A variety of stories read over a long period of time from a variety of sources.
The Girls in their Summer Dresses, Irwin Shaw. Michael and Frances are a young married couple in New York City, and in many respects they’re a sweet duo. They make romantic plans, they joke and banter easily. But Michael cannot stop looking at other women and Frances cannot ignore it. Even when she brings it up he does not stop; when she tells him how it makes her feel he hushes and soothes her. Their plans deteriorate. They drink brandy at a bar. Michael is honest and lays out why he looks at women: he wants them, all of them. He even admits he might make a move on another woman. Forlorn, Frances asks if Michael will at least keep his opinions to himself, and he agrees. They attempt to move on with their plans for the day, but a coldness has settled over their relationship.
Nothing so much happens in this story, but over the course of a short walk and a conversation we see a sweet relationship irreparably fractured, essentially by a man who has a flaw and decides to combine honesty and inflexibility rather than, say, attempt to rein himself in, or at least respect his wife’s feelings. The way he also ogles his wife in the final paragraph, eyeing up her legs as she walks away from him, speaks volumes.
The Black Cat, Edgar Allen Poe. Am I alone in finding this story… funny? Not in a sociopathic “ha ha he killed his wife” manner, but because the story lacks much emotional register from its protagonist – who, it must be emphasised, murders his wife in what we are told is a sudden fit of drunken rage – but is simultaneously told in Poe’s routinely overwrought Wo! Alas! style.
The Venus Effect, Violet Allen. I really, really like this story’s playfulness, its perspectives, its iteration through a succession of miniature narratives, the way it discusses the crafting of narrative between each tale. Successive impacts & the story’s overall force are delivered in the way each component narrative is brought to a sharp and brutal end.
I was actually slightly underwhelmed by the final ending on first read, but thinking back on it I think the open-ended appearance of it is suitably undermined by everything which has come before. I missed this story on publication in 2016 and I’m actually slightly surprised to learn that it didn’t win any awards that year, and was not obviously shortlisted for any either (source: googling for a few minutes).
The Blue Hotel, Stephen Crane. Three guys stay at a hotel, and it goes really badly for one of them. It’s everybody’s fault.
Okay, okay, there’s more to this story than that! It’s an entertaining tale of a Nebraskan hotel that’s well-maintained by its owner, who is obsessed with ensuring that no one can say they weren’t treated well at his establishment. I paraphrase, but his words are along the lines of ‘no one can say’ rather than ‘no one would be’. Anyway, one of the visitors is prone to acting out on the basis of paranoia and fear, and whilst the owner mollifies him for a time with whiskey, he only delays and exacerbates the culmination of his behaviour by reinforcing it with braggadocio.
Fun story that deftly illustrates how nothing occurs in isolation, that any incident is contextualised by what preceded it, and that people ought to consider responsibility differently to how the judicial system does. The law does not and cannot encompass the complexity of human interrelationships.
The Beast in the Jungle, Henry James. I was not a fan of Henry James whilst studying literature in my late teens and early twenties, and it was with substantial reservations that I came to this story. I remembered James’ prose being sufficiently dense and meandering – studded with caveats and ornament, a clause here and a clause there – that retaining the thread required substantial effort. He’s a writer whose stories unfold slowly and at an unhurried own pace, is another way of putting it, and perhaps I’ve always been a little too impatient for that.
Well, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ has not disabused me of that opinion, but I do like the way this story unfolds over many years to tell its unusual tale of loss. Its concept resonates, and the dialogue is more engaging than the chewy blocks of narration. I feel it is overlong, but an advantage of that length is the way it helps reinforce its central theme, and allows time for awareness to bloom for the reader – if not the protagonist.