Wednesday, February 21, 2007

comment on 1st reading assignment

Short stories in general are, as the name already suggests, stories - just shorter. The usual contemporary short story contains between 1,000 and 20,000 words. However, besides the length of the story there are other characteristics that set the short story aside from its older brother, the novel. Short stories usually contain little or no exposition (or introduction). Quite often we find ourselves dropped right in the middle of things. Furthermore, the ending of a short story is quite often open almost pushing the reader into an interpreting position. What may happen next is the question we are made to answer. Conveniently placed between exposition and end - as in a novel - is the plot of the short story. It usually focuses on one string of action that describes a certain event in a character's life. Traditionally, this action only spans over a relatively short period of time. Only few characters can be found in most short stories, in some only one. In contrast to the average novel the characters are described in less detail. Descriptions in short stories in general focus on what is elementary to the plot. Additional detail that gives the characters more depth like sidestories are usually dropped. Apart from the limited number of words and characters, the short period of time and the extraordinary presentation of introduction and ending the short story has one more more or less distinctive characteristic: the action is usually restricted to if not just one then only a few places. The plot revolves around an inner or outer conflict and is characterised by a high density of emotions. (also see wikipedia on short stories)
The short stories in Humor Me display a lot of these characteristics. Alexie's "Assimilation" is based around an unspoken conflict between Mary Lynn and Jeremiah describing the event that bring to both their minds - or rather hearts - how much they actually feel for each other, their emotions being a central part in the story. Like that short story, all the others have only a small number of characters and most of them also only cover a relatively short period of time and are confined to a small number of places. All of the stories have an open ending and most have a short or non-existent introduction. However, there are some interesting deviations from the laws of short story writing. For example, Peter Bacho has added two prologues to his "Nelson's Run". We find a relatively long and detailed introduction and although the main plot focuses on Nelson's one summer at his dad's place with Sylvia, the short story spans over almost two decades. "I know what you did last summer" by Michele Serros covers a short period of time, namely one summer, but in special in its form. The diary form gives the narrator a very human and emotional complexion. In Ray Gonzales' short stories the essential conflict seems at times a little harder to find. Although they seem to be mere frameworks of short stories than real short stories focusing so much on the essentials, eliminating all unnecessary detail at least compared to the other short stories of the reading assignment.
Thus, if we compare the short stories in Humor Me with the characteristics of a short stories, we can see that exactly the deviations from the rules give some short stories their maybe eccentric but definitely special aspect. "Nelson's Run" brings us to mind how much our parents influence the person we become later in life. Although a short story still in number of words the story covers almost the first two decades of Nelson's life, the time of life in which we are the most receptive to our parents' influence, their input. The diary form makes Serros' short story special. From my own point of view, "Assimilation" is a very emotional short story, touching and basically going along with conventional short stories. "Nelson's Run" of all the stories had probably the most effect on me. "Godoy Lives" came in 2nd place, the ending giving me a shudder. I think that to me it is the small extent of probability and the open, humorous but also sad and a little sketchy ending that makes that story so special. The ending was the most powerful of all the short stories in my opinion. In "Birthmates" the final image of the baby with the bone disease was very touching but for me the main character was too passive, even when he finally comes to grips with his emotions. One only hopes that he can acquire a more active stand in his future course life. The most trouble I had with Ray Gonzales' short stories. Although I liked "Mistakes" a lot because it describes how our decisions in combination with coincidence determine the course of our lives. Decisions can only turn into mistakes when we look back later. Even though quite full of imagery, the least I could get out of Gonzales' "Pyramid". I have some ideas as to what the message of the story might be but even for an open ending, this ending seems to open for my taste or the story too economical in detail - one or the other. As a final observation I found that humor was used in all short stories in some way, in some more openly than in other as already promised to us in the books introduction. The stories themselves I think showed the wide variety of short stories, the different shapes this kind of story can take without losing the ability to convey a central message through a usually single narrative of an important incident in a 'normal' person's life.

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