Saturday, June 3, 2017

Schizophrenic Short Story Reading

Returned home late last night. After 10 days of travel and nearly 3,000 miles, half by plane and half by bus, I can safely say that I'm exhausted. Nonetheless, these travel trips weren't the black hole of productivity that they normally are. I'm usually too motion sick to read in moving vehicles but, for whatever reason, I managed okay this time. Maybe I finally learned that I can survive if my books are (a) fiction, (b) relatively easy-to-read, and (c) good. My reading input -- about 1700 pages in total -- looked like this:
  • John O'Hara, The O'Hara Generation (22 short stories over his career)
  • Angela Carter, Fireworks and The Bloody Chambers (two short story collections)
  • Alfred Bester, The Star My Destination and The Demolished Man
  • Jim Butcher, Storm Front (book 1 of the Dresden Files)
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
The schizophrenic short story reading comes from O'Hara, Carter, and Bester. (Yes, yes, I know Bester's two books are technically novels, but older sf novels usually feel like short stories to me, maybe because the way they handle characterization and scene composition is often done in the highly abbreviated fashion of the best pulp short stories.)

What's interesting about these three writers -- and I hadn't thought of this until I'd gone through them -- is that, as short stories, they're all as different as different can be.

O'Hara: perfect example of literary realism. Simple plots. Finely nuanced psychological portraits constituting nearly the story's entire interest. Highly readable style. A strong concern with a regional group's (in this case, Eastern Pennsylvania) middle- and upper-classes.

Carter: postmodernist through the seams. Outrageous, over-the-top style. Highly symbolic and allusive. So "literary" that it's inaccessible to nearly everyone except English majors.

Bester: classic science fiction at its best. Great plots. Endless invention, both in terms of technology, new societies, and social groups. Rife with far-reaching ideas.

I may have liked the O'Hara best. Unlike Bester, he doesn't have far ranging ideas (or any ideas, really), but he has an extraordinary attention to detail and he creates wonderful character portraits. O'Hara is the one I successfully read over 32 hours of bus trip. After O'Hara comes Bester. His stuff's just really cool, and if there's a knock against him, it's that highly abbreviated short story style -- you get the feeling (as I do with many early sf novels) is that he's cutting corners to keep his novel under 60,000 words. That makes getting "in" to his novels pretty difficult. But for getting the reader to think outside the box of their own narrow experience, Bester is light years ahead of O'Hara.

But Angela Carter . . . alas, ye postmodernists! Carter's postmodernist foibles aggravate me to no end -- that wild prose, the pretentious symbolism, the alleged subversiveness of so-called shocking themes like sexual fetishes. Except for a few individual short stories like "The Bloody Chamber" (which I thought magnificent), most of her stories just made me roll my eyes and skim. Strangely enough, whereas O'Hara is nearly all dialogue, dialogue is very nearly absent in Carter. Also, when I felt clever after "getting" the symbolism behind her stories, I grew annoyed with myself because, when Carter' stories succeed, they do so largely because of that feeling of back-patting a reader gets when they realize they're smart enough to understand an Angela Carter story.

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