By Danilo Lopez-Roman, MFA
One of the recognized characteristics of the short-short story is its brevity of exposition (Kelly, 240; Greenberg, 230; Johnson, 233). This need for brevity results in an apparent inattention to detailed characters and settings, which are replaced by familiar types (Baxter, 229). During this process of familiarization the types presented in the text become proxys (archetypes) of the types outside the text for the mental and emotional impact on the reader to be effective: disturbing (L’Heureux, 228) and lasting (Banks, 244).
Montparnasse by Hemingway
In his short-short “Montparnasse” the title already tells the general setting, a neighborhood in the city of Paris, France. The reader is immediately transported to a type place that is far away, exotic, even bohemian. It is a place where artists gather. Hemingway is having a monologue about the absence of successful suicides among artists (at least the ones he knows) and contrasting that with (probably in the news) those of a “Chinese boy”, a “Norwegian boy” –foreign like him-, and “a model” (most likely a woman) who killed themselves. Their deaths go unnoticed by most of the people. There are no details about any of them, they are types: foreign boys, a model, all very lonely, with no friends or family. These are types any reader can relate to: death, foreigners, solitude, a remedy to cure poisoning (one of many ways of committing suicide), and finally contrasts these to the liveliness of the friends found at the café. Friends, friendship and a café are other types any reader can relate too. There are no details about the deceased, age, physical characteristics, social condition, where they live. The skeleton character that is painted about them and the general setting where events occur are sufficient information and allow the writer to concentrate on the situation at hand. This detachment of character and setting allow the reader to ponder the last line “Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café.” How distant am I from other people’s deaths? How close am I to my friends? Where is my café?
On Hedonism by Carson
“On Hedonism” by Anne Carson, is a very short-short told in the first person. It is story about a woman bored, for unknown reasons, (she feels used? she feels old?) with (her?) beauty. This does not mean she is unaware of the beauty of Paris or dancing, but she appears tired of desire, of the nightly cravings “peaches” and does not go for them anymore. The type here is a woman, beauty, desire, and hopelessness. To reinforce the piece, Carson introduces two metaphors: “a heartless immensity like a sailor in a dead-calm sea” and the description of desires “round as peaches” she no longer gathers. These two additional types, a sailor looking at the boring vastness or a dead sea and a disregard, a lack of appetite for ripe fruits on the ground at arm’s reach, are conditions that move the story outside of the text and into the reader’s experience. What is my attitude towards beauty? Towards my partner’s and my own beauty? How do I define beauty? What is the object of my desire?
What we Miss by Manguso
Sarah Manguso used the first-person point of view to write “What We Miss”. The instant captured in this story is “an interview for the job you might get”, a type situation any reader can relate to. The oddness comes in the form of a cat that crosses the street, distracting the interviewee. This story contains a second instant (a frame instant?): the same person imagining “your one great love blinded by the glare, crossing the street, alone”. In this second instant the narrator is not “looking from the window of the seventeenth floor” but from the church. Interview, church, salvation, and a high floor are all type situations with no further detail. What type of job is the narrator interviewing for? Who is the narrator? What is the building? What denomination is the church? What color is the cat? Who is the great love? There is no need for those minutiae, for all readers have experienced them in their own personal way. The cat incarnates the person the narrator tried to save (from herself?). It might be a husband, a boyfriend, a brother, a father. All readers have probably tried to save someone sometime. So, the end moment lingers in the mind, in the thought, timeless. These are narrative types that become narrative archetypes written for archetypical audiences, an audience where all audiences cross.
There are never any suicides in the quarter among the people one
No successful suicides.
A Chinese boy kills himself and is dead.
(They continue to place his mail in the letter rack at the Dome)
A Norwegian boy kills himself and is dead
Alone in bed and very dead.
(It made almost unbearable trouble for the concierge)
Sweet oil, the white of eggs, mustard and water soapsuds and
Stomach pumps recue the people one knows.
Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Beauty makes me hopeless. I don’t care why anymore I just want to
Get away. When I look at the city of Paris I long to wrap my legs
Around it. When I watch you dancing there is a heartless immensity
Like a sailor in a dead-calm sea. Desires as round as peaches bloom in
Me all night, I no longer gather what falls.
Anne Carson (1950)
What We Miss
Who says it’s so easy to save a life? In the middle of the interview for
The job you might get you see the cat from the window of the seven-
Tenth floor just as he’s crossing the street against traffic, just as
You’re answering a question about your worst character flaw and lying
That you are too careful. What if you keep seeing the cat at every
Moment you are unable to save him? Failure is more than this than like
Duels and marathons. Everything can be saved, and bad timing pre-
Vents it. Every minute, you are answering the question and looking
Out the window of the church to see your one great love blindsided by
The glare, crossing the street, alone.
Sarah Manguso (1974)
· Lehman, David, Editor, Great American Prose Poems, New York, Scribner, 2003.
· Shapard, Robert and Thomas, James, editors, Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories, Salt Lake City, Gibbs-Smith, 1986.