Monday, July 24, 2006

My Short Story Journey Begins

In an effort to widen my horizons and understand better what short stories are all about, in addition to Kate's monthly story discussion, the first being Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog, I have undertaken additional story reading on my own. Every Sunday I plan on reading at least one short story. Yesterday I managed two. Virginia Woolf's story "Phyllis and Rosamond", is the story of two sisters of marriageable age. Phyllis is the eldest and has already received several proposals which she has turned down. Her parents have given her six months to find a husband. The sisters are artists of the drawing room and Woolf makes it clear this is not by choice. They have been raised to it, it is their job the end result of which is a husband. But the sisters manage to end up at a bohemian type party where the girl who invited them an artist in the traditional sense. The sisters feel entirely out of their element, they sit silent and make everyone else uncomfortable. But the experience awakens in them thoughts and ideas and allows them to peer into a different kind of life. Ultimately, they reject that life and the reader is left with the sisters leaving the party and Phyllis looking forward to the full day their mother has planned for them tomorrow, glad she will not have to think. Woolf was not a short story writer even though she wrote some brilliant ones. She was a novelist who wrote short stories in order to experiment and work out narrative techniques for her novels. In this story she begins with a narrator speaking in abstract terms about people and biography and then she begins to narrow her focus to how women's lives are overlooked and why. From there she focuses on women in houses and women in drawing rooms to a specific drawing room to two specific women, Phyllis and Rosamond. Then the narrator disappears and we watch Phyllis and Rosamond on a typical day. From there we move from generalities in the sister's lives to specifics and then from the two sisters to Phyllis, then from outside Phyllis to inside at which point we end the story with Phyllis thinking. The progression of focus from large to small is done so smoothly I didn't even notice it until afterwards. The second story I read was Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild". The story takes place on another planet that humans landed on when colonizing space. The natives, 10 feet long worm snake things that have lots of legs, are intelligent and can talk. The humans were almost exterminated when the Tlic discovered that they made good hosts for their eggs. A human Preserve was created and a breeding program for humans and Tlic was worked out. The humans are not slaves but have agreed to the state of things in order to survive. The story is told in the first person by Gan, a boy on the cusp of adulthood. We know only what he knows and in the beginning we only have a vague idea of the relationship between humans and Tlic. Gan has been chosen by T'Gatoi who has known him since he was born. The story starts with a cozy family scene. Soon we learn that Gan's mother and brother do not like the Tlic but since Gan doesn't know why, we don't either. But eventually all becomes clear in a viscerally disturbing scene that made my stomach lurch. Gan then has to make a choice, kill himself and/or T'Gatoi, give up his place as the chosen to his sister whom he loves, or accept his place as T'Gatoi's chosen. I won't tell you what he chooses, for some reason I feel like I would be giving things away whereas with Woolf I didn't feel that way. The two stories seem so different, yet are so much alike. In each one we have a coming of age and a choice that must be made--Phyllis and Gan have to accept what they were born and raised for or to turn away from it. Both make their choices with eyes open, fully understanding the consequences. I did not know anything about either of these stories before I read them. I don't think I could have chosen a more interesting pairing if I had tried.