International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review
Collected Stories Of Carson McCullers
reading The Collected Stories Of Carson McCullers I was expecting
good, and possibly great, things. After all, her first published
novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a near great novel.
However, this collection of twenty-one pieces proves that McCullers
was better in the longer forms of fiction, and, at best, mediocre
in the short story form. This is in keeping with the fact that few
artists can excel to the point of greatness, in more than one art,
or even in more than one genre in the art.
There are, of course,
some wonderfully written moments in the book, but overall, the tales
all end up as premature entities, as if incomplete. The best of the
twenty-one tales in the book, not coincidentally, are the two longest,
the famed novellas The Member Of The Wedding and The Ballad
Of The Sad Café. The former novella follows an affluent young
girl with some psycho-emotional problems, due to her coming pubescence.
She is shunned by her peers, and spends her time with the family cook,
and a male cousin. She is perceptive, but her life is without purpose
until her brother returns from Alaska to marry his girlfriend. The girl
then fantasizes about the wedding, in between listening to the progress
of the Second World War on radio- which propounds fantasies of places
and people abroad. This leads to the delusion that she will somehow
be able to live with her brother and his bride, and travel the world,
taking on a pseudonym, to boot:
At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going.
She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding.
The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.
She makes a scene at the wedding, after demanding to go with the couple
on their honeymoon, and is reprimanded, and decides to run away. She
decides to hit the rails, but is caught. After her cousin
dies from spinal meningitis, and the cook decides to quit, she moves
away, and the tale ends with the girl no better off than in the beginning:
It was almost five oclock and the geranium glow had faded from
the sky. The last pale colors were crushed and cold on the horizon.
Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime.
I am simply made about- But the sentence was left unfinished
for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness,
she heard the ringing of the bell.
The Ballad Of The Sad Café is set in a small Southern
town that is old, and shows its age: itself is dreary
sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places
in the world. It depicts a love triangle between the female owner
of the titular café, the town hunchback, and the café
owners wayward ex-husband- a petty criminal. The tale is another
reworking of the themes of the estranged loner in society, which dominates
The Member Of The Wedding and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The café,
in fact, is no longer extant, but recalled via memory by the narrator
of the tale. The owner takes in a man to her home- the hunchback, who
claims to be a distant cousin, and soon tongues are wagging about town.
Town busybodies soon demand to know why the café owner is living
sinfully. The owner does not explain her choice, but offers them alcohol,
which the men accept, and so begins the furtive Sad Café. The
owner softenms in her look and person, and the hunchback seems to be
the cause of this positive trend, yet the café owner is ambivalent.
Like most McCullers characters, she seems to suffer from relentless
anhedonia, stating of her lover,
.the lover is forever
trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation
with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.
Her relationship with the hunchback lasts four years, and the café
becomes a real business. Then, her ex- comes back to town, on parole.
The hunchback tries to make nice with the criminal, by inviting him
to stay with him and his ex-wife. The owner begins to suffer anxieties.
She fights with her ex- and begins choking him, until the hunchback
restrains her. She feels he has betrayed her, and he furthers this when
he helps the ex- rob her home, and they take off together. The owner
boards up her café, surfeited by memories and pain. While not
explicitly stated, there is a definite homo-erotic subtext between the
two male characters in the novel, something underlined with the novellas
coda, called The Twelve Mortal Men. This coda briefly limns the existence
of a nearby group of chain gang workers, and describes how their singing
makes their existence- seven black men and five white men- bearable.
The rest of the tales in the book deal with similarly disaffected characters,
but never with the satisfying endings that the two longest pieces have.
The Sojourner is about a man who labels himself that title, and
struggles to find joy in a new familial setting. His anomic existence
is summed up best, this way: Theres nothing that makes you so
aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished.
Or an old address book.
Madame Zilensky And The King Of Finland is a comic tale that
goes nowhere, while Wunderkind shows the disappointment of a child prodigy
who realizes that early precocity was nothing, and settles into mediocrity.
A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud follows yet another anomic character in search
of love, and, as one might surmise, at even this point- despite a great
wordsmithing ability, McCullers was a shockingly limited writer, in
terms of themes and narrative tropes.
As example, here is the ending of Madame Zilensky And The King Of Finland.
As stated, it is a comic tale, but it ends with a familiar trope, although,
as stated, very well written:
An hour later, Mr. Brook sat looking out of the window of his office.
The trees along the quiet Westbridge street were almost bare, and the
gray buildings of the college had a calm, sad look. As he idly took
in the familiar scene, he noticed the Drakes old Airedale waddling
along down the street. It was a thing he had watched a hundred times
before, so what was it that struck him as strange? Then he realized
with a kind of cold surprise that the old dog was running along backward.
Mr. Brook watched the Airedale until he was out of sight, then resumed
his work on the canons which had been turned in by the class in counterpoint.
This is the sort of thing that points out why good writers rarely make
it to greatness. No matter how much wordcrafting skill one has, if one,
essentially, tells a single tale, over and again, it points out a lack
in the artist every bit as important as a writer, say, who has many
great ideas, but no real skill with which to construct them well- think
the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Other tales, like A Domestic
Dilemma- about what its title states, or Sucker- on an abused child,
while well wrought, state nothing of any depth. No other sory in the
book even moved me to comment on, positively or negatively.
Carson McCullers is the quintessential example of a writer best read
in judiciously selected pieces, for, like a poet like Thomas
Hardy, the more you read of her work, the greater her fall from a high
stature accelerates. This is not to say that anyone could argue she
was a bad writer. No. Even her worst tales are solidly, well wrought,
if wholly predictable and surface-level, pieces. Its just that
her reputation so far outstrips her achievement that a disappointment
is inevitable. Each tale lacks an organic center, so to speak. What
I mean is that McCullers seems to have a number of key philosophic points
she wants to wrap around a certain character, and then leaves them draped
in them, regardless of the demands of the evolving narrative to expand.
In a sense, she strangles or smothers her own babies in their cribs.
Every tale has a few of these high points- some of which
I quoted above, but, as the tales are so similar in tone and set-up,
the plaints become interchangeable. There is nothing unique to their
tales own internal universe that makes them notable.
As stated, this results in the fact that Carson McCullers had really
only story to ever tell, and, as well wrought as these retellings can
be, at times, repeasts get dull and boring. The human animal craves
newer experiences. And while, in the other extreme, this results in
the Lowest Common Denominator ADD sort of culture we now have, there
is a great middle gound between that extreme and McCullers own
fictive universe. Unfortunately, for both McCullers and the reader,
she was never quite able, artistically nor personally, to find that
rich center ground where greatness takes root.
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