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?!)
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.
Engleman sets up a scenario where Joan is a misfit (and wouldn’t she be?), but the story doesn’t stay there.
Joan of Arc sits in her dorm on a Saturday night. Joan of Arc is always home on Saturday nights. She does not go out for pizza or beers, or to the movies, or even the theatre, though she would probably enjoy the theatre, for Joan possesses a theatrical heart. When she speaks in class, she thrusts out her chest and focuses her gaze high in the air, as if on some floating orb of light. Though her answers are often wrong. The teacher feels badly having to correct her, though in all consciousness, he cannot show favoritism — not even for spirited and stubborn girls with charmingly ugly haircuts.Rachel Engelman
Isn’t that great?
In the first two sentences Engelman has shown us what this story is going to be: a little surreal, grounded in a world we know well, and featuring a character who has a problem we can empathize with: she’s lonely, out of place.
The rest of the paragraph expands on these ideas, grounding the reader in the story:
- We don’t know for sure that she isn’t invited out, but the implication is that she is a bit of a misguided misfit (“even though her answers are often wrong”)
- The examples of things she does not do ground us in the story’s place: yes, this really is a contemporary college life
- It reinforces that yes, this is the real Joan of Arc (“spirited and stubborn girls with charmingly ugly haircuts”)
All of this makes the reader feel safe. We know they author’s got a handle on this story and they’ll be taking us somewhere, probably somewhere interesting.
The Plot Thickens
The middle of this story complicates Joan’s life by introducing her roommate’s boyfriend, a guy she is obviously attracted to.
This is not the Joan of myth: saintly, aloof, dedicated to her mission. This is Joan-as-a-real-girl. We do get to see a hint of they mythical, spiritual Joan towards the end, but for now, we are just hanging out with a misfit college student, and who can’t relate to that?
Towards the end of this 750 word story, Engelman gives us a hint of the mythical, spiritual Joan, with her strong relationship with God. Perhaps it gives us a glimpse into the complications of being a Chosen One.
It moves in tone from the prosaic “beer and pizza” of the opening into a more poetic reflection on her life. Even the syntax reflects dreamlike state Joan invokes on her Saturday nights alone.
The ending isn’t an ending int he way you’d expect a novel to end. Nothing is tidied up and put away. Rather, the reader experiences Joan’s existence through an emotional response to the words. We have come to know Joan and what it might be like to be her, just for a moment.
This is what I love so much about short fiction. Freed from the shackles of needing to follow a particular narrative structure (or make complete sense), short stories are at liberty to plunge their bony fingers deep into our hearts and tug.
Read the story online here. Then, leave a comment below, sharing your reactions to the story.
Enter this year’s Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize here. Deadline: March 1, 2019
The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.