Unstocking the Characters: Thoughts on Three New Works of Short Fiction

Haim Watzman

I almost stopped reading Aurelie Sheehan’s short story “Recognition” after the first sentence. Oh, God, another piece of fiction about a writer, written by a writer who only knows how to write about writing for an incestuous circle of other writers.

But I had a rare opportunity to dip into some short fiction on-line—I was at a bat mitzvah and the DJ’s bone-vibrating music had driven me outside—so I persisted in perusing “Recognition,” the latest short story published by the on-line journal Guernica . In fact, I had a chance to read two other stories as well: David Riordan’s “Mutts” at the Boston Review and ”The Waiting Room”, an excerpt from a novel by Leah Kaminsky at JewishFiction.net. It’s interesting to note that all three offer stock characters, ones we might feel, at the beginning of the story, that we’ve read about so often that we don’t care to read about them anymore. But the first two stories surprise us by using technique to give us a new take on old material. The third fails.

Let’s start with “Mutts.” Jack is a teenager in Dodgeville, a name that evokes small-town America (according to Wikipedia, the “greater Dodgeville area” in Iowa County, Wisconsin, has a population of 6,529). His Dad, who likes to set up a makeshift camp on the front lawn and drink beers with his friend Big Ed while listening to whatever ball game he can find on the radio, has brought home a Labrador from the dog pound that he intends to breed with Big Ed’s bloodhound to produce the perfect dog.

He has a theory about this: the best in all species spring from a mingling of common stock, not the congress of blue bloods. “Look at the great ones,” he likes to say. “They’re mutts, always mutts. Spartacus, DaVinci, Lincoln, Babe Ruth . . . That’s nothing but a pack of orphans, bastards, and slaves. Yet they’ve made their mark, goddammit.” To survive in this godforsaken world, he claims, to really compete and succeed, you need some dirt under your fingernails, a little hunger in your gut.

What prevents this story from being just another small town tale is its internality. We see the story through Jack’s eyes, even though he hardly speaks. While the narrator doesn’t offer us Jack’s explicit thoughts on this, we sense that Dad’s philosophy of rearing his son parallels his theory of breeding. The abortive attempt to romance the Lab and the bloodhound end up telling us a lot about Jack and his life without telling us anything directly. We feel Jack’s life from within. Subtly, Riordan makes what seems at first a stock character into the entire world that is an individual human being.

This is exactly what Kaminsky fails to do. As with the other two stories, my first impression almost led me to stop reading at the start. Australian-born Dina lives in Haifa. Bombs are going off—it’s the height of the Second Intifada—and she fears for the life of her young son. She’s married to David, a tough Israeli who says macho things like “People forget how many wars we’ve had. An Israeli woman would take it all in her stride. It’s all part of life here. The kid only reacts to your overreaction; you’re the one making him nervous. You want to run back to your so-called peaceful Australia, hide among the goyim?” On top of all this, Dina is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

It’s a set of characters and situation we’ve seen countless times in fiction, but Kaminsky adds nothing new. Compare and contrast the Holocaust and its Jews to modern Israel and its Jews has a pedigree in Jewish and Israeli literature that goes back as far as World War II itself. So is the gendered presentation Kaminsky gives us. True, this is a novel excerpt and perhaps in some other place the author takes us beyond the stereotypes. But all we have is character and narrative. There is no twist of style that takes us into these hackneyed stereotypes to understand their souls.

Let me be honest. When writers write fiction about writing, I usually gag. Not always. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of my favorite novels. But few authors have what it takes to paint themselves three-dimensionally. The act of imagination nearly always demands the opposite, getting away from oneself. Too many writers seem to think that their troubles with writer’s block, or worse with getting grants, is something that those of us who live out in the real world can and should sympathize with.

So, as I said, when “Recognition” began this way, I almost stopped: “Dear Applicant: We have received your application for a Fellowship.”

It was the strike-out in the next paragraph that caught my eye. What follows that unpromising first sentence is a series of versions of the protagonists “Statement of Plans” about the novel, or rather “life box” she is seeking funding to write.

Sheehan tells her story indirectly. We see the protagonist only through her desperate efforts to compose an artist’s statement that will get her money. It’s a statement that is, time after time, dishonest, because she’s trying to write what she thinks the judges want. Yet, by the end, we know this woman. We feel her desperation, we feel her frustration as she seeks to fit her vision into the coffin that the application demands that she build around her inspiration.

In her book on Shakespeare’s sonnets, Helen Vendler says that the purpose of a poem is to recreate in the reader or listener the precise emotional state that the author seeks to convey. It’s not an exhaustive standard, but it’s an important one, one I sought to meet in my recent army story, “Winter”. Riordan and Sheehan achieve that. Kaminsky doesn’t.