The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.
“It was back in those days. Claudius Van Clyde and I stood on the edge of the dancing crowd, each of us already three bottles into one brand of magic brew, blasted by the music throbbing from the speakers. But we weren’t listening to the songs. I’d been speaking into the open shell of his ears since we’ve gotten to the party, shouting a bunch of mopey stuff about my father. Sometime around the witching hour, he stopped his perfunctory nodding and pointed towards the staircase of the house. “Check out these biddies,” he said. Past the heads of the dancers and would-be seducers I too saw the two girls he meant.”
This story’s full title is The Great Interruption: The Story of A Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978). It’s a great example of the benefits of writing a lot, and never trying to sound like anyone else.
The style of this short story was a challenge, for me. Its long, complex sentences, so unlike most of what I read these days, slowed me down. In fact, I had to read a page or so, out loud, to get myself into the rhythm of the narrator’s voice.
Even the title was confusing—until I untangled it, when it became intriguing.
It read like Mark Twain, like Charles Dickens: of a time and place that is not mine.
But I knew straight away it was going to be worth it. Here’s how it starts.
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.
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.
“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.
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!