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[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.

2 thoughts on “[Reading Room] Natural Light by Kathleen Alcott”

  1. From this post: “It was not to my usual taste at all.” “The language slowed me down, but not in a way that annoyed me.”

    By qualifying your criticism, you seem to provide against running into some of these people you review.

    But would you be willing to say that this piece is poorly written. Consider for example:

    “I can’t deal with another crisis, my husband would say, the last year we were together, in response to vexes I saw as relatively small, a mix-up at the pharmacy over the drug I agreed to take, some passive-aggressive email from a student I read out loud in the kitchen, hoping to parse.”

    The stacking of “the last year we were together” and “in response to vexes” (both of which I presume modify “say”). “[V]exes I saw as relatively small”? This awkward use of “vex” as a (plural!) noun with the awkward relative clause. And then two examples of “vexes” stacked at the end. And that final “hoping to parse.”

    I believe computer programming can be done that way, just opening parentheses and sticking more code. Or maybe a non-native English speaker, having thought of all those things she wanted to say, could use rote grammatical knowledge to generate something like that.

    But a published novelist? It seems amazing to me that an “author” and at least one editor thought that they could just dish out something like the thing up there.

    Would you be willing to speak honestly on the quality of this piece of work?

    1. Interesting interpretation of the work and my comments.

      I actually don’t think it’s badly written. I am big fan of idiosyncratic use of grammar to achieve a particular effect and am willing to grant that the author is doing this on purpose—perhaps to slow the reader down or to indicate the state of mind of the protagonist.

      In an essay or in the “converting information” parts of a novel, I agree with you that clear language and simple syntax can be best.

      One of the reasons I love short fiction is that it can be used to create emotion and sensations in a similar way to poetry. The use of language, not just the content, is part of that.

      While it seems like this story wasn’t to my taste, I can still appreciate the skill.

      And you are right, too, that I don’t review stories if I can’t find something to admire in them. It’s possible I’m missing something, not that it is bad.

      And you’re also right that I’m concerned about the feelings of the original writers and my wider audience of sensitive writing humans.

      The purpose of these reviews is to inspire other writers to read and then pick up their pens. And you will always find a bias, here at StoryADay for building up rather than tearing down.

      (Which is different from my willingness to offer a constructive critique when asked to do so, and in a more private context.)

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Great to engage with you on this issue.

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