I have long had an uneasy suspicion that really good short stories embody a philosophic, psychological, theological, or interpersonal theme about the complexity of what it means to be a human being—basic, universal issues. I have talked about the importance of universal theme many times on this blog—indeed every time I have discussed the stories of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud, William Trevor, David Means—to mention only a few of the really great short story writers.
One of the differences between really good short stories and merely ordinary short stories, I am convinced, is that "ordinary" short stories and most novels are more concerned with as-if-real characters and events than with themes, or, if they do seem to be "about" something, their themes are often obvious and simplistic.
This makes me "uneasy" because it suggests that good short stories make demands on the reader that ordinary short stories and most novels do not—a claim that smacks of elitism and the academic because it suggests that one has to "learn" how to read good short stories, but not how to read ordinary short stories and most novels. It makes me uneasy because it may cause some readers to huff and sneer that such good stories may be fit only for students and professors in the classroom, not for ordinary people in the real world (whatever that is)
This issue occurred to me again recently when, after reading Andre Dubus III's story, "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed," in his new book Dirty Love, I read a story by David Means in the February issue of Harper's Magazine entitled "The Might Shannon." Although both stories are ostensibly about one man's attempts to deal with his discovery that his wife is having an affair, I thought Dubus's story was just an ordinary one, that is, a story with an obvious, even simplistic theme; while I thought Means' story was a very good one, that is, a story with a complex philosophical theme about what it universally means to be human.
Now, in all fairness, I have to admit a predisposition: I have always admired David Means' stories and have always respected him for remaining staunchly committed to the short story form. And I must also confess I have always thought Andre Dubus III's fiction was second rate—just ordinary novelistic House of Sand and Fog stuff, casually realistic and carelessly written, about as-if-real characters and interesting plots that not very challenging.
Furthermore, I surely don't have to remind anyone that I am partial to short fictions, much preferring them over long fictions. Dubus's story is a "short novel"—about 25% of his book; whereas Mean's story is a very short story— about five and a half pages in Harper's. And, I would argue ,Dubus's piece is not a tightly woven, thematically dense novella like the classics of the "novella" genre, but rather a "novel" that just happens to be relatively short.
Finally, I have to admit, once again, that I greatly admire writers who love the language and treat it carefully, making it an inextricable part of the narrative, not merely a transparent means by which the narrative jogs realistically along, a clear glass through which to view the world (whatever that is). Given this criteria, there is no doubt in my mind that David Means is a much more scrupulous artist of language than Andre Dubus III.
If all that makes me an effete snob, a dilettante, an ivory tower academic just plain out of touch with the gritty world of everyday reality, one of those ethereal characters who cannot abide Junot Diaz, but loves Henry James—then so be it.
Let me make a few comments about the Dubus story first, for it is fairly easy to dismiss. The central character, Mark Welch, aged 56,, has been married to his wife Laura, also 56) for 24 years. When he suspects that Laura is having an affair (because one night he senses she holds his testicles as if she is comparing them to someone else's), he hires a detective to make a video of the man treating her to oral sex in a parked car. Welch forces his wife to watch the video, and makes a wreck of the kitchen when she says he made her do it by always criticizing her. Much of the rest of the story focuses on his alternating between rage and remorse—imagining what his wife has been doing with the man, taking a peek at her email record, planning on how to kill the man, convincing himself that he doesn't care because she has bad breath and has never really been a good cook, having a sexual encounter with another woman, fantasying she will return to the man she has loved all along, etc. etc.—all pretty pedestrian soap opera stuff that goes on and on repetitively and predictably.
In order to provide some motivation for the affair and some opportunity for Mark to reach an inevitable self-recognition, we are given some background to his becoming a successful project manager by being more than a little ruthless and, from his wife's point of view, just plain bossy. In a revelatory confrontation she tells him, "You treat me like I work for you. You always have. Well I don't work for you all right?"
The story ends with Mark thinking maybe he will apologize to her, make it all up to her, pay more attention to her, let her do whatever she wants. Standing at the threshold to his home, he hears her footsteps in the entryway: "his heart in his head once again for he did not know if he was even up for any of this, this change from change, the door swinging inward as he straightened, his wife's face lovely and surprised and waiting."
What is this story about? Well, it is about what many soap operas on television are about. Nothing more. Simplistic, predictable, pedestrian, ordinary. On finishing it, a reader might tsk tsk testily at Mark's bossy attitude toward his wife, nod knowingly, and smile smugly.
David Means does not give a name for the male character in his story; he is simply "I" in this first-person account that begins with a pain in his hips and lower back and shoulders and neck, for which he consults a doctor. The doctor says he needs to look at the man's stress levels, suggesting that it is possible that his musculoskeletal pain is related to his emotional life. The idea that something inner might be related to something outer is echoed when, standing vulnerable in his underwear, the man looks out of the examining room window and sees his reflection, "while a barge navigated through his belly and the buildings of Fort Lee, New Jersey, stabbed through his breastbone."
The man thinks a great deal about his condition, just as Mark Welch does in Dubus's story, but he thinks in longer, more complex sentences. For example, after the doctor's tentative diagnosis, he thinks:
"I did not want to acknowledge that one way or another my so-called migrating pain was connected to what was going on at home, not only with Sharon, who at that time was in the middle of her affair with her colleague at the firm, but also with my own thing with Marie, who was at that time my lover but also, in truth, a responsive gesture (as Dr. Haywood would later call it)."
The theme of the relationship between inner and outer is suggested again in the following long, well considered sentence: "Even there on that crinkling sheet of paper, with sweat beading on my brown, listening to Dr. Zuck breathe while the light outside faded and the light inside, fluorescent and shrill, pressed the glass, I had a sense that whatever was going on with my body was eventually going to find a way to relate itself to the extremely tactile facts of my life, my son, the house, the yard, as they, in turn, would relate to vague, nebulous, cloudy sensations that surrounded love, desire, loneliness, need."
Compare this with Dubus's more obvious description of his character considering what to do about his cheating wife:
"Wasn't it time to let her go? But to allow the question into his head and heart was to allow a black tumor to take residence there where it would grow. But the only thing growing was this distance between himself and the world he supposedly lived in. He's become a man things happened to, and he found himself groping for the tools of his work: Risk response and its plans for contingency and mitigation. The monitoring and controlling of the results of those plans."
The man in Means' story says he is aware of his "predicament as it would unfold in the next few months…until, finally, the story of my pain—as Dr. Haywood would describe it—would merge with the story of my relationship with Sharon and our simultaneous assured destruction in the form of two affairs." Telling the story years later, he has trouble dividing the blame between himself and his wife, although he knows she betrayed him first and he responded in kind; he does admit, however, because he is the one telling the story, "the whole unseemly thing was ultimately on my shoulders."
One indication of the difference between the level of complexity, both syntactic and psychological, in the two stories, are examples in each of a kind of Henry Jamesian self-reflexive awareness.
When Mean's central character describes an encounter with his son Gunner's Spanish teacher, with whom he later has a brief retaliatory affair, she greets him with "Hey, Gunner's Dad." He avoids mentioning Gunner. "Looking back, I think that one thing that sparked our relationship was her awareness of my avoidance, and my awareness of her awareness, which fed a mutual effort to keep the two arenas separate, opening up a glorious no-man's land, a pure space, unbinding and wild."
When a woman smiles at Dubus's central character as if she has known him longer than she has, the narrator says: "This makes him feel comfortable which then makes him uncomfortable for feeling so comfortable."
It just seems to me that the Means double awareness is more complex than the Dubus one.
Midway through "The Mighty Shannon," the narrator/central character enacts a repetition of the inside/outside theme that may be quite familiar to literary readers. When Marie sneaks over to his house during a lunch break while his wife is not home, we have this passage:
"Inside my house, I felt not only the guilt and fear you'd expect but also the same brooding sense of myself I'd get two years later at our annual holiday cocktail party, standing at the window and looking out at the cold, wintry street while behind me someone shook a shaker with an icy sound like a comet flying through the din of chat, and I stared outside for a few beats beyond civility and felt, behind me, the party I was hosting awaiting my return. One more man staring out his window feeling the weight of his obligations shove him into a loneliness that was almost, but not quite, beyond comprehension."
Compare Means' passage with this famous account of a man looking out a window at a wintery scene:
"Gabriel's warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!"
That tapping of Gabriel's trembling fingers is picked up in Joyce's grand final paragraph:
"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight… It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Lest you think this is an accidental echo, Means' central character says he felt the same sensation when he went on a second honeymoon with his wife to Ireland. Indeed, the title of the story comes from his recalling a third honeymoon when he and his wife cross a bridge over what one of them refers to as "the mighty Shannon." Joyce's "The Dead" is a classic of the short story genre because it explores the theme of the mystery of the inner life, the secret life, so delicately. David Means pays a subtle tribute to the story.
Another example of the inside/outside theme occurs when Means' character describes one afternoon when his cell phone rings and he hears his wife's voice as if far off, and he realizes it is a "pocket dial" and that her phone is in her purse. He hears a giggle that he knows she makes only in response to something said "in the most intimate terms." He shouts, "Hey, hey, I'm here in your purse, Sharon. I'm right here in your fucking purse." He admits that now, years later, he is still ashamed of being privy to a moment of her life from that vantage: "It was as if I'd gone behind her face for a moment and stared out through the bright blood spume of her eyelids."
This is the most crucial example of the inner/outer theme Means creates throughout the story because it suggests that most important ability to empathize with the other—to be able to go out of the self and see as the other sees. This is, indeed, the heart of "The Mighty Shannon."
The story ends with the central character and his wife Sharon sitting on their back deck with drinks in hand, recalling their meeting with a marriage counselor and laughing at how he had fallen to the floor of the office because of his pain. He says if you were hiding in a bush near their deck you would hear the "intimate forgiving sound" of Sharon's laugh and his own responsive laugh, an entwined sound that is like a "Bach counterpoint: two themes working together in a helix of motion, twisting around a dark heavenly void that might be where God, if he lives, lives. Hearing it, you'd be able to tease out the story that had produced the laugh.... If you listened with enough sensitivity, you'd hear in our laughter…the first hint of a playfulness that is, if you're lucky, the wonderful byproduct of forgiveness."
It just seems to me that David Means' story is a better example of the genre than Andre Dubus III's story—more complex, more profound, more subtle, more artistically sound. The basic theme of the difficulty of moving from the outer of the other person to the inner is an important one, and Means explores it in a style that syntactically matches that complex theme. As in a Henry James story, the reader must listen to the rhythm with enough sensitivity to "tease out the story."
*A footnote here: In his story "A River in Egypt," in his most recent book The Spot (2010), the central character Cavanaugh is an assistant art director who has just been dropped from a big budget sci-fi movie because his design was “too real, too clear.” His wife Sharon is a lawyer. His son Gunner must take a test for cystic fibrosis. One of the toys the child plays with is called the Question Cube and one of the questions is “What river is in Egypt? The Nile? The Hudson? The Thames? Or the Kalamazoo?” It's a delicate story about a father trying to come to terms with his son’s possibly fatal disease. The story ends with a moment in which the father, who has been concerned with his own anxiety, shifts to the boy lying in the back seat of the car. The diagnosis is still somewhere off in the future. I don't know if this is an indication that Means is working on a set of linked stories for his next collection.