Fat Books & Thin Women


Story Sunday: Salman Rushdie’s “In the South”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Maybe it’s just the books I read, but there seems to be a dearth of fiction dealing with the end of life; stories of childhood and coming of age appear to be, on the whole, more marketable and desirable to readers. It’s always a surprise and a pleasure to come across a story or novel that considers the end of life as closely as many books consider the beginnings. In his story “In the South”, Salman Rushdie writes of his near-death characters with a surprising compassion, and provides even their thirty-minute walk to cash their pension checks (a walk that would take a younger man five minutes) a certain dignity.

Junior and Senior are men who are “like characters in an ancient tale, trapped in fateful coincidences, unable to escape the consequences of chance.” They find themselves living side by side, each morning emerging to their balconies at the same moment, conducting their lives with such a close (if spiteful) proximity that Senior’s relatives at one point suggest knocking down the walls between their apartments. These are men aware of how close they are to the end of life, and Rushdie offers their histories in concise paragraphs. The men are, near story’s end, described as shadows of one another, but any affection they feel for one another takes time to emerge, as they are opposite in almost every detail of their beliefs and pasts.

Senior, for instance, feels trapped by the number of relatives he has (204, though many are no longer living – he isn’t sure of the numbers) and the ways they interfere with his life.

When he said that he was ready to die, which was often, their faces took on hurt expressions and their bodies sagged or stiffened, depending on their nature, and they spoke to him reassuringly, encouragingly, and, of course, in injured tones, of the value of a life so full of love. But love had begun to annoy him, like everything else. His was a family of mosquitoes, he thought, a buzzing swarm, and love was their itchy bite. “If only there were a coil one could light to keep one’s relations away,” he told Junior. “If only there were a net around one’s cot that kept them out.”

Junior, unlike Senior, hasn’t built what most would consider a desirable social circle. Even he recognizes that in most respects he has been a mediocre man, a man who has watched life move past him.

In all significant particulars, he had failed to be a participant in the parade of life. He had not married. The great events of eight decades had managed to occur without any effort on his part to help them along. He had stood by and watched as an empire fell and a nation rose, and avoided expressing an opinion on the matter. He had been a man at a desk.

“In the South” at first seems a humorous look at life coming closer to death, with Junior and Senior acting the part of a bickering married couple. Rushdie builds off this, though, so that their light remarks about death gain a new heft at story’s end. Rushdie gives us a story that is about life and death and the passing from one to the next, but more than that it’s the story of a great friendship and its inevitable conclusion.

Read “In the South” Online

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Story Sunday: Jesmyn Ward’s “Cattle Haul”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

It’s easier driving through the country, especially when you doing a cattle haul. Two lanes on one side and two lanes on the other. Switch lanes and pass. At night, like now, the signs sharp and clear. The trees like waves at the side of the road, all black and blue, coming in and going back out like a tide. Ain’t no lights to distract me, to crowd up around me. Just taillights, red lights, like ants, leading me in a line westward.

Jesmyn Ward’s “Cattle Haul” is one of those stories that punches you in the gut*, making its point swiftly and exactly. Just under the surface of Ward’s story, which follows a long-haul trucker as he drives a load of cattle across Texas, is a sort of mingled desperation and despair: the way the narrator fell into his profession and aspires to get out, though his red-neck boss knows he will continue taking every job offered; his relationship with his alcoholic father, who slips him dimebags of crystal when he leaves for the road; his relationship with Tanisha, presumably his girlfriend but whom he hasn’t seen for a month; and, the layer through which these other anxieties find their expression, his fear that the cattle he is hauling are dying and that he won’t receive full payment for the delivery.

This is, simply, such a good story that I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s one I’ll be rereading in a few days; it’s also sold me on Ward’s novels, which I’ll be checking out soon. (As in later today.) Her Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award. If you’re debating reading that novel, this story should convince you (as it has convinced me) that you should Drop Everything (including all other books you’re currently reading) And Read.

* I have to steal the terminology of Ben from Dead End Follies here. Can’t help it.

Read “Cattle Haul” online

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Story Sunday: Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole”
February 26, 2012, 7:27 pm
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Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole” is such a gorgeous and strange read. At first the central image of this story, that of a girl literally coming apart when she’s upset, seems little more than a clever conceit. As the story continues, though, it becomes far more, a meditation on what it is to be a parent, to want something for a child, and to watch that child fail to meet unexpressed expectations and in time find her way to some private understanding of her self.

Really, what is there to say about the story? It opens with an image that seems, again, a play, but Getty never stops developing Susie, her relationship with her parents, and the ways she comes apart.

Susie was two when parts of her body started falling off. At first it was minor—fingertips, earlobes, the pinky toe on her left foot. Sheila and I would find them lying around the house, discarded, collected in small piles like forgotten toys, bits of cereal she’d spilled from the high chair.

What I like so much about this story is the very honest way Getty’s characters shift in their attitudes and reactions towards Susie coming apart, and the ways that even those comings apart change over time. Susie, Susie’s husband, and her mother and father, shift between accepting and promoting her gift, and wanting to keep it something hidden within the confines of their home, or tamped down altogether. And the early images of the narrator and his wife trying to fit Susie back together are simply remarkable.

Often, Sheila had to pin her shoulders as I struggled to snap her legs back into her hips. Other times she sat on Susie’s feet as I pieced her face back together, eyebrows furrowing angrily as soon as I pressed them down, lips curling into a frown as soon as I pinched them back over the edges of her mouth, tongue thrashing about as soon as I’d anchored it back into her throat, giving voice to screams that made the hairs on my forearms stand up.

“Mine!” she shouted. “My face. No! No want face. Leave me alone. My face!”

A clever and moving story.

Read “Keeping Susie Whole” online

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Story Sunday: Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Ever since that 2004 Ashton Kutcher film, the idea of the butterfly effect has seemed to me a lame and overdone tool for lazy sci-fi writers. If there is anyone capable of redeeming the concept (and it doesn’t hurt that he was writing long before “the butterfly effect” took on this air of, what to call it, lameitude) it is Ray Bradbury, and he does just that in “A Sound of Thunder.”

Simple premise: Time Safari, Inc. offers its clients the opportunity to travel to any year in the past and shoot an animal of their choosing. In order to avoid needlessly disrupting the past world, the company has built floating platforms, and does recon before safaris in order to find an animal that is within minutes of its natural death. In “A Sound of Thunder” Eckels, an experienced hunter, joins two other customers, and the safari leader and his assistant, on a hunt for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The safari leaders stress the importance of staying on the path, of shooting only the animal that has been marked for this expedition. Their warnings, though, seem as much concerned with the future of their business as with anything else:

“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”

Bradbury is a little heavy-handed at times. When he opens the story with a discussion of the recent presidential election, you feel reasonably sure that this is going to come back up at story’s end, as it does. But he deals with the concept of the butterfly effect elegantly, and his description of the dinosaur, of Eckels’s hesitation, of the way the entire shooting expedition is over almost before it began, is enthralling. See the Tyrannosaurus Rex:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.

It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit area warily, its beautifully reptilian hands feeling the air.

A great, fun story. Read it!

Read “A Sound of Thunder” online

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Story Sunday: Maureen F. McHugh’s “Eight Legged Story”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

It’s hard for me to stay away from the Small Beer Press archives when I’m looking for a new short story to read, so to return to Story Sundays…another Small Beer story, “Eight Legged Story” by Maureen F. McHugh.

“Eight Legged Story” manages to be gorgeous and haunting while dealing with the everyday of family relationships. Split into eight sections, it’s only the first where there is a real “drama”; a boy has been lost in the woods and his stepmother, Amelia, waits at home for news. McHugh explores the relationship between the stepmother and her stepson perfectly. This is a relationship that we don’t often see in fiction; probably the best known images of the fictional stepmother come from fairytales, stories in which the stepmother stands as a marker of all that is rotten with the world, invading the home. Although she doesn’t reference that image, it seems present in the Amelia’s mind throughout McHugh’s story:

What will happen to my marriage? When a child dies, divorce is pretty common. Two people locked in their grief, unable to connect. But I won’t grieve like Tim, and some part of me will be relieved. I’m honest with myself about this. The secret in our marriage will slowly reveal itself. He will learn that I didn’t love Mark, and how can you love someone who didn’t love your only son?

Amelia’s relationship with Mark is seen largely through phone calls, so it’s the stepmother-child relationship we watch shifting throughout the story. The sort of premature guilt Amelia feels – a guilt not over not taking care of her stepson but not feeling what she thinks she should feel, a guilt for not being able to expand her love for her husband to include his son – runs through the whole. “Eight Legged Story” is a fascinating character study, and even when outsiders reassure Amelia – even when you, as reader, find yourself wanting to excuse her her imagined failings – you can sense how little these other versions (or other visions) of Amelia’s story change her viewing of herself.

Read “Eight Legged Story” online

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Be sure to visit Jennifer at Books, Personally to read her Story Sunday post on “The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag. Also visit our other regular Story Sunday participant, Shivanee at Novel Niche. If you’d like to join in to this weekly meme and run your own posts about short stories, available for free online reading, email story.sundays@gmail.com. We’d love to have you!

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