eye)
I've read a few stories from this collection, which was a gift. Starting in perhaps ninth grade, I was a huge Bradbury fan, reading everything he'd done. Even by the end of the '70s, however, the downward shift in the quality of his writing (which varied wildly in any case) was evident. I've long said the Bradbury learned the wrong lessons about his work as he went along. His dialogue was never strong, but, perversely, it came to predominate, and eventually most all of his characters sounded like him: breathless, bombastic, rich in not-terribly helpful allusions, and in love with their own voices. And the spare, Hemingway-influenced prose that shaped some of his finest work either took on that same voice (first person) or felt forced. Those problems mar this story, which could have been fun and smart, but which falls apart at every potentially interesting moment, Bradbury letting voluble chatter stand in for a telling description or two. The story is about a former U-boat captain who becomes a therapist; his office contains a periscope that shows . . . I'm not sure. Everyone's unconscious gunk? His own? Bradbury just gives a heaping list and fails to explore its significance. The narrator is a patient who sees this secret periscope and spills the beans to others, causing some kind of unclear crisis. And throughout, I kept wondering why the doctor only uses the German term for "under" but not for the rest of a submarine: Unterseeboot rather than Unterseaboat.

"The Ugliest House in the World," Peter Ho Davies (from the collection of the same name)
I've read this at least three times over the years (first in an annual "best of" collection which led me to seek out the writer; at least once since purchasing the book; now again) but the story always drops from my brain. That's good, since it always surprises and impresses me. (It's not good because of what it says about my brain; I have no recollection of whether I've read other stories in this collection.) The story concerns a young English doctor whose father has returned to the place of his origins, in Wales, moving into a somewhat dilapidated place next door to the "ugliest house" of the title. In London, the doctor doesn't fit in because everyone picks on him for being Welsh, and in Wales he doesn't fit because he's so emotionally remote; until the dramatic pivot around which the story turns, his father, contrarily, does fit in, in his odd way. The story starts funny. Later, it's quite sad and moving. Fine work.

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