[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] 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] 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] The Death Ship by Richard Matheson

It’s tough to read Matheson’s stories now because his are the quintessential Twilight Zone type story (they were turned into several of the best TZ episodes) and have been ripped off, parodied and lovingly copied so many times that they feel cliched.

But concentrating on that takes away from the exquisite, concise, clear writing, characterization and big ideas of the original material. He really is a tremendously good writer.

His stories contain big ideas, thoughtfully dealt with in crisp prose that I could read until the end of time.

The Death Ship

This story was adapted into an early Twilight Zone episode. It comes from the early days of space exploration, when ideas were big and facts in short supply. Some of the assumptions in the story are suspect by today’s scientific standards, but that was never what these early sci-fi stories were about. (You know, unless they were written by Arthur C. Clarke, who also had a hand in inventing Radar, so he’s a bit of a special case.)

In this story three men in a space ship survey new planets, looking for new homes for the humans from the chronically overcrowded Earth. When they go down to investigate a particular planet, things start to get weird.

From that point on, the story is a purely about human nature and drama, with the space-faring backdrop becoming fairly unimportant.

That’s one of the things I find irresistible about science fiction. The writers hook you with the setting, with the gadgets and the ‘what ifs’, but then all the best stories end up being about the human condition.

They do what art is supposed to do: make life look a little bit strange, so that we can reassess our own position towards it. No matter which side of the political shouting match you’re on, it seems like that’s something our civilization could us at the moment, don’t you think?

What setting or story type could you use to reel in a reader who needs to see part of their own life with fresh eyes?

Read the story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

[Reading Room] The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Normally, my Reading Room posts are about a short story I’ve read, and what I learned from it.

Occasionally, however, a book comes along that I really think you should know about. This week, it’s The Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman.

Jane has been around the business of writing and publishing for a while now and really knows her stuff.

Here’s the start of the review I posted to Amazon:

I read a lot of self-help and inspirational books, and writing advice (heck, I write some). Most of it is the “Woohoo! You can do this!” type necessary to psyching yourself up to do the difficult business of wrangling words and sharing them.

This book is not one of those books.

This book is your older, wiser, best friend who loves you, and sits you down to say,

“Girl, I believe you can do it if you want to–you know I do. But first, let me show you what ‘it’ really looks like… Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman”

[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim

From A Taste of Honey – Stories by Jabari Asim, Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-767679-1978-4

I knew a man who only read non-fiction because he “didn’t see the point” of fiction. Would it surprise you to know that this man was one of the least empathetic I never knew?

I firmly believe that fiction is more powerful than non-fiction, as a way to help us understand each other’s truths. So I used Black History Month as an excuse to seek out short fiction by writers of color. I  picked up this collection at my local library, and the first story in the collection has already confirmed my belief.

Opening Lines

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is the story of a moment in a pre-teen boy’s life during the ‘hot and forbidding’ summer of ’67.  In fact, that’s the opening line, Continue reading “[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim”

[Reading Room] The Breathtaking Power of Dracula – Rolli

Read it online here

This is a flash piece I stumbled across on Twitter.

It was an interesting format: a screenshot/image of a formatted short story, attached to a tweet.

And it’s really odd. Delightfully odd. It’s the kind of thing that makes me go: Yes! See this? THIS is why I love short stories.

Normally I try to provide some Lessons For Writers with this little reviews, but today I think I’m just going to say: go and read this. It’ll take you a minute.

I particularly like the way he promises one thing, delivers something else, but doesn’t forget his promise.

Sometimes writing (and reading) are just…fun.

What do you think of the story? Leave a comment

[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It reads like a simple story, but is, in fact, a skillfully crafted tale that hides its author’s hard work well.

This is an excellent example of how to build a story world that feels real, while still telling a story about characters we care about.

(Read it online, here)

Uncanny Magazine screenshot featuring Mary Robinette Kowal's story The Worshipful Society of Glovers

It also comes with the fabulous gift of a blog post unpacking how the author went about writing it. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[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: