Monday, June 15, 2009

My Short Story Theory

From the first sentence, a good short story makes you feel like something important is about to happen. By its very nature, you know that the climax will occur relatively quickly, but you still enjoy the path to the climax. I've noticed this week that I tend to approach the reading of short stories like I approach the reading of mystery novels. I find myself mentally predicting where the story is headed. Of course, it's easy to predict the trite turns that a story about human relationships might take, but the best short stories do not go to those trite places or they go there in an unexpected way.

Most of the time, Lahiri, like a great writer should, takes the story someplace else. When she does take the story to an expected place, she focuses the story in such a way that the climax isn't merely the expected outcome but some other aspect of that outcome. For example, in "Nobody's Business," Sang, a young Bengali American woman, is being duped by her Egyptian boyfriend. To me it was apparent from the beginning of the story that Farouk was hiding something and most likely being unfaithful to her. He wouldn't let her spend the night with him, wouldn't spend the night with her, and didn't introduce her to his family. Sang's housemate Paul discover's Farouk's secret, but he keeps it from Sang for a while. In the end the story is more about how and why Paul discovers, keeps, and finally reveals the secret than it is about Sang and Farouk's relationship.

The previous story, "Only Goodness," is a story about family relationships, but this one focuses on the siblings in a family, Sudha and her younger brother Rahul. While this story is about a Bengali American family, I would label this a universal family story. I think that anyone with at least one sibling could find something to connect with in this story. For example, when Sudha thinks of the stories of her birth and early childhood in London, she thinks of them "like an episode out of a Greek myth or the Bible." I can think of a number of my family's stories that might, to us, be thought of on the same level. Those are the best family stories.

Despite having been raised essentially the same, Sudha and Rahul end up in very different places. Sudha is a successful academic while Rahul, the smarter of the two siblings, is a floundering alcoholic. Rahul is kicked out of college and living at home with his parents. He has no car and only a part-time job. During a visit home, Sudha becomes "aware of a horrible imbalance between them. She felt accused, simply because her life wasn't broken in the same way." I sometimes feel really bad when I talk to my younger sister, who is constantly having money problems. I know her problems are not my fault and not my responsibility, but I still feel bad that I can't make her life better, can't solve her problems.

(FYI - I typed up most of this post a couple of days ago. Then I added the following paragraphs tonight.)

I think this story can be summed up in one simple sentence from the story: "Life went on." Of course, we know that it must, but, like Sudha, we still feel guilty when we realize that we are moving on. We can sit still; our lives must be lived. Sudha can't wait on her brother to get his shit together before she takes the next step in her life. And no one would really expect her to.

I'm really enjoying this book of stories. The final three stories are related to one another. I took a break from Lahiri today to read "Goldrush Girl," a short story by Jeanette Winterson. You can read the story online here. I'm still trying to decide what I think about it. Maybe I'll post something about it later.


Chanae said...

I really liked the story about the cheating Egyptian boyfriend. Although it was a classic "double-timing boyfriend" story, the plight of Paul and his angst over being the one in the "know" made it really good.
It was difficult to tell if Paul was secretly in love with Sang or if he was just a super friend. Interestingly, Sang did not seem stupid in the way that some women just turn a blind eye to a no-good man. She truly seemed unawaringly "duped". The ending was awesome and I think this is one of the better stories in the book.

Kim said...

This story was definitely one of my favs in the book.