[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris

Normally my Tuesday Reading Room posts review a short story I’ve read, but I’m breaking with tradition this week to tell you about a fabulous — and much needed — new book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, by Windy Lynn Harris, a writer and the founder of Marketing Coach for Creative Writers.

A Handbook For Today’s Writer

Windy Lynn Harris knows the industry and she knows the craft of short fiction and essay-writing. She breaks it all down for you, and this book gives you confidence to enter today’s writing market. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris”

[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis

image: woman golfing

I’m thinking a lot about mysteries these days. I love them, so I’m trying my hand at writing them.

There is no better way I know to get myself writing, than to sit down and read, preferably in the genre I’m tackling.

This week I read Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis, found in the Feb 2011 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Though I had some quibbles with the style until I managed to turn off my inner critique-group-reader, I couldn’t argue with the power of the first line: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis”

[Reading Room] To Do by Jennifer Egan

I love this kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to short stories: this ability to tell a story in the most unexpected of ways.

This week I read a story by Jennifer Egan that looks like a ‘to do’ list. It’s not. Well, not entirely.

13. Renew meds

14. Investigate poisons

a. Flammable

b. Powders

c. Gasses

d. Pills

e. Herbal

f. Chemical

g. Musical

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With almost every new item on the list, the reader gets closer to figuring out what is going on.

It’s not just a puzzle though. There’s humor too: that “Renew meds….investigate poisons”! I can almost hear the “Oh, that reminds me…”, which is the way I make “to do” lists (usually without such murderous intent).

This was fun, and reminded me that Jennifer Egan’s most famous novel A Visit From The Goon Squad is, not only a collection of related stories, it contains a section that is a Powerpoint presentation!

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can write, when you’re writing a short story!

Read the story online here

[Reading Room] Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong

If you like horror and dark fantasy, you should definitely be reading Alyssa Wong’s work!

My first clue should have been that this story was published in Nightmare Magazine.

This is a fabulous story: original, chilling, populated with compelling characters, with a strong narrative arc and an intriguing premise. But it’s not my kind of story and I kind of hated reading it!

But the writing, right from the start is fabulous:

As my date—Harvey? Harvard?—brags about his alma mater and Manhattan penthouse, I take a bite of overpriced kale and watch his ugly thoughts swirl overhead.

Isn’t that a great opening sentence? It tells you so much.

And it is even more compelling when you begin to realize that she’s not being metaphorical about being able to see his thoughts.

This is a woman who seems like she might be a victim, then quickly isn’t, then vacillates between the two states, depending on who she’s with at the time.

It makes her “real”, and it makes for an interesting metaphor about life.

But it’s horror. And that’s not my thing.

I was impressed with Alyssa Wong’s writing and am a bit sad that she doesn’t seem to write the kinds of stories I like. But that’s hardly a criticism.

If you like horror and dark fantasy, you should definitely be reading Alyssa Wong’s work!

Read Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers at Nightmare Magazine or buy a periodical that features her work, and support publications that pay their authors, at the same time!

[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain

I failed utterly to see the ending coming…

Oh, this one made me laugh.

Not just for the unexpected ending, but for the constant, very modern thoughts that crowded my head as I was reading it.

Basically, this is the story of a ruthless old king who, not having any sons, has his daughter raised as a boy, then sends her to assume his brother’s throne (after the ruthless old king has ruined the good name of his brother’s only heir).

It’s a knotty, Shakespearean set up and I was so consumed with thoughts of the delightful ways a modern writer could treat the topic, that I failed utterly to see the ending coming. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain”

[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

This story is definitely not bound by the rules of “rising action”, or “character arcs”…

Often, when I talk about how to write a short story, I get caught up in talking about traditional, narrative tales that might be structured in a similar way to a novel.

But one of the things I love about short fiction is its ability to transcend that and be so much more (or less-but-more, perhaps).

This story, A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf, is a lovely example of that. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf”

[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Last week I talked about reading and writing stories with divided storylines that come together at the end.

The example I gave, Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, had a fairly traditional narrative structure. While it wasn’t clear how the two storylines would interact, at first, it was an easy-to-read story.

Shaking Things Up

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez

I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).

(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez”

[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish

Verdict: Fabulous.

Surface Tension is a science fiction story originally published in 1952 and so qualifies as being either from (or near) the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction. (I found it in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer.)

Fear not, this is not all heros saving damsels in distress and wearing silly outfits in space. It is very different from anything I’d ever read from that era, and from most sci-fi that I’ve read from later eras. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish”

[Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This story opens the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.

It begins with a man visiting his parents, where a chance comment sparks a memory from his childhood. It’s clear, as the story goes on, that the man regrets his action as a child, but the author manages to convey this without ever being as heavy-handed as to say so.

The Opening Line

The story opens with a line that tells us a lot and paints a vivid scene in delicate brush strokes.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

Think about how much we know:

  • The son visits, but is only acting ‘like a dutiful son’. He doesn’t want to be there, but he goes, by rote, because that is what one must do.
  • “Enugu” tells us that where this story is taking place. Even if we don’t know where Enugu is (do you?) it tells us where it is NOT taking place.
  • “Small, over furnished flat” suggests that the parents have downsized after a retirement or other change of circumstances
  • “That grew dark in the afternoon” – the son is not happy with this place. It suggests to me that the parents once had a larger, lighter, more expansive home. The son feels claustrophobic in this new flat – how much of that is real and how much psychological, we can’t know yet, but it certainly introduces the concept straight away.

The second sentence begins

Retirement had changed them…

For me, as a reader, this pulls me in straight away. I know this is not going to be wholly a naval-gazing story about a middle aged man. It’s inviting me to ask questions: how has it changed them? How has/will retirement change me/my parents?

And the changes that the son chooses to focus on are interesting: his parents are more credulous than they used to be. Several times he insists “my parents would have scoffed at these stories”. It’s not clear where the story’s going, but the ‘first act’ of the story ends when a lurid story relayed by his parents bring up a former acquaintance — a servant or ‘house boy’ — from his childhood, who has got into trouble as an adult.

“…the ringleader was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago, I don’t think you’ll remember him.”

I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.

My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”

But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.

And we’re off. Of COURSE we’re going to keep reading, because once again the writer has invited us to ask questions. Why does he remember Raphael? What went down between them? And what does it have to do with his later rabble-rousing?

The rest of the story recounts the narrator’s life as a twelve year old boy, the son of older, intellectual parents who could afford to have servants help raise him and tend the house.

But Aidiche doesn’t really tell the story. She paints it. We live through the boy’s obsession with Kung Fu; we feel the sanded down wood of the nunchucks Raphael makes for him out of old mop handles; we see a still-life of the ‘patient’s altar’ his parents make by his bed when he is sick (“orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray”)

And when the story ends, we know that the seeds of the man’s later regret are planted in the moment the twelve year olds. The author doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to infuse a moral message into a story without making it read like a fable. It also illustrates how to introduce readers to a different culture, without great sections of exposition, but rather through select details and dialect/language choices.

[Reading Room] The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale by John Chu

Oh, this was fantastic: experimental science fiction by John Chu

Supposedly the story of a technological development, as told by one of the inventors, this is not an easy read. It doesn’t sweep you up in character and stakes and plot points. It does, however, do all the things I love about short fiction: confuse, confound, sweep you along on a torrent of language, and spit you out at the other end, shaking yourself and going ‘whoa!

(For the record, I also like nice narrative stories with heroes and adventure and all the traditional elements of story, but short stories have a unique ability to skirt all that and still give you a good time)

Just throw out whatever anyone’s ever told you about short story structure and read this. The story is not where you think it should be.

Since I’m no computer scientist (and perhaps even if I was) I found myself having to let the words pour over me, for the most part, and search for the story where the author had cleverly hidden it. (Take a look. You’ll see what I mean).

Clever and artistic and unlike anything else I’ve read. I’m not saying I’d like EVERY short story to be like this, but it certainly was refreshing and kind of exciting to remember that short fiction can be … this!

Read it here
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The Reading Room is a series of short story reviews that are posted (usually on Tuesdays) in order to inspire you to read more short fiction in order to become better at writing it

[Reading Room] The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

I found this richly-detailed story in the Nebula Showcase 2016.

This story is structured in sections, each one headed up by a scientific description of one of the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Each, loosely, represents a theme for the following segment.

The story is deeply personal and universal (dealing with the challenges faced by those living in modern Pakistan) and at the same time veers into a kind of magical realism that opens it up wide.

Reading this story brought home to me the difficulties and rewards of reading stories from different cultures:

  • It’s difficult because the language flows differently, and because cultural details and assumptions can catch you out.
  • It’s rewarding for all the same reasons, plus you get to challenge your own world view and assumptions. Best of all, you hear poetry in the language that you’d never encounter if you only read within your own culture.

This story slowed me down, and rewarded me for savoring it.

Read it online here