[Reading Room] Natural Light by Kathleen Alcott

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This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

This story was dense and literary with a slow-build to a quiet conclusion. It was not to my usual taste at all. I didn’t much care for the protagonist. It had several elements that usually make me roll my eyes. And yet when I got to the end of this story, I immediately wanted to read it again. 

The language slowed me down, but not in a way that annoyed me. The exact meaning was often opaque, but through repetition, the author showed me how to read it and understand it. It was an odd experience, and I really liked it.

The Opening

I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph—or rather, what was being done to her—just that when I saw it for the first time, in a museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead for five years.

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

Well. Isn’t that intriguing? We don’t know anything about the characters before this opening line, but all of a sudden we know quite a lot. 

  • We have the voice of the narrator, clear in our heads. 
  • We know their mother has been dead for a while.
  • We know the mother had some kind of secret life.

In a story that keeps coming back to questions of truth and trust, this is a great opening on that level alone.

But this opening also creates suspense and tension, and raises questions to keep us from flicking on to the next story in the collection, or pulling out our phones and browsing social media.

  • Why didn’t the narrator know about this picture?
  • What was the mother doing (or having done to her)? (We will find out, if we read the story carefully)
  • Why is this unknown picture hanging in a museum.
  • What kind of relationship did the protagonist have with her mother (and how will it mirror or differ from our own)?

Was it enough to keep me reading? Absolutely!

Before the end of the first page the author mentions email, to ground us in a time and place (here and now), and we know what kind of work the protagonist does (“when an acquaintance or the administrator at the college where I teach saw my eyes on my phone…”) so we can make some assumptions about her and where she fits in her society. 

I’m grounded in the story and intrigued enough to turn the page.

The Plot Thickens

The story begins with to the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, and explores that for a while, before broadening out and reviewing her relationships with other significant people in her life (mostly her husband and her father), as well as the events leading up to and surrounding her discovery of her mother’s picture in the museum. 

This discovery is what I call the fulcrum of the story, the moment around which everything in this character’s life revolves (for the duration of the story, at least). It allows us to explore her past and present, and speculate on her future, but none of this would have happened without the discovery of the picture. 

The early parts of the story also explore her relationship with the world—and her recurring thoughts about how she might leave it.

The author also begins to seed the story with the narrator’s thoughts on suicide, in a really interesting way. It’s undramatic. The potential methods simply pop up, the way they might in her mind, triggered by something she’s telling us about. At first I didn’t know what these sentences mean but, with repetition, I began to understand what she was really saying.

The End

The story keeps circling back the to the question of the photograph of her mother. 

When the writer doesn’t get the answers she needs from other sources, she goes to the one person who might be able to help: her father. It’s already been established that her parents weren’t big on transparency, so of course, her father’s first reaction is one of obfuscation.

But, suddenly, there is a moment when her father acts uncharacteristically. The reader can feel something coming: 

  • Will it be a moment of honesty? 
  • Will it have an impact on our narrator and the trajectory of her life? 
  • Will it be life-changing?

The author doesn’t, in my opinion, tie this up in a bow for us, but she does give us more than enough information for us to reach our own conclusions. 

It’s a very satisfying ending.

Writer’s Notes

The prose is dense and literary, in a way that often annoys me, but in this story it manages not to. Perhaps it’s because the author intersperses dense, literary rumination with straightforward, stark lines.

Look at how different the first sentence is from the second.

It is true that there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup, really be capable of suicide?

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

I came to see that the dense, convoluted language was a necessary part of the story, with all it’s tricky examination of truth and trust. Can we really trust a narrator who says that her husband:

…began not to trust me on issues I saw as unrelated: what a neighbor had said about a vine that grew up our shared fence, a letter from the electric company that I claimed to have left on his desk.”

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

That “claimed” makes me question everything she’s just said, too.

On Training The Reader

Novelists often say they approach the middle of each new novel with dread because, although they’ve written novels before, they’ve never written this novel before, and every book teaches you how to write it.

I suspect that short stories, being the weird and varied form that hey are, have a similar opportunity. But in this case, you get to teach the reader how to read the story. 

Short story readers enjoy this challenge, this puzzle. After all, unless you pick up a short story collection that promises to be a collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies, the reader never really knows what they’re getting. Even a collection of ‘mystery stories’ or ‘science fiction stories’ can contain everything from a story composed entirely of tweets, to a traditional narrative story, to a story told in reverse; the tones and subject-matters will be all over the place, along with the style of telling.

In this story, Kathleen Alcott trains us to understand what’s going on when her paragraph suddenly end with a location, an object and a person who needs to be warned what they are about to encounter. It’s subtle. She doesn’t explain it. But the repetition invites the reader to puzzle out the connections. 

(It’s not a happy topic or one I recommend writing about, but it was very well done, in this story!)

She also trains us to start looking for examples of truth and mistrust, so that when the moment approaches that her father is going to tell her something true, we can feel it coming, in the way his behavior changes. 

Discussion

Are you using things like ‘email’ and the reactions of other people in the narrator’s life, to ground the reader in the story in the first few lines?

What elements are you worried your reader might miss? How might you train them to see what you want them to see?

Leave a comment!

The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

[Reading Room] The Era by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

The Opening

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know sh*t.”


I’m used to not knowing what’s going on at the start of a story. I expect it.

But this story slid under my skin with that weird ‘mostly true’, quickly followed by the kid unexpectedly explaining himself to the victim of his insult.

Something about it seemed off, but it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to figure it out. It hinted to me that we were in the ‘not-now’.

It’s important to orient the reader in the first few lines (something I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal), with the ‘who’, the ‘where’ and the ‘genre’. I’m fairly sure this is goign to be a story featuring kids, and it’s not going to be realistic contemporary fiction.

For the first story in a collection of literary short stories (which can be, for my taste, a little relentlessly contemporary and realistic) this was a very promising start.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Era by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah”

[Reading Room] Theories of the Point of View… by Jennifer Wortman

This story is a great example of a short story that doesn’t follow a narrative structure but succeeds anyway.

Its full title is Theories of the Point of View Shifts In AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”

The Opening

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Theories of the Point of View… by Jennifer Wortman”

[Reading Room] Good With Boys by Kristen Iskandrian

This story captures the intensity of pre-teen life in all its aching glory and vibrating physicality. If you’re looking for a story that’s an example of how to create a strong voice for your first-person character, read this one!

The Opening

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Good With Boys by Kristen Iskandrian”

[Reading Room] Joan of Arc Sits Naked In Her Dorm Room by Rachel Engelman

This story won the 2018 2018 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize and was performed as part of the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space in NYC. (Be still my heart. Can you imagine?!)

Electric Lit logo

I love stories like this. It’s an excellent example of what short stories can do.

There is no need to explain how Joan of Arc (and it does seem like it is the Joan of Arc) is somehow inhabiting a modern American university or college. In a short story, you can trust your readers to come along for the ride, no matter how surreal, as long as everything makes sense within the story world you create.

And in this story, it does.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Joan of Arc Sits Naked In Her Dorm Room by Rachel Engelman”

[Reading Room] Useless Things by Ariel Berry

Since we’re all about Flash Fiction here at StoryADay during February, I’m going to be highlighting some flash stories here in the Reading Room. This story comes from 100WordStory.com, a project from NaNoWriMo’s Grant Faulker, and partners.

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Useless Things by Ariel Berry caught my eye because of its mix of big ideas and mundane moments in life. It does what short fiction is supposed to do: make us stop, figure out what’s happening, and think about how we might deal with a similar situation in our life.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Useless Things by Ariel Berry”

[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris

The Reading Room is a series of posts analyzing short stories I have read, with a writer’s eye.

This Christmas story was first published in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2007.

Opening Line

It’s six in the morning, and Santa’s on the blink.

This certainly fulfills my need for an opening line to be intriguing. (The phrase ‘on the blink’, means ‘malfunctioning’ for those not raised in the UK!)

Of course, the story very quickly delivers on the line. The Santa in question is a light-up decoration (hooray, for a double-meaning for the phrase ‘on the blink’! I’m seeing blinking lights now). Continue reading “[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris”

[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet

Short review: I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Dashiell Hammett before. I must be crazy. This was awesome. Totally got its hooks into me and stayed with me long after I read it.

Nightmare Town is the title story in this collection by the Noir master. Having mostly watched movies adapted from Raymond Chandler stories, and pastiches of Noir by others, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was, however, preparing for a reading at a Noir night, and thought I ought to do some research before I wrote a story to fit the theme.

Wow.

The Story

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet”

[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer

I keep a spreadsheet of short stories I’ve read.  I make a note of titles, authors, where I found the story and a short comment about the story, to make these posts easier.

My notes, on reading this story, simply say: “Wow”.

A List of Forty-Nine Lies is a pretty intriguing title, and the story delivers immediately.

My name is not Levi. I am not afraid. The machines that hover in swarms over the streets cannot read the thoughts inside my head.

I am not running from them. I have nothing to hide.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer”

[Reading Room] Needle In A Timestack by Robert Silverberg

Cute and slightly terrifying story of two men competing for the same woman, but this time they have the power to go back and change the past.

(Compare this to Geoffrey A Landis’s story where nothing the time-traveler did in the past could affect the future in any way.)

Silverberg does a great job of creating signposts for readers that make the effects of time travel seem almost mundane (one character tastes cotton in his mouth when the past has been changed, another gets a persistent twitch under the left eye…).

As writers today, we wouldn’t have a character stop to explain why the gadget in their pocket was buzzing (We wouldn’t write, “My phone buzzed again. It did that every time a friend send what we called a ‘text message’ from a similar device, over the wireless cell network…” No, we’d just say, “My phone buzzed. Alan again.”)

Similarly, these characters simply mention the significance of the sensation the first time and then use it in the story to signal to the reader that someone’s been time-traveling again.

It was nice to read a story with potentially disastrous technology that wasn’t completely dystopian. It did seem a little shallow at times, though, because I’m so used to ‘realistic’ takes on doomsday technologies in current stories. Not sure how I feel about that, being an upbeat and optimistic person who likes a laugh, but felt a little cheated by this story.

How Stories Age

It’s funny how stories age. I guess we can’t worry too much about that. We just have to write the best stories we can, and keep writing them as we change and age. Some of our work will survive. Some will become embarrassing. And that’s OK.

As something of a side note, it’s interesting to go back and read older short stories and find things I wasn’t expecting.

For example, I’ve never worried too much about the sex (or gender) of the person who wrote a story or of the main character. I’ve never worried too much about older social attitudes that we have, thankfully, left behind, showing up in stories where we couldn’t expect the author to have a more modern outlook.

But in spite of not going around looking for these nits to pick, I am increasingly impatient with stories in which the women are cardboard cut outs. I don’t know if I should curse Alison Bechdel for bringing it to my attention, or simply shrug and accept that there’s so much good writing out there no that DOESN’T fail the Bechdel test, that it’s OK for me to be more picky.

I’m not willing to cut myself off from a world of literary history, just because the writers weren’t inclusive (or not-horribly-racist), but I can’t seem to help having a niggling, deep down dissatisfaction when a good writer excludes half the population or is clueless about basic human dignity.

Again, I’m glad these stories were written, and I won’t not read them because they aren’t inclusive. The writers were working with what they had. Some were better than others. But me? I’m certainly becoming less likely to read and praise them just because somebody tells me I should.

Read this story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

Do you worry about reader or posterity when you write? How do you feel about stores that have aged badly in one respect, while still having other features to recommend them? Join the discussion in the comments.