THE LONELY VOICE: A New Column About The Short Story by Peter Orner

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250836411_b296bce5dfThe difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between a pang in your heart compared to the tragedy of your whole life. It’s all a matter of how you feel the pain. Read a great story and there it is—right now—in your gut. A novel gives you some time between innings. A story is complete, remorseless. Which is why I am always a little annoyed when the short story is re-discovered, yanked up out of the soggy ground—and pronounced relevant—it’s alive! Most recently in a nice piece by A.O. Scott in the New York Times. And it was a nice piece, and Scott, before he went back to reviewing films, said good, important things about some great old story writers, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever and a great new story writer, Wells Tower. I’m just not sure this annual resurrection party is necessary. The story is here; it’s always been here. And those of us who can’t live a day without it know what I’m talking about. We need our fix, our daily stab of pain—maybe to feel alive at all.

So in honor of the story, I thought I’d, as long as Steve indulges me a little space, write a few words about one story every week or so. I’ll be looking at stories from all different time periods and countries and cultures. My thoughts will be probably be as random as my reading. The title “The Lonely Voice” comes from Frank O’Connor’s book on the short story, one of the few books about the short story that I can stomach. And even Frank O’Connor himself has hard time getting the essence of things sometimes. Because the thing about stories, and this might be the exact reason they so often fly under the radar is that few things are harder to talk about than why a particular story is great. It’s like trying to explain love and not love. It goes back to that pang. Lets say you see a face in a crowd. This face reminds you of someone, someone from a long time ago. Explain with a bunch of babble that moment of recognition? And then worse, infinitely worse describe that moment of unrecognition? It’s not her, it’s not him, no—she, he—is long long gone –

Even so I’m going to try talk a little about certain stories that have meant something to me.2850944533_3448b1ff9f

Today, I’ve been thinking about Peter Taylor. The Tennessean wrote some of the most beautiful and subtle stories in English. (See “In The Old Forest” And “Dean of Men”). To my mind one of the most beautiful and subtle of all his stories is one that might not get enough attention. It’s called “Allegiance”. It’s so subtle you could read it and wonder what the hell just happened. To even try and give the plot is to fall into Taylor’s trap. Even so, I’ll do my best, briefly. A young GI is in London. Something to do with the war. Maybe he’s in it. It’s not exactly clear. All we know is that he’s in uniform. And in this story there’s war and there’s war. World War II is peanuts. The war in question here is the most brutal kind—a civil one—a war within a family. This young American GI receives a note from his aunt, his mother’s older sister, a woman who has long been estranged from the rest of the family. Apparently there was a rift between the two sisters, the narrator’s mother and this aunt. We aren’t told what this rift was about. All we know is that this rift resulted in hatred.

Here in her little drawing room, the marble mantel lined with her famous figurines, the Japanese screen shielding her diminutive writing desk, and a lampshade dull gold stamped with fleur-de-lis, I feel myself withdraw momentarily to the bosom of a family that has been nursed on hatred of the mistress of this room.

Why doesn’t Taylor ever tell us the source of the rift between the sisters? The narrator claims he doesn’t know. And maybe he’s telling the truth. But the point is, at least I think the point is—it’s doesn’t matter. What matters here is loyalty and loyalty is not about plot, about who did what to whom when, it’s about character. It’s about whose side are you on.

The afternoon tea continues. The aunt talks on. The narrator listens silently—and doesn’t listen. What she’s saying doesn’t matter at all. What counts is that he’s come to her house, this son of her enemy. After all these years her sister’s son is here, right in front of her.

“If these were normal times, nothing would please me more than to offer myself as your guide to England and the English. But how futile to speak of it even. You are in London on some terribly official business no doubt, or on a leave so short that it will be over before you’ve got round to half the things you want to do. Likely you do not even want to understand this country. You want to accomplish your mission and get yourself home again. I have been thinking as we sat here that you might be wondering how a person could herself to know… I know how you silent people are. You have more thoughts than the rest of dare suppose. I should hate to have to answer all the questions in the minds of people who have sat quietly while I talked on. And if I tried I could answer this one least of all. My answer, I don’t know. But you must have observed that everyone has some aunt or other who has simply pulled out…pulled out on the family with not so much as a by-your-leave. I’m just another of those aunts that people have. The world’s full of them”

Do me a favor, would you? Go back and re-read that paragraph. I know it’s a little long, but will you? Something weird, no? (And if you read the whole story, you will see that is more than weird, it’s kind of amazing.) The narrator is silent. He’s never asked any question at all. He’s taken the upper hand, as silent people do. You know them. You might even be one of them. I envy silent people. There are times I can’t seem to shut up. How much do we miss when we can’t shut up? And so our narrator takes her in, listens and doesn’t listen…And so she presupposes a question, the question. Why did you do whatever you did?

And yet she dodges the question, the question he never asked. And she talks on, bobbing and weaving. Because this fight’s not over. And the narrator finds himself, in spite of everything, enjoying himself. It’s here where the story reaches for another level, a level I can’t describe here on the Internet. Or even here in my closet where I write, I can’t describe it. But at some point—in all his silence and listening and not listening—the narrator betrays his mother, his family. It’s nothing he says. It’s nothing he even thinks really. It’s just this tiny feeling of enjoyment. A little bit of joy in some old woman’s apartment in London during the war. And then—she flattens him. I won’t tell you how but she does. In this story, the upper hand of silence gets crushed. But like I say, it’s subtle, a slow kill in just a few pages. You might, like the narrator himself, already be out on the stairs with your military coat over your arm, before you even realize it.

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(top picture by Ben Brown)


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →